Probably someone has already remarked that the perfect enjoyment of great literature involves two factors. The reader should make an analysis of the methods employed by the artist to produce a given effect; and at the same time he should experience a synthetic appreciation of that effect in its emotional totality. The analysis must be almost instantaneous, almost unconscious. Otherwise the reader may become enmeshed in a tangle of aesthetic judgments, and experience difficulty in feeling the work of art as a whole.
Here, perhaps, lies the problem of comprehending the present-day revolutionary novelist. Frequently the intelligent reader can grasp the newer literary anarchies only by an effort of analytical attention so strained that it fatigues and dulls his emotional perception. He is so occupied in being a detective that by the time he has to his own satisfaction clarified the artist’s intentions and technique he is too worn out to feel anything further. This is why the Joycean method of discontinuity has been entirely successful only when applied to materials of Joycean proportions. For it is obvious that if the theme is sufficiently profound, the characters sufficiently extraordinary, the plot sufficiently powerful, the reader is bound to absorb some of all this despite the strain on his attention. But if after an interval of puzzle-solving, it dawns upon him that the action and characters are miniscular, he is likely to throw the book away in irritation. The analysis has taken too long for the synthesis to be worth the trouble.
OK, well, obviously, anything that spawned Godwin’s Law isn’t going to be the best place to start an intellectual inquiry into tolerance, but I am drawn to the difficult and obtuse and comment threads are nothing if not difficult and obtuse and nothing’s going to cure me of this perversity short of a stroke or a railroad spike so here we go. Reading the comments below the following video led me to think further about the ill effects that aboutness can have. First, let’s take a quick look at the video:
As I’ve already said, the video is less important than the comments that follow it, so let’s see a couple of those:
Did you know there’s a Wikipedia entry for “Death of the novel“? Well, now you do, and it seems that Will Self is trying to will himself (see what I did there?) into its bibliography, with an article in the Guardian titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” According to Twitter, he’s wrong, and possibly a bad person. Here’s the thing, though: you can’t go by what Twitter says—it’s just, like, a bunch of people’s opinions, man. American opinions, even, unlike Will Self’s opinion, which is British. Imagine hearing the essay in a British accent (it is actually the text of a speech to be given today, so someone is hearing it in a British accent)—are you still so sure he’s wrong, Twitter? But listen, now that we’ve got our ears tuned to his words anyway, let’s hear what he has to say.
For one thing, he says, “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” So, the novel is as dead as easel painting is, which is to say: not dead, just caricatured as such. Well, since Self or his editor is the one doing that caricaturing, there’s not much there. There are more contemporary and relevant analogues he could have chosen instead of easel painting, of course; literature is, with very few exceptions, already exactly what he claims it will become (“confined to a defined”—come on, Self! no wonder no one reads this shit—”social and demographic group,” check; “requiring a degree of subsidy,” check; not “a subject [of] public discourse,” check). But to make such an argument would be to preclude a headline like “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” since its parenthetical would then be a foregone conclusion, like printing “Napoleon Bonaparte is dead (this time it’s for real).” No one’s going to read that. So perhaps Self isn’t really saying much after all, or nothing much worth getting worked up over, since it’s where we already find ourselves. But perhaps you take issue with my caricature of the current state of literature. Continue reading
Why do I listen to NPR? Lately, it seems as though it’s been overrun by heathens, although maybe I’m just mistaken as to its past. In any case, last week, an interviewee, an author, claimed that “literature is boring,” and the interviewer didn’t challenge her, didn’t so much as say a word. As much as I might want to credit this author with a biting, trenchant analysis of those awful new books often shelved as “literature,” she was placing the category of literature in opposition to her own, commercial fiction: Her shitty books about angels or vampires or dinosaurs or dinosaur angel vampires or whatever are, at least, not boring, like, I don’t know, Shakespeare? Jane Eyre? Jane Bowles? Reader, I wish I were joking. Anyway, while torturing myself in the car on an earlier occasion, I heard a different author who also ought to have remained silent—we’ll call him Author X and put the bag over his head for him—complain that publication at his Big Five house was taking so long that the “political” novel he’d written about [fill in the blank with current event] now won’t make sense because things are different all of a sudden, and, in the country where it all takes place, things will probably be even differenter when the book finally sees print. Gosh! Can you imagine? How will he ever earn back his advance? Our hero then went on to say that he had rewritten the book to better accord with how things are now in Country Y, and that version, the updated one, will be the one hitting the shelves this fall. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure of this last bit—as soon as he mentioned revising his book in light of the events transpiring in the country he’d written about, my mind leapt far away from what he was saying, as one does when a gun goes off under one’s window. Let’s call it self-preservation.)
The title of Joshua Landy’s How to do Things with Fictions should not lead you to believe that what is written therein is anything like a recipe book or a technical manual; no, instead, what Landy’s short book is after is proving that fictions do things at all—that is, rather than being about things, a fiction does things for its reader—or can—a claim, he argues, that is no longer obvious if it ever was. The reason for our dull-witted view of fiction is that “For some reason, we have systematically—albeit unwittingly—engaged in a long-term campaign of misinformation, relentlessly persuading would-be readers that fictions are designed to give them useful advice.” You can argue with that last part, but if you read the book, you’ll see that’s just the first of our reading deficiencies: if we look to fiction for advice [on how to live our lives], it can only be because we suppose that fiction has a paraphraseable content (as this post will have). If a fiction is about, then it can be paraphrased, and if it can be paraphrased, it can be reduced, and if it can be reduced, shouldn’t it be reduced?
By focusing on one relatively uninteresting aspect of fiction—its “subject,” for lack of a better word—we teach readers that the experience of a fiction is secondary or even tertiary to the reading—if it is considered at all. Thus, Cliff’s Notes. The very existence of such a thing as Cliff’s Notes should tell us that we have completely misunderstood fiction under Landy’s theory, and not at the level of the student, but at the level of the teacher: teaching for message, for content, for subject is teaching readers how to read fiction badly. There is a great deal more subtlety to Landy’s argument, and a great deal more nuance, but then, he has 250 pages to convince you, and this post will be much shorter than that. Continue reading
One may say that the human ability to understand may be in a certain sense unlimited. But the existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we proceed from the known to the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word understanding.
-Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
Rust Belt Bindery is “a book bindery that’s committed to producing and distributing new work as well as repairing and rebinding existing objects. Working collaboratively with artists and writers, Rust Belt puts out limited edition works of fiction and artist books.” I found out about Rust Belt Bindery when their literary editor, Blake Kimzey, sent me a copy of Ashley Farmer’s “Farm Town,” a beautiful chapbook of poems replete with hand-colored illustrations from Meredith Lynn. Here’s one of Farmer’s poems, “Gone to Waste”: