The Case for Brand Names

“Though I’m usually put off by any use of brand names in fiction (it’s a lazy writer’s way of ‘placing’ a character, and nothing can be date a work more quickly than a reference to a brand of bed linen that no longer exists) it’s also true that certain consumer choices can communicate a wealth of information. Anyone who has ever listened to the NPR-syndicated call-in show Car Talk, will have noticed how much the brothers ‘Click and Clack’ can tell about each listener on the basis of what sort of car a caller drives, and the nature of his or her engine-repair or brake-drum problem. Once, I heard a man phone in to ask the brothers’ opinion on whether he should buy a red Jeep or a red Miata, a question to which the acutely perceptive reply was ‘So tell me, when did you get your divorce?'” — Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

Statement of Intentions

Scott did it. And I’m going to do it right now. In fact, I’d like to see anyone with a passion for books set down precisely what it is about literature makes them groove. That goes for you, Mr. Sarvas! And you, Mr. Smokler! And, hell, even you, Mr. Freeman. And you, Ms. Crispin, so we might be able to find some books you’d like. And anybody else who writes or gives a damn about books.

Why do this? Well, for starters, it’s a good exercise to confirm just why we’re all batshit crazy about literature and permits us to understand our respective perspectives. Perhaps in setting down precisely what it is about literature that means something, we might better be able to expand beyond our paradigms and try a few new things in the process. Think about it: Instead of bemoaning vicious reviews and keeping a review’s tone artificially sunny, wouldn’t it be interesting to know what Leon Wieseltier or Dale Peck like so that we might better comprehend what makes them write so angrily about books? Is it possible that the negative reviewers are misunderstood? Wouldn’t it be invaluable to have a supplement to a weekly book review section that lists each critic’s statement of intentions?

So, like Scott, I’m going to offer my statement of intentions. And I hope that you will too. And you, and you, and you.

Here then is what I look for in a work of fiction:

A sense of playfulness. I will confess that a novel with a playful prose style is likely to tickle my fancy more than a straightforward tale written in that humorless realist mode that James Wood is so smitten with. This is not to suggest that I am adverse to realism or serious fiction. Richard Yates remains a firm favorite and I’ll go into the whys of this a tad later. The playfulness, however, should adhere to some reasonable human construct. It should be justified, motivated not by an author flexing his chops (see Dave Eggers and, to some degree, Saul Bellow, early Martin Amis, and Benjamin Kunkel), but because the nature of the fiction requires it. But here’s the strange loophole: If an author presents a unique and distinct way of seeing the world (such as Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers or David Foster Wallace), I’m more willing to forgive him his narrative digressions.

A concern for details. I have a soft spot for books that dare to present the world’s quotidian details in ways we haven’t seen before. Nicholson Baker comes to mind. Carol Shields too. Colson Whitehead, definitely. I suspect this is why I also like Updike so much and am willing to forgive Terrorist (and even the dreadful Gertrude and Claudius) for its flaws. When Updike writes about old buildings being split up like a cardboard box, there is something in his phrasing and imagery that makes me quite giddy. I feel as if I am seeing the world in ways that I haven’t observed it before. Sometimes, it could be through a miniscule detail in the phrasing. Sometimes, it’s just outright daffy foci. When Baker describes a paperclip and dares to chart precisely how it was manufactured, I feel indebted to him for overlooking some pivotal aspect of the world that I should be paying attention to.

Keeping it real. I’m not a big fan of magical realism. My bullshit detector flies off the charts when people inexplicably begin flying in the middle of a novel because the author can’t determine a way to progress his narrative forward. There are certainly exceptions (Murakami, Calvino, Borges) with authors who dabble in the surreal, but, for the most part, such exercises escape a writer’s first and foremost duty: to convey the human experience in a way in which we can believe it. I can believe, for example, the extraordinary world of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon because there is an underlying structure to its gaslights, its curious criminal justice system with the Remades, and its underground scientists toiling away at experiments in dingy apartments. Likewise, I can look at a book like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and ferret out the precise details which reveal the Wheelers’ discontentment. The environs or the genre or the highbrow/lowbrow status matters little to me. It’s the verisimiltude that keeps my motor purring.

A fresh perspective. For the next LBC round, I nominated a book that had one of the most unique perspectives I had encountered in some time. It was not simply the book’s unusual and quite idiosynchratic perspective that rocked my world, but, tied into my last point, the realization that this author had weaved a tale of unexpected poignancy that felt as real as any other tale. This harkens back to my earlier point of recontextualization. I think Scott and I differ a bit on this point. We once got into a heated conversation about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which he felt that what Mitchell was portraying was typical and I defended the book’s ability to recontextualize both narrative and the world around us, while agreeing that its platitude-stacked ending was a bit of a letdown.

A sense of ambition. One of literature’s great challenges is to push the envelope further in a way that we haven’t seen it before. I can forgive a flawed book like Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which I wrote about here, because it’s attempting an earnestness that is well at odds with the irony-soaked novels and literary realism so fashionable today. Likewise, if Robert Coover sometimes leaves me cold or a John Barth volume flounders, the ambition still sticks to the craw.

Giddy experimentalism. To me, Gilbert Sorrentino and David Markson are extraordinary writers because they experiment in a manner which invites. Sorrentino’s elaborate lies (such as the giddy notion of a character playing “roles” in various novels offered in Mulligan Stew) and Markson’s sentence-by-sentence approach to narrative remind us that experimentalism doesn’t have to be a cold and off-putting affair. Theirs is the purest and most difficult form of experimentalism to pull off.

Difficulty. I like books that challenge me. Books that I have to deconstruct, books in which I constantly have to look up things, books that compel me to reread them later, books I savor. I like books in which I don’t really have a sense of what’s going on until Page 75. I like books, like Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, that, with its index, suggest an interconnectedness that a grad student might spend weeks dwelling upon. I like Gaddis’s approach to dialogue in J.R., where we have to work to figure out who is speaking (which implies that we really aren’t paying nearly as much attention as we should).

Balls. I like writers who make me feel uncomfortable. I like writers who tell the truth. I like writers who want to take me to places I would never visit in a million years. I like writers who throw me into a horrific place and refuse to take the easy way out.

Since Scott has also presented a preference list, here are my answers:

The Intuitionist or John Henry Days? John Henry Days
Mailer, Roth, or Updike? Updike
Fitzgerald or Hemingway? Fitzgerald
White Noise or Underworld? White Noise
Pale Fire or Lolita? Lolita
Romanticism, Moderism, or Postmodernism? Romanticism, then Postmodernism, then Modernism

[UPDATE: Dan Wickett has thrown in his hat.]

The Case for Human Aestheticism

Dan Green riffing from David Ulin’s review of Faulkner’s early novels: “That some modernists/postmodernists are preoccupied with aesthetic questions is true enough, but why are these kinds of questions not considered properly ‘human’? Isn’t the ability to formulate the concept of the aesthetic one of our defining features as a species? Presumably Ulin wants Faulkner’s books to be sources of wisdom, while I want them to be sources of aesthetic delight. But I can see no reason why the former rather than the latter should be the deciding factor in judging a writer’s work sufficiently ‘profound’ to be art.”

A War on Contemporary Bildungsromans?

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers an overview of “lad lit,” noting, “Virtually every writer of guy lit is an almost-thirtysomething graduate of an elite college or university.” This is indeed the case, but I have to ask whether this makes any of the novels presented here (Kyle Baker’s Love Monkey, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land) distinctly “lad lit.” Aren’t these actually Bildungsromans? Like its taxonomic cousin “chick lit,” many of these titles deal with common themes involving eking out an existence or forming an identity. With chick lit, we see women who are growing out of singledom, debating how to balance a career and snag a man. With lad lit, the novels feature thirtysomething slackers who refuse to grow up, often relying upon the crutch of pop culture to stave off the inevitable growth process.

And that’s the key distinction here among the lad lit and chick lit titles: an individual developing and trying to find a place in society. Kyle Smith’s Tom Farrell is 32 and remarks in the early pages that he is living a lifestyle no less different from the one that he occupied as a teenager, still eating his cereal out of a Star Wars bowl. We have Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding (a surname perhaps not coincidentally connoting “Bildungsroman”) resorting to checking his e-mail rather than figuring out what to do with his life. Lipsyte’s Lewis Miner can’t even take care of himself, marveling at his sallow-colored teeth in the mirror and harassing various people from his high school. These are all men who live child-like existences and who have deferred the process of growing up for a later time. And the central question of these three novels is whether or not these protagonists will actually grow up. While the emphasis here is contemporary, how different is this really from the book-length formations of Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy?

Now some of these titles may be more popular than literary, nevertheless, they do deal with themes of formation. Ergo, thematically at least, I suspect we may have an interesting assault upon contemporary Bildungsromans.

It’s also important to note that Bildungsromans are not exclusively male and that the work of Jennifer Weiner and Curtis Sittenfeld is no less different. Take, for example, the parallels that one can draw with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a lengthy poem in which a young woman must overcome folkways and expectations in the Victorian period. There is this moment in which Aurora watches another couple in the Sixth Book:

A woman sauntered slow, in front,
Munching an apple,–she left off amazed
As if I had snatched it: that’s not she, at least.
A man walked arm-linked with a lady veiled,
Both heads dropped closer than the need of talk:
They started; he forgot her with his face
And she, herself,–and clung to him as if
My look were fatal.

How different is this really from a chick lit protagonist trash-talking a beautiful couple living a perceived ideal just beyond her reach? Or the prep school tyranny experienced by Sittenfeld’s Lee Fiora? Or Weiner’s Rose Feller plagued by her sister’s seemingly adept way of stringing along men while she remains alone? Interestingly, like Weiner’s work, the prose here relies on observations which reflect the protgaonist’s anxieties and hesitations.

Beyond the stigma against popular tales which feature happy endings (or perhaps it’s those decidedly unmasculine pink covers; thankfully, I live in San Francisco and this is not much of a problem while reading on the subway), I’m wondering if the pejorative labels often attached to chick lit and lad lit might represent a reluctance in our literary culture to contemplate the delayed impulse that many twentysomethings have in forming careers, in getting married, and in growing up.

The recent Times contemporary fiction list, with its paucity of authors under 40, has generated much discussion about who might be “the voice of our generation.” I think this question is moot. There are plenty of authors attempting to chronicle exactly what twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are going through these days. The problem is that their work suffers an instant crib death when received by the literary community. Jonathan Safran Foer is turned into a punching bag. Benjamin Kunkel is drowned in the hype. Curtis Sittenfeld declares war on any book even remotely resembling chick lit. While it is perfectly acceptable for Updike and Roth to turn out endless books about middle-aged men entering into adulterous affairs or having midlife crises, it is apparently unacceptable for younger writers to write about younger protagonists trying to figure out their lives. By this token, why aren’t Updike and Roth torn new ones for “geezer lit?”

Perhaps the time has come to stop attaching dismissive labels to these books and consider how contemporary authors are attempting to bring back issues of formation in a literary climate which declares sincerity a strumpet and novels involving younger people mere baubles.

Newsflash: Authors Influenced by Personal Experience. Next Major Discovery: Shakespeare Wrote in Iambic Pentameter!

The Independent: “But there are inescapable similarities between the book and Carey’s own life. Its central character, Butcher Bones, is an artist born the same year and in the same town outside Melbourne, Australia. Their careers have taken them to Sydney, Tokyo and New York, but perhaps more crucially both have recently emerged from bitter divorces.”

Julia Scheeres: Freygate II or Troubling Trend?

Sherry Early over at Semicolon notes of Julia Scheeres’ Jesus Land:

The most appalling abuse that Ms. Scheeres documents in her book is spiritual abuse. Counselors and house parents force teens to mouth words of repentance and faith in Christ in order to earn “points” toward release from the school. Even though the James Frey debacle has placed a pall of suspicion over the memoir genre, and even though I have grown up around evangelical, fundamentalist, and Calvinist Christians and have never witnessed anything like the kind of abuse that Ms. Scheeres tells about in her book, I am forced to believe that New Horizons Youth Ministries has been guilty of a serious betrayal of the trust placed in its program by parents and their children.

In the ongoing debate over whether memoirs are “true” or not, this is certainly a good point. When one’s experience is translated and reconfigured upon the page and the words, in turn, become shocking or even run counter to conventional wisdom, at what point must we send in the journalists to corroborate or disclaim a person’s experience? Part of me tends to think that, at least in Jesus Land‘s case, there might be a tad too much scrutiny being applied here, which is an understandable impulse after the James Frey scandal.

But I think Early unearths a far more substantial issue in her questioning. Have today’s memoirs become too subjective? (And by “subjective,” I mean to suggest centered almost exclusively around the memoirist’s redemption. Perhaps “solipsistic” is a better word, although this is, in my judgment, a mite too harsh a modifier.) Part of me suspects that most memoirs published today are near-Pavlovian experiences. The memoirist tells his tale of abuse and the reader is then obliged to feel pity and/or moved for the memoirist, until the inevitable film adaptation, in which the reader transmutes into a filmgoer and is obliged to sit through a five-hankie Hollywood tearjerker of the same experience, the contents further divested of integrity.

This might be oversimplifying the problem, but one need only look at the pre-scandal marketing of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces to see this wholesale celebration of bathos. Consider the sentiment expressed by Oprah in which she declared to Frey that, while reading the book, she flipped back to the cover to see if he was all right. Is this really the stuff that makes memoirs so rewarding?

Allow me to put forth the following hypothesis: Is the memoir so locked in the personal experience of one that it is now impossible or less likely, due to current market conditions or what is currently expected from contemporary memoirs, for the memoirist to even get inside the head of her abusers or those who she would decry as evil, much less herself?

What, for example, makes Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind good memoirs? I would argue that it isn’t the personal salvation component, although the aftermaths of both women are certainly comforting to hear about, but that it’s the humility and candor that Knapp and Jamison contribute when describing their respective experiences. Both writers are self-critical and both are unafraid to reveal their behavior, warts and all. But simultaneously, they don’t completely demonize themselves or others, nor do they paint themselves as total victims. They are respectful enough to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions. Indeed, it is the very lack of solipsism that makes these two memoirs striking.

So what happened to the memoir in the past ten years? Was it Dave Eggers sullying the memoir genre with his endless pop cultural references? Was it Angela’s Ashes demanding that all memoirists up the existential ante if they earned the right to chart their experiences?

Whatever it was, I think some sincere component was lost along the way. The memoirists forgot that their purpose was to paint important portraits of human behavior, rather than cater to a specific marketing niche or impress the crowd with stylistic pyrotechnics. Which is a pity, because before all this nonsense (and even after), I always thought that the memoir was one of the most promising places to read about the human experience. And so did William Zinsser in On Writing Well.

(Major hat tip to Brandywine Books)

The Best First Sentence in Fiction

Scott and I recently had a conversation about how important opening sentences are to narrative. But I’d like to take this one step further and dare you all to come up with the best first sentence in a short story or a novel that you’ve ever read. We’re talking an opening sentence so utterly irresistible, something that is so unquestionably curious and so absolutely tantalizing that you, as a reader, simply must read the whole thing!

Here’s my nominee:

“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” — Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers

And yours?

[UPDATE: Totally unrelated to the collaborative little quest here, Wendi is kind enough to point to Litline, the top 100 first sentences in fiction, which apparently was located by those swinging cats over at LHB.]

Fantastical, My Ass

I must protest against Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl.

From today, NPR’s Morning Edition: “Because while these stories do have a touch of the fantastical, in Maureen McHugh’s hands, you start with these ordinary situations and when the fantastical occurs, you’re so comfortable with the world that she’s created that you don’t question it as being strange as unsettling.”

Um, isn’t this the point of all good books? That, irrespective of genre, the reader believes in the world created, whether it be Ian Rankin’s highly detailed Edinburgh or the preposterous premise of Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom which Thomson himself single-handedly gets you to believe?

While Pearl was likely trying to get the fuddy-duddy NPR listeners to consider the speculative fiction genre as they sucked down the morning’s brew from their expensive homemade latte machines, this still strikes me as an extaordinary conceit. Why must Pearl perpetuate the great white lie that anything dealing with the “fantastical” has to be subjected to these ridiculous handicaps? Cannot these books be considered on their own terms? Besides, isn’t truth stranger than fiction? Isn’t life “fantastical” in the curve balls it often throws? Or is literary worth at large now confined to such safe septuagenarians as Phillip Roth and John Updike. If so, so sorry to have muffed up that L.L. Bean scarf, old sport, with a bit of that New Crobuzon grit!

Write Ghettoized Fiction or Die Tryin’

In the latest edition of Emerald City, Matthew Cheney offers us “Literary Fiction for People Who Hate Literary Fiction.” Cheney writes, “A reader only interested in a narrow type of writing (hard SF, for instance) is not going to find much pleasure from any literary fiction, but a reader who is interested in experiencing new realities, strange visions, visceral horror, and supernatural events has plenty to choose from,” and proceeds to offer a helpful list of authors for those who’d like to experience some of these alternative visions.

I think, however, it goes without saying that there’s a similar stigma working in reverse. I’m talking about a certain type of literary person who simply will not pick up a book penned by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Octavia Butler, China Mieville, Rupert Thompson, Gene Wolfe or Donald Westlake, precisely because the book is categorized in the mystery or science fiction sections of the bookstore. Sure, the literary person will pick up Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and go nuts over it because it is categorized in the fiction section or in some sense crowned by the tastemakers as “literary,” little realizing that Philip K. Dick explored similar ethical questions about cloning in his 1968 novella, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (later turned into Blade Runner), as did Kate Wilhelm in Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing and David Brin in Glory Season. The list goes on.

In fact, when we examine the rave reviews given to Ishiguro, we find a profound misunderstanding, if not an outright belittling, of science fiction:

Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times: “So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from ”The Twilight Zone,” but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own.”

Louis Menand, The New Yorker, on the book’s ending: “It’s a little Hollywood, and the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over into science fiction, and this is not, at heart, where it seems to want to be.”

Siddhartha Deb, The New Statesman: “This unusual premise, emerging through Kathy’s memories, does not lead us into the realm of speculative science fiction. Unlike Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake (2003), Ishiguro is not interested in using the idea of cloning to conjure up a panoramic dystopia.”

These all come from non-academic publications which might be considered “of value” to the literary enthusiast. And yet note the way that Kakutani is relieved that Ishiguro’s book doesn’t inhabit the realm of science fiction (indeed, failing to cite a specific science fiction book in her comparison). Or the way that Menand suggests that the novel’s ending is “pushed over into science fiction.” (Never mind that, by way of its story, Never Let You Go, with its premise of engineered clones, its near-future setting, and its shadowy governments, is indisputably a science fiction novel. So the idea that it would be pushed into a genre it already inhabits is absurd and contradictory.) Meanwhile Deb praises the novel’s “unusual premise” but, despite Ishiguro’s science fiction elements, it somehow does not fall into the redundant term of “speculative science fiction.”

What we have here is a strange reviewing climate transmitting a clear and resounding message to the literary enthusiasts who read the reviews. If a novel manages to convince a sophisticate or a literary enthusiast that it does not inhabit a genre, then it is, in fact, literature. If, however, there is a single experiential passage reminiscent of or explicitly describing bug-eyed monsters or aliens or clones, then sorry, but you’re taking a gritty stroll in the ghetto and you should be ashamed of yourself for taking off your evening gown and putting on some old sweats. Is this really so different from the backlash Dan Green recently identified against experimental fiction?

Of course, M. John Harrison, himself a fantastic science fiction writer, was one of the few to observe, “[Y]ou’re thrown back on the obvious explanation: the novel is about its own moral position on cloning. But that position has been visited before (one thinks immediately of Michael Marshall Smith’s savage 1996 offering, Spares). There’s nothing new here; there’s nothing all that startling; and there certainly isn’t anything to argue with.”

The fact that the literary climate refuses to examine, much less acknowledge, Ishiguro’s antecedents suggests not only that the genre stigma holds true, but that today’s reviewers operate with a deliberate myopia towards those authors who would innovate along similar lines in other genres. For the genre-snubbing literary enthusiast, there is something new in Ishiguro. The new realities, the visceral horror — all presented in a seemingly fresh way. But the very lack of inclusiveness in this approach is not only unfair, but critically unsound.

The War on Lists

Chances are that if you start reading any quasi-postmodern title, you’ll eventually find yourself at what I call “the list moment.” No, I’m not referring to that inevitable moment in which the book shifts sideways in your hand as the subway descends into the underworld. What I’m talking about here is a grandiose stream of names or locales, often explicitly invented, that enters midway through the text and stands out like a knee-shifting greenhorn at a cotillion. The finest example of this in the literary vein might be the semicolonic semis rolling through the mighty intertext highways of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. And let us not forget that it was, after all, the lists in High Fidelity which jump-started Nick Hornby’s career, leading him from a novelist adeptly chronicling a particular type of cultural geek to the dull and unoffensive writer he is today.

Lists were one of the charges leveled against Don DeLillo in B.R. Myers’ “A Reader’s Manifesto” (The Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001, later expanded into a Melville House book and available in its original form to subscribers and microfiche enthusiasts only!). Myers specifically singled out the opening passage of White Noise, an array of nouns and pre-modifiers that spells out the manifest of items during the moving process. He called it “the sort of writing, full of brand names and wardrobe inventories, that critics like to praise as an ‘edgy’ take on the insanity of modern American life.” Of course, Myers, much like that other generalization-happy, literary attack dog Dale Peck, doesn’t cite a single example of how book critics have parsed DeLillo’s list here as “edgy writing.” Myers is correct to note that DeLillo’s list is hardly “edgy” as all. It is, rather, a faithful grouping of items which reminds us of the seemingly limitless crap accumulated by human beings. There is nothing “left-leaning,” as Myers suggests, in observing this. Indeed, DeLillo has left the political ramifications up to the individual reader. His list is an observational response to a society which hordes a colossal percentage of the world’s resources and often fails to consider the state of contemporary landfills. Perhaps because this list has been perused by a reactionary critic, Myers has interpreted this as a political act, in that the details, entirely devoid of politics and with the aftermath of where these items end up unreported, have troubled his conscience.

I have a problem with Myers’ suggestion that DeLillo’s list is “just dull” or that DeLillo here is “just trying to be funny” or that his list should be immediately dismissed simply because Myers himself doesn’t enjoy it. In fact, I think that the list here is pretty effective precisely because it has provoked Myers’ irrational ire. Taken on its own terms, a Dum-Dum pop or a rucksack is pretty innocuous. But together, along with countless other items, they have been interpreted by Myers as a threat to contemporary literature! And this clearly demonstrates what makes a list so valuable and advantageous in fiction. Where a narrative guided by your garden variety subject-verb might merely advance the plot, a list, constructed largely of noun phrases, becomes something which doesn’t induce nearly as consistent a response among its readership. One reader, objecting to Dum-Dum pops on principle, might find the list objectionable in toto because the Dum-Dum pop has unearthed a scarring memory. Another reader might be offended by any list which dares to chronicle more than fifteen items. The context’s the thing. In a strange way, lists may in fact be more subjectively interpreted by readers. Because people often take lists so personally (witness the extreme reactions over the many top ten lists unleashed in the past few weeks, despite the fact that the lists in question are only the reflection of an individual or a small group), and because there seems to be a strange obsession with lists in American culture (whether Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s list, inter alia), it is quite likely that the list’s very subjective quality is what causes it to be misperceived as political. (An out-there rhetorical question: Is it possible that the list is objected to because contemporary society, and thus reactionary critics of the literature which reflects it, doesn’t value this kind of free association?)

I suspect what contemporary literature needs is more lists. Shopping lists gone horribly awry. Lists that are entirely gratuitous. Lists that go on for sixty pages. Lists that in simply existing might cause us to examine why some people find them so offensive and irritating.

Is It So Wrong to Read C.S. Lewis?

I’m interrupting my hiatus to comment upon this Polly Toynbee article on C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, largely because (a) I can report, like Mojoey, that I read the Narnia books as a child and I remain an atheist and (b) I recently had an interesting discussion with a friend about ethical atheism and the question of whether religious art can be valid in imparting ethical observations, irrespective of religious belief, is nestled in my mind.

A number of people have offered their thoughts on the subject already. But let’s ponder what seems to be considered the most offensive passage:

Over the years, others have had uneasy doubts about the Narnian brand of Christianity. Christ should surely be no lion (let alone with the orotund voice of Liam Neeson). He was the lamb, representing the meek of the earth, weak, poor and refusing to fight. Philip Pullman – he of the marvellously secular trilogy His Dark Materials – has called Narnia “one of the most ugly, poisonous things I have ever read”.

Why? Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America – that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis’s view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis’s earth.

First off, it is not acceptable criticism to offer Philip Pullman’s thoughts in lieu of one’s own, particularly when they have no relation to the argument in question. (Pullman’s remarks originated in the Weekly Standard, but I have had little success in tracking down the original article. So we lack context to frame Pullman’s statement. And there’s also this additional flaw from Toynbee: Was Pullman even talking about Christ being depicted as a lion rather than a lamb?) For one thing, as the Chronicle of Higher Education recently suggested, Pullman, as the author of a series of children’s fantasy books, may have ulterior motives for his statements. And it is disingenuous to frame Pullman’s remarks (he has also called the books “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology,” “monumentally disparaging of girls and women” and interested in a “sadomasochistic relish for violence”) when there are no supportive examples to back up his argument.

Further, there are countless Christ-like figures in literature. And if this is a quality that makes a novel verboeten, I suppose we will have to throw most of Flannery O’Connor’s oeuvre, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, William Faulkner’s A Fable (which won him the Pulitzer Prize), Preacher Casey from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (who echoes Christ’s last words when confronted by union busters) and Shakespeare’s Prince Hal (to name just a few that come to mind) into the dust heap. But then since Ms. Toynbee seems inflexible with a talking lion representing Christ (instead of the standard lamb metaphor), one can only imagine how she might react to many of these depictions.

Whether an atheist or an academic likes it or not, western religion is deeply ingrained within our culture. I’m guessing that if you were to go Christmas shopping right now, you’d hear such hard-core Christian songs as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” over the speakers. If you take out your wallet or your purse right now, you will find the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the money you use to purchase things. But just as we have deity reference points when discussing Homer, is it so wrong to have similar reference points when discussing literature? Provided one does not use this as a pretext to proselytize, I’m mystified as to why it’s so evil to identify a literary metaphor that just happens to be religious.

As to the second paragraph, like my colleague Tito Perez, I’m puzzled as to whether Ms. Toynbee is referring to the film or the book or both. I suspect, however, that she’s jumping on Pullman’s quote, which would draw us to the novel, suggesting that in Narnia is “the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America — that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.” I’m not certain if Lewis entirely intended this. Here’s the oft quoted Lewis remark: “I asked myself, supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?”

Even if we accept Aslan’s ideology as a “neo-fascist strain,” I should point out the White Witch is just as warped and distorted in her actions, having transformed Narnia into an unpleasant and wintry world, turning prisoners into stone, playing off of Edmund’s avarice by getting him hooked on Turkish Delight, using Edmund as a spy, is ready to kill Edmund shortly before Aslan and company arrive, and who then humiliates and kills Aslan. In other words, it’s safe to conclude that the White Witch isn’t exactly someone who you’d invite to a dinner party.

Further, Aslan is hardly a mighty figure in the book’s early pages. If anything, he’s a lion who lacks initiative most of the time and who indeed needs to be galvanized by the children into giving a damn about the White Witch’s actions. While it is true that these actions do result in a case of might making right, they might also be interpreted to be that of a figure too passive to carry out his duties and who needs to respond to it by committing something he might consider unethical or unpalatable (the murder of the White Witch) to achieve a greater good (harmony in Narnia). Given that the novel frames itself within the context of World War II, does this not strike a similar refrain for the true costs of taking out Hitler or the general atmosphere of the time? It is mortality that galvanizes Aslan and that causes him to return from the grave (in unsubtle Christ-like fashion). But to a child unfamiliar with Western religion, I’m wondering whether if this is really a matter of pounding Christianity into his head or a parable that can be examined independent of religion illustrating what happens when you rest on your laurels and bitch about how Narnia has gone to pot? (Certainly, this was how it came across to me as a kid.)

Okay, so it’s Aslan who remains the ruler at Cair Paravel for life as the kids grow up and eventually emerge from the wardrobe. (And the kids are crowned for assisting Aslan, rather than “for no particular reason.”) And that certainly qualifies as a dictatorship. But then one might argue that any realm ruled by a king and/or queen is “neo-fascist” as well. Which would pretty much demolish the credibility of most fairy tale kingdoms. It’s also a safe bet, however, that most children don’t perk their ears up at storytelling hour for the political dynamics of Camelot or Oz.

Toynbee also quibbles about Edmund’s conversion, calling him “a Stepford brother, well and truly purged.” I agree in part with Toynbee’s criticism here. As a boy, I never cared for this aspect of the tale, instinctively distrusting it as a boy. But what I did parse from the tale was that Edmund definitely felt guilt for being seduced by the White Witch. Given the narcotic quality of the Turkish Delight, was he truly in his right mind when he misled the children or reported on their movements to the White Witch? Does not magic need to be counteracted with some other magic in order to make everything whole? I’ll let the RPG folks sort that question out.

I should note that within Toynbee’s essay lies the makings for an interesting op-ed piece, perhaps less wild and pugilistic, and more rooted in provocative yet reasonable examples which might demonstrate how a religious allegory might be damaging to a child. Such generalizations as “We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass” do no favors to her argument, which is distinctly black-and-white in makeup. It fails to consider that different people use different sources (religious or non-religious) to determine their own moral compass. And that people will go on sinning and feeling guilt based on their respective moral compasses, irrespective of what religion they practice.

Vice Squad Redux

Several readers have been kind enough to email me this New York Press story concerning Brad Vice. Vice, as Return of the Reluctant readers will recall from a few weeks ago, was the subject of plagiarism charges. What was particularly interesting was the number of people who came to Vice’s defense, even as it was demonstrated that Vice had clearly lifted his work from Carl Carmer.

In his lengthy New York Press article, Robert Clark Young reveals that not only has Vice succeeded in charming the pants off of numerous Southern writers and litbloggers, but that the Carmer incident was only scratching the surface. Young has discovered that Vice’s stories “Tuscaloosa Knights” and “Report from Junction” appear in Vice’s dissertation and that “Report from Junction,” in turn, contains similar passages to Jim Dent’s nonfiction book, The Junction Boys.

So with repeat examples unfurled by Young, is Vice committing plagiarism or homage? You make the call.

Vice Squad

Both Michelle Richmond and Dan Wickett have the scoop on a plagiarism case involving Brad Vice. Vice’s book The Bear Bryant Funeral Train won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. What was not known, until librarian Margaret Butler pointed it out, is that one of Vice’s stories, the title tale in Vice’s short story collection Tuscaloosa Knights, plagiarized one part of Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama. The University of Georgia Press revoked the award, recalled all the copies of the book that had been issued and pulped the remainders.

Now here’s the interesting thing: Michelle’s compared the stories and says Vice’s story pays homage to Carmer. And at StorySouth, Jason Sanford has wrtten a passionate defense, claiming that Vice’s slip was “an honest mistake.”

But I think the comparative passages reveal the real story:

Carmer: “Beneath the tall elms on Queen City Avenue rode three horsemen robed in white.”
Vice: “Underneath the towering elms, three horsemen robed in white down the middle of Queen City Avenue”

Carmer: “One of them raised a bugle and again the minor four-note call sounded. Behind the mounted trio stretched a long column of marching white figures, two and two, like an army of coupled ghosts, their shapeless flopping garments tossing up and down in the still night air.”
Vice: “One of the horsemen raised his hood and blasted the same four mighty notes on the bugle. Behind the troika stretched a long watery line of white figures marching side by side like an army of ghosts, their shapeless garments shimmering in the night.”

Carmer: “Look,” he said, “can you see their shoes? They tell a lot.”
Vice: “Look.” Pinion pointed at the Klansmen. “You see their shoes? Invisible empire, my ass. I know everyone of them sum’bitches. Every one.”

Carmer: “Moving under the edges of the white robes were pants-leg ends and shoes, hundreds of them. A pair that buttoned and had cloth tops, a heavy laced pair splashed with mud, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters — a yellow pair with knobby toes swung past. At the very end a long figure in sturdy grained oxfords, his sheet twisted awry, stepped gingerly — a little uncertainly. Knox laughed.”
Vice: “Moving at the hem of the white robes were pant legs and shoes, dozens and dozens of shoes. One pair of button-ups with terrycloth tops, another heavy-laced pair splashed with mud, brown work boots, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters—even a green pair with knobby toes swung past. Pinion chortled. Only the thick holly hedge separated us from the street and the long line of marching shoes.”

I’m not certain if pulping Vice’s book fits the crime, but, with all due respect to Michelle, this is undisputedly plagiarism, with Vice almost reproducing the passages in their entirety. And Vice should have known better. Homage is when T.C. Boyle names his short story collection Tooth & Claw after Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or when Star Trek VI takes Hamlet‘s “The Undiscovered Country” as its subtitle. Certainly the history of referencing other works and characters goes all the way back to the Iliad, where Homer referenced endless gods and figures steeped in Greek mythology.

Brad Vice may be a good guy, but when a writer takes entire sentences from another’s work and draws attention to himself by naming his short story collection after the story in which he has done this, he is setting himself up for inevitable discovery and the consequences that come from it.

Chick Lit, Feminism and the Double Standard

Funny how when it comes to a form like comics being bastardized, Jessa Crispin has no problem broadsiding the critics for declaring a specific genre less than literary. But that apparently isn’t the case when it comes to chick lit. Without citing a single example, Crispin suggests that “chick lit treats women like they’re stupid.” Well, that’s interesting. Because while reading Weiner’s latest, Goodnight Nobody, I didn’t really get the sense that the female characters within its pages were stupid. And while I never really cared for the Bridget Jones books (although I have enjoyed the three Weiner novels that I’ve read), I never got the sense that these novels were contributing to idiotic depictions of women. Unless Crispin somehow believes that any book featuring a professional woman who pursues a relationship or contends with family or pregnancy is dumb (which, interestingly enough, would discount nearly all of the books she links to). Even when certain “chick lit” novels disagreed with me, I nevertheless applauded these books for placing women’s issues to the forefront and having the courage to place these plots within popular literature.

One might dislike the genre of popular literature, but from a feminist perspective, it’s a mistake to dismiss the potential effects of popular art towards pointing out the silent rules and folkways which insist women must act in a certain way.

I think what Weiner is commenting upon in this interview is the double standard. Sure, a popular author like Stephen King can be published in the New Yorker and get mad props from literary maestros. But if a woman is a popular author (like Jennifer Weiner), she’s given the snobbish Sittenfeld-style treatment by her peers. Why is there such a double standard?

In fact, I applaud Weiner for featuring one of the most realistic (and hilarious) sex scenes I’ve read in a novel this year, complete with a woman flustered by her husband’s tired advances and the husband clueless enough to wear nothing but black socks to bed (and let’s face it, men, we’re all guilty of this, even when we’re told not to). I certainly haven’t seen sexual failure presented in such candid terms within a single literary novel I’ve read this year.

Hypertext Fiction: Dead or Alive?

I alluded to Robert Coover’s Litquake[1] appearance at Elbo Room in the previous post. But what I failed to mention was Andrew Sean Greer‘s introduction for Coover. Greer, who despite clutching what appeared to be a ferocious palimpsest in his fist, managed to find the will to extemporize about how he met Coover, which was in a classroom at Brown University. The class that Coover taught was “Hypertext in Fiction,” and Greer noted this was a bit before the web browsing days. Coover used hypertext as a way of interconnecting the students’ various stories. Greer confessed that, at first, he thought that such an exercise would be easy, tantamount to devising a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. But as it turned out, most of the students skipped out on the class, leaving Coover with a small cadre of students (including Greer).

The funny part of Greer’s story was that, as students were composing their work on hypertext, they noticed that some of their minor details had been changed around. Furious, the students approached Coover, pointing out that, as authors, they rightfully controlled the details to these works. Coover responded that he wasn’t the one changing the details, but thought that the mysterious person doing this was on the right track.

Greer’s hypertext anecdote had me wondering, in these days of Web 2.0, Wikipedia and podcasting, whether hypertext is even a suitable medium for fiction anymore. Is hypertextualized fiction something to be frowned upon or ignored, much like the theatrical Happenings of the 1960s? Or is it simply misunderstood? Perhaps we’re limiting our options in thinking, as we have thought since the advent of the byline, that the author exclusively controls the narrative. Since the reader is bound to form certain impressions from a story’s subtext, often wildly disparate from other readers, perhaps the author doesn’t really control the destiny. Because while he is organizing the information, he cannot possibly control how it is read. (And one might argue that David Foster Wallace’s infamous essay from earlier in the year, “Host”[2] which featured several internecine branches of footnotes, might be representative of this potential new model.)

If this is the case, then perhaps the next step after postmodernism is something along the lines of hypertext, something that might be dictated either by footnotes, by hypertext, or through some other device, as yet beyond our powers. Whatever method used, I’m suggesting here that the order in which the information is presented and perused is entirely up to the reader, but the author can control the taxonomy and the structure through which it is accessed. Not unlike a category that might clarify a blog posting and allows it to be strung together through a search engine (such as Technorati) for a common frame of reference.

For more on hypertext[3], they’ve got a lively discussion over at I Love Books, complete with hypertext fiction linkage.

[1] — Additional Litquake coverage can be found at Frances Dinkelspiel’s place.

[2] — Sadly, the PDF version is only readable to Atlantic subscribers. But the essay is contained in Wallace’s forthcoming essay collection, Consider the Lobster.

[3] There are several hypertext stories for sale at Eastgate. Thankfully, Norton has an excerpt of J. Yellowlees Douglas’ “I Have Said Nothing.”

A War on Working Class Fiction?

Laila Lalami asks, in a Powell’s essay, why the impoverished are so underrepresented in current literature. I suspect that there might be similar reasons for why the American novel also fails to acknowledge work or employment, or, for that matter, tales outside that socioeconomic rank favored by our plutocratic society.* It may be too quotidian for those hermetics accustomed to reading flaacid tales of a middle-class, middle-aged Caucasian man having yet another midlife crisis (that hackneyed literary genre best represented by Richard Ford and John Updike that I would style the “middle novel”).

Do the majority of the pepole who read books (i.e., heavy readers who are likely to buy and read at least 50 books a year) have an expendable income with which to afford these books? Is the publishing industry aware of this particular type of consumer and, in some small way, marketing directly to him? Further, are these possibly affluent heavy readers even interested in novels which deviate from their own comfortable class, ethnic and monetary trappings?

Here in America, we’re so accustomed to asking “What do you do?” to someone at a party. If one answers “plumber” or “barista,” an elitist interlocutor will often categorize that person as beneath his class and education, rather than basing his judgment on the individual. If such a mentality has been transposed to how people select and read fiction, then I hope that there’s someway it can be averted. For it’s often the plumbers and baristas who often have pivotal perspectives and important existential answers that are worth considering — particularly, if you’ve lived a lifetime without ever missing a hot meal.

* — The following observation doesn’t deal specfically with literature, but it’s worth considering. Kieslowski’s Bleu tries to explore how much one can find personal liberty while shutting one’s self off from society. But even a master like Kieslowski couldn’t do this without making Bleu‘s protagonist financially solvent. Since most people wouldn’t be lucky enough to live in such a condition, is Kieslowski’s rhetorical question invalidated because it’s not true liberty? Or did Kieslowski take the easy way out? Or have we become so accustomed to the habit of an affluent protagonist that a major overhaul of our hard wiring is in order?

In Defense of Bret Easton Ellis

Just when we thought we had heard the last about Lunar Park, Dan Green has offered this thoughtful post on the book, approaching Ellis’ work from the standpoint of Lunar Park (Dan’s sole exposure to Ellis, but this does not stop Dan from criticizing books that, by his own admission, he has not even read) and not finding him agreeable.

It is interesting to me that Ellis, even with this latest offering (which is, I must confess, lacks the ardor of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, or American Psycho, but is not as middling either), continues to divide people. And I would suggest that the divide occurs more between people who enjoy entertainment and people who enjoy literature and, to a greater extent, style vs. narrative.

Ellis’ work is largely episodic in nature. If you’re coming to Bret Easton Ellis for a coherent plot, then you’re best advised to look elsewhere. It unapologetically drapes itself in brand name description. And it often goes down extraordinarily atavistic routes that involve graphic mutilations of women (the source of most of Ellis’ controversy). Does this preclude us from enjoying Ellis? I don’t think so. The key to appreciating Ellis, I think, is that you’re not intended to relate or identify with his characters. (Certainly, one cannot imagine a level-headed person relating to American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, who is clearly a homicidal maniac.) Rather, you are supposed to remove yourself and see these characters from the outside, determining whether or not you can accept the fact that terrible behavior is happening around you. Are you truly acquainted with this world? Is this a world that you’re deliberately ignoring? Ellis’ pugilistic tone does often test a reader’s limits. It might be argued that the prose itself contains a blueprint for a certain culture that Americans often overlook, framed within what seems a throwaway read.

Consider the opening of Less Than Zero:

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk.

If we take this at face value, then we see writing composed of repetitive details, formed through run-on sentences, composed of simple language that feels disjointed, and details that are extraordinarily general. However, if we filter this passage through perspective (and this, I would argue, is the key to appreciating Bret Easton Ellis’ work), then we see a dead-accurate portrayal of Southern California life in the 1980s: obsessed with mundanities, groping to remember things and struggling with details. Perhaps this represents a mind set that Dan Green may not find palatable. (He calls the fictional Bret Easton Ellis of Lunar Park “an extremely annoying character” and his umbrage seems to be targeted towards the character’s behavior. Because he then complains that this BEE is “unpleasant” and “utterly contemptible.”) But is it truthful? Should it be explored? I say, you bet.

And I would argue that forcing the reader to examine the rudimentary underbelly is precisely Ellis’ point.

In the passage cited above, we see Clay (the narrator) trying to take in some half-assed remark, perhaps some primitive homily to hang onto, and we immediately establish the mental timbre at which this world operates. It is not always absurd. It is often quite brutal. But it is certainly one that involves a wholesale reversal of conventions (McDonald’s seen not as a family-friendly restaurant, but as a place to eat alone in Less Than Zero; tacky and commercial records favored over the artistic in the Huey Lewis, Genesis and Whitney Houston in American Psycho; and trick-or-treating in which youngsters don’t walk from house-to-house, but hop into their parents’ SUVs to travel such a short distance in Lunar Park). In this way, we can style Ellis a cultural observer and, at least to my eyes, an entertainer. This is funny stuff.

I would agree with Dan that the book’s horror elements, hung upon mere homage, fall notoriously flat and cause the book to peter out just as it has dared to bare its soul. But where Lunar Park is ambitious in the way it adds another level to Ellis’ stylistic cultural riffing. Now, in addition to wondering whether the world and mentalities as presented within the prose can be believed, we’re also wondering how much of the extant details reflect the real Bret Easton Ellis. The metafiction, it turns out, has been there all along. No, it’s not Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow. The writing itself is often ingenuous. But I believe Ellis’ purpose in planting a version of himself into his novel is to suggest that, all along, his novels have been operating as a fey anthropological filter.

The “supremacy in imagination” doesn’t come from the characters or the patchwork plots (Glamorama is, perhaps, the most ridiculously plotted of all of Ellis’ novels). The imagination in question has everything to do with how much the reader is willing to expand his own world consciousness. And what Ellis is telling us, I think, is that this world is an ugly place, hombre, and we better start paying attention.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Stuntwoman or Scholar?

Over at Slate this week, there’s been a discussion on Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch, the followup to her book Nickled and Dimed. This time around, Ehrenreich has moved up the class ladder, pretending to be middle-class and trying to land a job in media or public relations. She goes by her maiden name. She refuses to use any and all contacts, let alone friends for financial or moral aid (although she does allow herself to use references).

The book has been given to various economists to assess and what’ s interesting is the personal nature of their criticisms. Results? They claim that the book is not so much about the middle-class people around Ehrenreich, but Ehrenreich herself. In particular, Alan Wolfe opines, “The construct of the book borders on the unethical; social scientists would never permit an experiment with this much faking. But it also renders the book uninteresting. Who cares what happens to a person who does not exist? You don’t, Tyler, and, frankly, neither do I.”

So the real question here is whether Bait and Switch a stunt similar to Morgan Spurlock’s and whether an empirical approach is now the only way to convey an issue to a mass audience. If it is, this raises an interesting question: Is putting one’s self through various hardships the new form of “scholarship” for a popular nonfiction title? Further, have we reached a point where polemics must be driven by a personality (in this case, the self-styled Barbara Alexander) rather than the bigger picture (burgeoning unemployment among middle-class professionals)?

[UPDATE: Over at Galleycat, A.J. Jacobs weighs in on so-called “stunt writing.”]

The Novel: Emotional Rhetoric

Referring to the predictability of the television sensation Lost (a series that, despite repeated urgings from friends, I have not yet seen), Steve of This Space has this to say about current narrative:

We are meant to be moved. We react by understanding that we are to feel moved. But we feel nothing. Sometimes it’s good to feel nothing. We know where to go when we need to feel nothing. It’s called Popular Culture.

While tropes are an inevitable element of narrative (particularly in film and television), I wonder how much these sentiments apply to literature. How much of contemporary literature is dictated by predictable behavior? Further, when a novelist pulls off a series of successful plot twists (Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith comes to mind), is that novelist, however successful her work, guilty of playing directly to the audience? Is there something innately within the novel form that prevents it from succombing to artifice or is the medium abstract enough to produce more emotional reactions from readers and academics alike?

A Case for the Larger Canvas

Today, the New York Times noted the arrival of Paul Anderson’s debut novel, Hunger’s Brides, commenting upon its 1,360 page length rather than a more important attribute to gauge — namely, how this book rates as literature.

I’ve never understood people who complain about length in art. One encounters this with film critics as they are bombarded with three-hour Oscar epics. But why should length even matter? To me, it smacks of a petty excuse to kvetch or to boast, rather than assess a book’s worth. Besides, there are plenty of 200-pagers I’ve read that drag as dully as a man holding onto his chastity in a motel room.

However, like Scott, I find myself ineluctably drawn to these mammoth affairs. (Case in point: I’ve read every comparative book mentioned with the exception of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (which Brian managed to tackle for all of us.) I suppose it’s because I really enjoy the pleasure of getting lost within a world, the specifics of characters or a particular vernacular — the kind of submergal that a sustained length (or its cousin, a sustained density) is likely to offer. I couldn’t imagine, for example, William T. Vollmann’s The Royal Family being shorter. The Royal Family‘s considerable length almost forces the reader to come to terms with the unpleasant underworld depicted. Likewise, Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, at around 640 pages, is the kind of family saga with historical context that a shorter book couldn’t possibly suggest.

Some have argued that this so-called “prodigious fiction” is an inevitable byproduct of the Age of Information (perhaps in collusion with the word processor). But if the world has indeed become more complicated and our knowledge of the world does indeed double every fourteen months, does it not make sense to remain flexible and supportive of these larger canvases?

[UPDATE: Mark weighs in, but I think he’s confusing the argument. It’s not a question of heft being tantamount to significance, but the issue involves whether the story itself works. To reiterate my argument, I think it’s a bit superstitious to refuse a book because of length.]

Watered Down Knowledge, The Slim-Fast Book Diet: What a Concept!

For the last 12 years, the wax has accumulated in my ears, preventing me from comprehending any book more than 200 pages. Brain cells have been lost thanks to an unfortunate experience with hallucinogenics that occurred during my midlife crisis. And I no longer have any patience for a reading experience that lasts longer than 45 minutes. Since the Times is so gutless when it comes to printing four letter words (yet strangely fixated on sodomy and other carnal activities of the genteel), and since it harbors an illusion that it is a family newspaper, I’ll merely connote a small nugget, if you will, published by Harry G. Frankfurt. It shines like the bottom of a clean unsoiled toilet for readers too indolent and too inveterate to read a book of normal length. It represents, in two words, the future.

Two books stare at me at my bookshelf. One is so large that I cower behind my four-poster bed, hoping that the episodes of Lost I TiVoed will get me through this cold and lonely night. The book is thick and large. And I haven’t seen anything like it in my life. Never mind that its author, N.A.M. Rodger, spent several years of his life becoming an authoritative expert on naval history or that the book in question contains about a hundred pages of maps and other valuable resources to aid and abet the truly obsessed nautical man. For I am neither a nautical man nor an intellectual. However, I do manage to sound pompous and authoritative enough to maintain my regular gig at the Times. Bombast and bluster should count for something, no?

Consider the skim book, which resembles a Slim Jim in makeup and nutritional value, the one that is short enough to give you the basic information yet without scholarship or that pivotal additional context. These things are lovely, no? You can read it one in a few hours, go to a cocktail party, and talk as if you’re an expert on Waterloo! These fantastically thin books, influenced by the abridged grandeur of Cliff and SparkNotes, are devoid of footnotes and are, for the most part, useless in an academic environment. But doesn’t it feel good, dear reader, to allow such colossal hubris to go to your head and to think that being knowledgable means barely retaining the basics?

I call for a new age of thin books, whereby people learn less and scholarship is spruned rather than stomached! Bring me 50 page volumes that give me everything I need to know about the rise and fall of Genghis Khan! Better yet, why not one-page volumes contained in an expensive spine? I offer the ideal biography of Napoleon:

TITLE PAGE: Napoleon: A Biography
CHAPTER ONE: “Napoleon was short. THE END.”

Is this not the most ideal reading experience one can have? Does not the salient fact that Napoleon was a short man stick out? Publishers and authors alike can rest easy that they are saving the marketplace! Prices for books will go down. Authors will be able to publish 300 books a year. And those pivotal sound bytes of knowledge will soar!

I can imagine the book clubs discussing the whole of a book contained within one sentence. The conversations will last no more than five minutes, discussing Napoleon’s short stature, and then everyone can, at long last, get blitzed on the merlot. What a joyous epoch of knowledge lies ahead of us!

So bring on this new age of slim books. Dismantle the history graduate programs and the other pedantic forms of education that rarely pay off. The time has come, at long last, to put the Robert Caros and the William T. Vollmanns out of work and let the silent vox populi scream out their malformed thoughts from the highest summit.

Thin-Slicing Fiction

Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink isn’t as satisfying as The Tipping Point — in part, because Gladwell’s tendency to generalize is more prominent this time around. (Case in point: We’re supposed to marvel over John Gottman’s ability to determine if a married couple will still be together in fifteen years. Gottman can assess this with a 90% accuracy. Never mind that half of all divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage and that, depending upon what authority you consult, it is generally agreed that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. An existing 50% probability weighed in with Gottman’s concentration on couples in their twenties — that is, divorces more inclined to occur, because younger people are more likely to divorce — and Gottman’s educated guesses leave a lot of wiggle room for the remaining 40%.)

Nevertheless, Gladwell’s interests in sociological and marketing casuism are always food for thought, particularly since he’s keen to serve up fascinating anecdotal examples. While he barely scratches the surface of “thin slicing” — the term Gladwell coins to describe what happens when someone uses latent subconscious impulses to serve up a quick judgment — he has got me thinking about how much of the publishing world is fixated on immediate judgment.

Terry Southern once remarked that, when he worked for Esquire, he could judge the quality of a manuscript based off of the first sentence. I’m wondering whether certain types of fiction are doomed because of the thin slicing editors have been applying to the slush pile. Was Richard Yates never published in the New Yorker because the editors trained themselves to react distastefully to Chekhovian naturalism? (Magical realism and postmodernism was very much the order of the day when Yates submitted his wares.) And just how much of this mentality is in place today?

(And I should point out that we’re all guilty of this. I don’t wish to inure myself. Recently, while reading its early pages, I was ready to damn Tricia Sullivan’s Maul based on what I perceived as tedious cross-cutting between the game going on in Meniscus’s mind and the cramped confines of a lab, until I gradually became aware of the subtle cultural allegory. Had I not kept reading after 100 pages, I would have probably have dismissed what turned out to be a daringly rugged novel.)

Further, if thin slicing is endemic to the book world, is this mentality what causes once popular authors like John P. Marquand (who made the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1949) to go out of print?

In one chapter, Gladwell uses the musician Kenna as an example for why certain forms of thin slicing aren’t always the best indicators. Kenna, who had earned nothing less than contagious kudos from such luminaries as Fred Durst and U2 manager Paul McGuinness (who flew him over to Ireland), along with repeated MTV2 airplay, built up such a sizable buzz that he packed a sizable crowd into the Roxy in less than 24 hours’ notice. But Gladwell notes that when Music Research did marketing, Kenna scored miserably and was thus unable to secure Top 40 radio airplay.

Gladwell suggests that Kenna’s failure with the number crunchers was because only certain forms of thin slicing works. Kenna’s music was not easily classifiable. Gladwell implies that some opinions are best formed over time and that corporations who are introducing products that are slightly foreign (such as the Aeron chair, another example that Gladwell uses) need time to be accepted (which may explain the repeated rejections that Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land received before becoming a cause celebre).

Since fiction is a form that often requires a careful reader to weigh in a story, it would be curious to know just how much of it is getting short shrift from today’s editors. The number of careless typos that one finds in today’s novels (that indeed manage to make it all the way to the paperback release) is often extraordinary, signaling a growing lack of regard for how a book is typeset and put together. But it may be even more alarming to consider how many of today’s experimentalists (say, the David Marksons or Gilbert Sorrentinos of our world) are more the victim of overtaxed thin slicers whose waning passions for the written word waltz hand-in-hand with the first impression gone horribly amiss.