The Myth of the Vulgar Cage (II)

by rsbakker

Definition of the Day – Pretentiousness: If you are smart, the knack for making other people feel stupid. If you are stupid, the knack for making yourself feel smart.

Here’s that piece I sent away to The Guardian some time back. The reason I keep flogging this horse, and will continue to do so, certainly has something to do with my own sense of resentment and status anxiety. I can feel it in the way I grit my teeth.

But it also has to do with the way I continually find myself trapped between cultures: the kinds of attitudes espoused by Docx and his clan do real damage to the Cause. Far from encouraging and desseminating criticality, they shut it down. People are hardwired to overgeneralize: so when a character like Docx comes along talking about ‘simpler psychologies,’ they not only reject him – there’s few things more pathetic than claiming authority where none is recognized – they also tend to reject intellectualism and criticality more generally. Docx’s column was literally an argument for why his practice was superior in kind to the practices of genre writers – with the upshot being that his readers are somehow superior as well.

On the other hand, I’m arguing that my particular, peculiar practice is superior in effect – and that in the world of ‘market segmentation,’ these effects can only be brought about by gaming genre. Otherwise you make your living reinforcing, rather than challenging assumptions, which is all well and fine so long as there’s enough muckrakers to keep things interesting. The idea is that literary culture has managed to secure the comforts of genre, writing the same things for the same readers, while pretending to produce the effects of literature. And so it is the souls who claim to be the most enlightened, stumble through the most embarassing dark. Everyone walks away confirmed in their flattering views.

The picture is drastically more complicated, I know, but I’m convinced this captures the dilemma in sum, or at least enough of it to warrant real experimentation. The bottomline, I think, is that it is impossible to write literature in the 21st century without ‘literary evangelicism,’ which is to say, absent any awareness of the actual assumptions of your actual audience. Given market segmentation, the ‘post-posterity’ writer no longer has the luxury of writing for him or herself.

Docx’s piece can be found here:

In his recent article “Are Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown a match for literary fiction?” (The Guardian, 12/12/10), Edward Docx unfortunately demonstrates that the myths that cripple literary culture are alive and well.
His argument and attitude are familiar enough: as a connoisseur of literary fiction, he is dismayed by the explosive popularity of Stieg Larson and his posthumus Millennium trilogy. Troubled by the prospect that people might confuse mediocrity for excellence, he believes that “we need urgently to remind ourselves of … the difference between literary and genre fiction.” Apparently, culture is in danger of forgetting “that even good genre … is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.”
He invokes, in other words, what I like to call the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, wherein conventions are understood as constraints, and genre, therefore, is characterized by the absence of freedom. This, we are supposed to believe, is bad, very bad.
Despite Docx’s assertion to the contrary, the ‘Vulgar Cage’ metaphor is far and away the most pervasive way proponents of literary culture conceptualize the conventionality of genre fiction. One finds it everywhere, invoked as though it were as obvious as can be, even though the slightest examination reveals even more obvious problems. Like most self-aggrandizing myths, it is little more than a conceit founded upon a misconception. Not only does it have the happy consequence of glorifying those who write and read literary fiction, it also strategically distorts what conventions are in actuality.
 The conceit is straightforward, and unfortunately all too human. In genre, Docx is saying, the reader’s expectations are more regimented, which means that far too many choices “are already made.” Genre, he claims, “tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology.” The presumption, apparently, is that his books engage a more sophisticated psychology, and therefore possess more aesthetic value. His books are better, he seems to be saying, because his readers are better. They are more ‘sophisticated.’
 But note how easy it is to radically transform the above claim with a simple change of terms. For instance, I would entirely agree that commercial fiction tends to rely on more natural reader expectations, and that literary fiction engages more specialized expectations, which is to say, learned values. Expressed in these, non-question begging terms, one can then proceed to debate the merits of these ‘expectation sets,’ where and when the natural trumps the specialized or vice versa. The issue is shifted to more retail ground, one where the advantages and liabilities of both can be balanced one against the other. Certainly Bocx isn’t suggesting that all literary expectations are better all the time, is he?
But here’s the thing: Bocx doesn’t seem to think that literary fiction possesses any constraining conventions. This is tantamount to saying that literary readers do not possess overlapping sets of expectations–when, as a rather well-defined group of consumers, they most certainly do. Make no mistake, literary fiction is rife with rules, only a fraction of which Larsson violates! One can only assume that Bocx has been duped the way all of us, thanks to our psychology, often find ourselves duped. Since the values and expectations we use to rate and measure the world are generally implicit, invisible, we are inclined to think we are generally unconstrained, while those who follow explicit values and expectations seem to be thoroughly trapped.
It’s always the ‘other guy,’ isn’t it?
So much for the conceit. The shape of the misconception should already be clear from the way I have consistently paired conventions with expectations: the analogy of constraints entirely misses the communicative dimension of conventions. The Vulgar Cage is an out and out horrible conceptual metaphor. After years spent arguing this, I still find myself marvelling at just how sticky obvious falsehoods can be, so long as they flatter and exonerate. Convention is the bedrock of communication. Quite simply, there is no language, no culture, no storytelling–nothing intelligible at all–short of conventionality and its evil constraints.

This is why I much prefer to use the metaphor of the specialty channel when conceptualizing genre. Unlike, the Vulgar Cage, it captures the constraint without sacrificing the communication. The problem for Docx is that this formulation is anything but friendly to the attitude he is attempting to promote, primarily because of the way it binds authors to their audiences.

Literature, you see, is supposed to be a special kind of fiction, one that, arguably, has some kind of salutary effect on its readers. Literature is defined, in other words, not so much by what it is (or worse yet, what it resembles) as by what it does. Literature changes people, typically by challenging their assumptions.

So if you ‘write for yourself’ under the blithe assumption that you, unlike every other human on the planet, are not the conduit of innumerable implicit conventions, then you are essentially writing for people like yourself. But writing for the likeminded means writing for those who already share the bulk of your values and attitudes–for the choir, in effect. And this suggest that writers like Docx are actually in the entertainment business, which is to say, writing to confirm the attitudes of their audience, not to challenge them. 

Far from rendering you literary, repeating the moves of past masterpieces merely identifies you as the producer of a certain kind of reliable product. Thanks to market segmentation, the more homogenous culture that once made the production of literary effects possible in the past has vanished. Now literary writers have to hide behind the fiction of the Ideal Philistine, the person who would be challenged were they to read their books (but for some, typically flattering, reason never do), to convince themselves of their relevance.

All of this has resulted in what I think is an unmitigated cultural catastrophe. Articles such as Docx’s spur so many howls of protest because they amount to a kind of thinly-disguised bigotry. And like most bigotries, they possess a number of untoward consequences. Not only do they convince new talent that they must write for one channel, one audience, to be taken seriously, they convince everyone else, those with simpler psychologies, to distrust intellectualism more generally.

Too much critical talent is being wasted on what amounts to a single specialty channel, the ‘literary mainstream,’ where all the forms of what once was literary are endlessly repeated, and few of the results of what was once literary are produced. Where the notion of actually challenging readers has either been conveniently forgotten, strategically foresworn (as in the case of Franzen), or made the grist for posturing and pretence.

If Docx really were interested in literature, then instead of bemoaning all those people reading Larsson, he would be trying to reach them.

How does one do that? Turn your back on the flattering choir, for one. Reach out to dissenting audiences by embracing sets of conventions, different specialty channels, rather than gaming rules piece-meal to impress one’s peers with this or that obscure semantic effect–which is to say, the conventional thing.

Write genre, where the future of literature in fact lies. If, as Docx suggests, writing good genre is hard, and writing good literature is harder still, then writing something that combines both should constitute the greatest challenge of all.