Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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Constant refreshment of one's ideas is what serious engagement with literature teaches. The catch is, the changes are necessarily ephemeral. You can learn what not to believe by reading Tolstoy, but you can't learn what to believe (unless you buy into the weaker aspects of Tolstoy's art). I think it is Kundera who calls fiction a skeptical art.

An encounter with great literature leaves any ideology in shards. After the encounter, you assemble your shards into something workable for a while, because life requires actionable ideology, but then the next encounter with great literature leaves you with a whole other set of shards. This is why literature (and all art, probably) is ultimately subversive no matter who's in charge.


While Dan and Obooki have not been particularly moved by a novel (and it begs the question: why the interest in fiction then?) the implication that novelists have not added to the intellectual discussion (fiction here is claimed to be a re-hashing or re-formulating, a focal point for relayed experience) is entirely untenable.

Dostoyevsky's 'Notes from Underground', to take a common example, was an original proto-existential rebuttal to rationalists of the era, who claimed that man was a set of rational operators and, at its best, that society could be a 'crystal palace' of perfect rational order. It is a philosophical work, a new antithesis. Sartre, I believe, specifically cited the book as an inspiration to his philosophy.

Alternative views to the merit of the intellectual content of fiction are, of course, important, but to choose Dostoyevsky specifically as an example is misleading to the point of being perhaps wrong.

Rohan Maitzen

since I also don't read novels "for philosophy, for meaning" and am antipathetic to "philosophizing" in novels (as well to the underlying notion that fiction is a medium for "saying something" in the first place)

Well, there go all my favourite novels. The principles for fiction (and reading) laid out here seem suited to a really narrow selection of novels; I can't imagine how to bring these ideas to bear on something like Middlemarch or Bleak House, just for example. But I don't know how prescriptive this is meant to be. Is the implication that novels intent on "philosophizing" or "saying something" fail to be art?

Jonathan  Mayhew

I haven't been *changed* by reading particular novels and poetry. In a profound sense, I have been *formed* by such reading. From Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller to Frank O'Hara and Creeley. Not to mention Borges, Lorca, etc... Basically, my readings define who I am. It's not a matter of being influenced in my abstract ideas about "life" by various literary works--though I can't discount that either, can I? I'm pretty sure I learned the Billy Pilgrim technique of rewinding my life like a video tape from Vonnegut.

It's that to imagine *me* without my readings is kind of odd, a weird subtraction from the course of my days of whole huge swaths of experience in the Deweyian sense. It would be to think of myself without the sort of subjectivity that is formed by the lifelong experience of being a reader. It's a contrafactual I can't quite manage.

Jim H.

Agreed: Disembodied ideas make for lousy fiction (with rare exceptions).

Over the course of my time in philosophy, I met any number of original philosophers. Grappling with their ideas was always challenging. However, no abstract idea ever changed my life. And, for the most part, they were uninspiring, non-exemplary human beings. Disappointing for all their brilliance.

Fiction helps us see our ideas as embodied. Characters live out the (let's call it) 'real world' consequences of the ideas that motivate and even define them. Of course, then, fiction is parasitic on received ideas (see, e.g., J.L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words).

When we read fiction, we want to see specific characters in action. We don't necessarily want to see tokens or counters. We want that simulacrum of reality: a 'real' person faced with 'real' decisions taking 'real' actions. We don't want essays. But we want to see the humanity of people who hold certain ideas. Think, e.g., of Joyce's characterization of Stephen Dedalus's father and his anti-Catholic political feelings in the Pope's Nose episode in Portrait. I've quoted it at length over at Wisdom of the West in this very context—it's still on the front page, to the best of my knowledge.

It's the characters we are meant to empathize with, not the ideas. Ideas are merely cultural references, equally as much so as pop songs, TV shows, celebrities, etc. The writer may portray them consciously and thus they enter into the play of intentional meanings. Or, they may appear as unconscious artifacts for the later, more conscious critic to disentangle. In this way, often ideas and attitudes date the text—e.g., post-imperial, post-modern, etc.

How does an idea motivate a specifically delineated character? How does a philosophy pollute the attitudes of a character, or ruin his life, or get him through a sticky situation? How do the character's actions diverge from her most heart-felt philosophies when confronted with a crisis? What happens when the character experiences some sort of epiphany and becomes disillusioned, realizing that the ideas that he grew up with and charted his life by were false or had unforeseen evil consequences? How does the character change—metaphysically?

Methinks Obooki isn't reading deeply enough—missing the trees for the forest. Get down to cases. Wiggle your toes in the mud of our humanity.

Jim H.

mishari al-adwani

Neuroscience tells us that learning involves the creation of new neural pathways in the brain. If the knowledge becomes deeply embedded enough-gaining a profound command of a second language, for example-the changes become permanent, physical.
Who's to say that a novel or poem or, indeed, any profound or powerful work of art, does not do the same thing?

I'm with @Rohan Maitzen on this. I'm convinced that novels and poetry have played a part, and not a small one, in shaping the man I am. If we accept, (and I do), that ones life may be changed by a teacher, why not consider the possibility of being changed by a book? Doesn't seem far-fetched to me.

mishari al-adwani

Sorry, my mistake. The rather confusing lay-out led me to believe that a comment by
Jonathan Mayhew was by Rohan Maitzen.

Nigel Beale

Another thoughtful post Dan. Thank you. re: "The only original ideas to be found in novels, going back to the first recognizable examples of the form, are ideas about new ways to exploit the literary potential of the form itself." I tend to agree with this, but to disagree with

"it allows us to vicariously experience the lives of "other people" or to appreciate societies and cultures different from our own or some other such opportunity to expand our sympathies. Since these claims cannot hold up to critical scrutiny--"

A decent argument has been made for the novel having sped up the abolition of some less than savory methods of execution, for example.


Having contributed to the original discussion over at obooki's place, I thought I might chip in here. I suppose that reading a novel is an experience like any other, and as such it may shape who we are, just as any other experience may. But, and I guess it's probably clear enough from the way I've phrased things so far, I do have a problem with thinking that the experience of absorbing a work of art is of more value than other experiences; reading a novel is no more likely to shape you than is falling in the sea at age three or any other experience you might think of. And it worries me that people might begin to expect that novelists, artists, are people whose job is to change lives. They're not, they are people whose job it is to make satisfying objects (defined in the loosest possible terms).

mishari al-adwani

I dunno, Billy- it's widely accepted that Uncle Tom's Cabin played a substantial role in animating the anti-slavery movement in the US and that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle led directly to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the establishment of the FDA. Zola's J'accuse caused outrage and led to Dreyfuss' eventual pardon.

Thoreau's Civil Disobedience powerfully influenced Ghandi, who based his own non-violent campaign against the Raj on it. Books can change the way people think and, indeed, the way they live. The Bible and The Quran are two cases in point and if they are not novels what are they?

Schopenhauer's Bloody Knuckles

"Over the course of my time in philosophy, I met any number of original philosophers. Grappling with their ideas was always challenging. However, no abstract idea ever changed my life. And, for the most part, they were uninspiring, non-exemplary human beings. Disappointing for all their brilliance."

must be talking about university "philosophers" or professors and not real philosophers. You cant meet a philosopher "in the flesh" because only the real philosophers are "dead" and stored in books (which is the only place they are actually alive)...they are not in universities publishing in journals and holding distinguished chairs.

You might try reading some Plato, or if hes too subtle, Nietzsche. If major philosophical works arent dramatically and dangerously impacting your existence, then the philosophy isnt getting "down" to you, and you should not read philosophy since it's above your intellectual ability to comprehend. You are most likely simply wasting time and confusing yourself in the process =/

Steven Augustine

Billy wrote:

"I do have a problem with thinking that the experience of absorbing a work of art is of more value than other experiences; reading a novel is no more likely to shape you than is falling in the sea at age three or any other experience you might think of."

But, you see, Billy, the requisite step before drawing up a list of books that are "good for you" (and, then, of course, that counter-list) is to establish in everyone's malleable little mind (by repeating the trope until it becomes true) that nothing (esp. not Art) transcends or refutes the middlebrow (middleburb) notion of the perfectibility of (wo)Man, and of life as the ongoing project of pursuing same... with Heaven the tacit goal.

One need not, in the 21st century, finger the thin-skinned, open face of The Bible to get with the program; there are unembarrassing (less déclassé) options: reading an ordinary novel (the right ordinary novel) will do it. May I suggest anything by a humorless bluenose with a "story" to tell?

Taking purely amoral, aesthetic pleasure from a work of Art is too much like the pagan orgasm of non-reproductive emission, friend: it's elitistly decadent, dangerously Godless and probably homosexual, like JL Godard. Don't do it.

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