Is modern literature too pretentious?
August 8, 2002 11:24 AM   Subscribe

Is modern literature too pretentious? "In the bookstore I'll sometimes sample what all the fuss is about, but one glance at the affected prose -- 'furious dabs of tulips stuttering,' say, or 'in the dark before the day yet was' -- and I'm hightailing it to the friendly black spines of the Penguin Classics" This essay from B.R. Myers in The Atlantic has been expanded into a book. I thought this defense of Raymond Chandler makes a good point about how literature (or at least its critics) can be exclusionary.
posted by owillis (112 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Raymond Chandler doesn't need a defense, see? He's always had the iron to get the job done; and every nancy critic with a typer in town can go suck dum-dums.
posted by GriffX at 11:37 AM on August 8, 2002


"I didn't know he (King) was a good writer … My own snobbery prevented me from reading his work. Then I did and yes … he is an excellent writer."

Sad that a man produces so many captivating stories that are turned into movies (ranging from poop to good) and he isn't considered an excellent writer. Stephen King will hopefully be remembered as one of the greatest American writers as his stories are not only interesting in themselves but relate to many things that are truly American.
posted by Mushkelley at 11:40 AM on August 8, 2002


That's right! You go get those highfalutin' readin' folks!!!

That being said, I still can't start Infinite Jest.
posted by solistrato at 11:40 AM on August 8, 2002


Good link, owillis. Jennifer d'Angelo, whoever she is, does a great job summarizing and sampling the case against literature. Generally journalists creep between what's being reported and the reader.

That said, all literature is and must be pretentious. Pretentious just means over-ambitious and, even when doomed to failure, is an essential quality of literature that breaks (or wants to break) new ground. It has to be risky, even difficult, to be original and different.

Anything else is just story-telling. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Good story-tellers, however, tend to be movie-makers nowadays. But if you go back a hundred years and read what passed for "readable" then, you'll easily understand how important stylistic innovation is.

Raymond Carver is an example of a style now completely absorbed and as important today as Chekhov and Maupassant were in their day. Good style - though it might seem "difficult" when you first read it - never goes out of fashion.

And this can mean simplicity or complexity. There are no rules. Thank God.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:43 AM on August 8, 2002


Chandler doesn't need any defense--he's on many graduate reading lists and is generally well accepted by literary types.

BR Myers, on the other hand, needs to relax and lay off the blanket statements. He is both wrong and right, as you're bound to be when you condemn a whole generation or two. Yes, literary fiction is often pretentious, and there are always a lot second-rate hacks that treat "high lit" as a genre of its own, rather than writing that transcends all genres. On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with fiction that is difficult. Difficult can be good, see?

Snow Falling on Cedars is indeed midbrow crap, and The Shipping News wasn't to my taste, but to lump together Guterson, DeLillo, Auster, McCarthy and Proulx is such a scattershot attack that it's essentially useless. "Sampling ... one glance" of contemporary fiction at the bookstore just won't cut it.
posted by muckster at 11:46 AM on August 8, 2002


Sad that a man produces so many captivating stories that are turned into movies (ranging from poop to good) and he isn't considered an excellent writer.

I can see it now: The Norton Anthology of Elevator Pitches.
posted by maura at 11:48 AM on August 8, 2002


Nice link(s), owillis. I'm amazed to learn that Raymond Chandler, that most American of writers, went to the same school as P. G. Wodehouse, the king Brit. [They will both live as long as people continue to waive the rules.]
posted by LeLiLo at 11:49 AM on August 8, 2002


the justification for the book (which, reportedly, consists of a whopping five examples -- that should be enough to indict the whole of modern literature, right?) seems specious to me. in defense of his claims of pretention among authors, myers points to -- for example -- the "muscular prose" of All The Pretty Horses. so what if it's muscular? it's no crime to make one's prose thematic. now, if it's overdone, that's a problem.

however, i am bored with people who hate to read books because they use literary devices and themes. a good book is one that asks you to think not just about its message but the way in which the message is presented to you. i do understand that some people don't have the patience for that sort of reading; that is fine. that lack of patience is no excuse to attack those works, or to call them rubbish. making money, however, is an excuse, and that is why i think myers wrote his book.
posted by moz at 11:52 AM on August 8, 2002


What perfect fodder for Fox News. Yet another way for them to assure their audience that the problem isn't that you are dumb, the problem is the world is snooty. Watch 'em lap it up...

As for his actual critique (what there is of it in the article anyway) the only bit I agree with is that some authors get a "free pass" from critics due to earlier work. Well, and also I agree that to some extent, "popular" authors are unduly ignored just because they can write a book that sells.

Examples: Snow Falling on Cedars and The Shipping News were both relentlessly great books. Criticising them because not only did they have interesting stories and good characters, but were well written is the height of idiocy.

On the other hand, Underworld was crap. I can't even remember what it was about, that's how little impression it made. I just remember it being long... seemingly endless... and dull. But because White Noise was actually good, DeLillo got at least one free pass.

And Stephen King has written some really deep stuff, which he doesn't get much critical credit for. Lately, he's been repeating himself ad nauseam, and I wholeheartedly cheer his decision to retire. But some of his older work is really excellent. Different Seasons, and the short-story collections Night Shift and Skeleton Crew in particular are full of gems.

But for every young Stephen King, the ranks of popular fiction swell with a million Tom Clancys. I recently suffered through my first Tom Clancy, and dear god. There are no words for the torture. And this guy sells a billion copies of everything.

As for Chandler, it seems bizarre to defend him now. I mean, I was required to read Chandler in at least two different college courses. He's already been canonized. Salon, as usual, is about 20 years late to the party. If you want an example of someone who should be getting wined and dined with the glitterati but isn't, check out James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand. It takes some work to get into it, but damn. Damn.
posted by rusty at 11:53 AM on August 8, 2002


It's funny how so many people say Hemingway was the best writer ever--a blatant untruth, mind you-- but no one wants to write like him.
My two cents--style is good, even necessary, but it doesn't cover up substance. It's like the guy who wears progressively more cologne to avoid showering. Smelling nice is a really good thing, and people will like you better if you do. But when you're piling on the musk to hide the urine, rotting armpit bacteria and four-day-old socks, you're better off just staying at home.
posted by Fabulon7 at 11:54 AM on August 8, 2002


Ah, yes. A Reader's Manifesto. This one went the rounds at AL Daily last year (which also provided a few more accompanying links).

I think, in general, all the fuss over "brows" of literature is pointless and ridiculous. "Lowbrow" literature can be, in many cases, more expressive, affecting and interesting than "highbrow" literature, and vice-versa. There is always a danger of confusing artifice with art, or simplicity with shallowness. The two realms are less separate than most people would like to believe, and become even less so over time. Is The Canterbury Tales lowbrow or highbrow?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:58 AM on August 8, 2002


I guess I tend to believe that some subjects, some ideas, require a style that can be difficult for some, at times. Accessibility, especially accessibility to those who are not terribly comfortable reading, is not neccessarily always a virtue.

That said, yes, let's all lay off the snobbery.
posted by AlexSteffen at 12:00 PM on August 8, 2002


Is The Canterbury Tales lowbrow or highbrow?

It started off being lowbrow, but it's so obtuse and boring that it has been elevated to the status of highbrow.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:01 PM on August 8, 2002


Let posterity sort them out. For the moment, it's a matter of taste. The Shipping News is one of the most poorly written books I've run across in years--couldn't even get through the first chapter because the "style" was so obtrusive. Snow Falling on Cedars was just plain boring. But that's my take.
posted by gordian knot at 12:03 PM on August 8, 2002


Oh and yes, I agree, let's lay off the snobbery and all commit ourselves to reading this fantabulous author.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:04 PM on August 8, 2002


Wah, the Lee Siegel link doesn't work. Well, here's the Complete Review take on Myers' essay.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 12:05 PM on August 8, 2002


Wait! I forgot to use the <sarcastic /> tag.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:06 PM on August 8, 2002


I think reading and listening to music is the same in terms of what's good and what isn't. It's all so subjective and sometimes you want something light and fun, other times you just get sucked in by a really great book.

I agree with the Infinite Jest comment - I tried, lord knows I tried.

In Canada this argument always comes up when discussing Canadian literature. All style, no plot. If you had to read the 2 Margarets in high school you'd know what it's like to be on the receiving end of ponderous lee-trat-cher.
posted by Salmonberry at 12:07 PM on August 8, 2002


That being said, I still can't start Infinite Jest.

Oh my god! Start it! Start it! That book was the reading experience of my life. It was a complete bear and a HUGE pain in the ass and took me forever, but it was also pretty effin' amazing. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to read it again, but I'm really glad I tackled it.
posted by Tin Man at 12:08 PM on August 8, 2002


I dunno, we got to read Robertson Davies at Canada High School, and he was good. I agree about the Margarets though. And the Mordecai.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:09 PM on August 8, 2002


And his readers seem to agree: The ratio of letters sent to the Atlantic about his essay was about 8 positive to 1 negative, he said.

I read through the Atlantic's online forum when this article was first published. My memory says the ratio there wasn't 8 positive to 1 negative.

If the world can tolerate North Korean Studies professors who seek to expand essays short on insight in the original 10 pages into 300 page books then it can tolerate a few writers who commit the great sin of taking their work too seriously.

From the article: If it can't be read in a beach chair with nine kids screaming in under five hours, it's pretentious. Yes, exactly, the beach chair and the screaming kids should be the measure of all endeavour.
posted by TimTypeZed at 12:09 PM on August 8, 2002


Rusty: Ellroy gets plenty of kudos (there was even a feature-length documentary released into rep houses a few years ago), but mystery writers like Donald Westlake, Arturo Perez-Reverte and, to some extent, Walter Mosley don't get nearly enough credit for their offerings. Why? In the eyes of the literati, they write mysteries. And unless an author like Chandler has been six feet under for decades, there's simply no way that a genre author will receive the laurels and goblets that "literary fiction" entails.

While I have a few quibbles with the assualt Myers made on Don DeLilo's White Noise, I agree with his overall point that novelists are being unnecssarily celebrated as sacred cows. Committing a narrative to paper involves careful consciousness. But we have become extraordinarily excepting of the novel that is 700 pages long without pausing to consider that perhaps it could have been rewritten or ruthlessly reduced, Ian McEwan style, to bare brass knuckles.

The issue here isn't necessarily that literature is pretentious, but that it is not being given nearly as much care as it once was. Myers's take involves studying how language is being used in today's fiction. Of all the rules that Strunk and White gave us, "Omit needless words" is probably the one most writers fail to observe today, Cormac McCarthy included.

As for Infinite Jest, I got through it, but only by killing a few small animals.
posted by ed at 12:10 PM on August 8, 2002


damn..that should have read "accepting"
posted by ed at 12:13 PM on August 8, 2002


From the article: If it can't be read in a beach chair with nine kids screaming in under five hours, it's pretentious.

Maybe we should just shorten that to: "If the spine doesn't say 'Nora Roberts', it's pretentious.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:16 PM on August 8, 2002


"Our own taste is the only authority we should listen to."

Indeed. And not, say, BR Myers.

It's all taste. Rusty hated Underworld. I loved it. C'est la vie.
posted by Kafkaesque at 12:16 PM on August 8, 2002


All discussions about the current state of American literature must at least touch on, if not begin and end with, the towering intellectual talent that is Neal Pollack.
posted by poseur at 12:23 PM on August 8, 2002


Agree with Tin Man on Infinite Jest. My standard suggestion to those who yet wish to give it a go: start with the second chapter. The first one is about the hardest slog in the entire book.

Ed, damn, man, which animals?
posted by hackly_fracture at 12:27 PM on August 8, 2002


Muckster: How can Pynchon be the po-mo poster boy? What the hell would we put on the poster?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:34 PM on August 8, 2002


Stay with Dickens and Austen and all will be ok. Everything after is trash, worthless, stupid.
posted by Postroad at 12:39 PM on August 8, 2002


Is the complaint that "literature" is more difficult to read than pulp? That bad writing is bad? That some people give certain authors too much credit?

Revelations, all. As for modern lit being a sham: I scoff - big as a tulip, loud as that shake of her hair-haloed head.
posted by Marquis at 12:40 PM on August 8, 2002


I think "it all comes down to taste" is a cheap cop-out. The underlying message is that there's no such thing as a standard by which I could say that one book is any better than another. By that logic, my shopping list is as good as For Whom the Bell Tolls, provided I can put it in the hands of someone with the correct "taste."

Taste certainly comes into it somewhere. For example, I pretty much hated the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, because the careful and thorough creation of a unique imaginary world failed, for me, to make up for the insipid and talentless writing. For many people, the writing didn't matter very much. Or perhaps they just didn't know any better.

But just saying "it's all taste" dismissively seems like saying there's no point in thinking about what you read. You either liked it or you didn't, and that's all there is. I think that excludes the possibility of a lot of worthwhile discussion and thought about why you think one book is better than another. And yes, I have been convinced that a book is better than I originally thought it was because of someone else's take on it.
posted by rusty at 12:43 PM on August 8, 2002


My standard suggestion to those who yet wish to give it a go: start with the second chapter. The first one is about the hardest slog in the entire book.

While I wouldn't actually suggest skipping it, I'll agree, the first chapter is more than a little bewildering, but it gets much more readable after that. (i'm 3/4 of the way through the book myself) it take a LONG time to chug through but so far its been well worth it.

Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is next on my list. I must be a glutton for punishment.
posted by GeekAnimator at 12:46 PM on August 8, 2002


rusty--Welcome to postmodern hell, where every cheap cop out becomes insightful criticism. I agree with you 100%. If it were possible, I would agree with you more.
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:47 PM on August 8, 2002


What makes one work of literature "better" than another, or even if there's some objective standard, is really a tricky question. Here are some criteria:

1) originality of presentation / quality of the writing
2) originality of the ideas presented
3) resonance with the human condition
4) entertainment level

For instance, The Lord of the Rings succeeds on points 2-4, but yeah, by Return of the King the writing quality has gone down.

Thoughts?
posted by Tin Man at 12:51 PM on August 8, 2002


the towering intellectual talent that is Neal Pollack
I am reading his book bit by bit and while its funny the same joke gets a bit repetitive (says the guy who has written every last Britney Spears joke).

Also, I have to admit pointing to this link because I can't stand Old Man and The Sea. One of the worst books I have ever read (besides Bo on Bo by Bo Jackson and Dick Schapp).

My problem is with the idea that "x is 'good'" and if something new or different comes along, it doesn't get the chance to be considered good by "the establishment" because it's not written in the same style of x.

And rusty, you haven't seen my shopping lists. Eat yer heart out, Raymond Chandler, I've got to buy potatoes!
posted by owillis at 12:52 PM on August 8, 2002


Sad that a man produces so many captivating stories that are turned into movies (ranging from poop to good) and he isn't considered an excellent writer.

There is (can be) more to writing than storytelling.
posted by rushmc at 12:53 PM on August 8, 2002


re: infinite jest... I always tell people to skip the first section in the desert with Maranthe and Steeply. I suspect that one's in there to bore people to death. You gotta read IJ, though. It is wonderful and complex and really, really, really funny. You're missing out if you quit before page 500.
posted by n9 at 12:55 PM on August 8, 2002


Speaking as a writer who came up reading and admiring Franzen, DeLillo and Wallace, but now has a hard time reading their disciples, like Colson Whitehead, for example, I must say that the debate over "high" and "low" brow misses the point completely. Some people enjoy reading writers who play with language; others don't. Everyone who pontificates about the "state of literature" is necessarily going to get it wrong, IMHO, because there is no "state of literature." There are writers, each trying to accomplish individual goals, improve their craft, and tell a story.

I always thought I'd be a writer like DeLillo or Rushdie, and Important Serious Writer Whose Work Gets Read and Dissected in Graduate School, but lately, I've come off that. I think of the Quakers, and their idea that usefulness is the most important standard of beauty. In writing, that means clarity, and yes, attention to the craft of storytelling. A lot of experimental writing comes off as a cop-out to me; writing a decent story that grabs at a person's heart and makes them want to interact is hard, much harder than neo-surrealism.
But I don't think Wallace or DeLillo are guilty of sacrificing story for floweriness. Each has his problems to work out- both of them have difficulty resolving their plots (I speak as someone who has read Infinite Jest). But both are, I think, trying to do philosophy through narrative, much like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or Orson Scott Card, (or even Anne Rice, in her finer moments) did.
Right now the writer who most rocks my world is Wendell Berry.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:56 PM on August 8, 2002 [1 favorite]


hackly_fracture: Funny, I thought the first chapter of IJ was riveting. After that, I lost interest, big time. I don't even think I made it to 100 pages.
posted by zsazsa at 12:56 PM on August 8, 2002


"Crazy From The Heat", the David Lee Roth autobiography, is the worst book I have ever read. What makes it such a bad book? It's full of really far-out stories, and it's ghost-written to a fine gloss, so what makes it so crappy? Maybe by answering this question we will be able to discover the mysteries of great literature...
posted by Fabulon7 at 12:58 PM on August 8, 2002


Rusty: It depends upon what kind of taste we're talking here. Individual taste or collective taste? Collective taste involves many cooks in the kitchen, resulting in bestseller lists that, with a few rare exceptions (The Lovely Bones for one), no sensible reader could possibly endorse (unless I'm completely wrong about Michael J. Fox autobiographies and unreadable Ann Coulter/Michael Moore kvetchfests). Individual taste, however, can be taken on a case-by-case basis. There isn't a magic formula, but if you talk to enough "individual tasters" to get a rough approximation of a book, then you have a solid basis to determine what tomes to read. Of course, as a reader, you still have to ultimately decide whether you enjoy the book, thus confirming your own individual taste. And then there's the added complication of using your own individual taste to find the appropriate individual tasters with which to establish whether or not a book might be your cup of tea. The whole process is likely to make a malcontent miserable, but then so will a comforting backrub.

To muddle these metaphors further, I'd say that, whatever you may think of his criticisms, Myers is simply pointing out that the disparity between individual taste and collective taste is wider than it should be. But then P.T. Barnum said more or less the same thing in one sentence.
posted by ed at 12:58 PM on August 8, 2002


YMMV, apparently. I never actually convinced anyone to skip it, by the way.
posted by hackly_fracture at 1:01 PM on August 8, 2002


RushMC, maybe there is more to writing than just storytelling, but why should anyone be interested in READING something beyond it's story telling abilities. What is entertaining about finely crafted sentences that tell an uninteresting story? And if anyone wants to set a criteria to judge a book by, it should be judged by its entertainment value.
posted by Mushkelley at 1:11 PM on August 8, 2002


We also need to keep in mind that those people who have read more, and more variously, will have more finely critical perspectives of books. They speak from a valuable, educated position. A neophyte to jazz may not be able to "get" it, and may dismiss it offhand. After careful listening and lots of exposure, however, suddenly its wealth blossoms out in front of him. Similarly, rock critics will sing praises for The Pixies or Sigur Ros while less careful listeners will roll their eyes and turn up the Black Crowes. I, for one, side with the critics - and feel their views are "more correct" than the unclean masses. Those who are truly knowledgeable in their field (even in the arts) will often have a much better perspective from which to pass judgment.

And if anyone wants to set a criteria to judge a book by, it should be judged by its entertainment value.
Ah, but contrary to the American Disneyification of culture, there's a difference between entertainment and Art.
posted by Marquis at 1:13 PM on August 8, 2002


What about the insight it gives you into the human condition? What about wonderful word choices or structure? Some people do like that stuff, you know.
posted by Tin Man at 1:13 PM on August 8, 2002


Right, I like that stuff and that is what makes a book entertaining to me.
posted by Mushkelley at 1:16 PM on August 8, 2002


I have a hard time knowing which is which, I always considered Guterson fairly low brow really, the sort of thing you will have no trouble comprehending late at night after a hard day. On the other hand I find Ellroy fairly high brow on the basis that he is incomprehensible at any time of day.
I agree with the posters who say thriller writers don't get enough credit. Writers like George P Pelecanos, Scott Phillips and James Lee Burke are first rate writers as well as storytellers and are capable of exploring deep themes and telling us something about the world we live in. Doesn't make them highbrow, but their works can be challenging as well as readable.
I used to think that any literature was good literature, in that it is better to read something than nothing at all , but so many second rate authors jump on appalling bandwagons (chicklit anyone?) and churn out trash I have changed my mind. There is definitely a case to be made for a bit of snobbery.
posted by Fat Buddha at 1:20 PM on August 8, 2002


Thanks for the Wendell Berry tip, eustacescrubbs. I know what you mean in re floweriness, but I'd suggest it's instead a sort of linguistic gimmick, like all the hall-of-mirrors barthean pomo-gimmicks that Dave Eggers is especially guilty of. (Like qualifying dangling prepositions.)

But insofar as the gimmicks are 1. artfully done and 2. reinforce the philosophy that undercuts the more ambitious books - that's the whole point! That's the massive singularity of the novel coming together and turning into literature. IMHO.

And does anyone know what the hell kind of fungus it was that Hal ate? Toxicified shrooms from the great convex/cavity?
posted by DenOfSizer at 1:23 PM on August 8, 2002


mucho Infinite Jest Cliff's Notage to be had here. Spoilers galore but also good detective work: http://www.dfan.org/jest.txt
posted by n9 at 1:33 PM on August 8, 2002


DenOfSizer: check this out and scroll about 60% of the way down. There are some theories that it was DMZ.
posted by Tin Man at 1:34 PM on August 8, 2002


And does anyone know what the hell kind of fungus it was that Hal ate? Toxicified shrooms from the great convex/cavity?


DenOfSizer, I wonder the same myself. I read that book a couple of years ago and when it was over I couldn't decide whether I loved it or was supremely pissed off at Wallace. Upon reflection of course, it's both. Does anyone have a better explanation of what Infinite Jest was about, other than 'addiction' or 'irony vs. earnestness'?
posted by GriffX at 1:39 PM on August 8, 2002


Ah, and now I see that great link from n9. Thanks!
posted by GriffX at 1:39 PM on August 8, 2002


I'd like to add Patrick O'Brien to the list of authors who are fun to read and might impress your (snobby) friends (e.g., Chandler, Ellroy and Burke). I'm currently restarting the Aubrey-Maturin saga: at half a book in I'm already hooked again.
posted by yerfatma at 1:40 PM on August 8, 2002


"Californian Jonathan Aurthur said Myers made him feel better about disliking Proulx."

Now I feel bad about liking Infinite jest (read it twice - four years between readings)


"The fact that someone would make the claim that the likes of Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Annie Proulx are boring hacks is a perfect example of why the quality of mainstream literature in this country is in the toilet. If it can't be read in a beach chair with nine kids screaming in under five hours, it's pretentious," said struggling Tennessee writer Jim Cheney.


Somebody is sure regretting getting married instead of finishing his novel, hey?
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:40 PM on August 8, 2002


Yes, exactly, the beach chair and the screaming kids should be the measure of all endeavour.

The speaker wasn't exactly endorsing this proposition, was he?

Some random thoughts:

1. Virginia Woolf once griped about "stylists." What she had in mind were authors like T. B. Macaulay--who was, indeed, a grand master of style in the early Victorian mode. If, however, all you can say about a writer is that he has a "great style," then he or she has, indeed, probably failed. Style dates very badly. But this is true of all style. Given a page of Victorian plain style to contrast to, say, Stephen King, most readers would be able to tell the difference rather easily.

2. Most of the novelists who have survived into those nice black-spined Penguin Classics editions were not the equivalent of Stephen King. To argue that a writer like, say, Charles Dickens was a "best-seller" is somewhat to obscure the point. Here are a few sentences from the second paragraph of Bleak House, published in 1853:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex Marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.

And here's the entire second paragraph from Catherine Sinclair's Beatrice; Or, the Unknown Relatives, published one year earlier:

Each humble dwelling at Clanmarina, roofed with turf and floored with bare unhewn rock, exhibited a miserable quality of desolation; and within the whole extent of that wretched village it would have been impossible, probably, to find a single article of luxury, a room pretending to ordinary comfort, or even one entire pane of glass throughout the long row of patched, broken, and slated windows which met the eye, some stuffed with an old blue flannel petticoat, and others with an old hat of the scarecrow species.

Most people would find Dickens far more interesting to read than Sinclair: he utilizes repetition, parallelism, and variations in sentence length in the service of heightening the depressing gloom of that omnipresent fog. But Sinclair is the "plain stylist," that is, the conventional writer. For Dickens, there is an organic link between form and content, and that's what distinguishes him from W. H. Ainsworth, G. P. R. James, Anna Eliza Bray, etc., etc., etc. We still read Dickens. We don't read Sinclair (or, at least, most of you don't read Sinclair; I've read two of her novels, unfortunately).

3. I agree that "genre" writing is often treated unfairly. Good writing is good writing is good writing. If anything, the problem goes in two directions, since you also have "genre" authors who aspire to a rather constricted idea of "the literary." I'm a passionate fan of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe novels, for example, but the last three books have been increasingly "literary" in exactly the wrong sort of way: lots of so-called "fine" writing, elaborate allusions to increasingly obscure texts (for crying out loud, Death's Jest Book?! Nobody read that thing in the nineteenth century, let alone now!), and far too much navel-gazing on the part of the main characters. While all of these tics were present in his earlier work--Pictures of Perfection, probably my favorite of his novels, does a spectacular riff on Jane Austen--he had them under control; now, he believes his own press. The structural gimmicks and stylistic tics have become more and more detached from the plot and content (a real problem in Arms and the Women, where the mock-heroic mode does zilch for keeping the novel moving).

4. However, Hill is nevertheless trying to be innovative. That he has in some respects failed is ultimately beside the point--

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
(Robert Browning, "Andrea del Sarto")

5. It's quite possible that King will "survive" and Proulx will not. (Before I get put down as part of the anti-King faction, I should point out that Carrie is a terrific take on the horrors of adolescence, and the stories in Different Seasons are quite striking.) It's also quite possible that King will only survive in the kinds of "Great Horror Stories" anthologies that Peter Haining and Martin Greenberg like to assemble, and that Proulx will undergo an equivalent fate. Or... Such predictions are dangerous. Whenever I get tempted to make them, I remember the Victorian book review I once read that said that Mrs. Humphry Ward would be remembered once the likes of George Eliot had been forgotten. All those who know who Mrs. Humphry Ward is, please raise your hands.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:50 PM on August 8, 2002 [1 favorite]


Not to be obsessed, but here's one of my favorite Infinite Jest links (cached version): "Two Months in Infinite Jest," one reader's experience tackling the book.
posted by Tin Man at 1:53 PM on August 8, 2002


"Very Low Impact" - Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad. Poor Yorick Entertainment Unlimited. Marla-Dean Chumm, Pam Heath, Soma Richardson-Levy-O'Byrne; 35 mm; 30 minutes; color; sound. A narcoleptic aerobics instructor (Chumm) struggles to hide her condition from students and employers.

POSTHUMOUS RELEASE Y.W.-Q.M.D.; INTERLACE TELENT CARTRIDGE #357-97-29
posted by Skot at 1:58 PM on August 8, 2002


I'm kind of surprised that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest keeps being used as an example of literary pretention. I slogged through Brief Interviews With Hideous Men when it came out, and while a number of the stories are written with keen intelligence and wit, I thought the book on a whole was disappointing. When a friend recommended Infinite Jest, I was skeptical - the book is, after all, over 1000 pages long. When I started to read it however, I was surprised by how accessible it was. I highly recommend it, even to people who don't like DFW, because I believe that what you take away from the book is worth every page.

Another example of painful reading with a worthy result is J.D. Salinger's Seymour - An Introduction, which is bizarrelly written but quite entertaining and clever.

That said, there is some classic writing that I can't stand. Woolf's The Mark On The Wall is like listening to someone else describe their acid trip - maybe it was interesting for them, but it's just painful for everyone else. Most of the Welty I've read also puts me to sleep, though I eventually waded through The Golden Apples for a fiction class. The key thing is that even though I strongly dislike these two authors, I still appreciate their talent. The fact that a particular work or author doesn't appeal to one person as a reader does not invalidate the literary merit of that work. And Steven King, who isn't overtly complex, is still damn good. Redrum.
posted by jed at 2:04 PM on August 8, 2002


Infinite Jest was good in places, but what made me think about literature was something Neal Stephenson said (paraphrased here): 'Why is it that when a writer includes something so common as a plot, and builds suspense, the work is branded as genre fiction?' Wallace never really had a solid plot there. In fact, the modern novel tends to ignore it in favor of mood-setting vignettes. Stephenson's an exception, obviously... so's Michael Chabon's "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," which won the Pulitzer but can still be read on a beach.
posted by krewson at 2:05 PM on August 8, 2002


Structure over content is like form over function. I have often found myself frustrated, trying to wade through devices which develop into barriers to flow. As opposed to sex scenes in movies which most often are just filler, a lot of this mechanical devising is believed by some to elevate the art value of a piece. The fault lies with critics and editors whose effete snobbery demands they promote nouveau art literature which they know will be ill received by a hapless readership whom, if they admit their discomfiture find themselves ridiculed as illiterate dullards.
posted by Mack Twain at 2:05 PM on August 8, 2002


Ah, but contrary to the American Disneyification of culture, there's a difference between entertainment and Art.

One of my favorite quotes, from David Mamet:

"I like mass entertainment. I've written mass entertainment. But it's the opposite of art because the job of mass entertainment is to cajole, seduce and flatter consumers--to let them know that what they thought was right is right, and that their tastes and their immediate gratification are of the utmost concern of the purveyor. The job of the artist, on the other hand, is to say, wait a second, to the contrary, everything that we have thought is wrong. Let's re-examine it."
posted by nath at 2:05 PM on August 8, 2002


Re: Infinite Jest.

Skip it and read Pynchon's GR.
posted by rocketman at 2:22 PM on August 8, 2002


And if you don't have the time for GR, check out The Crying of Lot 49.

I'm being totally serious here.
posted by rocketman at 2:23 PM on August 8, 2002


stephen king once described his writing as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries" - and many will agree, sometimes nothing hits the spot like a large fries (beef tallow or not). i have found some of his books, as comic-strip-simple as they may be, utterly impossible to put down carrying them from couch to sidewalk to crapper to bed til 4 am

there are so many ways writing can be good, or bad. king isn't a prose sylist but he's one of the best storytellers going. cormac mccarthy's prose gives me goosebumps (especially having lived in the western spaces he writes about), but his plots are vestigal and his characters caricatures.

having said that, i'll have to agree, pretention does seem to be in lately. give me someone like twain - a god in both departments.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:34 PM on August 8, 2002


Of all the rules that Strunk and White gave us, "Omit needless words" is probably the one most writers fail to observe today.

In that case, as Mark Twain said, it would be better put as "Eschew surplusage."

For example, I pretty much hated the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, because the careful and thorough creation of a unique imaginary world failed, for me, to make up for the insipid and talentless writing. For many people, the writing didn't matter very much. Or perhaps they just didn't know any better.

Oof. You only prove the point you're arguing against. Tolkein was responsible for everything I've read or written ever since: from him stems my love of words, my fascination with the creation myth, my understanding of the primary differences between story-telling and writing, and even the nature of British writing as compared to American. His writing demonstrates such an understanding of the roots and structure of language, that I am convinced it communicates to the reader on a subconscious level. His words seem carefully chosen; in places, I would swear he has searched long for an Anglo-Saxon word when another other writer with less mastery of the English language would have quickly settled for an obvious Latinate choice. Talentless? Insipid? My God, man, are you not swayed by waves of fear? Moved by acts of loyalty and faith and love? Astonished to find you've read three hundred pages in what seems like a blink of an eye? Doesn't your mouth crack with dryness while Sam and Frodo cross the volcanic plain towards Mount Doom?

I don't mean this personally, but your imperviousness to his work suggests a failure on your part, not his.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:41 PM on August 8, 2002


It's a long time since I read "Aspects of the Novel" by E.M Forster , so I cannot remember that much of it. I do recall him banging on about "and then?", though, meaning that if as readers we were not constantly asking the question, the novel was lacking.
He also said "If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people - a very few people, but a few novelists are among them - are trying to do this. Every institution and vested interest in against such a search: organized religion, the State, the family in its economic aspect, have nothing to gain, and it is only when outward prohibitions weaken that it can proceed: history conditions it to that extent." (from Aspects of the Novel, 1927; which I quite like.
posted by Fat Buddha at 2:43 PM on August 8, 2002


Circling back to the thread, I went and read the entire B.R. Myers Atlantic article. A great number of the comments in this thread have totally misjudged his point and his intent. He was not saying "If it's hard or difficult, it's no good." In fact, he specifically denied that thesis several times. Myers' point is that the type of showy writing exhibited by Proulx, McCarthy, DeLillo, et al, is actually bad writing -- mixed metaphors, ridiculous imagery, etc. Yet, ironically, these same passages are cited by critics (and, no doubt, many of you) as examples of great writing.

To my mind the main flaw in Myers' article is his reliance on selected excerpts to make his point. I doubt any novel holds up to cover-to-cover scrutiny. But do yourself a favor and analyze some of the passages with him, and I think you'll have a hard time disagreeing that they are sloppy, at best. Whether you choose to go from that to a conclusion that the writers themselves are bad (as Myers) does, is another issue. I'm still on the fence.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:43 PM on August 8, 2002 [1 favorite]


The Crying of Lot 49 is good but it is merely an exercise for the reader, much as it was for the writer. It is an introductory work for a newbie Pynchonite. If you are put off by Gravity's Rainbow or Infinite Jest because of their *length* then I would question your motives for reading at all. Are you going strictly for number of books read?

You're either reading Infinite Jest for a couple of weeks or you're reading three other books. You're still reading. What's the big deal if it's one book or three? Commit to the enterprise!
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:49 PM on August 8, 2002


I used to work in a shop that sold books amongst other things, and the crap people bought in bucketloads made my heart sink. I guess I'm over that now though, just out of necessity.
It's better people read low/midbrow junklit than nothing at all, in my humble opinion. I got into 'real' novels through Stephen King. The man can handle dialogue, but let's face it people, he's formulaic and intensely forgettable. Does that matter? I realise that Beethoven is more artistic, more complex, and more enduring than most contemporary popular music, but that doesn't mean I turn my nose up at Pop. Different strokes for different folks, and while I'm reeling out the platitudes, different horses for different courses. You don't always want something that makes your mind bend every which way. I understand rationally that a salad's better for me than a doner kebab, but that doesn't mean I don't plump for immediate gratification once in a while.
The whole King/Clancy/et al raft to more 'accomplished' authors is like a bottle of bud to a fine vintage wine. The beer's okay when you don't know any better, but once you've tasted real quality... somehow the cheap stuff just don't satisfy the way it used to.
I realise I'm reiterating (badly) other people's points, but I'm a young struggling writer myself doing a degree in the damn thing, and the flooding of the market with a profusion of low-quality 2D junklit winds me up like nothing else. I'm kept going by the knowledge that there are hundreds if not thousands of frustrated writers like myself who see how poor the output is and think, nay, know 'I can do better'. Come the new dawn, you all shall perish!
posted by RokkitNite at 2:57 PM on August 8, 2002


Separating "Literature" from "Just plain books" is specious. It's like making a distinction between "Art Film" and "Normal Film". It's all literature, it's all art. Some of it is good, some of it sucks.
posted by signal at 2:59 PM on August 8, 2002


A couple more thoughts.

PinkStainlessTail, good call. I guess that's po-mo hell for ya. I'd say we put rocketman on the poster because keiner fickt mit dem Raketenmenschen.

Mack Twain, your "structure over content" argument is flawed because in the end, it's the same damn thing. It's all just words. The form is the content. That's not to say I endorse overblown prose (such as The Corrections, which I found indigestible), but it's a fallacy to think of the two as separable. If the story were told differently, it would be a different story.

The same goes for Tin Man's four criteria-- the distinctions blur because in the end, it won't resonate if it's not original, and it won't be entertaining if it's not quality writing. It's really one and the same thing.

Re pretentiousness: as Miguel pointed out way earlier, fiction is by definition pretentious. It's all make believe, right? A novel is a three-hundred-pages-plus lie, and it takes no small amount of chutzpah to pull that off.

I think the argument is not against good, difficult, or complex fiction, no matter what style, but against bad writing, writing that pretends to be better than it is. That's what I call mid-brow, or kitsch: crap masquerading as high art which gives both the producer and the consumer an inflated sense of accomplishment. As always (see Sturgeon), there's a lot of that around. It takes more than a broadside against all contemporary fiction to sort the wheat from the chaff.

(And please, can we agree to call it contemporary literature? Modern generally refers to a period at the beginning of the last century.)
posted by muckster at 3:06 PM on August 8, 2002


I had a professor who used to say "All art is pop art." I don't know if he got it from somewhere, but I've always tried to keep it in mind. Art has to appeal to someone; otherwise every schizophrenic's 3,000 composition-notebook long manifesto is literature.
posted by yerfatma at 3:08 PM on August 8, 2002


I think "it all comes down to taste" is a cheap cop-out.

You have a point there, Rusty. I didn't mean to be dismissive about it, just to say that within respected literature as a whole there will be your tastes and mine.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:23 PM on August 8, 2002


Dear Yerfatman: your prof. says that all art is pop art; and his specialty (from the link) ? pop art. And Oscar Wilde said that Shakespeare was gay.
posted by Postroad at 3:25 PM on August 8, 2002


I'd like to see literature give up on the whole debate about "great writers". Byers, and the whole New Yorker-Atlantic-Esquire canonization clique, remind me of the people who are constantly compaining about Britney Spears and compiling their lists of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time".

Everyone has their tastes, there's room for everyone. Instead of trashing literature's latest pop stars he doesn't like, Byers should go out and get excited about some books he does like.

My own opinions: I liked Infinite Jest, love Ellroy, Pynchon, and Chandler, but I can't stand Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, or anything written by DeLillo after White Noise.

My picks for the best writers today, by far, are George Saunders and Haruki Murakami. Both of them manage to get all of life into their books: funny, tragic, cynical and bighearted at the same time. They write with style and it never gets in the way of the human truths they're trying to get across.
posted by fuzz at 3:27 PM on August 8, 2002


I'd say we put rocketman on the poster because keiner fickt mit dem Raketenmenschen.

If I recall correctly, Muckster, this was manifestly not the case. Perhaps a German fertility figure and/or dupe in a pig suit?
posted by snarkout at 3:29 PM on August 8, 2002


Circling back to the thread, I went and read the entire B.R. Myers Atlantic article. A great number of the comments in this thread have totally misjudged his point and his intent. He was not saying "If it's hard or difficult, it's no good." In fact, he specifically denied that thesis several times.

If I wrote a lengthy piece attack piece about several notable Democrats and didn't show that I thought well of any Democrats, but specifically denied that I was attacking the Democratic Party, would you believe it? I was with Myers until he got to DeLillo; his reading of White Noise was so opposite mine -- and seemed to miss some of what I took as the central jokes of that excellent novel, principally that Jack is a comic figure and not to be taken even half-seriously -- that I found myself questioning Myers' critical faculties, even where (as with Proulx, say) I agreed with him.
posted by snarkout at 3:33 PM on August 8, 2002


Postroad-- Stay with Dickens and Austen and all will be ok. Everything after is trash, worthless, stupid.

Heh. And what of Trollope and Eliot? Surely you aren't calling Middlemarch trash.

Marquis--We also need to keep in mind that those people who have read more, and more variously, will have more finely critical perspectives of books.

Oh goody. Since I read a wide range of books, average 5 books a week, and have done so for over 30 years, I get to spout off on all my likes and dislikes. On second thought, I leave you all to discover your own likes/dislikes. If anyone wants a recommendation, I'll be in the library with a glass of whiskey and a good book.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:40 PM on August 8, 2002


All the talk of contemporary literature being pretentious reminds me of all the talk about kids today being immoral. We idealize the past. Sure, some of today's lit is gasbag crap, but that's the same as it ever was.

The other thing that bugs me is the equation 'contemporary + experimental/innovative = pretentious'. following that, all innovation is pretense. Ick. Ambition to do things with literature that haven't been done before is admirable, even when the execution is lousy. Hey, it's better to try and fail then it is to endlessly rehash. Doesn't mean I'll like the failure, but I sure appreciate the effort.

Today people have the pretense reaction against Pynchon or Rushdie. Yesterday it was Joyce. Before that, Sterne. And speaking of good ole Laurence, I absolutely love the quote the Penguin Classics folks slapped on the back of Tristram Shandy:

"'Nothing odd will do long,' said Dr Johnson; 'Tristram Shandy did not last.'

Take that, critics.
posted by amery at 3:45 PM on August 8, 2002


Gravy Person, doesn't Marquis have a point?

If I have a degree in Literature, wouldn't you expect me to know more about it, having read more of the well-respected books? If I want to know about cooking, I'll ask someone who's cooked more meals than most people. Makes sense to me.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:48 PM on August 8, 2002


Re: Infinite Jest. Wonderful, yet difficult novel. Strangely, any single page reads easily enough, it's just that the weight of everything combined is overwhelming. Actually I'm surprised how popular the book is among metafilter readers, as I haven't heard it discussed as much in public.

I disagree that the book has no real plot or resolution. Trying not to spoil it, it's implied how the book would resolve, there would be an attack, an escape, characters would finally meet and a lost thing would be recovered, and mysteries about some characters such as John Wayne might be revealed, then the first section of the book would end it. I think it was okay to leave this out as it would be just kind of dull to pull everything together, sort of like the end of a game of solitaire after the last card has been uncovered.

On to Myers criticisms, I think it would be interesting to compare things to Canadian literature. If you look at the most popular Canadian authors such as Atwood and Richler, they are also the most critically acclaimed. Canadian authors seem more able to bridge the gap between high-brow and low-brow. Mistry's "A Fine Balance", for example, is a popular novel that has an interesting plot and rich characters and is easy to read, but is also appealing to those that like high-brow literature. I wonder why there aren't more American authors that can bridge this gap, and be both popular and taught in universities.
posted by bobo123 at 4:07 PM on August 8, 2002


Three words: Harry Fuckin' Crews.

OK, more than three words. This thread, and the link from which it springs, reminds me of the recent brouhaha over Dale Peck's review of Rick Moody's work. I don't think Moody's quite as bad as Peck makes him out to be, but the (highly selective) quotes Peck pulls out are truly horrid, and great examples of everything wrong with LitFic.

The problem is really simple, IMHO: there are too damn many current and former graduate students in literature departments who think that a large vocabulary and a head full of abstruse literary references equals good writing. And so they write books for each other to read. And review. Endlessly. Wankers.

I tend to take the long view: what's going to be read for pleasure and insight in 100 years? Unfortunately, my time machine is in the shop, or I'd let y'all know. But I'll wager that there will be more Stephen King (and Gene Wolfe, and Samuel R. Delany, and Octavia Butler, and Harry Crews, and Alice Munro, and Robertson Davies, and Patrick O'Brian) than there will be currently "important" writers like DeLillo and Proulx.

I have no problem with "style", per se, but that horse needs to be hitched to a plow. Rushdie, for example, continues to write entertaining and thoughtful stuff that's still dazzlingly inventive, because his style is in the service of his story (caveats apply).

LitFic is produced by and large by a small circle of academics and panderers-to-academics, and it's largely irrelevant to the meat-and-taters crowd (like me). To use a musical analogy that'll probably piss everyone off, I like Sigur Ros and Mogwai, but the songs I'll sing to my kids will be Creedence and Skynard (OK, and the Minutemen, but that's a different topic).........
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:16 PM on August 8, 2002


And does anyone know what the hell kind of fungus it was that Hal ate? Toxicified shrooms from the great convex/cavity?


DenOfSizer and GriffX,

On one level, we don't need to know what Hal ate, because really, Hal lost his ability to communicate because he turned inward. He could not let go of his intellectualism and his cynicism (hence his inability to take NA seriously). I think IJ is yes, about addiction, but also about the causes and effects of addiction. One big theme is communication - it fills the book- and it is Hal's struggle. Remember the beginning of the book, Jim insists he cannot hear Hal speak? And remember the scene when the Canadian terrorists shove the broomstick down their captive's throat? First of all the broomstick is a reference to Wittgenstein and to Wallace's first novel, The Broom of The System (a term Wittgenstein coined). Wittgenstein spent most of his life musing about how language works, asking questions about the connection between speech and the world. Wallace has read Wittgenstein and the philosopher's theories pop up again and again in his works.
Anyway, in that scene, there's this brilliant bit where Wallace writes about the dead man's spirit rising up out of his body with something beautiful he wants to tell the whole world (but which he can't, b/c he's dead...)
IJ Is also full of cycles: the doorknob, annular fusion, the 12 steps (bc part of the 12 steps' function is that you get sent back to the beginning by the end step), Eschaton, Jim's movie, Infinite Jest and the structure of the book itself. There are details in the first "Year of Glad" chapter which one forgets by the end, and one must go back and re-read- hence one finds oneself performing a loop as one reads....
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:21 PM on August 8, 2002


And if anyone wants to set a criteria to judge a book by, it should be judged by its entertainment value.

But this is precisely where I disagree with you. I don't think there can be just ONE criterion by which writing is judged. Everyone looks for different things, in different proportions, from a book, and may vary themselves from day to day and book to book. While I think there is certainly a place for the "chewing gum for the mind"-type books, I generally prefer those whose authors have something interesting to say over those that merely "entertain" me on the level of television. Which does not mean that I never read a book for sheer entertainment--which is why I've been reading and enjoying several Doug Preston & Lincoln Child books lately. I feel no compulsion to read only one type of thing, or to suggest that people only write one type of thing. I may find White Noise tedious and obvious, but clearly others enjoyed it a lot and found it relevant and instructive. Variety is the spice of life, and quality is something each, ultimately, must judge for himself.
posted by rushmc at 4:29 PM on August 8, 2002


Mushkelley: RushMC, maybe there is more to writing than just storytelling, but why should anyone be interested in READING something beyond it's story telling abilities.

I take it you're not a big fan of poetry?

I agree to an extent with what Muckster says above about form and content being intertwined in a novel. If you want to be told a story, but without much (any?) artful use of language, then you want to read an AP Wire story, or maybe just the Cliff's Notes synopsis of a novel.

But then I'm not sure what your definition of "story telling ability" is, and how that differs from style or poetic use of language. At what point does a novel have too much poetry for you and not enough story?

Simply put, if a novel has no story, maybe it's just an overly long poem. If a novel is only story, then maybe it's just an overly long piece of journalism (albeit a fictional one). Every novel in the real world falls somewhere in between.
posted by pitchblende at 5:10 PM on August 8, 2002


I absolutely disagree with Rocketman's comment that one should skip IJ for Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

IJ took a lot of thinking, but was fundamentally comphrensible and very entertaining. As far as Pynchon, I still don't understand what that book was about. There is something very very wrong when a reasonably educated person with decent reading comprehension abilities can't even begin to explain any single plot element of a 600 page book.

Let's see: Toward the end of WWII, a bunch of military guys who like bananas for breakfast watch a V-2 rocket fall to earth near London. Slothrop, an American G.I., works in an obscure military office also in London. Slothrop has many sexual encounters. Somewhere in Germany, various undercover agents work to find a secret substance called Tyroleum(?) that has something to do with the V-2. There are also some Germans into S&M, who somehow end up in a submarine. Someone gets stuffed in a V-2 rocket and shot into the air. Someone else gets castrated.

Pynchon's stature rests on the fundamental miscalculation that obfuscation = brilliance. If you can't understand the basic plot of the story, the author must be a genius.

David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, makes things a bit difficult, but does actively seek to confuse the reader. I like at least a fighting chance of understanding a book I spend three weeks reading.
posted by Mid at 5:12 PM on August 8, 2002


There is something very very wrong when a reasonably educated person with decent reading comprehension abilities can't even begin to explain any single plot element of a 600 page book.

Amen, Mid, amen.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:30 PM on August 8, 2002


So in other words, if you get it, it's just the right amount of difficult, and if you don't, it must be obfuscation.

The basic plot of Gravity's Rainbow? Tyrone Slothrop is trying to find out why the hell he gets an erection wherever a V2 is about to hit.

In all fairness, I didn't understand what the book was about the first couple of times around either, but I enjoyed the puns, the parties, and the general mayhem enough to get hooked for good. Actually, I'd make the argument that GR, as an academic problem, is unsolvable. But to hell with that: it's a rollickin' good time, and a lot more entertaining than, say, The Stand.
posted by muckster at 5:33 PM on August 8, 2002


Stephen Fry recently offered this anecdote (in the New York Times):
I once shared a stage with Gore Vidal in Manchester, England, which was a very great honor indeed, although he did not appear to appreciate it. No, but, tush. Mr. Vidal was asked if he felt there had ever been an age in recent history that could boast so few good writers as the present. "There are as many good writers as ever there were," he replied, and I wish I could reproduce on the page the trademark patrician Gore-drawl that transforms his lightest remark into a marmoreal epigram. "The problem is that there are so few good readers."
For all its cleverness, there's something to Vidal's diagnosis. Reading is about the reader more than anything. Ultimately, there's no reason to read anything, except that you enjoy it.
posted by mattpfeff at 5:37 PM on August 8, 2002


briefly: just because something is pretentious doesn't mean it isn't likable. in fact, i like 'house of leaves' precisely because of how pretentious it is; there's this tongue-in-cheek how-many-gimmicky-techniques-can-i cram-in-here attitude to it that i think is hilarious.
posted by juv3nal at 5:56 PM on August 8, 2002


I lurve me some House of Leaves. Drool. And it's not as pretentious as all that. Somewhere fundamental, it's still a Gothic haunted house story.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 6:12 PM on August 8, 2002


This is all the fault of Joyce. Joyce showed that instead of merely writing a novel, you can create a fearsome, labrynthine Valhalla for scholars. The ambition to rival Joyce waits, like a crazy aunt locked in the attic, in the mind of every fresh novelist in the 'literary fiction' genre.

Hey juv3nal is right - this comment is both pretentious and likeable.
posted by crunchburger at 6:20 PM on August 8, 2002


Re: Infinite Jest - I think it's one of the greatest, most bewildering books I've ever read, and someday I hope to have the wherewithal to tackle it again.

ObBrag: I got mine signed by Wallace himself, lucky me. (and yes, I was a total complete dork and didn't really say anything to him except "thanks" because I was star-struck).

For those who have difficulty with the considerable bulk of IJ (and even for those who don't), I would recommend that you read his A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. It's composed of various shorter essays and pieces that he's written, some of which are imho side-splittingly hilarious.

His piece on irony is so wonderful that I felt compelled to type the whole damn thing into a Word doc, so if you want to read it, email me.

Anyone else find themselves thinking in Wallace-oid phrases after a bout of reading of his stuff? (or maybe it's just me). I find his literary mannerisms peculiarly viral.
posted by beth at 6:31 PM on August 8, 2002


Dear Yerfatman: your prof. says that all art is pop art; and his specialty (from the link) ? pop art.

Yes. I, however, have nothing to do with the creation of art, poppy or otherwise. I listened to his comment, thought about it and felt there was some validity to the remark. Today I shared it with you. What my professor was or was not (in all honesty, I could have made the quotation up or heard it from someone totally different and just assigned it to a random college professor from a school I never attended) had no bearing on why I mentioned it, though I do appreciate that a man who buys a hammer goes looking for bent nails. Or something.
posted by yerfatma at 6:57 PM on August 8, 2002


pardonyou?, I agree with your focus, but I think alot of B.R. Myers' textual analysis is as sloppy as the prose he critiques. Even with Proulx, his strongest argument. He said her phrase "strangled, work-driven ways" was incomprehensible: Work-driven is fine, of course, except for its note of self-approval, but strangled ways makes no sense on any level. Besides, how can anything, no matter how abstract, be strangled and work-driven at the same time? Well, duh, Mr. Myers. The sentence was an apology to her kids.
Myers cut off the beginning of it and conveniently removed context. She's saying, "I'm sorry, kids, that my time with you is cut short because I'm so work driven." Strangled just means stifled, inhibited, or restricted. (This is not a new idea that readers should be baffled by; Virginia Woolf has talked about the reverse -- where domestic life or other restrictions strangle art.)

I even think he's being picky with his whole unfurling/tight-wound/spooled-out/kicked down diatribe -- technically her unfurling life metaphor ends with the youth vs. old age description. Why must the rest of her imagery refer back to the unfurling? Because Myers requires a neat little package? And ditto with the woman whose arms have been lopped off; the point of the passage was that the woman was in shock and stood there a freakin' long time. That's why Proulx wrote her freakin' long, list-y sentence. Myers may be right that it would be silly to stand there, but he's missing the point so that he can make his own. (But maybe I'm just nitpicking, like he is.)

Not that Proulx is especially concise, just that Myers is being deliberately obtuse. His close readings here and throughout often seem glancing, as though he read all of these books in a beach chair with nine kids screaming in under five hours.

And hey, Fat Buddha, I'm with you on the Forster, but chicklit rocks. It's funny, touching, and relevant to alot of women's lives. Early novels in the 18th Century were criticized for being chicklit, too, so "vulgar and trivial." But today, Jane Austen, Pamela and the early gothics are integral to every "Rise of the Novel" class out there. Someday our grandkids will be deconstructing Helen Fielding. Bring it on!
posted by onlyconnect at 8:25 PM on August 8, 2002


Since this thread has already mostly devolved into an analysis of Infinite Jest, I have to share my feeling of fascination and bewilderment at the totally outlandish proportions it has built itself up to in people's minds. That great link about "two months with..." -- that seems to be a really common thread.

Which is funny to me, because I had no idea I was getting myself into some kind of cult of awe. I literally picked it up off the bookshelf at Kramerbooks one night because it had a bright orange cover. And because it was big. I had just chewed through several much shorter cyberpunk type books in way too little time, so I wanted something that, whether I liked it or not, would at least take me a little time to read. I read the first ten pages or so, standing there, and didn't really understand any of it. But the writing was pretty cool. So I bought it.

And sadly, it really didn't even last that long. Took about a week the first time through. But it did pole-vault into place as one of my favorite books ever, immediately. So, after the totally unsatisfying ending, I hopped online to see if ayone else had ever come across this bizarre contraption of a book. And lo and behold, then I found the cult.

Anyway, when all's said and done, it's just a book. A good one, I think, but the fear/fascination dynamic people seem to have with it is a little bizarre.

Other Wallace: Broom of the System is like IJ-lite. It is to Infinite Jest what Crying of Lot 49 is to Gravity's Rainbow. Brief Interviews is, on the whole, not very good. There's a lot of stuff in there that Wallace should not have published. I'm sure it was fun to write, but he should have kept it in the files for posthumous literary scholars to discover. A Supposedly Fun Thing is great, and recommended.

Oh, and Dave Eggers is a fad. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. The new novel will fly like the Hindenburg.
posted by rusty at 8:43 PM on August 8, 2002


Agreed on Eggers. 14:59.
posted by Mid at 9:57 PM on August 8, 2002


I have a hard time seeing Wallace as high brow, but maybe that's just because I went to high school with him, and he was with me the first time he took acid.

I think Infinite Jest is quite good, but I suspect that A Supposedly Fun Thing shows what I believe will be his true calling, that of a wicked social commentator.

All that background gave a funny perspective to the commotion about him as an author.

And if one seeks to limit excess verbiage, as per Strunk and White, one should study Joseph Mitchell.
posted by dglynn at 10:13 PM on August 8, 2002


dglynn: Do you keep in touch? Can you help me book him for my bar mitzvah? Can I get a backstage pass? ;-)

Seriously, DFW is one of those people I'd really like to hang out with in the right circumstances. Like, not in a creepy fan/stalkee situation, but at a party with mutual friends or something. I think we'd get along.

Doubt that's ever gonna happen though. Maybe I can get him to sign my boob instead.
posted by rusty at 11:29 PM on August 8, 2002


fabulon7:
> It's funny how so many people say Hemingway was the > best writer ever--a blatant untruth, mind you-- but no
> one wants to write like him.

Raymond Carver had a pretty fine career doing just that. Actually, Hemingway had swarms of imitators.

Canturbury Tales is actually quite a good read. And it did not, as you say, start as low-brow entertainment. In the middle ages, all reading was the pastime of the cultural elite: they were the only ones who could read.

It strikes me a quite ironic that an article *against* literary snobbery should be such a fine example of it. I agree with Rusty's assessment entirely: "Haute couture literary entertainment? Nothing to see here. Please move along to your regularly scheduled entertainment. Rest assured, good Americans, COPS and Jerry Springer are all there is to life. There's no need to strive for anything higher".

Not that all high-brow fare is created equal, it's just best not to write off (as one poster did here) everything after Dickens. That would be a sad world indeed.
posted by wheat at 5:18 AM on August 9, 2002


Canturbury Tales is actually quite a good read. And it did not, as you say, start as low-brow entertainment. In the middle ages, all reading was the pastime of the cultural elite: they were the only ones who could read.

True, but doesn't The Miller's Tale have the first recorded fart gag? Or did some Roman poet beat Chaucer to that?
posted by Summer at 6:43 AM on August 9, 2002


DFW is one of those people I'd really like to hang out with


Hmmph. Much as I enjoy DFW's writing, at least when he's in slightly less-than-usual masturbatory mode, I can't help but think that he's precisely the kind of neurotic little wanktard nebbish that I'd have an irresistable desire to smack in the head, were I to actually meet him.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 8:00 AM on August 9, 2002


Stavros and Rusty--I did kinda meet DFW at a signing at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. He was a actually a pretty cool guy, I probably came across as a dork because being around people I admire turns me into one.

I was wearing an Army fatigue jacket that was Magic Markered with the Metallica logo and bearing the signatures of Jason Newstead and Lars Ulrich(this was pre-Napster), I asked Wallace to sign it and right under the logo he wrote "on Zither, David Foster Wallace."
posted by jonmc at 8:43 AM on August 9, 2002


Raymond Carver had a pretty fine career doing just that. Actually, Hemingway had swarms of imitators.

Saying that Raymond Carver wrote like Hemingway is akin to saying that Jack Vance writes like Brian Jacques of Redwall fame, because they both like detailed descriptions of food.

To compare Hemingway's insipid and tedious drone:
It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.
to Chandler's casual panache:
San Diego? One of the most beautiful harbors in the world and nothing in it but navy and a few fishing boats. At night it is fairyland. The swell is as gentle as an old lady singing hymns. But Marlowe has to get home and count the spoons.
is ridiculous. I don't expect Hemingway used the word 'fairyland' once in his entire ouvre.

Canturbury Tales is actually quite a good read.

Only in the original Middle English (which is not at all difficult, if you have a basic 10-minute grounding in ME pronunciation and a bilingual edition). Chaucer is worthless in translation.

And it did not, as you say, start as low-brow entertainment. In the middle ages, all reading was the pastime of the cultural elite: they were the only ones who could read.

To an extent this is true; starving peasants didn't do much reading. But many urbanites, even the tradespeople and the merchants and so on, were literate. Also keep in mind that, somewhat in contrast to today's situation, your medieval 'cultural elite' were often dirt-poor monks from starving peasant families which couldn't afford to feed them. The cultural and economic elites overlapped to a much lesser degree than they do today.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 8:52 AM on August 9, 2002


so...jonmc....wanna sell the coat.
(opens own coat)
wanna trade for...Les Paul letter...Gwen Brooks autograph.

come on man...great story. I like it when people talk all bookish but i lve those stories that seep in like this one by jonmc. This keeps lit alive and 'm wagging..

Pound said it best
"Disney against the metaphysicals"
posted by clavdivs at 9:03 AM on August 9, 2002


Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler are two different people Ish. Like Zsa Zsa and Eva: one's good, one's evil.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:04 AM on August 9, 2002


Ishmael: I didn't compare Hemingway to Raymond *Chandler*; I compared him to Raymond *Carver* and that's hardly an original or controversial comparison. In fact, it's a fairly obvious influence that I'm sure Carver would have been happy to acknowledge.

As for your lumping all Hemingway as an "insipid and tedious drone," all I can say is there's no accounting for taste. You might not like his style, but you can't dismiss him as talentless. He did win one of those things, you know--those things they give out to writers once a year. What do they call it? Oh, yeah, the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As for The Canturbury Tales, I've read them in the original and in translation (and I've read most of the rest of Chaucer in the original) and I found both to be quite satisfying. The Penguin translation has always been very popular and it's very well done. Quality of tranlsations is always an issue, but there are good translations of Chaucer into modern English.

Your last point about dirt poor monks and literacy is true and well taken. I think the truth is some of the tales are meant to me high-brow entertainment (the Knight's tale) and others are slapstic (Wife of Bath's tale, The Miller's Tale), but they were all aimed at that small percentage of the population who could read. So the high-brow/low-brow dichotomy (like the elite/common one) is a bit simplistic for the case at hand.
posted by wheat at 9:15 AM on August 9, 2002


yeah, right on, down with pretentiousness. does this mean i can go track down Jonathan Franzen and give him a swift kick? *flexes knee anticipatorily*
posted by serafinapekkala at 9:28 AM on August 9, 2002


My mistake regarding Carver/Chandler. Having never read Carver, I can't comment.

you can't dismiss him as talentless

Well, I most certainly could, if I wanted to, but in fact I did no such thing. Obviously, looking at his writing, he had talent; also obviously (to me), he was trying far too hard and was far too full of himself and squandered it.

[Ish suddenly recalls the other night when he so enraged a belligerent drunk at a bar by calling Kerouac a hack that the management yelled at him for it, and suspects this may not be the best thread for him to be participating in.]
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:28 AM on August 9, 2002


"Hemingway did his work, and he'll last. Any biographer who gives him less than this, granting the chaos of his public and personal life, might just as well write the biography of an anonymous grocer or a woolly mammoth. Hemingway, the writer -- he's still the hero of the story, however it unfolds." -- Raymond Carver, on Hemingway biographies (November 17, 1985)
posted by wheat at 9:36 AM on August 9, 2002


Thanks for the defense of Papa, wheat. I would have risen to the occasion but For Whom the Bell Tolls just broke my heart last night.
posted by muckster at 9:43 AM on August 9, 2002


You can always find patches of bad writing, even in the best writers, if that's what you're looking for (maybe especially in the best writers, because they're taking risks). I think onlyconnect has it right: "Myers is being deliberately obtuse."

And complaints about the supposed elitism, obscurantism, etc. of "fine writing" make me think of Babbitt:
The ideal of American manhood and culture isn't a lot of cranks sitting around chewing the rag with their Rights and their Wrongs, but a God-fearing, hustling, successful, two-fisted Regular Guy....
You tell 'em, Georgie boy! Hey, barkeep, buy this man another of whatever he's drinking!
posted by languagehat at 2:57 PM on August 9, 2002


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