The literary ghetto

Some time back, Jodi Picoult and Jonathan Franzen were focal points for pundits and self-proclaimed gate-keepers in arguing whether popular literature can ever be Literature. Naturally, one might expect popular authors* who lack critical praise or who write genre novels to take exception.

Rudy Rucker, a scientist and well-known fiction author, has recently called attention to this matter. He is generally classified as a science fiction writer. In a recent stint as a guest blogger on Charlie Stross’s blog, Rucker expresses dissatisfaction at being pidgeonholed in such a way, labeling it a “category mistake”. His point is somewhat reminiscent of Picoult’s: categories do narrow perception**. By placing writers into “literature” and “popular/genre” bins, such distinctions frame discussion around whether the work has value, rather than examining the ideas, themes, motifs, plots, and characters in a novel.


Rucker himself cites Kurt Vonnegut and Jonathan Lethem as examples of high-brow literary authors who managed to transcend their genre labels. Most recently, I finished Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which has a fantasy setting. As far as I understand it, Murakami is also considered a high-lit author. In 1Q84, he uses some standard fantasy/sci-fi tropes, such as multiple worlds/parallel universes and teleportation. However, most of the novel is spent in the heads of the two main characters. There is a lot of rumination in the novel, ranging from why an author writes, to ethics, and to fate and sacrifice. These are among the standard thematic elements for any literary author.

This seems to be the main discrimination point between high-lit and everything else: literary authors focus on the so-called human condition. If an exciting story falls out from it, than one gets this feeling that it would be a happy accident. Generally, the gripe against non-literary works is that the opposite is true: the characters are secondary to other story elements. While this distinction is fair, I disagree, as strongly as does Rucker and other authors, that writing a novel about the human condition puts it on the only track to beatification.

Despite the subjectivity inherent in engaging with art, I find it ironic that literary critics and editors act as if the line between high- and low-brow is so distinct. I can appreciate the fact that anyone involved in art (by which I mean all such endeavors: music, movies, paintings, sculptures, books, etc.) will have an immense amount of experience due to their continual exposure to it. They can be quite informed with how a given work can be placed into the context of an epoch, and they are certainly in a position to recognize its uniqueness. But this must be tempered with an understanding that, in this milieu of constant exposure, what piques their interest and what they regard as a distinguishing feature may not be the same as how the public perceives the work.

Even if I don’t read as much as I do, I would still have opinions about what passes for schlock. But I happen to think that judgment is not as interesting as discussing the bits of a novel or story that are interesting. The simplest analogy I can make is that, in the realm of science articles, one rarely comes across terrible papers without any intellectual value. Sure, some papers over reach, and others lack proper controls. The sense here is that the paper could be good, if the researchers had only done a little more work. So the reader is left with feeling ambivalent. But because science is like a tapestry, the reader will probably stitch this imperfect work into his understand and outlook. This is what I mean when I say that it is rare to find some bit of science that cannot be integrated in this way. Instead of a smoking gun, a “bad” paper may only provide circumstantial and suggestive data.

I suppose I take this approach in my reading of literature. That is, I would rather focus on the parts of the novel that left a great impression on me, for whatever reason. Once, I read a profile  of Bob Rines in The New Yorker, by Larissa MacFarquhar, about his search for the Loch Ness monster. To be frank, I was infuriated by the presentation of Rines and his search, in that it did not focus on the fact that none of Rines’s tools had ever recorded evidence of the monster. Instead, the article was immensely sympathetic to Rines while dismissive of the skeptics who opposed him, portraying them as a bunch of killjoys.

However, the other thing that I remember is that the piece was so well-written, that I had thought it was clear what MacFarquhar had to say, leading to my becoming so exercised. It was as if she had perverted her talent to peddle ignorance. Yet, if I had to choose a model to emulate and to learn from, this essay would rank among the top of the form that I had encountered.

This is simply an example of the ambivalent feelings one can get on reading, and is quite peripheral to any so-called  objective quality one can supposedly perceive. My bias is that I find these thoughts more interesting than a simple yay/nay verdict.

In much the same way, I do not find it constructive to sort books into high-lit or genre. I find it destructive to promote that there is such a difference. With that said, there are books that lend themselves to having more depth and rewarding deep readings. Like the Murakami novel 1Q84. I feel that the novel, being about the deeds, thoughts, and growth of Aomame and Tengo, do not need the fantastical elements to work. And yet I found the fantastic and mundane integrate so nicely, that I am fully engaged in thinking about why he used that particular device (i.e. the “Little People”.) The inverse can be found in a novel like Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. He uses character archetypes so he can ruminate on the nature of knowledge, thinking, and time. I feel deeply that both novels are extremely fun to read and think about, for entirely different reasons. And yet the most important thing is that these two authors have made a connection with me; does it matter whether a novel probes the deepest recesses of human emotion or tries to show how humans understand?

*Yet another occupier of the literary ghetto is the popular author, consistently atop best sellers list. Again, I find the ivory tower distinction that there is somehow a separation of motives, between those who pursue the highest form of literature and those who wish to make money, a red herring. John Logan, a playwright and screenwriter, said this best:

[he] turned to the list of actors in Shakespeare’s troupe. ‘I also love this, because it shows that Shakespeare was not writing for the ivory tower,’ he said. ‘He was writing to put asses on seats, the same way I am.’

He was followed (paid subscription required) by Tad Friend, of The New Yorker. Logan was in a rare books shop in NYC, deciding on pieces to add to his Shakespeare library. He was looking through a folio when he said that.

I am intensely aware that a profit motive tends to drive art to a wasteland (see: summer block buster movies, TV sitcoms, Britney Spears, and crank-them-out authors.) But it seems strange to say that art can be divorced from commerce. Artists need to subsist; their labor happens to be more ephemeral, and their paymasters more fickle, than for an office worker. If one already agrees that an author should be entitled to recompense, and he or she already is contracted by a publishing firm, then what does it matter that an author strikes it rich or not?

Yes, I suppose one might say then the next work might become corrupted, angled to sell more copies. I find it hard to see how one might separate the commercial aspects of book or art production, to that of seeking an audience. Money is simply a proxy for eye-balls and attention. How else might one see if their works are actually engaging readers, rather than serving as doorstops or as a coffee table adornment? 

**In much the same way my recent post on violin quality and preference suggests, simply identifying a violin as a Stradivari or setting a high price on a wine creates expectations. Because we are told something has a higher sale price or a lower “worth” (or higher rarity, or is in demand), we are likely to take on those  impression. That is why blind wine tastings (and similar “tests”) are a better way to let us gauge our preference.

Of course, there is also a related issue of palate, and whether all tasters will judge based on a similar set of criteria. That is a separate matter entirely. What I am proposing here isn’t a scientific tool,  but simply an informal and easy way to remove expectations and bias for entertainment purposes. This ought to allow tasters to make a decision based on their own ideas, skills, talents, etc, rather than simply agreeing with some existing opinion. This by no means guarantee independent assessments. Humans have a tendency to herd and become more likely to select the more popular verdicts, as they are made known what their peers think. Saving the revelation until the end might help here.

There might be something to this: one such blind-test was performed for literature by The Sunday Times of London. Opening chapters from two Booker Prize winners (Stanley Middleton and V.S. Naipaul, the latter having received the Nobel Prize in literature) were sent to 20 publishers and agents, with names and titles masked so that their provenance couldn’t be known. These “new” submissions were rejected by all but one of the recipients. Regardless of whether this “test” was done in earnest or as a joke, the result is telling. 

Both Naipaul and Middleton took a dim view of the result; they had toiled to produce the works, and they consider both books to be superb. After all, they were awarded the Booker Prize for those works. They conclude that the publishers and agents no longer understand what makes a good novel or literature. That’s one view and they are entitled to it. However, one might draw other conclusions,  that there is no objective marker for what passes for literary quality. Or that tastes and the appeal of styles may have simply shifted. This latter point is slightly different from simply a lack of objectivity. It may be that for a given generation, with a shared education and cultural background, they may in fact have come to a consensus. However, this group opinion would shift, when compared to other cohorts, as they have different points of references and intellectual development.


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