Living for the Revel (catvalente) wrote,
  • Mood: confused

Good Books Don't Have to Be Easy, Either

There's been a lot of debunking of Lev Grossman's recent article on the nature of the novel at the Wall Street Journal. It's all good stuff, and needs to be said, because much as I like Lev, this article is B-A-N-A-N-A-S, as St Gwen would put it. The history, the logic, the attitude, the careful exclusion of facts and the mind-breaking namedropping of Kelly Link as one of the new writers who are putting plot over style, they're all cokepants and no Lohan, you know?

Basically: the modernists ruined Literature for everyone with their insistence on dense intellectualism and lyrical writing and plotless meandering but now the genre kids RULE GOTHAM and it's super awesome that plot is king again! Twilight sells, so it's better, because people en masse turned away from New York literary short story collections and started reading Twilight to satisfy their needs! Or something.

Unpacking all that...well, follow the links. It's been done. Frankly, the whole article has been done before--this kind of crowing about how the potboiler ownz litfic is unnecessary tribalism and it's really only that Grossman is so comically wrong in his facts and assumptions that makes for the debate surrounding the article. That and it being in the WSJ makes us feel all warm and fuzzy and validated. What I want to point out is something I haven't really seen discussed yet, and as 2005's Miss Congeniality Lyricism, I have to raise my hand politely. In the back. Where the goth kids hang out.

The idea that up until the last couple of years lyrical, plotless, densely intellectual fiction has had some kind of free pass is bizarre and hilarious. The whole notion is some kind of crazy opposite day where those of us who write surreal, postmodern, stylized fiction are rolling in six figure deals and sipping on Cristal while laughing uproariously at those not in on the joke is...well, it's actually kind of offensive, given that what actually happens. Because, kittens, reality is that if you dare to try something other than transparent prose and FASTPACEDACTIONVAMPIRESPLOSIONDETECTIVELEATHERPANTSRAYGUN in genre, you win the grand prize of defending yourself for the rest of your career while you struggle to get paid more than about five dollars for your books. If you try it outside of genre, frankly, it's pretty much the same treatment. Look at the big sellers in literary ficiton, the ones that make a splash: Bee Season, Everything Is Illuminated, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao. The Secret History. There's plot all over those things. Plotgasm City. And precious little lyricism, really. Because the way things stand these days? An adverb makes you a wacky lyrical stylist.

The Modernists? Are all dead, my friends. They have no dog in this race. They wrote what seemed vital and important to them and then a hundred years passed for crying out loud. Why people still want to call T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound out and challenge them to fisticuffs because once they were made to feel bad for not understanding them in college is well and truly beyond me. They were a tiny minority--two guys! Virginia Woolf had plot, I swear! Edna Ferber? ZOMGplot!--and their opinions did not triumph. The vast majority of books are plot-heavy, language-light, for better or for worse, and not terribly hard to read. Hard to read = hard to sell. Thus it ever was, and ever more shall be.

And look. I really and genuinely believe that no writer has ever set out to write a book that no one could understand. That's not what people think when they write. They might think it should take more work than reading the nutritional content of ketchup, but writing is communicating, and even Eliot wanted to be heard, to be understood. Certainly, no writer has ever set out deliberately to make you feel stupid or shit in your cornflakes because you didn't go to the right school or whatever. There is no conspiracy. Hand to god.

I've spent most of my career as a writer defending what I do, in writing groups, workshops, online, to anyone who starts a conversation with the word "accessible." I have agonized over the constant pressure to add more plot and take away the pretty words. Nothing in my world was made easier because I like Eliot and think, you know, he might have had a point and even written a pretty good poem or two back in the day. There was never any hegemony of the plotless to oppress others, in genre or out. The beautiful plotless book is a rare animal, not a cruel, arrogant master cackling at the misfortune of WSJ readers.

Remember how I said that one way to see who has power and who doesn't is to look at who feels free to speak and who does not? Well. We've heard this screed before. Everyone and their grandma feels pretty damn good about tearing down Eliot and the modernists and intellectuals and every classic they were told was great and turned out to be boring. You know why people keep trying to punch out Eliot after all these years? Because since him, this side of the fence has been short on champions. Precious few defenses of dense writing have been published in the Wall Street Journal. You have to go back to Eliot to get a good straw man to set on fire. Harold Bloom is just too easy.

There's just no culture war going on here. There are people writing and people reading and in the main they're reading and writing hard and easy books in about the same proportion that they always have. Digging up this old argument always gives me hives. It is just so much chest-beating by the same people who turn up their nose at what I write and what I want to read, all the while setting up this bizarre universe where they're the victim of some vast plot. Because it's more fun to be the underdog, I suspect. No one wants to think of themselves as Goliath.

But hey, it's ok! Kelly Link is here to save us from all those evil lyrical stylists who disdain plot! At last, the world is safe for children.
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