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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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05/17/2005

Comments

amcorrea

"[W]hy would writers want to solicit the attention of people who are more interested in Wife Swap to begin with?"

Excellent question. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says, "People who read are not too lazy to flip on a television; they prefer books. I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place."

Michael Blowhard

Hey, thanks for the link, and fun comparing notes. Just to straighten one thing out that I probably wasn't clear enough about in my posting: I've got nothing against litfiction, let alone any kind of highbrow art. I love a lot of it myself and would never think of making a case against it.

On the other hand, it does occur to me to make a case for the more populist side of the equation. Story, character, subject matter and hook aren't nothing, and the critics, academics and intellectuals who neglect such elements are doing fiction in general (as well as readers) a disservice.

I do think that -- in a hypergeneral way -- an artform (in this case, on-the-page storytelling) that cuts itself off from its roots is taking a big chance of becoming completely irrelevant to everyone but its practitioners -- viz. contempo highbrow poetry. But if an artform (or many of its practitioners) wants to go ahead and take the chance, then god bless 'em.

Jeff VanderMeer

I really rather violently disagree with the idea that fiction should compete with other forms, like movies, etc. What's the point then? When I sit down to write, I sometimes consciously want to create something that could never be filmed, or if transformed into any other medium would be utterly unrecognizable from the original as a result.

The underlying subtext is that we want our imaginations to atrophy. Because that's one thing you have to do with good literature--meet the author half-way and do some of the work yourself.

Jeff

Michael Blowhard

Just to pitch in here for a sec ...

Annie Dillard's quote strikes me as an odd one. She talks about some group she calls "people who read" -- who, in her view, apparently ... I dunno, never watch TV or something. I'm sure there are some people who are like that, and maybe Annie Dillard in her own mind writes for them. Good for 'em all. On othe other hand: what's her point? Most of the readers I know watch some TV, subscribe to Netflix, listen to music, visit museums, flip through magazines, and surf the web. Why wouldn't they? Maybe Dillard means something more along the line of "book addicts"? Or "book-reading monomaniacs"? An interesting group, no doubt. But why refer to all non-monomaniacs as "non-readers"?

Jeff writes, "I really rather violently disagree with the idea that fiction should compete with other forms, like movies, etc." Two quick responses? 1) Is anyone saying anything about what fiction "should" do? And 2) Book-type fiction already does compete with many other forms. It's a fact you can choose to fixate on or ignore -- no harm in either. But it's still a fact.

Jeff also writes: "The underlying subtext is that we want our imaginations to atrophy." I'm not sure where that bit about the "subtext" comes from -- who'd try, even subtextually, to argue that our imaginations should atrophy? But a question for you? Do you find that your imagination atrophies when you read a good or effective piece of mainly-narrative fiction?

Jonathan

As far as I can tell, almost all fiction, whether low- high- or middlebrow, still relies on such things as "character" and "plot" and "subject matter." I'm racking my brain for the title of a novel without any characters in it! Even experimental fiction tends to use proper names attached to bundles of seemingly human characteristics and move these bundles forward in some kind of narrative. Isn't that the definition of fiction in the first place? So the argument is really about something else. I'm not sure what.

R. A. Rubin

Art is Entertaining. Bad art is for Pseudo-Academics.

Scott

I'd like to broaden the requirements for literature from "something that has interesting plots and characters" to "a narrative that is engaging."

Look at someone like Gilbert Sorrentino. His books eschew plot and character to a pretty large extent (I agree with Jonathan that you can't ever get 100% away from either and have it still be literature). Despite that, however, his books are still extremely engaging. They are addictive to read, keep my mind interesting and thinking.

I think that's what we really want out of books, that mental engagement. Plot and "real" characters are the 2 most common ways of doing that, but I think they're far from the only ways. Where I think a lot of highbrow art goes wrong if eschewing not plot or character, but that obligation to engage in some way.

Jonathan

I was actually thinking about Sorrentino in an earlier version of my comment above. Obviously he stilll uses characters and tells stories, though I'd say he is more interested in "character" than "plot." "Engagement," yes, but isn't that a rather nebulous concept? Anything that engages the interest of some reader might be termed "engaging."

Dan Green

"Most of the readers I know watch some TV, subscribe to Netflix, listen to music, visit museums, flip through magazines, and surf the web. Why wouldn't they? Maybe Dillard means something more along the line of "book addicts"? Or "book-reading monomaniacs"?

Dillard merely refers to those who prefer reading to television. Is this such a sin that it deserves mockery and derision? What harm do such people do? Couldn't we just leave them alone?

Michael Blowhard

Dan -- I'm not deriding Dillard or people who like books better than TV. (Tweaking, but not deriding.) I'm questioning her categories and definitions.

Here's Dillard's sentence: "People who read are not too lazy to flip on a television; they prefer books."

She's saying that "people who read" prefer books to television. Sez who? Dillard, I guess -- which means that Dillard's got a rather ... quirky idea of what it is to be a person-who-reads. There are lots of "people who read," and at least some of them like a lot of other activities too. Which means that they don't qualify as "people who read"? By whose lights?

Dillard's the one who's being exclusionary and put-downish. In her world, if you don't prefer books to TV, then you don't really measure up as a person-who-reads. So, sure, I think she deserves a little teasing for her snobbery. She's asking for it, really.

ed

I'd have to argue that "character" is just one of Sorrentino's concerns. Take a "novel" like MULLIGAN'S STEW. Remember that longass list of books and periodicals that the characters in the book-within-the-book find in the other room? Well, here's the question. Does it represent the consciousness of the characters as represented through the consciousness of the writer as represented through the consciousness of Sorrentino himself? And in writing down these details in a literary yet entertaining way, does Sorrentino not fly in the face of M. Blowhard's rather limited definition of what a novel is? The plotted narrative within MULLIGAN STEW keeps changing (and we get various bits of letters, notebook entries and other minutaie to pad this out). And the book certainly doesn't comport with any Platonic three-act structure (as envisioned by Blowhard and perhaps more suitable for films, a medium that we have all more or less accepted as being steeped in narrative and mass consumption).

However, I will agree with the Blowhard on Dillard. Turning on the television or reading a book is not an either/or situation, nor does it mean that the person experiencing media prefers one to the other.

Michael Blowhard

Ed -- I like Sorrentino too (or did, back in more avant-garde days), and I've got no interest in defining what a novel is. 'Way beyond me. My beef is with many litchat types, who I think have too little respect for the basics: narrative, character, subject matter, and hook.

amcorrea

Ok, I think you guys are getting a bit carried away. Dillard never says "only" and "always"--she said "prefer." It's overly simplistic to infer that she's discussing two classes of people (i.e., those who *only* read and those who *only* watch tv).

Anyhow, that tack misses the point of what she said, so here's the context (which I probably should've quoted in the first place):

"The printed word cannot compete with the movies on their ground, and should not. You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies' spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor. I cannot name what, in the text, alerts the reader to suspect the writer of mixed motives; I cannot specify which sentences, in several books, have caused me to read on with increasing dismay, and finally close the books because I smelled a rat. Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.

"Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature. It is a subtle thing--a poor thing, but our own. In my view, the more literary the book--the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep--the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have. If they want to see films that evening, they will find films. If they do not like to read, they will not. People who read are not too lazy to flip on a television; they prefer books. I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place."
~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Michael Blowhard

"Why would anyone read a book instead of watching big people move on a screen? Because a book can be literature ... The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have."

I think she digs herself in deeper. But maybe that's just me.

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