The Barthelme Problem

[This post is something of a response to John’s recent post, and some of the comments made there by Darby, John, and me.]

Back in high school/college, my favorite filmmakers were Terry Gilliam, Stanley Kubrick, Peter Greenaway, and Martin Scorsese:

As you can see, I gravitated toward a visually spectacular cinema. Everything else looked so boring! So mundane!

Later, as I started watching a more diverse array of films, I learned to appreciate that movies could do other things besides “look outrageous”: tell compelling stories, focus on performances, innovate with structures, be tightly edited, and much, much more. I also learned that visual rhetoric could be more varied, as well as more subtle, and that good cinematography was not solely equal to spectacular shots.

For instance, I consider the cinematography in Lucrecia Martel’s La Niña Santa (2004) remarkably good, not to mention audacious—albeit in a subtle way. Throughout, Martel’s “overuses” close-ups, to the extent that she mostly forgoes establishing shots and even many master shots:

In scene after scene, Martel and her cinematographer, Félix Monti, crowd the frame, creating a claustrophobic tone that’s essential to the film. The film is largely about being crowded in, and touching, and being touched, and it’s wonderful how Martel brings the camera in so close to her actors. She also makes masterful use of offscreen sound to flesh out locations, often creating tension by allowing us to hear things just out of sight.

Well, this is a brilliant film that I probably wouldn’t have appreciated in the early-to-mid-1990s. But as I learned to enjoy a wider variety of cinema, my tastes necessarily changed. Indeed, I eventually concluded that Terry Gilliam was not a particularly good director, being overly reliant on extravagant visuals, to the extent that he’s unable to satisfy on other levels. (I still love you, though, Terry.)

At the same exact time, I was having a similar problem with literature. In college, my favorite writers were Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Thomas Pynchon, Joy Williams, and Virginia Woolf; before that, I gobbled down every book by Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. Just like with film, I was looking for a heavily stylized, “bravura” type of writing. And I was biased against books that didn’t themselves match those linguistic stylistics—prose that didn’t “pop,” right from the get-go.

I still admire all of those writers. But on some level—and this was my failing, not theirs—I was succumbing to a desire for immediate gratification. I wasn’t being patient enough with literature, the same way I wasn’t being patient enough with film. There are so very many things that authors can do! Heavily stylized, acrobatic language is only one of them. But I wanted everything to impress me the way that Donald Barthelme impressed me:

The Wapituil are like us to an extraordinary degree. They have a kinship system which is very similar to our kinship system. They address each other as “Mister”, “Mistress”, and “Miss”. They wear clothes which look very much like our clothes. They have a Fifth Avenue which divides their territory into east and west. They have a Chock Full o’ Nuts and a Chevrolet, one of each. They have a Museum of Modern Art and a telephone and a Martini, one of each. The Martini and the telephone are kept in the Museum of Modern Art. In fact they have everything that we have, but only one of each thing.

We found that they lose interest very quickly. For instance they are fully industrialized, but they don’t seem interested in taking advantage of it. After the steel mill produced the ingot, it was shut down. They can conceptualize but they don’t follow through. For instance, their week has seven days—Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, Monday, and Monday. They have one disease, mononucleosis. The sex life of a Wapituil consists of a single experience, which he thinks about for a long time.

—from “Brain Damage”

I wanted only the Prose of Constant Surprise, writing willing to make dazzling departures with each new sentence. I still like that kind of prose. I still like (I adore) Donald Barthelme. But I also like a lot of writers now that I would have ignored a decade ago. For instance, one of my favorite books last year was Stephen Paul-Martin’s Changing the Subject (2010, Ellipsis Press). It opens like this:

The greatest mistake of all time took place thousands of years ago, when God let Noah’s family survive the flood. God’s plan was to start a new human race with a man he thought he could trust, but the limits of Noah’s mental awareness were obvious right from the start. No sooner had God’s rainbow vanished from the clouds than Noah was getting drunk and cursing his grandson, declaring that Canaan’s descendants—one-third of the future human race—would be the lowest of slaves, a monstrous over-reaction that would have tragic consequences for countless generations of innocent people. Clearly, Noah wasn’t the man God thought he was.

I think the writing in this book excellent throughout, very compelling and readable. Paul-Martin’s conversational tone is perfect for the rather complicated and experimental collection that he’s writing—he’s going to perform so many structural tricks that he needs something accessible and light to guide the reader through the stories. And the prose, while relatively simple and straightforward, is admirably confident and strong, and compulsively readable—it easily carried me through the book. I couldn’t put the thing down.

And, circa 1997, I probably wouldn’t have read more than the first few pages, because the writing wouldn’t have seemed “performative” enough to me. It would have been my loss.

Another example: my favorite writer in middle school was Lloyd Alexander. I cherished his Prydain Chronicles, read them repeatedly. Those books, probably more than any others, made me want to become a writer.

Later, in college, I decided to reread them…and found that I couldn’t. Ruined by Barthelme, insistent on stylistic adventure, I couldn’t stomach the plainness of Alexander’s prose:

Under a chill, gray sky, two riders jogged across the turf. Taran, the taller horseman, set his face against the wind and leaned forward in the saddle, his eyes on the distant hills. At his belt hung a sword, and from his shoulder a silver-bound battle horn. His companion Gurgi, shaggier than the pony he rode, pulled his weathered cloak around him, rubbed his frost-nipped ears, and began groaning so wretchedly that Taran at last reined up the stallion.

The High King (1968), opening paragraph

I was horrified, and terribly saddened. My education, my changing tastes, had caused me to lose something extremely dear to me. Dejected, I put the Prydain Chronicles away, didn’t touch them or think of them any more.

In 2007, when Lloyd Alexander passed away, I decided to pick up those books again…and, this time, I found that the prose didn’t bother me at all. Yes, it’s simple, and fairly plain, and overly solemn, and at times even a little pretentious. But it’s also very emotional, and sincere, and frequently moving. And Alexander provides many other pleasures besides verbal gymnastics, pleasures well worth reading for. His characters are all indelible, complex and appealing. His plots are well-made, and put those characters through real trials. And he wasn’t afraid to write painful passages—the ending of The High King remains one of the saddest I’ve read. Taken all in all, they’re beautiful books, and I’m happy to once again count them among my favorites.

What had happened to me, I think, was that, for a while, I fell completely under the sway of a very dominant idea, an insistent preference in academic literature. For I would argue that academic writers and readers highly value—perhaps even overvalue—complicated, highly stylized prose. Indeed, a complaint I hear all the time from such friends is, “I couldn’t read it; the prose was just too bad.” At times it seems as though prose quality is, in these circles, literature’s litmus test.

There are a lot of reasons why this might be. Commercial prose is often mundane and functional, so writing lyrically and abstractly—foregrounding language as language—is a way for academics to announce themselves as Something Different—to establish a common, unique identity. (Cormac McCarthy, who writes strongly stylized passages, can therefore be an acceptable commercial writer in a way that Jonathan Franzen cannot.) And there’s also a long tradition of foregrounding very strong style: the writers I mentioned above, as well as their forebears (Flaubert, Proust, Joyce). The Language Poets have made careers pushing language to the forefront. One of my teachers in grad school explicitly told me that it was better to belong to “the Stained Glass School” of Barth and Gass and Hawkes, and not “the Windex School” of most realist fiction. (I didn’t disagree with him at the time.) And so on; I could list numerous other examples.

This is all fine with me, to some extent. I’m all for such writing; I’ve done some of it myself. Here are the opening two paragraphs of my first novel, Giant Slugs (forthcoming later this year):

We’ll all follow the finer taboos, the tattoos of a pro percussionist’s tom-toms. I’ll recall the tablets my kiddy fingers traced, guided by my father’s gauzy own, which when young gripped the blunt reed and delicately dedicated his bird-like words to clay. First the rubric, now lost, but whose age-old echo repeats: “Close your eyes; I’ll relate to you a  mystery of great Uruk, and the stretch before giant slugs….”

Follow beyond: two big walls usher us through to the ancient city, past clay pits and the lossless floral gardens, past the coral lake and rosy hoi polloi, to the Temple Atari, central. Follow me follow my father’s ghost inside Atari’s most intimate vault, through tubular tunnels to the cerise-illuminated lumen where my ancestors—Unug, Erech, Warka, Orko, Nil, and Legal Band—mounted tablets engraved with red-plugged, wedge-shaped words: accounts of each prince’s required one-year exile, traditional tests in the broad-boned earth.

This is Joyce-influenced writing, overly stylized, syntactically acrobatic, layered with puns and other language play. I think that it makes a good fit for the novel, which is epic, grand, sprawling, expulsive.

But when I wrote my second novel, “The New Boyfriend” (not yet published), I wanted to do something quite different. For that story, which is more minimalist (a single scene with only four characters), I decided I needed something more restrained, more tantalizing, more titillating:

Last Sunday afternoon, Melanie came over, bringing along her new boyfriend.

I had been hanging out with Lauren, just playing the Wii. We’d spent our Saturday doing the things around the house. Lauren had a conference later in the week, but now, after no small amount of anxiety, as well as a few sleepless nights, she finally felt prepared.

Melanie and her new boyfriend arrived at noon and came right in. Certainly there was no need to stand on any formalities. Melanie had been over to the house to visit many times before.

I didn’t want the language to get in the way of the character relationships or the action that gradually unfolds. There’s still some punning, and a lot of prosodic effects (meter, alliteration, rhyme)—some things I just can’t help—but, overall, it’s much sparser than Giant Slugs. Which is, for me, much of the fun of writing—I like for all of my different projects to have their own unique identities.

Bad prose is bad, and lazy writing usually makes me cringe, sure. Criticize it, by all means, lovers of language!

But an artwork’s the sum of its parts, and prose quality shouldn’t be the sole metric, or necessarily even the chief metric, of the worth of a work of literature. Highly-wrought writing should be treasured, but not be the default. To believe that would blind us to so much of literature’s potential.


23 thoughts on “The Barthelme Problem

  1. If this is meant to be a response to things I wrote in my post, then you’ve obviously misread my post, as well as my comments in that post to you, Adam. What’s the point of engaging if you’re not going to engage with what I’ve said?

    • As I frequently tell my students when they’re drafting their response papers: such papers don’t have to be agree/disagree; the form of the response is open-ended. Taking ideas off in a different direction is a time-honored tradition—witness the dialectic.

      If I’ve misread or misrepresented anything you’ve written, John, I’d encourage you to point it out to me. But I don’t think I actually attributed any claims to you in this post…?


      • Hi Adam,

        I’m not sure what you mean by a “time-honored tradition” here. How does time honor anything, and even if time honors things, who’s to say whether what is honored is worth honoring anyway?

        As for responses being open-ended, how can anyone argue against that? But this isn’t what your response was, and you’ve demonstrated it further with your comments below. I can’t speak to your motivations, but from what I’ve read of your post, you didn’t merely use my post, and the dialogue that ensued, as a springboard or steppingstone to criticize what you’re referring to as dominant aspects of a particular milieu, (a dubious notion, at best, since whatever milieu you were addressing is far more multifarious than the hearsay or whatever rumblings and grumblings you happen to find yourself engaged in), but to argue against what you’re regarding as points in my post under the guise of talking about something else, that something else being talking about yourself and your own work.

        You take us on a journey here, drop us into your wonderful life, as it were, giving us a picture of a younger you, your rather closed-minded younger self, as you would have us have it, and then show how once that younger self opened himself up, a whole world of possibility flooded in, and what a better world it became for him. And wouldn’t it be great if everyone else in the world were to do just that, that is, open themselves up, think out of their respective boxes.

        Who can argue against that? Actually, I could, since I’d suspect that the story you’re presenting is not so clear as you would have us believe. Hindsight isn’t always necessarily twenty-twenty. If anything, hindsight has all kinds of blind spots.

        Frankly, if there is an argument here, it’s hard to discern, since I have to machete away all the autobiographical clutter to get to it, the whole argument, such as it is, especially falling apart when you offer this evaluation of your own writing:
        “This is Joyce-influenced writing, overly stylized, syntactically acrobatic, layered with puns and other language play. I think that it makes a good fit for the novel, which is epic, grand, sprawling, expulsive.”

        And then, this one about your other novel:
        “For that story, which is more minimalist (a single scene with only four characters), I decided I needed something more restrained, more tantalizing, more titillating[.]”

        You expect me to take these evaluations as simply descriptive? Surely, you can’t expect me to take your description of your own work seriously. Objective it isn’t. Better to provide examples you haven’t written. This would strike me as an argument, instead of a blatant act of self-justification and self-promotion.

        Using your work as prime examples of the two so-called polarities of prose style (an idea I’m suspicious of anyway) strikes me as a bad idea, bad because it stinks of self-reflexivity, and because it closes down discussion. That said, given the choice of which of the two passages would inspire me to read the rest of the book from which they were taken, I’d certainly go with the first. You would say, in regard to the second book, that it would be my loss, and I would say, no, it would be your loss, that is, you would have lost me as a reader, not because of my limitations as a reader, but because of the limitations of the attenuated prose, prose which functions as a newspaper does, that is, it tells the news, but not the weather. Sure, great art can be made with minimal means, and there are countless examples of such, the bulk of which I’ll unfortunately never get to, and I’d rather get to all of the great work made with such minimal means than what at first glance looks like someone going through the motions.

        A writer doesn’t have to do cartwheels with language to get my attention. But if the prose is going to walk, it better be an interesting walk. And if it’s going to ape a walk, I’d rather look at the ape from which it evolved.

    • Since you kind of asked for it, here’s a more direct reply to what you wrote (which, mind you, wasn’t what I was originally interested in writing—but why not?).

      Time is short, so, like most people, I don’t have time to give writers my attention beyond a few lines or paragraphs, or, in some cases, a few pages. Unless I’m reviewing a book, if my interest isn’t captured within that narrow stretch of time and space, then I have to move on to something else. There are just too many great books for me to catch up on that I just can’t see myself trudging along after a weak opening.

      I don’t feel like time is short.
      I don’t feel the need to give writers such a limited attention.
      I don’t feel the need to have my interest captured very quickly.
      I don’t feel the need to catch up on a large number of great books.

      It’s hard for me to get past the cliches and generally dull observations

      I can get past cliches and dull observations, if other aspects of the book capture my attention.

      one of the reasons why I read is to escape the rattling beat of the humdrum.

      I sometimes read for that reason, as well, but it’s not the only reason why I read. (You say it’s not the only reason why you read, too, of course.) As a critic, I like to look at all the things people are making, often without evaluating it.

      The trouble here is that Franzen’s clunky sentences simply don’t match Updike’s lyrical brilliance. Why should I continue reading when I haven’t read anywhere near enough Updike?

      I don’t think I’d approach a book like this. If I wanted to see what Franzen is doing, I’d read Franzen. If I wanted to see what Updike was doing, I’d read Updike. I might compare them; I might not. But I wouldn’t say, “Updike obsoletes Franzen”—which is what you seem to be arguing: that there’s no value in reading Franzen, because reading Updike would be time better spent. I just don’t think about books, or art, that way.

      Here we find what we expect from an accomplished author, that is, careful attention to language.

      I don’t share that expectation. Philip K. Dick wrote without much attention to his language from the beginning of his career until 1970 or so; that doesn’t stop many of his early, “first-draft” books from being masterpieces (in my estimation). The prose in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1967) is hardly high quality:

      His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar conapt building. Beside him, the covers up to her bare, smooth shoulders, an unfamiliar girl slept on, breathing lightly through her mouth, her hair a tumble of cottonlike white.

      I’ll be I’m late for work, he said to himself, slid from the bed, and tottered to a standing position with eyes shut, keeping himself from being sick. For all he knew he was several hours’ drive from his office; perhaps he was not even in the United States. However, he was on Earth; the gravity that made him sway was familiar and normal.

      And there in the next room by the sofa a familiar suitcase, that of his psychiatrist Dr. Smile.

      Barefoot, he padded into the living room, and seated himself by the suitcase; he opened it, clicked switches, and turned on Dr. Smile. Meters began to register and the mechanism hummer. “Where am I?” Barney asked it. “And how far am I from New York?” That was the main point. He saw now a clock on the wall of the apt’s kitchen; the time was 7:30 A.M. Not late at all.

      Those are the opening paragraphs. Would you continue reading, or put it down in favor of Djuna Barnes? I won’t judge you either way, but I will say that I think Palmer Eldritch is one of the best novels of the 20th century. (So’s Nightwood.) A lot of people have told me that they can’t read Dick due to his prose quality. I don’t think his lousy prose prevents him from being a great writer, even one of the greatest of writers. (I rank him with Blake.)

      …One of the larger points I was trying to make in my comments on your post, and in this post, is that I hear a lot of people saying the same thing that you’re saying: that prose quality is a litmus test, or one litmus test (but an important one), as for whether they consider a book “worth their time.” (I think it’s fair to characterize your claims that way, but let me know if I’m misrepresenting you.) I myself one felt that way, when I was in college. I no longer feel that way; prose quality is simply one aspect of a book among many, all of which I consider equally important. I wouldn’t stop reading something because the prose is bad; nor would I necessarily hold it against a book. I think the whole thing has to be viewed as a whole.

      In this regard, I find myself somewhat out of step with a lot of the people I know (which isn’t an unfamiliar sensation for me). Furthermore, the more I hear those people saying things like, “I couldn’t read that due to the poor prose quality,” that leads me to hypothesize that “good prose”* is a dominant in the communities I’m in (mainly the small press/indy scene). Scenes and movements tend to value some aspect of a work over others; it seems to me that the small press/indy scenee highly values “good prose.” I think it’s fair for me to make a claim like that, and to point to your post as evidence of that claim. (I’ll state for crystal clarity’s sake that I’m not trying to judge anyone, or anyone’s preferences, by pointing out that fact.)

      *We would of course still need to analyze and define what people consider to be “good prose.” Personally, I try to avoid terms like “good,” since I prefer my aesthetics to be more formal.

      (I might be wrong, but I think you often attribute evaluative qualities to my more descriptive statements? I’m not as moral as you are, John—if anything, I’m amoral! Which perhaps irks you? But I’d encourage you to read my posts more descriptively—I’m usually just trying to describe what I see around me. When I’m actually judging something, I try to be pretty clear about it. And I never care all that much if anyone agrees with me, or if I agree with others. It’s boring, in fact, when everyone disagrees…)

      Tangling words with you is always a blast. Are you in D.C. right now? Hope that’s going well.


      • You write that as “a critic, [you] like to look at all the things people are making, often without evaluating it.” I don’t get that impression at all from any of your criticism. Just the opposite, really. I don’t get the sense that you’re just looking at things, not in the least bit. You come to everything you look at with biases, prejudices, blind spots, etc., just like everyone else. You also come to things with unique insight and critical acumen. Shall I count the ways? How about seventeen ways? All of which indicate that you are not the impartial observer you’d like me to believe you are.

        • No, my post did not indicate what I thought was good or bad prose (though it gave some indications of what I prefer to read, under certain settings), offering, instead, a small demonstration that the prose of books that are finalists for an important prize, may not, after a sampling, what amounts to, admittedly, a cursory glance, be worthy of that prize.

          • Yes, what we can expect from an accomplished author is careful attention to language. Every good writer, whatever his or her style, whether a so-called minimalist or so-called maximalist, is carefully attentive to his or her language. This is a truism.

      • Adam,

        You fling around words like “good” and “bad” with impunity (see below), not to mention “great” and “lousy,” and a host of evaluative descriptors.

        You call Dick “a great writer, even one of the greatest of writers,” and that you “rank him with Blake.” If someone is great, then there are others who aren’t. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • As for that passage from Dick, the short answer to your question about whether I’d give up reading it in favor of something by Djuna Barnes, is no, or, rather, not necessarily. Why? Because Dick is carefully attentive to his language. Take for instance the first paragraph:

        His head unnaturally aching, Barney Mayerson woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bedroom in an unfamiliar conapt building. Beside him, the covers up to her bare, smooth shoulders, an unfamiliar girl slept on, breathing lightly through her mouth, her hair a tumble of cottonlike white.

        The repetition of “unfamiliar” here is interesting, particular because of the unfamiliarity of the word “conapt,” a word that might be a neologism, a word suggesting a portmanteau of some kind, perhaps of “concrete” and the abbreviation of “apartment.” This unfamiliarity is increased in the second sentence where we’re introduced to an “unfamiliar girl,” her “tumble of cottonlike white” hair making her even more unfamiliar. Reading this passage, I find myself asking several questions, like, why is Mayerson’s head aching, and what’s “unnatural” about its aching? (The chiming of the “un-” prefix is a nice musical effect, not to mention adding to the negative or opposite force suffusing the passage.) Why has he “found” himself in this unfamiliar setting? The prefatory clauses and phrases in these declarative sentences are neat, compact, and propel me forward as a reader.

        Now the second paragraph:

        I’ll be I’m late for work, he said to himself, slid from the bed, and tottered to a standing position with eyes shut, keeping himself from being sick. For all he knew he was several hours’ drive from his office; perhaps he was not even in the United States. However, he was on Earth; the gravity that made him sway was familiar and normal.

        I’m going to assume that the “be” in the first sentence is a typo. But with all the unfamiliarity happening, I’ll remain open to the idea that there is some strange syntax in this unfamiliar world. The image of tottering to a standing position with eyes shut is an interesting one, and one in keeping with the growing discomfort this character is feeling. The question of gravity now makes me think he may have come from zero gravity, or something, to gravity, from elsewhere, some other planet, maybe, to earth, which would account for his physical imbalance. We’re also given the word “familiar” here, a nice counterpoint to the first paragraph. I’m still interested in what I’m reading and I’m likely to continue reading.

        Third paragraph:

        And there in the next room by the sofa a familiar suitcase, that of his psychiatrist Dr. Smile.

        We’re offered the word “familiar” again, only to be unmoored by the psychiatrist’s strangely evocative name.

        The fourth paragraph answers some questions about the world in which the story is set, a world with some strange technology, while still leaving many questions unanswered; and it accomplishes what it accomplishes, as do all of the previous paragraphs, with a trim prose devoid of cliches, a prose that still uses some musical effects like the abovementioned repetitions and the examples of assonance, like those “un-” sounds. We’re given more assonance in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph’s run of short “i” sounds: “into the living room, and seated himself by the suitcase; he opened it, clicked switches,” which has the subtle effect of making me pad along, echoing Mayerson’s padding along into the living room.

  2. I really enjoyed this. I have had moments where I could identify with what you were saying about language – particularly the “heavily-stylized, acrobatic” type.
    There have even been times when I would begin reading something that was, more or less, simple prose, straightforward in voice, and I would begin asking myself, ‘what is the point? If it is not an attempt toward a unique creation of art or style, then why even bother?’
    Fortunately, these feelings have only been rare and fleeting. I usually even feel unfulfilled during long periods of reading only the heavily-stylized stuff, and I often begin to crave the more plain and straightforward prose style, especially when it is used to convey a great story.

    Also, on a similar note [no pun intended]:
    As a songwriter, I recognize now how I have, especially during my late teens, abandoned so many half-finished songs that had potential. I would quit working on a song the moment I recognized within it an influence or similarity toward another song or artist. I tried so desperately to write things that would be drastically different and free from influence.

  3. Hey Adam–thanks for the shout out for Stephen-Paul Martin’s CHANGING THE SUBJECT. One correction: the last name is Martin and the first name is Stephen-Paul… I find myself too changing what I like to read: flashier to more subtle, so-called pyrotechnic to quote masterful. But then sometimes it’s just a mood thing, and too, the suspicion arises that those binaries might be reductive. Christopher Doyle v. Robby Müller? Sometimes even Elephant Man has to make a Straight Story. But agreed, it’s not just the sentence, it’s the paragraph and the chapter too that makes it. Also I agree with whoever said the best works teach you how to read them.

  4. I still think you should reinstate Terry Gilliam on yr list of good (or as least better-than-some) directors: He is a bit of a one-trick pony, but it’s a trick many others cannot pull of with anywhere near the playfulness and euphoria (here again we spiral back towards the visual heavy [literally] brick that is Inception.)
    I think yr right to be aware of not unduly heralding self conscious visual grandstanding, but the self conscious abstaining from those visuals this is surely the same act with different criteria. Solipsism and nihilism are both pretty self involved.
    I guess, as with all things, the art is to conceal the art.

    • Thanks for the comment, Leon. I am sometimes too harsh on Gilliam. I do think a few of his films are masterpieces: Time Bandits, Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. To direct three masterpieces means he must be a good director!

      He’s just also a bad director, too…

      • Adam,

        To call something a “masterpiece” is to attribute evaluative qualities. It is a descriptive statement, as is calling someone “good” or “bad,” as you’re doing here. You’re not the “amoral” critic you’re pretending to be.

        • I’m necro-ing here, but, John, I’ve never pretended anywhere that there isn’t work that’s good and work that’s bad.

          The thing is—and I think this is a substantial difference between you and I—is that you are always evaluative. Every post you’ve written here at Big Other, it seems to me, is making some argument for some right or correct way of making literature.

          I don’t disagree that there are right and wrong ways (although I think we have, I think, different conceptions in places as to what those ways are, and I also think my tastes are broader than yours—which is, in itself, neither a good nor a bad thing; it’s just a matter of taste). But not all my writing is evaluative. I sometimes make evaluative arguments, and I sometimes just want to describe what’s out there, regardless of whether I like it or not.

          Why do I want to do that? Because I belong to two critical traditions—Marxism and Formalism—that value doing that. Should everyone therefore value that? No, not at all; I really don’t care.

          I think you sometimes dislike my writing (perhaps) because you want it to be more evaluative. So I write about form in something you dislike, and you want me to cast judgment on it (to call it bad writing). And when I don’t do that, you feel as though I missed some important point.

          When in fact being evaluative wasn’t my interest there.


          • “Necro-ing,” indeed, Adam. I’m not sure if you’re beating a dead horse or a slackened drum, here, or some strange amalgamation of the two, but what’s even less clear is to what end you are beating the dead or dead-sounding thing.

            Speaking of things, “the thing is,” Adam, there is no “substantial difference between you and” me, since you, too, “are always evaluative,” or at least largely so. I take “evaluative” as meaning at least two things, viz., first, to determine the value of something, and second, to examine and judge something carefully.

            You claim that “not all [your] writing is evaluative” and that you “sometimes make evaluative arguments, and [you] sometimes just want to describe what’s out there, regardless of whether [you] like it or not.” I disagree, Adam. Most, if not all, of your writing here is evaluative. What we’re talking about is a matter of degree. Even in the broadest of surveys you are the one who is choosing the subject matter and the illustrations of same. This implies evaluation. And the breadth of that survey will always be incomplete, that incompleteness determined, consciously or unconsciously, by you. Unless you are showing absolutely everything, all the time, within the confines (those confines determined ahead of time by you) of whatever subject you’re addressing, you cannot possibly just “describe what’s out there, regardless of whether [you] like it or not.” The act of choosing what to describe implies a chooser, and a chooser implies an evaluator, and an evaluator, in your case, is someone who, “belong[s] to two critical traditions—Marxism and Formalism”; and as an evaluator who comes from those two critical traditions you have at least two particular kinds of blinkers, those blinkers determining what you choose to see and how you choose to describe it.

            Speaking of haste, you make a hasty judgment when you evaluate the relation of the breadths of our respective tastes. To judge that your tastes are broader than mine based on what you’ve seen at Big Other is silly, not only because my posts here are not an adequate measure of what my tastes are, not even my literary tastes, but also because you don’t account for the fact that I’ve assembled a group of smart and creative people here offering many different points of view, for the sake of, yes, diversity, dialogue, and reciprocity; and that what is implicit in this act of assembly is the admission of my own limitations, i.e., biases and blind spots.

            I like your writing, Adam. I don’t always agree with everything you say within that writing, though. I especially don’t agree that your writing here at Big Other isn’t mainly at some degree evaluative. Examining something in this context (a group blog) implies some kind of valuing and judgement.

            Lastly, for the record, there is no right or correct way of making literature. To think so is totally ridiculous. To think I believe so is equally ridiculous.

  5. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other « BIG OTHER

  6. Adam:

    I don’t think the autobiographical bits are cluttering up anything. I think they’re the heart of the piece. And there’s a lot of heart in this piece, and in a lot of what you’re writing.

    I like your openmindedness, your self-conscious desire to be Whitmanesque (containing multitudes) and your willingness to be contradictory. My students are often surprised to hear me say that a certain writer is “great” or that another is “horrible,” probably because I’m often talking about aesthetic values are socially constructed, how my likes and dislikes are the result of being a discursively constructed subject, that there are no transcendent aesthetic values, that all positions on aesthetics are contingent to specific social contexts. So when I say, “Oh yeah, Byron’s great,” or “Philip K. Dick is one of the best writers ever,” or Jack Kirby’s right up there with Blake: an amazing creator,” they feel I’m somehow backtracking, undermining my point. Yet, as Terry Eagleton writes of aesthetics, like ideological ones, aesthetic responses are marked by their inability to be coerced. I can be aware of the roots of my aesthetic values, watch them change, and yet, in the end, I’m at their mercy. I can no more like what I don’t like than love what I don’t love, no more find pleasure in something I hate than feel good about murdering someone in cold blood. Still, as you demonstrate, aesthetic values shit, as do moral values, as do ideological obviousnesses. What seems obvious to me know (in Althusserian terms) wouldn’t have seemed so obvious to my 23 year old self. Your writing narrativizes these ideas, or, at least, it so often does for me.

    For that I salute you, as a writer and a critic. Keep it up, pal.


    I don’t ask for email updates to responses to my little comments on these websites. Sometimes I remember to go back and see what may have been written in response, but too often I don’t. Thus my entreaty for a call. Don’t give up on that call. We’ll reconnect via the wonders of 21st century telecommunication one of these days, I have faith!

  7. Pingback: A Guide to My Writing Here at Big Other (reposted) « BIG OTHER

  8. Pingback: How I wrote my latest novel, part 2 | HTMLGIANT

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