Yesterday I read a story, by Haruki Murakami, in the New Yorker, that was so bad that it offended me. It’s by no means certain where in the story’s chain of custody (the writer, the translator, or the editorial staff of the New Yorker) the bulk of the blame should fall, but to argue that the story, as it comes to us in English, is anything other than shitty, is to make the strongly implicit claim that all standards are purely subjective, if not meaningless and random: what’s the point? Why not publish more stories, in the New Yorker, by 8-year-olds (if there’s a market, and I’m sure there is)? Why not publish only by nepotism, lottery and plutocratic fiat?
“I know what I like!” is a declaration of Consumerism’s First Principle… but it’s not a Literary-Critical argument. It’s always possible that what you or I like is demonstrably second-rate (I stand by my second and third-rate tastes in desserts and fashion though I am far from militant in my avowal that these choices deserve respect). When the New Yorker publishes fiction with no strong literary qualities, it’s a problem, even if the story is okay by many. It’s just another whiff of a dying body.
This site is unapologetically elitist when it comes to Literature, with the caveat that my definition of “elitist” most probably differs from yours. My elitism means that I not only think that the Serfs (among whom I count myself, because I’m not delusional) should have access to every truly fine and necessarily life-giving thing that the wealthy have access to (dignified shelter, healthy food, clean water and high culture) but further that all of these good things are everyone’s birthright; we should be militant about securing them for ourselves and others. Why should some poor poor-kid’s mind be damned to the nasty, brutish and short life that a relentless diet of McDonald’s, and Cardi B videos, predetermines? As long as we can grow real vegetables in community gardens and can offer anyone access to the best of culture in public libraries, no mind needs to sicken, shrivel and rot into the living death of being a mere cog in a paper-hat service economy, bedazzled or numbed by the low fizzle of talent-free content at the trough.
Anyone lucky enough to live within walking distance of a public library can lay their hands on a work of genius and invite that genius to come home and rearrange the furniture and even show the reader that she or he has been using the figurative chairs and tables wrong for all these years. Literature should be that very thing, a bridge from a genius’ mind into the reader’s, although it can also be a time-killer, a simple amusement, a bridge from the mind of a writer who is no more intelligent than the reader perusing said mind, or being perused by it, too. You can have it both ways in the spooky transaction of Lit. It doesn’t always have to be a genius one hooks up with by holding a book almost cunnilingually to one’s nose but neither should genius be a rare and random experience, nor relegated to the bad memories of the literary rock-breaking of one’s ankle-chained years in the penitentiary of higher education.
I was a gobbler of books already, as a kid of ten, with a fairly large library I had spent all my pocket money on. Secondhand shops, garage sales, church sales, library fire-sales (I remember the year my personal library smelled like a barbecue pit), glossy supermarket paperbacks and the magic of sending off a money order for 2.99 and getting back boxes of low-quality hardbound (high-acid-content pulp) treasures from a book club: what tender heavens! There’s an interesting twist hidden in all that personal data and it has to do with other planets.
Most literate people have their finer feelings for Lit crushed by inept teachers (who had their own fine feelings crushed young, and so on) by the time they reach college. When most people are done with school, they’re done with Lit. I’ve had many, many (many) people brag to me, over the years, that they don’t really have time for Fiction; all they read is political stuff, how-to books, the biographies of billionaires, etc. How did I so luckily escape this awful fate?
When I was a schoolboy, the Literature I lit my days , and my under-the-covers-nights with a giant flashlight, with, was Science Fiction. My inept grammar (and high) school teachers never managed to kill Science Fiction for me simply because they never mentioned it. Science Fiction was beneath the curriculum. No mention of my then-idol, underrated/ overexposed pioneer of Postmodernism (who happened to be working in the field of Speculative Fiction) Harlan Ellison. No Asimov, no Clarke, no Simak, no Blish, no Spinrad, no Pohl, no LeGuin, no Bradbury either.
What the curriculum killed for me was mostly the middlebrow stuff I can do without anyway; all those “socially-conscious” and pious prize winners like John Steinbeck, John Hershey, Stephen Crane, Richard Wright, Harper Lee, William Golding and even Orwell (whose essays we weren’t even introduced to). There was never a mention of Isherwood, Victor Pritchett, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Pynchon, Philip Roth, JG Ballard, Joan Didion or even Henry Miller. Certainly no Nabokov or Pinter or Harold Brodkey and nothing from the stridently anti-war Kurt Vonnegut (who was probably being taught in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s but not in junior high school). Which, as I say, ironically, turned out fine for me. They killed Faulkner and Hemingway, though. I’m still trying to angle my re-approach to Faulkner. We covered Huxley’s Brave New World along with Orwell’s 1984 (books that the teachers never bothered to mention were near-opposites) and reading either, for me, now, is like Alex choking on Beethoven after the Ludovico Technique.
But imagine being so lucky that your first exposure to Flannery O’Connor was outside of school? That racist old neurotic taught me quite a lot about writing and reading (the principal lesson of the latter being that one must read slowly and read what’s really there; too many readers are doing unsolicited subconscious edits and re-writes as they skim).
We did Bullfinch’s Mythology and Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales and Shakespeare (Macbeth, Hamlet, R&J) and I remember loving those and loving looking through the catalogues and sending away for the handsome 1970s Folger Editions of the Shakes plays, so that teacher, in 6th or 7th grade, must have been pretty good, though I thought I recalled she was a battle ax. Gerald Ham, a blazingly-Gay olde English teacher in my AP class, as a senior, did a great job of dramatizing Milton and Chaucer and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King; he was great, too, with Homer, because his imaginational lust for Arthur’s knights and Troy’s bare-legged heroes was palpable, although I didn’t quite get was going on at the time. Whatever works. The good teachers of Lit were rare.
Imagine being so lucky that I’d never touched a book by Paul Bowles until my thirties?
I got all the way to college with my mania for Lit largely intact, though I needed a few years to gingerly re-approach, on my own terms, specifically, the Literary Fiction that had had the life squeezed out of it by teachers who thought to teach Lit by rehashing, ad infinitum, the tedious ins and outs of Plot in the brutal fox-hunt for a book’s “moral message”. “Plot” is only a first-level matter. Plot is only a fraction of the story.
The plot of Nabokov’s Lolita: two kiddy-fiddlers fight over a 12-year-old and they all die. The point of Lolita’s Nabokov: the sublime comedy (as it interacts with sublimer tragedy) of his lines, like :
“No, wait a minute. The present matter is only incidental. I am concerned with a general trend. When you wanted me to spend my afternoons sunbathing on the Lake instead of doing my work, I gladly gave in and became a bronzed glamor boy for your sake, instead of remaining a scholar and, well, an educator. When you lead me to bridge and bourbon with the charming Farlows, I meekly follow. No, please, wait. When you decorate your home, I do not interfere with your schemes. When you decide—when you decide all kinds of matters, I may be in complete, or in partial, let us say, disagreement—but I say nothing. I ignore the particular. I cannot ignore the general. I love being bossed by you, but every game has its rules. I am not cross. I am not cross at all. Don’t do that. But I am one half of this household, and have a small but distinct voice.”
Plot cannot account for the dialogue-writing genius of “don’t do that”. Christ, that’s so good it makes me want to stop everything and re-read the whole book right now.
As a tyke in funny pants, foundational scientist James Clerk Maxwell would say, famously, about everything that ” moved, shone, or made a noise” : “what’s the go o’ that?” (this nice mythlet was stuck in my head by my very good High School Physics teacher, Joe Neidhurst, in Vegas). And that was how I looked at the mind-expanding machines of the Lit I held in my hands at nine, ten, eleven years of age. How do they do this? It seemed impossible.
Squiggles and dots are set down on a page by a human attempting to represent, with these squiggles and dots: blood, love, machines, air, stars, ballrooms, terror, rage, feasts, solitude, claustrophobia, transcendence and pain. The next day, or a week, or a century later and a thousand miles away, a stranger finds the squiggled page and with it experiences, as though it were just written: blood, love, machines, air, stars, ballrooms, terror, rage, feasts, solitude, claustrophobia, transcendence and pain… without a wire, screen or single battery. How?
Part of the answer to that question may, unfortunately, devolve to Metaphysics… but lots of it is as answerable as any technical question regarding electronics or baking or carpentry or hair-styling. There is a technology. There is an accumulating wealth of knowledge that centuries of practitioners have contributed to, properly attributed or not. There are sudden leaps in progress (eg narrative technology in Lit got a symbiotic kick forward when moving-pictures pioneered narrative compression); purview will broaden and shift. While personal taste regarding, say, one epoch or culture of furniture-making, versus another, will be entirely subjective, the question of whether or not any given chair-maker has succeeded in making a beautiful, durable, functional and technically impressive chair will only seem like a “purely subjective” matter to people who know very little about making them. Fair enough; you have your own opinion about that solid cube of particle board you proudly call a “chair”… just don’t argue with a talented furniture maker about it.
The genetic code, the building blocks, of a masterpiece like Lolita or Sabbath’s Theater or Underworld or Grendel or Naked Lunch or Sheltering Sky or The Mezzanine or Slaughterhouse Five consists not of plot points or even individual words but of sentences. A brilliant novel is made of brilliant sentences that work together brilliantly. A dull novel is made of dull sentences that more or less work together and a bad novel is made of bad sentences the interrelationship of which is a moot point.
We must learn that.
Can we save a rainforest if we don’t know anything about trees?
Before we can save Literature, we need to know what it is; we need to learn to be able to recognize its exclusive attributes; to discriminate between the sublime, the quotidian and the laughably idiotic. Too many readers, alienated at a vulnerable age by teachers who, perhaps, belonged in other professions, have not looked quite seriously enough into the matter. They won’t understand, possibly, that venal, careless, Bottom Line cynicism is currently grinding all the categories of cultural expression (and its public consumption) into dust… a convenient spiral of diminishing expectations. Lit (so fragile) more than most.
There have always been banal-but-charming writers like Auster and Knausgaard and Zadie Smith, and jaw-droppingly shitty writers like James Frey and Murakami and Roxane Gay and Paul Beatty… and the under-informed readers who love them… and the socio-political agendas that push them… but there has never been such a glaring dearth of inspiring new, great work with which to counter the hot tsunami of offal. Spare me your po-faced, virtue-signalling, prize-winning Identitarian polemics disguised as Great Books. Spare me your glib/facile/twee/fey six-figure-advance bombs (with Chip Kidd cover art) and model-esque jacket photos.
Rachel Cusk, as solidly okay as she is, is not exactly forging a brave new path in Anglophone Letters. Helen De Witt may yet come up with a novel that is greater than the sum of its conceits. DeLillo needs to regroup (he’s slipping into gnomic self-parody) and Pynchon won’t be around for much longer, as sharp as he is. The younger wave wants to be liked or loved and rich: they want movie deals with their book deals and 360 deals with their movies: in which case it’s too risky to write anything other than the utterly harmless (to everything but Art).
You can worry about your Global Warming.
I’m worried about Lit.