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Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers:  Congratulations! The writing style is evocative of the best elliptical, modern writing! I would peg the book somewhere in between David Foster Wallace (and Roberto Bolano – loved Infinite Jest and 2666) and Don DeLillo (I didn’t care much for Underworld). Although the plot is generally of the implied variety – forward movement is achieved by simply having historical events sweep over characters – Ms. Kushner does animate her protagonist. She doesn’t simply reacts – but her plans and personality does change in response to what happens around her.

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I read a really engaging book from Alan Sepinwall: The Revolution Was Televised. I became aware of his work through Grantland, which mixes up culture and sports in a fantastically smart and enjoyable way. The book is an ode to the current “Golden Age” of of television, exemplified by shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, where viewers are essentially treated to a unified form of story telling, over years, and that broke the convention of simply resetting the table after the episode ends.

In other words, the Golden Age is synonymous with the novelisation of television.

I never cared much for movies or shows, mostly because I am enamored of depth. My issue with television and movies as a medium to convey important information is best summed up by the criticism of Neil Postman. Visual medium appeals to emotions readily. Memorable images lingers; narrated text does not. The speed of the medium also discourages single, static shots. I mean, the most ludicrous example I can think of are the edits made to dance shows, like So You Think You Can Dance. By definition, dance is movement, and yet we are still subjected to dramatic cuts – different angles, facial shots, and different zooms – as if the very moves in the dance are not sufficient to maintain our interest.

Visual media are geared for high-impact by engaging multiple senses, in the shortest amount of time. Even in seminars, the advice I’ve received all suggest reducing the amount of information in slides. This either means editing out all the secondary points, or, in a much more difficult way, condense the information. The former everyone should be able to do; the latter practically merits a course – Or at least this set of books (1, 2, 3, 4). Verbally, we keep to the point, refer to the point, and ideally, repeat the point using simple language.

Each form of communication has its strengths and weaknesses. Postman’s criticism of television is nuanced: supposedly similar forms of media (like a YouTube video of a seminar) may not be so similar (i.e. the “real” seminar). Hijacking one medium known for short form, highly dynamic images and aural stimulation (i.e. TV) to engage in long form discussions about government policy or presenting scholarly works may actually lead both to suffer.

In other words, Postman felt that the real problems arose when we try “translating” the medium to do other things. Postman enjoyed television: as entertainment. He worried about the misguided attempts to make TV good by simply having it broadcast educational material. In this sense, he felt fine with arguing that, quite possibly one of the worse development for television is the rise of PBS. This allowed people to mistake TV as a medium for all purposes – from entertainment to a learning forum.

I think the issue is even more nuanced than how Postman described it. I think he focused too much on how medium limits the audience, but ignored the adaptability of the viewer. For a start, the viewer can just select another medium. He can pick up a book. While TV (and movies, and music) implies a broadcast, with a single emitter but multiple receivers, we, as the audience, might become amenable to altering our expectations. It may be that, properly done, there is no such thing as too long (the trick is editing down to the proper length).

It wasn’t until I was moved to think about Sepinwall’s observation that I began to appreciate how different the current television landscape is from when Postman made his criticisms. Sepinwall points out that over the past 10 years, the audience and television writers have implicitly altered their viewership/producer pact. Instead of expecting things to reset week after week, with no overarching development of characters, the audience now is willing to accept more openness and lack of episodic resolution – in expectation of a payoff for the story. It is now de rigeur for shows to tackle big ideas, or at least have complicated plots, to make things interesting. As many writers have noted, what we saw in Breaking Bad is really a 13 hour miniseries, broken up into 1 hour bits. The seasons are really chapters in the story of Walter White.

By altering TV in this way, television can in fact invade the space occupied by writers: we can know what the characters are thinking.

The sea-change is that we get to know what they are thinking the same way that humans understand and empathize with one another: by inference of intent from word and deeds, a bit at a time. Isn’t the hourly appointment viewing almost like seeing a friend once a week and catching up?

The novel does not work like that. Its form is highly stylized, where the novelist needs to specify much more information to build the world-context so that she can put forth her true point. Gorgeous verbosity continues to appeal to me, but dramatic depth is no longer owned by novels.

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On Salon, Laura Miller writes about “What makes a book a classic“. The “problem” Ms. Miller describes is an old one, and is certainly not resolved in her essay: No one argues that there is such a thing as a classic, but issues arise when your classics do not match my classics.

I wish she spent a bit more time developing the throwaway comment that books may remain a classic even if a large minority (or perhaps even a majority) of readers do not like it. That, I think, sums up the disagreement between the popular sentiment (i.e. sales) and the critical and historical context that surrounds a book.

Recent, visible battles between Jonathan Franzen and the duo of Jennifer Egan and Jodi Picoult. Frankly, each camp has a point: good books need not imply a poor sales record, nor is every novel penned by a Brooklyn resident an instant classic.

I generally see arguments boil down to “sales should at least allow me to enter the conversation” and “proles are the worse judge of quality”.  Both arguments – and I wouldn’t even call them that – are bad, arrogant, and lacking sufficient humility.

The difficulty isn’t trashing something; it is much more difficult to defend an affirmative statement. What makes something good despite flaws? Why, despite the imperfections, should we continue nurturing an audience for that book?This is inherently an uphill battle, because the marginal effect of finding something bad in the good is greater than finding something good in the bad. This asymmetry in value perception comes about because in the former case, we start at what we term the summit and move away from it, with every flaw. In the latter approach, we are literally trying to bring something closer to “good”.

To actually write a compelling piece supporting the value of a good book means that we need to expend energy on salesmanship. Um… and no, a cluster of adjectives and superlatives does not cut it. I’m looking for detailed contextual arguments (how it relates to contemporary literature), how it extends and responds to previous works (i.e. the historical arguments), and, frankly, how well it reads. Sorry: this isn’t Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where, to hijack his satirical comment, every (“literary”) writer is above average. The understanding that, even if we gave it our best, some readers will simply not agree, and I will guarantee that their reasons will not be objective.

It is that element of salesmanship that must be borne by critics, authors and those who are forever trying to define a Hall of Fame for books. What? Muck around, perhaps even beg for attention, so that you can convince the unwashed masses why they ought to put down their JD Robb, Danielle Steele, James Patterson, and Robert Ludlum? Precisely. Because, as I keep pointing out, we aren’t a literary culture. We expend more energy reading about starlets entering rehab and not novels about our humanity, discussing the artistry in computer games and movies, and most distressing for the literary novelists – having our brilliant critics devote their time to wax eloquently about the prestige, televised “novels” than on the latest from authors who are on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Going back to Grantland, it is telling that they find the intersection of sports and culture to include movies, television, music and games. Sure, these guys are fantastic writers who love to read, but they talk about books peripherally, in support of their social commentary and critical efforts*.

*By the way: read this “mailbag” feature by Andy Greenwald at Grantland. One reader asks

During the first season of The Bridge, I devoured Charles Bowden’s Murder City (on your very astute recommendation) and so I was wondering what novel/work of nonfiction might pair well with the upcoming second season of The Americans? For context, I am about to begin Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, which I hope pairs well with True Detective. In the past, I barreled through the A Song of Ice and Fire series and two of Elmore Leonard’s Raylan novels for Game of Thrones and Justified, respectively, so I’m eager to hear your take on the issue of book/TV pairings.

To me, the question and Mr. Greenwald’s answer exude a healthy love and appreciation for print and other media. This is what I want my book culture to look like, integrated into readers’ lives and not set off in an increasingly distressed mansion on a hill.

Why am I harping on this? Grantland is bait for the coveted male, 18-42 demographic. Where they go, so goes the money. People like Franzen can continue to live in a bubble, pissing on people who dare to sell things and make money so they can support the cozy, insular culture of the dwindling number of editors, publishers and authors. Where is the value in literary novels about a family of assholes?

The literary authors’ competition isn’t the group of top-15 Amazon bestselling authors: their lot is competing with documentarians and longform article writers. What conceivable value is there in reading characters in invented, mundane problems passing for insight into the human condition? I’d rather focus on real people.

And Ms. Egan and Ms. Picoult don’t have to worry: they write books people enjoy reading. Even though I haven’t read them, how do I know? Because people keep buying their books despite the finger-wagging critics.

 

 

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.

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.

I came across a strange post from Lev Raphael, over at Huffingtonpost.com. He tried to correct something Jodi Picoult wrote in her dismissal of the New York Time book critics. Over Twitter and interviews, Picoult pointed out her feeling that the NYT critics are biased in whom they select for discussion. The most recent literary author deemed fit to print is Jonathan Franzen. [Picoult had also previously discussed this point with Jason Pinter and Jennifer Weiner at the Huffington Post .]

The controversy, such as it is, reflects the hardline stances and lack of nuance in media. It is a controversy made of nothing more than opinions that every side here is entitled to. Picoult admitted she never did a count of how often white, male writers from Brooklyn were reviewed and acclaimed. She was simply being snide. The NYT can publish on whomever they wish. And kibbitzers like Raphael and I can add our own bits.

The one tossaway line I wanted to focus on is Picoult’s line that book reviews ought to focus on popular literature, even more so than literary fiction.

The specific thing I wanted to write about is Raphael’s response to this statement. He noted that Jane Austen, for example, was not popular in her time. Readers gravitated to her and parted with money from their pocketbooks only after her death. Basically, Raphael was correcting the idea that Austen was “popular” during her life time.

I think Raphael misread this statement. Picoult wrote

… the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

Picoult’s point is much simpler. The authors did not separate the idea of worthy, meaty big-L literature from writing something that was a smooth read, snappy, and contained plot. That is, there was no distinction made between novels targeted for the critics and for the masses. I have felt that this idea is missing in modern literature. I had always assumed that what we call the classics (and generally I place the fracturing of a consensus canon to post-Hemingway literature) grew organically from fiction of  the times. That is, critics could only select on what was published, and frankly, our forebears were extremely focused on what sells.  This seemed a happy middle ground, where the novels were written to appeal to the masses. Critics rode shotgun over this process, trying to cultivate some sense of sophistication in how readers were to receive and understand literature.

As B.R. Myers has noted, though, there has been a change in attitude among modern writers, codified by the elevation of the serious, difficult fiction above works that are written for the masses. Nevermind who decides this to begin with. I find it disjointed that we now look askance at books that are entertaining, as if somehow it cheapens the linguistic fireworks and ideas that might be contained (and Franzen makes the same point.)

To be clear, I am not writing that authors – both modern and past –  never gave a thought to their legacy. Of course they did, but above all, they wrote books that people (eventually) wanted to read. Everything else follows from that. There was no separation of purpose: they wrote for the sale, and if they had ego and pride, they wrote to last.

Even when Jonathan Franzen first made headlines with The Corrections, I found the discussion rather pretentious. Apparently, everyone was focused on how he was one of the first to capture a slice of society, in all its messy complexity. My first reaction was, did Wharton, Thackeray and Tolstoy not accomplish something similar? Upon reading it, after rolling my eyes at the requisite number of disjointed paragraphs and awkward phrasing, I thought the best thing about The Corrections was that Franzen wrote about a family of assholes, but that each person was an asshole in his or her own way. I thought Franzen’s technical mastery was in his characters*, since writing in distinct voices is hard.

*For an example of a less successful instance, see Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (and just to be fair, the distinct voices may have suffered from translation, so I’ll spread the blame here to include Erdag Goknar, the translator.) My Turkish friend did feel the same way, although I need to ask if she read it in Turkish or the English translation. So Goknar may yet be taken off the hook!

The worse thing to happen to any field, let alone literature, is that things must be “difficult” to be worthwhile (and Franzen agrees!) The idea that modern physics is a mind-trip was mistakenly interpreted to mean presentation rather than the ideas being explained. Somehow, this type of thinking infected critics and writers alike. So we get difficult prose (something Myers expounded upon), obfuscating stories with barely a plot, poor character development, and less than imaginative ideas.

Using scientific papers, published in academic journal, is a poor method to show how difficult ideas can be conveyed simply. These papers  are short, and many scientists are poor in compressing complex information in a easily read manner. I would suggest anyone examine the books of Howard HughesRobert Sapolsky, Dave Berri, Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett, and Jared Diamond for examples of how complex ideas and details can be presented in a straight-forward way.  It bears repeating: the difficult reading in science has nothing to do with the writing but in the ideas themselves. Obfuscation is the enemy. To properly convey nuance and technically complex experiments, one needs to be extremely concise and clear so that others can focus on the data and conclusions.

To my mind, modern authors deemed to be of the literary type do the exact opposite. They dress up simple plots (boy meets girl, girl protects self, man-as-boy-then-grows up) in “difficult” language that a satirist would sooner write in that style than to write a mockery. There are only so many plots. What I would focus on is good writing and that kernel of observation that separates one book from another. I wish I were an editor or a book critic; as it stands, I read about 5 books every 2 weeks. Even reading so few books, I have a sense of what passes for good writing (Robert Bolano + translator: good; Don DeLillo: not so good). I can honestly say that although, there are books  I found “difficult” to get through, it wasn’t due to my lack of comprehension or inability to grasp metaphors. No,  I have read their language and found it wanting. So much so that I sometimes question the intellect of the writer.

Part of this disconnect I have with modern literature may stem from my wanting to write like Wharton and Thackeray. Modern authors like Mark Helpern also appeal to me. I much prefer to read a novel and not notice the language until the epiphany in the middle of the book, when I ask myself, how exactly did the author write this? Prose can be complex and difficult, but I have no problem following the authors’ thoughts. Of course, one can fail spectacularly in writing in this style: the writing would become so one dimensional that it leaves little room to the imagination. At this point, the novel would pass into the realm of an essay.

I admit that I am probably being a curmudgeon by my attitudes against modern writers and their scattershot writing style, hoping that words dropped onto a page somehow stick. Impressionism works as a visual art  form, not so much for prose (a point discussed in Myers’s book.)

I’ll just end by saying that, at its most basic, I object (and I echo Picoult here) to the divide that modern critics and so-called literary writers created in viewing mainstream books as a distinct creature from literary fiction. I much prefer to be surprised and awed by the writing in an entertaining book than to be disappointed by a “literary” novel that neither entertained nor stunned me with its language.

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