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April 12, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 5: Literary Fiction and Literature

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Here's my widely-anticipated (small joke) new installment in a continuing series of postings in which I spout off about the New York Times Book Review Section's ka-razy over-emphasis on literary fiction. Previous installments here, here, here, here. Today's theme: "Literary fiction and literature."

Let's examine this idea of "literary fiction" for a few minutes. I'm not concerning myself with any official definition, by the way. I'm interested in what's commonly understood by the term.

As far as I can tell, the thing that most people understand by "literary fiction" has two main components. One is that the book in question is more concerned with the details and fine points of writing itself than non-literary writing is. The other is that whatever it is that the future will decide was the lasting literature of our era, it will be drawn from the "literary fiction" candidate-list.

If you disagree with me about either of these points, please join in the commentsfest. Almost all pictures need complexifying. Still, I've met many people for whom the above pretty much summarizes what they understand by "literary fiction." So why not examine how these two assumptions hold up in actual fact?

  • A self-conscious concern with writin'. There's no doubt that the lit-fict class makes a bigger show of fussin' with the writin' than the non lit-fict crowd does. 99% of the time, the prose surface of literary fiction is more heavily-worked and more aggressively manipulated than the prose-surface of non-literary fiction. Hooo-eee, how these people love to critique each other's sentences.

    But what a narrow idea of writing critiquing sentences is, no? After all, how big a part of fiction-creation does the specific act of fussing with words make up? (Incidentally, there are in fact some writers whose fiction arises from the energy they expend on fussing with words. I know that. But they aren't numerous.)

    Back here I made a quick list -- informal but maybe serviceable -- of some of the activities that are often involved in creating prose fiction. Writin' is just one item on it. Two of the others: the construction of a story, and the creation of characters. Dismiss me as a traditionalist, but I'd be happy to argue that these two activities are, always have been, and always will be more central to the creation of fiction than verbal fussbudgetry is.

    To heighten the contrast, let's look at "The Maltese Falcon" and Salman Rushdie. The writin' in "The Maltese Falcon" is of course a wonder to behold. But writin' per se is about 10% of what the book puts on display. How about that cast of characters, eh? Brigid O'Shaughnessy ... Joel Cairo ... Caspar Gutman (the fat man) ... And of course Sam Spade himself -- living, breathing people every one of them, or perhaps even better than that. And how about those moments of suspense, humor, surprise, and excitement? Pretty hard to shake, no? These things don't just happen any more than writin' just happens. They take -- at a minimum -- invention, engineering, and empathy.

    As for the fiction of Salman Rushdie, well, I've read two of his books and I remember neither one of them well. Both seemed to me to fail as fiction in the most basic ways: I can't remember a character or a scene from either novel; I also can't recall the story of either one. In my memory, they're an insubstantial, exotically-colored vapor of authorial strategies and pyrotechnical word-flurries. This, it seems to me now and seemed to me as I read, is a writer putting his own ego far, far ahead of the needs of his material, not to mention the interests of the common reader. Hey, perhaps we could agree that Salman Rushdie is the Thom Mayne of fiction-writers.

    The contrast I mean to draw is between a novel whose story and characters are of primary interest and a book where the writer's own grandstanding is the main show. By the way, it's a terrible slight to the giants of contempo popular fiction -- Elmore Leonard, Elizabeth George, Donald Westlake, Richard S. Wheeler, P.D. James, many others -- to see them as second-rate writin'-writers. They're superb and distinctive writin'-writers. So was Hammett too, of course. The big diff between them and Rushdie is that they 1) offer living-breathing characters in charged and worth-paying-attention-to situations, and that 2) they make the writin' serve the story, the setting, and the characters.

    I'd argue in fact that even the much-sneered-at queen of trash Jackie Collins is a remarkable creator of fiction. (Hey, I've already made that argument.) In the couple of books of hers that I've read, I was delighted by how spunky and lively the characters were, how more-than-serviceable the plots were, how tangy some of the situations were, and how shrewd and likable Collins' narrative voice was.

    Why does the lit-fict set foreground the writin' part of book-fiction so strongly? My hunch is that profs and critics simply don't know how plots are constructed or how characters are come up with, let alone how life is breathed into either of these things. Lacking common sense and practical experience, the academic-critical set takes fiction to be a matter of what they're comfortable with and enjoy themselves: wordplay, symbolism, intellectual games, and chic themes. BTW, I've known fiction writers who joke about putting that kind of crap in their books just to keep the critics and the profs busy. Didn't James Joyce make a few cracks about doing this too?

  • Whatever is finally settled-on as the Real Literature of our era will be drawn from the "literary fiction" category. The main reason to say "bullshit" to this assumption is simple: Who can predict the future? I certainly can't, you probably can't. Is there any reason to believe that the professorial-critical-publishing-world crowd can? Hint: They're just a bunch of former English majors. Bright people, most of them, but no more "expert" than any of us. This is art and entertainment, after all, and not science or medicine.

    Let me have a little fun. Let me present a few scenarios. What literature from our era will people in 2300 consider to be lasting?

    * Scenario #1: Nothing. In 2300, no one will be reading book-length on-the-page fiction of any kind. It's just too damn long. Besides, people's creativity-time will be entirely consumed with clicking and linking, and with creating and posting multimedia extravaganzas of their own. In one cubicle somewhere, a professor leafing through electronic archives from our era will learn about a fixation some of our intellectuals had on something called "the literary novel." He will marvel at what a weird bunch we were, and then move on.

    * Scenario #2: Our era will in fact be remembered for its writerly riches. But they will be writerly riches that have nothing to do with literary fiction. People in 2300 sensibly see our era as one excelling in business reporting, software guides, and gadget blogs. The critics and profs of 2300 decide unanimously that the Shakespeare of 2007 was the technology columnist David Pogue. (He's awfully good, you know.)

    * Scenario #3: Some fiction from our era is indeed remembered in 2300 -- only it isn't any of our book-fiction, let alone our literary fiction. People no longer read in 2300, but they still watch. So the fiction from our era that's still in circulation is "Friends" "Star Trek," "E.R.," and "The Sopranos," all of which are still in heavy syndication.

    It's easy predicting the future! Whee!

    Between you and me, I think that the three comic turns I offer above are as plausible as the idea that the future will eventually acclaim Amis or Rushdie or Morrison as the Eternal Great of our era. I think my comic turns are in fact far more likely. Here's why: It's because enjoying literary fiction requires special reading skills. Most people don't take to the kind of thing that Morrison does in "Beloved" all on their own, after all. And, realistically speaking, will people inhabiting a future a-swim in infinite media opportunities -- one where literacy will be more a matter of Quark and Dreamweaver than of Dickens and Twain, let alone Garcia Marquez -- cultivate the kinds of esoteric book-reading skills that it requires to dig Woolf, Joyce, and Toni Morrison?

    These aren't outlandish thoughts, except by the standards of the prissiest of the prissy. One indicator: The current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, the excellent poet and critic Dana Gioia, confesses that he felt let down by "Ulysses" when he read it for a second time. "I adore early Joyce," he said to Newsweek. "But this book still feels ponderously overwritten -- the literary equivalent of a fashion show in super slo-mo." In other words, where a few decades ago every literate person had to genuflect before the greatness of "Ulysses," it's now semi-officially OK to feel let down by the novel. (I riffed a bit about what's likely to become of the reputation of "Ulysses" here.)

    There's a second good reason to say "bullshit" to the idea that the future's canon will be drawn from our stock of lit-fict titles too. It's that that simply isn't how literature has ever taken form. Or not often, anyway.

    I always giggle when I overhear the heavy-spirited quarreling that can go on about contempo lit-fict. Is Amis better than Rushdie? Can Amy Hempel be spoken of in the same breath as Alice Munro? These debates go on as if they're settling something and getting somewhere -- as if, that is, they really are the essential first draft of the Eternal Textbook that History will finally publish. Gatekeepers (and gatekeeper-wannabes), eh?

    The people engaging in these conversations are buying into -- and probably peddling -- the fantasy that long-term reputations are arrived-at roughly this way: First, each year's National Book Award finalists get added to a huge list of other NBA finalists. Every ten years, that list is reviewed by experts and is further winnowed down. Then every century, a group of meta-experts gathers to review those lists ... And on and on. Gold is thereby separated from dross.

    The underlying delusion is that by some such process our priestly literary caste is able -- conscientiously and consciously -- to responsibly settle on something called literature, and that it all begins with the act of separating "literary fiction" off from all that other book-fiction.

    Is this in fact anything like the way the process works?

    A few points. We tend to overemphasize fiction, and especially novels. Much of literary history is poetry, some of it is sermons, some plays, some diaries. Think Basho, think "Walden," think the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, think the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Shakespeare, heavy literary hitter numero uno, was no "literary fiction" author either. He was a showman, actor, and impresario with a sideline in poetry.

    Even confining ourselves to on-the-page book-fiction, how does the account stack up? I'd say not too well. Back at the origin of the English novel, Daniel Defoe was anything but a well-schooled taste-maker. Instead, he was a hack who went from one paying gig to another, often doing his best to erase distinctions between fiction and reality. In some ways he was like a National Enquirer reporter, in others the equivalent of the famous hoaxster Clifford Irving. What Defoe wrote wasn't immediately identified as "literary fiction," in other words. His literary importance was discovered and conceded only in retrospect.

    Was "Don Quixote" confidently seen at the time of its publication as transcending the romance-of-chivalry category? Was Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma" instantly understood to be something more than just another romantic-adventure potboiler? In other words, did critics, profs, and editors look at "Don Quixote" and "The Charterhouse of Parma" and declare them "literary fiction" right at the outset? Nope and nope.

    The simple fact is that many, many elements play roles in determining what proves to have long-term life and influence. Popularity, whim, and luck are all at least as important in the formation of "literature" as are the serious-browed critiques and debates of serious-browed intellectuals. I don't know about you, but I'm not bugged by this. This unpredictability, even capriciousness, is one the things that I like about art.

    Here's a recent example: the reputation of the crime writer Jim Thompson. As of 1980, Thompson was a forgotten footnote in noir fiction history. I'm looking at a 1978 edition of "The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection," for example, and Jim Thompson is to be found nowhere in the book.

    During the '80s, though, Thompson's novels were taken up by some west coast hipsters, most notably the novelist and publisher Barry Gifford, who brought -- via his own small press -- some Thompson novels back into print. Once in circulation again, Thompson's novels were seized on by some hip filmmakers and journalists. The French, who often have better taste in American popular culture than we do, played a role at some point in all this.

    Fast forward to 2007, and a Jim Thompson novel is now comfortably ensconced on a marble pedestal in the Library of America. In 1980 Thompson's novels were nuttin'; in 2007, they're immortal classics. Funny, no?

    We could see this as an example of the system working as it should, I suppose. But I'm more tempted to say "Thank god for Barry Gifford"; to have a laugh at the opinionators and gatekeepers who missed Jim Thompson the first time around; and to indulge in a shudder. How many Jim Thompsons are out there who haven't had the luck to find their own Barry Gifford? Critics and intellectuals are generally best occupied in sorting out the past, it seems to me, not in dictating the present, let alone in determining the future. Jim Thompson wasn't initially recognized as a legitimate part of literature. He made it into the club thanks only to a series of accidents, and to some scrappy enthusiasts.

    There are many ways for books to achieve importance, many reasons why they can last, and many means by which all this might happen. Off the cuff, here's a list of some popular and / or trash writers who are doing well in the long-run sweepstakes: Jules Verne, Margaret Millar, R. Crumb, Dorothy Sayers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Patricia Highsmith, G.K. Chesteron, Margaret Mitchell, Mickey Spillane, Daphne du Maurier, P.G. Wodehouse, Georges Simenon, Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, Jackie Susann. Their work is living on -- yet none of these were initially considered by the gatekeepers to be creators of "literary fiction."

Which prompts the question: Where did our zany notions about "literary fiction" come from? How did we succumb to the idea that writin' is the most important part of fiction-creating? And when did we fall for the kooky idea that our profs and our critics are capable of predicting future lit-value worth?

Answer: In the '60s and the '70s. Really, truly. Prior to circa 1970, there was no such thing as a category of "literary fiction." This may sound bizarre, and it may take some adjusting to. But wrap your head around it, because it's true.

You don't believe me? Try Wikipedia, according to which literary fiction is ...

... a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish 'serious' fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction.

Even better, try this excellent article by the British journalist / man-of-letters Robert McCrum:

The lifespan of the Booker Prize, roughly 1970-2001, marks the generation [during] which literary fiction has flourished throughout European culture ...

Literary fiction has been supported by an awesome establishment of writers, editors, critics, agents, publishers and booksellers, all of whom have, in different ways, been unwilling to question the dominant orthodoxy.

Nowhere has literary fiction been more fiercely entrenched than the United States. Here, the establishment I've described has been reinforced by a network of creative-writing communities, from Iowa to Yaddo, each devoted to turning out publishable examples of literary fiction.

I wish I were able to dig further into this. What's the complete story of the invention of "literary fiction"? Confining myself to Google and my own library, I don't turn up much. I was around in the '60s and '70s, though, and was an interested and eager reader of contempo lit during the time. And I remember quite clearly the whole "literary fiction" thing taking shape. I also remember being amazed by the audacity of this development. Who on earth would claim -- just like that -- that their novel was "literary" while some other novel wasn't? Wasn't that for history (and readers) to decide?

FWIW, here's how I fill in the blanks for myself: Literary fiction was the creation of an era marked by the post-WWII art-appreciation racket (big money to universities and professors); by the creative-writing racket; and by '60s over-reaching generally. If we could end poverty and put an end to prejudice, if we could decide what art was worth supporting with public money, then why shouldn't we decide which of our new fiction-books would qualify in advance as "literary"?

For my own purposes, I explain the development of literary fiction as a four-step process.

1) The Henry James / Edith Wharton effect. James and Wharton both wanted to take the novel -- which at the time was viewed as a trashy and shapeless form -- and turn it into something more respectable, something more like "art."

2) The impact of movies. Movies hit the culture hard, and the novel-writing world especially hard. With the advent of movies, the popular taste for storytelling was being serviced by a, let's face it, far easier and more convenient medium. Some novel-writers responded to this new state of affairs by relinquishing story to the movies and trying to come up with something else to peddle in its place. So they came up with ... "writin'."

3) The post-WWII education-explosion. Thanks to the GI Bill and the dramatic expansion of public universities, courses in art-appreciation and creative-writing became popular. Many people lost their wits. They lost track of enjoyment and of their own direct responses and tuned into art-appreciation instead.

4) Databases in bookstores. As bookstores came to rely more on in-house databases and on interlinked databases, they started slicing and dicing their inventories in ways they never had before. Prior to computers, a bookstore probably divvied its fiction up into at most two or three categories. With databases came the need to put everything into a category. As a result: sci-fi, romance, erotica ... And "literary fiction" too.

To illustrate how absurd the lit-fict thing has become, let me suggest a game. Let's pretend we replaced the "literary fiction" sign in bookstores with a sign reading "fiction of significance," and that we replaced all the genre-fiction signs with a sign reading "fiction of no significance." My guess is that, if this were done, many people would look at these new signs and rebel. Who's making such decisions? And why should we take their word for it? And who could know in advance anyway? Yet isn't that essentially what the creation of "literary fiction" has entailed -- calling one kind of fiction significant and every other kind trash?

In a Michael Blowhard-approved reading-and-writing universe, people would read as they see fit; they'd be honest about what they enjoy and what they don't enjoy; they'd have a good time comparing notes, reactions, and thoughts; they'd be open to learning and making discoveries; and they'd let whatever emerges from all this chaotic behavior emerge. History, after all, will take care of itself. (And will then probably change its mind.) I suppose it's interesting that so many people in the literary world crave a feeling of control over the whole process. Where does this craving come from? But maybe that's a topic best explored in another posting.

Incidentally, I do understand that for many people, "literary fiction" means "book-fiction for people like us -- college educated, with an academically-trained taste for authorial games, certain widely-acepted chic themes, and fancy prose." I also understand that the NYTBR section is a publication that caters to, and needs to cater to, a certain college-educated audience. And I do get that arguing over what's gonna last and what's not gonna last can be a harmless game. My point here is: Let's not take any of this too seriously.

In this excellent piece, the Western novelist Richard S. Wheeler recalls the days before "literary fiction." I wrote here about how I deal with many people's determination to quarrel over Greatness. In this posting, I link to many of the big postings that I've written about writing, publishing, and the writing life.

Incidentally, I have nothing against lit-fict. I wish it well and have enjoyed some of it myself. Back here I supplied an annotated list of my own lit-fict faves. But you won't catch me claiming that they're "the best," let alone arguing over which of them is going to last.



posted by Michael at April 12, 2007


Hmmph. While you make some good points and I respect your opinion on this, somehow I'm disappointed in it.

Posted by: susan on April 12, 2007 7:01 PM

Susan -- I'm tickled you visited and read! Please let me know if/when you figure out what you found disappointing. Eager to hear about it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 12, 2007 7:26 PM

Dude, I am so glad to read you slamming Salman Rushdie. That guy is the most overrated writer to walk the earth in the last fifty years. Midnight's Children -- what a waste of paper!

Posted by: James on April 12, 2007 8:07 PM

A few things I wanted to add, Michael, having followed your link to your discussion of Ulysses.

I think that your view of literature may be too focused on books as discrete culture objects to be evaluated in isolation. I had much the same experience of Ulysses as you -- I read the whole thing, and haven't been tempted to read it again. I think that, taken by itself, it's very overrated, a fetish object as you say. It's a piece of work where the intrinsic interest of a story or characters is replaced with an "ooh! aah!" reaction of readers to the pyrotechnics fired off by the author.

But viewed not in isolation, but as the nexus of a lot of literary works, I think Ulysses is more interesting. Joyce was a mentor and inspiration for Beckett, and I think Beckett is more interesting than Joyce. More recently, the still-living novelist David Markson has claimed an ongoing obsession with Joyce -- and Joyce's influence is very noticeable in Markson's works. I'm tempted to say that Joyce is more interesting and appealing as an influence on Markson, than Joyce's own works are.

I guess what I am getting at, is that certain works (like Ulysses) can be viewed as foundational books that are of interest, primarily, to other writers. Joyce is a writer's writer. Expecting these books to be of interest to someone seeking hearty entertainment, is kind of like expecting the average consumer of a cell phone or videogame console to be fascinated by the scientific and technical papers that set forth the fundamental work that made cell phones and videogames possible. You wouldn't criticize a technical paper by saying, "Hey, can you believe it, reading this paper isn't nearly as fun as playing a videogame on the Playstation!"

Classic literary fiction, like Ulysses, is for specialists, and its function is not solely, or even primarily, to entertain. It's misleading to hold it to the same standards that you hold "entertaining" fiction.

Posted by: James on April 12, 2007 8:24 PM

"The critics and profs of 2300 decide unanimously that the Shakespeare of 2007 was the technology columnist David Pogue."

The best popularizer-explainer of computers was the late Peter McWilliams.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 12, 2007 9:26 PM

Michael, I read every posting posted here. As soon as the rift in my heart mends and I can collect my thoughts, I shall respond; likely by morning.

Posted by: susan on April 12, 2007 10:02 PM

Every culture has periods when it loses its way. I wouldn't make too much of it.

Posted by: SFG on April 12, 2007 10:36 PM

Literature delivers the awful, portentous, stemwinding truth.
Pop culture won't or can't.
Formula bound, the popster, forsooth,
Can't get up the steam to deliver a really good rant.

Posted by: ricpic on April 12, 2007 10:57 PM

Since I'm temperamentally opposed to binaries, my first comment would be that there are more alternatives than these two. To me the real juice is in places like, which I suppose is a kind of "reality writing." So much of modern workshop writing is all about style or attitude or context. And so much of genre writing is about plot that is summoned up out of old TV shows. The stuff that has moxie, legs, grabs you by the ears and makes you wonder and want more, comes out of someone who had lived or watched others live so intensely that they take the care to write it well. I'm reading "The Raj Quartet," for instance. It doesn't fit either one of your categories. Some of the best writing is coming out of Iraq or the -istans, where life is still passionate and real.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 12, 2007 11:56 PM


The modern distinction between literary fiction and trash seems to echo the distinction between court culture and bourgeois culture in Early Modern Europe. From The Norton Anthology of English Literature essay on the Sixteenth Century:

During Elizabeth's reign partronage was a social institution of the first importance, a major force in transforming the great nobles and gentry from independently powerful local magnates into courtiers dependent on the monarch. The queen's chief ministers and favorites (Cecil, Leicester, and Essex) were the primary channels through which patronage was dispensed to courtiers who wanted offices in the court, the government bureaucracies, the royal household, the army, the church, or the universities or who sought titles, grants of land, leases or similar favors...Literary patronage was part of the interlocking patronage system whereby grants, offices and honors were exchanged for service and praise. We must recognize that the career of a professional man or woman of letters did not exist: literature was regarded as an adjunct activity, not a primary occupation, and there were comparatively few readers, purchasers, and publishers of books. Elizabethan writers of higher rank, like Sidney, thought of themselves as courtiers, statesmen, and landowners; they considered poetry a social grace and a courtly pastime. Writers of lower rank, such as Samuel Daniel and Michael Drayton, sought careers as civil servants, secretaries, tutors and divines...[Meanwhile, the] printing presses were in London, and the mass of the middle-class population that set the style for literature written for ordinary people was also in London. And although Nashe scornfully rejected the claim of the bourgeoisie to have any literary taste at all or any ability to produce literarture, that class had its own writers, for example, Thomas Deloney, and it knew what it liked--books of instruction, romances, religious tracts, conduct books, and sensational ballads.

The relationship between the contemporary literary establishment (including the NYTBR) and the modern governing class seems rather similar to the one that existed in Elizabeth's time between courtier-writers and the increasingly powerful state. That business about seeking "offices in the court, the government bureaucracies, the royal household, the army, the church, or the universities or who sought titles, grants of land, leases or similar favors" certainly sounds rather familiar, once its translated into foundation grants and university posts, no?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 13, 2007 1:19 AM

Was "Don Quixote" confidently seen at the time of its publication as transcending the romance-of-chivalry category? Was Stendhal's "The Charterhouse of Parma" instantly understood to be something more than just another romantic-adventure potboiler? In other words, did critics, profs, and editors look at "Don Quixote" and "The Charterhouse of Parma" and declare them "literary fiction" right at the outset? Nope and nope.

Actually Don Quixote was immediately recognized by Ben Jonson, poet, dramatist, and the major English critic of the era. And while he never lived to read the Charterhouse, it was the great critic William Hazlitt who mentored Stendhal. And lets not discount the opinions of contemporary artists. Somehow, despite Milton's contemporary sales being almost zero, Andrew Marvell and John Dryden found there way right to his work. And with Wallace Stevens, never a bestseller, somehow out of all the other stuff out there Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, and Northrop Frye picked right up on Harmonium almost as soon as it came out.

Especially with Hazlitt, we have a good example of how if you're a perceptive enough critic you can know what will last. If you read at all widely in Hazlitt you're astonished at his uncanny ability to pick winners, both among past writers and his own contemporaries. Obviously there aren't going to be many such critics, but why such resistance to the idea that there might actually be someone out there who can pick out who will and who won't last? I'd say that, after Hazlitt, and for all his faults, the second most accurate judge of literature is our contemporary Harold Bloom. Dammit, I hate to admit it, but the bastard is almost always right. And in recent fiction, that means Roth and McCarthy. Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theatre, and Blood Meridian are it.

As for Rushdie, I'm not his biggest fan and I've only gotten through parts of both Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses. Nonetheless, in Midnight's Children, I remember both the beginning where the main character is "handcuffed to History" and the hilarious description of the family nose. As for Verses, the tale of Mahound is a terrific novella interspersed here and there among the other parts of a so-so novel. Its a savage, relentless bit of anti-religious mythmaking and a gripping tale. I'll always remember the satirical poet (I forget his name) hiding among the whores, all of whom have taken the names of the Prophet's wives, and Mahound's words on executing them all, "Whores and writers, I see no difference here." Rushdie's not a favourite, but I'm pretty confident he's going to last.

Posted by: Thursday on April 13, 2007 1:22 AM

I admit it, I'm one of those who really likes the judging and ranking part of criticism. I think its fun trying to outpredict other people on what will last, and I do think some people are better at it than others. (A very few are a lot better.) But you are spot on about respecting people's honest reactions to art. I much prefer an honest dislike of Shakespeare's work to a pretended appreciation, put on just to maintain appearances. Value judgments are all too often mixed up with questions of social status.

Posted by: Thursday on April 13, 2007 2:16 AM

'...then why shouldn't we decide which of our new fiction-books would qualify in advance as "literary"?'

In the sixties, the idea that central planning might be able to beat the free market was still very much in the cultural air, so why shouldn't people have felt that way in the literary market, too? Central planning and lit fict express optimism and aspiration. We *can* do better! Onward and upward! It's kind of touching and it must have been intoxicating, though some of the side-effects - like 90% marginal tax rates or feeling like you have to read Gravity's Rainbow - sober most of us up quickly.

Lit fict can still, just barely, be sold to an aspirational audience, though it feels more and more like just another genre. Maybe in a few more years it will be retro, like bell-bottoms: still cool in their way, but no longer a political statement.

Posted by: robert on April 13, 2007 4:14 AM

It appears that I raced to put on my armor at the first sounding of the alarm, only to find that it indeed was merely the dinner bell.

First and foremost I respect anyone's personal opinion about any subject matter. Particularly in these Imus times and the slow decline of rights of free speech, I am reminded once again of the importance that any and all diversity of opinion be allowed its voice. I do apologize for taking immediate reaction in contradiction to that belief.

As a fiction writer I am always reading with that different level of acute awareness of language coincidental to the narrative and appreciate a skillfully handled phrase. If you note my sidebar, I'm slowly loading up my shelves on the "old" books that have endured--most of which are considered (pronounced) classic literary fiction. The genres included are nearly all: romance, horror, sci fi, fantasy, contemporary, historical, etc. In being lit-minded I've become very aware of the battles going on in little snipes back and forth between the so-called us and them.

What it comes down to is that the extremists at either end will do battle between "boring" and "fluff" to allow the rest of us to decide for ourselves what we like. I've read traditional classics I hated or even found unskillfully written; I've found airport grab-its delightful. My own interests are founded in horror (Poe, naturally) and have run the gamut through most genres and styles.

I have no quarrel with you or anyone else; I value honest opinion over all. My own favorite authors? Steinbeck, Marquez, Faulkner, McCarthy just to name a few. One of the most moving books I've read was McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Had a great story. Great characters. And the writing was pretty hot too.

Are we friends again?

Posted by: susan on April 13, 2007 11:38 AM

I think the biggest liability that Literary Fiction has it that it has yet to produce a real innovation or offer a mind-blowing take on anything.

If it doesn't stick in the individual's memory somehow (a common theme mentioned in your post and the comments), it won't stick in history's memory.

Since it's often essentially an infinite loop of self-reference and high-calorie sentences, there is often no THERE there (to invoke and slaughter Gertrude yet again).

If either you aren't just like main character in a Lit Fiction (typically a fetishistic, narcissistic, academic nihilist), or you aren't in on the in-joke and esthetics of Lit Fiction, it falls apart like a dandelion in the wind.

Posted by: yahmdallah on April 13, 2007 11:55 AM

I didn't address the "how's it become a classic" question, and of course, we can't predict the future based on the past. But we might get a hint of what will endure in literature: the books that dont' end up given to a friend without firm admonition to return it; the books that don't end up for the Friends of the Library Sale; the books that get placed back on the shelf.

Posted by: susan on April 13, 2007 12:32 PM

FvB has an interesting perspective on the complex relationship between art and status in Elizabethan times.

Of course, as he notes, the fact that writing was not at that time a full-time job must be a big part of the difference between today's scene and the Elizabethan world. I think it's pretty clear which of these periods will leave more of an impression on literary history.

If we restrict our focus slightly and just look at the last century, it's certainly very interesting to notice the change in the social rank of the literary professional. It is almost impossible to believe that in 1907, the social status of a banker was usually higher than that of a fiction writer. But it is absolutely the case - the bohemian literati of the 1920s were genuinely disreputable at the time. It was only the smartest and savviest of the aristocracy who knew that it was cool to be, say, Hemingway.

Frankly, most of the people I've known who took creative writing classes didn't want to write. They wanted to be writers. They felt that their often undeniable talents, entitled them, in exactly the same way a duke feels entitled, to some species of glory.

Of course everyone knows now that writing literary fiction is not, unless you have a really lucky role of the dice or are a member of at least three of the designated victim groups now in vogue, a good way to make money. But most people will trade money for power. And power is just another name for rank or social prestige - a commodity that universities and journalists can more or less print these days, the way the Fed prints money.

But there is basically no surprise here. I mean, X becomes the recipient of enormous and unprecedented state subsidies, X expands to monstrous size, X becomes sterile and bland, X starts to neglect anything that could be described as customer service (ie, actually entertaining its readers), X concentrates all its attention on jumping through hoops it invents for itself to maintain its elaborate internal status hierarchy... as doctors say, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses.

I sometimes wonder if state support for universities isn't actually unconstitutional, on account of the Titles of Nobility clause. I mean, what's the difference between a Ph.D and a baronetcy? Surely, if we applied the same level of scrutiny we gave, say, religion...

Posted by: Mencius on April 13, 2007 5:06 PM

You don't get any land with a Ph.D.

Posted by: SFG on April 13, 2007 5:45 PM

Susan, as someone who worked as a library page, EVERYTHING winds up in a Friends of the Library Sale. The only reason there were fewer books by Steinbeck, Faulkner, et. al. is because we employees got to them first.

Posted by: Bryan on April 13, 2007 6:19 PM

What a great idea! Man, if you got land with a Ph.D. I definitely would have stayed in grad school...

But you don't get land with a baronetcy, either.

Posted by: Mencius on April 13, 2007 10:29 PM

Sorry if my previous comment was a bit obscure. What I was going for was the notion that "literary" fiction vs. "genre" fiction is largely a class distinction, not an artistic distinction.

The rise of a binary distinction such as "literary" vs "genre" fiction, in essence an "us" vs. "them" confrontation, is a typical symptom of the dynamic rise of a new group to power. A similar situation was occuring in the Elizabethan era with the unprecedented centralization of power and culture around the throne, and the corresponding subordination of baronial centers of power. This was a key part of the process of forging of modern nation-states by princely absolutists, the central drama of Early Modern Europe. The sense that the way to get ahead for bright, ambitious young men was by flattering the sovereign was something that was relatively new, just as the growing power and ambition of such rulers in the sixteenth century was something new. (In the fourteenth century Chaucer, for example, despite being a civil servant who worked for the high nobility and occasionally for kings, was by no means a courtier-poet, because the nobility and royalty of his time were medieval, both in their culture and their goals.)

Just as princely absolutism was the horse that ambitious literrateurs hitched their wagons to in the sixteenth century, the New Class, the expert/managerial aristocracy of our era is the horse that literary fiction writers are trying to lasso today. It's fairly easy to see a one-to-one correspondence between the tropes of literary fiction and the thought-processes of today's managerial, professional or financial mandarinate, just as the Faerie Queene reflects the thought-processes of Elizabeth's court.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2007 12:04 AM

A superficial comment. First, thanks!

(I'm writing something on a similar subject). I think Jane Smiley makes a good defense of the novel for the 21st century era in her book 15 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

While listening to a scriptwriting podcast, I heard the podcaster mention that character trumped plot and yes even style. Style can be copied (somewhat) and plot can be ripped off, but characters are more unique (because they draw upon various literary elements and require a bit of persuasion). Get the character right, and you are not as put off by a recondite style.

The more I think of it, the more I think this writin' bizness is all about portrait-making.

These are generalizations to be sure, and I'm sure exceptions can be thrown into my face. But characters make books more memorable.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 14, 2007 1:59 PM


Oui. But I think the Burnham/Djilas "managerial" definition of the "New Class," although I love Burnham to death, has not quite stood the test of time.

Burnham's managerial thesis was very much influenced by an idea prevalent in the '30s - unfortunately I forget the names of its originators - that real power in the corporate world belonged not to the shareholders but to the managers. In other words, that agent-principal separation was a sort of pious fraud, of the sort that is of course very common. It also supposed that these managers would become increasingly like the Renaissance merchant-princes of yore and steer government here and there, eventually becoming one with it in a technocratic-corporate lovefest.

I don't think any of these predictions has really panned out. Agent-principal separation works - by and large, CEOs perform or they get the axe. If the power dynamic is changing, it is in favor of Wall Street. And corporations are in fact increasingly submissive in the face of regulatory and media mau-mau campaigns. The corporate interventions in national politics that we remember even as recently as Nixon are now unimaginable.

I would say the real rising power center of the postwar regime, comparable to the Crown in Elizabethan times, is the university system. The logical endpoint of this development is a mandarin caste, a caesaropapism without Caesar or Pope. Managers in Burnham's sense don't have much to do with this. And in fact the rising importance of the MBA, and the increasing amount of moral indoctrination associated with these programs, fits the hypothesis of a transition toward the mandarin model.

Historical determinism is not my cup of tea, but certainly if you postulate a vague cycle of elites from soldier to landlord, from landlord to merchant, from merchant to scholar, from scholar to bandit, and from bandit to soldier, it fits the profile pretty well, and the power dynamics of each transition are easy to explain. This would place us presently in the middle of the next-to-last transition above, and it suggests a context for the otherwise odd alliance between eggheads and revolutionary thugs - in other words, Sam Francis's "anarcho-tyranny."

If this is an accurate picture of today's power structure, I think it correlates pretty well with the literary changes Michael describes. And better, in my opinion, than the "managerial" perspective. I certainly don't see a lot of new novels coming out about the battle for new global markets, the fight for improved accounting standards, or the turbulent world of private equity...

Posted by: Mencius on April 14, 2007 4:32 PM


As I'm stuggling to write another post on this very subject, I'll have to ask you to give me some time to respond to your points. All I can say is that, for now, I'll stick to my guns on the principal-agent conflict, which seems more obvious (and even more conflicted) today than ever before. Perhaps the most hilarious recent confirmation was the plan by the management of bankrupt sub-prime mortgage lender New Century to pay themselves a $3 milllion bonus for disposing of the company"s remaining assets. (Gotta admire that one for sheer brass, no?) I also think that this confict is intimately tied up with the whole world-view of government, academia, the professions, journalism, etc. But I think the more appropriate place to discuss this is in a post devoted to it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2007 8:10 PM


Have you read the literary critic, James Wood? He covers much the same territory you do in his disgust with official literary-dom. He blasts away at some of the same guilty suspects as you do (Morrison, Amis, Rushdie, et al).

I love this series of your posts because I agree with about 99% of your passionate well-thought out, knowing words. But I disagree with you in this: why embrace popular lit-genre fiction and say "these are literary masterpieces?" You can't get around the false-bottom that every popular genre is built on. I do not want to repeat myself so I will only list one example: there is no criminal intelligence in the crime/detective/police world. The criminal world is a world of vast bottomless stupidity. The only way to make entertainment out of it is to invent crooks with brains; a fire-breathing dragon who lives in a cave in the woods is hard-realism by comparison. The official literature that you despise may be pumped-up by a belly-bottom gazing culture of English majors but the authors themselves are trying to do something different from genre authors: they are trying to show Life itself as processed by their imagination and skill with language. They are self-consciously trying to be artists. Granted, such a lofty goals are bound to get a lot puffery and failure - as you so well observe. But when it hits it really hits, no? Do you want to cash in your Marquez for Leonard (bad example I think you probably do Ha!)? The good news of course is that we don't have to, though I wonder what Leonard could do unshackled from the strictures of genre.

Don't some official literary writers work? How about Italo Calvino, Anthony Burgess, Muriel Spark, Nabokov, Bellow (Also, if you are tired of Marquez let me plug another, perhaps better Columbian writer, Alvaro Mutis)?

I think you're real beef, Michael is with Literary Modernism, and its wannabe heirs. It's easy now to trash the high Modernism of Joyce's Ulysses now nearly 90+ years on. But we don't understand what he had to fight against to get his work done; he had real things to express but he was not going to express them in Trollope's easeful cadences or in Dickens flashy argot. Go ahead and hate Ulysses but almost every novel technique we prize today - rapid cutaway, short punchy description, interior asides, quick movie-like dialogue, experiment, serendipity - all come from Joyce (with nods to Flaubert). Ulysses is flawed - the engine stops about halfway through - the lack of novelistic tension is a serious flaw - but it is still a beautiful book full of human warmth tenderness chaos tragedy - you name it.

Another strand in your braid is the withering of literary art in general. I think I agree with you; the art of the novel, its writers and readers and lovers will probably shrink, is shrinking…
more on that later...

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 15, 2007 12:31 PM

I also like the unpredictability of art. Wouldn't life be boring without that vital quality? At the same time, your writing undercuts the (supposedly) vital nature of the literary status game. It seems that you're saying that reading is a state of pure enjoyment. I agree. Why should there be any deviation from pleasure? After all, that enjoyment factor is what's instinctively involved with thinking about a work afterwards. The influence of being prestigious shouldn't really play a hand in the process; how does a person get gratification out of hearing that a writer they like to read has become eminent? It becomes apparent that the reader isn't involved in that particular practice. I agree with you that art has to do with a level of control, and that prissy individuals should never be involved in the process. Great writin'.

Posted by: David Brown on April 15, 2007 1:48 PM


I'll be very interested to read your post.

Speaking as someone who has (I'm pretty sure) profited from backdated options, I think the principal-agent conflict in the US corporate world is extremely overstated. It is certainly negligible next to the swirling morass of confusion that is the relationship between customer, agent and principal in the public sector - where these parties often cannot even be distinguished.

Almost all the agent-principal conflicts in Western corporations are at the top level, that is, the "cozy world of the boardroom." Corporate corruption at any other level - a sales rep who takes kickbacks, a department whose only goal in life is to employ itself - is negligible and short-lived.

I don't think it's an accident that the board level is also the level most exposed to the political system. The corporate governance technology of the US was frozen in the '30s and has hardly advanced since. (Arguably, it has even deteriorated.) Perhaps if the SEC had never been established, corporations would be polling their shareholders regularly over the Internet, and would report their financial condition not quarterly but daily.

In other words, if you hold every corporation to the same standard of governance, it seems pretty reasonable to expect that corporations will stop competing on governance.

If you want to see some serious hardcore principal-agent conflict, go to say, Japan. Bring a few hundred million dollars and try to take over an auto parts company. It is actually breaking up a little now, supposedly, but the cross-linked shareholding structures of postwar Japan are really about as close as the world got to true Burnhamism.

Posted by: Mencius on April 15, 2007 2:32 PM

I just read the post and comments on your Ulysses link - it is great!

Also, most genre writing is poorly or distractedly written (OK,OK, E. Leonard's is perfect!); but for the most part the writing is filled with cliches: tears flood, hungry things are hungry as wolves, smooth things are smooth as ice, heavy things are heavy as bricks, can you lower yourself Michael to elevating this stuff as masterpiece material?

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 15, 2007 2:48 PM

Re: Joyce. I know this is not a Joyce thread but it is a bash Modernism thread and I have to make these comments:

I think Dana Gioia was having a bad day. All this Joyce/Ulysses bashing (Michael your take-it-or-lave-it evenhandedness here is infuriating) is insane! Get some perspective comerades -

Remember that for almost a decade and a half after Joyce finished it Ulysses did not see the light of day because the authorities thought it pornographic. If nothing else, give it credit for dealing with human sexuality as it has never been dealt with in world literature (exepting the ancients maybe). In the Nightown chapter the prostitute Zoe is trying to coax a reluctant Bloom and says:
"Suppose you got up on the worng side of the bed or came too quick with your best girl." Prostitutes had been cajolling johns with lines like that from the begining of time but Joyce did it first in Ulysses.

Ulysses is also noteworthy for its lack of literary pretention. The non-pretentious working proloteriat that you deem the acid testers of what is true or lasting in literature are very well represented in Ulysses. Check out the early chapter that is set out in fake newspapers headings - it is a barroom discussion of everything under the sun - that reads very much like a 2 Blowhards comments section.

Ulysses carries within many similar meditations on great art vs popular entertainment:
"Those literary ethereal people they are all. Dreamy, cloudy, symbolistic Esthetes they are. I wouldn't be surprised if it was that kind of food you see produces the like waves of the brain the poetical. For example one of those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts; you couldn't squeeze a line of poetry out of him. Don't even know what poetry is even. Must be in a certain mood."
And don't forget the workingman's discussion of Shakespeare early on.

And it is a funny book; he captures the kind of interior humor of people talking to themselves, the mind looping, sizing things up honestly. Open any page at random and you are sure to find a gem:
"Hate at first sight."
"My kingdom for a drink."
"Only crows, priests and English coal are black."

I'll take a page of Joyce for all the popular genre lit (throw in comic books) ever written.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 15, 2007 7:19 PM

You make an interesting argument. Have you considered the idea that, without literary fiction and the depth of thought required to read and write it, genre fiction would be of lower quality and not worth reading? Y'know, kind of like the way the space-program provides us with tech. benefits in everyday life. Do you think that one type of writing informs the other and vice versa?

Posted by: matthew on April 22, 2007 10:17 AM

Michael: there is only one thing left to do:

see the penultimate chapter in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lectures on Liturature" titled "The Art of Literature and Commonsense." Cheers.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 22, 2007 7:32 PM

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