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10/01/2009

Comments

Andrew

All lists are unuseful and (evidently) dishonest? Or just ordered lists ("bests" etc.)? On Critical Distance, I believe you had a sidebar of a number of authors whom you obviously selected for some reason--didn't that constitute a list, and one intended to suggest some degree of sorting for quality or interest or worth?

But even with ordered lists, do we have to be so proscriptive? I'm not sure what is to be gained with an outright condemnation, other than to keep oneself pure from some imaginary taint of the middlebrow or the crassly commercial or the "dishonest."

Clearly, some things are accomplished by the publication of these lists, and I'm not convinced those accomplishments are truly deleterious to "the real literary world in which we live." Most people consider a list of "bests" more as a pretentious version of "recommended reads" than a reflection of some objective reality. As such, the main effect of such a list is usually the discovery of some previously unknown author or the reappraisal of an author previously dismissed. "Huh, they really liked this book; maybe I should take a look" is, I think, a more common reaction than "Well, if The Millions says The Corrections is the best book of the millennium, I guess that means it is."

Now, I think that this informative function can be served in ways that are able to treat books as something more than "what you should read next," but the point is, then, in finding those ways and employing them. I don't really see how shaming people away from making lists helps either to find or to implement these new ways, or why it would be a necessary step to doing so.

Jacob Russell

This is so exhausting... that we have to repeat the same complaints, the same criticisms, explain again what we have explained before... it ceases to be interesting. "They" ... whoever they are... ignore or, like Wood, play games with the arguments leveled against him/them...without really responding. Like lobbing stones at a blog of Jello. They absorb the stones and add them to the recipe.

There is no real engagement, no actual conflict... because there is no perceived threat from the 'outsiders' for those comfortably entrenched. This is a hopeless battle because the conflict is perceived in terms of utterly incomensurate realities. How can you argue when at least one side refuses to acknowledge the language of the other--or, stubornly translats it (this is the Woodsian method)... back into comfortable middlebrow-commercial ad-speak?

I would welcome genuine, intelligent conflict! What a bore--that we are condemned to solopsistic communing! There is a clear analogy to what we are seeing in politics. The end of the world... as so many gated cliques talking to thenmselves into oblivion..

Dan Green

"All lists are unuseful and (evidently) dishonest? Or just ordered lists ("bests" etc.)?"

Not all lists, just the "best of" (season, year, decade)lists.

Edmond Caldwell


"this informative function..."

It's informative in the way advertising is informative. Four out of five doctors recommend The Corrections for their patients who read fiction!

Andrew

Edmond,
Well, I learned about Kelly Link, and now I'm interested in reading her. I'm not sure what's wrong with that.

Dan,
I feel like you're assuming all these best of lists have the intention (and the effect) of manufacturing consent that they are *true* and not just a set of recommendations putting on airs. Now, when D. G. Myers puts out a list of his "bests," I believe that he's under the impression that it's *true,* that he's actually named the book that any other intelligent person will recognize as "the best." But he argues for that explicitly on most occasions. A list like The Millions' or like the NYT list they were responding to simply makes the case that the book at the top got the most votes among the judges. I think most people get that, and I guess I have faith that the few who don't are capable of enough independent judgment to weigh one book against another after they've actually read them, and if they receive recommendations from other trusted sources (like your blog), they'll be able to weigh those against the books on the list too. People consume books differently from toothpaste--more deliberately and with more reflection, whatever Edmond says.

EC

"I learned about Kelly Link, and now I'm interested in reading her. I'm not sure what's wrong with that."

Never said anything was wrong with it at that level. I've learned things from ads. I've discovered books I went on to read and enjoy from ads, including ads in the form of lists. It's just not the point anyone's making. Here again (again, again, again, as Jacob so aptly observes) is the point:

"Austerlitz and 2666 are good books brought to us in a way that sucks the oxygen out of the type of atmosphere in which good books might be much more broadly produced, understood, and enjoyed..."

Substitute Kelly Link for Austerlitz and it's still the point. But for some reason on this issue you have completely and utterly (and even somewhat inexplicably) abdicated your capacity for the critique of ideologies and institutions, amply on display elsewhere on your blog.

Andrew

No, not an abdication; I've made a judgment that this list (and lists like it) don't constitute as dire a threat to the capacity of readers to engage critically with texts as underlying, broader structures of judgment and taste. This list is, in the most thorough way possible, epiphenomenal.

The five ideological practices you enumerate in your post (which I think were mostly raised, albeit implicitly, in my original analysis)--the fashion system, the star system, etc.--these are appropriate targets for critique. You argue that lists like these "reinforce" these practices--and I would say that this is not always true, or does not always have to be true; the effects of these lists are not completely circumscribed or determined by the ideological practices which have produced them. The informative aspect does float free to some important degree--it may be highly constrained by the options made available to begin with, but constraint is not determination.

Furthermore, it is more worthwhile to understand how these ideological practices have interacted to produce the specific nature of the list than to attack lists in toto and trust that you've covered all the underlying realities, which seems to me what Dan has done above, or, as you have done, render the interactions of these practices into a pure totality (the corporate system) which accounts for everything (or rather everything bad), and determines everything about its products (including and perhaps especially ranked lists).

Essentially, I see oxygen, you don't. That's not an abdication, that's a judgment.

EC

'that this list (and lists like it) don't constitute as dire a threat to the capacity of readers to engage critically with texts as underlying, broader structures of judgment and taste."

Nobody is making this argument.

"a pure totality (the corporate system) which accounts for everything (or rather everything bad), and determines everything about its products (including and perhaps especially ranked lists)."

Nobody is making this argument.

Enjoy your tango with the straw man.

Andrew

Edmond, this is ridiculous. You start off with extreme statements, then when I take your extreme statements for accurate representations of your views, you back off. If this continues much longer, I'm worried you might turn into Frank Kermode or something.

Dan Green

I don't view these lists as a "dire threat" to anything, although they are a moderate threat to making informed critical judgment about individual works, since they give the impression that the range of books listed are those that are ultimately worth making critical judgments about. As Edmond argues, lots of other potentially worthy books just don't register, and over time it becomes that much harder to bring attention back to such books because they've been forgotten (to the extent they did register with *some* readers).

Those who put together such lists don't so much put on airs as allow themselves to proceed in ignorance. How can I claim that these five books are the "best" when I know darn well there are five other books I haven't been able to read yet, or don't know about, that are likely just as good? If I don't proceed with the understanding that mainstream publishing is narrowing the field from which I may choose, then I *am* letting the publishers manufacture consent. Best to consider individual works as they come to my attention and put the list-making aside.

EC

I haven't "backed off" any "extreme statements" at all, I just don't recognize the points I'm making in the misrepresentations you're more content to argue with. Nowhere have I said anything close to lists being a "dire threat to the capacity of readers to engage critically with texts." Where have I said that? That's all you, Andrew. Nowhere do I assert that lists are "harmful" in and of themselves in the ways you portray. They're inane and idiotic, sure, and the practice of them reproduces market ideologies (of "distinction" and so forth), but that by itself doesn't necessarily turn their consumers and participants into zombies. Most of my brilliant and beautiful friends consume plenty of ads; my genius-brained wife consumes plenty of ads, I consume plenty of ads, and it doesn't stop any of us from reading and thinking critically. But does that mean we're supposed to pretend they're not ads? That their overt purpose is to sell things, with the latent subtext of selling the system as a whole?

What I've been focusing on, very consistently, is the way that a particular sort of advertisement, the literary "Best Of" list, is an expression, a "symptom" (again, relatively harmless when seen - as you do - in some kind of free-floating, contextless ether) of a disease that is indeed harmful to a broader, richer, more democratic literary culture (there's the essence of my "extremity"). What it boils down to is this, I don't like a market-driven publishing system and think that it produces more cultural impoverishment than "quality" (although I do not, as you consistently and by now dishonestly keep suggesting, think that it "never ever" produces quality), and you're basically OK with it. In fact you're so OK with it that you apparently can't tolerate imagining any "outside" to that system, which completely defines the horizon of your thinking. Thus again and again, in absolutely every intervention, you attempt (through various misrepresentations of my arguments) to redirect the debate back "into the list," to make it solely about the lists and questions of "quality" and so forth rather than addressing them, as I am, as a symptom. You just don't see or don't "believe in" the disease. That's fine then, if that's what you prefer. Go on and keep whistling "Don't worry, be happy."

That's all from me on this issue. Jacob's right, there's just no getting through. We're just on different frequencies.

EC

OK, I guess I'm not quite through, but I want to point out one more thing, which is that Dan Green didn't seem to have any problem at all zeroing in on the key point in my original post, the essence of my argument:

"Austerlitz and 2666 are good books brought to us in a way that sucks the oxygen out of the type of atmosphere in which good books might be much more broadly produced, understood, and enjoyed..."

(And it's perfectly obvious, rhetorically, that the Sebald and Bolano titles are intended here as *representative* of the small proportion of genuinely "good," interesting, or significant books that the corporate publishing monolith does indeed manage to put out while the system of which it is an expression smothers a more comprehensive development of good, interesting, and significant books.)

It also happens to be the very point that Andrew, through this entire exchange, has tied himself into knots to avoid.

Andrew

Dan,
How can I claim that these five books are the "best" when I know darn well there are five other books I haven't been able to read yet, or don't know about, that are likely just as good?

I am uncomfortable with this because it seems to allow that, in a world where you could read all the relevant books, you might be able to come up with a valid list. I don't really buy that. And because I don't buy that, I don't see the harm in list-making as long as it's understood that it's an expression of the means (time, opportunity, sometimes money) available to you, and not an expression of some Ideal judgment.

As for the "dire threat," I feel that the universal injunction you lay on "honest" people against participating in lists like these does make it seem like you take it pretty seriously, or else why the need for the "No!" in thunder? Expressions like "the only honest course of action" just seem unnecessarily harsh to me, and I took it to mean that you really feel that this harshness meant you felt pretty strongly about the harm posed by taking what must amount to a dishonest course of action--which evidently includes not joining you in condemning the existence of these lists outright.

Edmond, symptoms don't "reinforce" the disease, which is how you argued it in the original. Your much more strident stance there is what I have been responding to.

I find it somewhat aggravating that your constant complaints that I am battering straw men doesn't stop you from simply ascribing a political moderateness that I have neither shown nor hold; your sensitivity to misrepresentation evidently does not run in more than one direction. FWIW, I can imagine an "outside" to the system--I just can't see your bluster getting any of us there.

Andrew

Dan, sorry, that first paragraph was supposed to be italicized to show that it is a quote.

EC

"symptoms don't 'reinforce' the disease, which is how you argued it in the original. Your much more strident stance there is what I have been responding to."

In the original I said "reinforce," and in my preceding comment I said "the practice of [the list] reproduces market ideologies." Reinforce versus Reproduce. Hmmm, yeah, that's a real climb-down, Andrew. Yeah, these symptoms do indeed contribute to the reproduction of the disease (sorry if the analogy is not medically accurate, but that's not the point), but they're just that, a contributing "reinforcing" or "reproducing" factor. They play a part in turning consumers of corporate-dominated "literary fiction" into its advertisers as well. That's not a problem for you. Fine.

Re: the ostensible "shrillness" and "vitriol" that you feel obliged to draw attention to in every intervention you've made: It's a tailor-made (well, actually it's off the rack) journalistic cliche in any argument against a non-mainstream position to label it as shrill and so forth. It's an attempt to redirect attention away from the content of the non-mainstream argument itself, generally because the hack deploying the cliche can't do any better.

Dan Green

Andrew: If someone sponsoring a "best of" list would call it a "best of relative to the means (time, opportunity, money) available not Ideal judgment list" I might be more charitable.

Andrew

Edmond, actually there is a significant difference between 'reinforce' and 'reproduce'--if I blockquote an argument in a post or a comment, I've reproduced it; if I contribute additional points to strengthen the critique, I've reinforced it. I think those are significantly different operations. And your indifference to the accuracy of your metaphors represents, to me, a lack of clear thinking. If you can't imagine your way to an appropriate metaphor, why should I believe you've done enough thinking about how the system *really* works? You've chosen the disease metaphor because of the rhetorical power it has, not because it maps onto the ideas you have about market ideologies.

What I find frustrating about your shrillness is precisely that it seems to be an objective in itself. I sometimes (maybe often) feel that instead of an argument, you're writing a short story, a way of showing off an extreme narrative creation. And then you want me to engage with the argument that lies behind but is obscured by that short story.

That's it for me; thank you, Dan, for putting up with us.

EC

In ideology-critique, "reproduce" means something a whole lot more fundamental than cutting-and-pasting, Andrew, but there's a hint, a glimmering, an adumbration in your second point that restores my faith in your critical acumen.

Finn Harvor

Andrew,
If you had the power to design a universal system of manuscript-vetting (since clearly what's at issue here is what gets attention and what doesn't), what would it look like? How would an ideal yet practicable way of vetting manuscripts first at the publishers' level, then at the reviewers' level, work?

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