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January 14, 2004

Bookpeople Moviepeople Redux

Dear Friedrich --

It's been fun to see the comments pile up on my posting about the differences between the way moviepeople and bookpeople see things (here). Many fab observations, lots of fun admissions of book pleasure, tons of provocative book suggestions, scads of well-made points, and pleasingly little prissiness. Since what I was complaining about in my posting was the prissiness of the bookpeople view, I couldn't be more pleased: hey, a rowdy, enthusiastic, open-minded conversation about books -- cool! Something you'll run into at 2Blowhards, by the way, but won't often find if your idea of the books life comes from following, say, The New York Times Book Review Section. Which was kinda my point: why aren't more bookchat sessions like this?

Being co-proprietor of this blog, I can't resist treating myself to a return to the topic, as well as to an epic wallow in navel-gazing. Be warned.

First: the question of qualifications. I notice that some commenters seemed to think that I wrote my posting out of ignorance, whether of the academic or of the professional sort. It's funny, as you and I have often noted, the way some people seem to believe that if they disagree with you, it must be because they know something you don't. The presumption evidently being that disagreement between knowledgeable people is impossible. Patooie on that, especially where the arts are concerned.

First, I've got a couple of fancy-enough English degrees from a couple of fancy-enough colleges. Second, I've spent more than a couple of decades in the thick of the arts and writing worlds -- as a nonentity, you betcha, but a nonentity who was taking note. Third, I'm familiar with the business of movies and the business of publishing in ways that many academic sorts aren't. (You'd think it would occur to them -- occasionally, at least -- to shut up and learn. But then maybe they wouldn't be academics.) Fourth, though I enjoy presenting postings in a whimsical and open-ended way, some of them have oomph and weight behind them -- some thought and a lot of experience. This posting was one. It's a discussion that took form in my head over decades, and it's one that I've road-tested with many people in both the bookworld and the movieworld. It may have its flaws, but its tires have been kicked plenty, and by experts. Fifth, I hear fairly regularly from people in the bookworld and the movieworld -- authors, screenwriters, editors, agents -- who write in to let me know that they're glad someone's finally saying these things out loud.

So: qualifications? Yup. To be candid (something I generally avoid), I wonder how many of the people who see fit to take a lecturing, you-don't-know-anything tone come close to having my qualifications. But that's falling for the I've-got-a-fancier-degree-than- you-do-and-thus-I'm-right approach to a discussion. And patooie on that too.

Let's agree that the case I made in my posting is one that can indeed be made by a reasonably intelligent, reasonably educated, reasonably informed person.

So what was my case?

Aha: there's that word, "case." I'm not -- at least not by preference -- a debater, and I don't generally advance arguments, largely because taking part in debates isn't my idea of a good time. I like to think I can make a case pretty well when the need arises, though I may be fooling myself. And I admire and enjoy people who make cases well and with gusto; my brain enjoys the exercise and the rest of me enjoys the show. Aaron Haspel, here, is an example of a blogger who makes real arguments; his postings are often, among other things, wonderfully focused and streamlined cases. Not my style, and generally something I take little pleasure in doing.

Given that I blog on my own time for no money, I'm going to write and publish in a way that I enjoy. (Economists: the time has come to analyze blogging -- an activity that makes no economic sense whatsoever, but is super-rational in a life-is-more-rewarding sense.) So far as artchat goes, I've found -- from experience, not by design -- that I'm what's known as an associative writer. I find myself walking around with a cluster of observations, jokes, and reflections in my head. Maybe some of them seem to share a center of gravity. And perhaps I decide that I'd like to take this constellation of swirling goodies and put it across in public. How to do so?

I tend to devise some kind of framework that will enable me to loop together and present a decent percentage of these goodies. Sometimes that framework takes the form of a joke; sometimes a question; sometimes, yes, even an argument. But the framework isn't generally my real point, although I try to make it a good, or at least a plausible and entertaining, one. The cluster of observations/reflections/etc is itself the point. What I try to do is put my stuff out there in this spirit: "Hey, you may find this useful, or amusing, or enjoyable! Or maybe you don't! Great! But what about you? Have you noticed anything similar? Because I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about these matters too." Hey, I like discussions and conversations. (Here's the great Michael Oakeshott on the wonderfulness of conversation.)

For this reason, it's worth no one's time to try to engage me in debate. Nine times out of ten, I'm going to change the terms of the debate on you. I'm going to do what I can to undermine it, dodge it, or trip it up. I don't take offense, and I'm always happy (if chagrined) to have my facts corrected. But I'm far more interested in opening conversations up than I am in staking out debating positions.

Here, for example, is how I built my bookpeople/moviepeople posting, along with my evaluation of how disputable the various steps in the posting are.

  • Observation: Bookpeople and moviepeople tend to have different sets of assumptions about the arts. Disputability factor: Low-ish. On the writing-and-reading side, I've got author, poet, and critic friends, and I've spent years close to the publishing industry. On the movie side, I've known critics and screenwriters, and have interviewed a couple of hundred movie people -- writers, execs, directors, scholars and techies. I'm only passing along what I've found these worlds to be like. It's possible that, in your experience, you've found things to be different. Interested to hear about that.
  • Characterization: The movieperson's p-o-v tends to be happy with the idea that trash and art coexist, feed each other, and are both to be savored. The bookperson's view tends to be more high-minded and exclusionary, and focuses more on literary respectability. If movie enjoyability is recognized to arise out of the avowedly dirty business of moviemaking, book enjoyability is held to arise despite the dirty reality of making books. Disputability factor: low-medium. While this is me characterizing what I've found to be the case, it's certainly true to my experience. A small note: I'm talking about gestalts and general tones here, not individuals. One of the things about the bookworld that took me most by surprise was how many of its members, when you speak informally and off-the-record with them, gripe about the high-mindedness of their field's gestalt.
  • Personal touch: I find the bookperson's view a pain, despite being quite an enjoyer of books. And I find the movieperson's view of things, as I've characterized it and despite its flaws, more congenial. Disputability factor: nonexistent.
  • Semi-rhetorical question: What might a more movieperson-style view of interacting with books might be like? Disputability factor: nonexistent. I'm doing nothing but musing out loud, happy though I am to admit that I'd prefer a rowdier discussion of books than we generally get.
  • Conversation-starter: I impishly attempt to kick off the kind of discussion about books that I'd enjoy by 'fessing up to a lot of "guilty pleasures." Disputability factor: nonexistent.
  • Then I scamper out of the way and enjoy the fray.

The posting goes from observation to characterization to personal touch to rhetorical question to conversation-starter -- why, it's hardly an argument at all! As you can no doubt sense, I'm patting myself enthusiastically on the back for this remarkable nonachievement.

Still, the point of the posting is obvious: it's to throw open the books discussion a few inches more than usual. (One way I do this is by asking out loud, "Gee, why do you suppose the books conversation isn't more open than it is?" Old actor/director trick.) In the course of advancing this sinister agenda, I also deliver my pet constellation of observations/reflections/etc, many of which are quite disputable -- they're provocations, meant to spark off thought, reflection and conversation. But the posting's framework depends on none of them. Its sole substantial point is to say, "Sheesh, the prissiness of the bookworld's gestalt! Are you as fed up with it as I am? Why not kick it around some and see if we can let in some fresh air?"

What's to disagree with? So far as I can tell, next to nothing. You can quarrel with my movieperson/bookperson comparison, and a few people did. Fair enough, but you hang out in both worlds and tell me what you find. (A few people added useful nuance to my characterizations.) You can also tell me that you prefer the bookperson's view to the movieperson's view -- fair enough as well. But that isn't the kind of disagreement that can be usefully debated. It's a matter of taste and temperament, which aren't questions that can be resolved.

What else? Well, you can certainly disapprove of my attempt to kickstart a rowdier-than-usual discussion about books. This is what I suspect most of the objectors were doing. I suspect they were taking umbrage at something, and that they were expressing their disapproval by attempting to argue with my points. And who am I to complain about this kind of shifting-terms strategy?

(I'm ignoring for the moment all the people who advanced good points, extended good points, contributed to the discussion, made fresh observations, etc -- all the people who took the ball and ran with it farther than I did. Many thanks to all -- you've got my brain buzzing. And I urge anyone who hasn't yet plunged into the comments thread to do so. It's a very lively conversation.)

I'm going to focus on the objections. Given that all I was doing really was saying, "Hey, what do you say we swing that door open a bit more?", commenters who wanted a debate had to take my posting and turn it into something that could be argued with. I've had a good time watching the way people do that. Some are quite ingenious, others project onto the general discussion whatever argument it is they're carrying around in their own heads. Again: fair enough.

Still, why not respond to some of what's been raised? I'm certainly not going to engage in debate, though. I'm going to do my best to use people's arguments as taking-off points for a few more of my own observations. And I look forward to everyone's further thoughts on these matters.

Here are, generally speaking, the points people seemed drawn to make.

  • Some people return to the high/low thing. One's better, one's worse, etc.
    My response: High and low exist; there are distinctions to be made; there are also continuities to be respected. Can anything new be said here? Personally I'd like to see people take note of culture's many other dimensions too -- not just high and low, but pop and folk, classical and avant-garde, demotic and formal, amateur and professional, academic and street. I should find it more interesting than I do that so many people enjoy returning to this argument, but it seems to me like arguing about the weather -- what's the point? Still, many people do enjoy this discussion. Any idea why?
  • Some commenters took me to be a wicked cultural leveller.
    My response: there's a difference between taking note of what is and being a cultural leveller. I rather enjoy hierarchies, which are inevitable anyway. (And why argue with what is?) But why should opening our eyes to the whole panorama of culture equal dissing what the gatekeepers have decided we should consider special? That's part of the panorama too, although it's one that's perhaps paid a little too much attention to. IMHO, of course.
  • Some people want to drag the conversation back to the topic of "greatness" -- what makes a book great, etc.
    My response: I find the "greatness" topic, like the "what should be in the canon" topic, a perfectly good one, of course. What stumps me is how strong an attachment many people have to these topics. It gets to seem downright obsessive. Nine-tenths of the time, what's the point? No one's listening, nothing's going to change, and our conversation is going to have no impact on public policy. So why not compare notes -- and venture observations and reflections -- about our own experiences of culture instead? People who won't let go of these topics remind me of people who argue over what's the best 3-star meal they've ever had while ignoring the food they're shoveling in their mouths as they speak, or of people whose idea of discussing architecture involves nothing beyond debating Daniel Libeskind's plans for the WTC site. It's a perfectly good topic (and Felix Salmon, here, does it well). But why focus on it to the exclusion of taking note of the buildings, neighborhoods, and streets we're spending our actual lives in and among?
  • Many people discuss books only as things to be read.
    My response: This strikes me as understandable -- it's conventional. But it's also a slightly odd fixation. We interact with many different kinds of books in many different kinds of ways. Some books we use; some we look at; some we enjoy living with; some we browse around in; some we enjoy planning to read. Can anyone give a good reason why we should think of "all-words books that are written with the intention of being read straight through" as being of a higher order than any other kind of book? Or why we should think of "reading an all-words book straight through" as being a higher-order activity than interacting with books in a different way? And even if these are higher-order things and activities, why should that mean we can't also (and profitably) pay attention to all the other ways in which we interact with books too?
  • Some objected to comparing books and movies. Movies are narratives, so the better comparison would be between movies and narrative books.
    My response: It's a good point, and one I've made myself at other times. That said, of course I wasn't comparing books and movies, I was comparing the gestalt of the bookworld with the gestalt of the movieworld. And even if I were to change focus somewhat and compare the gestalt of bookpeople with the gestalt of audiovisual-through-timepeople, the observation, in my experience, would still hold. The audiovid crowd is cheerier and more outgoing, the bookscrowd is more high-minded.
  • Some people made the point that they don't read trash because they've learned better. Now that they've read the great books, they've lost their taste for trash.
    My response: Was someone urging you to read anything you don't feel like reading? I'd add though that it may be a mistake to believe that your interacting-with-books tastes have reached an endpoint. People's book habits and tastes usually continue changing throughout life. Retirees don't read like undergrads do. It's common for people at 35 to surround themselves with different kinds of books than they did as postgrads, and to use them differently too. It's also common for the English-lit majors who wind up in the bookworld to learn to move beyond a narrow taste for literary books, even to start preferring other kinds of books. And once they start thinking thoughts like, "Hmm, you know, that Elmore Leonard really has something going for him," or "Gosh, there really can be things worth paying attention to in a book that have nothing to do with a finely-turned sentence" -- well, with that, the insistence on "literature" starts to crumble. Soon this person is -- gasp -- reading what he feels like reading, and using books as he sees fit, whatever and however that may happen to be.

I guess I do want to drive home a few points after all.

* Most people interact with many different kinds of books in many different kinds of ways. Simple fact of life. Somewhere there may exist a few people who only read serious all-text books that are intended to be read straight through -- a few people who never use a cookbook, who never grab and leaf through a reference book, who never need a computer-advice book, who never find that they can kill time on an airplane better with a thriller than with a classic, who never skim a couple of chapters of a self-help book, and who never enjoy ogling a visual book. But I've been watching the book habits of friends and colleagues for years and I've run across very few such people. Here's a way of looking at it: if we were to eyeball your ordering history at Amazon, would we see nothing -- nothing -- but classics? If so, you're a rarity. (And that's OK -- but why insist that your way is the only "real" way?) My own most recent purchases include an exercise book (lousy, alas), and a stack of erotic comic books. And I'm a fairly serious reader; I've got some Christopher Isherwood and some Frederick Turner on my nightstand just now.

* Non-literary books often have virtues that literary books sometimes don't have. Some examples: energy, opportunism, flash, shrewdness, instinct, pleasure, upbeatness, utility, unself-consciousness, zaniness, whimsicality. Again: it's a simple fact of life that at any given moment some branches of the book-making world are livelier than others. And there's no particular reason why that branch should be a "literary" one. Why not pay attention to this, and offer credit where credit is due? And -- zounds -- perhaps even learn from it? Some years back, for example, the true-crime genre was on fire; I read some of the books and ran across a few that struck me as darned good -- better in many, many ways than the self-consciously literary books that were coming out at the same time.

* As a practical matter, literature doesn't exist independent of the world of making-and-interacting-with-books. Sorry, it just doesn't. Literature can be a wonderful, sometimes cosmically fantastic thing, but as a practical matter it's a subset of the world of making-and-interacting-with-books. This fact doesn't determine what books get produced or how you experience them, but it certainly conditions both of these things. Even if you've chosen to lead your own book life by fixating on lit and nothing but lit -- and why not? -- your knowledge of lit (and probably your enjoyment of it) is only going to be deepened by a better understanding and a more open acknowledgment of the context lit occurs in. You can certainly decline such knowledge if you want to, but why deny that it has its uses and fascinations?

My own preference is to view literature as an outgrowth of the cultural activity of making and interacting with all kinds of books. And who knows which books from our era will be deemed "literature" 50 years from now? Perhaps those non-literary true crime books I enjoyed will be found more important as literature than the books that announced their literary intentions. Perhap not -- but none of us knows for certain.

I find the view that what makes a work "literature" is that it's "not-trash" -- let alone the view that literature is an ineffably-marvelous thing that justifies all the degradation and tedium -- not just annoying but factually inaccurate. Just as movies don't (and can't) exist without all the money and sex and ego, there's no such thing as books without the book-making life, and without the publishing life. Isn't it the Buddhists who make a big deal out of the lotus? Their point is that the lotus' beauty is rooted in the mud. The beauty and the mud are one; it's a matter of lotus and mud, not lotus or mud, let alone lotus despite mud.

Perhaps I'm completely deluded, but most of what I've written here strikes me as empirical fact based on a few decades of experience; it's a matter of taking note of what is, not of arguing about what should be. I'm the guy who's returning from from the Grand Canyon and saying "It's really big! What do you think of that?" I'm not the guy behind the pulpit who's telling you what you ought to do about it.

So why would people object to what I've advanced here? I've noted before some of the characteristics of people whom I've characterized as "the book-besotted" (here). I'll add another factor now, which is that I think many bookish people scramble up feelings that are more appropriate to religion with their feelings about books. (I've known moviepeople who do this with movies too. It seems to be more common among bookpeople, though.) I think they react the way they do to down-to-earth discussions of books because their religious feelings are offended.

Not all bookpeople, of course; many bookpeople are, as individuals, happy to confess that they find the church-y solemnity of the "literary" thing a drag. Given that a fair number of bookpeople are earthy and relatively practical, I've often wondered: why then does the uptight, reverent, gloomy gestalt of the bookworld persist?

I come up with two explanations. One is that, big surprise, the field attracts bookish introverts. Though many eventually come out of their shells and leave the Eng-lit delusions behind, the field takes a lot of its flavor from the people who inhabit it. (It's useful too to remember that the dreams that bring people into the bookworld are different than the dreams that bring people into the movieworld.) My other hunch saddens me to report, but I find it hard to avoid. It's that the book business has found that the the high-minded dream of greatness is a product that can be sold. Why? Because there are suckers who are eager to buy.

In any case, many thanks to everyone for a great conversation. May we have many more such.

In closing, here are a couple of passages from Robert Darnton's terrific The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (buyable here):

We envisage the literature of every century as a corpus of works grouped around a core of classics; and we derive our notion of the classics from our professors, who took it from their professors, who got it from theirs, and so on, back to some disappearing point in the early nineteenth century. Literary history is an artifice, pieced together over many generations, shortened here and lengthened there, worn thin in some places, patched over in others, and laced through everywhere with anachronism. It bears little relation to the actual experience of literature in the past ...

The history of books as a new discpline within the "human sciences" makes it possible to gain a broader view of literature and of cultural history in general. By discovering what books reached readers throughout an entire society and ... how readers made sense of them, one can study literature as part of a general cultural system. This view makes it necessary to abandon preconceptions about great books by famous authors. But it does not mean that literature must be swallowed up in sociology...

Literature itself can be understood as a communications system, which extends from authors and publishers through printers and booksellers to readers. It also belongs to a general culture, where media of all sorts -- printed, written, oral, and visual -- crisscross and interconnect. In eighteenth century France, books did not compete with radio and television, but they circulated in a society that overflowed with gossip, rumors, jokes, songs, graffiti, posters, pasquinades, broadsides, letters and juornals. Many of these media left their imprint on the books themselves, just as the books affected them. The process of transmission and amplification flooded France with words and images.

Seems like a sensible way of viewing book matters to me. How about to you?



posted by Michael at January 14, 2004


Interesting post, and one I can't disagree with. However, I wonder if one aspect of the difference between a 'movie aesthetic' and a 'book aesthetic' comes from the communal/corporate aspects of movie-making vs. the solitary aspects of book-writing. In movies, because of the involvement of many people, the final result has a very large element of unpredictability to it. A brilliant conception or an idiotic conception doesn't matter all that much; it's as though in movies nouns and verbs aren't the key elements, but rather adjectives and adverbs, and movie people know that it is these difficult-to-control adjectives and adverbs that will largely create quality or its absence. Hence maintaining strict hierarchies about movies is inherently sort of absurd; everyone knows how common it is to see highly intellectual and artistically ambitious films (made by highly talented people) that come off as merely pretentious and self absorbed, while intellectually unambitious thrillers like "Speed" are improbably entertaining. However, literature, being the work of essentially one person, is much more amenable to a hierarchical approach based on the intentions of the author. It is unlikely that a serious meditation on death will somehow morph into a bodice ripper despite its author's explicit desires (whereas in film this sort of thing is virtually the rule, not the exception.) I guess what I'm getting at is that it only makes sense for 'movie people' to acknowledge the inseparable interconnectedness of art and trash, high and low, intention and accident while in literature these categories retain their boundaries more clearly. This, of course, doesn't imply that a highly moralistic and judgmental stance is the only possible one for book people. But the underlying characteristics of the literary medium may make such an approach more likely than in other fields of endeavor in which intention counts for less.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 15, 2004 3:05 AM

On another topic altogether...

By discovering what books reached readers throughout an entire society and ... how readers made sense of them, one can study literature as part of a general cultural system.

I've never read Darnton. What is his source of information on the pre-Revolutionary reading habits of average-joe Frenchmen? As a historically-oriented guy, I immediately warm to his goal, but I also immediately start worrying about methodological questions--i.e., "How does he know that?" and "With how much certainty does he know that?" I suppose I could actually read the guy, but it's so much easier to ask you.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 15, 2004 3:13 AM

The only thing that strikes me is, while "movie people" may talk openly and freely about their love of high- and lowbrow movie pleasures, they don't generally award their big, publicized awards to both. If one looks at the New York Film Critics Awards, or the Academy Awards, the SAG Awards....they revert fairly carefully to form. It's the reason people say comedies never win (they have a few times, but in general), fantasies never win, "Speed" or "Top Gun" or "Ghostbusters" or the "Holloween" slasher series or the original "Matrix" were NOT nominated for "Best Picture", etc. Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg had to go fauz serioso themselves to be acknowledged. Performers like Cary Grant or Goldie Hawn or The Marx Brothers rarely get nominated---let alone, says, the "Ernest" series. Partly, they don't want to be embarassed in History's eyes by their selection, for all their raucous enjoyment of other flicks.

Isn't that kind of the same as the New York Times Book Review?

Posted by: annette on January 15, 2004 5:12 AM

"I guess what I'm getting at is that it only makes sense for 'movie people' to acknowledge the inseparable interconnectedness of art and trash, high and low, intention and accident while in literature these categories retain their boundaries more clearly."

In terms of intent, sure. But I'd argue that the labels "high/art" and "low/trash" are misleading--they say everything about the intent of the author, and little about the quality of the finished work.

In short, I'd argue that many creators of literary "art" are self-consciously producing works fit only for the dustbin, while many creators of literary "trash" are un-self-consciously producing art. C.S Lewis defines a "bad" book as one that nobody ever reads well--and a book that is never read is never read well.

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 15, 2004 10:46 AM

Mr. Duquette:

I'm not suggesting that intent is all, even in the literary world. I'm just saying that because intent at least counts for something there (as opposed, pretty much, to the movie world)that you can see how the occasional successes of ambitious authors would reinforce the ethic of high seriousness. I suspect people of a high-lit bent react to successful highly ambitious books like sports fans do to, say, Lance Armstrong coming back from cancer to win the Tour de France--I'm sure they see the success largely in terms of unconquerable will power, and to regard any lowering of ambition as a kind of betrayal.

BTW, I'm not saying this is a particularly sensible way of looking at the world, but it is a fairly common human reaction to this type of situation. And it is a situation that does not, by and large, obtain in the movie world, where the most talented, most ambitious directors succeed less than half the time at creating movies that live up to their artistic goals, and studios succeed probably less often at creating highly marketable films of quality.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 15, 2004 11:18 AM

I understand what Friedrich is saying, would seem that the hit rate of creating a highly successful ambitious literary work of art is far less than half. Therefore, why wouldn't the same pragmatic reaction to ambitious failures that still have their moments, or unambitious but highly entertaining successes, that exists in the movie world still exist in the lit world? I mean, "The Godfather" (or "Lawrence of Arabia" or pick your watershed classic) did happen in movies, too, so why wouldn't movie types consider "...lowering of ambition a kind of betrayal."

Plus, it would seem that an author who considers the production of a literary work of art as a supreme "act of will" is sort of, I don't know, narcissistic? It seems to forget that a "work of art" is half created by the audience. It isn't really an athletic event.

Posted by: annette on January 15, 2004 11:45 AM

"Gee, why do you suppose the books conversation isn't more open than it is?" Old actor/director trick.

This is also an old psychotherapist's trick, especially when you're running group therapy. "Gee, I feel a lot of tension in the group—does anyone want to talk about it?

Posted by: Luis on January 15, 2004 12:21 PM

P.S.--I din't mean Friedrich's comment was narcissistic---I meant that if people in the lit world think as he says, then THEY seem to be!

Posted by: annette on January 15, 2004 12:58 PM

I think y'all are right, and I'd throw in a couple of other things too.

FvB (1)-- I think you're right, that the group-vs-individual thing helps explain the difference in the gestalts. Movie people have to be more extraverted and willing to work in teams, and have to acknoweledge the role of luck, etc, etc. They've got no choice about it, really -- where bookspeople can go on fantasizing about individual genius, etc etc.

That said, in fact most books are group efforts, not individual efforts, and most books have nothing to do with literature, at least of the self-conscious type. The exercise book I mentioned in the posting, for instance: an author (really more of a star of the production), but also an agent, a designer, several photographers, a handful of models, probably a researcher (there's some "reporting" in the book that the "author" certainly gives no sign of knowing how to handle), an editor (who was a very engaged one, I'll bet), and perhaps a ghostwriter. That's a fairly standard team for such a book; I'll bet that the "author" (so-called) didn't even initiate the book.

There are lots and lots of such books -- in fact, books of the one-author/one-vision/written-to-be-read-straight-through sort are, in the general spectrum of books, probably in a minority. This is one of the things that English majors aren't told, and one of the things that they have to adjust to when they enter the pro bookworld.

As you say, what tends to happen among bookpeople is that, despite the actual facts of the life and the business, the "literary" view of the world still tends to prevail, or at least does its best to.

FvB (2) -- Excellent question! Rustling through the Darnton here ... He's building on research initiated by a Frenchman named Daniel Mornet. They both looked into personal libraries, auction catalogs, censorship records and practices, the publishing business (such as it was at the time) ... Seems to me like a nice attempt at setting 18th century French lit in context, and Darnton's been at the job for 25 years. But he's modest about what's possible too: "how can one possibly measure literary demand in the hidden sector of the book trade two centuries ago, before the existence of reliable data on almost anything, including death and taxes?" So he's doing his best, and leaving it open. It's the kind of thing I wish more lit profs were busying themselves with; it'd sure beat everyone spinning their wheels doing "theory." And, god bless him, Darnton's a delightful writer with a lot of respect for the tradition of writing for the educated, interested nonspecialist.

To blow off a little unrelated steam for a sec: the bookchat world largely concerns itself with two things: current books (is it good? is it great? -- as though we have any idea which books the future will decide were worthwhile), and New York-centric gossip, mostly to do with hot writers and careers. Both are fine subjects, but I'd like to see the general bookchat open up wider. One way of doing that is simply by paying attention to the range of books you interact with, and how you do so. For instance, I'm listening to a terrific Ed McBain novel on audio right now (in addition to leafing through the exercise book, reading Isherwood, enjoying erotic comic books, etc etc). And it's a terrific recording, while many audiobooks aren't so good. I'd love to learn about such matters as who abridged the book? What's an abridger's life like? How closely do they work with authors? What makes a good abridger and a bad one? The guy reading the book does more "acting" than I generally care for with audiobooks, but in this case it works. Who is he? Why does it work here? When is "acting" appropriate and when not? Is there something about McBain's work that makes it suitable to being "acted" in this way? Another example: on the subway this morning I noticed a well-dressed black woman reading a book, and found myself wondering: hmm, I wonder what black professional women are reading these days? There are all kinds of interesting patterns I'd love to know about: people in Taos don't read quite the same bunch of books that people in Chicago do, for instance ...

Anyway, like I say, I'm semi-interested in this week's crop of books and considerably less interested in NYC-centric lit gossip, but quite interested in these context-setting questions. Between you and me, I'd argue that such questions are far more important ones than whether or not NewBook X by the latest hot writing-school graduate is any good. But I'd happily settle for even a bit of fresh air.

Annette -- I'm with you, I think comedy never gets the kinds of honors it deserves. Hard to do, wonderful when it works, a world unto itself, etc. Film critics when they get together seem to get as self-conscious about worthiness and respectability as anyone else does. It's as though they become more motivated by the desire not to disgrace themselves than by the desire to acknowledge and recognize what gave them pleasure. I wonder if there's something about panels and honors and awards that does this to people ...

Will -- I think you've hit on something key, which is that damn word "literature." These days, it gets used in two (probably more, but for the moment ...) ways that have little to do with each other and confuse just about everyone. One sense is (more or less) "important, worthwhile writing with certain qualities that's been recognized as such." "Moby Dick," "Tom Jones" -- there's a body of of books out there that's been widely recognized to be "literature." The other sense is a contempo, technical one that has nothing to do with good or bad or important. Just like there's something called sci-fi, there's also something called "literary writing." (I'm tempted to pause and crack a lot of jokes about it here but will move on instead.) It's just a description, not a judgment -- there's nothing inevitably important about a "literary" book in this sense, we're just describing where it gets shelved and how we're expected to take it. When we pick up a new volume of "literary" short stories, we know that what we're looking at isn't a collection of sci-fi yarns, or mystery tales, or romance stories -- it's something else. "Literary" here doesn't mean it's any good; it's more of a genre name. So you can have the taste for current "literary writing" or not. What people in 200 years will decide was the actual "literature" of our age (in the sense of important, good, lasting, influential) -- well, first, who knows? But second, there's absolutely no guarantee that the books people in 200 years choose from our era as important will come from the roster of contempo books that call themselves "literary." They may, but it's also possible that lit types 200 years from now will look at our self-consciously "literary" writing and decide that it was all pretty silly.

Luis -- Directors, therapists, bloggers ... Master manipulators all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2004 1:05 PM

For this reason, it's worth no one's time to try to engage me in debate. Nine times out of ten, I'm going to change the terms of the debate on you.

Which is what, in my experience, the best debaters often do.

The posting goes from observation to characterization to personal touch to rhetorical question to conversation-starter -- why, it's hardly an argument at all!

Michael, if this post is any indication, you seem to have a very limited notion of "argument" and "debate." First of all, let's abandon the silly idea that debate is not conversation, because it clearly is. Debates, at least as they occur in everyday life (and not on your high-school forensics team or your average League of Women Voters-sponsored political forum), feature the same give-and-take, the same polyphony, and the same interactivity as other forms of human conversation. What distinguishes debate, however, is that its mode of discussion is constructed around ideas. Thus, it does not require the familiarity entailed or assumed in other forms of discussion. People who know nothing about each other per se (i.e., many readers of this blog, whom I don't know and who don't know me) can still engage in debate.

Second, although the structure of your argument is a bit unconventional by academic standards, it is an argument nonetheless. You claim that 1) Literature buffs and film buffs tend to enjoy their respective media in vastly different ways, and 2) The film buff's manner has distinct advantages. But that alone doesn't satisfy you -- and you know it won't satisfy us, either. These statements have to be supported in some way. So you offer evidence to support your claims. Now, your statements can be boiled down structurally to "Evidence, therefore Claim." They form, in short, a classic inductive argument.

And this is also the way reasoning and argument work in the everyday life of Western culture. We tend to begin with the sense of a problem, something that we feel we need to settle. We make observations, and from them we infer a few general claims. We test those claims against further observation, and find them sufficient or wanting. Then we use our conclusions as a springboard for the next problem to explore. (If this sounds like the scientific method, it's no coincidence. But of course, what counts as evidence in a scientific inquiry won't necessarily work for culture, and vice versa.)

All of this is to say that you, Michael, have constructed a solid argument within the framework of a debate -- even as you disdained the entire process of argument and debate.

Know thyself? ;^)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 15, 2004 2:55 PM

Tim -- I didn't say I don't have my shifty little ways ...

A little more substantially, though: I think you're missing a few of my moves. I don't, for example, say the movie view or the book view is better; I say that one suits me better than the other. It's a way of shifting the emphasis off "better" and "worse," and over to "what might this be like," and "how about that," and "how do you respond." It's a way of subsuming the debate and argument-like moments in a more general discussion and conversation -- of keeping an open-ended give-and-take going. You seem to be using "debate" as a synonym for "discussion," and while you may technically have a point I think most people are comfortable making a distinction between the two. Debate tends to suggest narrow focus, combat, and eventual winners and losers. Discussions roam, take on their own shape and don't necessarily lead to conclusions, let alone winners and losers. (Even if you sometimes gotta enter into and take part in a moment or two of debate in order to keep the discussion flowing...)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2004 3:14 PM


Yes, absolutely, contempo "literary" fiction is a genre by itself. And it's a genre defined by intent and difference: the author intends to write a book of demonstrable literary quality that's different from the popular genre fiction. I'm sure they succeed in the second goal most of the time; whether they succeed in the first goal begs a definition of "demonstrable literary quality." What we can be sure of is that if they do succeed, they don't succeed in any of the usual ways--because if they succeeded in the usual ways they'd have to have been writing genre fiction.

To be a success a serious artistic movie must first succeed as a movie--and movie people don't expect that to happen every time.

Because authors of literary fiction shun the conventions of popular genre fiction, it's much more difficult to tell whether a particular work is any good. Add to that the common feeling "If I don't get it, it must be my fault," and you have bookish people presuming that anything tagged "literary" must have demonstrable literary quality on the face of it.

Or am I just babbling?

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 15, 2004 3:24 PM

Will -- I think you're right on the money, and I'd like to see what you just wrote as a cover essay for a book review section somewhere. You're pointing out something that never occurred to me before, which is that (as things actually are, not as they should be) a big difference between the category of "literary fiction" and the other fiction categories is that lit-fiction has no positive agenda. It's the category ... well, that isn't any other category. Which is supposed to mean total freedom, but which in fact tends to mean a lot of high-mindedness, a lot of murky, de facto conventions and rules, a lot of defiance towards common life. Where in the other categories, the rules and goals are well-understood, lit-fict is always having to reinvent itself anew and never quite standing on its own feet.

A (bookworld) friend once pointed out an interesting diff. In a cop novel, for instance, racial things (tensions, characteristics, rivalries, etc) might well be present -- it's actually part of the fun of cop novels that racial things we all experience are often openly acknowledged. But litfict novels always turn "race" into an "issue." In genre fiction, it's a fact of life that characters deal with; in litfict, it's an issue, a metaphor, a guiding principle ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 15, 2004 3:35 PM

Goodness, 14 comments in three minutes. Oh well, I’m diving in with my usual drivil.

“…some commenters seemed to think that I wrote my posting out of ignorance, whether of the academic or of the professional sort.”

Who are these people? Ye gods. Anyone who can freaking read should be able to figure out that you’ve been around the art/lit/culture block a time or tw0... Christ! You’ve visibly worn down at the heels (in a laudable, easy-going broad sort of way.)

“Second, I've spent more than a couple of decades in the thick of the arts and writing worlds -- as a nonentity, you betcha, but a nonentity who was taking note.” You’d think yahoos who pretend to be on the smarty side would know that anyone who can use italics with verve is not to be trifled with. (Meanwhile, I can’t create italics in these damn boxes. [] or >?)

Re High low: “Still, many people do enjoy this discussion. Any idea why?” Because it’s all they know. Because they’re scared to try anything new. Because they’re confusing defending “high” with virtue. Because, for some people, a hair shirt just feels like the right fit – as you noted later on...but I’m posting it anyway, because I have no work to do right this damn minute and am running around like a caged animal who escaped.

“Many people discuss books only as things to be read.” I’ve been bored to having two more drinks than I ought by people who discuss books as things that were written! The noble and glorious act of writing.

Okay, the stupid thing is my real point. M. Blowhard, how does anyone come around here and not grasp the fact that you (and Fried) are brightish and not exactly ignorant? Are they border-line narcissists? Or just boneheads? Or just in a headlong rush because they've spotted an opening for their favorite rant???

M. Blowhard, from your non-entity catbirdseat, tell us what you think about movie people who write books.

Posted by: j.c. on January 15, 2004 6:23 PM

Yes, Michael,you are unmasked being a sneaky manipulator you are!!!

Too many interesting things to discuss and I don't want to usurp the space to myself, so - just a few points from my perspective.

*For much more independent-thinking people Americans are, in my view (than Russians, f.ex.), which I w'd expect, given a-priori individualistic society/educational practices, access to information, etc. I find it amazing how much general public tend to rely on some guru advice in reading, lit. hierarchies, and categorizing in general. Numerous book reviews, book clubs, bestseller's lists (which should be simply popularity indicator) are taken as recommended, if not required, reading lists. I am not saying I will not take recommendations in selecting my books, it's just that I tend to take it from someone I consider qualified in this specific field and also whose taste I find similar to mine. F. ex., I would follow Michael's advice on movies, but not neccessarily on Russian ballet (sorry, Michael). But investing my time [and money] into reading books that some self-proclaimed wisard like Ophra thought mandatory seems odd. (That goes also for design magazines, which is part of my prfessional reading. Boy, the "Must" books they recommend!)
I don't have a problem mixing all kinds of literature in my reading routine, I don't even recognise it a special issue. It is like eating different breakfast every morning- today you crave eggs, tomorrow- oats. One is not better than the other, simply different - although you are entitled to preferences. May be it's this way with me because there is no categorising in Russian belle lettres' tradition: what is written will eventually prove itself; good writing will live,trash'll die quick, and that is that. Even in such direct and obvious example as library departments - division of Fiction and Non-fiction was unusual to me. Where you'll put travel writings of Geine or Dodet(sp?)Or Hertzen letters, or Naiman' novellas - it is both.
* Annette,
... a "work of art" is half created by the audience...
Not all work of art - theater play, may be. Contemplative literature- no way. Why, I wouldn't waste my time on some "collective artifact". Reading someone thoughts is an intimate dialog - and silent on part of the reader, that's important. I wouldn't want to share ideas of "teamwork", it's an orgy (not that anything's wrong with that, you know - for some)
*Michael - the lotus/mud deal. It's true on a different level, also- from perspective of individual writer. I often quote my favorite Ahmatova' verse from "Passing of Time" -
If only you would know, from what a trash
My verses grow,- shamelessly:
Like yellow dandelion under fence,
Like lebeda and burdock
Angry scream, smell of fresh tar,
Mysterious fungus on the wall...

[and - to Michael personally- as you can guess, client's meeting was postponed, so i was able to catch up with blogs reading. I will keep my other promise, it's one thing I am trained to do and good at - the following up!]

Posted by: Tatyana on January 15, 2004 6:47 PM

It strikes me as beside the point (an observation Mr. Blowhard also makes, disingenuously) to attack the lit-clique for its exclusiveness. We can psychologize or sociologize the bookworld as much as we'd care to, so long as we're willing to have the intimations we give of our own collective inferiority complex thrown back in our faces. Circumstantial arguments are occasionally useful (generally in situations where, as Mr. Blowhard notes is not the case here, we might effect real social change), but rarely informative.

It would be more suitable, perhaps, to investigate, as some posters already have, what it is about books and movies that suits them so well to the social niches they fill - that is to say, why do movies appeal to omnivores, while books interest people with more sensitive stomachs? The answer to this question, I think, has something to do with the tradition of humanist textual analysis, which stretches back to the liberal arts academies of ancient Rome. This has always relied on the notion of secret knowledge. We study texts by combining and recombining a number of discrete elements until we produce an arrangement that looks like a key, which we can in turn teach to others. We do this sort of work at our leisure, since books, unlike movies, don't pass us by at a fixed speed. Book people, therefore, want works of endless complexity - a niche that contemporary lit-fic authors fill, drily. Genre fiction is understood to be written using a system of formulae that makes it unsuitable for analysis; no doubt this is an unfair generalization.

Movies, on the other hand, tend to resist analysis because they're made up of indiscrete image-elements and because we can't control the pace at which we watch them without disrupting the cinematic experience. Paradoxically, this has a levelling effect - it's difficult to exhaust analytically any film, even one that relies heavily on formulae. Almost every movie, therefore, can be processed into secret knowledge, and the scholarly corpus contains little that's definitive.

My analysis intentionally ignores the concept of enjoyment, since it's already been suggested in an underhanded way that the pleasure we get from reading a classic is no different from the pleasure Clancy or Grisham or sex gives us. What I've said is therefore pretty one-dimensional, but I think it's a first step toward explaining certain observations.

Posted by: Martin Guerre on January 15, 2004 7:26 PM

From Tatyana:
"I find it amazing how much general public tend to rely on some guru advice in reading, lit."

I completely agree, and would add art to the list. A case in point: I was recently watching Antiques Roadshow (which is probably worth much more commentary some other time) recently when someone brought in some 50ish-year-old railroad posters for appraisal. After being told that they were "worth" about $400 each, he said (approximately) "Maybe I'll frame them and hang them up, then."

This admits of two interpretations to me:

1) He liked the posters previously, but was unwilling to hang them without the imprimatur of an "art authority".

2) He didn't like the posters previously, but reconsidered his opinion only because of their supposed value.

I find both possibilities pretty depressing, myself. If you like them, hang them; if you dislike them, sell them and get something you like. I just don't understand, 'Well, I kind of hate them, but they must be pretty good, since that's what the appraiser said, so up they go.'

To bring this back to literature somewhat, my to-be-read-soon stack has overflowed both of my bedside bookcases; I don't have enough time to read the things I like, much less read things because someone else likes them.

Making leisure decisions based upon appeals to authority is a luxury(?) I cannot afford.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 15, 2004 8:23 PM

Doug: There's a third explanation, which I'd bet big on, having watched a bit of Antiques Roadshow myself: he liked the posters — after all he probably bought them in the first place — but was willing to sell them if they turned out to be very valuable. They didn't, $400 being chump change by the standards of the show, so he decided to hang them instead. And this, if true, gives me hope.

I agree, however, that Antiques Roadshow merits extensive commentary. I've already done Trading Spaces though; it'll have to be someone else.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 15, 2004 11:26 PM

A little more substantially, though: I think you're missing a few of my moves. I don't, for example, say the movie view or the book view is better; I say that one suits me better than the other.

In the somewhat impersonal world of writing, the "I statement" is usually how we sneak a generalization or a conclusion past our audience. You claim that the moviegoer's view has advantages for you. But you're not claiming that they exist solely for you, because you explain what they are and why they're preferable.

As for debate and discussion, I think there's a difference between them, too. For example, I can discuss the weather, but I can't really debate it -- it's there, and it's not really open to disagreement or difference.

Debates, like arguments, involve more open questions that we can't resolve definitively. Unlike arguments, however, they are externally polyphonic, because more than one person has a chance to present claims and evidence, and because debates feature multiple claims from multiple speakers, all in tension and contention. (Arguments frequently feature internalized polyphony, because a writer has to address differing viewpoints. But these viewpoints are always presented within the context of the writer's own claim.

Debates don't usually have winners and losers, either. Unless you're on a high-school forensics team, you're never going to experience a clear-cut victory or defeat in a debate. No matter how articulate your speech or how forceful your personality, you will always have to confront differing ideas and opinions. The process is ongoing, and most of the time you can only say that everyone seems to have held his/her own.

(BTW, some of you might recognize Mikhail Bakhtin lurking behind this particular argument. I can assure you this is entirely intentional. For grad-student types who are sticklers for terminology, I've using "polyphonic" as a general-usage synonym for "dialogic.")

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 16, 2004 5:51 AM

JC -- I was probably embarassing myself, getting over-annoyed by the tone some of the commenters took. It's that "if you disagree with me then it's because you don't really know" tone some people are prone to. Thomas Sowell wrote a terrific book about it called "The Vision of the Anointed" (here). I should really be better about letting that kind of thing roll off my back. Apologies for subjecting people to my huffiness. "Movie people who write books"? You mean memoirs? Novels? Do you have a strong opinion about it? Off the cuff and minus any reflection whatsoever, I kinda like it. And in any case both the movie-memoir and the movie-person's-novel have both become substantial little genres of their own. It'd be fun to think about them a bit. I bet JC has done a little such thinking. What have you come up with?

Tatyana -- I think you're very canny to spotlight American cultural insecurity as the source of a lot of this. We're #1 -- but we still can't help suspecting that we're a bunch of rubes. And we've never managed to sustain much of a high-cult marketplace. All of which tends to mean that we take cultural (high-cult) matters much too seriously -- we're too often aspiring to highcult rather than directly experiencing it. We can't take it for granted, so we get over-earnest (and over-credulous) and turn it into a life-or-death matter. (And, IMHO, we're thereby often burying what wonderfulness might in fact be there to be had under a blanket of pious baloney.) Interesting to learn how the Russians experience lit, thanks. My favorite example of how Americans mis-take culture is radical French philosophy. We (or at least some of our profs and their more eager students) take it very straight-faced, as though it's really "meant." In France, radical posturing is a kind of sexy provocation -- it's a little ooh-lala that adds spice to life. No one, a few idiotic lit and radical-politics types, would be fool enough to take it at its word. With lit, something similar seems to go on. Seems self-evident to me at least that the Big Decisions about which of our age's cultural products will prove worthy of long-term attention will be decided by people in the future -- and that, who knows, maybe they'll be wrong, or maybe then change their minds. How could this not be so? In any case, we here in the present tense really have no control over the matter. But the furrowed-brow book types, for example, still argue over this or that opinion and/or ranking as though it really matters, as though it's going to have some kind of impact. I think it's quite likely that various of our movies, ads, web products (who knows, maybe blogs), graphic designs, and digi-musics are going to be seen as important and influential 200 years hence, and that very few of our books will be. (For one very practical thing, how much traditional book-reading is going to be going on 200 years hence?) I don't approve or disapprove of this, and I may well be wrong. But I think it's as good a hunch as, say, some bookcritic's contention that "Midnight's Children" is a (and thus will be recognized in the future as a) great book. And besides, my guess and the bookcritic's pronouncement are both nothing but hunches. So why not let go the where's-it-rank blah-blah and discuss what our actual experience is instead? Such is my feeling, anyway. Our earnestness and cluelessness where highculture is concerned must seem pretty funny to someone from a world where "culture" can be taken for granted, no?

Martin -- "Disingenuous"? "Underhanded"? Well, OK, but I hope in a good way. Anyway, I think your hunch about the appeal of "hidden knowledge" is pretty brilliant. Scholarly, introverted, intellectual types do seem to love thinking that they're really going to get somewhere if only they can crack that next book. There's something of the Yeshiva about the bookworld -- Kabbalistic mysteries, hypercomplexities, brain-warping complications ... I suspect I'm inadvertently revealing my complete lack of knowledge about Judaism here, and apologies for that. But you know what I mean -- intellectual complicatedness that has a mysterious, Book of Revelations-seeming quality and is pursued purely for its own sake (though with the idea that there will be Ultimate Payoffs of some sort). The semi-religious love of the labyrinth, etc. There's a lot of that about in the kinds of people who show up in the bookworld. (Cynical me, I tend to see these people as miserable, over-intellectual introverts who are hoping against hope that being an over-intellectual introvert might be a plus, even a secret power, and not something they'd do best to get over, and pronto. Unfair of me, I know ...) But do you think this secret-knowledge-lust holds as true for moviepeople? Or to the same extent? I've known a few hyperintellectual movie nutcases who always seemed to think they were about to get somewhere (but where?) if they could decipher just one more complexity in that overlooked Kieslowski TV movie ... But they were pretty rare, and their brainset doesn't seem (to me, anyway) to define the gestalt of the field in the same way. As you say, generally speaking, movies can't be analyzed forever in quite the same way that books can be. Although I guess the Film Studies crowd would like to think otherwise...

Oops, gotta run, more later...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 11:40 AM

Doug -- Somebody once said that the reason Americans are so prone to look to authority figures (and not for suggestions but for The Truth) is that we're otherwise so free. People in older, more bound-up, more traditional cultures have perhaps too much Authority around -- what they're looking for are scattered moments of freedom from it. Where what we experience is a kind of lost-in-the-mists freedom, and we're forever reaching out for help and guidance. I semi-buy the point. Do you? These days I tend to take the word of critics and opininionators as suggestions I might or might not follow up on, just like I take "the Canon" as a handy reading list. That suits me and my much-doted-on lifestyle pretty well. What kind of use do you find you make of professsional opinionators these days? They've gotta have some utility, no? Or maybe not ...

Aaron -- Just because you did a posting on "Trading Spaces" you can't do something on "Antiques Roadshow"? Seems to me more rational to conclude that, having done something on "Trading Places," you're just the guy to do a posting on "Antiques Roadshow." And if the God of the Machine isn't about rationality, I don't know ... My world starts to crumble.

Tim -- Points taken, thanks, but I'll still take my clue from Oakeshott. Not to play dueling-authorities, just to say that I find his view of the question very comfy. Hey, here's a quote from the great man that's halfway a propos:

We are urged, for example to regard all utterances as contributions to an inquiry, or a debate among inquirers, about ourselves and the world we inhabit. But this understanding of human activity and intercourse as an inquiry, while appearing to accomodate a variety of voices, in fact recognizes only one, namely the voice of argumentative discourse, the voice of 'science,' and all others are acknowledged merely in respect of their aptitude to imitate this voice. Yet it may be supposed that the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort.

And, as I understand it, the image of this meeting-place is not an inquiry or an argument, but a conversation. In a conversation the participants are not engaged in an inquiry or a debate; there is no 'truth' to be discovered, no proposition to be proved, no conclusion sought ... They may differ without disagreeing. Of course, a conversation may have passages of argument and a speaker is not forbidden to be demonstrative; but reasoning is neither sovereign nor alone, and the conversation itself does not compose an argument ...

Nice, huh? I like to think of our (or at least my) underlying blogphilosophy as Oakeshott Lite.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 12:46 PM

Aaron: The owner of the posters had picked them up originally in the late '40s or early '50s, so had had 50 years to hang them. Only after hearing (with what appeared to be surprise and joy) that they were valuable did he speculate about hanging them.

Michael: "[W]hat we experience is a kind of lost-in-the-mists freedom, and we're forever reaching out for help and guidance. I semi-buy the point. Do you?" Maybe semi-demi. My feeling is that it has more to do with a combination of other factors: Most of our population is descended from lower-class refugees from Europe, who had looked to the upper class for guidance about cultural matters. This is no less true of the ancestors of our current "cultured class" than of the rest of society. There has not been this massive class change in most (non-immigrant-dominated) societies. This attitude has continued among our culture-pushers, and been reinforced (to at least some extent) by the prevalence of European educations/sabbaticals among those most likely to be seen as aribiters of taste.

"What kind of use do you find you make of professsional opinionators these days?" I treat professional opinions as guides to things that might deserve further exploration. That is, I might choose to read the Amazon reviews or flip through a few pages of a book that I would otherwise not have looked at as the result of a review. I'll seldom buy/watch purely on recommendation. As an aside, I find that I'm almost as likely to follow up on a negative review as a positive review, if the details of the review make the subject sound interesting. To the extent that professional reviewers do a better job of describing the reasons for their opinions than amateurs (not invariably, but often), I find pros more useful.

I've come to like a local radio reviewer whose program runs under the name of "Reggie McDaniel's Everyday Peoples Entertainment Guide". (Example thumbnail: 'Under the Tuscan Sky...."Great chick flick for men. Earn valuable Sensitivity points by taking the women in your life to see this."' I often disagree, but I can usually tell from his review whether I'll agree or disagree with him about the subject.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 16, 2004 7:42 PM

Thanks Doug, excellent points and a great link.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 9:51 PM

Okay, the first paragraph basically walks backwards, trips over, and breaks the entire original post. Then, there's like one, two, three...a billion paragraphs pretentious subtle bragging. Admission: I didn't read the entire above article at the time of this post. 'Uptight, reverent, gloomy gestalt' my ass. Something tells me the entire basic philosophy behind these articles is based on some guy who irritated or embarrassed the writer at a party. but then, we shouldn't voice assumptions like that.

Posted by: Randy Schaub on January 19, 2004 12:05 PM

Michael: First, that "If you disagree, then you don't really know" tone is was very likely a reaction to finding that very same tone in your original post. It wasn't particularly obvious in that post, but it certainly is in this one.

I would argue that the "book people" gestalt you speak of is localized, because it sure as hell isn't the gestalt that I work in as editor of a literary journal, semi-professional academic, and writer, and it also doesn't reflect my experience in the English departments of the universities I have attended. I can't help but think that you've been ripped off somehow in your experience with the book world.

I would offer you a quotation from Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes, which I think reflects the book world and its attitudes a good deal better than your NYC-centred complaints (NYC is not the centre of the book world, at least not once you leave the US border, and I would argue that the vast majority of English readers/book people exist there, beyond the borders of the (agreed) decidedly self-important US book scene). The quotation:

Is this book sexy? M'Lud, we bloody well hope so. Does it encourage adultery and attack marriage? Spot on, M'Lud, that's exactly what my client is trying to do. Is this book blasphemous? For Christ's sake, M'Lud, the matter's as clear as the loincloth on the Crusifixion. Put it this way, M'Lud: my client thinks that most of the values of the society in which he lives stink, and he hopes with this book to promote fornication, masturbation, adultery, the stoning of priests and, since we've temporarily got your attention, M'Lud, the suspension of corrupt judges by their earlobes. The defence rests its case.

Posted by: August on January 19, 2004 3:25 PM

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