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

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11/19/2008

Comments

Luz Maria

The vast majority of writers DO bend over backwards to appeal to a large audience. So Shriver's argument is just that experimental writers should keep silent or conform, as the very presence of experimental works makes less ambitious readers feel bad that their favorite reads are considerly only "fun," as opposed to "literature," which is arduous. Forgive me for not caring.

Why would anyone want to read a book that was purposefully rendered "accessible"? These are the same group of people who would actually enjoy sitting down for a beer with a politician (any politician)...

susan

Bending over backwards is a Danielle Steel thing to do; most serious writers wouldn't consider compromising themselves in this manner. Feed the masses? Why? When stirring a few is more rewarding.

Chris

It's funny, I tried to read a Lionel Shriver book once -- if I'd known that she'd been frozen in that uncomfortable position throughout the effort I would have told her to relax, because it sure didn't make me want to finish it.

Chris

Wait, I mean: If I'd known she'd been frozen in that uncomfortable position throughout the effort I would have said, "Relax -- I'm not going to want to finish it either way."

M. O'Nail

OK, so Shriver's message is make novels more user-friendly and you will sell more units (don't need to use quotation marks, do I?) -as if she was addressing a convention of electronic equipment manufacturers.

So we'd better stop fooling about with punctuation marks, we'd better not be too *experimental*... (She might also have advised something about suitable book covers). We'd better keep within the comfortable confines of lower-middlebrow/upper-middlebrow fiction.

What Shriver doesn't seem to have realised is that most writers don't see themselves as designers or manufacturers of marketable goods. Most writers who sit down to write a book don't do it thinking about how many copies it's going to sell and how much money they're going to make out of it. If you can write and want to live off your pen you get a job in advertising and write copy, or you look for a job in a local paper, but everyone in their right senses knows that no matter how far backwards you bend there is very, very, very little chance of you making a buck out of literature. So let's not worry about marketing strategies and let's write what we want to write. And let's not have any more of that *popularity* nonsense.

I suspect that when commercial writers come up with these populist platitudes about the need for writers to make themselves *accessible* to readers they're not really worried about accessibility -they're already *accessible* enough- or about readers: they get so defensive and so agressive towards *experimental* writers (that is, towards real writers who do not compromise and who write real literature) because of their bad conscience: the existence of real literature, of uncompromising literature makes commercial writers uncomfortable; that's why they decry it, that's why they'd like to wipe it from the face of Earth.

Luther Blissett

Indeed, the main reason against the ellision of quotation marks is precisely that it's so experimental that it's nearly 100 years old. Like so many other contemporary literary experiments, it's just a citation of experimentation, a quotation of a lack of quotations. It's like wearing a Clash t-shirt; it doesn't make you The Clash.

Shriver's argument is boneheaded. Literature *was* once more popular, but the lack of popularity isn't simply the fault of the writers.

Daniel

What a sad estimation of people. And what a hopeless mind to jump right to it; bypassing the more likely candidates of long work hours and commutes, invasive competing media, and shifting cultural values. Making books more accessible for the sake of ease is not going to help combat these.

I am inclined to argue exactly the opposite – that most of the books read are so slight (Potter, political diatribes, and such) as to implicate reading as a pointless and meritless escape, yielding no reward – aesthetic, intellectual, or personal – for the time and energy spent. Set a challenge, value the challenge for what it is, and people will get up to met it. Set a challenge but call it a trivial thing, and most people will decline.

Adventures in Reading

Hmm... Assuming Shrivel does this I'll have to stick with other authors for my favorite taste of nontraditional narrative!

Steven Augustine

"Indeed, the main reason against the ellision of quotation marks is precisely that it's so experimental that it's nearly 100 years old."

But the mistake, LB, is to think of any peculiar usage or strange orthography or anti-traditional form as an "experiment". It's a *technique* now. Eliding quotation marks most definitely changes the feel of things; it's a valid tool in the toolkit, there for the artist to use, or not, according to her/his needs.

Chris

From a 1994 interview with Gilbert Sorrentino:

Q: In the wake of the media overload and the Joycean overlap, how does art compete with popular culture? What is exactly the position of novel writing in such a cultural situation?

GS: I think that art has always existed with, if not competed with popular culture. When the court was reading "The Canterbury Tales," the illiterates in the street were singing folk tales and watching jugglers and clowns and God knows what. It's always been this way and probably always will be--the novel has somehow been posited for us as a kind of "mass item" and if it sells only 1500 copies is seen as a failure. I don't know if that's even a reasonably intelligent way of thinking. A novel, even a lousy novel, can't command the audience of the least successful TV sitcom, and yet such a form is "supposed to." Outside of the dreary rubbish that is churned out by god knows how many hacks of varying degrees of talent, the novel is, it seems to me, a very special and rarefied kind of literary form, and was, for a brief moment only, wide-ranging in its sociocultural influence. For the most part, it has always been an acquired taste and it asks a good deal from its audience. Our great contemporary problem is in separating that which is really serious from that which is either frivolously and fashionably "radical" and that which is a kind of literary analogy to the Letterman show. It's not that there is pop culture around, it's that so few people can see the difference between it and the high culture, if you will. Morton Feldman is not Stephen Sondheim. The latter is a wonderful what-he-is, but he is not what-he-is-not. To pretend that he is is to insult Feldman and embarrass Sondheim...

DavidG

Oooh, prickly. I think Shriver (with whose work I am not familiar) has got a point here. Simply put: the job of the working writer is to be read. To say, "I don't care what hoi polloi think" is fine, but then there's no reason to publish, or to lament your obscurity. If you believe writing can be real, and vital, then you ought to ask why you can't get your ideas across. Maybe the public aren't "nonreaders" -- perhaps what we have are "nonwriters" who console themselves by blaming someone else.

"Experimental" fiction is one of the most self-congratulatory terms in use. I can think of no better warning to the mature reader than "this fiction is experimental."

Steven Augustine

And another thing! Why couldn't that silly e.e. cummings spell his name, and write his "poems", with proper capitalization methods? That's why no one reads the experimental bastard! Why, if he'd tapped into the awesome power of reactionary philistinism, there's no telling how much money he could've made...! Instead of global fame, his own Reality Show and a framable certificate from the Decorously Totalitarian Grammarian, he got cold, hard death, of course. Well, I hope that elitist "Artiste" learned his lesson.

Dan Green

"there's no reason to publish, or to lament your obscurity."

No one here is lamenting anyone's obscurity. The only complaint registered is Lionel Shriver's, against an alleged obscurity. (Reinforced, of course, by your own complaint against said obscurity.)

Finn Harvor

"Literature *was* once more popular, but the lack of popularity isn't simply the fault of the writers."

This is an understatement. The changes that have happened in publishing in the last few decades have not only been radical, they've been without historical precedent. Particularly in the last ten years or so, as major publishers have decimated their midlists and walled themselves off from all but agented submissions, the opportunity for any writer who is serious -- which includes, for better or worse, serious about making a reasonable income from his/her work -- has declined. This decline can be described as moderate or precipitous, depending on your own point of view, degree of luck, and stage of artistic career. Talent matters, too, of course (that is, at those times when it's not an impediment), but its importance has declined as the process of contemporary canon formation has been taken over more and more by the lit prize juries and the nuanced opinions of critics have been shouldered aside. In other words, it's possible to have it all -- artistically -- and still fail.

I personally know gifted writers in mid-/late-career who are hurting big time. If the looming recession turns out to be as severe as it is currently shaping up, then these situations -- these existential realities of the burnt out writer as he/she lives when the screens shut down and the chatter ceases for the night -- will only increase in number.

Luz Maria

"Experimental" fiction is one of the most self-congratulatory terms in use. I can think of no better warning to the mature reader than "this fiction is experimental."

Definitely some truth to this at times, although I'd argue a bit of self-congratulation is almost necessary to keep up the spirits of an experimental writer who faces a difficult road ahead. Yet, I agree, that given how many of today's experimental writers are working within the academy (always a suspect position in my opinion), the term does sometimes get used and thrown around in a manipulative way, in the same way I described "feminism" and "racism" getting thrown around in my last post. Basically, it puts people on a pedestal where they feel entitled to humiliate or exclude those with different views, and other people feel frightened to challenge them. That's messed up from anyone, but esp. from a creative writing teacher, who has a lot of power over vulnerable kids. My post wasn't meant to defend those sorts of people, but rather the many experimental writers who are actually very humble about their work. Even William Gass - for all the boldness of his prose - is amazingly self-deprecating, and always questioning his own assumptions.

Chris

The job of the working writer is to write.

Nigel Beale

"You'd think literary writers would be bending over backwards to ingratiate themselves to readers -- to make their work maximally accessible, straightforward and inviting"

So much for Bloom's:
"We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading…is the search for a difficult pleasure."

M. O'Nail

Of course the term 'experimental' is anathema to the middlebrow. They like to always read the same type of novel: change this or that ingredient a little bit, but please dear author give me the same novel again and again, I like it so much, it makes me feel so good.

Well, if there are sections of the reading public who are narrow-minded, who only accept one type of literary *product*, it surely doesn't follow that ALL novelists must conform to their narrow tastes.

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