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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 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.

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I was talking to my sister in law about some gossip in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, when she stopped me and asked, rather sensibly, why I was reading him, when there are so many angles on how humans mediate their experience with food? And isn’t the whole book simply one man’s opinion? What worth does it have?  What could I have learned from the book? And finally, why him? I had the same thoughts while reading the book, and I think this line of questioning is a good outline for this essay.
Yes, there are more important topics about food that transcend the behind-the-scenes look at restaurants. For instance, can’t we talk about the (mis)management of fisheries, the shrinking variety of diet, the amount of land dedicated to sustaining our beef supply, the threat of monoculture to our future food supply, the use of transgenic crops, the class gap between nutritious food and fast food, the need to lower the amount of meat in our diet, the inability to mitigate starvation, the fact that subsistence farmers still have to make a choice between cash crops (poppy, tobacco, and coffee) and food crops, and the unequal distribution and cheapness of fresh water in the first world (and the scarcity thereof in developing nations).
Further, there are so many other more pressing issues, who cares if there are bad chefs and good chefs, whether food critiques and chefs trade favors for good reviews, and pornographic descriptions of food? This question, it seems to me, can be interpreted as, with so many pressing problems in the world, why is it that I am occupying my free time with entertainment, which, would include both high-brow and low-brow culture? This isn’t meant to be a slam; even as I was reading Medium Raw, I had thought the same. In the end, the book was a fun read, and I stuck with it. Simply, that was the pay off.
But the question is worth exploring. I suppose the answer I would have, in general, as to why I would spend time on any type of entertainment, whether it be  reading novels, watching movies, listening to music, going to concerts, or spending time with friends and family, is that experiencing something different may provide the mind with another type of agitation. When I seek out something different, I am hoping for chance opportunities to arise where new connections are formed between ideas where none had existed before. It’s also the same reason I would revisit something I did not like; I cannot assume that new ideas wouldn’t foment, or that it wouldn’t strike me in a new way. I don’t expect this to be an appealing answer for everybody, but it is my rationale for reading, essentially, trashy reading. Sure, I finished Medium Raw because it was fun, but I was certainly hoping to see some thing unique and perhaps an observation or two that alters some of the thoughts I already have connected in my head.
Yes, the book is one big opinion piece. However, it is clear that, whatever Bourdain’s experience or talents, he loves food and the people who prepare it. At his best, he provides observations about how kitchens work, providing actual details of things cooks do. He spends a chapter on career trajectories. He spends another chapter on a prep cook at Le Bernardin, responsible for turning whole fish into cuts that chefs can use. There is a fair amount of introspection about the nature of high-end food (there is a lot of waste; if the chef is honest, the high costs results from the throwing out less-than-perfect items.) There are some more observations about the types of local food available in Vietnam (it seems that’s his favorite food experience). He talks about some of the characters in NYC restaurants. He writes about food trends. He’s also realistic about the role and position food critics play in shaping public opinion; even someone of Eric Ripert’s stature, a 3-Michelin star chef, is aware of the need to play to this audience. Surprisingly, Bourdain and Ripert do not appear contemptuous or condescending and actually acknowledges that, to be successful today, one cannot reject them. In fact, it is a good thing to have a sophisticated audience who would buy this food. There’s even a nice chapter on the silliness of removing home economics when the focus should have been on forcing this education on both sexes. Instead, we are left with kids who can neither make sandwiches or balance a checkbook.
Bourdain is at his best when describing what he sees, how people do things, and what people have done. There are food porn aspects, like when he’s trying to give some vignettes of the places he’s visited and descriptions of how food tasted during his work with Food Network and Travel Channel shows.
Some annoying moments came when he twisted knives that he had stabbed in various people, way back in his other memoir, Kitchen Confidential. Kitchen Confidential was a tirade, here, he tries to reconcile his feelings and place his criticism in context. Surprisingly, this part didn’t  bother me so much. His take downs of Alice Waters and Alan Richman seemed cogent; mostly, he stuck with actions. He didn’t like what Waters and Richman did, and he let readers know it was. This point is worth mentioning because it was so… considered.
Look, of course what Bourdain thinks of either chef is pointless. He’s just trying to justify his feelings. I did like seeing him squirm, but on balance, if I lose it and decide take down someone, I hope I am level headed enough to stick to the facts. Bourdain could have done the opposite, simply running up a string of adjectives and insults. It is important to sort the statements he makes: Bourdain did juxtapose a series of actions that made a logical, coherent argument. This type of reasoning is distinct from simply calling names. I admired the way he wrote out the argument, even if I didn’t care for his conclusions. Despite these sections being too insular, I thought Bourdain spent a bit of time crafting his argument, which is all I  ask for.
It is worth noting that he tempered some harsh words was on the subject of vegetarians. This part rang hollow, if only because the following argument seemed so small given the insults he wrote in Kitchen Confidential. He argues here that  he gets annoyed at the way a vegetarian abroad would essentially be breaching etiquette and hospitality by refusing the standard fare of other cultures. In Kitchen Confidential, his rant was simply against an all-vegetables diet (and it was a string of adjectives and insults, not really a coherent argument). So it struck me as odd.
I think to sum up why I read Bourdain, and not someone like  Mark Ruhlman, is that I find Bourdain smart, funny, and a good writer. I enjoyed his take on food (I think Ruhlman, for example, is also smart and a good writer, but I didn’t take to his style. It was too serious and too sincere, lacking the joviality of Bourdain’s writing). Even if I didn’t care for some of the gossip, he engaged my interest. I am glad to read Bourdain because he has passion; he values food and the people who cook it. He wishes to treat their work as something worthy of meaning and deep consideration.
Why read a book of opinions and judgements? Well, Bourdain has an informed opinion about food. Finding out how he thinks is more important to me than his conclusion. This is the main reason I am blogging so much; I simply wish to write about the connections and thoughts I have, when I read. One way of teaching oneself is to explain something to others. Writing helps me organize my own opinions on something. My verdict of a book (whether it’s a thumbs up or thumbs down, whether it’s a “A” or an “F”) is besides the point. The thoughts evoked are much  more important. In much the same way, I wasn’t reading Bourdain to see which restaurants are worth making reservations for. He has the access to see experienced, well-respected professionals at work. He observes and reports, and by this, I gain a deeper appreciation for the art and craft. Yes, I do want to go to Le Bernardin, but only because Bourdain gave it a context that appealed to me.
There is also another point worth making: one doesn’t have to be immersed in a topic to write about it. It helps, but in the end, research, observation, and a sincere desire to learn and tell the story in a considered manner will carry one a long way.  The converse is that just because someone is an expert in the field, it does not necessarily make him the best person to write. Of course, I mean this in a fairly narrow way: chances are, that expert will be able to communicate to his colleagues. He may not have the skills to communicate to a different audience (that is, to laymen.) One could argue either way against Bourdain: he freely admits he could never cook as well as his friends (in terms of creating new dishes.) By his own admission he isn’t a Thomas Keller or Grant Aschatz, two leading lights of American cooking. But he has spent over 25 years cooking, so he isn’t someone who is merely enthusiastic about food. Depending on how one thinks of Bourdain, that’s a good thing or bad thing. I am writing here that I think this argument is irrelevant. The worth of Bourdain can be evaluated simply by the quality of his arguments. Good writing can come from anywhere.
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