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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.

There is a study, published on Aug. 10, in the British Medical Journal examining whether the articles published online, with comments, elicited any responses from the authors. There is a thoughtful blog post from The Scholarly Kitchen about this study. Article authors generally didn’t respond to critics, even if the critics were serious and wrote substantively on the matter. Interestingly, when the authors did respond, the critics were satisfied responses less than half the time. The editors of the journal generally accepted the authors’ rebuttal, and of course, it should be said that they did accept the manuscripts for publication.

The lead author of the BMJ study, Peter Gøtzsche, suggested that  the editors 1) may not be qualified enough to review the criticisms and and rebuttal and 2) have a vested interest in maintaining the reputation of the journal (i.e. defend the stance that the science they accept is high-quality.) I have this additional snarky observation. The critics may be especially unreceptive to the authors’ original paper and rebuttal because the original criticism stemmed from contradictions with the critics’ own work.

Just a thought.

I have a few other thoughts, and I would argue that we not judge the editors too harshly for, perhaps, mistakenly accepting “bad” science or perhaps not understanding the nature of the criticisms. There are actually acceptable reasons as to why some controversial papers get published.I have some insight into the editorial process; no juicy gossip or behind-the-scenes look at nefarious machinations, mind you.

I had applied to a scientific editor position at Neuron almost 2 years ago. There were two open positions and I came in, at most, “third” (and dammit, it was my dream job!) For the first stage in the application process, I had to review 2 papers from 7 categories, published in Neuron over year prior to the application deadline. I was to choose an example of a good paper and a weak paper (from the set of already peer-reviewed and published articles). I was also supposed to write about the neuroscience field, identifying authors whom I would invite to write a review (and I had to specify the topic) and where the next big thing will be (and who the leading lights are.) It was great fun to write, although I left myself only a week to do it (and of course I was working in the lab all that time.)

But I digress. Of the 7 fields, I can honestly say that I am an expert in, at most, 2 of the fields. And even then, that’s a stretch, because the fields were more general than a particular sensory system (I worked in olfaction) or even a technique (quantitative microscopy, epifluorescence and 2-photon laser microscopy). As one might guess, and as found out later, this is the norm for the editors there. The editors all have different backgrounds and at Neuron, and no one is asked to specialize. So every editor will be asked to triage manuscripts outside of their expertise and background. Presumably, this has the advantage of ensuring that editors remain aware of developments over a wide swathe of neuroscience.

I can’t say about other journals, but at Neuron, the editors have final acceptance/rejection authority. They decide whether the article is sent for review in the first place. Using the peer review, they of course defer to the expertise of the reviewers, but the editors’ job here is to be a disinterested party in unknotting the various interests reviewers and authors have. But the decision to accept a manuscript for publication is also determined by this amorphous concept of making a significant advance in the field.

There are several ways of looking at this: perhaps the researchers themselves ought to understand where their field is going and so are the best placed to assess where the cutting edge research is, or that that researchers have a vested interested to “sell” their research as hot – regardless of actual scientific worth, or that the editors are in no way prepared to decide on what constitutes a significant advance – as they no longer have direct experience with the difficulties and intractabilities of various experiments and models, or that the editors are in fact best placed to see what is a significant advance – by virtue of seeing so many good and bad manuscripts with overlapping topics from various competing scientists.

I am inclined to go with the fourth idea, that good editors can observe developing trends from manuscript submissions. And if you look over a year’s worth of articles, from one journal, I also could see blocks of papers with similar topics (or at least similar keywords.)

I think the stewardship/peer-review system works, although I am not opposed to the more open style of publication like the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals. These latter focus more on technical soundness; the reviewers try to make sure that the experiments support the conclusions, as is the norm. However, no editors are in place to reject papers because of a lack of perceived significance. The idea is that scientists will eventually cite this paper heavily – or ignore it – depending on its actual value; it is assumed that the cream will float. Again, I have nothing against these different modes of publishing.

During my interview with Neuron’s scientific editors, we discussed our reasons for wanting to become editors and problems that may arise during the adjustment phase. One potential downside is that no longer will an editor be recognized as an authority on any subject, and rightly so. The editors would no longer be in the trenches, won’t be adding any new techniques to his repertoire. However, I defended the idea that editors simply replaced one expertise with another. As I said above, a good editor becomes an expert in spotting over-populated and under-served topics. And the nature of the beast is that they would in fact see many, many similar manuscripts. They have the luxury of establishing a baseline level of quality and significance.

Well, I didn’t get the job, but I remain sympathetic to their roles. I think there is a need for the so-called gate-keeper role. The fact that someone took the time to place a science manuscript in the context of all the work that has recently been done lends an imprimatur of worth. Of course editors do not get it right all the time. But one can at least count on Neuron, or Nature, or Science, or Journal of Neuroscience publishing papers that presumably compared favorably to some cohort of papers. That takes judgment, and the editors read the manuscripts that you may not have time for.

My point here is that editors can misjudge the value of a piece of science, but that is no reason to think they add nothing of value. They do not necessarily have to defend their choices, at least not at the level of single papers. Remember, just as the editors themselves may have idiosyncrasies, so do the readers that read the articles. The scientists themselves also have different intellectual sharpness, shall we say. But, over time, if editors do consistently “get it wrong”, then it would in fact be obvious. The room for subjective assessments of value can only go so far. Techniques converge at some point, even if the systems scientists work on differ. Each experiment generates a control for comparison, anyone wishing to extend work generally tries to reproduce results – to show that they are doing something right, and the level of citations are all spot checks for the soundness of the science. At some point, missing experiments or graphs, other scientists complaining about articles whose results cannot be replicated, or few citations become problematic for a journal trying to maintain its luster. And the scientists themselves can start to ignore the offending journal by submitting to competing journals.

But, at its most basic, one wouldn’t expect an editor to be aware of the details raised by critics. Simply, the details are probably only important to the investigators and deal with “procedural points” (as an example, do you really care that an animal “sniffs” rapidly not to gather more odor molecules to increase signal-to-noise but rather to attenuate background smells – in order to increase signal-to-noise? Or that this is something imposed by behavioral modulation rather than centrifugal modulation of the olfactory bulb? See Verhagen et al, 2007.)   I guess it is fair to say that editors are “big picture” people. With that said, perhaps there is some way the editors can facilitate the discourse that occurs in the comments-sections that are now de rigeur.

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