Russell Smith Shrugged
Holidays are upon me. But an old time foil o’ mine, Russell Smith, has managed to put me into an old time mood with a piece in today’s Globe and Mail.
The topic, predictably, is genre versus literature. And the argument, predictably, is the standard ‘argument’ given by those at the high end of any cultural authority gradient: Those on the bottom have no reason to bellyache because there is no bottom, the implication being, of course, that really, when all is said and done, ‘they’re just jealous.’
Smith is confused by what, for him, amounts to a mythical injustice. “Every day,” he writes, “I read angry emails and posts from sci-fi writers complaining about the terrible snobbery and irrelevance of the literary establishment which still doesn’t give major awards to the speculative or fantastical, or give it enough review space in the books pages of newspapers.” Now group specific dissatisfaction of any sort always begs for some kind of consideration of motivations. But Smith glides over this question, perhaps realizing the trickiness that awaits. Implying ‘They’re just jealous!’ is one thing, but actually writing as much would place him in some uncomfortable company. So he simply declares that he has never heard anyone in his ingroup explicitly dismiss genre–as if only those who explicitly embrace bigotry can be bigots. And as if he and his cohort don’t regularly deride the ignorant masses via their ignorant tastes. The guy doubles as a fashion columnist, after all.
Because make no mistake, Russell Smith is a cultural bigot through and through–and of the worst kind, in fact. He is a status quo apologist convinced he has nothing to apologize for, who feels hurt and bewildered and quite frankly, annoyed, by the deluge of small-minded belly-aching he has to listen to. And since he belongs to an ingroup that self-identifies itself as ‘critical’ and ‘open’–namely, as all those things each and every ingroup is not–he simply assumes that he has to be right. His is the enlightened institution. There’s no need to ask the motivation question, no need to consider the possibility that the perception of cultural inequity is all that cultural inequity amounts to (even though, it is the case that only writers that primarily self-identify themselves as ‘literary’ win the awards and the funding).
To get a sense of how bad his argument is, consider:
There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of genre divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish genres or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.
Sound appealing? Sensible? Well, let’s spice up the stakes a bit, see if it doesn’t sound more familiar:
There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of racial divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish races or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.
He doesn’t get it because he has no need to get it, because he belongs to what remains, in far too many cultural corners, the privileged ingroup. “Why does this argument even need to be made?” he writes. After all, so very many literary novels contain magical or surreal or futuristic elements, such as “Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.”
Apparently his people love our stuff when his people write about it.
Wake up. It’s about power, idiot, not the statistical distribution of tropes. It’s about who has it, and who don’t.
Unfortunately for us, mainstream literature is not nearly as irrelevant as it should be. It remains a fat, greasy parasite that continues to feed on far too much talent, continues to convince far too many bright and sensitive souls to turn their backs on their greater culture (in what is, without any doubt, the most momentous epoch in human history) all in the name of accumulating ingroup prestige within a socially obsolescent institution. All writers are post-posterity writers, nowadays, and if they truly want to walk their egalitarian, prosocial talk, then they need to reach out with their writing, self-consciously game the preference parsing algorithms that increasingly command our horizons of cultural exposure. In other words, they need to do the very opposite of what conservative apologists like Smith continually urge, which is to bury their heads in sand at the bottom of the hourglass.
“These category questions,” Smith writes, “are marketing ones, not literary ones.” Once upon a time, maybe, but certainly not anymore. If literature is as literature does, then what we call ‘literary’ today does precious little that can be called literary–thanks to marketing. The outgroup philistines that literary writers pretend to ‘challenge’ let alone ‘illuminate’ no longer stumble into their books, leaving only classroom captives to complete the literary circuit (with dead or moribund authors, no less). Literature describes a certain, transformative connection between writers and readers, and marketing just happens to be all about connecting buyers with sellers. Given that confirmation is the primary engine of consumer demand, literature is simply writing that jumps the tracks, that somehow, someway, finds itself in the wrong hands. The rest, as DFW would say, is fucking Entertainment. More apology.
The future of literature in the age of information technology lies with genre, plain and simple, with writers possessing the wherewithal to turn their backs on apologetic apparatchiks like Smith, and actually contribute to building the critical popular culture we will need to survive the strange, strange days ahead. The alternative–Smith’s alternative–is to preach to the choir, apologize and reinforce, cater to expectations–do all the things that ‘sellouts’ do–then to endlessly declare yourself a missionary of transformation. Quite a scam, I would say.
Lol – his article reads clueless. I like your thoughts on genre as cultural projection being the difference between literary then and literary now.
Cheers. Hope you are enjoying your vacation.
These circles are well aware they are being elitist, so it’s best to pretend it’s not happening at all. They do know what they are doing, but would never admit it. Pretending to be totally egalitarian when in fact
you take pride in being part of a privileged group is totally hypocritical bullshit.
I see it every day in various aspects of life in this new, politically correct society of ours.
It can (most “-isms” in fact) be boiled down to a quote from the movie Mississippi Burning: “If you ain’t better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”
I don’t know how much you writers depend on critic reviews professionally – but from customer standpoint they are fast becoming irrelevant (at least for me).
And you are right about genre, I think – judging from personal experience of how I find new stuff to read (I almost have a flowchart lol) …
Have fun on your vacation!
As a Boston University English doctoral student who’s interested in Science fiction, it pains me that this kind of reactionary genre-talk is still going on. Your comparison to racial bigotry is poignant because it illuminates something the literary establishment doesn’t want to acknowledge: that genre marginalization is still alive and well. Smith’s argument echoes the “post-race” rhetoric of FOX News talking heads who claim that racism is still a problem only because the Left makes it a problem.
There’s a serious amount of ambiguity in that racial devisions rephrasing to game. I could read it probably three or four different ways.
Some of my best friends read sci fi, as a matter of fact they keep them in their homes and display them on the book case.
OK afterall in its day the accepted literature was given to us by the church, especially before there was a printing press. No need to read those stories and see those plays about the human passions and angst by that Shakespeare fellow, afterall he did it for money just like the rest of us. hint hint wink wink..
Literary prizes afterall are about taste and who better to understand taste than us gourmets. Afterall we are professionals too, hint hint wink wink, so its not about taste but leave it up to the marketing department who worry about what comes out the other end and who to drop it on.
It would be a long, long conversation if someone wanted to dispute this, because the disputants would need to agree on what “challenging” means. Then they would need to decide which books lived up to it. And they would never agree because it’s endlessly gameable. The sensible alternative – “yes, but we all know what we mean” – would seem to leave itself open to a lot of cognitive bias. So we can either a) do a lot of boring tail-chasing in a futile attempt to be transparent, or b) both sides can pat themselves on the back. Lose-lose, but option B feels better and is quicker and easier, so B. Screw you, literati/genre-types! (delete as required)
It’s fairly emperical as to whether literati material is getting through to the general public or not. Whatever ‘challenging’ is, it’s definately not being challenging to the general masses if it’s not actually being read by the general masses. And if the genre stuff is even only mildly challenging, it’s still being more challenging than the literati material in such a case.
That’s certainly the argument, yes. Henry James would be “more challenging” (which we’re conveniently not defining) if people read him, but they don’t, they read Barbara Cartland and Tom Clancy, therefore they are automatically more challenging and greater as literature. It’s just a numbers game – the more people read it, the better it is. A reskinned version of the Harry Potter defense – “at least they’re reading something.” Quality as market penetration. This is a subversive view if you think publishing corporations are the underdogs.
‘Better’. ‘Quality’. These sit aside ‘challenging’ in ambiguity.
I can’t quite figure out what haunts you about ‘the more people read it, the better it is’? I’d think it a strawman – you know that’s not what’s been said here, Murphy. But I get the feeling it genuinely discomforts you as well somehow, that I can’t pin down. A return to having to hide and even supress ones literary talent and inclinations, ala highschool?
fun fact: almost every time I find some time to read up on Scott’s blog, the most recent post deals with some silly “literary establishment person” shenanigans.
Seriously, I have a hard time caring about those people anymore. They don’t like “genre” (who’d have thunk 🙂 ?). They want to feel elitist about it. Nobody should care. End of line.
I know what the argument is, Callan. But, if it’s empirical – as you say it is – how can you escape the “sales = value of the work” conclusion? Let me go through it. If the masses aren’t reading it, it is worthless (we stipulate). If they are reading it, it can have an impact. So the more people who read it, the more impact it is having on the culture, no? And this is more important than any floating state of potential challenging-ness – that IS what you’re saying, no? So why don’t you respect Barbara Cartland’s work more than you do? Isn’t it pure snobbery to give any of her novels a bad review? She’s outsold virtually all other novelists, after all. Is that not a discomforting conclusion for you?
That the baby being washed is the most important thing, that makes the water more important than the baby? Throw out the baby and keep the bath water?
That is a discomforting conclusion – somehow the more people that read it matters MORE than the challenge/the effect it can have on the baby, or even the baby itself?
The entertainment industry and its audience are…really not nuturing of creative impulses at all. Their attitude is entertain them or fuck off and starve, essentially (and hey, I haven’t paid much for the PON books myself, relatively. I’m not saintly in this regard). Essentially poisonous to creativity. If you are in part refering to that – I get that and agree.
But it almost seems like to avoid any contact with that poison, you are taking the argument to an extreme where only the size of distribution (like the Barbara C. books get) matters.
You’re saying ‘how can we escape this poisonous conclusion? Ah, we can only do so by assuming contact with the poison is NOT necessary for challenge to exist!’
Possibly the way Scott puts it, it seems like ‘for the masses == all good!’. But that’d be BS – it’s really a matter of what amount of hemlock you can chug, will chug, and still be able to keep staggering on. Also not everyones somehow learnt the source code of Tolkien like him and are able to reproduce and even mutate it, seemingly off by heart – even people who have no literary education to purge them of the genre haven’t necessarily learnt how to deliver genre, despite reading it. So when you don’t know how to deliver genre and the way to ‘learn’ essentially involves chugging poison to ones creativity – yah. What about people who write weird, not because the literati made them, but just because they write weird and counter genre (read: unentertaining)? I mean seriously, when he read Tolkien in his formative youth it wasn’t ‘genre’ to him. So to advise others to pursue ‘genre’ is kinda BS, given he’s really pursuing whatever it was to him when he made contact with it, even if he twists it with subtext now.
So yeah, alot of problematism there, I’d agree, Murphy! But I don’t agree contact with the poison is somehow so much an obvious “well, you don’t” that anyone has to agree you can have challenge without contact with the poison. It’s nasty, but it’s still possible.
Assuming that’s addressing something somewhat like what you’re saying.
Um… Allowing for your famously oblique way of putting things… yes, I suppose that is roughly what I was getting at. I definitely share your doubts about the idea that someone could simply follow Scott’s advice to write genre if they have no feel for it already (and if they do, it’s probably redundant advice). But the only point I was really trying to make was that the key term, “challenging”, seems to me to be so slippery that I wonder what we’re supposed to do with it. I did bring up an equivalent point before and Scott said “we just have to be pragmatic”. Which is true. But who would say they were not being pragmatic? Maybe it just comes to this – one side says “Your novels would be challenging if people read them, but they don’t. They do read our novels, though.” The other side says, “They do. But I don’t consider your novels to be challenging.” What can happen then? The first side gets upset, the second stands its ground, the first raises its voice, the second inspects its nails, it all ends in a sullen silence and the waste of a pleasant evening.
This, by the way, is on the level of abstract principles. In reality, I think Scott’s take on the issue shows that Canada is a very different country, because in America and elsewhere, literary fiction is already a whipped, bleeding underdog in need of mercy, not dethroning.
Isn’t this the crux of Bakker’s condemnation of the literati, Murphy? Write Literature that acknowledges the contemporary existence of genre distinction, instead of pretending that literature (small l) hasn’t equally been quantified as a hitting certain bullet-points and constituting it’s own genre. While it may be a consequence of plenty, the availability and diversity of Literature (all books under Smith’s point), which in the past was read by all literates, rather results today in disparate reading groups, whom don’t all read literature genre – the onus the intellectual inheritors of our of cultural capital to engage the all Literature (Bakker’s point), which includes all genres.
I think that sale figures are an important part of “cultural” “impact”, but not ipso facto synomymous with it.
Consider, for instance, Ayn Rand (I love using that psychobitch as an example 🙂 )
She is objectively less “popular” (sales-wise) than many other works of that time.
Also, her works are utter shite (interestingly enough, both by “genre” standards and by “literary snob” standards).
Yet she has had (and continues to have) a social impact out of proportion to both sales (there are numerous authors that had out-sold her and yet are quite thoroughly forgotten) and literary quality (which, you have to agree, is something Rand barely conceptualized, let alone possessed).
Cultural impact is complex and sadly unpredictable (to steal a page from my dear gf, “dynamically unpredictable” – in the sense that the mode and scale of impact can change as society and “memetic environment” changes).
We are ridiculously far from being actually able to reliably predict and manipulate social effects of various media, except perhaps in most excruciatingly banal ways (and, once again, “manipulating social effects through media” may be a moving target, for all we know).
Also, it seems to me that it is, perhaps, a bit unfair to condemn “entertainment industry” as poisonous to creativity, since it is so goddamn diverse, especially if you consider what exactly is entertainment (is Schindler’s List “entertainment”, huh ? huh? 😉 ?)
Mike, I think that’s a fair precis of the argument, sure, certainly on the “cultural receiver” side of it. His argument on the production side is quite stark: literature (small l, to use your distinction) has failed, so if you want to write, genre is all you’ve got if you don’t want to be a self-indulgent hobbyist. But as far as the reception side goes – isn’t part of the problem that many critics have already engaged with genre and NOT liked it? I suspect we’re headed for an endless loop of genre fans saying, “no, I mean ENGAGE with it”, meaning there is only one acceptable opinion – “it’s wonderful!” – and we keep sending the mainstream away until they come back with the right answer. How’s that for confirmation bias? We say “genuinely challenging, not pseudo-challenging”, they say “right, exactly, like our stuff”, we say, “no, like our stuff”, and then it just bounces back and forth. I don’t see the trump card here? Not on a theoretical level. In practice, genre clearly has the upper hand in terms of cultural power. Do you see any art films breaking box office records? I think commenter 01 above hit it on target: it doesn’t matter what the literati think any more.
In my opinion, those individuals with training either write to challenge mass comsumption, whatever Literary genre (not literature genre) holds the cultural high ground, or they’ve failed as literati. It matters not that the readership feels engaged – the literari must continually attempt to engage.
01 is winning this thread so far, in my view. All extremely good points, again.
(and if they do, it’s probably redundant advice)
But the only point I was really trying to make was that the key term, “challenging”, seems to me to be so slippery that I wonder what we’re supposed to do with it.
Define it as the anti Barbara Cartland? The No-barb?
Stuff that will spoil your evening (gamed enough that, to a fairly wide demographic, it wont spoil your evening so much that you wont come back for more. Reading sunk cost fallacy for the win!)?
I don’t have the link, but I think there was some GRRM video out there if him watching a viewers reaction to the red wedding scene.
Why not define it as ‘have you upset anyone today?’.
Anyway, I’m taking BC to leave it’s prefered reader in a comfortable state (or more exactly some not happy making event occurs in the story, but then just world fallacy sweeps in and makes everything right again, just in time for dinner)
How about in the end, do you think the status quo is grand and fine (whether in your country or elsewhere)? And are you simply writing that makes people continue to adhere to that SQ, or are you writing in a way that makes them get uncomfortable with the problematic status quo?
These don’t seem as ambiguous. I can’t say I’ve read BC, really – at a guess they don’t have people questioning the status quo (probably just some stranger and everything else/the SQ is right – that or the stranger turns out all Darcy like)
because in America and elsewhere, literary fiction is already a whipped, bleeding underdog in need of mercy, not dethroning.
Isn’t that what the guys who wrote ‘naked comes the stranger’ thought as well?
Except eventually the royalties made them feel guilty…
What if they’d snuck something in amongst that…
So ‘hate’ is a genre?
Actually that’d explain the ‘requires only hate’ blog pretty well…
Anyway, Rand delivers that genre well, doesn’t she? Even if only inadvertantly. I think a movie was being made at some point…
We are ridiculously far from being actually able to reliably predict and manipulate social effects of various media
Seriously? You’re making this comment on this blog with these books? We can’t manipulate folk, Kellhus like, yet?
Isn’t that a feature rather than a bug?? That we have to deal with each other like people, rather than trying to hack them like some kinda vending machine (or really what that comes down to is vending machines trying to hack vending machines).
I can kinda tell how intellect inclined you are to percieve things – either it’s an utter lock down control, or it’s a write off and not worth engaging. And I’m not saying that’s a bad perception – if a cars steering didn’t really control the car and the breaks didn’t really work, you wouldn’t drive it – it is an effective line of thought in such a regard. But here – okay, it’s like riding a shopping trolley down a steep hill rather than a Kellhus like manipulation. Which do you wanna do to other people? Or just go with quietism (damn TPB words…)?
Also, it seems to me that it is, perhaps, a bit unfair to condemn “entertainment industry” as poisonous to creativity, since it is so goddamn diverse
You seem to be treating the vending machine as being the same as what’s in the vending machine.
No, the entertainment industry is not diverse. It’s the very opposite. It does, however, by dint of assets needing rent/mortgage money, have a hold on a wide range of assets, that is very true.
Or am I a bleak heart and really the entertainment industry is lead by entertainers?
(is Schindler’s List “entertainment”, huh ? huh? 😉 ?)
So’s the book called the bible, for that matter. But that’s the thing – rather than cynical lye, some materials seem to be ‘more’ (lye: subjectively) – so much more that you atleast entertained a question on the matter of Shindlers list. Maybe you’re just too innocent and virgin, too genuinely open to such an effect, to see it from the side long perspective that comes with cynicism that shows the effect? >:)
“Did you upset your readers?” is a very interesting take on it. The odd thing is that it puts literary fiction in a better position– we can hardly say nobody reads Hubert Selby or Bret Easton Ellis. I like it as an answer, but I’ll try and problematize it anyway. One problem is that it’s trivially easy to do. Let’s “subvert” children’s fiction. Chapter 1, Look, an adorable child. Chapters 2-20, we follow her adorable little adventures. Chapter 21, Oops, she just got raped to death, the end. By the given standard, that novel would be more literary than George Eliot because it’s upsetting. But it’s just a transparent button-punch. Is “the literary effect” so cheap and emotional? Like the red wedding, it’s not upsetting on a level that challenges anyone’s values (the widespread Dynasty comparison seems fair to me). Now, another question is, does that matter? Not even Greek tragedy challenges values – the whole point is that it was supposed to be, precisely because it was painful, a representation of what its audience already believed most deeply. And ultimately any literature that seeks to change its audience’s view is already engaged in the snobbery of “I’m here to rescue you from your current stupidity”. The only non-snobbish writers are the ones who think their readers already share their views. But today that would be naïve and, like tragedy, mainly belongs to religious communities. Perhaps we have a choice between epistemic feedback loops of the kind Scott is warning against, versus intellectual superiority of the socially divisive kind Scott is warning against. Genre that reaches for the literary effect seems likely to fall into the second category. So, if you accept any of that, what is the purpose of upsetting the reader? It can’t be an end in itself, but which horn of the dilemma does it fall on? Building a community (we all love genre together) or condescending to it (I am using your beloved genre against you for your own good)? We could say, “oh, genre readers are crying out for the literary effect, they just want their specific genre pleasures with it.” But that won’t work, either, because that puts them in the same category as literary-genre readers who self-consciously (and self-flatteringly) seek out challenging work and therefore, in Scott’s view, are doomed to never experience it, because it only really works when you’re not expecting it. How does this play out?
And by the way, you’re right that Barbara Cartland is not good for questioning the status quo (pause to emphasize the understatement). But then for a liberal reader, under this approach, perhaps that makes her literary. You see how weird it could get.
One problem is that it’s trivially easy to do. Let’s “subvert” children’s fiction. Chapter 1, Look, an adorable child. Chapters 2-20, we follow her adorable little adventures. Chapter 21, Oops, she just got raped to death, the end. By the given standard, that novel would be more literary than George Eliot because it’s upsetting. But it’s just a transparent button-punch.
Why? It’s your example – what were you trying to say with that story? Are you against the current status quo and believe more girls should be raped (Hey, I went all ROH for a second) or against the status quo that adores a just world fallacy and you want to state that terrible things can happen and it’s not a just world? Or something else? Look at the question marks you’ve raised…?
You’ve kind of ignored attempting to problematise the ‘having a problem with the status quo’ part of what I’ve said. Do you have a problem with the status quo somewhere in making your example? Or are you just playing shock jock for the money (ie, an entertainer)?
It almost sounds like you’re also asking for ‘the right cause’ in this question of literary challenge, Murphy? Given you gave an example that lacked any explicit cause and then pointed out your example as problematic.
I dunno if it’ll help, but I find myself to be a bit of a claim ambush predator. I can’t go hunt them, I have to wait for them to be presented – then I pounce. But folk around me just don’t seem to make enough claims to even make a thin story (whereas the religious folks with their bibles and wot-not are claim/target rich territory). And I can’t just write as if I know their unsaid claims – it feels like building and fighting a strawman. But I’ve found dips into conversational writing, using ‘if’ like statements, like ‘Don’t we usually want X?’, where X is something that atleast in my evaluation causes problems, then I can pounce onto potential prey/a potential claim.
Otherwise it seems like either you are not talking about literature at all, or you’re using a different definition of literature to me, one which does not involve causes (causes which conflict with the status quo).
But then for a liberal reader, under this approach, perhaps that makes her literary. You see how weird it could get.
If she just confirms the liberals ideas, then no.
She could, however, be literary in regard to you! As much as I doubt I share her values as well, she would be challenging our prefered status quo. If she could just get you to read her damn books!
But she doesn’t bother trying to get you to read them – she’s content to entertain and profit. Not literary – until she tries to grab you and I for he ideas of how things should be? (yeah, it’s funny to refer to oneself as a kind of ‘prey’ in regard to this)
Like the red wedding, it’s not upsetting on a level that challenges anyone’s values (the widespread Dynasty comparison seems fair to me).
I believe I read GRRM describing it – he put it really interesting, because he engaged both a ‘everything in it’s place’ story notion, where he said something like ‘well once someones eaten salt and bread in your home, they cannot harm you’. He even had the authoritive voice. Then after establishing structure, it fucks with it and goes ‘oh, of course they can harm you! That’s a silly thing to think!’
If you want to argue he didn’t express that well – well that’s a valid question. But I think that description show the cause (that grates agains the status quo) is there.
And ultimately any literature that seeks to change its audience’s view is already engaged in the snobbery of “I’m here to rescue you from your current stupidity”.
Yeah, well, a suffragette standing in a gutter handing out pamphlets is snobby as well. That’s partly why they changed the laws so they couldn’t hand out their pamphlets on the street (and so had to game the system and stand in the gutter / not the street, to bypass that).
We could say, “oh, genre readers are crying out for the literary effect, they just want their specific genre pleasures with it.” But that won’t work, either, because that puts them in the same category as literary-genre readers who self-consciously (and self-flatteringly) seek out challenging work and therefore, in Scott’s view, are doomed to never experience it, because it only really works when you’re not expecting it.
I’m not sure Scott has said that? Just because you seek out ‘challenging’ work, doesn’t mean the author is going to provide just the safe little challenge you are seeking. Unless they are aligned purely with the money, then yeah, then delivering that is the shortest path. But to me I don’t think Scott has said that – so I wont enter into it.
There’s not a great deal of point reading deeply into my example story – its only point is to illustrate that the criterion “Have you upset someone today?” could be used to hold up shock tactics as high art. “Have you upset the status quo today?” is, I have to say, a different question (and the answer varies from liberal to conservative to communist and so on). This goes back to my first point about how long the argument over the word “challenging” could turn out to be.
It’s entirely possible we’re operating with different senses of literature. “She could, however, be literary in regard to you! As much as I doubt I share her values as well, she would be challenging our prefered status quo. If she could just get you to read her damn books!” This was exactly my point and I consider it to be an unfortunate outcome to the argument that it could include Cartland as literature. It expands the concept of literature to the point of collapse.
“Just because you seek out ‘challenging’ work, doesn’t mean the author is going to provide just the safe little challenge you are seeking.” No, it doesn’t. But I do think Scott is constructing a sort of strategy of ambush.
Overall, I think we’re approaching the limit of what can usefully be done in generalities, which never really convince anyone. If someone wants to make ‘the case for genre’, it will have to be made novel by novel, there aren’t any shortcuts. But it’s a plea, of course, being made purely to the literati, because – oh look – everyone else already reads it. And to go back to 01’s point further up, does it matter what they think? To the extent that the argument between literature and genre is about power, genre has secured a vast advantage already, at least in the American balance. Apparently not in Canada. But in the US, “take genre seriously” is a demand on the order of the Cavalry hoping the Indians still respect them.
I haven’t read all the posts in this discussion, so it may be that either (a) this point has already been made, or (b) it doesn’t really address any of the issues on the table.
But I’m going to make the point anyway, since it strikes me as relevant.
It seems to me (and, again, perhaps I’m mistaken) that at least some of the worries about the ‘audience-challenging-criterion’ of literature can be allayed simply by recognizing that Scott must mean for the criterion to function as a necessary but not sufficient condition for a piece of writing to qualify as literature.
Therefore, what passes for ‘literature’ fails the test — let’s grant Scott that much — since nobody who might genuinely be challenged by it is reading it. But just because people are reading something does not make it literature: it is not a sufficient condition. Nor, I think, is the fact that a piece of writing challenges its readers a sufficient condition to make it literature, even if it’s a necessary one.
The point has not been made, and it’s a good one, but doesn’t the phrase “genuinely challenging” beg the question? It seems to be setting up a test of authenticity of response – “I find literary fiction challenging”, “no, you don’t.” Isn’t that problematic? So, I can’t straightforwardly grant Scott even that much (though I can provisionally, for the sake of argument).
“… doesn’t the phrase ‘genuinely challenging’ beg the question?”
I don’t think so. But it does require that we agree on what it means for a piece of writing to ‘challenge’ its readers. Therefore, someone can say, “I find literary fiction challenging,” and they can be perfectly right without meaning that they find it challenging in the sense Scott has in mind. I myself find much such fiction challenging — for instance, I recently tried reading Gravity’s Rainbow, and fuck all, but it’s a pain in the ass! — but only in the sense that it’s stylistically obtuse and so difficult to penetrate.
My point is that one might mean any number of things by ‘challenging.’ But once we agree on what we mean when we say ‘challenging’ in this conversation (and Scott’s been quite clear on this, I think), then it becomes a question of the facts on the ground. In other words, Scott’s claims about literature’s failure to challenge its readers rests on empirico-sociological claims (and highly general ones, at that). The question, then, is decided by the facts: is ‘literary fiction’ actually being read, in any significant numbers, by people not already in the socio-politico-ideological choir? I tend to agree with Scott that the answer is undoubtedly, “No.” But if you were to disagree, I couldn’t back up the claim with anything like hard figures. It just strikes me as obviously true — in general.
Nor, I think, is the fact that a piece of writing challenges its readers a sufficient condition to make it literature, even if it’s a necessary one.
Really? So what’s the tipping point, Roger?
I’m not asking in a ‘Give a definition that’ll convince everyone’ way, or even that’ll convince me. But I’m curious as to what you’ll say, either way?
“So what’s the tipping point, Roger?”
That’s the big question. I’d put it this way: If the ‘audience-challenging-criterion’ is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a piece of writing to qualify as ‘literature,’ then what must be added to a piece of writing (in addition to its being ‘audience challenging’) in order for it to qualify as literature?
The short answer is: I have no idea. But it should be said that the mere fact of challenging (some significant number of) readers is obviously insufficient, if you stop to think about it. If it were sufficient, then one could produce a literary masterpiece simply by, say, renting space on a billboard next to a densely trafficked area and putting up a poster on which are written the words: “EVERYTHING YOU BELIEVE IS WRONG. YOU ARE STUPID. FUCK OFF.”
Now, this might be ‘art,’ but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s ‘literature.’
Now, though I don’t claim to have an answer to your question, I do have a few thoughts. This is something I’ve pressed Scott on before, without ever getting much of a response (that I can recall). The idea arises from my sense that Scott’s rhetoric often paints him as a ‘champion of genre,’ but it seems to me that his position is just as ‘anti-most-genre-fiction’ as it is ‘anti-literary-fiction.’ Why? Because, by his lights (it seems to me), most genre fiction fails as literature. It seems to me that Scott’s position is best understood as wanting to wed genre with some of the features of literary fiction that would challenge other-minded readers if such readers were to be exposed to it. So Scott’s condemntation of literary fiction turns on literay fiction’s willful alienation of the popular, but the flip-side is his condemntation of (most) genre fiction is its failure to embrace the more ‘serious’ content or cultural role of traditional literary fiction.
If this is right, then the answer is that, to count as genuine literature, genre fiction has to become more like literary fiction, and literary fiction has to become more like genre fiction. So to fill in the ‘sufficient’ conditions for a piece of writing to qualify as literature, one has to look — wait for it! — to literary fiction, the very thing that Scott seems to be trashing!
Really, though, none of this should be very surprising, it seems to me. For what is distinctive of Scott’s fantasy novels if not their marriage of genre and literary sensibilities? And we can add to this the historical argument Scott sometimes makes about the changing place or role of the literary in popular culture. If we look to the past, we can see that this gap between the ‘literary’ and the ‘popular’ was not always so vast as it is now. Dickens, the Russians, Shakespeare, Cervantes. The historico-cultural issues here are vastly complex, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that ‘literary fiction’ used to embrace a kind of ‘popularity’ that contemporary literary fiction willfully eschews. And one prominent feature of much of the older literary fiction is that it seems to us much more… well… genre-like.
The poster seems valid to me? Just a couple of things: One, it’s not very specific, or atleast seems that way – so I think it tones down it’s challenge because it doesn’t connect with a down to earth subject too well. Also you have to hire billboards, and writers wanna be payed, not pay. But on the other hand, a story via billboards….that’s a really interesting idea! Don’t you agree?
As a reductio ad absurdum, it’s not that absurd to me. And obvious is a funny word – if you think about it, that is obvious.
I’m not sure the reductio really described or closed off a potential tipping point.
There’s not a great deal of point reading deeply into my example story – its only point is to illustrate that the criterion “Have you upset someone today?” could be used to hold up shock tactics as high art. “Have you upset the status quo today?” is, I have to say, a different question (and the answer varies from liberal to conservative to communist and so on). This goes back to my first point about how long the argument over the word “challenging” could turn out to be.
Murphy, you’re ignoring my qualifiers – I’m sure when you take perscription medicine, you don’t ignore the qualifiers they give on how much, how often, with what, etc.
As I wrote, it starts with do you have a problem with the status quo?
If you are going to give examples where you have no problem with the status quo (it’s just shock for shocks sake), then I’ll just take it that you don’t – so much so you don’t even seem to know what I’m referencing when I ask if you have such a problem (or don’t want to think about it).
So for now you seem fine with whatever status quo’s you’re aware of. Your reference to whether something is considered high art seems to compound this. If your goal is to challenge and transform the status quo, then being recognised as high art would be nice, but is unnecessary. Whereas from your perspective, seperating writing from any notion of being potentially recognised as high art probably wrecks an entire world for you (probably causing you to think I mean something else. Something other than what would wreck that world). You even say this in regard to if B. Cartland actually wrote so as to reach a dissenting audience, ‘It expands the concept of literature to the point of collapse.’
Yes. Yes it does. A world full of yardsticks – all apparently at its center.
I can’t say I have any interest in the extreme end of that, where you change the world (in regard to your own values) for the better, but no one knows and even perhaps, somewhat as the joker might say, they all cast you out, like a literary leper. I’d want some recognition, myself, a few dozen folk in the know, atleast – a kind of cult following.
But to be recognised as creating high art by every damn soul?
The only way to do that would be to not challenge but instead utterly appease the status quo. Because the folk you jar, the ones who need to be jarred, they aren’t going to call your jarring high art. They’ll call you a pain in the arse, even if you do end up affecting them.
Assuming any of that has anything to do with what Scott’s talking about – he may be refering to something else and I read it wrong *shrug*.
No, Callan, I say that Cartland as she is, not as she potentially might have been, does not qualify as literature if literature is to remain a useful category. Delvagus has neatly addressed that point now.
“The only way to do that would be to not challenge but instead utterly appease the status quo. Because the folk you jar, the ones who need to be jarred, they aren’t going to call your jarring high art. They’ll call you a pain in the arse, even if you do end up affecting them.” Sure, agreed. That’s what happened with modernism, in some circles.
I suspected you’d be okay with the “collapse” idea. And that’s fine. If that’s what you’re after, I accept that’s what you’re after. It’s just a different discussion to the one I had in mind, that’s all.
I say that Cartland as she is, not as she potentially might have been,
Then you’re just not talking about the subject I brought up – I was pretty clearly talking about if she attempted to reach out to you via the media you do read. I don’t think I was obscure in writing that – it seems another of my caveats is ignored?
Okay, in such a case, really the conversation just came to an abrupt halt then (and I only figured that out now).
The historico-cultural issues here are vastly complex, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that ‘literary fiction’ used to embrace a kind of ‘popularity’ that contemporary literary fiction willfully eschews.
There were, you know, less books ;).
Yes, and fewer readers. That’s why the best example I know of is Shakespeare. He delivered his ‘literature’ directly to the people. No need for books, no need for literacy. In fact, with the exception of his brief forays into ‘serious’ literary work — his epic poems — Shakespeare actually eschewed the ‘literary’ in favor of the popular! That’s why I like to tell people that, were Shakespeare alive today, he’d almost certainly be working in Hollywood, not writing literary fiction.
As you can imagine, many lit-types do not take kindly to that suggestion.
Yeah, but he’d be making stuff like ‘the dark knight’, rather than stuff like ‘legally blonde’. Or atleast making the latter more like the former. Whatever works.
“Scott’s claims about literature’s failure to challenge its readers rests on empirico-sociological claims (and highly general ones, at that). The question, then, is decided by the facts: is ‘literary fiction’ actually being read, in any significant numbers, by people not already in the socio-politico-ideological choir?”
I’d agree this is the state of play. I did try to say once before that the argument rests on a claim that requires evidence. After all, Scott’s favorite question is “how do you know?” I don’t remember the point being well received (not that it should be), so I’m glad it came from someone else this time.
On Scott and genre. As I read Scott’s position, “Literature” is no longer literature because (to put it crudely) it no longer holds any surprises for its readers. Genre has the potential to be what literature used to be, though whether any genre work written so far has fulfilled that potential would need to be argued through, novel by novel. It’s entirely possible, within Scott’s definition, that nothing currently in existence actually qualifies as literature. There’s definitely a critique of genre there, and perhaps he should foreground it more; I think this even-handedness is a point in Scott’s favor, and it would be a far greater failure to make it a righteous “we rock, you suck” scenario. The thing is, Scott does love literature. He’s been quite open about how deeply he loves it. It’s just that he thinks that over time (an as-yet undefined period) it stopped doing its duty, stopped working, and its time is up. But its old function is still socially vital and there’s nothing else to deliver it except genre – an interestingly tepid recommendation of genre. Of the two prongs of that attack, what he says about literature is probably the more *self*-critical of the two.
But its old function is still socially vital and there’s nothing else to deliver it except genre – an interestingly tepid recommendation of genre. Of the two prongs of that attack, what he says about literature is probably the more *self*-critical of the two.
But the fact seems, as Roger mentioned, that the sufficient constituents for Literature can be found in literary fiction, the specific genre. Which, as is echoed above, isn’t being read except by the “socio-polito-ideological choir. And, unfortunately, that is our cultural capital, those trained literati, being stripped away from the culture it is supposed to shape. Robbing us, the plebeletariot, of our cultural evolutions ;).
As an aside, I wonder if this discussion isn’t hindered by the distinctions. I’m of the opinion, that Literature encompassed almost anything that was being written or read in the past of few authors. But genre came about because of the plenty and, thus, those things constituting Literary sufficiency have been relegated to literary fiction a genre.
Or am I mistaken?
Ah, well. ARE you mistaken? This is a good question. Scott would say you are. It’s crucial to his argument that literature is not defined by “resemblance” but by “effect.” So, if you read Ulysses in the 1930s, you were reading literature. But if you read it today, you’re not. Or rather, if you read it today and enjoy it, you’re not reading literature. There’s an interesting wrinkle in Scott’s theory where pleasure disqualifies you from having a literary experience; it tips it over into “entertainment”. So, if you read Ulysses today and viscerally dislike it, you might have read literature. If you read Game Of Thrones and feel profoundly changed and disturbed by it, then you have read literature. If I read the same novel and think it’s boring, I don’t know what Scott would say exactly. Normally, if we both read The Sound And The Fury and one liked it and one disliked it, we would agree on whether it was literature or not; we would just disagree on whether it was good or not. But I think on Scott’s approach, whether it is literature or not varies from reader to reader, like the “Is it art?” question in conceptual art. That might complicate his objection when people dismiss genre as not literature… except in practice, as we’ve already noted, he’s not been THAT big a cheerleader for “actually existing” genre. I mean, if you don’t like military sci-fi adventure novels, I don’t think he’s going to complain much. It’s more that he’s against the belief, the generalization, that genre cannot have the effect on readers that, shall we say, recognized literature can have. Genre as crypto-literature is his plan, I believe. All of which rests on this notion of “effect”, which is what I was poking at in my first post on this thread.
You bring up interesting points, Murphy. But I feel that you’re misreading Scott in ways that make his view seem much more problematic than I think it is.
To make just one point: Scott’s claims are very general and as such are meant, I believe, to be applied (and evaluated) only the macro-level. It’s true, as you show, that by applying the claims at a micro-level (e.g., at the level of any particular individual reader), you can make them look somewhat ridiculous, because (inter alia) wildly relativistic. That is: if ‘literature’ is solely a matter of effect, then — if looked at at the micro-level — there can be no meangingful literary-theoretic judgments to make outside of the experience of individual readers. But this seems counterintuitive in the extreme. And indeed, I’m not sure Scott’s views commit him to this. What applies at macro-levels does not always apply at micro-levels, and vice versa. (When it comes to the natural world, quantum mechanics is a great example.) I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has come up with a name for this and categorized it as a logical fallacy.
In short, issues of the place (= effects of) literature in society as a whole can be distinguished from issues of its place (= effect upon) individual readers. And true claims made about the former may not be true of the latter, and vice versa. (Note that this is not to say that any piece of writing ‘exists’ outside of all possible readings. I entirely agree with Scott that whatever writing is, it exists somehow at the intersection of text and reader. But this does not necessarily lead to a sort of ‘literary Parmenideanism,’ according to which each of us is the measure of the literary.)
A side point: I simply can’t imagine that Scott would say that a person cannot enjoy literature, that ‘enjoyment of x’ automatically disqualifies x as literature. That seems preposterous to me. Indeed, it seems to fly in the face of Scott’s entire let’s-embrace-genre approach, which he at least used to characterize in terms of a ‘Trojan horse.’ The horse has to look appealing; the Trojans have to like the horse — have to enjoy the horse — in order to wheel it into their city. Only once the horse is there can its subversive role be carried out. Thus, ‘reader enjoyment’ seems like a central component of Scott’s literary strategy.
Yeah… What Roger said!
Actually, I’ll bite some of these bullets. One of the things to keep in mind is that all communicative forms are just that: communicative. Certain forms reliably produce certain communicative effects, given a certain systematic contexts. That context is presently being turned on its head by what everyone agrees is the most profound communicative revolution in human history. All communication is ‘wildly relativistic’ to the extent that it utterly depends on the systems involved. Change the systems, and you change the communication. To me this is a no-brainer. My view is extreme, but it’s actually far easier to argue than any view bent on essentializing literature as some kind of ‘bestest code ever,’ which somehow operates regardless of the actual systems involved. To me, this is just magical thinking.
The real problem in any debate like this lies in the definition of the concept ‘literature,’ which is why I stick with ‘cognitive/attitudinal transformation’ as my blanket criterion. ‘Pleasure’ is neither here nor there. If you define ‘literature’ as something that reinforces prevailing ingroup attitudes, then your literature is my entertainment. Since cognitive/attitudinal transformation is a necessary condition of social transformation, and since social transformation or ‘being part of the solution’ is something so many so-called literary authors crow about, my criterion can actually do quite a bit of heavy lifting. It freaks people out because, as a single criterion, it seems to make for some ugly bedfellows: it let’s in Atlas Shrugged or The Turner Diaries for instance. In other words, it admits outgroup identifications of ‘literature.’ Even though I see this as a strength, human hard-wiring is sure to scream otherwise. Where are the aesthetic criteria? the ingroup specialist will inevitably cry.
My answer? In the garbage, where they belong. This is the ‘cultural triage’ component of my argument. An AI tested with the verbal skills of a four-year old just a few days ago. IBM is making cartoons via the manipulation of single atoms. Highschool students are inventing new lifeforms for science fairs. Anybody can play the conceptual definition game, fence off some status preserving concept using criteria only they can appreciate, make fatuous arguments about why their beauty is the greater beauty, but the question remains, ‘How is your art part of the solution as opposed to the problem?’
Insofar as the ‘literary mainstream’ has been socio-economically encapsulated it is simply another mass grave for social critical potential. More entertainment. Think of all that literary brilliance, and yet Atlas Shrugged remains far and away the most transformative piece of fiction in the USA today. It must be just because everybody is just too stupid to see or appreciate that brilliance. It can’t be because our institutions reliably teach whole generations to write with their genitalia firmly in hand!
So… when you refer to ‘literary brilliance,’ you have your rhetorical tongue firmly in your cheek? You think all such claims are empty — that ‘literary brilliance’ is just a hoax and actually nothing but writing ‘with one’s genitalia firmly in hand’… full stop, end of story?
Is there no room for a moderate (skeptical) historicism here? Don’t we have recourse, above (mere) subjectivity and (supreme) objectivity, to (fallible, contingent, etc.) intersubjectivity?
Do you think ‘literary brilliance’ is anything essential? Of course not. So the rabbit you need to pull out of your hat is how ‘intersubjectivity’ amounts to anything more than an ingroup power play. What I’m saying is that things have gotten to such a point that continuing this ancient and all-too-often self-aggrandizing debate (Me ingroup best ingroup! We no write mere fiction!) is simply a waste of time. I say this from the standpoint of being institutionalized as much as you, of making demands of my own writing that are ‘aesthetic’ through and through – but I don’t see these demands as ‘essential to literature’ in any way, knowing that with many readers they simply serve to confirm and reinforce preexisting assumptions and views.
“Do you think ‘literary brilliance’ is anything essential? Of course not. So the rabbit you need to pull out of your hat is how ‘intersubjectivity’ amounts to anything more than an ingroup power play.”
Essential? No. But I do find historicism in aesthetics to be far-and-away the most attractive theoretical approach. In that vein, I would want to say something like: No, of course there’s no timeless ‘essence’ of ‘literary brilliance,’ but there are various ways that ‘literary brilliance’ is manifested within various cultural and historical circumstances. Since literature exists somehow at the intersection of text and reader, and since ‘readers’ are culturally conditioned, it seems to follow that effective and ineffective ‘literary techniques’ must also be culturally conditioned. It seems, then, that there are literary-theoretical things we can say, from our standpoint, about literature (broadly construed) as it exists today, as it arises from texts and today’s readers.
Are such conversations nothing but ingroup power plays? They certainly can be — especially if they’re engaged in by ‘literary dogmatists’ (or ‘essentialists’), who are simply foolish. But I would want to argue that such conversations needn’t be. Nor do I think that all such conversations are a waste of time. You yourself have some interesting views about how to write effective literature for today, i.e., for our current historico-cultural situation. I don’t think it’s a waste of time to talk about those views.
In short, I don’t think I disagree with you about anything substantive here. It’s just that I want to continue the conversation — while admitting the severe constraints placed on it — whereas you seem to be saying (in a curiously self-defeating way) that there is no conversation to be had, only waste-of-time power plays.
I’ve just really been freaked out by the bloody pace of some recent tech breakthroughs. It’s one thing to follow these trends lolligagging with a tea in front of your computer. It’s quite another to do the same with your daughter on your lap. Think about it: the I-phone came out 5 years ago! Add to that all the philosophy of neuroscience I’ve been reading…
I should actually do up a blog post on the topic: I feel like I just woke up and the whole world has become apocalyptically old-fashioned, perniciously obsolete. All of our institutions are going to be ground to a pulp, and here we’re debating traditional aesthetic values…
My Jeremiah complex is deepening, apparently!
You’re a novelist, dude. Of course you’re old-fashioned, virtually obsolete! I’m even worse: I merely aspire to obsolescence! A sad state of affairs.
Literature: That which is subject to literary criticism?
Roger, it depends if the talk is the kind like a historical war recreation society – putting much pains into running faux battles that have already been resolved.
Talk is essentially a writers means of fighting (where as a soldier can talk to his allies during a war without ceasing to be a soldier) – have to be careful to not 100% aim it at, well, the choir.
That said, there’s discussion of potential targets that others might not have considered. And means of provocation when does not have a toe hold in the distribution network (like making posters for local board spaces and what to say without some asshole tearing down your poster five minutes after you put it up – though maybe the published writers don’t want to think so low as ‘posters’ – well la de dah!). And although the necessary lack of talk kind of makes for sociall issolated writers, there’s potential for using a ‘Naked came the stranger’ methods for marvel style team ups (not just a titilation piece, but using the genre to fire some salvos). Though no doubt in such a case consistant theme/question in such would not be aligned, since we all have our own direction (such inability to agree to begin with is really the issue, anyway). But that’s okay since solid genre will carry the piece even if the inner questions are conflicted and many.
Them’s my estimations.
I feel like I just woke up and the whole world has become apocalyptically old-fashioned, perniciously obsolete
DWF calls it “the great postmodern uncertainty that we live in”.
Obvious fact: Never before have there been so many gaping chasms between what the world seems to be and what science tells us it is. ‘Us’ meaning laymen. It’s like a million Copernican Revolutions all happening at the same time. As in for instance we ‘know,’ as high-school graduates and readers of Newsweek, that time is relative, that quantum particles can be both there and not, that space is curved, that colors do not inhere in objects themselves, that astronomic singularities have infinite density, that our love for our children is evolutionarily preprogrammed, that there is a blind spot in our vision that our brains automatically fill in. That our thoughts and feelings are really just chemical transfers in 2.8 pounds of electrified pâté. That we are mostly water, and water is mostly hydrogen, and hydrogen is flammable, and yet we are not flammable. We ‘know’ a near-infinity of truths that contradict our immediate commonsense experience of the world. And yet we have to live and function in the world. So we abstract, compartmentalize: there’s stuff we know and stuff we ‘know’. I ‘know’ my love for my child is a function of natural selection, but I know I love him, and I feel and act on what I know. Viewed objectively, the whole thing is deeply schizoid; yet the fact of the matter is that as subjective laymen we don’t often feel the conflict. Because of course our lives are 99.9% concretely operational, and we operate concretely on what we know, not on what we ‘know’.
It makes me think about heuristics.
Yeah, but that ‘know’ is still from the very platform that ‘knowing’ renders obsolete. It’s still a thinking which comes from a particular sort of X, Y, Z position, not a thinking that somehow comes from the very center of the universe or whatever position is somehow the big deal.
I don’t think such knowledge renders what we know moot – it does, however, render a hell of a perspective – seeing us as being merely at a co-ordinate somewhere – not at the big old center of anything.
To dismiss what we ‘know’ with what we know is just more ‘know’ bickering with ‘know’. Which doesn’t actually grasp that bickering as a process in itself.
Roger, have you seen Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing?” It’s quite wonderful.
No, not yet. But I was delighted to see it get such positive reviews.
A bit of trivia about “Much Ado”: in Elizabethan times, ‘nothing’ was slang for female genitalia. “Much Ado About Nothing,” then, could serve as a title for much of what goes on in most men’s lives!
Scott, have you considered posting a review, similar to what you did with “Infinite Jest,” of a genre novel that helps support your argument?
It’s a good idea, for sure, but I would have to burn through my stack of cognitive science must-reads first. I’ve never been in charge of what I read!
Star Script Doctor Damon Lindelof Explains the New Rules of Blockbuster Screenwriting
How would we go about creating a popular culture that’s both critical and can compete with a non-critical popular culture that currently dominates? A roadmap would be nice.
[…] is another of the old and recurring debates that was brought up again by R. Scott Bakker. I’m linking to it because I think there are patterns that go beyond the […]
[…] I was coming from one of the latest post on Bakker’s blog where he goes again with the debate about “genre” Vs “literature”: https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2013/07/04/russell-smith-shrugged/ […]