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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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08/02/2004

Comments

Scott McLemee

The problems you have with my article are (ahem) also problems I have with it. So it is very gratifying to find the objections spelled out, not just in a temperate and generous manner, but with a lot more lucidity than the writer of the piece could have mustered.

For what it's worth: The article is the by-product of, among other things, a longstanding preoccupation with Lukacs. (I knew better than to say that sort of thing in an editorial meeting, of course.) Lukacs would complain to the failure to distinguish sharply between realism and naturalism, so that's another problem.

Insofar as GL exercised any indirect influence on the piece, it was through his way of framing realism as not just one literary school or period among others, but something like the maximum fusion of aesthetic form and ethical substance possible in literary art.

Now, I don't actually accept that idea. At any rate, when faced with the demand implicit in the title of GL's essay "Thomas Mann or Franz Kafka?" my impulse is to want both. (A response typical of the late-capitalist consumer, maybe; but there it is.) Still, when a few people began pointing out to me the relative lack of interest in American literary realism as such -- and especially in work published much after the turn of the 20th century -- it had all kinds of resonance.

That gap seemed interesting enough to merit writing a short piece, and taking the risk of being denounced as a blockhead for not having gone into nuances worthy of a book. A case in point: There are probably folks ready to present long lists of stuff from the 1980s and 1990s that might seem to contradict the whole premise of the piece. But my reading of that material suggested that an awful lot of it used realist or naturalist texts as a starting point for more or less Foucauldian exercises in ideology-critique of a sort that could have been conducted, just as well, upon a medieval romance or a modernist lyric, or whatever.

So while reading this material, the subliminal voice of Lukacs kept going: "This ignores the specificity of realism as such." I chose not to dispute that. Arguing with disembodied Marxist theorists is always a temptation when you spend several hours a day in an office cubicle, but you'd be surprised how many funny looks it will get you.

Thanks for the notice, in any case. You really ought to do a book of these pieces. That you haven't been drafted into the role of literary columnist for some print journal is inexplicable.

Dan Green

Scott: Thank you for the clarifications. They're actually a very useful addendum/correction to the remarks I made in the post.

Kevin Holtsberry

I am way out of my league here, but I don't think I fully agree with you. I think that an artist can succeed consciously on both the aesthetic and the intellectual level. In other words, he can set out to use literary realism that transcends mere artifice and that provokes intellectual/spiritual insight not as a byproduct of realism but as an intended consequence.

In my mind great works of art do this by showing us human nature in a way that analytical prose cannot. One could attempt to write a philosophical/historical treatise on a topic but its very form would limit its access. Or one could form a fictional narrative that reveals these insights by the fictional portrayal or people and events.

Didn't Dickens achieve this is some ways? (I know this is not really your time frame but I have been reading about him lately) His characters and descriptions are the result of a unique gift for observation and mimicry but the novels speak to the structure of society in a larger way.

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Good stuff as always and ditto on the book/columnist thing.

Dan Green

I don't want to be misunderstood as saying realism can't be great art. In fact, I think I emphasized that truly "literary" realism is as aesthetically viable as anything else. Chekhov is a great writer. Dickens is a great writer, although in my opinion his greatness lies in other things than his use of realism--his novels are "social," but only secondarily.

One could indeed "form a fictional narrative that reveals these insights by the fictional portrayal of people and events," but if that is your first and ultimate purpose, I, for one, would call it something other than art. (Which isn't necessarily a criticism.)

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