30 August 2009

It's a Plot!

I don't have time or desire to expose all the errors and bad assumptions in Lev Grossman's essay "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard", but thankfully I don't have to: Andrew Seal has already shown how wrong Grossman is about so much.

Grossman's essay reminds me of a lot of things I've read in science fiction fanzines and blogs over the years where people want to justify their taste and pleasures against armies of straw people marching through an alternate literary history. But I don't really feel any malice toward SF fans and amateur critics who are passionate about what they spend most of their time reading; that they don't have a nuanced understanding of Modernism is really not a big deal.

That a man who has a degree from Harvard in literature and did work toward a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Yale, has written for Lingua Franca, the Village Voice, Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Salon and the New York Times, and has been Time's book critic since 2002 -- that a man of those qualifications can write something this clueless, though, is impressive. After all, plenty of fanzine and blog writers produce better-informed and more thoughtful stuff.

A few quick points before I go...
  • "Modernism" can be, and often is, used as a term to describe an era rather than a set of techniques primarily associated with an era -- an era and set of techniques fiercely debated just about from the moment they first appeared -- but pretending that "Modernism" is a settled term is likely to lead you toward the same sorts of problems you encounter by assuming that, for instance, "science fiction" is a settled term.
  • Books are not popular or unpopular simply because of their accessibility. Consider Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury does, indeed, sell quite well these days. Before teachers realized how much fun it can be in classrooms, it didn't do nearly as well. The bestselling novel in 1929, the year Sound and the Fury was published, was All Quiet on the Western Front (an episodic novel that is not especially suspenseful, at least not in the way we generally talk of popular fiction being suspenseful). In 1931, Faulkner's "pot-boiler" Sanctuary sold well and helped raise the sales of his backlist, but still not in the way his Nobel Prize and academic canonization did. And then a few years ago Oprah helped.
  • Which is just to say that confusing what makes a book popular with how a book is written is likely to lead to distorting simplifications and confusions.
  • Also, confusing the popularity of a book within an academic context with its popularity within a general context is likely to lead to distorting simplifications and confusions.
  • Also, confusing a book's reputation with its popularity is likely to lead to distoriting simplifications and confusions.
  • There is no link between the ideas that A.) a group of writers Lev Grossman defines as Modernists wrote books that are hard to read, and Z.) "millions of readers" "need something they're not getting elsewhere". Look at the lists of 1920s and 1930s bestsellers. Most of the names have been forgotten, but of the ones people today might possibly recognize -- Zane Grey, Sinclair Lewis, Edna Ferber, Rafael Sabatini, John Galsworthy, Booth Tarkington, Edith Wharton, Thornton Wilder, J. B. Priestley, Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, James Hilton, Isak Dinesen, Franz Werfel, Margaret Mitchell, George Santayana, Rebecca West, Aldous Huxley, Kenneth Roberts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, John Steinbeck -- hardly any of them are bestsellers with books that are "difficult" because of the reasons Lev Grossman identifies. (One notable exception is Virginia Woolf's The Years in 1937, though it's a more "accessible" novel than many of her others.)
  • Here's an interesting analysis of bestseller lists that is relevant to this discussion.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again." This is a meaningless statement outside of a personal context. Its meaning is closer to, "I've recently enjoyed more of the novels that 1.) I have encountered, 2.) have been published within the last few years, and 3.) I identify as 'literary fiction'."
  • Lev Grossman sez: "This is the future of fiction." Do not trust anyone who utters such a sentence. They are likely a charlatan, a mesmerist, or a dolt.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing." This is called The History of the Novel. Those two statements could have been made at any time during the last 300 years at least.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place." When did writers have power, exactly? Writers do not have power (well, at least before they establish a proven track record of bestsellers). Publishers, editors, marketing executives, reviewers, teachers, booksellers, and readers have power. And what are these "compromises with public taste" of which you speak? Are people writing on walls with their feces or something?
  • Lev Grossman sez: "Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century." I'll agree that within this article, lyricism is on the wane.
  • Lev Grossman often sez "the novel". This is even less useful than talking in general about "the internet". It can be done. But it's seldom enlightening.
  • Lev Grossman sez: "In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven't noticed it because we're looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure." Whoa, man, you are, like, soooo 1960s!
  • "Lev Grossman is the book critic at Time magazine and the author of 'The Magicians,' a novel." Lev Grossman seems to have mistaken the indefinite article a after The Magicians for the definite article the.
I don't have anything against Lev Grossman. I'm not his Mortal Enemy. I didn't call him "the Uwe Boll of the book reviewing world". I read The Magicians and thought it was a fun idea not very well executed overall, but entertaining sometimes. If this were just one insipid article I wouldn't really care. But it works from assumptions and misperceptions that keep getting trotted out, and my tolerance for it all is low at this point.

5 comments:

  1. Good piece. Nice adjectives.

    Who has power? The readers, more than ever. Less if they're Canadian, or are trying to buy a paperback in an airport.

    Who else? There are the big multinational publishing conglomerates, though they're going through a rough patch because most of them own a lot of newspapers. Barnes & Noble, Ingram, Lightning Source, and Quebecor World are the biggest cats in their particular litter boxes. And in terms of clout with readers, the People bestseller list overtook the NYTimes' list some years ago. I suppose you could call that power.

    Writers as a class do not have power, and they never have.

    I have a good opinion of Lev Grossman in general, but I can't imagine how he came to type that sentence.

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  2. Great piece. I don't understand why people look down on any genre - there is much to like in all of them!

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  3. Bravo! I appreciate any criticism that deals in nuance and avoids black and white thinking. There's so much of the latter about and it is not only tedious but potentially very dangerous.

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  4. Not abrasive at all, and you could have been more so. Grossman and others - like Franzen - who divide literature in two are doing something political as well as 'aesthetic,' and I'm not sure what's going on. Maybe just blinkered rumbling from those who, clearly, can't see that books with plots as their chief attribute are all over the place, and those without are not.

    Good article. Well-written, and concise. Thanks for it.

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