Flatterature

by rsbakker

The title, by the way, was inspired by Russell Smith’s column in The Globe and Mail today. Apparently the world of literary writing is so cool, that only your moral highmindedness keeps you from getting laid by innumerable beautiful woman.

If words could smell…

Daily Aphorism 1): ‘Shallow’ is a word shallow people use to think themselves deep. So repeat after me…

Daily Aphorism 2): The best way to think deep is to make youself small. Profundity, like economy, all comes down to scale.

Picking up from yesterday, let’s do a little heuristic theorizing here, keeping in mind that we’re talking about cartoon generalizations of something supercomplicated. I will argue in defence of what follows, but only because I think they are as good guesses as any, when it comes to devising and delivering a certain kind of writing.

Let’s call the tendency to judge ourselves (and to a lesser extent, our loved ones) according to intentions Auto-exceptionalism. This is simply a psychological fact. The claim I’m making, then, would be that, in the absence of specialized training, the default for readers of fiction is to identify with characters who act the way the reader intends – that such characters become Subjunctive Selves.

A character becomes a Subjunctive Self the degree to which their acts conform to a reader’s hypothetical intentions.

The ‘literary’ convention, then, would be to contravene or subvert this hardwired tendency. The ‘generic’ convention would be to satisfy it. I scare quote literary and generic, of course, because I think actual outcomes, actual readers scratching actual heads, as opposed to hypothetical ones, are what distinguish literature from fiction in general. Given this definition, Don Delillo, for instance, is a pseudo-literary writer. We’ve convince whole generations of talent to celebrate themselves and turn their back on their community. Whereas people like me, China Mieville, Jeff Vandemeer–anyone who games conventions, not for the sake of entertaining specialized tastes, but to connect with dissenting audiences–are the only people writing literature worthy of the name. We have devised a system that tricks all our geniuses into entertaining under the guise of challenging, so us poor slobs are all you get.

Flattering, I know–it makes me nervous for that very reason. What can I say? There’s a reason Dune changed my life, not Catcher in the Rye. Just as there’s a reason Rowling and Pullman inspire public outcries, not Atwood or Updike. Dune reached into a house devoid of books (other than the Bible) and challenged me – thanks to a subjunctive self named Paul Atriedes.

And this is just to say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with providing Subjunctive Selves for your readers to identify with. There is no literature without connection, and there is no connection without some degree of conventional fidelity. Subjunctive Selves should be regarded as a powerful tool, not as – and I admit to being guilty of this (as in my reading of The Road) – a failure of literary imagination.

In a sense, I guess what I’m trying to do here is lay out a different view of literature, one which reconceptualizes generic conventions as channels to various readers, and so prioritizes their self-conscious instrumentalization, rather than writing in blindness with all the ‘great literary voices’ of our generation. And one which takes human nature as revealed by the sciences seriously, rather than hiding behind Ideal Philistines (readers who WOULD be challenged IF they were to read your work, but almost never do) and vague theoretical generalizations (post-modernism, psycho-analyis, and the like).

One which sees literature as an actual psychological event possessing real social consequences. And perhaps, on occasion, provides reason to feel smug and superior…