Back when Oprah Winfrey selected Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I saw a distinct lack of graciousness from various authors and book critics. As I remembered it, the reaction was almost a dismay and outrage that she would drag a piece of literary fiction through the mud that constitutes the low-brow mainstream. There also seemed to be an undercurrent of snobbery as applied to Winfrey. She had chosen mainstream potboilers and melodramas; selecting Franzen had the appearance of Winfrey ‘trying’ to seem smart or high-brow.
As if a woman who built a billion dollar media company from nothing lacks the intelligence or emotional acumen to understand literary fiction. As if she needed to justify why she veered from choosing another mass-market novel about a broken romance or an issue. As if her business sense couldn’t translate into her appreciating Literature. As if she needed the pretension of reading Literature to convince anyone that she has a rich, considered inner life.
Franzen, I am sure, will take his new opportunity to address why the flap over the corrections. He had even made some statement about it already, blaming his lack of experience in dealing with the exposure. Sure. Whatever. I do give him some credit; I distinctly remember a lot of other people slapping down Oprah, but nothing so bad coming from him.
I continue to detect this vein of elitism coming various poison pens, today. This time, at least the arguments are carried by authors.
I will be clear here; I have not ever read a work of so called Literary fiction that was difficult in an intellectual sense. No words stump me; no metaphor goes unnoticed or misunderstood; no linguistic fireworks ever go unappreciated. I appreciate the talent, skill, and craft going into beautifully constructed novels. I understand the themes and issues that are the reasons for an author to write. I love complex characters who straddle the gray of living in the world. I like denouement and dramatic closure, which I do not confuse with a tidy, happy ending where all problems are resolved (see Peter F. Hamilton’s The Evolutionary Void for this. This is a three volume space opera and contains a novel within a novel. There’s a lot going on. The series boils down to a happy ending, for everybody, in the last 2 or 3 pages. This struck a wrong note with me. But it’s still a fantastic read.) I also understand that writing fiction is not my forte.
A novel is never the intellectually difficult exercise that science is, for the reader. Literature isn’t rocket science. It isn’t even a social science. This is not a criticism so much as an observation. The novel embraces life in its messy, tangled glory. The scientist strives to tease out the role specific parts play in creating that mess.
Both are difficult, but in different ways. Literature is difficult as an act of creation; science is difficult in its comprehension. In Literature, all asides, digressions, and verbosity, when done well, contribute to the greatness of the work. In a way, writers make the text hard, but in an aesthetically pleasing way. In science, the descriptions and discussion are stripped bare, because the ideas, assumptions, and experiments are already convoluted. Each assumption is based upon a foundation of many other ideas, all linked to the strength of experiments addressing them. In many cases, the experiment at hand is to address some inadequacy and nuance in a previous paper that may open up new lines of inquiry. To make things any harder to understand is to waste a scientist’s time. Either way, badly written novels and scientific papers will accomplish the same thing: thrown at a wall in disgust and then ignored.
And the phrase ‘novel of ideas’ annoys me. Apparently these Literary authors – and the critics who set themselves up as professional connessiuer of Literature – have done a great job creating a sandbox from which genres are excluded. So we get stilted prose and writing about white, male assholes who behave badly, observe the shit leading to his situation, and then internalize all such snarky observations to himself while never making a mental connection with his (usually sexy) significant other. And so the true novel of ideas, found in science fiction, is ignored.
I am sure that I just conjured visions of space ships, phasers, droids, and Death Stars. The sci-fi I refer to is that branch known as hard science novels – for example Stephen Baxter. This type of novel are fantastic extrapolations of current state of the art science. Admittedly, one-dimensional sci-fi read like either a Star Trek episode or a technical manual, but the best sci-fi actually examines the human condition in the context of new technological and social environment. It is an extension of the basic premise of what white, male literary authors write about. Instead of some recognizable human event, some sci-fi authors are interested in placing recognizable, human characters in unfamiliar confines (I think P.D. James’s The Children of Men is a good example of this). And yes, a Baxter novel, a William Gibson novel, a Charlie Stross novel, a Margaret Atwood novel and especially a Neil Stephenson novel provide more raw ideas than most literary novels hope to capture.
Even during my essay on Medium Raw, I was really thinking of this divide between what the so-called professional critics and “serious” chefs and what appeals to the public. I do find Literary critics and authors (and ultra serious chefs and food-writers) to be pretentious, as if what they do is so hard to understand (I recognize that it is hard to write a novel and to create new dishes. But to understand a novel or to enjoy food? No.) Theirs is elitism without merit. While talented, the degree to which their talent engenders appeal depends on the fancies of the buying public. This is true because everybody is selling to the public now, not a few pricey artisanal items to the extremely wealthy. The fact that some authors (or pop stars, or movies) get all the sales (or ratings) do not mean that non-blockbuster authors do no good. Of course they do. Unfortunately, most people focus on the big winners (like a Stephen King, or a James Patterson), but there ought to be enough good writers occupying the midlist and who are deserving of some critical analysis or exposure.
I think this is a point that Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult were trying to make, in the Huffington Post interview . It seems ludicrous to assume that if an author makes money, he can’t possibly be good. By the same token, just because a writer continues to starve does not give him any status; sure, he loves writing and sacrifices for his art. But perhaps he continues to suffer because he is not all that good. As Koa Lani pointed out in her rebuttal, even if every author profiled fit the “white, male, from Brooklyn stereotype” that Weiner and Picoult satirized, it may be that profiled and acclaimed authors deserve the adulation. I do not see the two points as contradictory: 1) that mainstream literature probably won’t field as many impact novels and writers but they are there and 2) that generally, writers who get profiles deserve it, even if others who deserve the press do not get it.
What I find strange is that everyone accepts that there are so few good writers worthy of a professional connoisseur. Here’s the problem: I’m never sure whether the critics like a book sincerely or if it is a pose. When I was reading Bourdain’s Medium Raw, he made similar points about food critics. It seems strange to him that critics have a death watch culture, where, once a chef is proclaimed to be the best cook ever, everyone is now scrutinizing his every move, pouncing on the point when he began his slide. It really is just snobbery, rather than any sincere appreciation of the food, that drives these people. Just as these food critics wish to glow in the luster of their “discovery”, so too must they exact a tax on the fall from the summit of said chef. There are such enthusiasts and critics in every modality (movies, TV – from which the phrase “jump the shark” was derived, music – please see Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, and books), and because they do not create, they nominate themselves as arbiters over those who do. As if an opinion of a book is somehow as important as the book itself or even a discussion of ideas contained within (the first point is discussed in Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism.) These poseurs wish to be the first to trumpet talent and the first to sound the end.
It wouldn’t astound me if critics are affected by what their peers think (no one wants to miss a Franzen or Lethem, and no one wants to coronate Nicholas Sparks, I presume.) Just as likely, perhaps critics just simply want to be contrarian (see the Roger Ebert vs. Armond White).
This isn’t necessary a bad thing, but it could help explain why the stereotype “white, male, from Brooklyn, and who teaches creative writing” is so well represented in Literary reviews. In Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, he writes about the randomness of super-success. Not that the idea of good and bad is a crap shoot, but the fact that we can’t really predict why some books and movies do blockbuster business while others designed for that purpose go ignored. It is telling that one piece of research Mlodinow presented has to do with music and how it is ranked. Two cohorts of subjects were asked to rank songs. The difference between cohorts is that one cohort has no knowledge of how others ranked the songs, while the second did. The first cohort ranked songs as in distributed manner: the “likes” were spread over many songs. The second cohort had a “sharper” profile, where a few songs garnered high-rankings. Thus judging books by criticism or by sales might be a reflection of the herd mentality.
It is no secret that our opinions and evaluations can also hang on inconsequential details. The canonical stories come from orchestra auditions, where female performers are usually relegated to second-chair status – unless the auditions occurred with the performer behind a screen. Even among performers of relatively equal looks and talent (for whatever it’s worth, the researchers aimed to build the most homogeneous of sample sizes), the manner of dress and visual style could influence what evaluators think. If one listened to these performers without visual cues, he would be hard pressed to tell the difference (that was also an experiment in the study). It seems strange that we are all so concerned with “the best”, when even the most informed opinion remain just that, an opinion. I am not sure if it is meaningful to make the distinction between the levels of good a writer achieves, because this evaluation depends so much on how the critic is feeling at that particular moment.
One final example; in other posts in this blog, I have tried highlighting the research of Dave Berri, who has done a bit of work documenting how even recognized experts in a field may not be using the right metric or standard for evaluating talent or productivity. In sports, we have all the pertinent information to judge such matters. However, it is difficult to make the same assessment for the worth of books, of music, of movies, of food, of wine, and so on. There are technical aspects to discuss, sure, but after some level of proficiency, it becomes a matter of opinion whether one book is better than another.
To the sincere critics who wish to look for something new, I would add the following thoughts. Because I feel strongly that my verdict on a book (good or bad) is irrelevant, I take pains to write simply about my engagement with the story, themes, ideas, and characters in a book. I pitch what I write here as taking part in a discussion; I prefer to call these essays about books rather than analysis or criticism. I try not to place the books in the authors’ context but in my context (within constraints.) I understand fully that what I say here is not authoritative and is merely an opinion. The most I hope for that you find my opinions thoughtful and an interesting point of view.