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October 30, 2007

Wisdom from the Grumpy Old Bookman

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Since I'm still floundering around in a flu-ish, cold-ish fog, I'm going to let one of my betters do the speaking in this posting.

Michael Allen, aka the Grumpy Old Bookman, has written a book called "The Truth About Writing" that's a weatherbeaten, beady-eyed, plain-spoken wonder. Do you want to know what the writing game and the publishing game really consist of? You can't do better than read Allen's book. I know of few books that speak as directly and truthfully about the arts-life generally, come to think of it.

Some nice passages:

Most professors of English literature, and most of the highbrow literary critics of this world, would have us believe that there is, metaphorically speaking, a hierarchical tower of fiction. This tower is something like a block of flats. At the top, in the exculsive pethouse, is a small amount of "literature," i.e. Great Novels. In the basement is a large heap of trash ...

The truth, however, is that there is not a top-to-bottom hierarchy of fiction, with great books at the glorious summit and "trash" or "pulp" at the unspeakably vulgar bottom. If we must think of the range of available fiction in visual terms, it is best to think of a broad spectrum of books, which runs horizontally. You might care to imagine a street in whcih every buiding is a bookshop containing a particular kind of fiction ...

Consider the vested interest of all those who teach the subject of English literature. They are all doing pretty nicely, thank you, preaching the 1947 party line, and they're not too keen on having any revisionists question it ...

The facts are really very simple. A book eitherworks in terms of producing the intended emotion in a target reader, or it does not ...

Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense -- it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience ...

If there are no great novels, there is no hierarchy of fiction, with the good stuff at the top and the trash at the bottom. Indeed, only the briefest of considerations will demonstrate that the trash is every bit as effective in generating emotion as the so-called good stuff. Usually, in fact, a lot better ...

Books which continue to be enjoyed for long periods of time tend to become known as "classics." This is a convenient shorthad term, but again, you should not be misled into assuming that it implies some absolute quality ...

As for striving to achieve classic status yourself -- forget it. Your first task, when writing a novel, is to make it work for your intended audience today. Let the future take care of itself ...

A work of art is .. a work which has been created through the exercise of skill, rather than by accident. The most common use of the term is in relation to works which have been devised primarily to create emotion, as opposed to works which seek to carry out some function, such as catching mice ...

We must distinguish between a kind of writing which is therapy for a writer, and writing which is designed to do something valuable and helpful for the reader ... Expressionism [Allen's name for the idea that the artist is or ought to be expressing him/herself] seems to imply that, if a work of art is to be satisfactory and admirable, it must inevitably seek to convey to the observer the same emotion as that which the artist herself experiences. It also seems to be implied in expressionism that the artist can only create good art if she is experiencing a "genuine" emotion while she is actually at work.

I disagree with both of these ideas. I think it is perfectly possible to create a work of art which generates, in the observer, an emotion quite different from that which is being, or has been, experienced by the artist ...

It is a remrakable fact that many of the consumers of all art forms have been successfully brainwashed by selfish and self-centered writers, actors, and other artists, over a long period of time. Many members of the public are so bemused by the expressionist propaganda that they can be bullied into buying, and even admiring -- albeit grudgingly -- works of art which actually bore them stiff.

Deeply embedded into our puritanical, prudish, little minds is the idea that there is something wrong with us if we do not appreciate a particular work which has been praised by "good judges." And, conversely, we feel almost ashamed of ourselves if we happen to find something funny and moving when it is clearly popular and vulgar ...

I would like to encourage you, in your role as a consumer of art, to have a little more confidence in your own powers of appreciation, and to care a little less about the judgement of experts.

There's a lot of guts, experience, and brains being conveyed by those straightforward words. In a suitably generous gesture, Michael Allen has made the book available for free, via a PDF download, here. Michael Allen's Grumpy Old Bookman blog itself is here.

Semi-related: The first-class Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler tells me that a piece by Bill Pronzini about the genre writer Jay Flynn gives an accurate picture of what the life of a professional book-fiction writer is like: part one, part two, part three. I've ranted on about the book-publishing business and the book-writing life myself (a few examples: here, here, here); I even once took on the "Greatness" topic (here). Steve Sailer and some of his visitors have a good time making fun of some recent art. Carole Cadwalladr visits the Frankfurt Book Fair -- the world's biggest book fair -- and gets a headache. Nice passage:

What becomes abundantly clear from Frankfurt is that if you've got a book inside, it's really not a bad idea to keep it there. Why does anybody even want to be a writer? And I say that as one.



posted by Michael at October 30, 2007


Contrary to what Allen writes, specifically concerning emotion, I'm not sure that a writer, in the act of writing, experiences any emotion, or feeling, as those terms are generally understood. In fact, I'm quite sure that he doesn't feel anything while trying to convey an emotional state (something inchoate) through the medium of language (something concrete and calculated). What he does know is that it, the writing, is working or it isn't working. The words - in their choice, placement, rhythm and sound - correspond to and convey an emotion recalled (turmoil recollected in tranquility?) but not felt. Or they don't.

The great misunderstanding about writers, about all artists, is sentimental: that they bathe in emotion. What a writer is really plunged in is constant calculation: the endless turning over of A sentence, A phrase, A word in his head. Does it work? Does it fit, in the jigsaw I'm constructing? Does its correspondence to an emotion evoke that emotion in the reader?

If all of the above has nothing to do with the book trade -- never mind.

Posted by: ricpic on October 30, 2007 5:58 PM

With all due respect, permit me to cry bullshit. Its not like "greatness" is some grand mystery. The great books are those that powerfully express some permanently applicable wisdom or deep insight into human affairs. Thats why people keep coming back to them. It seems perfectly obvious to me that some books have more wisdom and insight than other books, and some don't have any at all. The latter are rightly called trash.

(To creat great literature you need both insight and wisdom, and the means to communicate them well. Some authors may have more of the former ("rough" writers like Hardy, Browning, R.P. Warren), while some may have more of the latter ("stylists" like Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Hemingway), but all great literature has both to some degree has both.)

And let me say it again, plot is secondary. The great novelists and poets don't just tell a story; they analyze the characters' situation and the characters themselves. Lots of people retold the story of Troy before Homer, but only Homer had the insight into what makes a warrior like Achilles tick, and thats why only Homer lasted.
Shakespeare too stole all his plots and characters, but we don't remember the authors he stole from, we just remember Shakespeare's insights into those characters and situations.

Furthermore, as in all things, competition is the spur to excellence. Literature is a grand contest to see who can say the wisest and most insightful things. You compete for the readers time, and you compete against the likes of Shakespeare and Homer. I can understand why contemporary authors might not like to compare themselves with those authors, but doing just that is what spurred Joyce and Proust to their incredible achievement. Furthermore, this isn't something professors made up in the early 1900s. Read Longinus on the Greek concept of agon. The object of literature is to create something so precious, so insightful into our situation as humans on this earth, that people, in Milton's wonderful words, "will not willingly let it die." And to do that, you need to know your competition. If you do not strive against and learn from the best you will not achieve anything worthwhile yourself, and if you do not your work will not last.

Frankly, I wonder why there is such hostility to the idea that some people do things, even write books, a lot better than others. Why do we seem to require this faux feel-good egalitarianism? It all reminds me of the feminist lets-all-make-a-quilt-together, everybody is special-in-their-own-way approach to literature.

Furthermore, I don't think anyone would accept this in any other aspect of life. Take architecture. Would you honestly accept architecture criticism like this:

Personally I do not believe that a building can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense -- it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience ...

If there are no great buildings, there is no hierarchy of architecture, with the good stuff at the top and the trash at the bottom.

What happened to your crusade against modernism. If this is true, well then bring on the glass boxes. Some people like them and they get the job done, I guess. Granted the stakes are higher when a office building goes up (its gonna be there for a hundred years), but the principle is the same. Crap is crap and can't be defined away.

Sorry for going on like this, but I can't emphasize how wrong this guy is.

Yours respectfully,

Posted by: Thursday on October 30, 2007 8:11 PM

The division I notice in writing is not between Great and trash, but between writing whose intention is to entertain, i.e., draw the reader into a kind of waking dream (or 'brain movie' as I like to call it) and writing which seeks to induce a state that, whatever its details, involves self-consciousness and a refusal to be drawn in to any dreams, waking or not . ('Entertained' as in its etymological derivation from 'entre tenir', the way a host draws in and holds his guests).

The entertainment value of a book is high if it is able to generate vivid, coherent brain movies in the writer's guest, the reader. The emotion GOB talks about is then the result of the success of the entertainment, an involuntary response to an ongoing waking dream, 'put on' by the writer, participated in by the reader.

Much lit-fic, so often derided on this blog, is written to produce an effect utterly the opposite, to make the reader think, or adopt a critical stance, or even to become hyper-aware of the properties of language itself, especially of course the properties of the lit-fic writer's language in particular. Hence the obsession with stylistic felicity in lit-fic.

The difference is that between a storyteller holding his listeners rapt around a campfire and a virtuoso amazing his audience with his own artistic greatness. One is 'transparent' to his audience, the other is right in his audience's face, shouting 'Look at me! Look at me! I am just so f*cking cool!"

I prefer the storyteller type myself. They are, after all, the ones who've produced our hugely entertaining popular genre fiction, but also most, indeed almost all, of the great literature of the past.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 30, 2007 10:25 PM

Alas, I find Grumpy's dissertation on literature rather limited. A fine novel usually evokes a "yes!" response in readers because its author has probed the truths about life. The story might or might not evoke emotions. The truth and realism in a novel may be far more important than the feelings it may evoke. There is also the quality of the writing to consider. I enjoy lyrical, moody, or evocative scenes, elegance of language including metaphor and simile and allusion, and a host of other factors. I also think the underlying attitude of the author plays a role. "Literary" novelists such as Franzen often burlesque the lives of ordinary people and take on an elitist and contemptuous tone, but other novelists burlesque the rich and powerful. Both views distort the real world, and ultimately fail. That said, there are some things in Grumpy's essay that ring true. A novelist wanting to write a classic will never achieve it.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on October 31, 2007 8:40 AM

Well, sure... the book business is terrible, but the music business is worse!

I've been involved in both. Actually had a lit agent 20 years ago. God, I thought that when I landed the agent I was going to... well, I don't know what. I was astonished to discover that she considered me a low level employee.

I wrote a children's book for boys. She took it, but she told me flat out that she didn't care much for it. I was almost moved to tell her to stick it, but I wanted to sell the damned thing. She found a publisher who asked for a few changes... mainly the removal of a bit of harsh language. I thought that this was pretty lame, considering that this was the era of Judy Blume. When I told the agent this, she just dropped it on the spot.

"I'm only going to make a few bucks off this," she said.

Probably, she was right. My estimated advance was about $2,500.

I have to say, however, that the music business is far move abusive. What other business encourages teenage workers to self immolate for a cheering audience so that middle age guys in suits can pocket all the money?

The crazy abusiveness of the music business is driven by the audience... which imagines that it is motivated by love of music. In fact, for 99% of the audience music exists solely as a bit of nostalgia for their adolescence. By the age of 21, the audience has established its brand preference and will never be interested in expanding its interest beyond this preference.

Playing clubs and trying to sell CDs is a brutal business. I know... I still do it. It's no accident that these venues and this business have historically been controlled by gangs.

The music business is cowboy capitalism at its best and worst. I'm always amazed by the leftist rants of musicians. If they are so concerned with fixing up the world, why in the hell aren't they concerned about fixing up the music biz?

The music business kills people... gleefully! I reach a compromise 20 years ago. I make a living as a commercial artist and exercise my personal artistic muscles at home. I play out in commercial venues when I know that the outcome won't be too bloody and I stand a 75% chance of getting paid and not absorbing too much abuse.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 31, 2007 9:12 AM

Ricpic -- Did I read Allen wrong? I thought one of his points was that the writer didn't necessarily need to (let alone have to) be feeling anything as he writes. In any case, I think your p-o-v and Allen's are actually pretty close, although god knows you seem like more of an "emotions recollected in tranquillity" kind of guy, where he's more audience-centric ...

Thursday -- Your comment is a heck of a blog posting in its own right! I differ with you on a lot of that, maybe especially on the "story is secondary" thing. (My p-o-v: if you want wisdom, read philosphy and religion. Though god knows observations and speculations don't automatically do fiction any harm ...) And while I think that works-that-last deserve some respect, I think there's also a lot in the way of arbitrariness in that, and that any attributes that "great" works seem to share need to be discussed very cautiously. But your case is really well-put, tks.

PatrickH -- That's a well-done case too. Time to put you and Thursday in the boxing ring together.

Richard -- I think Grumpy's arguments are limited too, especially in a lit-crit sense. But since I think his point is to rather abruptly wrench people out of a lot of dreaminess and back to the super-basic basics, I think he's done a service. The primary job of a writer is to engage and move (in whatever way) an audience -- hard to get around that one, though god knows the profs and critics (and creative-writing teachers) tend to lose track of it.

ST -- Great facts and yarns, tks. The music biz does seem beyond brutal. I spent five minutes exploring the movie biz as a life-possibility 'way back when, and ran away screaming -- it seemed brutal in a similar way. (Millions of dollars are at stake, drugs are widespread ... People are really willing to kill for a piece of all that. Literally kill.) Book publishing is much more small-scale and dreary. Partly because the stakes are so low financially, but also (these days) partly because the business is on the decline, and has been mostly swallowed up by multinationals. The old fun of book-publishing has been squashed -- now it's just the dinosaur, low-profits end of the entertainment business. So people in the biz are introverted, English-majory, and feeling pretty hopeless. The Wife's recent book is being turned into an audiobook, and it's interesting to compare the vibe in paper-publishing (depressed) to the vibe in audio publishing (much more upbeat -- collaboration, a fizzing business, people really like audiobooks, etc) ... I like the deal you've made too -- I kinda arrived at a semi-similar one: make an OK salaray in a not-too-onerous way, then be totally free to do whatever I feel like on my spare time. Too bad a middle-class living takes a fulltime job, but it still has a lot to recommend it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 31, 2007 11:24 AM

ST, the 'leftist rants' of musicians are a job requirement. Any call for the reform of the music business would bring down the wrath of the Robber Barons on their ears. Why, they'd be fired on the spot! For cause!

I think they are actually provided a list of political talking points when they sign their contracts. The points are the standard leftist crapola (Global Warming, Iraq, Bush, etc.) And there's probably a NDA telling them to keep their real political opinions to themselves. Otherwise, we'd have to think that musicians are narcissistic, immature, ignorant overgrown adolescents, parroting the groupthink line, all the while praising themselves and one another as 'transgressive', 'edgy', and even as 'dissenters'. And musicians can't really be that utterly, mindlessly hypocritical, can they? Can they?

Posted by: PatrickH on October 31, 2007 11:42 AM

Michael, nota bene that Grumpy employs one criterion, and only one, to separate good literature from less good, and that is emotion. He plainly says it is very simple: a novel either generates powerful emotion in readers or it doesn't. He reinforces this criterion in almost every following paragraph. This is a grossly narrow view of what makes good literature. Luminous truth or piercing realism in the story are given no weight; neither is elegance of language, or grace, or gifted dialogue or swift, sure characterization. Milieu, honesty, the author's intent, all play a role. Some novels have messages, and these can add to the caliber of the work. In short, Grumpy's expressly stated notion that only emotion defines the quality of literature, and all fiction is more or less equal, is certainly questionable.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on October 31, 2007 12:55 PM

MB, I don't have any huge problem with your approach to literature, though it's not mine, but I do with you would stop pretending two things:

1) You are opposing a "modernist" elite.

As your other commenters have pointed out, the idea that there is a hierarchy of literary value--and that it involves a number of criteria more important than plot--is an old, even conservative, one. Your position is postmodern. That's fine, but own it.

2) You are speaking for "regular folks," or something.

You are not regular folks. You work in publishing in Manhattan. Your tastes are what they are, but you're not the voice of the put-upon proletariat against the elite. The most-read book in America is surely the Bible, which is mostly concerned with things other than snappy plots. And while you have your sci-fi fans, your mystery fans, your romance fans, etc., it's still true that Shakespeare, say, appeals to readers across all of those groups more than pretty much anyone.

Like you, I don't like most "literary fiction" that the NYROB goes on about, but that's because I do put books in a hierarchy of merit.

Posted by: BP on October 31, 2007 1:56 PM

Richard -- As a lesson in reading-appreciation your comment is a really valuable one. But is Grumpy trying to give a lesson in reading-appreciation? Maybe, but my hunch is that his main interest is in making one point and doing it strongly: "First, a book has to work for its audience. If it doesn't, it isn't really worth talking about any further." Even granted that there are many ways in which a book might work, I think it's a good point. Do you disagree with it?

BP -- You're giving me a chance to yak about myself? Fun, tks.

1) My p-o-v certainly overlaps with po-mo to a certain extent. But I differ some too. I think that hierarchies do exist, but the ones I respect are the ones that emerge naturally. The prob with modernism (IMO, of course) isn't that it's conservative or leftie, it's that it's imposed, it's over-theoretical, and that the hierarchy it has created and has enforced is completely unnatural. It suits most people badly, and it fits culture generally even worse. My own hunch is that if the modernism grip is relaxed a more easy and flexible kind of hierarchy will emerge. But before that happens (at least in some fields anyway) the modernism-spectacles have to come off. So I amuse myself with taking potshots at instances of modernism-inspired snobbery.

2) I don't remotely mistake myself for regular folks. I lead a very special kind of media-and-arts-saturated life, so special that I sometimes wonder if it isn't a little too special even for me. But there's no reason why that should keep me from saying that I think the arty and arty-intellectual set should have more respect for normal regular folks (and normal regular preferences and tastes) than they often do, is there?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 31, 2007 2:30 PM

Whatever the form ... literature, music, painting ... there is always a balancing act the artist must make among different impulses or goals. There's the desire for self-expression balancing with the desire to communicate; there's a degree of striving to create art for its own sake balanced with the goal of achieving commercial success. Some writers, musicians and painters are going to give more consideration to salability and others to critical response.

In the main, the creation of a book or song or painting is a personal enterprise. Once there is a "product" to be sold it enters the commercial realm where agents and managers and publishers and labels enter the fray. Will a book by a given author sell more copies if it is marketed as a genre pot-boiler or lit-fic? I suspect that many authors, musicians and painters find themselves urged to either alter their work to fit the pre-conceived notions of their Industry or see their work (mis-?) represented by the Industry in an effort to maximize sales.

And, as someone who has worked with both visual artists and musicians for nearly forty years, carping about the evils of the Industry is a waste of time and energy. Especially today there are many, many ways to produce and market that do not rely on knuckling under to the demands of the Industry.

And, as an aside, too many of the comments here display the kind of exaggerated fear and loathing of supposed leftist bias absent any rational reasons for it. A personal anecdote or two get expanded into proof positive of conspiracy worthy of the McCarthy years. Take musicians for an example. The last big flap I remember about music and politics was when a critical comment about Bush was made by one of the Dixie Chicks. They were severely punished by the Industry for it.

In short, one writes a book or song or paints a painting, then decides on the best approach to market it and, over time, it finds an audience or it doesn't. The size and nature of that audience gets something labeled great or trash, jazz or chick-lit or photo-realism.

Posted by: Chris White on October 31, 2007 2:53 PM

In what way were the Dixie Chicks punished? They became even more popular in Europe, which loved the lefty Bush hatred and they were scorned in patriotic Nashville. American good old boys and girls hated their guts, with good reason.

The awards shows (which are decidedly lefty) fawned over them. The arty crowd on the coasts and in the big cities embraced them.

They parlayed the Bush hatred into a career, complete with a doofus nude group shot on Rolling Stone. Playing the victims of repression was a very clever marketing strategy on the part of the Dixie Chicks. The Chicks weren't "punished." They just decided to go for the artsy-fartsy audience and blow off the tradition country audience.

Certainly, bitching about the industry is a "waste of time and energy." But, then, this forum is called "2Blowhards" isn't it? That's exactly what we do here. I don't expect the entertainment industry to change to suit me. If I want to compete, I have to play the game the way it's played.

To be blunt, I shouldn't be in Woodstock or Manhattan, centers of anti-American hatred of all varieties. I should be in Nashville or Chicago, the centers of American tradition music. I got stuck here during the Albert Grossman era, and I raised a family here. Jersey is far better territory for a traditional musician than Manhattan.

And, Chris, I'll agree that everything has changed in the past decade, now that the internet is the sales channel for all art. The game is changing, and changing for the better. I think you'll even begin to see the emphasis on youth in music changing.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 31, 2007 3:47 PM

Maybe I'm young and impetuous, but I resist all calls to read (or observe/listen) along a hierarchy, no matter who sets it. I enjoy this blog for the fact it gives a perspective that's quite different from the one I got in school. Be that as it may, when it finally comes down to it, I'm going to read (and write) what I enjoy and not worry if someone thinks I've either been brainwashed by an evil cabal of English Lit professors, or alternatively, stuck in the ghetto of popular genre fiction.

So if I want to read Albert Camus, Margaret Atwood and Italo Calvino and follow up with Nancy Kress, Neil Gaiman and Stephan King, I'm gonna do it and enjoy it, and fuck all to whatever a tastemaker, canonizer or self proclaimed literary voice of the people would tell me I should read. Hell, I could probably say the same to art and architecture.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on October 31, 2007 4:19 PM

The Dixie Chicks may have come out the other side with a different, perhaps even expanded, audience, but I'd say the initial death threats, harassment, cancelled performances and having their music being pulled from radio stations counts as punishment.

My point was that a given genre has its own audience and the socio-political biases that go with it. Gangsta Rap is going to offend various segments of society (feminists, the Police Benevolent Society) this even functions as part of its appeal to its target audience. Some singer songwriters or rock bands appeal to leftist, tree huggin', vegan, hippie types. Nashville has traditionally been partial to flag waving, ass kicking, "love it or leave it" style "rightists." The Indigo Girls are not going to advance their career with a new tune about the joys of marriage to a macho man, but Brad Paisley might ... where's the problem? I fail to see any over arching, grand, left wing conspiracy in the media. If anything, I'd argue that if there IS an over arching, grand conspiracy it is a neo-con, global capitalist one.

And, as in so many 2Blowhards areas of concern, I fail to see a good reason for the venom heaped on anyone who dares have a different aesthetic. I'm with Spike. I tend to be a cultural omnivore. I'm happy to share my enthusiasms or critique something I don't find compelling, but do so with no sense that I somehow actually possess a morally or objectively superior point of view, even if that is how I FEEL about it.

Posted by: Chris White on October 31, 2007 6:15 PM

I'm pretty skeptical about these "death threat" gambits from the left. If you've been reading Durham in Wonderland, faculty members at Duke also have announced that they received death threats. Somehow, they never produced any proof, or they produced e-mails that could have been sent by anybody (including themselves) that really just amount to strong disagreement.

In fact, I'm skeptical enough about the left and the music biz to wonder whether the death threats bit wasn't entirely manufactured for PR purposes.

What is harassment? Strong disagreement? Angry confrontation. Radio stations don't have the right to not play the Dixie Chicks political ravings? Radio stations are well advised not to play political ravings. I immediately turn off any music with a political message, right, left or whatever.

No, the Dixie Chicks PR staff deliberately created this entire BS you refer to, and then they cried because people responded just like they wanted them to.

If you are a ditzy blond country singer, and you decide to spend your time calling the president names in Europe... what do expect will be the response? The Dixie Chicks knew exactly what response they'd get, they wanted that response, and they wanted to play the pitiful victim. It's all part of a PR game, a pretty old one now, that has been replayed a million times since the 60s.

It's been replayed so many times, it's boring.

The very fact that this game still resonates with the left shows just how leftist the artist community has become. Proving over and over again that middle America is a bunch of redneck, repressive yahoos is one of the favorite dramas of the coastal hipsters. And, it's an absolutely safe game because the hipsters know that nobody is really going to harm them in any substantial way. Pretend martyrdom.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 31, 2007 7:04 PM

Neither left nor right-wing political talk coming from musicians is of any significance whatsoever. It's like the misogyny of rappers: all a marketing put-on. The only conspiracy in the entertainment industry is the conspiracy to deprive you of your money. It's all just flame bait, put out by Hollywood trolls. I can't be bothered to feed the trolls with anything but the back of my head as I turn away.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 31, 2007 9:38 PM

One of the Dixie Chicks makes a comment at a concert in London that she's ashamed Bush claims Texas as home and becomes, in the eyes of ST and others of his political leanings, a Bush-hating traitor. Dixie Chick songs are pulled from the airwaves of corporate controlled stations as punishment. The songs pulled were non-political, mainstream country fair, not leftist "political ravings" as per ST's mischaracterization. This sort of "do as we say, not as we do" nonsense has become a hallmark of the right far more than the left.

Rabid Clinton-haters hounded him while there were troops engaged in combat in the Balkans. After years of investigations by a special prosecutor they nailed him for lying under oath about a blowjob. Bush (indirectly via proxies in his "unitary presidency") outs a C.I.A. agent to punish a career diplomat for revealing the use of already discredited information to justify an invasion of Iraq. Bush, Cheney, et al gin up a false case against a tin pot despot to justify an invasion that many of us think has made America and the rest of the world far less safe and secure. It distracted us from following through on finding and eliminating Osama bin Laden and his top advisors while functioning as a recruiting and training opportunity for them. Anyone bringing up these issues immediately gets attacked as un-patriotic, perhaps treasonous, Bush haters who should shut up because we have boots on the ground.

An actor making progressive political comments is excoriated as a fool or dupe and told to leave the politics out and stick to acting. Actors, we're told, are all stupid and shouldn't meddle in politics where they have no business. Actors making conservative political comments run for or get elected President.

To bring this back, at least somewhat, to the actual topic at hand, art is art. Every reader, viewer or listener develops their own personal hierarchy of art, placing Stephen King above or below Saul Bellow or Mingus above or below 50 Cent depending on their own taste and inclinations. Over time the cumulated tastes of multiple thousands of readers, viewers, and listeners give us a set of hierarchies from which to choose. English Lit Professors are going to have a different hierarchy than Oprah's bookclub. Is this a surprise? Is it a call to arms to insist Oprah is a threat to intelligent literature or that the academics need to resign for their failure to echo popular taste?

Posted by: Chris White on November 1, 2007 8:27 AM

Shouting Thomas - I typically enjoy your rants because sometimes you state a truth that is considered verboten in these latter-day PC times. However, you are way off the mark with the Dixie Chicks. Go watch "Shut Up and Sing" which documents the events. There was a film crew along with the Dixie Chicks at the time, and you can see for yourself that the death threats were real.

What was so maddeningly hypocritical about those events is Toby Keith said and did many things that were just as partisan and inflammatory as anything Natalie Maines said, yet his songs didn't get yanked off the radio.

Bruce Springsteen is currently being suppressed by Clear Channel because of his recent album that's critical of the current occupant. So again we have a media conglomerate that should be beyond politics that's clearly espousing a view that's blatantly partisan.

If you like to avoid politics in music, that's fine, of course. It's everyone's prerogative to dispense with media that doesn't please them. But accusing the Dixie Chicks of cynically using an off-hand remark as a marketing ploy is as specious as Sean Hannity's claim that Halloween is a liberal holiday because “we’re teaching kids to knock on other people’s doors and ask for a handout.” (

Thursday - I would agree that plot is secondary in the cases where the story has other qualities that render it unimportant. For instance, Larry McMurtry's "Texasville" doesn't even attempt to have any sort of a plot, but the events are so funny and charming, it's never missed. But these are the exception, not the rule.

But in most cases the rule is that plot is important to fiction. To argue otherwise is tantamount to arguing that on a sunny day the sky isn't blue, in my opinion.

Even your examples of Homer and Shakespeare prove the point. "The Iliad" was popular and remained so because of the extended and graphic depictions of battle. It was the "300" of its day. That was the reason for its longevity, not because "Homer had the insight into what makes a warrior like Achilles tick." And "The Odyssey" was a great story, with a great plot.

Posted by: yahmdallah on November 2, 2007 12:11 PM

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