Stuffing Literature to the Brim

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Focus does not so much illuminate the foreground as suppress the background. Clarification requires obfuscation.

I don’t believe that genres are anything more than family resemblances, clusters of commonality that may or may not possess genetic links. There’s nothing essential about genres, though the invisibility of ignorance and the apparent clarity of certain resemblances may make it seem so. I look at genre as fields of interpretative possibility capable of anchoring any number of theoretical caricatures. The kinds of understanding we take out of them depends on the kinds of understanding we put in. I use an ‘inside-out soul’ approach, one which combines cognitive science with quackery all my own.

These last couple of weeks have got me thinking about the stuff of literature, the content. Consider the four following categories:

Wish-fulfilment characterization. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with characters who conform to their own skewed sense of self.

Wish-fulfilment morality. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with stories that confirm their own moral intuitions.

Wish-fulfilment metaphysics. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with intentional (psychological) worlds.

Wish-fulfilment exterior action. The tendency of readers and writers to identify with hyperbolic ‘redemptive’ narratives.

As a product of the Enlightenment, modern literary culture finds its roots in a generalized antipathy to tradition. Since tradition is heavily invested in instinct, all four of these categories are salient in traditional literature. Somehow, in someway, varying degrees of resistance to and defection from these categories became the measure of ‘literary content.’ Psychological realism became the norm for characterization. The disenchanted world became the norm for metaphysics. The quotidian became the norm for exterior action. The only category to escape–and I imagine this is no coincidence–is morality. Here, for obvious reasons, the defection could only be half-hearted (making moral confusion as opposed to moral clarity the norm, but clinging to ‘stories with morals’ none the less).

(Given this interpretation, you could say that magic realism counts as a revolutionary departure, insofar as it allows these exiled content categories back into ‘literature.’ The problem, however, is simply that the cage had become so small: it had to adapt itself to the exacting sensibilities of those within to be taken ‘seriously.’ So what you find are rarefied as opposed to popular forms of these categories, instances of ‘wish-fulfilment’ constrained by the expectations of academically trained audiences (who, of course, reliably fail to see their training as anything other than enabling).)

The problem, as should be apparent, is that you lose ‘baseline readers’ (those without any specialized training beyond their socialization into a given culture) the degree to which you defect from these categories. Given that we are living in a culture that is actively generating content to appease these ‘wishes,’ the contemporary writer can no longer rely on any ‘only-game-in-town effect.’ We are dismissed as quickly as we are identified. Given the rapid technologically mediated transformation of our society the contemporary writer has no recourse to posterity either, which is why every writer living is a post-posterity writer. We are dismissed forever.

The trap might be described like this: at one time literary culture could defect from these content categories and still reach dissenting audiences simply because of its social prominence, but with its institutional prestige dwindling, and with markets becoming ever more specialized, what once counted as literature by virtue of its effects, came to count as literature by virtue of its resemblances. Literature became ‘just another genre,’ a largely dedicated form with a largely dedicated audience.

Some, like Franzen, acknowledge this, and are only too happy to write for the likeminded–the writer’s ‘friends,’ as he calls them. Others, like Docx, continue to cling to the illusion of the Ideal Philistine. Everyone (or so it seems to me when I root around literary blogs and interviews) has a sense that something has gone wrong. But since they have spent their lives pursuing in-group prestige under the auspices of ‘cultural reform,’ they seem too invested to ask the hard questions. The tendency is predictably self-aggrandizing: responsibility is assigned to various anonymous forces that they can then pretend to ‘resist.’ They transform the pop cultural rejection of their work into a kind of credential.

What makes Epic Fantasy so fascinating, so culturally significant, and, yes, so pregnant with literary potential is the way it out and out violates all the norms of literary content–the way it’s self-consciously premodern. It provides wish-fulfilment characters, morals, settings, as well as action. And–most importantly–it’s immensely popular among baseline readers. Small wonder so many literati consider it the very antithesis of the ‘literary.’

And yet, in a very real way, it is the genre that best exemplifies who we are. Why? Because it maps the worlds that complement our souls (rather than mapping, ad nauseam, worlds that deny our souls). It says who we are in a way that ‘modern literature’ simply is not capable, given its prohibitions on content. And it says it, most importantly, to heterogenous audiences.

Why in the world would anyone want to abandon such a vehicle to the apologists? What kind of healthy literary culture could do such a thing?

I’m guessing the recent blog broadsides Theo and I exchanged left many of you scratching your heads. (Having read through the comments on his blog, I genuinely applaud those of you intrepid enough to engage his readers, given all the strawman misconstruals, ad hominem attacks, and summary dismissals you suffered!) But the most extraordinary fact is that Theo and I debated at all. This, I would argue, is where literary culture needs to be. Cheek to cheek with the community that houses, feeds, and clothes it. Wrestling real words with real people who genuinely disagree.

Epic fantasy made this possible. The lowest of the low-brow.

In other words, the cultural short-circuit is so profound that the kinds of debates literature should be provoking can only be found in places it would never go. Thus my call for a wholesale reevaluation. Rather than gaming ambiguities to secure an almost farcical sense of false self-importance, the literary culture of the future has to game the social mechanisms of its communicative distribution, something which inevitably turns on the psychology of its reception. And to do this, it has to radically revise the ways it evaluates content (and form as well, but that’s a different post). It has to see that as soon as it begins sorting the stuff of fiction into the serious and the silly, it has begun the insidious process of sorting readers. That it has succumbed to the all to human tendency to seek confirmation and affirmation from those who already agree.

Literature needs to become something that haunts and nags the whole of fiction, the whole of culture, as opposed to something that fits in a tidy little Bocx.