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May 09, 2008

Responding to Thursday

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

On an interesting thread over at GNXP, Thursday issued a challenge. I'd been goofing around, writing that "novels themselves were quite disreputable at the outset -- the reality TV and tabloid-TV of their day. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that some novelists started putting on airs."

Here's Thursday:

Bullshit. No less a "serious" personage than Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a novel and a very good one too. Novelists like Richardson, Fielding, and Burney were considered serious writers right from the beginning. Haven't you read Boswell's life of Johnson. I have a hard time believing Jane Austen didn't take her meticulously planned and written books as high art. Tom Jones is planned to classical perfection. Critics like Hazlitt and Coleridge took the novelists like Richardson, Smollett, Sterne and Fielding seriously right from the start. Stop trying to rewrite literary history as if no-one had any clue what was high art and what wasn't.

OK then: Time to get serious myself. Here's my response to Thursday:

You're making a basic mistake. You're projecting current-day critical rankings back onto past eras. You're assuming that what we now consider great was self-evidently Great at the time. No.

Look, what a work's reputation is today often has zip to do with how it was taken (and what it represented) when it was produced. What we now consider great was often taken for granted at the time, or looked-down-on. Defoe's novels are just one example. At the time they were published they weren't taken to be novels in our current sense. They were made-up fantasies that pretended to be works of reportage -- in other words, they were aesthetically and morally dubious productions akin to today's scandal sheets and reality TV, or maybe even to those books that turn up every few years about alien encounters in Australia. It took more than a century before many people started wondering if maybe "Robinson Crusoe" wasn't a pretty good novel. Works often become "literature" in hindsight, not at the time of their production.

No matter how great we recognize "Tom Jones" to be today -- and I'm a big fan myself -- the early British novel was a scrappy and aesthetically scorned form, far more akin in its time to what journalism and TV are these days than to today's "literary fiction." The early English novel was a middle-class market phenomenon, not a serious or intellectual or literary one. We've learned to see structure, complexity, grandeur, and depth in these books only in retrospect.

From Wikipedia's "literature" entry: "Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because 'mere' prose writing seemed easy and unimportant."

From an online resource about Jane Austen: "In Jane Austen's era, novels were often depreciated as trash ... In Jane Austen's day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today."

No matter what your opinion of Austen's books these days, and no matter how seriously Austen took herself, in other words, novels at the time were taken to be a lowclass medium.

More from that same page: "Though she always had her admirers, Jane Austen was not the most popular or most highly-praised novelist of her era (none of her novels were reprinted in English between 1818 and 1831), and she was not generally considered a great novelist until the late nineteenth century."

None of this is a big secret, btw. Here's a passage from the NYTimes critic A.O. Scott:

"Since its beginnings in the 18th century, the Western novel was a bastard form, the chaotic hybrid of art and commerce as likely to offend norms of high literature as to uphold them. The 'high-art literary tradition' was, in Augustan England, the preserve of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the great figures of antiquity, in contrast to whom the popular novelists of the day -- a redundancy, since no other kind existed -- were hawkers of morally dubious entertainment."

A few other facts to take into account:

  • "Art history" in our modern "critical" sense didn't begin until the mid 1700s, with Winckelmann.

  • Public museums and concert halls didn't arise in numbers until the 19th century.

  • The term "high culture" didn't come into use until the mid-late 1800s -- around the same time that some Anglo-and-American authors, like Henry James and George Eliot, started making more serious and elevated aesthetic-moral claims for their work than had generally been made for novels before.

  • The terms "aesthetics" in the modern sense was invented in the 18th century.

In other words, the whole sifting-and-sorting- and-canon-making thing that you seem to take for granted didn't in fact begin as a semi-organized, respectable cultural activity until the mid-1700s, and didn't hit its stride until well into the 1800s. People just weren't thinking that way until fairly recently.

This doesn't mean that people didn't read or revere works from the past. But it does mean that the particular story that profs and critics tell us today about the history of something called "literature" and "serious writing" is one that we've made up fairly recently.

Look, we have plenty of examples of this kind of process going on right around us. Think of the Italian "giallo" thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance. At the time they were made they were considered crap, or at best stylish crap. Serious critics sneered at 'em, and the audiences for 'em weren't art-house sophisticates. The real film art was Antonioni, Bellochio, etc. Yet today the giallo movies are thriving on DVD, and are probably more influential than "La Notte" is. It could well be that in 20 years Antonioni will be a footnote, and Dario Argento will be recognized as a giant.

Here's Thursday, back at me:

Indisputable fact #1: Rousseau, Johnson, Hazlitt were prominent public intellectuals and recognized as such.

Indisputable fact #2: They took novels, or at least certain novels, very seriously.

You can't dismiss that. That _most_ novels were taken to be trash is neither here nor there. Its analagous to films now. Its widely acknowledged that most movies are just trashy entertainment. That doesn't mean that Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg aren't recognized as great artists in their own lifetimes. There isn't any contradiction here. Both can be true at the same time.

BTW have you actually read Johnson, Hazlitt etc? How come the only novelists discussed by Johnson in Boswell's life are Richardson, Fielding, Burney and Sterne? Geez, those are exactly the same novelists from that era with the highest reputations now. Ever wonder why? Have you actually read Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Comic Writers? The novels he picks to discuss there are all the exact same ones from his era we think of as important now. Geez, coincidence again. Why _do_ these great critics _only_ choose to discuss the same novelists, contemporary with them, that anyone still cares about today? How come they have such an uncanny ability to only discuss winners? Why not just take the next step and acknowledge that Johnson and Hazlitt, great critics that they were, could recognize that these were the only novelists worth discussing?

Remember, just because _you_, Michael Blowhard, cannot recognize what will and will not last does not mean that people of the intelligence and sensitivity of Hazlitt and Johnson cannot. Great artists and critics can pick each other out, because geniuses see the patterns before everybody else. Just because you and most other people cannot is irrelevant.

And my final response:

You're living in a fantasy world, one where responsible serious people -- whose seriousness and eminence are recognizable at the very instant they're working, by, presumably, other trustworthy and serious people (hahahahaha) -- make trustworthy judgments that endure for centuries.

I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that isn't the way the actual cultural world works. Reputations come and go. Periods (and individuals, and schools) interpret the past to suit themselves. Ensuing periods then reinterpret the past to suit them. Talented work and artists get overlooked and forgotten. Everyone has a career they're looking out for.

Work that no respectable person championed (giallo films, or Gold Medal Books, for instance) turns out to have more of a lifespan than the work that all the serious, responsible people thought would be enduring.

It looks like some people's judgments were freakily prescient (aka "wise") only because we're looking back at them.

Out of this free-for-all, something called "an artistic tradition" has emerged. But no one has control of it. It's an emergent phenomenon in the evo-bio sense -- no one's in charge, and we're all part of the bewildering churning process. Perhaps we have a few microseconds now and then when we seem to have a bit of perspective on it all -- but then we're submerged in the tumult once again.

There are probably some general rules to be deduced from the meta-ebby-flowiness -- but what are they? And do they function as any kind of guide to the future? Because there's always the possibility, after all, that the things we think of as trustworthy general rules have embedded in them a kind of telomere-like sell-by date. We may think we understand the game, we may feel certain that we've gotten to the very heart of it -- and then the game itself may change. Can you trustworthily predict in what way it's likely to evolve? Can anyone?

Besides, since "art history" and "literary history" as we know them didn't really get started until the 18th century, they may well come to an end. They had a birth, after all -- why shouldn't they also die? It isn't entirely unlikely that in 350 years, art history and literary history will expire. No one will care about the art of the past. The reason this isn't a totally unlikely scenario is that that's pretty much how people lived for most of human history. Our little stretch may prove to be a little blip of an exception to some far more major and fundamental General Rule.

Incidentally, yes of course I've read Johnson, Hazlitt, etc. The 18th century was my academic specialty. Once I left school, though, and got a look at the way the real cultural world works, I had to go back, dig in, take a fresh look at it, and finally revise nearly everything my teachers taught me. Have you read "New Grub Street," or the first half of "Lost Illusions"? If you want accurate representations of how the writing-and-publishing worlds work, you could do worse.

A small correction to one of your points: Early novels weren't like movies today. Today nobody disputes that movies are (or at least can be) an art form. There are cinema-studies departments in most colleges; professional academics and critics; festivals and grant-making institutions ...

The world of early novels wasn't like that. No writing schools, no PhDs, no well-trod career tracks, no established business procedures ... Copyright wasn't even well-established at the time. Have you read much about the history of copyright? It's one of those things (like the history of publishing) that English majors really ought to be exposed to.

The world of early novels was like the world of early movies. And almost no one, at the dawn of movies, saw what was coming.

Please, please point out the wise, objective person who looked at early movies and predicted that they would be one of the premier art forms of the 20th century, let alone that (for example) Buster Keaton would be widely recognized as a towering genius.

To my knowledge, the observer who came closest to this was Vachel Lindsay. (Whose writing I like a lot, btw.) But at the time Vachel Lindsay was just one person among millions of people watching movies and gabbing about them. Would you have known -- at the time -- that he was right? Would you even have known of his existence? Vachel Lindsay is known these days as a prescient person (and he has a place on the essential cinema studies reading list) because we can look back and see that he proved to be prescient. But no one at the time knew that he was on his way into the cinema-history Permanent Collection. How could they have? No one at the time even had a clue that such a thing as Cinema Studies -- let alone a Cinema Studies Permanent Collection -- would ever exist.

Anyway, early novels were roughly like early movies: commercial, looked-down-on, scrappy, and nothing that 99.9% of people thought of as "art."

And a quick comment I left to Oran Kelly, who I think thought that I was overdoing the irreverence towards contempo "literary fiction":

Of course I'm simplifying, and of course you can poke around and find exceptions. But there's some virtue in blocking in the big picture and getting it straight, no?

The "literary fiction" thing ... Well, it's one of those questions that confuses a lot of people simply because of the word, or the name, or whatever you want to call it.

It's like "art" in that way. Is "art" simply something some people do? Or is it a quality judgment? Is a given painting "art" simply because it got made? Or does it not qualify as "art" until a bunch of trustworthy eminences whose judgements will hold for all eternity (hahahahahaha) have proclaimed it art?

People wind up having fistfights because they don't pause to straighten out what they mean by "art." So it's worth straightening out definitions and meanings.

Contempo "literary fiction" is simply a category of fiction. It's the category of fiction that considers itself to be serious; that claims that it is the true literature of today; and that would be offended it you referred to it as a category. But practically speaking, there you have it -- it's just one category of fiction among many. You might pick up a romance, or a space opera, or a manga, or a crime novel, or a lit-fict title. They're all categories.

"Literature" on the other hand is, I guess, "writing that has lasted," or something like that.

The key thing to grasp: Despite the similarity in the names, there is no necessary connection between today's "literary fiction" and "literature." After all, the writing of today that will still be alive in 200 years -- if any of it is -- may or may not come from the shelves of titles that are published as today's "literary fiction." Do you feel certain that the contempo lit-fict writer David Foster Wallace will be revered in the year 2208, while the crime writer Joseph Wambaugh won't be?

Anyway, the separating-off of contempo lit-fict from the rest of contempo fiction is something that has occurred partly because of writing schools, the '60s, etc. But it's also partly because of the computerizing of inventories. Books are now all entered into computers, and each title has to be entered into the database. So in many ways the database rules. By the way, these database categories aren't really organic categories, like poetic forms or literary genres. They're categories that sorta seem to suit what people are looking for, that may have a little something to do with traditional meanings, but that mainly suit the way the database works. And the database exists to suit the needs of wholesalers, warehousers, retailers, etc -- not the needs of lit-history.

(UPDATE: I'd argue in all seriousness that whoever it was who first computerized a bookstore's inventory has had much more impact on contempo fiction than has, say, a revered intellectual like Harold Bloom.)

Today, it's all chopped-up. In the past ... There used to be a continuum from grotty fiction through middlebrow to lofty. But, in a bookstore in 1940, new fiction was generally shelved all together (with some underground stuff -- violent, porno -- kept under the counter). These days that isn't the case. Fiction is split up (database-wise as well as physically) into numerous different categories. You're either one thing (sci-fi, say) or you're another (lit-fict, for instance).

I'm giving myself the last word because I can, and because it's my blog. But Thursday and Oran may respond again, so please check the GNXP thread to see where they take the discussion.

It's always a pleasure to yak with Thursday -- who, when he blogs, blogs here. Alias Clio had some thoughts about Razib's posting too.

Semi-related: I wrote about Gold Medal Books; about the "literary fiction" thang; about 17th and 18th century England's coffee-house culture; and about the art-historical ups and downs of Piero Della Francesca's reputation. In a humorous vein, I tried my hand at predicting which culture-things from our time will live for the ages.



posted by Michael at May 9, 2008


Hey, I actually have a couple fairly recent posts up. Sorry for the grumpiness. I think you're wrong Michael, but you're my great provocateur.

Posted by: Thursday on May 9, 2008 4:26 PM

I don't pretend to know one iota about the history of literarure. But I do know music. And I know jazz, rock and roll, and early rap were all derided by the establishment, while more conventional forms of music were held up as "great entertainment."

What do we now consider as innovative and groundbreaking for those times? I would say the answer is NOT Pat Boone, Frankie Laine or Sting.

Posted by: Days of Broken Arrows on May 9, 2008 4:58 PM

Well, that convinces me to just like what I like and not worry about it :)

*I know I'm coming late to this, but I really loved Persepolis. That graphic novel stuff seems alive to me in a way a lot of that hoighty-toity prose fiction isn't. Alive, I mean. When I was buying my copy of Persepolis, a young woman at the counter pushed another graphic novel towards me and said, 'this one's about North Korea. It's by a journalist!' It was kind of strange.

Posted by: MD on May 9, 2008 5:18 PM

Thursday -- I live to provoke.

DOBA -- It may even be more complicated than that. Sometimes the tacky, initially-uncelebrated stuff wins out. But sometimes the highbrows and pundits turn out to have gotten it right. I remember a lot of critics who were on the side of early punk and hiphop, for instance. But how can we know at the time it's happening? And why worry about it anyway? Unless you're in the mood too, of course.

MD -- The graphic-novel world does have a lot of life in it these days, doesn't it? I'm more of a porno comic-book person myself, though -- the over-cultivated quirkiness and that wanting-to-be-treated-respectably side of graphic novels can really get me down. But that's just me. Have you caught the movie version of "Persepolis"? I wonder if it's worth seeing.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2008 5:39 PM

The fact is that prose has always been...prosaic, relative to poetry. Compared to the music and concision of poetry, prose plods. The length and ambition of the novel form - in essence erecting a whole building brick by brick for the reader's inhabitance - makes this inescapable. Only in the shortest prose forms - a paired down Hemingway short story; a Beckett interior monologue (sometimes disguised as a play) - do a few writers of prose approach the fine chiseling that poetry demands.
So prose, by its nature, always has been and always will be vulgar. The novel is a vulgar form. No matter how vital -- vulgar.
And poetry is aristocratic. That poetry may be temporarily dead is irrelevant. Language aspires to the condition of poetry. It may, it does live in the condition of prose, but it aspires to be poetry.
What was the question?

Posted by: ricpic on May 9, 2008 5:51 PM

You guys make my head hurt! But this sort of thing is what I really like about the Internet....lots of facts and solid analysis about fascinating topics quickly and interactively.

Posted by: jonathanjones02 on May 9, 2008 10:36 PM

Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding— joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust. [...] Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now grows.

—Jane Austen, Northhanger Abbey

Obviously Miss Austen knew quite well the status of novels, and did not quail at the idea that hers was to be held in the same regard. I truly doubt that with such passages she was considering her work as "high art."

Incidentally, I am an artist. I'm never going to be a Great Artist. I am perfectly okay with that. If I were to come back two hundred years from now and still see some of my art around, I would be very surprised. If I were to hear of it being defended as High Art, I would be very amused. What does it matter? My art is for my own purposes, and sometimes that purpose is the prosaic one of making a little extra money through doing something fun. I'm sure Miss Austen could appreciate that motive.

Posted by: B. Durbin on May 9, 2008 10:45 PM

But on the other hand Walter Scott thought Miss Austen a wonderful writer. And the Establishment's view of Scott's novels was such that they knighted him.

Posted by: dearieme on May 10, 2008 9:07 AM

Hmmm...B. Durbin I read Miss Austen 180 degrees differently from you. The excerpt you quote doesn't explicitly state that she considers what she does art, but it does explicitly state that she won't run her work down like other novelists of the time were doing. I don't think the point is at all that she "doesn't quail at the idea that hers were to be held in the same regard." In fact, I think she's making the opposite point, that she will not participate in denigrating the kind of work she herself is doing. She will not be so "impolitic or ungenerous" or "join her greatest enemies" (in criticizing novels) or "talk in threadbare strains."

BTW, this exact excerpt was one I was contemplating as adding some contemporaneous evidence to Michael's point that novels were considered low brow and vulgar at the time. But, I do not think it's evidence that Miss Austen shared that view of the potential of the new literary form of the novel. Certainly, she made great fun of her less accomplished competitors but without being such a stuffed shirt that she couldn't admit to enjoying something low brow from time to time.

Posted by: Judith Sears on May 10, 2008 1:14 PM

A small example of the fickleness of the designation "great art":

The Florentine painter, Jacopo Carrucci, named Pontormo after his birthplace in Tuscany, was forgotten by history for more than three centuries...That such a skilled painter as Pontormo, who lived and worked in one of the most important centers of the Italian Renaissance, should have fallen into such obscurity seems strange. None of Pontromo's Florentine contemporaries suffered a similar fate...Apart from a mention in the Florentine chronicle of Francesco Bocchi in the year 1591, there are hardly any references to Pontormo. He assumes no importance with any of the lovers of Italian art in the 17th and 18th centuries or with the Renaissance specialists of the 19th century, although most of his frescoes and paintings are even today still in their original locations in and around Florence. Pontormo is a typical discovery of the early 20th century...It was shortly after 1900 that a small number of essays heralded the awakening of interest in Pontormo...The rediscovery of Pontormo was completed shortly before the First World War, at a time when the avant-garde art of the Modern Age was reaching its apogee. Pontormo is not alone in achieving recognition in the wake of the Expressionist movement. The reputation, for example, of El Greco (1541-1614), a Spanish painter of Greek origin whose visionary artistic creations had long been ignored, gained full appreciation only in the second decade of the 20th century.

--Doris Krystof, "Pontormo", 1998

Now, of course, nobody was tearing Pontormo's art off the wall (although some of his frescos did get whitewashed) during those centuries of his neglect, so apparently his paintings touched some people whether his reputation was being trumpeted or not. So I offer that an artistic reputation is pretty transparently a socially constructed artifact, and not to be taken too seriously either positively or negatively.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 12, 2008 4:45 AM

Canonization of the visual arts has long suffered from the fact that until the 20th century you had to physically go see all this art. Access problems _can_ create distortions in the canonizaton process, but that is a different issue from whether great critics like Hazlitt etc. can recognize greatness when they see it.

Regarding Michael's reference to Lost Illusions, that work is about intitial gatekeepers, not canonization. Needless to say, most publishing people are not critics on the level of Hazlitt and company, so it is very possible that a great art will be squelched before it makes it's way out into public view. If a work isn't widely disseminated, then no matter its merit it won't reach those who do the canonizing, like other great artists.

Posted by: Thursday on May 12, 2008 1:04 PM


Well, we've previously established that I am a prude and find *that* sort of fiction embarrassing.....I NEVER click on your NSFW links, by the way. Look, I was raised by very traditional people, and that's just the way I am, okay :)

No, I haven't seen Persepolis. Want to, though. I did recently see Marie Antionette, the Sofia Coppola movie, and liked it better thinking about it after watching it than I did actually watching it It is good, I think. Very good, in an odd way. A mood piece like all of her movies.

Posted by: MD on May 12, 2008 6:05 PM

Hey, I was just thinking maybe my above comment sounded kind of mean. I was just playing around....hope I didn't offend!

Posted by: MD on May 13, 2008 10:31 AM

MD -- Mean? Don't be silly, you're a sweetiepie. Anyway, I was trying to figure out a good Guest Posting to propose that you do. You're a sexy writer yourself ... yet you describe yourself as a prude ... yet everyone has movies, books, paintings, etc that they enjoy at least partly because they deliver a pleasant shall-we-say-erotic buzz ... Hmm. How about "A Prude's Pleasures?" Some art and entertainment that gives you, prude that you are, a buzz, plus some thoughts and reflections about the hard-charging-ness of US culture, your own feelings about standards and intimacy and pleasure ... Etc, etc? I'm eager to read you on such topics.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 13, 2008 11:38 AM

I like your take on the Organic processes of art Michael, more than Thursday's revered art take. It just feels that yours makes more rational sense, and makes the art process itsel more vital and exciting. Your writing gave me the same kind of energy to read that my favorite English teacher in College gave me. You simply cannot treat any text that you read as a revered Holy artifiact, or else the reader cannot in anyway put their two sense about what they are reading in. They would just be too afraid to chime in on what went wrong, say in Great Expectations. A reader has to have the right context about what they are reading, or else in my opinon the fiction that they are reading no matter how great disippitates. It's why immediate fiction written at the moment has more immediacy; the reader can connect to it more because its context hasn't been altered in anyway.

Posted by: David Brown on May 13, 2008 11:45 AM

Michael, you should check out this article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker on the foolishness of eponymy (naming a discovery after its inventor), and the foolishnes on the terminology of someone being called a genius. It's a great read. It appears that even in the science world, there are movements that cause changes in the field made by many an individual, rather than made by "geniuses". It's an article that deals with the faultiness of the classification of who is considered a genius in the science world and who isn't, and I feel its a very apt article in regards towards this particular post.

Posted by: David Brown on May 13, 2008 12:52 PM

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