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04/01/2008

Comments

Daniel

Haha Why are these comments philistine? They aren't debasing the complexity they're just arguing that it's the reason people have a hard time reading "literature." There are plenty of complicated poets out there getting published and widely reviewed: CD Wright, John Ashberry, Geoffrey Hill.

Love the outrage though.

AC

Niffenegger's comment reminds me of something a professor of mine recently said, to the effect of, "In its afterlife, modernism has become the straw man everyone loves to throw rocks at." "Modernism" is still synonymous with "big, bad, pretentious monolith," and without it everyone would love literature as in the days of yore. That puts an awfully large burden not only on the modern period, but also on what came before -- by some logic, pre-modern = literary utopia. You would think that contemporary figures could at least come up with NEW complaints about the state of literature. Or, god forbid, write literature rather than bemoan its unpopularity. (Oops, there's the beast again - "make it new").

Steven W. Beattie

I think that Wiman and Niffenegger have a point, although singling out modernism (or high modernists) as the culprits doesn't seem entirely proper. (Having said that, I've never been able to get through Finnegans Wake, and I suspect I'm not alone in this.) There's a difference, in my mind, between writing challenging fiction and abandoning your audience. The former treats the reader as an intelligent receptor of innovative ideas and styles, while the latter retreats into a kind of empty solipsism and literary wankery. There are quite a few "difficult" writers working today -- David Foster Wallace, Ali Smith, Jose Saramago, Haruki Murakami -- who have not forgotten to keep their audiences in mind, even in the midst of their formal and linguistic innovations.

Dan Green

"They aren't debasing the complexity"

If they aren't, I don't know what such "debasing" would consist of.

"There's a difference, in my mind, between writing challenging fiction and abandoning your audience."

This assumes a writer (or writers) who once had an audience and decided to, for whatever reason, abandon it. Which writers would these be?

Steven W. Beattie

Which writers would these be? Well, Joyce for one, with Finnegans Wake. However, I'm not suggesting that certain writers sit down with the conscious intent to abandon an audience that they once had. I am suggesting that certain writers -- David Markson comes to mind, as does the William H. Gass of The Tunnel (a book you admire, Dan, if I remember correctly), and the Douglas Coupland of JPod -- appear to be more interested in pleasing themselves than in reaching a reader on any kind of level: stylistic, character, story, what have you. To me, these works resemble literary in-jokes, but, like all in-jokes, they're not particularly interesting to anyone left on the outside.

And I reject the argument that I dislike this kind of writing because I'm afraid of "difficult" books, or because I'm unwilling to make the effort to "get" them. I greatly admire stylistically challenging novels such as Beautiful Losers, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, and The Accidental, to name just a few. But, in each of those cases, there seems to be more going on than mere authorial onanism.

That's what I mean about abandoning an audience. I'm well aware of Flannery O'Connor's dictum that the author is only free once he's able to tell the reader to go jump in the lake, however, having told the reader that, the author can't then cry foul when the reader looks for pleasure or enlightenment somewhere else.

Dan Green

"I am suggesting that certain writers. . .appear to be more interested in pleasing themselves than in reaching a reader on any kind of level"

I like the implication that because such books aren't pleasing to you--or to whatever entity you associate with "a reader"--they aren't pleasing to anyone. Both Gass and Markson have provided me with much pleasure, on all the levels you mention, and I know many other "readers" who would say the same. It's true that neither writer has a huge audience, but they never really went after a huge audience. They instead wanted to please both themselves and any other readers who might take pleasure in the kinds of books they write. Why is this a problem sufficient that the likes of Audrey Niffenegger want to blame national illiteracy on them?

Steven W. Beattie

Point taken, Dan, and I do think that Niffenegger's comment was overly broad. However, I still have some sympathy with the spirit of her comments, and specifically with Wiman's assertion that "writers have to be aware of an audience." Presumably every writer writes for someone other than that writer -- otherwise they're not engaging in literature, but literary masturbation. Literature presupposes a writer AND a reader; literature exists in the interstices between these two entities.

I should be clear that when I say that Gass, Markson, et al. "appear to be more interested in pleasing themselves" I mean (of course) "appear *to me*," since this is the only perspective I have to speak from. I don't deny the pleasure that these authors hold for any number of readers who don't share my sensibilities, and, as you say, they never really went after a mass audience in the first place.

Not wanting to put words in Wiman's or Niffenegger's mouths, but the way I read their comments all they are saying is that writers can't decide not to pursue a mass audience and then turn around and complain that too few people are reading them. (Not that Gass or Markson is guilty of this, but you get my point.) Being aware of an audience also means being aware of the ways a writer's decisions will either expand or limit that audience.

Dan Green

Steven: I take your point as well, although I have to say I found it a little surprising to see you making it, specifically because your recent review of Mark Anthony Jarman, who sounds like a postmodernist to me, prompted me to go to Amazon and buy one of his books to see if he is indeed "an author who is positively word-drunk, delighting in twisting language into bizarre shapes, pushing and straining to test its resilience and its torque." Sounds a little like Finnegans Wake.

Steven Augustine

Christ. Even the simplest "adult" literary fiction requires a degree of extended, solitary, intellectual activity that the modern consumer-boob-drone is being encouraged to avoid with all the firepower that can possibly be mustered.

It has zero to do with "modernism", post- or pre-. What a patriotically self-serving and Dale Peck-ish alibi. The simple fact is that genuinely literate readers are a dying elite who want powerful literary experiences, not simple-minded escapism; the audience for the TV-grade, narrative-stereotyped, time-killing book has dwindled simply because the genre is redundant: TV, movies, games, et al, are better at providing the loud bangs, buckets of blood, giant breasts and cathartic simulacra of emotion the people want after a long, hard day in the meta-mines.

Be interesting to see some figures on the number of books that are bought due to clever marketing or Oprah's much-vaunted intervention, but that are never actually finished or even opened... or purchased expressly as props. I suspect the picture is even bleaker than admitted.

Steven Augustine

BTW:

"There was a shift away from narrative..."

Let's put a stop to this nonsense, once and for all. *Every* text is a "narrative". Even a text of ten pages of descriptions of *rocks* or *snails* is a "narrative", if only in the sense that it's telling the story of what it is to be a particular text of descriptions of rocks or snails; every idea or object as presented in a text is an event and a continuum of at least one event as presented in a text is a *narrative*. What critics bemoan when they bemoan the absence of "narrative" is the absence of *familiar* narrative. For the most part, they want a graspable re-working of "Cinderella" with the sexual elements of "The Three Bears" thrown in (larf).

Sebald's "Austerlitz", for example, may have struck the average lazy critic as an anti-narrative but the thing was *brimming* with narrative; ditto Nicholson Baker's "Room Temperature" or even bloody "Finnegans Wake," which boasts a plot so intensely layered that Joyce needed a geometer's set to diagram it. Not that I'm singing the praises of "Finnegans Wake," but it's problematic in ways that have nothing to do with an absence of "narrative".

Luther Blissett

Steven:

How about "a shift away from narratives about anything anyone gives a shit about"?

The notion that readers want to read about the minutiae of their daily lives (or body functions) is about as convincing as the notion that teenagers only want to read about the minutiae of teenagers' daily lives.

And did anyone actually claim that *Austerlitz* was anti-narrative? By the halfway point, it's pretty much a traditional mystery tale. The first half might appear meandering or non-narrative, but we soon realize that all the "random" events are tied to the A's traumatic obsessions.

Dan Green

Luther: I assume you dislike Ulysses and all of its minutiae? Or Mrs. Dalloway? Or The Recognitions? Or, for that matter, On the Road?

No Answers

There's a lack of clarity somewhere here, and I think it's this -- that writers "turned completely away from the audience." Which audience, exactly? *His* audience? *An* audience? The presumed audience for a specific book? Does an audience even require actual human membership in order to remain one?

In the comments that follow, we seem to have accepted that the statement "writers turned away" is a proposition concerning the particular kind of audience *we* have in mind -- which I think is why there's so much room for disagreement -- a disagreement we perhaps unfairly attribute to the obligations of reader and writer with respect to one another.

On the one hand, it seems a reasonable assumption that a writer should try to make himself understood, and this is only possible if he first makes himself understandable; on the other, it's also fair that a reader shouldn't necessarily have to justify his resistance to work that for whatever reason, including intellectual difficulty, he doesn't enjoy. These are separate propositions, unless we agree there's a common reader here ...

Luther Blissett

Dan: I'm a big fan of Woolf and Joyce (not so much of Kerouac). But you have to remember that the people who participate on literature blogs are, well, still reading plenty of literature.

I don't believe there's a crisis in reading. It seems to me that, over the past 150 years, new forms of mass entertainment have arisen that have competed with popular (or classic) fiction. The people who once followed Dickens in a magazine are probably more likely to have been wooed by film, radio, TV, and so on. The kids who used to read adventure novels now play narrative video games.

Along with that change has come a reaction in literature toward niche audiences and specialized styles. Novelists were freed up to write about the minutiae of daily life because the sort of readers who still read were dedicated followers of taste, distinction, newness, and so on. I love Proust, but I can understand why most people would not enjoy those works. No one reads Proust because they care about the characters or because they want to know what happens next. And those are the traits that appeal to broad audiences. (Which is why Toni Morrison or Philip Roth, both fine writers, still have a fairly wide audience.)

Poetry is another matter entirely. Even readable poetry these days fails to convey powerful emotions or significant experiences. I mean, who cares about Billy Collins or Charles Wright sitting in their backyards, sipping sweet tea, and thinking about mortality? (I care about Wright, but again, I still read!) I think about my grandfather, who read some poetry, but read poetry about huge loves, about God, about swooning over Nature, about heroes and war. He wouldn't have cared about the "I was driving and saw a baby deer and I thought about Jesus and isn't that ironic?" poem.

jonathan

Collins and Mary Oliver are hugely popular, as poets go, so somebody cares about their poetry. I don't think either is a very good poet, though. You can get a bigger audience by pandering to a certain type of audience.

Brian

I love this posting! It's true, poetry is not read as widely as, say, it was 200 years ago, but this may just be the natural consequence of a wider movement away from the form that's been taking place since before the romantic era: the novel has risen as a force, gained legitimacy as an art form (and since been replaced by pulp). But what makes us think that readers didn't have to put in the "work" in the periods that preceded modernism? Is Paradise Lost an easy read? Does Ben Johnson avoid language's headier pleasures in Vulpine? True, Joyce can be a difficult read--he requires a lot of his readers--but no more than many of the poets and writers that preceded him. If the readers who site literature's difficulties as a deterrent would have lived in other eras, they would have complained about the opaque nature of their contemporaries as well.

Movies aren't pulling readers away from literature. A few hours of mindless entertainment can't possibly be what's arrogating all of the time readers used to spend flipping through books. Television is the real culprit. If you watch 4 hours of television at the end of everyday, when will you have time to read?

jonathan

What poet of 1808 sold more than 1000 copies? I think it's ridiculous to make these comparisons without actual empirical data.

Amateur Reader

The first edition of "English Bards and Scotch Reviewers" (1809) was a run of 1,000 copies, and it went into multiple editions (see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=81299). So there's one, Lord Byron. Walter Scott is certainly another.

"Faust, Pt. I" is from 1808. I don't know it for a fact, but I bet that sold more than 1,000 copies.

Wordsworth's "Poems in Two Volumes" is from 1807. By 1808, Colerdge and George Crabbe were both fairly popular.

Steven Augustine

Brian:

"If the readers who site literature's difficulties as a deterrent would have lived in other eras, they would have complained about the opaque nature of their contemporaries as well."

Exactly. There were more functional illiterates "back then", but the people who were literate at all were *far* more well-read, and competent in their reading, than any random sample from an equivalent demographic today. Education-for-its-own-sake was held as a premium value. Now it's considered an elitist pretension. Cut to: that sinister chimp in the White House, whooping it up.

My grandmother, a "mere" housewife (with seven children to raise), kept a four-bookcase library of her own and wrote book reviews, for pocket money, for local papers. I first saw books by Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Chaim Potok, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Saul Bellow, et al, on her (out-of-reach) shelves before I had the foggiest notion who these writers were. She was a lower-middle-class woman with a smidgen of college, a tight schedule and no "practical" use for her knowledge... which didn't stop her from acquiring more of it.

In lieu of a crass orgy of material consumption and massmedia distractions, she had *books* to enrich her life, and these kept her sane and witty until the end (in her 90s).

"Television is the real culprit. If you watch 4 hours of television at the end of everyday, when will you have time to read?"

Irrefutable. Which won't stop anyone from trying to refute it.

It's that wonderful old boiling-a-frog analogy. Mistuh Kermit, he daid.

jonathan

Yes, there were poets who sold 1000 or more, but the equivalent poets today would sell 50,000. Of course, there are more English speakers today than 200 years ago in the world. I just don't know how to judge one epoch against another in a meaningful way. By sheer size of print runs poetry is more popular today than ever. Maybe the percentage of the literate population who reads is less than at other times, but we have a higher literacy rate, etc...

And if you're reading Billy Collins, should that count as poetry at all? Aren't there value judgments involved too?

marlyat2


“Indeed, the farther back into the tradition of English-language lyric poetry they go, these students tend to find older, more ostensibly conventional (and thus more formally recognizable) poems less engaging.”

My observation is that there is nothing “formally recognizable” or conventional at all about “older … poems” for your average students. They have gone through our public school system, occasionally writing some prose broken into fragments that they call poetry in order to complete an assignment, usually a portfolio of poems. Usually they have been assigned poetry to read that is not radically different from their own.

Ian

Does he really mean writers turned away from an audience or they turned away from the market? Or the market turned away from them? One of my friends who sells real estate advised me to research what's selling and then write a similar book. This marketing formulation would transform me, presto, into a "successful" writer.

In my own work, most of the time I'm looking to get off the one good line that pleases -- me. If you and 10,000 of your friends likes it, too, well that's nice. But I don't know you and I don't know who are you so I can't really know what you want me to write about so that you'll buy my books and then read me.

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