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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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07/01/2008

Comments

E K

The conundrum is not with novels; it is another problem altogether. Any middlebrow/lowbrow novel (think all that Janet Evanovich or Dean Koontz dreck, or, shiver, worse) is a glorified television show in written form. It should not be. The written word is best reserved for that which is more than just something to pass the time.

What they’re basically buying into is that since they are reading a physical book it somehow has more prestige than the moving picture when in fact the [i]tome[/i] in their hands is a television show gussied up with a hard cover to make people feel better about their habits. But it doesn’t ameliorate that a fraction. I can see the same rubbish inside those books on any major network at any time of day with much less effort, just a few buttons pressed on my clicker is all it takes, same themes, characters, you name it (sidenote, I am crazy about some shows: Dexter, Californication, Curb Your Enthusiasm). And yes, it is criticism on their lifestyle choices, but to think it’s any more than what I just claimed is delusional, a fallacy. Dressed up refuse still smells like refuse.

LML

When serious readers give up on Joyce, Pynchon, and Gaddis, I don't think resentment of complexity and difficulty is necessarily the main factor. Each of these writers severely test readers who do not expect easy enjoyment or political validation from their books. For me, and for other readers I respect, the question is one of the illumination : difficulty ratio of a book. When writers go wrong in this regard, it tends to be their weaknesses, not their strengths, that put good readers off.

For example, The Recognitions becomes a slog not because it is formally daring (it's not, really) or linguistically challenging (there is one chapter of batshit Joyce-like free association, as I recall, but otherwise the prose, while dense, is not trying to reinvent the English language) or politically problematic (though it is fairly contemptuous of mid-century urban liberals) but because Gaddis works out the same ideas (regarding forgery and true art) over and over without always revealing them in new facets.

I think that the illumination : difficulty ratio is a functional one in Ulysses but not Finnegan's Wake, in V but not Gravity's Rainbow. The Recognitions is the only Gaddis I've read, and as I've indicated I think he goes off the rails in that one, but the book's virtues (including good old-fashioned slapstick comic brilliance) are such that it still deserves attention.

SCHOPENHAUER'S BLOODY KNUCKLES YAWLL

the "illumination : difficulty ratio" is incumbent upon the subjects intelligence and previous reading. "Even homer nods," but so do readers--and I bet at a greater rate than the authors.

If a person is not getting subtle allusions to other literature, word play, word choice, metaphor &c, that is their fault for (a) not having the same level of intelligence as the author, and believing themselves to be in some democratic exchange of information and (b) not having the necessary logic skills to absorb and exercise with the arguments being presented.


I agree with everything E.K. says and wish someone should tell the fuckheads in new york the same thing.

Chris

It's not the job of "the fuckheads in New York" to publish literary fiction any more than it's the job of CBS to broadcast Nam June Paik. In fact, they have even less of an obligation to do so since, nominally at least, we "own" the airwaves. Their job is to make money. That they do so, in part, by never denigrating the product they sell is SOP.

Daniel

That utilitarian strain is uniquely American – perhaps that's hitting it right on the head there.

On the other hand, there seems to be an implication that accessible novels lack the kind of depth, and require less attention, than the more opaque. It's a common assumption I find underlying these kinds of discussions.

Obviously it takes more work in reading, say, Ulysses just to uncover the basic narrative (tricky word, that). But Dubliners is equally worthy of the same critical reading, despite its more accessible veneer.

I think that taste in this matter may come down to an inclination of character more than an objective view. Are you the type that loves a puzzle, just for itself? Then these difficult narrative techniques will suit you well. If not, then not so. Tying this inclination to an Aesthetic Theory may not be the most productive avenue.

Chris

Daniel,

Steve Moore focuses on his own love of maximalism when discussing hostility toward adventurous work, but, honestly, the middlebrows have you coming and going. Simple and plainspoken prose that avoids the elements of "craft" that the average book club reader (pace the unaverage book club reader) privileges -- think Stephen Dixon -- gets the hell kicked out of it just as much as the prolix, complicated, dense work of Gass, Gaddis, Pynchon, McElroy, etc. It would be nice if people read for style and objected to certain books on that basis, but mostly they read for familiarity, leavened with twists and surprises, "unforgettable" characters constructed from tics and eccentricities, and received wisdom. Most of our "great writers" reassure what Curtis White called "the middle mind."

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

"It's not the job of "the fuckheads in New York" to publish literary fiction any more than it's the job of CBS to broadcast Nam June Paik. In fact, they have even less of an obligation to do so since, nominally at least, we "own" the airwaves. Their job is to make money. That they do so, in part, by never denigrating the product they sell is SOP."


I appreciate the devils advocate stance here, which can be more aptly summarized as "lolz teh d00ds r n eet 2 make teh blingz $$$ who cares abt art i sure dont no sir not me."

If their job is to make money they would be better served by trying careers on wall street (or a court room) than in publishing. They are in publishing because the occupation has a decorated air; thus they are allowed to picture themselves not as _mere_ business people chasing dirty dollars, but people in an elegant position dealing with art.

It is infact their cultural responsibility as cultural gate keepers to search out great art and expose it to a broader audience (I'm suprised this even has to be said); they clearly do not conduct such efforts anymore because now the industry is entirely enfatuated with money.

Too, "the market" is not some open, sincere, distributor of resources and we do not own the air waves, or the press; because of such restrictions, I do think the established presses have an obligation to find art (again, im amazed that I have to say this) seeing as how they have a hegemony on the available resources and theoretically can take more risks than *anyone* else. How about publishing some expirimental fiction instead of another Doggie book spin-off (hihi rent seeking) or Dean Koontz spin off (hihi rent seeking), or crappy political/celebrity garbage? If they want to publish Steven King and Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan, I am completely fine with that; just *use* the profits gleaned from such ventures to take risks on exciting, non-traditional fiction! *Don't* use it to publish more bland fiction that everyone has already seen. Everyone talks so much about diversity on their web pages, lets see some.

I realize finding great art to be a difficult task and that genius by definition is rare to the point that maybe 3 people out of everyone alive at this moment will be considered a great writer (and essentially everything else being published is complete garbage.)

But still, Goethe got published in the past; today, I doubt it.

LML

"the "illumination : difficulty ratio" is incumbent upon the subjects intelligence and previous reading. "Even homer nods," but so do readers--and I bet at a greater rate than the authors."

Of course, but I was talking about "difficulty" that results from a writer's failures. The Recognitions is not hugely difficult on the surface, nor do its effects depend on interpreting allusions. It is easy to declare all or most readers dumb, but what is the point, again?

I don't understand why someone who is serious about literature would care what "average readers" or "fuckheads" are doing. Reading Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis is obviously not a utilitarian pastime. Few activities go more squarely against the grain of American culture, or of any mass culture that has ever existed. Implicit in each of these writers' life projects is the idea that true mastery of an art form is necessarily isolating. They wrote caring very little, I imagine, whether the fuckheads would "get it."

There was never a time when the fuckheads got it. The "market" had nothing to do with the publication of Ulysses. Sylvia Beach did. It was the first book she ever published, if memory serves, and after the book generated a PR shitstorm, Joyce left her for a real publisher. PR shitstorms over obscene content were that era's Oprah Book Club. (I know, she doesn't pick books like Ulysses, but it's conceivable that she could, if a similarly challenging book came out that the wider culture began to suspect of being "important" or "relevant.") The fact that only the "stream-of-consciousness" portions of the book had any impact on other writers suggests that people read it as half-assedly then as they do now.

Similarly, the fact that Gaddis and Pynchon broke into mainstream publishing at midcentury is a comment on middlebrow culture at the time, sure. But art as rigorous as theirs was as little understood in 1955 or 1976 as it is today. It is the understanding, not the relation to middlebrow culture, that matters.

Chris

“I appreciate the devils advocate stance here, which can be more aptly summarized as "lolz teh d00ds r n eet 2 make teh blingz $$$ who cares abt art i sure dont no sir not me."”

SBK:

You can interpret it as devil’s advocacy if you like, but publishers have no more responsibility to publish art, as opposed to rubbish, than writers have to satisfy an audience’s heart’s desire. In fact, I think that’s the bargain right there in a nutshell. If you think the industry is only lately infatuated with money, then you are unfamiliar with the history of the industry, which certainly has never been in the business to *lose* money. And if you think that financiers and lawyers walk around bragging about what philistines they are, you’re clearly unaware that there isn’t a single industry or profession out there without its own aura of noble romance.

“It is infact their cultural responsibility as cultural gate keepers to search out great art and expose it to a broader audience (I'm suprised this even has to be said); they clearly do not conduct such efforts anymore because now the industry is entirely enfatuated with money…I do think the established presses have an obligation to find art (again, im amazed that I have to say this) seeing as how they have a hegemony on the available resources and theoretically can take more risks than *anyone* else.”

I don’t know if “exposing” great art to a “broader” audience would necessarily do much to improve the situation; you can lead a horse to water, after all. Moreover, to which of the “fuckheads” would you entrust the job of finding “great art”?

Plenty of “established presses” find and publish art, almost exclusively. They are small presses, college presses, independent presses, and so on. New Directions, for one, has been at it for decades. It’s not that the best work goes unpublished; as LML points out, it just doesn’t necessarily count for much in the market. So what? I come across your argument again and again; it never makes sense. It’s the Underground Literary Alliance’s argument, for God’s sake: gimme a piecea that pie! I think we all can probably agree that great artists should be, ought to be, in a perfect world would be, hailed and appreciated and earn comfortable livings. But they don’t, generally; rarely have and rarely will. My father told me once that the thing about art was that you had to go out and look for it. It just lies around – it never goes bad, but it’s not up in your face like the latest Summer Blockbuster, either. I took him at his word and went looking. I’ve never had trouble finding anything. Percipient readers find the resources they need to help them locate the books that interest them. They don’t need Random House to “discover” some author and then edit whatever was good out of his/her manuscript.

Every now and then I compare the avalanche of invective against commercial publishing, against the NY Times Book Review, against coverage of books in the New Yorker – whatever – that I read online and elsewhere, against the relatively scant trickle of praise and excitement for and about the really good books that are coming out and – surprise -- aren’t getting the sort of attention they deserve.

“How about publishing some expirimental fiction instead of another Doggie book spin-off (hihi rent seeking) or Dean Koontz spin off (hihi rent seeking), or crappy political/celebrity garbage? If they want to publish Steven King and Paris Hilton or Lindsey Lohan, I am completely fine with that; just *use* the profits gleaned from such ventures to take risks on exciting, non-traditional fiction! *Don't* use it to publish more bland fiction that everyone has already seen. Everyone talks so much about diversity on their web pages, lets see some.”

The thing about profits is that they don’t usually plough them back into historically unprofitable pursuits. Sort of makes sense. Who cares what these guys do with their money, though? Do you really think that if, say, Doubleday had published Ander Monson’s “Other Electricities” (rather than Sarabande) it would have sold any better? Probably worse. Ever seen Doubleday’s catalogue? Looks like the Staten Island phone book. The thing is, they actually do *use* the profits gleaned, etc. They buy a whole mess of books for a big five grand apiece and then throw them at the market like you might throw a big platter of spaghetti at the wall and then, as with the individual strands of spaghetti, see what sticks.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

"You can interpret it as devil’s advocacy if you like, but publishers have no more responsibility to publish art, as opposed to rubbish, than writers have to satisfy an audience’s heart’s desire. In fact, I think that’s the bargain right there in a nutshell. If you think the industry is only lately infatuated with money, then you are unfamiliar with the history of the industry, which certainly has never been in the business to *lose* money."

I think you're casting the discourse in an entirely wrong framework which prevents you from drawing proper conclusions regarding art and intellectuals in general. While I may not be familiar with the history of the american publishing industry in particular, I know that a general principle of business is not to lose money. But the functionings or operations of business is not the set of rules that should be employed with literature, and your insistence on valorizing money/market over great work reveals significant lacunae in your education as a human being and how you must stain daily the privledges and rights that philosophers, scientists, and martyrs have struggled and died for.

Thus, while I lack "industry insider" information, it seems that you are unfamiliar with the history of humanity, and even more sadly, the history of ideas and literature as it has evolved in Western civilization as such. Before there was a "publishing industry" there was civilized society that highly valued literature and those who produced it (cf. Italian Renaissance for example and the number of poets, satirists, painters, philosophers etc that were residing at court [to take one in particular, Petrarch spent so much time at court that Boccaccio could playful accuse him of living his life among the nobility). To take another example, in Greece, all the great works were stored in temples and in the Acropolis along with other *treasures*; another, philosophy and philosophers have had an intimate relation with the schooling of nobility: Seneca and Nero (it is notable here that after Seneca was forced out of his realtionship with Nero, Nero started to do all the things he is (in)famous for); Plato and Dionysus II; Aristotle and Alexander; I would go on to list more, but I know I'm dealing with somone who has the IQ of a motel six soap dish, so I won't waste too much time here, you flathead. (I can do mocking and ad hominems too!)


"I don’t know if “exposing” great art to a “broader” audience would necessarily do much to improve the situation; you can lead a horse to water, after all. Moreover, to which of the “fuckheads” would you entrust the job of finding “great art”?"

I dont either but it would be nice to see effort made; but its also nice to see someone else mock the Enlightenment values of progress and freedom of the press (suck it Kant.) I would have thought it clear that people going in to "publishing" should have extensive prior knowledge and love of classic literature so they would have sophisticated antenae to be arbiters of taste; however, I forget that in america (and the word is virtually synomous with "fucking flatheads") the art of reading is as absent as art in general and art of writing in particular. New York only has culture when France and Italy come to town. Oh yea, and you cant mock the use of "fuckheads" when your entire post is filled with tepid language like "lead a horse to water" "my father once told me" "..a piece of the pie." In summa, i would get rid of the fuckheads (I called them this specifically because they are incapable of finding great work and prostrate themselves before the alter of THE MARKET) and replace them with *true readers* and lovers of literature, not mere "business men" and marketing majors. I would have thought such sentiments to be obvious (as I expressed with dismay in my previous post), however clearly this is an error.

"It’s not that the best work goes unpublished; as LML points out, it just doesn’t necessarily count for much in the market. So what? I come across your argument again and again; it never makes sense."

Again, I think this is because of a deeply flawed education that such points do not make sense to you. (im suprised you didnt spring for a bad pun on cents) If great literature doesnt matter much in the market, yet texts that are in excess of 2000 years of age and are still kept around by the erudite portions of humanity, then the market is not an apt judge of what is and is not valueable in regards to literary matters. If *your* values prevaled in the past (and thankfully your sick herd values didnt) much that is beautiful in europe and that american tourists come to see by the disgusting droves *would never have been built.* Do you think your wretched market analysis would put in for the castles in france or germany, or perhaps, all of the art in Italy? "We business people do not see where the efficieny or profit lies in the painting of a ceiling in the Vatican. We also see a great waste of resources occuring in certain middle parts of France. And wtf is a Villa d'Este, we cant even pronounce that. Not approved."

I can look at America and tell that it doesnt!

"The thing is, they actually do *use* the profits gleaned, etc. They buy a whole mess of books for a big five grand apiece and then throw them at the market like you might throw a big platter of spaghetti at the wall and then, as with the individual strands of spaghetti, see what sticks."

No, I intimated that instead of pursuing traditional subjects with funds acquired from complete garbage (and that includes traditional boring fiction) they should explore non-traditional fiction and *search* diligently for possible Great Works, not publish "possible complete garbage" that might or might not sell. Too, if you had proper people actually looking for great works, it wouldnt even be considered work, so its not just the new york fuckheads, its also the fucking flathead agents!

Pugh!

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

They wrote caring very little, I imagine, whether the fuckheads would "get it."


Truthfully, I sometimes feel like this; however, I wonder why Dante wrote the Comedy in the vulgur, and not in Latin?

(it is actually noble to try and help others, even if they are very far below oneself in matters of the mind)

LML

"I wonder why Dante wrote the Comedy in the vulgur, and not in Latin?"

Well, we don't know for sure, but certainly it might have been an artistic choice, no? Italian was Dante's home language; he was calling bullshit on what it turned out was an outworn tradition (smart people must write in Latin). Also, Joyce thought Hitler was mobilizing to prevent publication of Finnegan's Wake, which was going to transform the world (ha!), and Gaddis thought he might get the Nobel Prize--at the age of, what, 32?--after the Recognitions came out (hee!). Any artist who knows s/he is onto something wants universal adulation, but none of the above writers probably rationally expected it. All evidence points to the fact that the controlling motive for each of the above writers, while composing at least, was a desire to perfect the language-worlds in front of them. Those language-worlds are the only thing we have any good reason for caring about. The economics of publishing have always been skewed against artistry, and the artist's relationship to the power structure of his/her society has always been at best parasitic. I'm all for a return to the days when parasites could get super-fat (when were those days again?), but the argument that literary art depends for its very survival on a certain arrangement of economic forces does not compute. It also excuses the writer making the argument for his/her own failures, and for this reason alone one ought to be shy about insisting on it.

Chris

"...when were those days again?"

Before the Americans destroyed classical civilization, of course. But I wouldn't argue your point too forcefully, or too logically -- there's been an open Call to Revolution voiced here. The ever-ingratiating SBK says that we need to "get rid" of the people who are the problem and "replace them" with the right kind of people (something "the Europeans" are especially good at, particularly throughout the 20th Century), an inherently democratic act fully in line with enlightenment values that nearly always leads to artistic (and social) Elysium.

Schopenhauer's bloody knuckles

"Well, we don't know for sure, but certainly it might have been an artistic choice, no?"

Actually it is because he was attempting to standardize the language and address himself to a broader audience since *only* scholars possessed the ability to read latin.

"but the argument that literary art depends for its very survival on a certain arrangement of economic forces does not compute. It also excuses the writer making the argument for his/her own failures, and for this reason alone one ought to be shy about insisting on it. "

such an argument was never advanced or even slightly asserted in any of my posts; this seems to be something you have created on your own and is facially absurd (congratulations, you are in the right for once!). I am infact very impressed at the number of badly formed arguments you have been able to produce (and with great ease) throughout this entire brief exchange, and it seems as though you are continually inspired by some sort of clumsy, fallen, and ragged band of muses that must have slipped off of the peaks of Parnassus before the ancients could make note of their existence.

Chris

"If great literature doesnt matter much in the market, yet texts that are in excess of 2000 years of age and are still kept around by the erudite portions of humanity, then the market is not an apt judge of
what is and is not valueable in regards to literary matters."

It is never my intention to defend the values or economics of commercial publishing. However, here's some actual devil's advocacy, from a quick check of my shelves:

Aeschylus: published by fuckheads at Penguin

Dante: published by fuckheads at Knopf, Modern Library, Houghton Mifflin (latter actually Boston fuckheads)

Euripides: published by fuckheads at Penguin

Homer: published by fuckheads at Viking, FSG

Horace: published by fuckheads at FSG

Ovid: published by fuckheads at Harcourt, Brace, FSG

Plato: published by fuckheads at Penguin, New American Library

Sophocles: published by fuckheads at Everyman, Penguin

Suetonius: published by fuckheads at Penguin

Virgil: published by fuckheads at Random House, FSG

Chris

Schopenhauer's Bloody Tampon, more like.

LML

"Actually it is because he was attempting to standardize the language and address himself to a broader audience since *only* scholars possessed the ability to read latin."

Right, this is what I know from the Dante class I took in college too. So Dante certainly had no artistic reasons to make the choice. His only concern was helping "the people," by publishing a narrative that showed them what a hero he himself was. Not only does the Dante character compare favorably with Virgil, his lowly guide, but he notices that--surprise!--all his political enemies are suffering horrible eternities in hell, and then the woman he has been obsessing about since his 20s shows up to take him for a quick spin around heaven. Dante, an exiled member of a disempowered ruling political party, was writing in Italian because he was selfless and noble. And what was the percentage of non-aristocratic Tuscans who were literate when he was writing?

"such an argument was never advanced or even slightly asserted in any of my posts"

You have ceaselessly suggested that the fuckheads don't know what literature is and are ruining it.

marlyat2


Well, it's good to see that savage indignation can still lacerate a heart or two.

Chris

He should perhaps direct it at the other side, or do you agree with him that your editor at FSG is a "fuckhead"?

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