Literature


Our rental car is covered in dust and I’m savoring the inertia of sitting still after spending the day bouncing down washboard roads. The folks and I have been meandering around the scruffy bum of North America, Baja California, for the last week. My guidebook for the trip is John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, which dazzles, like most of Steinbeck’s books they don’t make you read in school. No matter which direction we head, Steinbeck went there first, and his honest, accurate prose doesn’t suffer for the near seventy years that separate his trip from ours.

It isn’t surprising that The Log from the Sea of Cortez is still insightful; Steinbeck was a good writer and places change slowly. But where I expected a travelogue, Steinbeck delivers a bawdy philosophy of science. Steinbeck is unimpressed with a bundle of results tied up neatly with explanations—“a world wrinkled with formaldehyde.” He writes science: exploration, dissection, discovery. Of course, lab scientists such as me always envy field workers. Unless I start synthesizing psychedelics, I won’t be taking any trips into unknown country anytime soon. But, when I publish, I will cling to The Log as my antidote to the desiccated style of “proper science.” Steinbeck had another hypothesis, that found favor with me: that the water at Cabo San Lucas was bad, and the crew should drink beer and coffee instead. In honour of that remark, I present the following recipe:

New Year’s Mojitos

Prepare a simple syrup by combining equal parts white sugar and water with several sprigs of mint, and heating gently while stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cool immediately. Chill a highball or other glass. While it chills, prepare a solution of 60 mL white rum and 30 mL of fresh lime juice. Add simple syrup until the mixture tastes neither sour nor sweet, about 15 mL. Add several sprigs of mint to the glass, followed by the solution. Muddle the mint. Add a slice of lime, then fill the glass with ice. Top off with soda water and stir a couple of times, but not too much or the mint will float to the top. Imbibe.

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So I was reading through the comment spam logs because it was that or doing the work I have to hand in tomorrow and I came across one which actually seemed to have a point behind it, and was not, in other words, a series of links to pornography.

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I finished reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics a few weeks ago, but wanted to let it simmer before I wrote anything about it. There are some books about which I rave while I read them. This overwhelming positive feeling will continue for a week or two after I have finished. The book then blends with the great mass of books, no longer special.

There are a few books that buck this trend, The Master and Margarita being an example. I wanted to see if Calamity Physics would loose a little of its luster when I had more time to think about it. Now, over a month later, I can only say, maybe. (more…)

A few points have been brought up in the last few posts I’d like to expand on. Sorry for the length, and any weird formatting issues. I’m still getting the hang of this “blogging” thing.

First off, Ian made some really good points about the short story, back in his original post on Artless. I agree: short stories tend to be depressingly similar, and in part due to their length. Charles Baxter has a great essay that I think everyone in the world should read, in his book Burning down the House. The essay is called “Against Epiphanies.” Ever since James Joyce, the model of the short story has been one where the main character has some “realization” that changes his/her perspective. Joyce handles these moments subtly and well, because he’s an amazing writer. But over time, our society has latched onto the idea that short stories should provide some “useful insight” that we can package away. Barbara Kingsolver — who, despite the home-town pride factor, in that she lived in Tucson, Arizona, for many years, I have increasingly grown to loathe — has an introduction to her edition of “Best American Short Stories” in which she says that after every short story she read, she summarized what she had “learned” from the story, in a sentence. If the point was somehow uninteresting, or something she already knew, i.e., “alcoholism destroys families,” she dismissed the story.

I have many problems with this approach. For starters, most “lessons” in life are obvious, and even the most uninteresting subject matter — alcoholism destroys lives! — can be made vivid and amazing by a talented writer. And, it implies that the job of literature is to “teach you a life lesson” which I disagree with. Even were it true that the job of literature was to grant you some insight into life (which it isn’t), life is stupid and complicated. Most “insights,” most “epiphanies” that we are granted with — as Charles Baxter neatly points out — are either obvious, or dead wrong. Life lessons can be both stunningly trite — love is hard! — and incredibly difficult to accurately comprehend and convey in a work of art. And, as Ian points out, the very shortness of the short story makes it tempting to flatten and compress observations into simplified, uninteresting forms.

This, I would argue, however, is precisely why long, messy novels are worthwhile. I just wrote what is arguably the world’s worst paper on Chekhov, but in the course of my research, I ran across the work of a theater critic whose work I’ve used before, Francis Fergusson. His point is that writers like Shakespeare use multiple plots — think of all the love plots from As You Like It, or the weird sub-plots of Hamlet — to reflect around a central theme. So, your play is about “love,” and instead of one love plot that stands in for your idea of what love is like, you have, say, five love plots. And each love plot has characters from different social classes, and each love plot is different. So the play operates, not because any one of the plots is so amazing, but by “a vast and intricate web of analogies.” The audience makes connections between the different plots. Each plot illuminates a different aspect of love. The author doesn’t necessarily have to make the analogies explicit — that’s often clunky — but the audience can make their own connections. It allows for a more complex and multi-faceted whole.

So, the length and scope of a novel allows for this. Rather than having a small set of characters, one of whom comes to some aw-shucks revelation, you can have multiple characters, lots of plots. Different aspects that may or not seem at first to fit together, but they all illuminate central concerns and preoccupations. My hesitation over the novella, is the same concern I have over the short story. That short, streamlined effect can be a little too easy, lend itself a little too much to easy, reductive reading, i.e., Gatsby = America! Not to pick on Gatsby, because I do admire the book. But I do think one reason for its popularity is that you can read it in that simple, reductive way. I’m all for books and plays that illuminate life’s messy, complicated reality. And for that reason, big novels have a much chance of succeeding, because there’s literally more room to include all sorts of things, and all of these things add another perspective, keep you from reducing the point down to deceptively easy revelation.

Of course, I feel like I’m running perilously close to the mimetic fallacy, that just because life is “big” and “messy,” that novels should be big and messy. And that’s not true. I have to disagree with Colin on that — he says, of Underworld: “It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point.” Well, if you grant that, then if you’re writing about something that is boring — someone’s dull life, or dull job — it follows that it’s okay for your writing to be boring. And if you’re writing about someone who is shallow, your writing should be shallow. And if you’re writing about something impossible to completely understand — like, um, life — your writing should be impossible to understand. And all that is clearly not true. You can write coherent, readable prose about something that is complicated and non-linear. I don’t have any sort of problem with literature imposing an artificial structure on its subject matter, as long as it’s done in a subtle, artful way that is illuminating of life’s complexity.

One last word, on the investment of time. Aren’t you commiting to invest your time anytime you pick up a book? During my brief, unglorious career in publishing, this was drilled into my head many a time. You are not selling the book as object, really — the money, in many ways, isn’t the issue. Books can be expensive, but lots of things are more expensive. What you’re selling is the investment of time — the knowledge that, when someone buys a book, they’re devoting hours, days, or weeks to it. And you have to convince the audience that the time will be well spent. That investment of time is part of why we love the books we love so much and also explains why we feel so vehemently about the books we hate — you seriously expected me to devote hours and hours of time to this crap? So it’s really hard to draw the line. What’s a reasonable investment of time? An hour? Two hours? It depends on your life, your schedule, your preferences. But, it’s also why, I would argue, that writers can’t just raise their middle fingers at their potential audiences. If you pick up a book, you’re agreeing to devote a certain amount of time to it, in a thoughtful, considered way. So I think the authors’ part of that contract is to ensure — within their own vision and power — that the time is well spent, and for that reason books that seem to deliberately not give a damn about their readers can be particularly aggravating.

So, I guess I agree and disagree with both of you. How unhelpful of me. I do think writers need to be respectful of the investment of time readers put in, but, I happen to think big, messy novels are the best, and to me the most enjoyable, use of that time.

On a broader scale, while I sympathize somewhat with Ian’s complaint, I don’t think it holds water as anything more than reader-response criticism.

I might consider that more biting, had it not been preceded by a paragraph of almost pure reader-response criticism. Sure, there is the veneer argument, that longer immersion improves the art. Still, the core of the paragraph is that you were swept away in the novel, as I was not. Fair enough. I never knew I had such lofty goals as to rise above reader response criticism, or that the response of the reader/listener/witness to an act of art had fallen so out of favor as to no longer be valid when expressed.

True, the artist does not have to consider me when they create art. If you want to think of modernism, or post-modernism, or some other movement, as freeing the artist so be it. Just as the artist is free, I am free to not like it.

This is all very interesting to me. I started out, over on my blog, thinking about how the novella was under used. I thought that I would write about the advantages that I thought it had, which were being passed up for other formats. That turned out to be a long post, so I decided to break it into three or four parts. Needing an example of a book that I thought did not justify its length, I poked Underworld. And here I find myself drawn into an argument about the book’s merit. I hated Underworld. I made that hate known. I had not realized that my disliking the book as a reader required some elaborate justification. I think it’s shit. It does not appeal to me. That might just be my reader-response, but it’s a strong one.

Still, while long novels, when sufficiently good, need no justification, I will take a moment to address some of what Colin brought up in his post.

Underworld is a beautiful book. It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point. With such a vast scope, it would be a tedious simplification to create a neat and tidy story line, or even twenty neat and tidy story lines. Forty-six years of American History do not distill peacefully, nor should they. If you want to narrate the postmodernization of American culture, an 800 page sensory assault is damned good way to go about it. To present such an event as shorter novel or a collection of affiliated short stories misses the point. Yes, reading Underworld is a huge demand on your time, but it cannot be anything else. The subject matter is completely interdependent. Each element of the novel illuminates each other element, and without all of the lights, you miss what’s happening. Individually, each character and story is a small, well crafted glimmer. When they’re crammed together, you see the explosion at hand.

No, 46 years does not distill peacefully. I wouldn’t expect it to. Why? Because 800 pages is a tiny frame in which to fit 46 years. Underworld can’t do it. Even with all the stuff thrown in, it can’t do it. 46 years of America is simply too vast. Additionally, if you are going to say that the novel depicts the postmodernization of American, I’d like you to tell me what you think that post modernism is. In trying to depict too much, I personally feel that he depicts nothing.

I also disagree that the subject matter is completely interdependent. The graffiti artist has no bearing on the man who watches the atomic bomb get dropped, unless you are willing to accept “they are all American” as a sufficient argument in considering them all interdependent. There are themes, true, but portions of the novel interact with some other portions and not with others. As such, I don’t think that large swaths of the novel illuminate each other any more than The Great Gatsby illuminates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In fact, despite being different books, those two illuminate each other more than some parts of Underworld illuminate other parts of Underworld. Why? Because they share thematic material.

Authorial arrogance is forgivable when the product is beautiful or powerful or profound. But to ask that a work of art be cropped down or reformatted to fit your schedule is the arrogance of a critic, far harder to defend than that of an author.

All I can say to this is that I think you have totally missed the point of what I was trying to say when I started talking about the novella. I don’t know that I expressed it as well as I had initially intended, but it’s too late for that. Listen, all writing is arrogance. Wait for part two. This is not about me, as a “Critic,” coming at Underworld. The original point I was trying to make on my blog is that if a reader likes or dislikes a novella, they will have less time to think on it than with a long novel. Part of why I hate Underworld so much, was that I had plenty of time to savor how much I was hating it, as someone was egging me on about how I should finish it.

But to bring it back to the point I am (slowly, oh so very slowly) posting about on my blog…

You say that by being so long it created an emotional landscape within you that interacts with your daily life. Has no piece of writing with a shorter duration had a similar effect? A work does not need to 800 pages to have that effect, thought some can be that long and have it. Why is this advantageous to the novella, instead of merely a neutral point for both novel and novella? That will be part two of my postings on the novella.

My apologies to the readers. Colin and I have been going around and around about Underworld for ages, and I should have just used some other long book, to avoid raising his hackles.