Doughnuts for the Heart, Broccoli for the Soul

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Literature is the cage where writers rattle empty cages.

So, true to his character, Disciple continues to hobble onward. A nice little capsule review appeared in The New York Times, and Drowning Machine actually picked him for their “Damn with Faint Praise Award,” given to the best, most overlooked book of 2010. Hopefully this drip-drip will continue convincing people out in the noir blogosphere to take a looksee.

For the curious among you, the slip from Docx to ‘Bocx’ in the piece I posted last week was entirely Freudian–if only all my mistakes were so clever!

I wanted to elaborate a bit on the ‘cages all the way down’ argument I provided in the previous post, talk about a corollary assumption that seems to afflict literary culture: the Myth of the Outside.

The Myth of the Outside describes the assumption, prevalent among many in the literary community, that literature is defined by the absence of generic constraint, that it somehow happens outside all the generic boxes you find crowding the warehouse of popular culture.

Since conventionality is a necessary condition of communication, they can’t be talking about the absence of conventionality. This particular ‘outside’ is unintelligible, plain and simple. No, Bocx and his ilk have to be talking about a different kind of ‘outside,’ one within the sphere of conventionality (to the degree it communicates anything at all), but distinguished in a manner that renders it ‘special,’ that exempts it from the myriad problems belonging to generic conventionality.

The Myth of the Outside, in other words, is a kind of lazy front for what might be called the Myth of a ‘Better Inside.’

So what makes literary conventionality so special? If you look at, say, the literary saws I import into my fantasy work, several obvious arguments come to mind. You could say, for instance, that the literary emphasis on interior action attunes people to their own inner lives, that the literary penchant for lyricism opens readers to the possibilities of language, or that the literary preference for moral ambivalence better represents the moral complexities of our day to day lives.

Saying broccoli is better than doughnuts means nothing so long as you are talking about taste. Saying broccoli is better for you, on the other hand, is saying something quite different. And it seems pretty easy to argue that the above conventions are in fact ‘healthier’ for readers, even if they don’t particularly like the taste. Indeed, this is largely why I imported them into the ‘epic fantasy cage’ in the first place.

So doesn’t this suggest that the literati are right? That, like broccoli, their writing is ‘just better for you’ than what you find in genre?

As I keep saying, if you stubbornly refuse to ignore the communicative dimension of conventionality, if you obnoxiously insist on pairing readers with your writers, the conceptual landscape is radically transformed. Once we do this, we can see, for instance, that the broccoli metaphor is quite misleading. Broccoli is healthy because the link between what it is and what it is does is more or less fixed. Fiction, on the other hand, possesses no such stability. As ‘semantic objects,’ books quite literally do not exist independently of readers, at least not the way broccoli exists independently of eaters.

The literary conventions I enumerate above, in other words, are broccoli or doughnuts depending on who happens to be reading them. There is very little Bocx could provide an English professor, say, aside from a succession of intellectual and aesthetic buzzes–entertainment for a specialized palette. He may advertise broccoli, but his dogged fidelity to literary conventions assures him a literary audience, and so he primarily sells doughnuts instead. The only difference between him and the generic writers he derides (often with backhanded compliments) is honesty.

This fact is invisible to him simply because he buys into the Myth of the Outside. Because his yardstick frames all his measurements, it seems to fall outside of the possibility of measurement altogether, to be as gargantuan as Truth. Thus the preposterous hubris.

The only way to spin broccoli out of doughnuts is to game the generic expectations of actual readers. The only way to game the generic expectations of actual readers, at least as far as I can see, is to game genre. The only way to be truly ‘outside’ is to be inside everything.

And this, I’m arguing, is the literature of future: one where writers interested in genuinely challenging readers range across the bookstore, section to section, skew to skew. Things aren’t looking good as it stands: posers like Bocx still occupy the cultural high ground, and as a result the wannabes continue to be herded into the faux-literary cage, convinced that turning their back on popular culture is the only way to be taken seriously by those who matter.

But the sense of exhaustion is mounting, and the dwindling relevance of the book is luring more and more gifted voices into the new media. The collapse is coming…

Maybe I’m describing the orthodoxy that will replace it, maybe not.