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July 18, 2007

Quote for the Day: Elizabeth George

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Flipping through a notebook I keep, I ran across a quote from the mystery writer Elizabeth George that I've always wanted to post:

Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that's brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe.

Hey, folks: The early English novels were tacky affairs -- the equivalent of today's reality TV. There is such a thing as high culture, of course, but much of it has its roots solidly planted in the mud. An example: For much of its history, opera -- today's highest of the high -- held a place in the general culture analogous to today's movies.

Small MBlowhard hunch: When you pull an artform out of the earth it grows from, even if you do so with the best or the loftiest of intentions, it's likely to whither and then die. Connecting with the basics -- and then reconnecting with them again and again -- matters.

Ohio and California-raised, Elizabeth George is known for writing mysteries set convincingly in Great Britain. She has been a very popular author; she sells well, and a number of her Inspector Lynley novels have been turned into TV shows by the BBC. A quick but maybe not-unfair characterization of her work: She's like an American P.D. James. She uses the form of the mystery story to deliver full-bodied fiction experiences that are similar to those supplied by the 19th century novels that many people complain aren't being written these days. Yes they are, love. You just have to open your mind and look outside of the "literary fiction" genre.

I've read a couple of Elizabeth George's novels -- this one and this one -- and I found them both impressive, substantial, satisfying, and enjoyable. They may not exactly be my kinda thing; neither are P.D. James' books. (I don't love-love-love 19th century novels either.) But both women are superb novelists, and I'll be reading more of both of them.

Here's Elizabeth George's website. I also loved her book about writing fiction, which I found helpful, thoughtful, and (praise heaven) practical.



posted by Michael at July 18, 2007


Dear Blowhards,

Who stands accused of pulling the novel out of "the earth it grows from"? I'd be interested to find out, because then I'd read their work. In fact, the novel, perhaps for good reasons, perhaps for less than good reasons, seems to me to be the art form which has been least subject to change, improvisation, and the rethinking that makes other art forms, like painting, new and interesting as the centuries pass. This is not to say that improvisation and rethinking don't, often, fail to produce significant new art. But you're never going to produce new art without them.


Posted by: Carey on July 18, 2007 4:33 PM

Hi Carey -- Thanks for stopping by and joining in. And you won't find me dissing innovation, though lord knows I think it can be overdone and overvalued. I was making my crack at the expense of the usual lit-fict/critical world, and its usual determination to avoid the basics and praise the frills. The usual example of lit-fiction has become awfully ingrown and formal, and not just by my judgment.

If you've got some spare time, you might get a kick out of eyeballing this posting for more about how the lit-fict world works, and where it comes from. It's been a theme of mine for years at the blog -- I worked in and around the NYC publishing world for a long time, so I came to blogging with a lot I needed to unload. If you're ever in a masochistic mood you might click on the "archives" button and look under "books and publishing" for more.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 18, 2007 4:46 PM

Carey: By "pulling the novel out of the earth it grows form" what is meant that the authors many times forget that they have to give the reader what it craves, that is that something happens to characters he cares about.

I remember going to my book club meetings and noting that the mysteries that I read for fun gave me much more than the straight novels. The book the club was reading dealt with a woman's journey to self-awareness. The mystery I was reading (a Deborah Knott one) gave me that, plus a glimpse of a subculture I knew nothing about, plus a corpse and the explanation as to how it got there.

I wish I could find the comments of Joseph Hansen (the author of the Brandstetter mysteries) as to how the rigid form of a genre novel forces self-discipline in the writer, the same way that the form of the sonnet forces self-discipline in the poet.

The number one rule "DON'T BORE THE READER"

Posted by: Adriana on July 18, 2007 7:18 PM

I've mentioned this MP3 course before, but here it is again: Commerce and Culture, with Paul Cantor. His lectures on the commercial basis of the novel and opera are two of the best.

Don't bore the audience is always a good rule, isn't it.

Posted by: Brian on July 18, 2007 10:45 PM

Jeez, contemporary litfic sure is a straw man, even if one that really exists. For a minute, leave aside the indulgent storyless stories that I almost never read, and convince me that Stephen King or P. D. James belong in the same category as Nabokov or Joyce or Pynchon or Eco or Rushdie. Because, from where I'm sitting, you're trying to promote books I value on a second tier to the first tier, based upon comparison to books I never get into in the first place because they're so goddamned boring and pretentious, simply because their authors may read and claim affinity with the aforementioned brilliant authors whom I actually love. Where is the sound argument here?

Posted by: J. Goard on July 19, 2007 2:44 AM

I don't like much contemporary fiction, though to be fair I haven't given it much of a chance. But I'm not sure you can talk meaningfully about pulling an artform from the earth it grew from. Art is going to draw on stuff that came before, and is often going to change and adapt its sources to its own purposes. So this distinction involves arbitrarily designating some stuff "the earth" and other stuff unnatural outgrowths. But where is the line? Why, for example, draw the line between contemporary and genre fiction? Couldn't you just as well say that the 19th century novel was an unnatural departure from its roots in 17th century comic novel? Or why not view the novel itself as a form of literature pulled unnaturally from the earth of classical epic and drama?

It's a common crutch of critics to say that what they don't like is a departure from the natural and intelligible, and thus fit only for the effete, cerebral snobs, but there's no basis for saying that except that the critics don't happen to like it.

Posted by: BP on July 19, 2007 9:15 AM

Adriana -- I think we must share a brain!

Brian -- Thanks again for that link. I've downloaded -- now I've actually got to listen to it. Looking forward to it, though. I forget, have you tried Tyler Cowen's book on art and commercial culture? Also very good.

J. Goard -- Hey, I don't quarrel with other people's tastes; I try to learn from them. What I'm trying to promote (FWIW) is a more open discussion about book-fiction than the usual one, which strikes me as heavily-biased -- ludicrously-biased, for my money -- towards one very restricted (and rather odd) set of writin' values.

BP -- American lit-fiction such as we currently have it is a very weird and artificial creation. It's a creation of the same '60s and '70s mindset that gave us PBS and NEA-style visual art. Which isn't to say there aren't some worthwhile lit-fict books out there, of course, just as there are some good PBS shows and NEA art. But none of these scenes has grown out of the usual -- namely an exchange between artists and audiences. It's all rather bureaucratically ordained, even if in unofficial ways. (I suspect much of these scenes would collapse entirely if official efforts to keep them alive were halted. But I could be wrong!) I suppose there's a little bit of a value judgment in it when I assert that story, character, situation and hook are more basic to fiction than are chic themes, the "exploration of consciousness," writin'-writin', and fashionable attitudes. But really, would we have fiction at all if it weren't for 1) people's interest in other people, and 2) the pleasure people take in following stories? Rip book-fiction away from a direct connection to character and story, and (IMHO anyway) you rip it away from its supply of blood and oxygen. Story and character and suspense are the meat and potatoes of fiction. Divorce yourself from a connection to 'em, and fiction collapses in on itself, becoming an empty formal activity for insiders to amuse themselves with -- not a bad description of today's lit-fict scene, btw...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 19, 2007 10:36 AM

Wow! What a great lot of Straw Men we have here!!! Yikes! I would like to know exactly which novels are the "weird and artificial creation(s)". Further, I'd like to know how these same novels are somehow being forced on people. It seems to be that the very best novels - in every respect - are often very popular. Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon - both "difficult" writers - sell a significant numbers of books and are happily - and voluntarily - read by many. Pynchon's books, for example, have never been out of print despite their reputations for impenetrability. Why does one's taste for literary ambition have to be regarded as some sort of affront to someone else's taste? I don't get it. People seem to be working out their lingering frustrations with that English teacher that made them read a few poems. Yeesh!

Posted by: DavyChuck on July 19, 2007 4:17 PM

"Literary fiction" as opposed to "popular fiction" was a distinction that didn't exist when I was young, and if you had asked an author which type he wrote, you would have gotten a blank stare. You would have gotten the same response from publishers such as Charles Scribner or Alfred Knopf. The Pulitzer Committee didn't know the difference either, which is why it awarded so many prizes to what would now be considered popular fiction, including Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury, The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Way West by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., and the Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on July 19, 2007 4:25 PM

DavyChuck -- Hey, thanks for joining in.

You write: "Why does one's taste for literary ambition have to be regarded as some sort of affront to someone else's taste? I don't get it."

I don't get it either. And it's not what I'm saying or proposing.

If someone gets a kick out of Pynchon, more power to 'em, sez I. What I dislike is the imposition of one particular taste-set (namely the lit-fict taste-set) on the general discussion and appreciation of book-fiction. There are many different kinds of book-fiction, many different kinds of audiences for it, and many ways in which it's created, used, and enjoyed. It seems to me that a sensible and generous discussion of American book-fiction ought to start with an acknowledgment of that fact.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 19, 2007 4:30 PM

"Because, from where I'm sitting, you're trying to promote books I value on a second tier to the first tier, based upon comparison to books I never get into in the first place because they're so goddamned boring and pretentious, simply because their authors may read and claim affinity with the aforementioned brilliant authors whom I actually love."

This sentence it broke my brain.

Posted by: InPain on July 19, 2007 5:20 PM

Charges of pretentiousness and facileness are lazy attempts to devalue a style of writing you don't like. It goes both ways, although for some reason, the charge of being facile or shallow stings more than the charge of being pretentious. Perhaps it has something to do with those on the "pretentious" side being used to marginalization their whole lives and so have a thicker skin. The mainstream audience, who gobble up mainstream books in numbers far greater than those in the lit-fic genre, can't seem to abide the existence styles they don't like.

It's something I'll never understand, Michael. This sense of oppression the mainstream feels when a niche group, which is what the lit-fic genre is, enjoys success, albeit not on the scale of the genre authors you admire. You guys have won! FAR more people read Elmore Leonard and Stephen King and PD JAmes, etc., then will ever read even the most popular "lit-fic" authors like Pynchon and DeLillo. So what's the problem?

Posted by: the patriarch on July 19, 2007 5:36 PM

Patriarch -- Hey, I like some lit-fict fine. My quarrel isn't with anyone's tastes -- people will enjoy what they enjoy, and isn't that cool? It's with the throttlehold the lit-fict crowd has on the discussion of book-fiction.

By the way, as far as I can tell from my own reading, many of the best popular-fiction authors are and have been as underknown and underappreciated as you seem to feel the lit-fict authors are. (Jim Thompson and David Goodis didn't exactly get rich from their efforts.) A difference is that they couldn't console themselves with grants, or reviews in prestigious publications, or teaching positions at cushy colleges. Why? Because the craft and art of popular fiction don't have the respect of the lit-fict set, which controls the colleges, foundations, and the prestigious publications.

I'm puzzled as well that you seem to feel an urge to stand up for the lit-fict world as though it's an undernourished, impoverished thing in need of handouts. I mean, it's sweet of you, but you're completely mistaken about the nature of the lit-fict world. It isn't starving or oppressed. It's an uppermiddle-class, snooty-college, media-and-government-and foundation-backed, crony-ridden world. Feeling sorry for lit-fict is like handing out dimes to Sofia Coppola and her buds. They've got you snookered, dude! The lit-fict life often isn't an easy one for the individual writer. But it's a cushy, well-stocked, patting-itself-on-the-back world generally.

Look: If the general discussion of "music" took zero note of popular music, or of folk music, and focused entirely on the creations and personalities of a tiny number of people coming out of a finite number of schools making academic music, wouldn't you as a music fan who's open to lots of different kinds of music be annoyed about this?

If the academic avant-garde crowd didn't just enjoy what they do but 1) controlled nearly all serious discussion of music, and 2) sneered and looked down at all other kinds of music, wouldn't you want to say, "Hey, knock it off. You're wearing blinders. There's a lot to be said for folk music and popular music. Not only that, but walling yourself off from the larger world is thinning your blood. You might even have a little something to learn from different kinds of music than the one you always focus on"?

That's the situation that obtains in the book-fiction world. It's exactly as if the only movies that critics (and profs and editors) saw fit to pay any attention to or aware prizes to were wan little indies and complicated arthouse flicks. So much for "Citizen Kane," for Sergio Leone, for "The Matrix" ...

These kinds of snobberies and walls crumbled in some of the arts years ago -- in movies and in music especially. I have a bud who writes classical music, for instance, and she isn't remotely snobbish about it -- she digs pop, musicals, folk, etc. She's just doing what she likes to do, and hoping audiences dig it too. Most of my movie buddies are open to all kinds of pleasures -- exploitation, art, TV, action-adventure ... I have some misgivings about some of these developments but they're pretty minor.

But books and architecture ... The discussion about 'em -- which means general attitudes towards them -- are as stuffy as they've ever been.

It's a weird phenomenon. Where books go, I spent 15 years in and around book publishing and I still can't figure it out. In architecture I understand why the conversation is as restricted as it is: it's all about power and money. (The official architecture class is ruthless about maintaining its control over the field.) But there isn't all that much power or money at stake in book publishing. So why does the book-fiction crowd cling so tenaciously to their stuffiness and close-mindedness?

My guess is that it has to do partly with the kinds of often-introverted, leave-me-alone-with-my-books people who tend to go into book-publishing ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 19, 2007 6:17 PM

I spent my earlier years devouring Balzac and Maupassant till my French was as quick as my English. Reason? I couldn't stop.

People often read lit-fic to 'imrove the mind'. 'The Golden Bowl' was a popular choice in my youth. Marquez seems to get the nod these days, though Proust will apparently do the trick if you read the translation of that guy with a hyphen in his name. Aussies have shaken off their colonial bonds and now read Peter Carey on the train to effect mind-improvement.

And that's the problem with lit-fic. It won't stay in its 'kennel' (translation of 'niche' by R. Hyphen-Townshend). Know what happens when you read a novel to 'improve the mind'? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Never. Not ever.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on July 19, 2007 6:26 PM

The reason I often don't like today's literary fiction is that much of it isn't very good. I don't think Pynchon is good, for example. He never created a memorable character and his books have little to them beyond "coolness". I can stand coolness in music or clothes but that sort of posturing is hard to bear in literature.

One of the things I liked about the BR Myers essay that I've mentioned here once before is that rather than dividing his list of likes and dislikes into "popular" and "literary" genres, he showed many examples of the repetitive, not very interesting, novelty-chasing styles that he referred to as the "sentence cult".

As soon as I read that phrase I said, "aha!" because that's what strikes me about much literary fiction today: an emphasis on a particular type of striking sentence whose novelty is the only thing it really has going for it. Nothing in a line like "furious dabs of tulips stuttering" (from Annie Proulx, and one of Myers's examples) really conveys much to me about tulips. Nor do such sentences usually add much to the author's exposition of character or event. It's just pyrotechnics, the kind that belong in poetry, if they belong anywhere.

Posted by: alias clio on July 19, 2007 6:46 PM

The questions isn't so much whether the sentences are overwritten - a certain amount of troping and scheming is fine and dandy in my opinion - the questions is whether the sentence, and not the paragraph or scene, should be the basic unit of composition in the first place.

(The criticisms of lit-fic often have the same problem as the criticisms of pomo scholarship: too much time is spent making fun of the way they write, without bothering to understand why they write the way they write.)

The objective of lit-fic and its sentence cult seems to be to keep the reader in the eternal present. The use of the sentence as unit of composition, plus the absence of suspense and plot, conspire to prevent the reader from thinking about what happens next. He reads the book in the moment, perceptually instead of conceptually. It's a nose-to-the-ground, life-without-one's-frontal-lobes kind of awareness that doesn't resemble real life - at least not to me, with my keenly functioning frontal lobes.

The only contemporary novelist I read with pleasure is Tom Wolfe, who builds his books out of scenes, and uses plot, suspense, and future-past awareness with mastery. And doesn't the lit-fic crowd hate him? Didn't John Irving criticize him for not being able to write "a literary sentence", and say that therefore he wasn't a real writer? I think he did.

Posted by: Brian on July 20, 2007 7:20 PM

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