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« The Sublime | Main | Women and Solitaire »

May 03, 2004

Ira Levin Adds Value

Dear Friedrich --

Have you read any of the novels of Ira Levin? He's best-known as the author of the novels Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and The Boys from Brazil, and of the play Deathtrap. I think he's sensational, and I marvel that more isn't made of him. His books -- I haven't yet read "Deathtrap" -- strike me as stunning examples of American art at its best.

Er, "Rosemary's Baby"? "The Stepford Wives"? Hook-y, bestselling popular thrillers, right? Am I really trying to make the case that they're American art at its best? I sure am. (By the way, I'm hoping to do so in a way that doesn't put down hook-y popular fiction, which I've got a lot of respect for.) They're very sophisticated entertainments.

I've only read three of Levin's novels: his first, "A Kiss Before Dying"; "Rosemary's Baby"; and "The Stepford Wives." To run through them ultra-quickly ...

"A Kiss Before Dying" is a brilliant example of psychological suspense. (I blogged here about my enthusiasm for the genre generally.) It gets creepily inside the mind of a killer, and it has a couple of twists that have had readers falling out of their easy chairs with alarm, fear, and amazement for decades. It may be less needling and chilly than the best Patricia Highsmith, but it's even more maliciously plotted. Humbling note: Levin published this terrific novel when he was 23. 23!!! Interesting lit history: like the early Highsmith, "A Kiss Before Dying" (which was published in 1953) was a breakthrough psych-suspense novel that helped set the genre's pattern.

A pause for a moment of exasperation: can you explain why so many educated English-major types have such ... well, if it's not contempt then it's certainly a lack of respect for the craft of storytelling? Lit types seem to think that plot and story are nothing much, and easily taken-care of. They're the lowest of writing's concerns, a matter of mere mechanics. But then, lit types often seem convinced that the only fiction-thing that counts is the writing. (Or what I like to think of as "the writin'.") Of course, their definition of what the writin' consists of changes regularly. Back in our college years, the writin' was a matter of meta-fictional games; for a stretch soon after, a writin' writer wrote flattened-out snapshots of depressing Americana; more recently, writin' writers wrote memoirs as metaphors for American dysfunction.

I'm perfectly capable of appreciating and enjoying this kind of thing. I've got some, if not much, taste for it, as well as 'way too much education and experience in it. What I fail to understand is why the lit set has so little respect for the most basic elements of fiction-writing: for example, story, plotting, humor, characters-who-seem-alive, and suspense. This is especially puzzling given the way many lit-writers of my acquaintance spend their own leisure time reading mysteries and thrillers. All of which reminds me of the true stories you hear about the edgy and thorny architects who choose to live in comfy, traditional houses. How to explain this phenomenon? Bad, elite educations? A snobbish disregard for popular pleasures?

My favorite definition of "literature," by the way: "reading and writing for pleasure." I only wish I could find the source for that. Another great, if slightly less-defensible, one comes from Mickey Spillane: "Literature is what people read."

Anyway, "A Kiss Before Dying," for all its wit, invention, virtuosity and malice, is a pretty straight performance. (Not a putdown, just a characterization; I worship the book and think it's a masterpiece.) "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Stepford Wives" are something else. They've got the reputation of being creepy commercial horror exercises, and they certainly are that -- but they're a surprising lot else as well. Despite the books' commercial-ness and popular-hook-iness, they're also witty, sophisticated, satirical, and elegantly-composed art-things.

They're like crosses between pile-driving American commercial fiction and stylized, formal slim art novellas -- if you can imagine Stephen King as re-written by a French classicist (Mme. de Lafayette, maybe), you start to get the picture. And they're accomplished on both levels. You can enjoy both books as straight horror; it seems that most people do just that. And why not? The narratives move from A to Z like unstoppable choo-choo trains; the shocks and scares pay off as creepily as any suspense fan could hope for. But it's quite a surprise how abstract and tonal both books are too. They do that art-thing of hovering in the air and turning around very slowly before your consciousness, of lighting up unexpected sides of your imagination. In other words, they're gems of composition, suggestion, and mood. You can't wait to see where the story goes, but you want to linger over the art pleasures too. Push-pull, zoom-pause: you're in a hurry and you're feeling the urgency, yet you're dwelling in and savoring the moment too. (A not-bad description of sex at its best, by the way. At least IMHO.)

Oh, a couple of notes. "Rosemary's Baby" has an interesting place in publishing history. Stephen King may be the guy who put over new-style horror as a genre; believe it or not, the horror genre had fallen into a catatonic state by circa 1970, and it's King who was largely responsible for sustaining its revival. But with "Rosemary's Baby" (1967), it was Ira Levin who first brought horror into the modern world. (Happy for corrections and elaborations from horror buffs, by the way.) As far as I can tell, it was Levin who first threw out the genre's stage-melodrama-like trappings, and set the horror in low-key, modern, everyday situations and environments. I like the movie Roman Polanski made of the novel, by the way, but not nearly as much as I like and admire the book, which is a hard-to-beat combo of social satire and devil-worship horror.

"The Stepford Wives" has a famously irresistable hook; I notice that the second movie version of it, this one starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Frank Oz, is about to open. But it's also anything but straight horror. The horror hook -- suburban hubbies and their plastic wives -- is what the narrative is built on, and it delivers a satisfying payoff. But the book is also an amazingly witty snapshot of the relations between the sexes, educated/suburban division, circa 1970.

(Until getting fascinated by Levin, I'd always thought of "The Boys from Brazil" as a big, dumb, cashing-in-on-the-Nazis thriller. Publishing-history-wise, it certainly played a role in kicking off a long Nazi-thriller cycle. But Peter Straub, in his very useful intro to "The Stepford Wives," writes that "Boys from Brazil" is in fact another slyly satirical Levin tour de force. So I'll be reading it soon, and I'll be sure to catch up with the play "Deathtrap" too.)

Levin -- who spent years writing for TV, the stage, and movies -- has a writer-for-actors' ability to create living-and-breathing characters who get up on their feet and behave actively. He's also got a theater person's tuned-in awareness of subtext, and a lot of sympathy for the ways women experience their feelings and intuitions.

Unlike many gifted writers-for-actors, though, he also knows how to make a story work on the page. Dramatic writers are often lost when it comes to moving a story through time novelistically, and even more lost when it comes to bringing environments to life. As far as dramatic writers are concerned, such things aren't up to them; they're up to the editor, the designer, and the director. As a consequence, dramatic writers who write novels often tend to plunk characters on the page and have them go after each other. Then they come up short.

Levin, on the other hand, is an inventive and innovative creator of on-the-page fiction. I love the way he moves his story through time, as well as the ways he finds to bring the fictional world to life. He does both of these things as economically as any writer I know of. Here's one of my favorite passages from "The Stepford Wives." The main couple, Joanna and Walter, have recently moved from Manhattan to a NY suburb. They throw a party for some of their old city friends and their new suburban acquaintances.

The party was a disaster. Lucy Ferrault was allergic to something and never stopped sneezing. Sylvia was preoccupied; Bobbie, whom Joanna had counted on as a conversational star, had laryngitis. Charmaine was Miss Vamp, provocative and come-hithery in floor-length white silk cut clear to her navel; Dave and Shep were provoked and went thither. Walter (damn him) talked law in the corner with Don Ferrault. Ed Wimperis -- big, fleshy, well tailored, stewed -- talked television, clamping Joanna's arm and explaining in slow careful words why cassettes were going to change everything. At the dinner table Sylvia got unpreoccupied and tore into suburban communities that enriched themselves with tax-yielding light industry while fortressing themselves with two- and four-acre zoning. Ed Wimperis knocked his wine over. Joanna tried to get light conversation going, and Bobbie pitched in valiantly, gasping an explanation of where the laryngitis had come from: she was doing tape-recordings for a friend of Dave's who "thinks he's a bleedin' 'Enry 'Iggins, 'e does." But Charmaine, who knew the man and had taped for him herself, cut her short with "Never make fun of what a Capricorn's doing; they produce," and went into an around-the-table sign analysis that demanded everyone's attention. The roast was overdone, and Walter had a bad time slicing it. The souffle rose, but not quite as much as it should have -- as Mary remarked while serving it. Lucy Ferrault sneezed.

"Never again," Joanna said as she switched the outside lights off; and Walter, yawning, said "Soon enough for me."

"Listen, you," she said. "How could you stand there talking to Don while three women are sitting like stones on the sofa?"

And with that semi-fond, semi-exasperated, we'll-live-through-worse exchange, this section of the book ends.

I don't know about you, but I read this passage in a whirl, conscious of looking forward to re-reading it. Having re-read it many times, and shhh: I think it's technically as dazzling as the best of Nabokov, while having the additional virtue of not being precious and overjeweled.

I love that "Listen, you," for example. It strikes me as typical of Levin's subtlety and control. It's a telling bit -- a little angry and a little cutesie-pie at the same time. (Joanna's a feminist, but she's a cared-for, somewhat spoiled good-girl and wifey too.) Yet it's also a sign that there's something Joanna's aware of and is concerned about that Walter is ignoring. A dazzling moment, and all the stronger for the way Levin makes absolutely nothing more of it.

A few more of the passage's virtues:


  • Excellent and evocative character names! Minor rant: I find it remarkable how few novels feature good names for their characters, and how seldom this skill/talent/aspect-of-fiction gets discussed.

  • What an original, fresh way of taking a reader through an evening. Levin does it via details, quick semi-episodes, and summaries presented in a wide variety of closeups and long shots, all delivered with a total, "existential" lack of commentary and elaboration. That quick cut to "The roast was overdone, and Walter had a bad time slicing it" made me crack up. The evening goes by in a blur -- yet it's a blur that's full of specifics, and that leaves you with a very exact, if hard to name, feeling.

  • I love the unforced way we're left wondering whose words and perceptions we're experiencing: Joanna's? The author's? To use a movie comparison: where the camera is and what that p-o-v represents has its own suspense. The answer seems to be that we're mostly getting Joanna's thought processes. We're inside her brain and her intuitions as she semi-registers things and rushes on; we're getting to know how this bright young feminist wife-and-mother experiences her life. Yet we also sense an author's control and attitude -- there's satire (which implies a little distance), and there's a careful arrangement of actions, details and words on the page. So we're experiencing her nature from the inside even as we register who she is and what she's like from the outside. It's (to my mind anyway) a dazzling use of the close-in third person.

  • The passage has a tripping-along, breezy quality. In many teeny-tiny ways, it's full of unexpected turns and twists.

  • It's a funny evocation of a certain kind of party, yet it's also a very specific party.

  • I read the passage feeling certain that I could see the rooms, the meal, the house, the people. Yet Levin spends very few words on actual physical description. I feel I know the sofa -- yet there's no description of the sofa. I feel I know the house -- yet there are no descriptions of walls, or dining-room table, or rug. It seems to me that it's via voice, actions -- the guy "clamping" Joanna's arm and talking to her about videocassettes, for instance -- and the barest minimum of details that Levin makes a convincing sensory world come to life. He gets the reader's mind to supply the physical details another writer might spend paragraphs laboriously noting down.

  • By the way, the horror-fantasy plot is churning away in this passage, though I'll spare you how and where. Fact is that first time through, I was so tickled by the observations and humor that I barely noticed the plot at work here at all.

Forgive me as I indulge in another rant. I take these three Levin novels to be ideals of what American art of a sophisticated sort can be. It'll take me a few seconds to set my point up, so please indulge me.

There's a particular dilemma that well-schooled American artists face. We have such a dynamic commercial culture and such a rich folk culture that ... Well, who really needs anything more? Many people, in fact, seem completely content to spend a cultural lifetime exploring and enjoying America's popular and folk cultures.

So, given that there's seldom been much of a market for fine art in this country, how might an intelligent, talented person contribute? Say you're too educated to put yourself out there as an I-am-what-I-am folk artist. Say that you don't have the flat-out popular-culture gift and drive either. (As far as I can tell, you're either born with the commercial gift and the commercial drive or you aren't.) And say that what drew you to the arts is a vision of classy, deep, rich work. Well, you're stuck, aren't you? Like it or not, we simply don't have a self-sustaining, centralized, Euro-style "fine arts" life. We're a commercial culture, and can be downright suspicious of the fine arts. So what's someone who has some arts sophistication to do?

I think describing this dilemma helps explain a few things. One is the question: why do so many American fine-artist wannabes spend so much time complaining about America? Why are they so prone to take an antagonistic stance towards the general culture? And why do they so often hide in academia, look snootily down on the rest of us, and grumble about lack of public support? First response: well, they shouldn't be carrying on this way. They're shooting themselves in the foot, and they're doing art and culture generally a disservice. But, to cut 'em a little slack, they are in fact wrestling with a genuine predicament: America seldom makes room for the fine arts, and many Americans look askance at sophistication. The artists are often reacting childishly, but that doesn't make what they're reacting to any less real.

I think this also helps explain why there's such a strong tendency in America for a state of war to prevail between fine-artist types and pop-artist types, and between people who enjoy popular culture and people who love fine art. Question: why not enjoy 'em both? Yet few people find these matters to be that straightforward. It's really striking, IMHO, how strong the tendency is in America for discussions about the arts in America to morph into the overfamiliar old high-vs-low quarrel: "Elvis is too just as great as Charles Ives!" "No, he isn't!" Over and over again that conversation repeats itself.

The country's commercial and folk arts are dynamic, sometimes terrific, and also terribly easy to enjoy; popular and folk art is often immediately accessible. Meanwhile, the fine-arts scene is forever fighting for its existence and trying to come up with reasons for people to pay attention. It's a bad idea to get snooty and political about this state of affairs, as artsies so often will. But it also isn't as though it's easy to seduce people who've been raised on easy pleasures to open up to, and take a chance on, more sophisticated pleasures.

By the way, and FWIW, I love the handful of stretches in American art history when the "high" artists and the general culture were actually groovin' to the same beat: the late-1800s "American Renaissance," for instance; or swing jazz; or '30s romantic comedy. All this work is accessible and approachable, yet it's sophisticated as well. Everyone was pitching in, no one was being touchy, and culture generally was enriched and deepened. We still love the buildings and neighborhoods that got created in the 1890s, for example; they're still a major part of what makes our cities worthwhile, to the extent they remain worthwhile. Ellington and Basie (and many others swing musicians) created music that was both high-spirited dance music and about as complex as can be. And name a period in American art that delivered as much sophisticated yet friendly pleasure as the era of Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, George Cukor and Howard Hawks.

For all these reasons, it seems to me that a good way for a sophisticated artist to respond to (and try to take part in) American culture is to first accept it as is -- as the eccentric, non-Euro, money-driven, anti-intellectual free-for-all that it has always been. Instead of rejecting and trying to overcome these basic facts of our cultural life, why not instead accept them and add to them? In the words of the great jazz-writer and novelist Albert Murray, don't reject the basics; "extend and elaborate" them instead. In Murray's view, that's what jazz is: an extension, elaboration, and complexification of certain folk and popular ingredients. Spare us the tantrums, artsies, and get on with adding value. Show your class by taking the enjoyable, funky basics of American life and raising 'em to a new level -- without putting down what they are in their raw form.

Final digression: this is one of the reasons why I'm such a partisan of the New Urbanism. The NewUrb crowd aren't rejecting the pleasures and preferences of everyday American life while claiming that overtheorized, deconstructed follies are the Real Thing. Instead, they're doing their best to offer deeper and more rewarding versions of what the culture already kicks up, and of what people already enjoy.

And to get back to Ira Levin: this is also one of the reasons I'm so dazzled by the three Ira Levin novels I've just finished. As an example of an American artist, Levin's an enviable package of talents. He has a great way with a grabby premise, yet he also has technique and taste to burn; these novels are nothing if not marvels of tone, p-o-v and construction. But what I most admire and enjoy about Levin's novels is the way he put his bundle of gifts to work -- by creating novels that aren't crapola-but-effective commercial fiction, but that don't represent elite rejections of popular taste either. Instead, he makes the generous (and, dare I say, adult and graceful) choice to add value. He dodges -- or undoes, or dissolves -- the tedious high-low quarrel by delivering pleasure on both levels.

There's no reason to feel sorry for Ira Levin. What with more than a few bestsellers and movie sales, he has made a terrific living from his writing. But can I be allowed a brief cry of exasperation nonetheless? Yes? OK: why don't the critics and profs have the sense to recognize Ira Levin's books for the remarkable, enjoyable and classy creations they are?

You can buy "A Kiss Before Dying" here; "Rosemary's Baby" here; and "The Stepford Wives" here.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 3, 2004




Comments

I didn't even read all the way through your post before needing to hit the Comment button (I will go back and read it all thoroughly later).

Not ALL lit professors or majors have lost the sense of the basic elements of writing. After each and every short story assignment our illustrious Professor Steve Ersinghaus' first question was: "What's the story?" and he would allow the discussion to go no further until that was resolved. The elements were ALWAYS considered part of the reading and the value. I'm sure that Professor E., as wonderful as he is, is not the only one teaching proper reading methods, even managing to apply the principles to contemporary, cutting edge fiction that frankly, does seem to be directed as you say.

As a writer, I'm having a hard time learning--no, even wanting to learn some of the newer types of fiction form. I wouldn't blame English Departments, I might tend to blame the industry that may be leading us away from the basics.

Or, I might find I should have taken Professor Ersinghaus' teaching into all areas and read your post completely before commenting, in which case I shall recomment with my apologies.

Posted by: susan on May 3, 2004 04:17 PM



"...can you explain why so many educated English major types have said...well, I guess it's maybe not contempt it's certainly a lack of respect for the craft of story telling -- of plotting a novel? Lit types seem to think that plot and story -- oh, well, they're easily taken-care of. They're low forms of writing."

This is akin to the denigration of a "mere" figurative painter. It bespeaks the lack of humility that besets those who have not been confronted by the difficulty of practicing a craft, any craft, competently. Writers, genuine writers, who wrestle with the obstinance of words, get over this shallow arrogance early in the game. I suspect that those who hold to an attitude of contempt toward storytellers, are intellectuals first and writers a distant second.
It's also true that nothing will take you out of yourself - your narcissistic navel gazing - faster than the demands imposed in telling a coherent story, plotting a persuasive novel. Denigrating those forms could be an indication of infantilism; no matter how many degrees the denigrator may have.

Posted by: ricpic on May 3, 2004 04:25 PM



For all these reasons, it seems to me that, as a general rule, the best way for a sophisticated artist to respond to (and try to take part in) American culture is to first accept it as is -- as the quirky, eccentric, non-Euro, money-driven, anti-intellectual free-for-all that it has always been.

I haven't read Ira Levin's novels, but I hope I'm not going too far afield when I say that I get a lot of the same pleasures from watching the better episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Are you a fan of the show? It has the same great blend of straightforward, well-plotted storytelling, campy folk-horror elements, humor, and horror. Obviously it has had great appeal as "American Art," running for, what, seven or eight years? Great stories that turned out to be great money-makers, as well.

The best episodes touch on some very deep, complex emotional issues (the death of a parent, the redemption of inherently evil creatures, the burdens of power, addiction, rage, revenge, and on an on). And yet, when the characters can, they go clubbing and shopping. Because isn't this what we fight evil in America for? For the freedom to shop?

Not to mention that it has a drop-dead sexy cast (which any fan of Britney Spears can have no problem with).

Anyway, I'd love to submit Buffy to your list of quintessentially American art, and know if you've had any response to it.

Posted by: Nate on May 3, 2004 04:56 PM



Envy. Who is really the better writer from the Oxford, Mississippi area, Faulkner, who sold 10 books, or Grishom, who has sold 50 million or so. The "can'ts" hate to see the "cans" making money.

Posted by: Robin on May 3, 2004 05:04 PM



That's an easy one - Faulkner. And I'd like to can Grisham as well. What a crappy hack he is!

As I think I've mentioned here in Comments past, I started reading King in college, as an antidote to Kant, more or less. I believe he would have flown in any genre, and I'm just glad he chose one that's so entertaining; I think his gifts are native ones.

I remember Levin from the vantage of someone who was just starting to dabble, somewhere in my teens. His manipulations were a little over my head. What does a kid know about social manners and the pressures of living, about cabals as anything other than cool menacing robes? I'm curious to revisit Rosemary's Baby now, for many reasons, including that it seems to be one of those books that is suddenly and unaccountably in the air, wherever you turn.

Posted by: Linus on May 3, 2004 06:25 PM



Well, I'm one English professor who appreciates the value of good plot, good characterization, and so on, and tries to foster that kind of appreciation in my students as well. But still, there are all kinds of reasons to appreciate a book, and one day it might be the Ira Levin novel, and one day the Faulkner.

I have been known to read a John Grisham novel, purely for the plot, not the writing (generally on an airplane trip). I have also been known to throw both Stephen King and Virginia Woolf across the room, for different reasons. You will never, though, convince me that Grisham should be appreciated more than Faulkner, because he sells more books. I first read The Sound and the Fury in 8th grade (yaaahh!! a total nerd!!!) and have loved him ever since. Faulkner has many times brought me to tears (read "Barn Burning") or chills ("A Rose for Emily") . . . Grisham, never.

But that's just one pitiful academic's opinion...

Posted by: missgrundy on May 3, 2004 07:15 PM



"Deathtrap" was that movie with Christopher Reeve and Michael Caine. It was definitely entertaining, although seemed to me a little too like that earlier two-person murder mystery-psychological thriller with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier. But filled with plot twists and surprises.

The thing I like about his description of the dinner party is that he DOESN'T describe it too much---what I might imagine a living room to look like in this neighborhood with these people might be very different than what you would imagine it as. Our own imaginations add more creepiness than any author.

And, sorry for my rubeness, but "The Sound and the Fury" was my least pleasant English class reading assignment of my entire life. If that doesn't put you off litracher...you're a real, true lit person.

Posted by: annette on May 3, 2004 08:28 PM



I've never read any Ira Levin, but somehow, arbitrary as it is, pairing him with Faulkner suggests something to this no-doubt addled brain. To wit, Levin's skills are essentially pre-Modern, while Faulkner is a canonical American Modernist. Somehow High Modernism got itself identified as 'serious' literature (and, being a jealous god, won't tolerate any other gods before it, or beside it, or behind it.) Isn't it odd how Modernism, which so often waves the red flag politically, is actually a badge of elitism in so many artistic arenas?

I happen to like Faulkner quite a bit, but I will say that I've read Faulkner stories that were written in Mr. Levin's mode, and it does make you wonder if the modernism really added much, if anything, to Faulkner's writing.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 3, 2004 09:35 PM



Apologies to all for a shaggy read here -- I slapped the posting up on the web before polishing, and when I looked at it again after a day doing chores it read pretty badly. So I've done some polishing, and hope it makes for less rocky reading now ...

Susan -- That's great to hear that some profs respect and are helpful with storytelling. I took a lot of lit and creative-writing classes over the years, and while some of them were fun and fine, none (that's zero) of them were helpful where story was concerned. I only began to make some sense of story (in a how-to-do-it way) when I took some screenwriting classes.

Ricpic: You write, "I suspect that those who hold to an attitude of contempt toward storytellers, are intellectuals first and writers a distant second. " Cheers to that, thanks. It sums up an awful lot of truth in very compact form. Now, can we slip a copy of it under the doors of all college lib-arts majors?

Nate -- I really should take a look at "Buffy." I watched an episode years ago and thought it was fine. But I hear that the thing to do is to watch a season -- that the stories really play themselves out over long stretches. What would you suggest -- starting with season one? Or is it better in later seasons? I think they're on DVD these days ...

Robin -- I liked some Faulkner but snoozed through some as well. Grisham's never done it for me as a pop novelist, though I know a lot of people enjoy him. Is it the speed of the stories that's the most fun about his books? I'm hardly a lawyer-thriller specialist, but I do remember enjoying a novel by John Lescroart ....

Missgrundy -- You sound like you've got the same attitude I do: why not enjoy the best of all worlds? Have you tried Albert Murray, the critic? I wonder how you'd react. I'll do a posting about him sometime. But I remmeber him saying or writing something along the lines of "Duke Ellington and Thomas Mann!" I nearly burst into tears of gratitude. He doesn't deny there's such a thing as excellence, and he never pretends excellence only comes in one kind of package either. Murray's a real hero of mine...

Annette -- I'm eager to try out "Deathtrap" now that I'm so enthusiastic about Levin. I wonder how it works on stage. I've only seen a few stage thrillers, none of which worked terrifically well. But I loved the attempt to generate scares and suspense and a terrific climax. It seems like such an honorable and fun goal for a theater troupe to aim for. And I agree with your assesment of that dinner scene -- it's amazing how much he delivers with how few words. Hemingway never did better, IMHO.

FvB -- I wonder how it would be to go back and read Faulkner these days. I sometimes like a lot of early Modernism -- the early guys had all the traditional skills and techniques, they were just being loosey-goosey with 'em. And god bless Faulkner, he was always going out to Hollywood to make some money. And I did read "Sanctuary" not all that long ago, and it was a strikingly welldone melodrama. People tell me "Intruder in the Dust" is a firstrate piece of storytelling too. It was only when you got into later generations of modernists that the old skills seem to have evaporated entirely, for the greater glory of modernist values, I guess. And I wonder how much we were seeing Faulkner through the filter of professors and critics? I mean, was he maybe this really interesting, solid writer trying some interesting thing? Who the intellectuals then took over and turned into a kind of case study? Hmm, I wonder if I'll get around to reexamining Faulkner in this lifetime...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2004 12:44 AM



Alas, Ira Levin also wrote "Sliver", whence came the execrable movie of the same title with Sharon Stone, and introduced the world to the non-talent of Billy Baldwin.

And I loathe Faulkner. While reading Light in August in high school, I was the unhappiest person alive. Not my style. Sorry. I know that puts me in the lit-crit doghouse. So be it.

Posted by: Sasha Castel on May 4, 2004 03:07 AM



"The Boys from Brazil" was one of the first cloning stories, and almost certainly the first to have clones take the spot of 'evil nazi robots' that the surviving nazi scientist goes on to build.

Not sure which came first, evil nazi robots or evil nazi clones, have to ask a scifi/horror nazi story fanboy that one! I knew at the time (far too young!) that I read it that I was missing lots of adult inuendo, but I don't think I could handle it today.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 4, 2004 04:16 AM



As a semi-literate high school dropout, I don't know that I'm sufficiently erudite to post a comment here, but I will anyway. Firstly, as an Australian, I always enjoyed King's by-story more than the main theme. Second, Grisham (spelt correctly Robin) is the only lawyer in existence who will be spared when I am Emperor, agian for the humanistic asides. Third, what does IMHO mean? I don't speak SMS.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on May 4, 2004 04:48 AM



. . . why do so many American fine-artist wannabes spend so much time complaining about America?

Perhaps because it's generally easier to complain than to say something positive. Anybody can complain, but to see the good side of things can require maturity and effort.

Posted by: Jonathan on May 4, 2004 07:47 AM



IMHO -- "in my humble opinion." FWIW -- "for what it's worth." What does SMS stand for?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2004 08:16 AM



I had read both Stepford Wives and Rosemary's Baby decades ago, and had seen Deathtrap, SW and RB as movies long ago as well. For one thing, the concepts, the plot, the storylines were innovative and well written and the topics fascinating of course.

I shall go back and reread some day these and maybe others of Levin's books, and judge by a very different me today if they hold special writing skills, or by God, find out what the hell glued me to the pages way back then.

Posted by: susan on May 4, 2004 09:14 AM



I believe Stephen King used the 'swiss watchmaker' analogy to praise Levin's plotting in his survey of horror/suspense "Danse Macabre." It's been awhile since I reread DM, but I recall that was what started me reading Levin.

Posted by: perletwo on May 4, 2004 10:11 AM



Michael,

I'd recommend the fourth season of "Buffy" as one of the strongest--the show really hit its stride in many ways, while the later seasons (which may not be on DVD yet anyway) petered out a bit (though still better than so much TV).

Posted by: Nate on May 4, 2004 10:54 AM



Let me see, a short history of horror.
Most of the SF writers of the 40's and 50's grew up on the pulp magazines of the thirties, and since many pulp writers moved among genres, the "Golden Age" writers had an exposure and affection for fantasy and horror. They would occasionally attempt a piece or two of sword and sorcery during the fifties.

Tolkien was published around 1955, and became popular around 1965. This led to research and revival of some of the pulp writers of the thirties in the late sixties, best examples HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Sword-and-Sorcery became a viable genre, and some of the darker variants approached horror. By the time S King started writing the paperback market was ready for him.

This is excluding the fact that many of his themes have always sold as SF. Carrie = telekinesis; The Stand = apocalypse. Fact is, King as often wrote SF( 2 above, Firestarter), with non-supernatural contexts, as he wrote supernatural horror.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 4, 2004 11:16 AM



Michael, yes, I totally do agree with you -- I completely agree that we should have the best of *all* worlds, and I try to mix them as much as possible in my courses, zipping back and forth between old and new, low and high, etc. Do you know Richard Simon's book, "Trash Culture," which connects popular culture with the Great Tradition? He and I are on exactly the same wavelength, a position that some of my colleagues find appalling.

Sasha and Annette, I'm sorry that you had trouble with Faulkner in school -- Light in August in high school!! Ugh!! I came to Faulkner, as well as Shakespeare, all on my own, and so had no preconceived bs to deal with. I just enjoyed them. My students have enjoyed reading As I Lay Dying -- we have fun with it, as we do with all literature. It's usually too damn serious, if you ask me.

IMHO, it's not WHAT you teach, but HOW you teach it. Since I've been a teacher educator all my career, I've made it my practice to figure out a way to teach very hard stuff so that 1) students get it, 2) students appreciate it, 3) students look back fondly on having studied it. Then I take my experiences and share them with teachers-to-be. Those who have ears, hear.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 4, 2004 12:24 PM



Interesting. Reading the post again, we perhaps view the word "genre" somewhat differently. I see it, and I think many writers see it, as a publishing and marketing phenomenon. Levin wrote what looks like genre fiction (in 3 different genres, crime, horror, and SF, which is unusual, and possibly deliberate), but I assume Levin and his agent sold the books to mainstream hardback publishers, or divisions.
Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting" I would presume the same.
.....
When Hammett moved out of Black Mask pulp territory to hardcover sales, did he cease to be a "pulp writer?"
....
To me, genre material is the paperback original, bottom divisions of publishing. Romance, Horror, Detective, SF. One of the interesting parts of this world are the fan conventions, the fan magazines(usually not based on a writer, but genre wide), fan writing that often becomes professional. Levin(or Jackson) had no such active fanbase. This world seldom has any contact with the mainstream hard-cover world, and vice-versa. Authors, some quite good, that get started here have a very hard time breaking away into hardcover, although it is very easy to get published in paperback original. The two publishing worlds have amazingly little interaction and inter-reading.
.....
It slips my mind which publishing world King first sold "Carrie" to. And I don't know if King was more influence by Levin or by the DC Horror Comics he read as a kid. If King did sell his books hardcover, it would be partly because Levin sold well.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 4, 2004 03:32 PM



Sasha -- I'm eager to read "Sliver"! Can it be as bad as the movie? I guess at least a few of Levin's novels have been stinkers -- people seem to hate the "Rosemary's Baby" sequel...

Perletwo -- Levin seems to be admired by many of the big writers. King, as you point out. And I've also run across praise from Westlake and Leonard. And Straub's intro to "Stepford Wives" is very smart and appreciative.

Missgrundy -- Whatever you've got as a teacher, please bottle it and sell it nationwide.

Nate -- Tks for the recommendation. I'll be trying it out.

Bob -- That's interesting to see horror publishing history via fantasy and sci-fi, two genres I know next to nothing about. The horror history account I've gotten (no direct experience here, just passing along what I've been told) is: origin in Gothic, development of subgenres thru the 19th century (vampire, werewolf, serial killer, etc); pulps, etc. Then a strange downtime in the '50s and '60s, interrupted by the occasional phenom like Robert Bloch's "Psycho" and "Rosemary's Baby," then the big popular explosion of horror in the '70s, with "The Exorcist," "Carrie," Thomas Tryon, etc. King is usually credited as the guy who kept it going and kept it alive -- quite an achievement. But as you point out, it's an interesting genre that overlaps and bleeds into the other genres. Serial-killer (ie., Thomas Harris) stories are interesting, for instance -- they're where crime and horror meet.

I guess "genre" means different things to different people, and can be used in different ways. I tend to use it in a rather dry, descriptive way: all fiction is genre fiction, IMHO, and it helps a lot to know which genre (or genres) a book, play or movie belongs to. IMHO, a "multicultural po-mo autobiographical extravaganza" is as much a genre book as "a western" is. Each genre comes equipped with a set of conventions, demands, and expectations, and every author is, whether he/she knows it or not and whether he/she is tackling these questions consciously or not, wrestling with this. I know that most people reserve "genre fiction" for fiction that belongs to the ol' familiars, like "detective" or "romance," but that strikes me as naive.

I've most often heard the paperback-original world you're talking about referred to as "category fiction" -- it seems to save some confusion, given how much "genre fiction" in the usual sense (Elmore Leonard, Jackie Collins) is published in hardcover these days. I agree that the category-fiction world is fascinating. I never got a chance to get to know it as well as I wanted to, but did spend some time learning about it from agents and editors, all of whom had a lot of respect for the pro writers who can crank that stuff out. Working in the category-fiction world seems to knock the English-major baloney out of a person real fast.

There used to be a tendency for the big publishers to scan the category-fiction (ie, paperback-original) world for writers they could promote to the majors -- Danielle Steel and Elmore Leonard are two examples of Those Who Got Picked (and who proceeded to have good luck in the majors). I wonder if publishers are still so much on that particular alert. I have the impression they aren't, but I've been out of the loop for a few years now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 4, 2004 03:56 PM



But: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells. Tom Swift, even. I guess you could say that there was no science fiction before a certain point because there was not much in the way of interesting science; a fellow would cross over fast into Burroughs' territory (Tom Swift and His Really Sharp Sword, that sort of thing) without it.

It's all genre to me, and I love it. Long as there's no Grisham.

Posted by: Linus on May 4, 2004 05:20 PM



That's interesting to see horror publishing history via fantasy and sci-fi, two genres I know next to nothing about. The horror history account I've gotten (no direct experience here, just passing along what I've been told) is: origin in Gothic, development of subgenres thru the 19th century (vampire, werewolf, serial killer, etc); pulps, etc.

Science fiction also grew from the seeds of Gothic to a large degree, as the British writer Brian Aldiss convincingly argues in Billion-Year Spree, his history of the genre that identifies Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as the first bona fide sci-fi novel. And of course the Gothic novel was in large part an apotheosis of the British assimilation of elements from the "high imagination" of German Romanticism, from which you can also trace the origins of modern fantasy, from the Brothers Grimm to E.T.A. Hoffmann and Fouque and Novalis to George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and beyond...

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on May 4, 2004 06:12 PM



"Category fiction" is more accurate.
.....
Your history of horror is pretty much as I know, with the exception as noted of category SF writers very occasionally playing with the form during the 40's & 50's. I view the horror revival as a category phenomenon too, though. And can't think of much crossover. Robert Aickman is hardcover original, and pretty good. To me, Ann Rice is a category writer with big sales and a nice contract. What horror do you read?
....
Finally, I would ask you to suspend judgement on category original paperback writers, especially, SF, horror, fantasy. Yes, many have to churn out fast stuff to make a living. But once you have contacts, it is not hard to get published, and there many pretty good writers who don't worry about supporting themselves with writing, and so write what pleases them most. Like poets, enough fans and friends to pay for the print run. This can be vanity writing, it can also be very non-commercial art. Where else would Barthelme and Borges get published today?

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 4, 2004 08:16 PM



A Rose for Emily. I had forgotten about that one. Now, I am off in search of my old college lit book that it was in...

So little time, so many books.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on May 4, 2004 11:09 PM



Michael,

You must—you must—read Levin's This Perfect Day.

Posted by: Ian Hamet on May 4, 2004 11:59 PM



"multicultural po-mo autobiographical extravaganza"
What does 'po-mo' mean?
SMS=Short Message Service. Its the trade name in Australia for the text message facility on mobile (cell) phones.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on May 5, 2004 04:48 AM



I just had a look in King's "On Writing" and "carrie" was first published in hardcover by Doubleday in Spring 1974. It was later put out in paperback by Signet Books. Incidentally, it was initially picked up by Bill Thompson, who also unearthed Grisham.

Posted by: Dirk Thruster on May 5, 2004 04:58 AM



I would love to hear your comments in a similar style post re the work of Danielle Steele...

Posted by: susan on May 5, 2004 05:07 AM



* You won't catch me dissing category fiction!

* "Po-mo" mean post-modernist. A kind of grab-bag approach, mixing high and low, which sounds great and sometimes is OK, but it usually gets turned into a newfangled kind of academic theory and then intellectually applied ...

* Thanks for info and suggestions from all. Fascinating to learn about sci-fi and fantasy history, and ain't it fascinating to see how much it overlaps with horror and crime, two genres I'm a little more familiar with? Gothic, Poe, etc.

* Really, "This Perfect Day" is a good one? Grazie.

* I read a couple of Danielle Steels years ago and admired her energy but didn't dig 'em much otherwise. Are you a fan? I'd love to read a Pattie appreciation of her.

V. short version of what I went on at such length about in the posting:

* Typical popular fiction virtues: narrative drive, irresistable hooks, characters with juice. All of which are pretty basic to the health of fiction generally.

* Typical popular-fiction drawbacks: no sophistication, crude use of language, too little awareness of tone and qualities. The quarrel (semi-legit) with it tends to be that the "how the story gets told" side of things is underfed in popular fiction.

* Typical lit-fiction virtues: precision, interesting use of language and fiction-techniques -- "how the story gets told" can often be fascinating. And there's often an awareness of tone and mood that can be lovely.

* Typical lit-fiction drawbacks: making too much of "how the story gets told" at the expense of the basics of fiction: the story, the characters, the hook.

Readers of popular fiction are famous for "reading only for the story," and for not caring about the quality of the writing itself. Readers of contempo lit fiction are famous for being fascists about writing quality and morons about story.

Popular-fiction readers often buy brands (Patterson, King, Steel) and do so in bulk -- publishers know that buyers of popular fiction like big thick books (value for your money!), but that read quickly (hence, lots of white space, thick paper), and a discount. It's the Wal-Mart approach.

Readers of lit fiction often like self-consciously difficult or downbeat books, offbeat design, and a feeling that something of immense philosophical and artistic import is happening, and that the books they're reading are tuning them into this.

I guess I find myself thinking three things, mainly:

* Popular-fiction writers and buffs could learn a little something from lit-fiction about tone and quality. But lit-fiction writers and buffs should learn a lot more respect for the virtues of popular fiction.

* Ain't it great when the virtues of both approaches are present in the same work? That's what I love about the Ira Levin books -- terrific stories/hooks/characters, but also interesting and delightful as writing. It's what's great (IMHO) about a lot of crime fiction, too: "The Maltese Falcon," for example -- what a great set of characters, what a great and effective story, but it's also a fascinating thing to read as a piece of writing.

* It seems that at the moment the popular side of things and the "art" side of things are really antagonistic. I can't figure out how to explain the degree of the antagonism. Can anyone help me here? I have a few hunches, but nothing that satisfies.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2004 11:09 AM



I'm jumping in late, with spoilers below, but I wanted to point out Levin had some good sf thinking behind "Boys From Brazil." In the typical, non "Boys," cloning story, a clone is an evil, mind-controlled duplicate. From the reviews I've read, the new movie "Godsend" is exactly that. As a Ph.D. biochemist, I could point out the absurdity of that at great length. As a long-time sf reader, I find most mainstream writers who use sf tropes don't think about them. Instead, they use the sf tropes as symbols, vehicles, metaphors... and I shut the book and read someone else. If the sf tropes aren't living, breathing parts of the book's world, the book isn't sf.

In "Boys," though, Levin thought about the science behind both cloning and what his Nazi cloners were trying to do. SPOILER: the Nazi cloners are trying to unleash a new Hitler on the world. But cloning Hitler, i.e. producing boys who are Hitler's identical twin, isn't enough; the Nazi cloners recognize nurture has an impact on who someone becomes. Thus, since Hitler's father died when Hitler was 8, the Nazi cloners have to kill Hitler's clones' adopted fathers. In the moment Levin concluded that, he was an sf writer.

Posted by: Raymund on May 5, 2004 11:22 AM



Sorry to add another comment, but just need to clarify that no, I am not a fan of Danielle Steele's writing skills, but she sure made alotta money.

Posted by: susan on May 5, 2004 11:26 AM



I heard a good one yesterday:

What's the difference between a mafia boss and a postmodernist?


The postmodernist makes you an offer you can't understand.


Danielle Steele = intricate plotting, plus a world most of us will never glimpse, much less inhabit. I tried one once, but never went back.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 5, 2004 12:35 PM



For whatever it's worth, this Buffy fan's suggestion is, if you've the time and inclination, to go through the DVD sets one at a time - seasons 1-5 are out, and 6 is coming out at the end of the month. That's how I've gone through it, and it plays well over the arc of the series, even from season to season.

Posted by: John on May 5, 2004 01:14 PM



Levin is twice-cursed: he writes what might be called horror or sci-fi and he's funny.

I've read several Danielle Steele novels. No matter how one feels about her subject, one must admit that she can't write well enough to convey simple stage directions. If more than two people are in a scene, there's no way anyone could storyboard it from her text. That's bad. B A D bad. Her books are designed to be read for "the good parts," which make them pretty much porn.

In related bitchiness, here's my def of lit: It's what happens when someone can freakin' write and has something insightful to say.

Posted by: j.c. on May 5, 2004 01:51 PM



What, as we move into the pomo 21st, the democratization of critical judgement is being resisted by an elite whose self-image is defined as the protectors of invariable standards of quality? (Bill Bennett, Harold Bloom). Next thing ya know, ballet companies won't be able to support themselves, and college students will consider comic books a form of literature.

Which side are you on? Hard to tell. Me, I'm going bowling.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 5, 2004 02:21 PM



Michael

re: why don't the critics and profs have the sense to recognize Ira Levin's books for the remarkable, enjoyable and classy creations they are?

You are one of the sharpest critics of today’s literary or “Fine Lit (my term)” scene. You yourself are a good writer and you make your points with force and wit. You also know the industry from the inside and your commentary on the general shenanigans and laziness of all involved is valuable. And you are right to praise your favorite genre writers for doing what Fine Lit writers should be doing: engaging the reader with lively writing, interesting characters and plots with some tension (to name a few). But Michael here is where we part company: all your praise of genre writing will not push it into the Fine Lit category. The premises of genre writing are too artificial; they are not anchored to life in any significant way. That is what makes genre lit fun and relaxing.

On the other hand we indulge our petted and wayward Fine Lit writers because we are waiting for a miracle: a piece of life thrown into a book. I don’t just mean poetic words and phrases but characters and situations presented with a randomness and charm that hits us like our best encounters in life. You have written eloquently of the tedium and pomposity of the latest crop of supposed Fine Lit writers. I won’t summarize it here. Let me instead list a few Fine Lit writers who I think have pulled it off: Jim Harrison, Lee Smith, the early Ellen Gilchrist, Phillip Roth, Martin Clark (author of the wonderful "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living"); in translation, Jorge Amado has a wonderful backlog of entertaining Fine Lit, as does Mario Vargas Llosa and Alvaro Mutis. Of course there are more.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on May 5, 2004 02:27 PM



Good lord, what a fun discussion, and what a treat for me. I drop a few thoughts about Ira Levin on a blog and get to rap with a ton of interesting, enthusiastic people. And we're all civil and friendly too. Lordy, my art-nut brain hasn't had such a good time since college.

OK, the teary Oscar-acceptance moment has passed...

Doug -- Thanks for the unwarranted praise, and eager to find out why you think that genre lit doesn't, or can't, measure up to Fine Lit. And thanks for the list of your faves, by the way. I'll second you ultra-enthusiastically on Lee Smith, who gets my vote as Best Living American novelist, at least of the ones I've read.

I think the arguments on my side boil down to just a few, finally:

* All fiction is genre fiction. "Fine lit" is a genre too, with many subgenres of its own. So there's really no disagreement, just different genre preferences.

* The more familiar genres (mystery, romance, horror), while they can certainly result in routine, formulaic work, can also serve as formal requirements, rather like rhyme and rhythm in poetry. Which can force writers to be A) more competent and audience-centric, and B) more inventive (they gotta figure out ways to make 'em fresh). While the fine-lit (usually thought of as more free-expression, akin to free-verse) world tends to flop around, clueless and formless, waiting for inspiration that seldom comes.

* Even if you accept the distinction between genre-lit and fine-lit (and I do, but descriptively and not qualitatively), they're simply different approaches to creating and enjoying fiction.

* Even if you accept that Fine-Lit is (at the highest, anyway) superior to genre-lit (I don't, but what the heck), there's a problem with that distinction in America. Why? Because America has such a feeble fine-arts tradition that 99.9% of our fine-arts stuff is pretty mediocre. It's got no sponsorship and very little audience, so it's defensively snobby and tends to be bloodless. Where our commercial art, crass though it can be, has tons of dynamism and talent. Plus, there's just so damn much of it. So although you could point to a few great fine-arts works that (arguably) surpass everything else, the general fine-art quality is so weak that it's often surpassed -- as a practical, and not a theoretical matter -- by commercial and folk art, which after all artists can make a living at and audiences enjoy. (Happy to agree that the situation is somewhat different in places like England.)

Anyway, all of these could be wrong, even if I find them pretty persuasive. Curious to find out your responses to them.

I'd suggest, for instance, that Lee Smith, fab though she is, is writing traditional women's lit -- biography/chronicles about women and their travails and feelings. She happens to do it really beautifully and movingly. But that doesn't mean she's writing something different than traditional women's lit; it means that she's writing tiptop women's lit.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 5, 2004 03:10 PM



Michael, I momentarily misread your last bulleted comment to say "Fine Lit is (at the highest anyway) superior genre-lit," rather than "superior TO genre-lit," but I kind of like my misreading. In one sense, what is Madame Bovary or Othello, after all, but VERY tiptop versions of what Danielle Steele writes? Or The Turn of the Screw or A Rose for Emily a tiptop version of Stephen King's genre? What makes them better is the language, a kind of original spin on the plot, a tragic ending that popular fiction doesn't usually have, etc.? Also, for me the big difference is that what counts as Fine Literature is something that's worth reading again, once you know the plot. I think that probably not too many readers will go back to a heaving bosom romance novel over and over, but one might return to Madame Bovary many times, because it repays repeated readings. And there's probably something in the middle that a reader might say to herself, "this is a *really* good romance novel," and maybe even read a second time.

I think one of the confounding factors is that it's seldom the same people who enjoy reading both heaving bosom romances and Madame Bovary (even the generally status-seeking Carmela Soprano had difficulty with Madame Bovary in a recent episode), so it's easy to set up a "we" read fine lit, "they" read trash kind of dichotomy. But for people who do enjoy both, one is not a better experience than that other. It's just different.

Posted by: missgrundy on May 5, 2004 03:47 PM



I suspect the mark of great literature is resistance to what Flaubert called the "Received Idea." I see no such resistance in Levin, and little enough in most of the other writers you've touted, Michael. This is pretty good stuff if you're looking to massage preconceived notions. A petty Bouvard or Pecuchet, a silly Mr. Veneering, maybe even a semi-spiteful Gilbert Osmond, can get by with such stuff. But if you're looking for something more than that, you're going to have to stretch your mind a bit.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on May 5, 2004 04:43 PM



I have come to believe that there are two meta-genres in writing.

In the first, "Fine Lit", the story is a vehicle used to present the writing. The interplay of image and metaphor, perfect sentence and carefully crafted paragraph, paradigmatic vignette and brilliantly realized character sketch, is the epitome of the form.

In the second, perhaps best exemplified by "category fiction", language is a tool used to present the story. In the best examples of the form, the words of the writer are not consciously noticed by the reader; they are subsumed by the experience of the story.

I see a similar dynamic in many other areas of life. One sort of furniture buyer might go to furniture stores (or more likely antique stores) in the hope of finding a chair whose carving is intricate sculpture, the fabric of whose seat provides a perfect counterpoint to the wallpaper in the (one) spot it will spend the next decade, whose form provides the perfect accent to the window next to which it will sit. It is not important that the intricate carving would imprint itself on the back of a sitter, that the fabric would stain if allowed within ten feet of a four-year-old, that the legs would snap in an instant if a sitter were to lean back.

Another sort of furniture buyer might look for an over-stuffed couch of the perfect length to lie back on, soft enough to be comfortable for hours, and built robustly enough to allow for the occasional bouncing child. It is not especially important that the couch is really too large for compatibility with the fireplace surround, the shape really doesn't match the antique rocking chair in the corner, or that its covering is a particularly poorly printed Stuart tartan.

It is not clear to me that any of these goals (in writing or furniture buying) is either illegitimate or inherently superior. It is possible that a single object might satisfy more than one goal set. But I am not convinced that it is any more important to try to do that than it is to produce a panel van that can go from 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds.

Sometimes it is nice to visit a perfectly rendered room or study a brilliantly crafted paragraph, but generally I prefer a good story on a comfortable couch.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 5, 2004 05:29 PM



Michael,
re: genre lit vs fine lit and what it all means.

(Note: let me crib a bit from a previous 2BHs post of mine)
The fine lit novel does not need genres to bring forth its tensions and possibilities. When you compare literary genres to poetic or musical forms, e.g., sonatas, arias or movements, etc. I don't believe the analogy holds. Music, being sound, resembles water more than it does words. Music is lost without sturdy forms to box it into shape and bring forth its dynamism. In poetry forms are a minimal shaping device to help regulate short or long poetry; good poetry quickly transcends its forms.

The fine lit novel needs very little by way of form to get itself going; it only requires a simulacrum of life to kick-start it: a memoir, a long letter, a will, a biography, a wandering mariner, a dream, an informal history, a shaggy dog campfire tale (you can think of many more).

In other words, the traditional fine lit novel takes life as its model. And what is going on in life? Everything and nothing. The exhilaration we feel from a well-executed fine lit novel is the exhilaration we feel from our greatest moments stumbling around in life.

The premises of genre novels, on the other hand, are hugely artificial. Let me speak to the crime/detective genre. I spent five years as a contractor to the federal prison system working closely with case workers, secretaries, cops, lawyers, shrinks, detectives - and criminals. I enjoyed working with the good guys, but the bad guys the criminals, well, the dominant trait among crooks is a corrosive stupidity. This isn't to say that some of the bad guys weren't interesting characters and, yes, there was the occasional super-bright crook - I met a couple guys with IQs above 170, but these two also had stupid streaks. The cops and robbers biz you find in crime fiction genre novels has been processed beyond recognition of its real-life model.

So my beef with genre fiction is that it never transcends its premises, premises that have little connection to real life (I know I'm in trouble with that one). Yes, it can be entertaining, yes it can be well written (thanks to the goosed-up standards set by the modernists), but it cannot ultimately satisfy the hunger for art.

I agree with you about our (America's) weak fine-arts tradition. But we can't be fabulous in everything. We're still a young country. It took Latin America until the middle of the last century to offer up fine lit books of world stature. And Latin America had superlative models to draw on from the mother country in all the arts.

The opportunities are vast for the fine lit novel in America. Fine lit writers are lost just now but they will find their way. The exhuberance you find in commercial and folk art can only nourish the upper branches and leaves of the tree.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on May 5, 2004 08:30 PM



Missgrundy -- I'm with you. I also do tend to do some head-scratching about where exactly this "fine lit" thing came from. I mean, after all, Defoe was a tabloid hack, Richardson wrote scandalous romances ... As far as I can tell, the notion of Fine Lit comes from a nostalgia (or imagined nostalgia, or something) for an aristocratic art such as masques, ballet, court poetry, etc, crossed with (sorry to be repetitive) modernism. In the late 1800s you see novels -- and I'm assuming we're all talking about long narrative prose fiction -- and novelists start to get art-conscious, and then with modernism the thing really bifurcates, with arty stuff zooming off in one direction and with the other direction being labeled trash. For decades there was a nice middle ground, which is where people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis and O'Hara were -- doing stuff that's both accessible and interesting (and regularly on the bestseller list). That old middle has more or less dropped away, some exceptions allowed for. Does it have to do with technology? The corporatization of the entertainment biz? Have TV and movies, which sell some pretty respectable work in very EZ packages, usurped the middle? I don't really know, and am eager to hear ideas about this. Anyway, the result seems to have been this state we have now, with the lit set blasting away at the popular set, which in turn talks about sales and laughs contemptuously. Too bad, as far as I'm concerned. So it's fun to highlight the people who still do combine some of the better qualities of both worlds. Lee Smith's a great one -- she's got a terrific, heartfelt popular touch, but avails herself of lots of technique to achieve her effects. I'm surprised the lit set isn't more impressed by Ira Levin, but I'm also surprised the popular set hasn't embraced Lee Smith more than they have.

Tim -- That Flaubert attitude is the one I was schooled in. I've come to find it interesting and OK, but also very limiting. Or rather I now take it as an amusing radical provocation, and enjoy it as such. I've encountered too much terrific art that doesn't conform, and have learned too much about how art's actually produced. I don't see how it explains the terrific-ness of Duke Ellington, for example, or Count Basie -- these were swingin' dance bands. They weren't making anyone question anything, and they weren't doing battle with any idees recues either. They were simply (well, not "simply," but you know what I mean) two of the hottest swing bands out there. I suppose an academic could make some sort of contorted case about how innovative and challenging they were, but I think sensible people who like the music would rightly throw tomatoes at him. We've been fed a lot of what now seems to me nonsense about art, innovation, the critical eye, blah blah. And what I've found is that most of the time it applies to really bad artists. After all, if the energy's going into "being critical" or "challenging ideas," then it's not going into such concerns as "making this story persuasive," or "putting this movie over," or "making that dance audience sweat." These have been the actual concerns of most of the actual really good artists I've known and seen at work. The Italian Renaissance is another example. Were those artists ... really challenging preconceived ideas? Is that really what makes them terrific? As a practical matter, they were businessmen selling high-class wall decoration at a time of rapid economic expansion and broadening intellectual horizons. They provided -- for a negotiated-upon-beforehand price -- the visuals. Fabulous visuals for a fascinating era, sure. But I don't see how Flaubert's p-o-v helps explain anything here. As far as I've seen, most really good art is almost entirely concerned with fulfilling a form or a genre's requirements; most "great" art, though I hesitate to enter into discussions about greatness, fulfills its requirements really, really well. I agree that there's a certain kind of art that's deliberately challenging and that offers its own particular thrills, but I'd be tempted to call it a minor subgenre, and the taste for it a very special, minority taste.

Doug S. -- I think that's brilliant, or rather I couldn't agree more. I think what you're saying is similar to what Nikos Salingaros argues in his pieces. In his view, there's the radical starchitecture scene, which proceeds from chic looks to final product, taking requirements into account along the way. And then there's the other way of building, more ground-up, which is to take demonstrated preferences and painfully-acquired wisdom and knowledge and experience and grow your project from that, with the "look" element being an outgrowth of that process. I'm not sure Nikos would be as balanced in his view of the two approaches as you are -- he's a real partisan of the second over the first. But then architecture (largely a public art, involving money, law, constraints, etc) is very different than something like novels. No one has to read a novel, where we're all stuck interacting with many buildings not of our own choice every day.

Doug A. -- That's beautifully put. You've got me feeling stirred up, even though I don't buy it. I hope it's true, but I don't think it is. I think where we may share some space though is on whether the fine-lit thing in America has brought forth some beauties -- I agree it has.

I guess I've got a few quarrels with it as a tradition, though. One is that it's unrealistic. Unrealistic because, even if you accept the idea that fine-lit, unlike genre lit, operates with no rules and is a realm of free expression (I don't, but what the heck), although that sounds exhilarating, it's in fact a horrible burden. It's like sending kids into an art studio full of art supplies and saying to them, Create! Go wild! Maybe one kind out of a zillion will come out with something dazzling. But most will make purple-brown mud (I've made a lot of it), and slink out feeling discouraged. Another thing that'll tend to happen is that, in the absence of clearly-understood cultural forms, a lot of de facto forms will take their place, and fashion will become dictatorial. Blind lurching-about in the pursuit of "inspiration" is what will take the place of consciously applied craft. Why all the literary memoirs culminating in incest, for instance? Purely fashion, as far as I could tell. I enjoyed a couple of these books, but found the development generally embarrassing -- a matter of the lit world admitting that it had finally vanished up its own ass.

If young lit-wannabes aren't being given an audience-and-history-based craft, and a menu of external forms to choose from and work with, they're going to wind up (or are likely to, anyway) rushing about alike a herd of lemmings, even as they squawk about free expression. Which'll only alienate and annoy the general reading public even more, which'll only split lit from popular even further.

I dunno, finally. I couldn't keep the faith up. The batting average is what I guess did me in. So few really-fab lit-fiction books ... And it took so much generosity to say of the not-fab ones that, hey, it's pretty good, because the fine lit thing is more or less set up these days in such a way that either a book is fabulous or its a total strikeout. A really patient but trustworthy critics who picks out the fab stuff without making too much of what comes in between would certainly help the scene. But even so, is a book every year or two enough to sustain an actual tradition?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 6, 2004 12:02 AM



I think that the bifurcation between fine lit novels and more commercial genre writing can partially be chocked up to economic factors, influencing and reinforcing the cultural issues touched on by MvB and others.

Before the abundance of the post-industrial first world, who had the time or money to write except for money? Lest we not forget, I'd just like to reemphasize Michaels point that much of what we now think of as "The Greats" were writing what we'd now consider pop culture.

But with the level of general affluence in the US since the mid-20th century, the fine-lit crowd less and less had to 'sing for their supper'.

Oh, and the snotty 'genre is trash' sentiments that inhabit every English Dept. I'VE ever seen in America goes the other way too, at least from the scifi side of the genre street: fine-lit is 'trash that contains no new ideas'. Doug A. is right, it's all about 'the here and now', it has no point but itself. No new ideas (except perhaps on how to butcher the language), little to no attention to engaging the reader (usually), Christ not even any escape from the harsh world for your money. It's all rehashing, on the plane of ideas, things that have generally been beaten to death already. That's the view from the scifi 'ghetto' in a nutshell, at least.

But don't get me wrong, I actually agree that large swaths of genre fiction are trash, I just think it's true of "fine" lit too. Being dense and hard to parse doesn't make something 'deep', which seems to be the central conceit of most current fine lit I've seen.

Posted by: David Mercer on May 6, 2004 02:50 PM



Michael, a coda (or a truce);

I feel strongly that you and I (along with many of your fans) have had it with award-winning fine lit that might carry “Amazing” and “Adventures” in the title but nowhere between the covers. Still, I just can’t champion genre lit as the very best we can do; I still believe in something called literature (or fine lit) - a high creative experience of words and imagination brought to us by a writer who is trying to make it new.

Other thoughts: I think there has always been a split between fine lit and pop or genre fiction. The stuff that has come down to us from first century (give or take a century), written in Greek by Longus, Chariton or Heliodorous, has a definite genre feel if not a downright made-for-best-seller-dom feel about it. But we're also fortunate to have Apuleius and Petronius, two unclassifiable, zany, fine-lit writers from the same time zone.

Also, we forget that a huge part of “Don Quijote’s” popularity was Cervantes' poking fun at the pulp fiction genre of medieval knight errantry, damsels in distress, rescues from dragons, spells, evil wizards and all that. After “Don Quijote” the genre collapsed forever.

I’ll sign off with a few writers whose works have given me that literary jolt: Alasdair Gray, Anthony Burgess, John Cheever; I also liked Mark Helprin’s “Memior from Ant-Proof Case” – and two of my favorite genre writers: Chester Himes, Geoffrey Household.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on May 7, 2004 06:03 PM



I second the recommendation of This Perfect Day, a prescient book which I am surprised to find absent from the main entry and almost absent from the comment thread. (Lousy Ivy Education Dept.: we studied it at my university, in an undergraduate seminar on literary dystopias.) I am flabbergasted to discover that it is out of print.

Posted by: Colby Cosh on May 8, 2004 10:16 AM



I went to the movies tonight and saw a trailer for the upcoming "Stepford Wives" movie---it looks like a wicked satire, much more entertaining than the original movie and closer to the tone you describe in the book.

Posted by: annette on May 8, 2004 08:55 PM






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