In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff


We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.







Try Advanced Search


  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...


CultureBlogs
Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
PhilosoBlog
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Gregdotorg
BookSlut
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Cronaca
Plep
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Seablogger
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette


Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Samizdata
Junius
Joanne Jacobs
CalPundit
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Public Interest.co.uk
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
Spleenville
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
CinderellaBloggerfella
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
InstaPundit
MindFloss
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes


Miscellaneous
Redwood Dragon
IMAO
The Invisible Hand
ScrappleFace
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz

Links


Our Last 50 Referrers







« The S Word | Main | Independence Day? »

September 23, 2008

Your Most Memorable Character

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

GFS3 asks five writing-world figures a good question -- “What literary character do you find most compelling and why?” -- and gets some fresh answers in response. Time for me to catch up with E.W. Hornung's "Raffles" books.

Interesting the way that characters in popular fiction are so much more likely to jump out in three dimensions than modern lit-fict characters are, isn't it? What to make of this?

A thought experiment: Would it be fair to say that some of Jackie Collins' characters have more "life" in them than any of Salman Rushdie's do? Seems a perfectly reasonable claim to me. After all, Collins' people get up and walk around under their own steam from page one, where Rushdie's characters emerge vaguely over the course of hundreds of pages from huge (and to my mind exhausting) blasts of writin'-writin'.

Now, what if we value "the creation of lively and persuasive characters" more highly than we do "the creation of complex and glittering word-clouds"? (Let alone "authorial showing-off.") There's no reason a respectable reader shouldn't have such a value-set, is there? If we can indeed grant that, then perhaps it would also be OK to rank Jackie Collins as a better writer -- at least in one very important sense -- than Salman Rushdie.

Fair? Unfair?

Bonus point: Don't miss Dark Party Review's collection of "5 Questions" interviews with authors.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at September 23, 2008




Comments

"Now, what if we value "the creation of lively and persuasive characters" more highly than we do "the creation of complex and glittering word-clouds"?"

What do you mean "what if?" We DO value characters over "word-clouds," just look at the bestseller lists. Face it, you've won. So why the continued attack on "lit-fic?" It's a different beast, yet you continue to criticize it for not being something else. Many, many people enjoy it as a genre, myself included. I actually prefer well-written ruminations over plot, I really do. I've often tried to read people like Crichton, Michener, etc. and I just can't get into it because of the actual mechanics of their writing. So sue me. I'm not saying they suck, I've just come to realize they're setting out to do something entirely different than, to grab a headline, David Foster Wallace. And I've also come to realize that something just isn't for me. Maybe you should do the same regarding lit-fic, Michael. It's liberating!

However, I do enjoy me a good Elmore Leonard book, so there you go.

I like Roger Ebert's method for criticism, and I apply it to any art form:

"In the early days of my career I said I rated a movie according to its "generic expectations," whatever that meant. It might translate like this: "The star ratings are relative, not absolute. If a director is clearly trying to make a particular kind of movie, and his audiences are looking for a particular kind of movie, part of my job is judging how close he came to achieving his purpose." Of course that doesn't necessarily mean I'd give four stars to the best possible chainsaw movie. In my mind, four stars and, for that matter, one star, are absolute, not relative. They move outside "generic expectations" and triumph or fail on their own."

It's basically you can't get blood from a stone, or however that maxim goes.

Posted by: JV on September 23, 2008 2:42 PM



If we can indeed grant that, then perhaps it would also be OK to rank Jackie Collins as a better writer -- at least in one very important sense -- than Salman Rushdie.

Perhaps. I've never read Jackie Collins, and I've read very little Rushdie, so I'm not particularly well positioned to comment, but I have found Rushdie's characters emerge quite vividly for me.

The most unusually-compelling character I've read yet is Soames Forsyte in the Forsyte Saga. He is, in his way, though ostensibly a grey and colourless man, someone really fascinating, in a way that his wife and his cousin and the other "interesting" characters in the novel simply aren't.

Posted by: Taeyoung on September 23, 2008 3:00 PM



JV -- Small hint: I'm not trying to free you from the attitudes that the lit-fict crowd imposes (or tries to impose) on the world of reading, writing, and publishing. You've got sense. You read to please yourself and out of curiosity and adventure. You understand already that lit-fict is just one genre among many.

Many people don't, though, and many people also don't realize how much the attitudes of the lit-fict crowd color (and to my mind poison) the reading-and-writing-and-publishing world. Or maybe they just haven't given the question any thought. Their lives are busy, after all.

So why not bring these facts to their attention? It's even the case that many people who enjoy, say, Michener and Crichton (I'm not one) feel cowed by and deferential towards the lit-fict and intellectual class. They shouldn't, and maybe it doesn't hurt to make this argument.

This really isn't a neurotic obsession on my part, btw. Did you read the BookSquare piece I linked to a few postings ago? It's a simple fact of life that there's a small class of high-minded, self-regarding "literary" types who dictate the terms that book-fiction is usually discussed on, and who occupy many powerful offices in publishing (especially in NYC) and in the bookchat world. Why shouldn't we have some fun throwing mud at them? Besides, how else do you get a business to be more responsive to its customers?

It'd be fine if the lit set just went about its business. But of course it doesn't. It does its best to run things and dictate terms. It has no respect for other writing genres and other writing worlds.

Seriously: I know lit writers who turn up their noses at the idea of sci-fi or comic books. Not because sci-fi and comic books aren't for them, but because they think it's beneath contempt. Fine if they think that, of course, but maybe not so fine it they're trying to impose these attitudes on the rest of us. And they are.

BTW, if the idea of exploring some quality popular narrative fiction appeals to you, why are you pursuing Michener and Crichton? They're for people who like mall movies and corporate pop.

There are dozens and dozens of popular-fiction authors out there who turn out books that are as quirky, fullbodied, inventive, satisfying as the best alt-country or crazy pop music. I link to 'em often, as well as to blogs and sites (like Bookgasm and Ed Gorman and Vince Keenan) that are knowledgeable about and recommend the stuff.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2008 3:14 PM



I only mentioned Michener and Crichton because you mentioned Collins. :)

I agree that the lit-fic thing is more a matter of influence than numbers, in that the people in the book business tend to be lit-fic people, therefore they have a disproportionate amount of influence over books. Still, how to explain the sheer numbers of people who DON'T read lit-fic in favor of other genres if this sinister lit-fic cabal has such influence? The people actually running the book industry certainly aren't concerned about anything other that what sells, so I guess it's just in the realm of criticism where the lit-fic crowd holds sway. And who the hell reads book criticism other than lit-fic fans? :)

Posted by: JV on September 23, 2008 3:54 PM



JC and writers like her aren't "better" than SR and writers like him. They're doing two entirely different things, both captured, and poorly, by the word "writing". It's a bit like comparing John Coltrane to Irving Berlin. Who was a "better musician"? If you mean, how good on their chosen instrument, Coltrane obviously. Better at being remembered, striking a chord, coming up with more memorable tunes? Berlin, by the width of the entire universe.

To pursue the music analogy for a moment: defenders of Coltrane and the like sometimes argue that Berlin and others created "nursery rhymes", la-la tunes for the kiddies. Coltrane could do all that if he wanted, but didn't. He produced music utterly beyond Berlin and beyond the overgrown kiddies he wrote for.

But this is just so much bullshit. Coltrane could no more compose a memorable tune than he sing bel canto. These great technicians, these improv geniuses, these masters of their instrument, can't write tunes because writing tunes is qualitatively different than being creative, original, groundbreaking, blah blah blah in music.

Same with writing. Lit-fickers are masters of their instruments, like the Coltranes, they make writing that's challenging, they explore and push against various kinds of limits. And like (some of, not all) Coltrane, they can be unlistenable and deeply alienating.

Storytelling is simply NOT the same thing at all, qualitatively, as lit-fic "writing". JColl and SR have no more in common than JColt and IB. Horses of different colours. Always have been always will be.

Meta-question: is there any sense in which lit-fic and "serious" music (art?) can be judged as better than genre fic/pop music/pop art?

I don't think so. Can't prove it, though.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 23, 2008 4:08 PM



btw, my wife is reading Gone with the Wind. I read the first chapter and wow, some of the best character development and just plain stage setting I've ever read. Really phenomenal writing. My wife says Scarlett is the most intimate and accurate portrayal of a woman she's ever read. And you can't get more popular than GWTW. I plan to read it when she's done.

Posted by: JV on September 23, 2008 4:16 PM



Taeyoung -- The Forsyte Saga: high-end popular fiction, English-style. (Incidentally, I take your point that modernist/lit approaches to character can have some payoffs -- you can experience a character in, say, Faulkner or Woolf in a very interesting and rewarding way. The lit-modernist batting average doesn't seem to be too good, though.)

JV -- Still, how to explain the sheer numbers of people who DON'T read lit-fic in favor of other genres if this sinister lit-fic cabal has such influence?

Because despite what they're taught and how they're hectored, where fiction is concerned the great mass of people will always be more interested in story, hook, subject, and character more than in "writerly" concerns. It's always been the case, and it's probably a fair bet that it'll continue to be the case.

I guess it's just in the realm of criticism where the lit-fic crowd holds sway.

Untrue, unfortunately. Many of the people sitting in the NYC publishing offices are proud of hating commercial/popular/narrative fiction, and spend a lot of time whimpering about how they'd love to be doing something more "worthwhile." More worthwhile than providing entertainment for their customers?

No reason a cult or coterie world shouldn't amuse itself with fancy inbred concerns, of course. Maybe not the best thing all around, though, if they have no comprehension of or respect for what the great mass of mankind prefers. Lots of these people can discuss a Rushdie or DFW pretty intelligent, but have zero idea what makes a good story. Yet most of their customers (and potential customers) would prefer a good story. You'd think that, given this, they'd do their best to bone up and learn about it. But they don't. They'd rather complain and drag their feet. Doesn't do publishing, reading, or writing any good, and may do it a fair amount of ill.

PatrickH -- No kidding and well-put. The main thing I don't get is the way one crowd feels the need to praise what they love by putting down what another crowd loves and values. Not "God bless all kinds of music, and double-god-bless people who are good at different kinds of music, but Coltrane's the man for me." But instead "Coltrane rules, Irving Berlin sucks," or maybe "Being able to noodle for 15 minutes is far, far more important than being able to come up with a good tune is." Really? Based on what value-set?

JV2 -- I really gotta catch up with GWTW someday! Epic-length female popular narrative isn't generally my thing, god knows. But "Rebecca" was awesome.


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2008 5:38 PM



Normally I would jump in, but, I've decided to be calm for once. I am practicing these breathing techniques to improve my health. Hey, I work in a hospital, that's what us stressed types do in this environment. It's always some new scheme to handle the environment....

Spent the past week reading Penelope Fitzgerald's 'At Freddies' (yeah for the theater crowd and isn't Freddie both an interesting character and lit-fictiony at the same time? Different era, though. No word clouds!) and Elizabeth Taylor's 'Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont'. Brutal book, the last one, can't understand the Amazon comments, as if this book is a cozy slice of toast just because the characters are a bit Middle Englandish. You have to get to the end, the very last sentence, to feel the brutality, but, oh, it's there and don't mistake the surface for the core!

Posted by: MD on September 23, 2008 5:41 PM



So Michael, since readers appear to be getting what they want in terms of storytelling, even though the people selling it to them may be doing so grudgingly, what is your wish, then? That the lit-fic people in publishing have a change of heart? Why? They're not rationing plain old storytelling in favor of lit-fic. And is wishing that the masses would suddenly like lit-fic any different? I mean, it's really THEM who are holding back the potential blockbuster sales of lit-fic. Those sinister masses.

Seriously.

Posted by: JV on September 23, 2008 5:50 PM



MD -- Time for you to share some of these stress-reducing breathing exercises. As well as a recommendation: Which Elizabeth Taylor novel might a newbie start with?

JV -- So you're arguing that it's a fine state of affairs when the people who set opinion and steer an industry are contemptuous of their customers?

Look, the situation in books is very similar to the one in architecture. The official architecture crowd is concerned with theory, and with ultra-refined (if attention-grabbing) baloney, while the popular audience is making do with crap imitations of traditional housing.

Once upon a time -- 'way back before the official architecture set decided that it had better things to do than to serve the public -- an architect's job was to, you know, make decent suggestions about how to site the benches in a garden, or where to put a window, or how to orient a porch. It was to work with popular taste and historical practice, and to custom-tailor solutions and pass along the inheritance.

They weren't (a very few exceptions aside) thinkers, theorists, visionaries, self-expressors. They were in a service business, if one concerned with aesthetics and pleasure, and they worked with (and not against) accepted practices and preferences.

The result: many great houses, buildings, spaces, towns, etc. As well as many that weren't great but were comprehensible, perfectly decent, etc.

These days, though, the official architecture class has set itself up in opposition to popular taste and historical precedent. They're doing more important things; meanwhile common people can go fuck themselves.

The result is a stupid divide: between frou-frou idiocy from the architecture world and clueless mock-traditionalism for nearly everyone else (partly because the civilians aren't getting decent service or guidance from the official class).

That divide doesn't have to be there. The fact that it exists at all is almost entirely the creation of the architecture class. Oh, sorry about the itals.

Same thing holds in writing and book-publishing. The architecture schools teach design of a kind almost no one has ever liked; the writing schools teach fiction-writing (and the English classes teach fiction-values) of a kind that only a teeny percentage of people have ever much liked or held.

Stupid result: a general picture divided between high-end, overrefined lit-fict and hack-commercial-corporate "bestsellers."

In architecture, much of the best new work is simply ignored, or consigned to "building" or "lifestyle" magazines. Modest new houses with thoughtfully laid-out plans ... Developments where some care is paid to the street ...

In book-fiction, much of the best new work is also totally ignored, because it doesn't slot into the "litfict or corporate trash" model. I pointed out a while back, for instance, the way that Joseph Wambaugh's recent new novel was barely acknowledged in the NYT Book Review Section. Bookgasm, Vince Keenan, Ed Gorman and others point out the quality stuff. But that's not because the official book class has encouraged them to. This kind of open exchange of helpful information had to wait for the web before it could start to occur.

What if ... Architects saw themselves as craftspeople who accept and work with popular preferences and then try to offer a classier version of such? (Hey, then you'd have the New Urbanism.)

Similarly, what if ... The English-Lit/lit-fict crowd saw popular narrative fiction as a great and marvelous thing, well worth learning about, as well as creating and marketing with care?

The result might be fewer absurd claims made for lit fict at the expense of all other kinds of book-creation, less suffering and fewer agonies, and a lot more informed and respectful care poured into the kind of fiction that 98% of the world has always preferred.

Seems like we might all be a little better off. Win-win.

But again: Why would you argue that it's a fine state of affairs when the people who set opinion and steer an industry are contemptuous of their customers? What are the advantages of such a situation?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2008 6:24 PM



Oh, and as a kid, a teen really, I adored Victoria Holt (Eleanor Hibbert). Now, there's a darn interesting story. So many pseudonyms, so many books, so many little adventures. I sort of loved the 'low brow' gothicness of it (I'm sorry gothic, with the exception of the vampire stuff, is so out fashion). I liked the stories, the heroines, the castles, the crossing the raging seas to outposts of the British Empire, the Victorianess of the main characters, all of it! Hey, I was a teenager, that's what I liked. It was very girly, with a dash of adventure.

*I also read Gone with the Wind as a teen. I loved it.

Posted by: MD on September 23, 2008 6:32 PM



Michael 2B, I must admit that I find your particular choice of novelists in this exercise highly annoying, because they seem to be stacking the deck. Rushdie is hardly a novelist at all; he's the kind of writer who would have been a poet if he'd been born a hundred years earlier, more interested in words, rhythms, and ideas than in the creation of character and sustained narrative. On the other hand, Jackie Collins is the vulgarest of the vulgar popular writers. But if you insist on comparing those two writers, then yes, I suppose Collins is a greater novelist.

But how about if you compared someone like, say, the late Carol Shields, a respected writer of "literary" fiction who was a true novelist (unlike Rushdie), to Dickens? Your point still stands - and, I think, comes out more clearly - because they are more similar in their aims, and yet Dickens is clearly superior as a creator of characters that live on in the memory.

Dickens's ability to sketch larger than life characters in just a few words - I think with special affection of the Aged Parent in Great Expectations - has always been rare. This skill seems to be in danger of disappearing altogether, in fact, because writers today, even the best of the popular ones, don't appear to be that interested in the creation of memorable personalities.

Posted by: alias clio on September 23, 2008 7:15 PM



Clio:

That's a good point there. Since poetry as an art form is more or less dead currently, I turn to lit-novels to get my lyric word fix.

MB:

If you really want to get serious, you can see how the current poetry scene is a vast wasteland of crap. Even slam poets do better than the endless chapbooks and self-congratulatory circle-jerk "prizes" of published poetry today. At least slam poetry is comprehensible in its horribleness.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 23, 2008 8:23 PM



Michael:

Let's entertain a hypothetical. I am a cook with only enough capital to own a hot dog stand adjoining a tool and die manufacturer. I trained at an excellent cooking school and dream of one day opening a classy haute cuisine restaurant where my chef's special will be my Chateaubriand.

Meanwhile, I cook and sell lots of hot dogs. I see to it that they are fresh and tasty and so are the condiments. My customers never complain. Still, it grieves me to have to stoop so low as to be reduced to selling hot dogs to a bunch of brutes. However, I keep my opinions to myself.

Who am I harming?

Depending on whose figures one believe's, somewhere between 100-200 thousand books get published yearly.

Even before the recent, rapid extinction of newspaper book review sections and other critical organs, only about 2,000 books received any notice at all. I contend that, even if the lit-critters in publishing disappeared completely, there would be little if any increase in reviews or attention paid to good commercial fiction. We're rapidly moving to a media environment where movie and book reviews will cease to exist, except as the product of fans publishing online as a labor of love or in small circulation magazines like Filmfax.

The snobbery and influnce of the lit-critters on reader's choices is nearly irrelevant already. It will soon mean nothing.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 23, 2008 8:48 PM



The main thing I don't get is the way one crowd feels the need to praise what they love by putting down what another crowd loves and values.

Pour epater les bourgeois, I suspect. So much of this is just a typical subculture reinforcing its identity as against. Against what? The "mainstream". What is unusual about the lit-fic subculture is its attempt to arrogate to itself pride of place among subcultures. It imagines itself to be the arbiter of literary culture, not simply its own little corner, but the whole deal.

Now...the position of general arbiter of culture is dead, dead, dead. It just doesn't exist anymore--I'd say the throne is empty, but really the throne is gone, smashed or maybe stored in a musty basement somewhere and forgotten. In the lit world of the last century, the ancestors of today's lit-fic crowd (academics, critics, journal types, bohos, editors at a few publishing houses) had a brief heyday (when?) of a few decades on either side of WWII, when maybe they were in some sense running things.

No more. The edge, the put-downs, the snark about the mainstream is just the same old badge of honour, the shibboleth for the wordy cool ones to keep all the squares out (they themselves often being singularly square individuals, but that's secondary) are of an insecure subculture seeking to privilege itself, failing miserably, and unable to stop, because to do so would no doubt lead to its absorption into the dreaded mainstream as just another little current, running along with all the rest, contributing its own little bit to the big show, but that is all.

They need to put down mainstream culture because they know they don't matter any more. The General Reader is gone, Middlebrow culture is gone, the middle of the publishing list is gone. It was there that the arbiters connected to the mainstream. That middle is gone, hollowed out the way the middle class is supposed to be in the US, and with that hollowing, there's an unbridgeable chasm separating lit-fic from the mainstream culture it pretends to despise, but secretly fears, envies, and desperately wants to rule.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 23, 2008 9:29 PM



MD -- Fun! Some years back I decided I should try some of the popular gal YA writers. Read Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Flowers in the Attic ... And, you know, they were darned good. Loads more fictional "life" in them than in the usual praised grownup thing, it seemed to me.

A. Clio -- "*Seem* to be stacking the deck?" Mais bien sur! And why wouldn't I?

Spike - That seems like a sensible reason to turn to contempo lit-fict. Though isn't the length-thing a challenge? Hundreds and hundreds of pages of (supposedly) inspired writin'-writin' ... Poets don't generally lay it on that copiously, after all.

Peter -- On the other hand, now that we have the web, outfits and individuals like Bookgasm, Ed Gorman, me and others have the chance to spread the word about quality narrative fiction. That's a nice change. Here's hoping a few people keep reading book-fiction, of course. I'm not sure I can go along with your hot-dog image though. In my experience, many people in NYC publishing have zero respect for popular fiction and know nothing about narrative. So wouldn't that be (in terms of your hyptothetical) more like a guy with a fancy cooking degree with dreams of haute cuisine who feels degraded to be working in a hot dog shack, is contemptuous of his materials, has no sympathy for his customers, and who therefore does shitty work there?

PatrickH -- Sing it!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 23, 2008 10:10 PM



Would it be fair to say that some of Jackie Collins' characters have more "life" in them than any of Salman Rushdie's do? Seems a perfectly reasonable claim to me. After all, Collins' people get up and walk around under their own steam from page one, where Rushdie's characters emerge vaguely over the course of hundreds of pages from huge (and to my mind exhausting) blasts of writin'-writin'.

Rushdie has his excesses, but why look at him at his worst. The answer to all this is to read the tale of Mahound, a perfect, economical novella, with each of the chapters unfortunately interspersed among the rest of the great baggy monster that is The Satanic Verses. Mahound and the fictional poet/scamp Baal will live forever, while I wonder if anyone can even name a Jackie Collins character.

My earlier thoughts are here
http://manwhoisthursday.blogspot.com/2007/04/salman-rushdie.html

Posted by: Thursday on September 23, 2008 11:16 PM



Michael and all wo are involved in this argument: You need to read "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste" by Pierre Bourdieu.

We acquire our esthetic outlook from our class, so our "taste" is really just an indicator of where we stand in society.

However...

Michael, while you preach the quality of genre fiction and complain about "lit-fict," surely you wouldn't say that Danielle Steele is as good a writer as Edith Whaton?

I have to think you're being disingenuous when you insist that middlebrow popular fiction is underrated!

When my oldest son was a young teenager, he loved Stephen King. When he read me a passage aloud, I learned that King's writing is flat-out terrible. He knows how to tell a story, but his prose is like advertising copy, only lazier.

Maybe you've read some novels that you found impenetrable and you decided that literary fiction was a croc of shit?

I like to think that deep down, we all know that Jackie Collins is garbage and Donald Westlake, while entertaining, isn't Balzac.

Great fiction leaves you feeling transformed. It illuminates some aspect of the human condition.

Why insist that you don't think great writing is better than competent writing?

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 23, 2008 11:17 PM



Sister Wolf:

Stephan King isn't all that horrible. He's actually a better short story writer than novelist. Try reading his story "My Pretty Pony" sometime. Granted I think he's past his peak and basically phoning it in now, but in the late 70s-80s he was in his prime. It best to think of him as a sublimely immanent writer, a chronicler of a certain time and place, who isn't really trying to hit the transcendent spot in fiction.

MB:

The answer is small doses and knowing who to pick. It took me ages to get through Durell's "Alexandria" despite its short length. I know when to stop when I get oversaturated. It's not a bad thing. There's different ways to read as well as to write.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on September 24, 2008 9:21 AM



In trying to nominate some memorable characters I found myself lapsing into lit-crit.

So I'll just say this. Odysseus, the polytropos, the polymechanos - the Odysseus of Homer and of no-one else - is still, for me, the supreme fictional character. He contains everything and represents nothing. Individuality on roller-skates.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 24, 2008 9:51 AM



Sistah -- Great minds do indeed think alike!

Spike -- "There's different ways to read as well as to write." That's one of our mottos here at 2Blowhards. Why do you suppose it's such a hard thought for so many people (including the NYC literary set) to digest?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 24, 2008 12:59 PM



In my experience, many people in NYC publishing have zero respect for popular fiction and know nothing about narrative. So wouldn't that be (in terms of your hyptothetical) more like a guy with a fancy cooking degree with dreams of haute cuisine who feels degraded to be working in a hot dog shack, is contemptuous of his materials, has no sympathy for his customers, and who therefore does shitty work there?

If that really is the case with the publishers, then how do you explain the existence of any good new commercial or genre fiction - merely happy accidents?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on September 24, 2008 9:14 PM



I don't know that science fiction is quite so despised by the "literary" crowd any more. I just saw a collection of H. P. Lovecraft stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates; and it was over 20 years ago that Doris Lessing was Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention.

Mind you, there is some overlap: the Library of America recently added Philip K. Dick - a genre SF writer, but one whose work was definitely not "popular". (Bladerunner was adapted from one of his books, and is far more conventional than the source.)

Posted by: RIch Rostrom on September 25, 2008 4:25 AM



Just a brief response to my beloved Sister W:

Wharton and Balzac were mainstream writers in their day, weren't they? They both write clear narratives, they are both eminently accessible writers, and, I would argue, they have more in common with King and Steele in their desire to communicate with readers than they do with say, DeLillo (whom I love, BTW) or Pynchon or neurasthenics like the formerly of-the-moment Ann Beattie.

King could write occasionally with some style. I still remember from Salem's Lot:

Vinnie rolled another cigarette with sweet, arthritic slowness.

That's not bad, really. If it wouldn't pass muster in a MFA writing program, that's the program's problem, not King's.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 25, 2008 12:51 PM



"Vinnie rolled another cigarette with sweet, arthritic slowness."

What the hell is that supposed to mean? It does sound like Stephen King though. My favorite line of his (read aloud by my teenager)"Greasy waves of fear [filled his mind]."

Why were they greasy?? From Stephen King, my son and I learned the beauty of the mixed metaphor, as in "the talons of pain pierced his flesh like an angry lawnmower" bla bla bla. In fact, we wrote a prize-winning poem entirely based on Kingian mixed metaphors, with a nice certificate from the World of Poetry Contest to prove our artistry.

Don DeLillo also desires to communicate, in my opinion. His writing is stylized, yes, but so is the writing of that awful Cormac McCarthy.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 27, 2008 4:27 PM



Now, Sister, you must try harder to be a nice person. Sweet slowness is good, despite your dismissive snorts.

Love to you,
Patrick

Posted by: PatrickH on September 29, 2008 6:35 PM



"Now, what if we value "the creation of lively and persuasive characters" more highly than we do "the creation of complex and glittering word-clouds"?"

While I think it's definitely true that we do value characterization more than line level prose, the two need not be diametrically opposed. Anything by Terry Pratchett has both. I'm sure that there are other authors out there that do both.

Posted by: Bob Roman on October 3, 2008 12:39 PM






Post a comment
Name:


Email Address:


URL:


Comments:



Remember your info?