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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.

 

 

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I spent most of my reading time reading back issues of The New Yorker, accumulating on my Nook Color since January. I found a few gems:

  • a Jonathan Franzen piece (2/13/2012 – 2/20/2012) on Edith Wharton’s “Big 3” novels,
  • a Jonah Lehrer essay (3/5/2012) on the mathematics of altruism,
  • an Adam Gopnik discussion (4/3/2012) of the philosophy of Albert Camus.
  • Ken Auletta (4/30/2012) on how Stanford University resembles a tech incubator more than a school.

I read Franzen’s The Corrections; I never thought much of it. He represents the best of the worst kind of modern fiction, confusing the ubiquity of the mundane with significant insight into a common human condition. I think Franzen wasted his talents; it accounts for something to have developed five unique personalities, each one an asshole, but each in his or her own way. His piece on Edith Wharton brings a sensitivity to literary nuance, a deep reading, and historical context to an overview of her works and their significance. In short, I really liked his essay; it felt like I learned something.*

Franzen makes a connection among Wharton’s great novels, The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, drawing attention to how Wharton maintains our interest in the novels is that she draws upon our capacity for sympathy. Ironically, Wharton herself, and, her protagonists, as Franzen reads it, are not sympathetic characters.

When asked, I cite Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Age of Innocence as my favorite novels. The former is somewhat stereotypical for a person of my background: I am a scientist, I like mathematical modeling and games, I enjoy programming, I actually like reading and writing about science and math, and I greatly admire feats of mega and micro-engineering.

Usually, I relegate things emotional to the sphere of other – that is, our Weltanschauung (philosophical, mystical, and religious perceptions and so-called human truths), to my mind, clearly belong in the realm of non-science, opinion, and meaning. As I had written, I believe this not to be a slight; it’s just that how we engage with empirical, materialistic Truth is every bit, and perhaps more important, than what that Truth may be. That I think so highly of The Age of Innocence is due to the fact that its theme, with a big pay off near the end, exemplifies the very best of this fuzzy, but rich and vibrant, realm.

I would not have characterized The Age of Innocence as a work that draws on our capacity to identify; the plot is simply of love requited but unconsummated. I can see how the reader might be drawn in, rooting for the eventual uniting of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenski. Regardless of how one might see Archer, I argue that he is the prototype of Don Draper of Mad Men. Archer is dissatisfied with his life and although he does not transgress the oath of marriage, he has, in an emotional sense, already left his wife for another woman. Don Draper is simply the apotheosis of this; a man who indulges in his every desire. Archer is a percursor of this, very much embedded in the social forms of his time. His emotional conflict can be viewed as tragic or shameless.

What I find most compelling about The Age of Innocence, and it is the thought and feeling that comes back to me time and time again, despite having read it many years ago, is that in the end, we find out that Archer’s wife, May, knew and even appreciates him for having stood by her and building a life together. In other words, she understood his sacrifice. Her reaction is rather traditional – and fantastical in our modern world – that she is so forgiving and actually thanks him for what can only be described as the only proper course of action.

No, the thing that I find unforgettable is that Archer’s wife knew. She understood him as much as one human being can of another. She sympathized with her husband, knew him fully and deeply. To be fair, I think that she might have appreciated that Archer did not cause a scandal or rupture her standing in their community – she is fully a creature of Gilded Age high-society. That is a recurrent theme in Wharton’s novels; the rich have customs and formalities that must be attended to. Her protagonists all try to enter that society or to make a life within it. Regardless, in essence, May’s understanding captures fully what novels should do for us; it gives us an opportunity to appreciate the mind and soul of another.

I remember feeling rather ambivalent about the novel until that scene. Part of it is because Archer’s behavior is atrocious. If he did not have the courage to buck against the pressure of making an approved match for his peer group, it can only be seen as cowardly for him to become an adulterer.  That is, he would be having it both ways; conforming to the customs and also satisfying his desires. Seeing the novel as a romance (between Archer and the Countess) seems to pervert that very ideal.

Instead, the would-be adulterers remained platonic – barely, and only after May decided she needed to defend her hearth. There is something to be said about not committing a physical sin and executing the oath one takes. It thus surprised me to find that the ending was so cathartic; I felt relieved and elated that May realized all of this. I hate to say it, but I did think that it would have been a waste if all this remained in Archer’s and Olenski’s heads. Having May realize helped the novel transcend its tawdriness. It became a tale of sacrifice, such as passed for it in New York high society.

*My reaction to it reminds me of another writer, whose fiction I did not care for: Margaret Atwood. I had written, about The Handmaid’s Tale:

I didn’t have a problem with this book, and then I did. The language is stilted, simplistic, and monosyllabic in this book, and at first, I thought that was great. The protagonist is a woman who is kept down, and the main tool is the withdrawal of education. I had actually thought the language reflected the mind of the handmaid. Then I thumbed through another Atwood book and to my chagrin, she wrote in that same stilted voice, and I revised my feelings for this book.

I had neglected to mention that I felt her tale to be overwrought, excessive, and without nuance. It is as if her talents were better spent on expository works and not novels. My opinion received some validation when I encountered her essay in Seeing Further, a retrospective and appreciation of the Royal Society. Her essay had the same quality as Franzen’s; erudite, nuanced, funny, and sharp. After this essay, I wound up reading Oryx and Crake. Despite the obvious nature of the cautionary tale against abuse of science and the concentration of power, I felt that the ending was haunting and the prose lively. 

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