1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
It’s not just exaggeration, it’s wrong. More good poetry and fiction are being published—or at least being written—than ever before. What is in trouble is the notion of Literature as the acme of culture, as the cultural repository where all good things lie. No one believes this anymore, and they shouldn’t. It’s an abstraction that self-designated cultural gatekeepers believe in because it gives them something to do: urge the great unwashed to expose themselves to it and become cleansed in the way the gatekeeper in question prefers. Those who peddle the “death of literature” line find works of literature praiseworthy if they seem accessible to the masses, contemptible if they seem directed at “merely literary” people. That serious literature is going to be “accessible” to the masses in any form is an illusion.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
No. If I were to pick any form as the “prime example” it would be poetry, since it is concerned in the most concentrated way with making verbal art out of the common language. I guess that’s how I would define literature—verbal art. However, I don’t really work with any abstract notion of “Literature.” I use the word frequently enough, but mostly as a convenience. Otherwise, I’m looking for individual poems, novels, or stories that aspire to a degree of seriousness of purpose.
3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.
Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
It’s not that they convey the message you cite but that they turn writing into a competition. It seems to me a quintessentially American stupidity, but unfortunately the rest of the world seems to have picked it up from us. Generally, I pay no attention to awards and prizes at all, although the Book Critics Circle award and the National Book Award do provide us with some blog fodder.
The “prizes” awarded by literary journals—those that ask for an “entry fee”--do seem to me an active menace. They take advantage of aspiring writers in all the obvious ways, they trivialize literature, and the prize itself is meaningless. It’s a way for some literary journals to stay afloat. If you want to help out these journals, subscribe or make a contribution. Don’t play the prize game.
4. You've posted several times on the importance of avoiding "print sniffing" -- that is, valorizing what is in print over what is online simply *because* the former is in printed form. Agreeing that good writing is good writing no matter what medium it appears in, isn't it nevertheless the case that what appears in print has a greater potential for longevity and receiving widespread critical attention? In other words, isn't the de facto reality of canon formation that it is the *book* that must come into existence before the text contained in the book can be immortalized? Or is this attitude simply passe, and even dangerous, in a time when book publishing is on the ropes?
I don’t think it has a greater potential for longevity, if only because print, words on paper, doesn’t have a long life ahead of it. (I’m referring specifically to what gets printed in newspapers and magazines. Books are going to continue in their current form because there doesn’t seem to be an acceptable electronic alternative on the horizon.) I don’t know about the “widespread critical attention” part. Most short fiction is published in literary journals with tiny circulations. Most of it doesn’t get and “critical attention” at all. Book publishing is on the ropes not because publishers are hesitant to move to electronic publishing but because most of what they publish is really bad.
5. The lit-blogosphere is chock full of commentary. But, proportionately, it doesn't contain much creative work -- that is, it's extremely difficult to find blog sites (as opposed to online magazines) primarily devoted to original fiction. What's up with that? Is the internet doomed to be a venue of commentary rather than art?
Well, but there are quite a few online magazines. I have a relatively long list of them on a “literary journal” blogroll, and I’m sure there are many more I haven’t run across yet. For the moment, the blog probably is more well-suited to commentary. I would guess that if more bloggers were to turn to “creative” works, these would be included on some sort of side-site. (I have one of those myself.)
6. In a recent post entitled "Notated" (May 8. 07), you comment on an article in the LA Times about Granta's newest best young novelist list. You remark:
The view of fiction implicit in this article's discussion of the newest and the latest is that it is a forum for "expression." Writers "express" themselves, and through them their ethnic or class heritage gets expressed. Taken as whole, the writers included in the Granta anthology express the concerns and preoccupations of their generational cohort. Why exactly such writers would choose the indirect and rhetorically impure mode of fiction--which unavoidably is going to disperse and obscure your "themes" unless you run them diligently roughshod--in order to give "expression" to such things is never made clear.
This is an interesting passage which sums up the argument you've made in several posts. But are you really being fair to the writers in question? Are they themselves aiming to "express" "themes" that are largely sociological (by which I take you to mean tendentious) in nature?
My criticism was directed at the way these writers were being discussed. I haven’t read many of the writers included in that volume. For all I know, I might find that many don’t view writing as “expression” and are plenty concerned with what I generally call “aesthetics.” If this is so, you wouldn’t know it by the kind of talk typified in that article. It seems the only way some people have to discuss literature at all.
7. In the same LA Times piece, Ian Jack states: "To go through this process of creative writing schools, now, to become a budding novelist, more and more means you need a certain amount of ancestral wealth. I hate to sound like a Marxist, but economics does govern a lot of life, especially cultural life." Whether this is accurate or not (and please comment on whether you think it is), the implication is that what is happening in literature is what has happened in contemporary visual art: one need not be rich to make it, but one needs the attention and beneficence of the rich ... who might in this case be defined as powerful publishers and agents.
Is there not some truth to what Jack is saying? Given mass culture's usual tendency to paper over the economic difficulties of life, isn't there an argument for showing this aspect of existence a little more frequently than it has been of late in contemporary literary art? In short, if writers don't show what it's like to struggle to make a living, who in our celebrity-and-rich-folk-obsessed culture will?
How many people really need to know “what it’s like to struggle to make a living”? Other rich people? Don’t the people doing the struggling already know it’s a struggle? Frankly, this notion could be called the “documentary” view of literature. Fiction exists to “document” the lives of these people or those people. I don’t have much use for that, either.
I’m not really sure I understand Jack’s point. Only “privileged” people are now becoming writers? Only kiss-asses? Maybe such kinds of students are now going through certain creative writing schools, but “writer” and “MFA-recipient” aren’t the same thing.
8. As a critic, you place a lot of emphasis on close readings of texts for their aesthetic qualities. However, the impression I often get from your posts is that you see the aesthetic as somewhat removed from the emotional qualities of a work of fiction; that is, you seem more interested in the formal qualities of a work's aesthetic rather than its emotive ones (which as I'm imagining them here also arise from the aesthetic).
Is the above a fair characterization of your temperament as a critic? Or do you define the aesthetic differently?
That is a fair enough characterization. I don’t deny the “emotive” qualites of art. I just thank the aesthetic comes first. Too many people—too many critics—leap ahead immediately to the emotive without first considering how the emotive is mediated by the aesthetic.
9. You taught within academe. Now, so to speak, you teach outside it (that is, your blog posts are often carefully written enough to be considered mini-essays). What is your ultimate hope as a critic: to develop (or re-invigorate) a school of criticism? To be a gadfly of academic pretension? Or is the very idea of an overarching critical "goal" one reason you left academe?
I do sort of see some of my posts as having a kind of teaching function. It’s the part of academe I haven’t left. If I could “reinvigorate” a school of criticism, the school of close reading for aesthetic purposes, I would be very happy. I’m not deluded enough to think I can do that.
I’m not so much against “academic pretension” (lots of people would no doubt say I have pretensions of my own). I’m against the direction academe has taken away from studying “literature itself” and toward treating literature as a cultural specimen or symptom.
10. You have also posted against art that has a political message. But is art that has a political aspect necessarily art that has a message? (Again, isn't your real beef against tendentiousness?)
It seems to me this question can be viewed from two angles.
First: the economic mentioned above. Why should a political novel necessarily be explicitly political? In a comment of your own following a post of Dec. 7, 2004, you hint at this: "'Unpoliticized' as in without reference to its ultimate political utility or implications. Such a thing is perfectly possible. All of the dogmatic assertions that everything is political are just malarkey."
To my mind, an example of how this can work is Dreiser's SISTER CARRIE (I hope this example works for you as well). It is a work with a "message". And it has a few explicitly political passages. Yet it works aesthetically: Dreiser, to my mind, is a superb writer, who is technically adept in a way that you allege another "message writer", Dostoevsky, isn't. At the same, time, SISTER CARRIE works emotionally: Hurstwood's obsessive love for Carrie is palpable, and their affair is deeply involving for the reader. However, despite the novel's focus on romantic desire, it also works as a social novel. The different classes Hurstwood and Carrie come from make their relationship illustrative of social relations.
If one views clear, honest depictions of poverty/class relationships as having at least the potential for being "political" without having an explicit (i.e., tendentious) message, is it not possible to successfully combine the political with the artistic? (Other examples: much mid-20th C. Korean fiction; and, to a certain extent, recent American novels such as THE CORRECTIONS and PREP.) Do you agree that economic "dramas" do not need to be politicized in order for them to have political significance? In other words, is it not true a novel can be "political" without attempting any message?
I agree with you about Sister Carrie. It’s one of the primary challenges to my general view of what fiction should do. Dreiser writes badly, but nevertheless I find myself absorbed by his plots. The bad writing seems suited to the prosaic but inexorable working-out of the fates of his characters. His novels don’t so much seem to be designed to advance a political idea as to truly uncover how American life unfolds. This has an undeniable secondary effect that is “political,” but to me it seems dwarfed by the aesthetic power his novels contain.
If a novel can be political without attempting a message, Sister Carrie would be a good model.
11. Second: Is there not a place in literary fiction for novels set in the world of policy making/intelligence gathering? It seems to me these modes of life, especially the second, have pretty much been left to the genre writers. And so there now exists a deep-seated prejudice against a literary novel that, say, would show the workings of an intelligence agency or state department.
But why should that be? Particularly these days, our mass culture is fixated on dramas of Law and Order, which include dramas of the world of intelligence. But literature seems to feel this is inherently low. Yet literature is where genre fiction's failings -- turgid prose, cardboard characterizations, reactionary presuppositions -- could be avoided. Don't we NEED a literature that tackles these themes, too?
I guess there could be a place for that kind of fiction. I wouldn’t want to read it, myself. Although if you’re referring to “spy fiction,” I’ve read some spy novels I liked. Anyone can write any kind of novel for any reason he/she wants. If you take “policy making” as your ostensible subject but otherwise write an aesthetically interesting book, I’m not going to complain. However, if you take that as your subject because primarily you want to explore matters of policy or you want to profile those who make it and how they do it, you should just admit up front that you’re more interested in policy (or history or politics) than you are in fiction.
12. Finally, like many serious lit-bloggers you work very hard, and work alone on THE READING EXPERIENCE. Is this best for the long run? Have you thought of starting an online magazine?
I have thought about it. I’m still pondering whether I want to review works of experimental fiction as I’m now doing it—serially, by myself—or start up some kind of broader forum for the discussion of such fiction, a forum that would include reviews by others as well. I’m not very good at the logisitics of such things, however.