The Myth of the Vulgar Cage (II)
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: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/dec/12/genre-versus-literary-fiction-edward-docx
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.