Pretentious

I just read Arthur Krystal’s piece “Easy Writers” (behind paywall) in the May 28 (2012) The New Yorker, in which he examines the critical response to genre writers and makes some attempt to explain the differences between literary writers and mere story tellers.

Every time I read a piece such as this, whether it be by high-brow critics or writers, I can only become saddened by what seems to me their increasing irrelevance. I might not have the talent to be such a writer, but I can certainly see it as nothing less than self-sabotage by telling your potential readers that 1) they do not have the intellect to appreciate your verbiage describing the mundane and that 2) even if they think they do, they should not bother (as if one making money from one’s book precludes one from writing a literary masterpiece – because, you know, it means that the language is somehow too easy and accessible to the proles.)

Krystal rehashes the basic gripe against genre writers: by definition, they write with a formula in mind, and this formula is propelled by plot. The fact that a detective must catch the killer or that a lawyer must find evidence to exonerate his client limits the tools a genre writer can use. Because the writer needs to resolve the plot, the focus is lessened on dramatic closure or catharsis than on solving the case. More often than not (and the critics would argue, always), stereotypes reserved for short stories are transplanted into a full length book. The result is that heroes and villains are good and evil, black and white, with nary a shadow cast to suggest a more complex reality.

One final point Krystal makes is that the word-craft seems to be missing from churn-it-out modern day pulp (I mean, genre) writers. As the self-named guardians of quality (which I find ironic; I find today’s a great many literary authors today compare poorly to luminaries like Melville, Wharton, James, Thackeray, and Hemingway) continue to cycle towards irrelevance, in the very same issue of The New Yorker we find a brilliant surrogate for the plotless, psychological profile that Krystal suggests is the domain of the literary writer.

David Grann’s profile of William Alexander Morgan (“The Yankee Commandante“) is exciting, with all the elements of an adventure tale. Except that Grann also presented actual, documentary information from the FBI, CIA, and various intelligence personnel assessing Morgan’s use to them. In other words, we actually have evaluations of Morgan’s psyche, or at least opinions from people whose livelihoods depend on making judgments about people.

My point here is that, with the wealth of historical and biographical works available, drawing on real events and the analyses of people of significance, do we really need self-congratulatory high-lit writers teaching us about the human condition? And even if we disagree with the authors of these biographies, isn’t it desirable that we focus on actual historical persona, where we can rely on documentary evidence and not the imagination of a fiction writer?

Let us move on from this idea of the genre versus the human condition (or, plot versus characterization.)

Now, I happen to agree that, for the most part, most published books are dreck; it isn’t that we need to elevate genre writing, but we simply must recognize that good writing can come from many sources. It is the same heavy handed message at the end of Ratatouille, when Anton Ego, Remi’s nemesis, recognizes that popularizing cookery does not elevate all cooks, but that it makes the ground fertile to nurture more talent from non-traditional sources.

This point is, I believe, at the essence of the Jodi Picoult criticism of the high-brow crowd. Popular writing might be awash in mediocre writing, but we shouldn’t be surprised when we do find excellent writing from genre authors.

Hence we arrive again to Krystal’s thesis. He points to a 20th century literary giants, for example Auden, who felt Raymond Chandler to be a high-calibre talent, despite slumming it. Krystal echoes this sentiment, which I find condescending. Why should we grade Chandler’s writing on a curve, judging him against his peers? If literary standards were actually objective, then one can simply judge all authors by some criteria for good writing.

Either Chandler is a good writer, or he isn’t.

I was left annoyed by Krystal’s piece, not because of his opinion, but in that he seems unwilling to follow the high-lit stance to its conclusions. Krystal identified both the type of novel and the writing style as paramount to be considered worthy literature. We must delve into the psychology of a character using highly stylized language.

I would argue, as do most high-brow writers and critics, that the beauty of language is paramount (naturally, we differ in specifics). Where we truly differ is the idea that plot and story must take a back seat to laying bare the psychology of protagonists.

I wanted to have my say, but Charlie Stross has made similar points on his blog, in better way.

Interestingly, he launched some salvos against the perception that science fiction can be defined by the presence of technobabble and spaceships. His point can be summed up by this quote:

In fact, those people who are doing the “big visionary ideas about the future” SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan’s wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don’t realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi’s brilliant “The Quantum Thief” — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That’s a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in “Schismatrix” (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He’s currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he’d need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

Can you imagine? He’s criticizing reviewers (but also readers) who ignore that another approach to high-brow fiction might actually be the depth of characterization of the context surrounding the actors in a story.

In the same way that high-lit authors seem intent on showing us that humans are complicated, one can imagine a writer describing complex interactions with technology, with societal changes, with ethical dilemmas in medicine, and so on. Just as people are not saints or demons, our relationship to our culture is not simple. That an author chooses to make prominent a battle scene before detailing the devastation of his hero’s psyche does not mean he has become a writer of war stories.

Clearly, most critics do already focus on language. Gary Shteyngart and David Foster Wallace are two examples. The blending of science fiction and absurdist elements into their shrewd commentary on society hasn’t hurt their acceptance. Onion skin ™ pants? Augmented Reality updates as to one’s consensus f***-ability? Paraplegic Canadian commando assassins? Ending a novel with a firefight? I think Super Sad True Love Story and Infinite Jest were actually enjoyable stories, in addition to being a showcase for the talents of the authors.

My problem with the so-called gatekeepers of literature is that they confuse their form with what they wish to achieve through fiction. Their form is the novel; what they wish to achieve is understanding of the human nature. Clearly, there are many paths to this understanding; biographies, long-arc histories, a study of society are some of the other means. Since a novelist is not a scholar, the burden of proof, as it were, is relaxed.

Instead, the means of demonstrating the human truth lies in the aesthetics and beauty of language, and perhaps bitter and disquieting ideas can be made palatable by a bit of storytelling, of entertaining. To assume that the whole enterprise can succeed only when we drain the pleasure from novels (like seeing interesting things happen to interesting people) seems to mistake the novel for a dry social science text. If that is their goal, then there is actually no point in fiction.

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3 comments
  1. I love this, because I think these things, too, but you wrote them so much better than I do. I’ve found that, the more I read non-fiction for adults and fiction for children and teens, I can’t abide a lot of fiction for adults because it’s so self-consciously highbrow and self-congratulatory (not that kids’ books can’t be that, either–The Phantom Tollbooth is a prime example). As a writer, I have to say that I have learned more about good technical skills, creative development, and sheer persistence from genre writers than I have from the highbrow types that publish once every 15 years. As a scholar, I think there is so much to be gleaned from works that focus on culture and humans’ interactions with it, as you mention. And as a plain old reader, then shit–I’m just tired of reading stuff that stinks of MFA workshops and is more concerned with appearing to be highbrow than actually saying anything interesting.

  2. Kenya said:

    I really like your blog! Is there anyway I can contact you about possible review titles. Please email me kenya(dot)walker@us(dot)penguingroup(dot)com

  3. JP said:

    Back when high brow book stores were still in vogue (before the days of Borders and Barnes and Noble), I would force myself to purchase a book from the literary section of the book store. For the life of me I tried to read these books, but only one ever stood out – Iron Weed by William Kennedy. Most of these works of fiction were pretenious, overly self conscious, and ultimately boring. It took a few years before I stopped this excercise of futility. One writer called these artists campus authors, as they generally wrote for a very narrow audience – mainly themselves.

    The days of the novel as an art form are over. The social realism of past decades are gone. Much of this can be blamed on political correctness. Writers today just don’t have the liberty to express realistic dramas and plots, let alone serve as society’s iconclasts. The last novel that did this was Bonfire of Vanities. Today, any potential Thackery or Dickens would be branded a cultural heretic. Additionally, most of the old societal norms have been demolished. And thankfully, much of the injustice that was the norm is also gone. The old themes of racial justice, civil rights, ethnic solidarity, and social striving are also gone. Nathanial Hawthorne’s world of New England Puritans and Calvinists are long gone. The enchanted world of Mark Twain’s Missiouri went the way of the steamboat; even the world of Harper Lee is gone in an age where inter-racial marriage is accepted. In its place, however, is a tapestry of anti-bourgeois ire, that when you come down to it is nothing more than vitriolic disgust of the “middle class”. To make matters even worse, most of our literary writers, whether they know it or not have become embourgiosie. They the lack that complex artisitic flair that has little regard for the comfortable life, social conventions, and making money. For too long we have used the examples of Hemingway, Mailer, and Roth. While I don’t in anyway think their writing poor, I do find that their viewpoints are narrow. The Artistic Left is all that is out there. This narrowness seems to have not only affected our would-be authors’ styles – but it also has narrowed their viewpoints. How many more novels can be written about the tribulations of gays, the suffocation of suburbian life, and the hypocrisy of the Middle Class? And to be truthful, wasn’t the hatred of the bourgoisie best illustrated in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

    That leaves us with genre writing. I think many call it escapists writing. As one friend once said to me, “I read to escape the world of family, obligations, and mortgages”. For him it was Stephen King and Peter Straub. I knew a very educated German woman who would only read Dean Koontz. When I asked why she doesn’t read Goethe or Kalfka she said that would be too much like going back to school. So, like television or movies, people today read not for social or intellectual edification, but to be entertained or to escape. My wife is the exception. She loves Jane Austin, Charles Dickens and George Elliot and reads them for entertainment. I asked why she never reads any contemporary writiers, and she said almost all are not worth reading. She doesn’t enjoy much of the genre style outside of historical fiction, and has little time for the “art farts”, as she calls them.

    There is nothing wrong with genre writing. And with the advent of the Internet things are even in more flux. Writers today are not slaves to the publishing industry. Yes, there is plenty of dross. Much more than we can imagine. But, it is also possible to be surprised every now and then. And what is more edifying than discovering by accident a good novel?

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