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Good Books Don't Have to Be Easy, Either
eliot
catvalente
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.

While I agree with most of this, I beg to differ on certain points, namely:

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.

Just because you don't do this doesn't mean those writers -- and that style -- don't exist. I have met them. They're jerks. And their books are crap.

Also, which book of Woolf's had a plot? I must've missed it. Or the plot. I mean -- having a plot is sort of irrelevant when, in the book you're writing, the plot very clearly isn't the point, right?

Also.2, we need a new freakin' word for the Modernists before they go the way of New College in Oxford.

I think the idea that there isn't a plot in Mrs Dalloway or The Waves is weird. Things happen, they progress, there is climax, denouement. There's plot.

Please tell me the name of one published writer who falls into this camp. Who writes deliberately in order to obscure and make sure no one understands them. I'm really curious. I think this is the definition of a straw man.

I wonder sometimes about Finnegan's Wake, by James Joyce, but I think it was written as a puzzle to be picked apart and put back together again, not as something that was just meant to be incomprehensible.

Yeah, I think that's the far end of it--expecting something to be puzzled out still assumes it can be. No one is cackling: NO ONE WILL UNDERSTAND A WORD OF THIS AT LAST VICTORY IS MINE.

The Calling of Lot 39? I think even our teacher gave up finding sensicalness in that one.

Wait, what? Are you serious? The Calling of Lot 39 is fantastic, and makes plenty of sense :)
Well, ok, you have to be in a certain mindset in order to really dig it, but the bonus is once you're in that mindset, a whole lot of other books make perfect sense for free - Illuminatus! by RAW, Foucault's Pendulum, Stand on Zanzibar, etc.

Lol, well, I read it as part of an American Lit class, by which time all we puir students were too traumatised by Brett Easton Ellis to even want to figure it out, I guess! But, really, it has a cohesive meaning, rather than just a mass of references and pomo stuff? I'm pretty sure even our tutor for that section had no idea ...

I would disagree with conflating the idea of "sensicalness" with "plot" in The Crying of Lot 49 (Pynchon). I think one of the things that that book does really well is to separate the two, and show us the idea that a book's plot doesn't always have to make sense.

Come to think of it, Shakespeare's plots don't always make sense either, and sometimes acknowledge this in ironic, funny asides the way that Pynchon does, but I feel like Shakespeare hardly needs anyone to leap to his defense.

I agree that Woolf's novels have a plot. I don't always think it's an original plot (*cough* Mrs. Dalloway, I believe you've already met Mr. Joyce *cough*), and I often think it's a slow plot--I'm currently reading Orlando and have just gotten up to the 18th century, where the plot is "Orlando is annoyed by crinolines and marriage"--but there's definitely a plot there.

It's important to keep in mind that these writers were also writing in the literary styles of their time, which may make them more inaccessible to you now, but may have made them more accessible to readers at the time when they were published (especially Joyce, who did things like drop in references from songs that were popular at the time he wrote the book).

There's this idea that Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, etc., were "setting out to write deathless prose"; this idea is often used to introduce their works to new readers as classics. Those phrases can imply that language itself is going to stay static and preserved, and, more subtly, that good writing will always remain accessible linguistically through virtue of 'universal' themes and/or the genius of its author. Of course, neither of these are true. These linked notions, I think, do readers and authors a disservice from the very beginning, by coloring your perception of a work before you've even got the chance to read it or get to know the author: it's priming readers to be frustrated and blame themelves for their stupidity and/or the authors for their inacessability, when the readers eventually find it's not always easy to read and/or understand those works.

I wish we'd stop teaching this idea, even though teachers and other book-recommenders are not generally doing it on purpose.

I've never read Eliot or Joyce, but I love everything I've seen of Woolf's, and I'm a bit confused as to why people say she has no plot. She has beautiful everything.

As I said to another commenter, I probably went into Lot 49 with te wrong mindset*, but I don't think that a reread would help, for me.


*Reading anything straight after Less Than Sero = D: bad associations forever, apparently.

The Crying of Lot 49 is brilliant and one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read.

And the plot's not too complicated. A woman finds more and more evidence of a secret society that may or may not exist, and she investigates it through a messed up 1960s American culture that seems to slowly be going mad. As a result, the book is a little mad, and doesn't want to resolve anything, but that doesn't mean it's nonsensical.

I really want a tshirt with a little silkscreened name badge on it that says, "Hello, my name is: Arnold Snarb." :)

Nonsensical was propbably the wrong word. You're right that it has a plot, just - it really, really wasn't something I could get into. I flail irritably at pomo, heh.

Oh you know, some kid I met once in college. Well, "met" is a strong word, but I'd see him around the campus and he dressed funny.

Stewart Home. Certainly his attitude at the "lecture" he gave at our campus was almost verbatim "My knowledge of the Avant Garde is SO VAST AND AWESOME that if you understand it I'm doing something wrong." Sadly unironic, and rather insulting. In addition to being published, he's also apparently Iconic.

As for Mrs. Dalloway -- I just think saying that it has a plot is to deliberately misunderstand what someone complaining about its plotlessness is saying. If it's semantics, fine, yes, it has a plot, but I can't see it falling to the "plot-heavy, language-light" category you put it in. And this isn't me hating on it by any means. It has more plot than, say, Tristram Shandy (which, if Grossman REALLY wanted to talk about difficult non-linear whatnots, he could've gone back at least to the beginning of the as-we-recognise-it-today novel) but it's hardly something that's going to jump to mind as "wow, what an awesome story that was."

I don't put it in the same category as plot heavy language light. But it's disengenuous to pretend it's totally non-plot as a political statement, and even more so to say Gatsby is.

I agree. I've read some pretentious crap in my time. I'm a lit major. I LOVE taking things apart and looking at levels of detail. But some stuff is just... pretentious crap.

Examples, please!

Seriously, I want to know what stuff you guys think is just meant to obscure.

It starts to blend together after awhile. And... it's usually "modern lit" that straddles popular and actual lit. However, I can give you the idea of what annoys me most:

Option 1: The false epiphany. Maybe the "plot" muddles around. The protagonist may think about their past, present, or future a bit. Often some tragedy occurs at some point in the narrative. Story ends with semi-philosophical musings but no real point. Protagonist has not become enlightened in any real way, solved any problem, or picked any direction. I blame Joyce for this. I love The Dubliners -- not every writer should try to be Joyce.

Option 2: Tragedy as a bludgeoning device. (I'm looking at you, Jodi Picoult, but, it's a big club you belong to.) Here, in order to be a worthwhile "literary" story -- all things must be tragedy. The more tragic the better! The characters suffer... and probably suffer some more. And then the story ends. In the worst of these, the tragedy is piled on so heavily you roll your eyes and walk away. Those aren't *usually* lauded as excellent books or movies, but, it does happen.

I love dense, thickly plotted books. I love rich language. I enjoy books and movies that twist and take time to understand. It annoys me greatly to have spent the time doing so... and to feel in the end that it was all pointless.

So...your example of "pretentious crap" is Jodi Picoult, a popular author of commercial fiction?

She was the first to come to mind as a particularly bad example. And she may be commercial... but what market exactly is she aiming at? She's not writing escapist fiction. She's writing fiction that (to me) seems to be Trying To Be Serious (tm). (AKA: I hope I end up in Oprah's Book Club.) Mostly I see pretentious crap in things that want to be more important than they really are.

While I was out & about, another one that I read not that long ago occurred to me as an example. I really found Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It" to be pointless. It jumped from theme to theme (brothers, fathers & sons, man's relationship with nature, etc.) and (IMO) returned to a religious relationship with nature that managed to feel both tacked on & hallow. The characters were flat. And yet... critically acclaimed novella. Damned if I know why.

Picoult is absolutely writing in a mode of popular fiction—specifically melodramatic women's fiction. (It's no surprise that three of her novels were turned into Lifetime TV movies.) It's the stuff of soap opera and penny dreadfuls, and is certainly escapist despite the rapes and the shootings and whatnot. It's entirely middle-of-the-road is pretends to no more importance than angry letters to the weekly community newspaper.You brought your conceptions to those books; what you claim of them just isn't in those texts.

It's also worth noting that you declared a novel as pointless and then immediately described several of its themes or, you know, points.

I touched on things that I felt could have been themes, but, I found to be not truly realized and fairly muddled.

Also... while yuki_onna focused on the "good books don't have to be easy," I see two kinds of pretentious crap. The stuff that tries to write with the goal of "showing off" the author's intellectual prowess is one kind. The other (that drives me crazier) is the "angst and pseudo-philosophical realizations make it Real Literature."

"Showing off"? How on Earth do you determine whether or not an author is showing off? Was Asimov showing off all the science he knew? Is Gene Wolfe showing off his prodigious vocabulary? Ditto the stuff with "angst" -- you clearly don't like angst, but is just as clear that you declare such books "pseudo-philosophical" because you don't like them, rather than not liking them because they are pseudo-philosophical.