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Literary Reading in Decline

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My internet is being rubbish and won't let me multiquote, so here's a half-baked attempt at replying without quoting:

 

1. Josh Hamm--Yes, I was being intentionally hyperbolic on the "nothing more than that you like Austen" bit--there's other things going on there. Agreed. Also on the genre thing being boring; the canon wars are so 70s/80s that it's not even funny. I thought we had moved past that sort of wrangling, but it crops up over and over. And, given the historic nature of the feud, it probably will as long as people want to exclude/include based on literary taste.

 

2. J.A.A.--

 

[a] If one's appreciation of Austen is based on the fact that she has to always have been considered a literary genius, then it is an historically impoverished and ill-informed understanding of literary production, reception, and  of the process of canon-formation. Literature is labeled as such in time and as the result of certain social and sedimentary forces. There simply is not True Good Standard of Writing. [Again, this debate goes back to Castiglione, at least, and probably back to his Greek and Roman sources, which means that it's very old, and it suggests that there's simply no right answer to it. Which is fine by me.] {In a less aggressive tone: Austen isn't the only writer who was initially merely niche or modish and then got accepted into the fold. Most early 16th C poets wrote to entertain the court, as a kind of fashionable exercise, with no pretense of being great Literature; Melville was outright dismissed until Moby-Dick was resurrected as a Great American Novel. The process by which a book is accepted as Literature is not about declining taste--but it is about changing taste, changing definitions of what constitutes the Literary. Because "Literature" isn't a fixed thing; it's a signifier denoting respectability. It's now respectable to find value in Moby-Dick; it wasn't always so. It's now also respectable to find value in books like The Wide, Wide World where formerly they were dismissed as second-rate women's writing. These shifts in what constitutes "good" or "worthwhile" occur all the time, and any theory of small-l literature has to take into account the fact that big-L Literature is something like Mrs. Harris, in that there ain't no sich person.}

 

Professors don't recommend books. I have yet to sit under a professor whose primary task was to guide me or anyone else to "good" books. Professors are, by and large, interested in facilitating conversation. And that's as possible with Micky Spillaine as it is with Dostoevsky. That's what literary criticism does; quality enters it in some ways, but that's not what makes criticism interesting. The idea that anyone in academia should be pottering around praising "great" books and denigrating "not-great" books is based on a popular but--by my observation--incorrect understanding of how things work in the academy.It's really nowhere near so Romantic as all that.

 

3.Jason Panella--what you said.

 

I'm probably on the extreme end, even among Lit people--on this board and elsewhere--in that I'm absolutely a nominalist when it comes to literary quality. This label "Literary" is a socio-economic construct that's designed to privilege certain kinds of books and dismiss others. That's fine; we like and value the kind of literature we like and value. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that there's anything in the designation Literary itself that actually confers or conveys value. It's just a word, like all other words, and what's Literary today may well be trash tomorrow (and vice versa). In the end, who cares? Read what's interesting, or can be made interesting by discussion, and don't read what ain't interesting. But for heaven's sake, leave us not pretend that books that are called Literary are somehow superior to books presented as genre. That's pretentious, and I'll stick by the word.

Edited by NBooth

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I'm probably on the extreme end, even among Lit people--on this board and elsewhere--in that I'm absolutely a nominalist when it comes to literary quality. This label "Literary" is a socio-economic construct that's designed to privilege certain kinds of books and dismiss others. That's fine; we like and value the kind of literature we like and value. But we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that there's anything in the designation Literary itself that actually confers or conveys value. It's just a word, like all other words, and what's Literary today may well be trash tomorrow (and vice versa). In the end, who cares? Read what's interesting, or can be made interesting by discussion, and don't read what ain't interesting. But for heaven's sake, leave us not pretend that books that are called Literary are somehow superior to books presented as genre. That's pretentious, and I'll stick by the word.

 

I lost count of the number of times people would come into Borders and sling "literary" around like this. "Where is the literature?" some would ask. I'd try to pinpoint what they were asking about, since we had an actual "literature" section that housed fiction from some authors in the western canon. Usually, they meant "stuff I like," and everything else was sneer-worthy. One person asked for a recommendation of good, "literary" fiction. I rattled off some authors I had recently enjoyed (including James M. Cain, Tolkien and Stanislaw Lem) and got this pitying look in response. "Oh, that's genre garbage. I mean real literature." The person ended up buying a Chuck Palahniuk novel, which...well, no comment. 

 

This sort of thing happened all of the time. And I worked in a small, mall-based store that got a lot of foot traffic from rural folk. I think working in a bookstore for years put me in a similar frame of mind to what Nathanael described; I also kept my nose up to fantasy, crime fiction and the rest (aside from a few z-grade pulps I read as guilty pleasures) but left with a love for all kinds of stuff. 

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I'm envious of the sort of friends you have or the circles you travel in, to have this point of view.

Me too.

This makes me sad.

I don't care how many snobs or publishers there are who may think so, good writing is not, goddamn it, a "genre". It boggles the mind that there are adults, who presumably went to school and even graduated from university, who can think this. If the state of the book publishing industry is such that literature is a separate "genre," then we are all more screwed than I thought we were. If all of you are merely protesting the calling of literary fiction a "genre," rather than questioning whether there is a difference between the literary and the unliterary, then I am with you, heart and soul.

 

[a] If one's appreciation of Austen is based on the fact that she has to always have been considered a literary genius, then it is an historically impoverished and ill-informed understanding of literary production, reception, and  of the process of canon-formation. Literature is labeled as such in time and as the result of certain social and sedimentary forces. There simply is not True Good Standard of Writing. [Again, this debate goes back to Castiglione, at least, and probably back to his Greek and Roman sources, which means that it's very old, and it suggests that there's simply no right answer to it. Which is fine by me.] {In a less aggressive tone: Austen isn't the only writer who was initially merely niche or modish and then got accepted into the fold. Most early 16th C poets wrote to entertain the court, as a kind of fashionable exercise, with no pretense of being great Literature; Melville was outright dismissed until Moby-Dick was resurrected as a Great American Novel. The process by which a book is accepted as Literature is not about declining taste--but it is about changing taste, changing definitions of what constitutes the Literary. Because "Literature" isn't a fixed thing; it's a signifier denoting respectability. It's now respectable to find value in Moby-Dick; it wasn't always so. It's now also respectable to find value in books like The Wide, Wide World where formerly they were dismissed as second-rate women's writing. These shifts in what constitutes "good" or "worthwhile" occur all the time, and any theory of small-l literature has to take into account the fact that big-L Literature is something like Mrs. Harris, in that there ain't no sich person.}

I love how our differences of opinion force each other to be careful, to clarify and to rethink our assumptions. I really do. But there does appear to be some serious miscommunication here. I am taking the traditional position. The reason to appreciate any author, Austen, Melville, Dickens, etc., is not because they were recognized in their own day. It is because you, as a reader, can take great pleasure in their work. You seem to be exerting great effort here to explain how literary fashions can change and then change again like the winds. The traditional position takes that for granted. That is, in fact, the very reason why traditional literary canons have value.

Extended over time and over different historical ages, some of the best writers who ever lived have been recognized over time, even if they were in or out of fashion at any given moment. Traditional canons are simply our way of recognizing these writers. I can value the tradition that Austen is a good writer, because traditions, by their very nature transcend the transitory nature of literary fads. Such a tradition led to my reading Austen when I otherwise wouldn't have. Does the traditional canon always work? Not always. But it's the best tool we have for that sort of thing. I have also been forced to learn, against my own prejudices, that often the canon doesn't work for me because I am narrow, provincial, limited and uneducated. Melville, for instance, is an acquired taste. When I first read Melville, I reacted to his writing with the boredom and short attention span of a illiterate boor. But, even though I was blind to them, the riches in Melville were still there the whole time. And a vast collection of readers, wiser than I, had built a tradition across history declaring that Melville did indeed possess what I was too mindless to see. It was only later that I discovered they were worth listening to.

 

Professors don't recommend books. I have yet to sit under a professor whose primary task was to guide me or anyone else to "good" books. Professors are, by and large, interested in facilitating conversation. And that's as possible with Micky Spillaine as it is with Dostoevsky. That's what literary criticism does; quality enters it in some ways, but that's not what makes criticism interesting. The idea that anyone in academia should be pottering around praising "great" books and denigrating "not-great" books is based on a popular but--by my observation--incorrect understanding of how things work in the academy.It's really nowhere near so Romantic as all that.

There are already more great works of literature than I will live long enough to read. If reading a great book can really open one's eyes to the world in a new way, if it can really make you into a better person, then I'd prefer to spend more time reading such books and less time reading the currently fashionable and empty. But this realization does not prohibit the reading of "pulp fiction" or "penny dreadfuls." The two are not mutually exclusive. You don't have to deny the superior worth of the masters in order to enjoy the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Bernard Cornwell, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Alistair MacLean, Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald, Jonathan Latimer, Brett Halliday, Edgar Rice Burroughs, et al.

I have greatly enjoyed, here and there, a few hours of Mickey Spillane. Could a good literature professor lead a better discussion in class about Spillane than a bad literature professor could lead about Dostoevsky? Of course. In fact, it was attending classes by bad literature professors that convinced me that literature as a profession was not for me. But should a literature professor ever replace Dostoevsky with Spillane? That is not even a serious question.

 

I lost count of the number of times people would come into Borders and sling "literary" around like this. "Where is the literature?" some would ask. I'd try to pinpoint what they were asking about, since we had an actual "literature" section that housed fiction from some authors in the western canon. Usually, they meant "stuff I like," and everything else was sneer-worthy. One person asked for a recommendation of good, "literary" fiction. I rattled off some authors I had recently enjoyed (including James M. Cain, Tolkien and Stanislaw Lem) and got this pitying look in response. "Oh, that's genre garbage. I mean real literature." The person ended up buying a Chuck Palahniuk novel, which...well, no comment. 

 

This sort of thing happened all of the time. And I worked in a small, mall-based store that got a lot of foot traffic from rural folk. I think working in a bookstore for years put me in a similar frame of mind to what Nathanael described; I also kept my nose up to fantasy, crime fiction and the rest (aside from a few z-grade pulps I read as guilty pleasures) but left with a love for all kinds of stuff.

I feel for you. In fact, I have talked to those types of readers in different elective literature classes that I took in college. I was seriously considering a career in teaching or writing at the time. It was my being around them (and professors just like them) that repulsed me from literature. It took years to recover (and I'm not even sure if I've yet recovered fully). But we must not allow snobs, and the way they talk about good literature, to distract or repulse us from the real thing. The snobs will always be with us.

I do understand that the bookstores often separate books by "genre". I suppose I would simply argue that, over at the mystery section, James Ellroy has writing that is literary in ways that James Patterson does not. Over in the "fantasy" section, Neil Gaiman has writing that is literary in ways that Dean Koontz does not. Or, if there were a "historical fiction" section, Patrick O'Brian and Umberto Eco have writing that is literary in ways that Diana Gabaldon and Louis L'Amour do not. It is one thing to view someone like L'Amour with contempt. I personally have enjoyed his writing. It is another thing altogether to acknowledge that his books don't have the depth and substance that other books, even in the same "historical fiction" genre, do contain.

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If by "tradition" we mean simply "books that we read in a certain way," we don't have a miscommunication or--really--a disagreement. I'm not against traditions. I'm against the assumption that traditions reflect a deeper order of reality; the reality is, we read Austen because Austen rewards certain ways of reading that we value. We read Shakespeare because Shakespeare rewards multiple modes of interrogation--which means, by the way, that the Shakespeare we read isn't the same one Johnson read, and it certainly isn't the same one Shakespeare's audience encountered. 

 

EDIT: Incidentally, the reason for my tangent about changing literary taste was this bit:

Do you realize what making this argument means for those who believe good and bad quality in writing are real distinctions? If Austen really was not considered literary then, but she is considered literary now, then that would be evidence that our understanding of literary has been degraded, that our standards for good writing have greatly declined. (Although it appears that Sir Walter Scott and Richard Whately both thought her writing was quite good.)

 

 

--which is precisely the same thing as saying that contemporary appreciation "as Literature"=the Thing Itself. Because you're saying that, to people who view "good" and "bad" as "real distinctions" (something I do as well, btw--they're real but they're ad hoc and socially determined), a shift from "non-literary" to "literary" on Austen's part is "evidence that our understanding of literary has been degraded." That's what I was responding to: a change is not a degradation. Since you say exactly the same thing in your reply to my reply, I can only assume that you meant something other than what you say in the quoted bit above. Which is a relief, honestly.

 

 

Here's the thing, though. When you say that "Patrick O'Brian and Umberto Eco have writing that is literary in ways that Diana Gabaldon and Louis L'Amour do not," you're actually affirming that there are certain aspects of "literariness" that can be described--which is, broadly speaking, the essence of generic classification. There's no problem with that; setting aside the "literary" as a genre distinct from the "nonliterary" has a long, if tweedy and bespectacled, history. But it is regarding "literature" as a genre, however you slice it. 

 

There's two discussions here, whereas the linked post only addresses one. At the link, the question is about how books are marketed--"literary" fiction is sold as, and largely viewed as, something "better" or "superior" to formula/genre fiction. That's a very narrow discussion, and it's emphatically not taking place on the theoretical level.

 

The second level is more theoretical, and it's pretty much confined to this thread [and the various other versions of it that are scattered over this site].  The question is: is there a capital-L Literature? Which--sure there is. There's a group of works that are read as capital-L Literature. So the class exists, but that doesn't say a darned thing about the quality of individual works in that class. You say you're giving the Traditional view, but it's only traditional in a very limited sense--as far as I can tell, you don't rate anyone outside of the Eliot/Bloom/whatever view of Tradition--which means that a whole quarter-century of work--which is also part of the tradition--gets dismissed. That strikes me as an odd move to make; the tradition of literary criticism extends all the way up to today and includes every mutation--deconstructive, feminist, queer, post-colonial--it's polyvocal, not univocal. And that means that trying to define what books constitute "Literature" is much more complex than just pointing to a handful of canonical works; the Tradition, at this point, is large enough to take in anything. And that's fantastic. Tradition isn't a dead thing you can point to; it's a mode of action, a way of reading [in this case]. 

 

Here's another thing about that, though--if my choice is between hectoring [or gently encouraging] people to read books I think are "good" and asking other people what they find interesting or worthwhile in the books they do read, then I'll take the latter. It's quite simply boring to focus on having the correct taste--in line with tradition, or whatever--when the really cool stuff happens at the fringes, in the idiosyncratic choices. I'd personally rather talk about that than worry about whether or not the thing discussed is properly "Literature."

 

--But, as I say, that's not actually what the linked article is discussing; it's actually arguing something very close to what you're arguing. 

Edited by NBooth

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1. Josh Hamm--Yes, I was being intentionally hyperbolic on the "nothing more than that you like Austen" bit--there's other things going on there. Agreed. Also on the genre thing being boring; the canon wars are so 70s/80s that it's not even funny. I thought we had moved past that sort of wrangling, but it crops up over and over. And, given the historic nature of the feud, it probably will as long as people want to exclude/include based on literary taste.

 

Yeah, I'm sorry if it seemed like I was nit picking an apparent hole in your argument when it wasn't your point at hand, but I think that the idea of education is an important one at play here. Especially if we're bringing class into the picture. 

 

If by "tradition" we mean simply "books that we read in a certain way," we don't have a miscommunication or--really--a disagreement. I'm not against traditions. I'm against the assumption that traditions reflect a deeper order of reality; the reality is, we read Austen because Austen rewards certain ways of reading that we value. We read Shakespeare because Shakespeare rewards multiple modes of interrogation--which means, by the way, that the Shakespeare we read isn't the same one Johnson read, and it certainly isn't the same one Shakespeare's audience encountered. 

 

Quite true. After all, books, like buildings, learn.

 

But I also think J.A.A Purves has a point about the traditional canon. In fact, I find myself agreeing, or at least wanting to agree, with a great bit of what he's saying. 

 

Extended over time and over different historical ages, some of the best writers who ever lived have been recognized over time, even if they were in or out of fashion at any given moment. Traditional canons are simply our way of recognizing these writers. I can value the tradition that Austen is a good writer, because traditions, by their very nature transcend the transitory nature of literary fads. Such a tradition led to my reading Austen when I otherwise wouldn't have. Does the traditional canon always work? Not always. But it's the best tool we have for that sort of thing. I have also been forced to learn, against my own prejudices, that often the canon doesn't work for me because I am narrow, provincial, limited and uneducated. Melville, for instance, is an acquired taste. When I first read Melville, I reacted to his writing with the boredom and short attention span of a illiterate boor. But, even though I was blind to them, the riches in Melville were still there the whole time. And a vast collection of readers, wiser than I, had built a tradition across history declaring that Melville did indeed possess what I was too mindless to see. It was only later that I discovered they were worth listening to.

 

There are already more great works of literature than I will live long enough to read. If reading a great book can really open one's eyes to the world in a new way, if it can really make you into a better person, then I'd prefer to spend more time reading such books and less time reading the currently fashionable and empty. But this realization does not prohibit the reading of "pulp fiction" or "penny dreadfuls." The two are not mutually exclusive. You don't have to deny the superior worth of the masters in order to enjoy the likes of Clyde Edgerton, Bernard Cornwell, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Alistair MacLean, Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald, Jonathan Latimer, Brett Halliday, Edgar Rice Burroughs, et al.

I have greatly enjoyed, here and there, a few hours of Mickey Spillane. Could a good literature professor lead a better discussion in class about Spillane than a bad literature professor could lead about Dostoevsky? Of course. In fact, it was attending classes by bad literature professors that convinced me that literature as a profession was not for me. But should a literature professor ever replace Dostoevsky with Spillane? That is not even a serious question.

 

 

I don't view the traditional canon, or the so called "Great Books" as the be all and end all of literature. But it can act like Beatrice, guiding us through centuries of writing and introducing us to some of the best and most influential writing in the history of the Western tradition.  There are some books/authors that I think anyone interested in reading/studying Western literature should read:  KJV, Dante, Chaucer, Milton, etc. The books by these authors have shaped our imagery, our myths, and our writing, and I'm incredibly grateful that I've slogged through some of their works even when I found it difficult at the beginning. Like your reaction to Melville, it wasn't the text that changed, it was my own taste and approach. 

 

And this is where I think the canon has value: it teaches us that there are books out there which are outside of our comfort level, and gives us the space and material to experiment with various kinds of style and substance throughout the ages. It's the ever present food metaphor. If I was stuck eating the food I liked when I was nine, on account that because there is no standard to judge good taste by, then I'd be stuck with a very, very limited palate. I was a notoriously picky eater. And some foods I disliked but eventually came to find incredibly rewarding. I view the traditional canon as a mentor. After we've read through some of it, we can then properly approach other new styles and books with a wider outlook on what literature can be (The Auden quote at the bottom of my comment says this all better than I can). 

 

What the canon cannot do is prescribe  books as ultimately superior because they're part of the canon. One can admit that Paradise Lost is an important poem while admitting that he/she does not enjoy it at all without feeling guilty about it. 

 

If reading a great book can really open one's eyes to the world in a new way, if it can really make you into a better person, then I'd prefer to spend more time reading such books and less time reading the currently fashionable and empty.

 

This is where I begin to disagree with you a bit. I don't think this so much depends on the book, but upon the person reading the book. You used this to show that great books are still great, and the reader has to change to understand the book. But this cuts both ways; perhaps you have simply not acquired the taste of Spillane? If you're a careful reader who is striving to improve yourself and searching for themes and writing that influences who you are, then yes, great books can act as catalysts for your improvement. And yes, I think that a great reader will glean more from Dostoevsky than from Spillane, but it still depends on what kind of questions you're asking as you read, and how you approach a book. 

 

Sometimes I find it difficult to understand how someone well read can love a book like Eragon, but if they can explain why and how it affected them, then I have to accept that just because I think it's unoriginal, derivative, and on the low end of the fantasy genre, doesn't mean that it isn't a great book for someone else. I enjoy discussing books I dislike with people who did like them, because it often gives me an entirely new reading or approach that in turn changes how I read that book. 

 

I think W.H. Auden has some very good sound bites about reading and the discussion going on here, and there's a whole page devoted to them.

 

Here's one rather long one that I quite enjoy and find pertinent:

 

"A child's reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, 'I know what I like,'he is really saying 'I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu', because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read."


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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No worries about nit-picking; that's what these sorts of discussions are for. I think one thing that should be pointed out about these disagreements is that they take place almost entirely on the level of theory rather than practice. I actually agree with the practical thrust all that--the push to appreciate difficult or obscure works (though, as you point out, it cuts both ways), the value of knowing at least the basics of the Western Canon , and so on. In practice we're all on the same page (although I might have my students read "Call of Cthulhu" in addition to the much-anthologized "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"--and, indeed, may suggest to them that the Lovecraft is exactly as valuable as the Bierce). Where we differ (and this is, to be honest, where most of my differences with Jeremy, in particular, have their root) is that I'm of the opinion that the entire Literary Canon is, in an Aristotelian sense, accidental--there's no part of it that is essential, there's now sense in which it actually conveys a deep truth about what "good writing" is. It's just the stuff we happen to read, and if circumstances had been different, the "literary" Burroughs might have been Edgar Rice rather than William. That is, there's no theoretical justification for considering these particular works superior [divorced from their context]; there's nothing in themselves that makes them qualify, since those qualifications are socially molded and might be different under different circumstances (just as the French reputedly love Jerry Lewis while Americans don't).

 

The only thing that point of view changes practically is that it's a lot more difficult to get upset when people don't read the "right" kind of books. And it makes the process of finding new cool stuff (like The Wide, Wide World) more exciting--and less stressful, since you don't have to dither with explaining why you're wasting your time with women's fiction when you could be reading Melville (again). [Or, in my case, why I'm bothering with mid-century genre fiction instead of trying to put out another ponderous tome on Faulkner]

Edited by NBooth

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Thanks for your understanding. I do want to avoid being overly nit-picky, even as it is a part of the discussion. I realize that I let myself ramble on in a casual setting like this, rather than editing and honing every word I write, so I know my comments are probably susceptible to unnecessary nit-picking, and I don't want to unduly do that to someone else who may be writing in the same manner. 

 

Where we differ (and this is, to be honest, where most of my differences with Jeremy, in particular, have their root) is that I'm of the opinion that the entire Literary Canon is, in an Aristotelian sense, accidental--there's no part of it that is essential, there's now sense in which it actually conveys a deep truth about what "good writing" is. It's just the stuff we happen to read, and if circumstances had been different, the "literary" Burroughs might have been Edgar Rice rather than William. That is, there's no theoretical justification for considering these particular works superior [divorced from their context]; there's nothing in themselves that makes them qualify, since those qualifications are socially molded and might be different under different circumstances (just as the French reputedly love Jerry Lewis while Americans don't).

 

But doesn't it matter that these books were chosen. I can't think that we can dismiss the canon as being mere happenstance and therefore . So your theoretical justification assumes a tabula rasa state of literature, where if we suddenly came across all the books ever published, and were told to pick the best ones (without having prior experience with any of them), we'd pick very different ones, and therefore our current canon isn't any better than that canon would be? (Please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing your argument). In some cases, this is certainly right, but I can't quite imagine Thomas Usk or John Gower replacing Chaucer in any but a very poor alternate universe. I can't quite agree with you, because I think there's a difference between theoretical and hypothetical here (although again, I could be straw-manning you, sorry if that's the case). I'd argue, in an attempt to merge the practical and theoretical, that the books we have are significant because we chose them. It's partly because they have stood the test of time, critics, styles, genres, and fads. Your point about theoretical justification is a valid one - but only when we have to decide what new books are up for consideration. The ones already considered "classics" or superior don't need some sort of separate theoretical justification. Beauty and value in literature can be both objective and subjective. There are universal themes which resonate with us that are found in those books. I "happen" to read them because they are rich in enjoyment and meaning, and while I agree that the same books would have necessarily been chosen in different circumstances, does that change their value? I don't value the books because they're on the list; I value the list because of some of the books and literature I've read because of it. I think the artifice of the form of the list itself is moot; I care about (*some of*) the books that make it up. 

 

But, to temper everything I just said: you're right about the socially molded circumstances. To once again bring in Melville: Moby-Dick was generally disliked by most American critics until the 1920s, but it was better liked by the British at the time, and even more so by the French, who saw Melville as great before America realized it (Although the European and American publications were different versions - the American ones were edited counter to Melville's intended format). Circumstances entirely changed perceptions. Even so, his works would have been just as great/not great if they were never recognized as being so. I don't think that there is "nothing in themselves" that makes books great. There has to be something in the text. It's great on a subjective level because we interact with the intrinsic properties of the specific book. Somewhere down the line is the something in itself that makes it worthwhile.

 

I feel as though I'm caught somewhere in the middle between you and J.A.A. Purves. My views on literature/Literature are a paradoxical combination of valuing "objectively good" books and the notion that there are no "right kinds" of books. And as a result, my comments here may be a little muddled, because I'm arguing with myself as I'm writing them. I need to do a great deal more reading and give a great deal more thought to this whole matter. 

 

It's odd that you mention "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" - I never read that in high school or university. In fact, I didn't stumble across Bierce at all until a third year course on 19th C. American Gothic literature. Does it have a reputation as being over read/studied in American schools? 


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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I'm not sure, actually, what the reputation of "Owl Creek" is. I picked it because it shows up in tons of anthologies (the current Norton, for one, unless I'm mistaken).

 

I hear all you say; a couple of notes:

 

So your theoretical justification assumes a tabula rasa state of literature, where if we suddenly came across all the books ever published, and were told to pick the best ones (without having prior experience with any of them), we'd pick very different ones, and therefore our current canon isn't any better than that canon would be?

 

 

Not exactly; my comment is only meant to show two things: [a] that certain books were chosen for certain qualities that were/are called "literary,"  and that choice depends on something outside the text--those certain qualities, social problems, etc. That is, literariness isn't something intrinsic to a text; it's an extrinsic standard read onto the text--a standard that could in other circumstances be different. If "we" suddenly came across all the books ever published and were told to pick the best ones, we might very well pick the ones that are now considered best, because who-we-are is already bound up in the sort of society that produced those texts in the first place. It would be more accurate to say that, were a visitor from the far reaches of the universe to stumble on humanity's decaying libraries ten thousand years hence, they would almost certainly decide on a set of "best" works that is remarkably different from ours. They'd pick the stuff that aligned more closely to whatever aesthetic theory they already held (or else they would read our aesthetic theory in a way that is unrecognizable in order to make it their own).

 

 I'd argue, in an attempt to merge the practical and theoretical, that the books we have are significant because we chose them. It's partly because they have stood the test of time, critics, styles, genres, and fads. Your point about theoretical justification is a valid one - but only when we have to decide what new books are up for consideration. The ones already considered "classics" or superior don't need some sort of separate theoretical justification. 

 

 

Sure. That's my point: we value the stuff we value. But we value it because we value it; there's nothing outside the valuation that makes it worthwhile--nothing intrinsic to the work itself. That the Western Canon has tended, on the whole, to value some variation of realistic narrative says more about the Western Canon than it does about the True, Good, and Beautiful. I'm not arguing against the Western Canon; just pointing out that it's an essentially tautological construct. This is an observation far, far removed from judgments of value--and far removed from individual responses. That's why I pointed out that the real disagreement here was on the level of theory, not practice. I'm perfectly willing to teach the Western Canon (as long as I can do my own unsexy, non-high-literature mucking about); I'm perfectly willing to enjoy and appreciate and find value in the Western Canon. I'm not willing to say that the Western Canon has--as a whole--any empirical claim on Goodness that makes all other writing either a waste of time or a guilty diversion.

 

To take a point of comparison: the rules of written English--and spoken English--are a bastardized hodgepodge of good ideas and bad ones. The grammar is often nonsensical, at least to non-grammarians. The rules of "good writing" are often self-contradictory. The rules of argument (I mean here, the standard academic essay) are pretty much arbitrary; other cultures can and do write argument differently than Anglo-Americans. 

 

Now, does this mean that when I walk into an EN101 classroom I tell the kids "don't worry about the rules, it's all nonsense anyway"? Not at all; in fact, I might even impress upon them that because these rules are arbitrary [i'm thinking here especially about the essay format], it's even more essential that they master them. As a matter of practicality: it's arbitrary, but it's how things are done, so you might as well learn them.

 

The Western Canon [which, to be clear, is different from "Literature"] is the same: it's arbitrary in that any reasons we give for its composition are inevitably post hoc--but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile, helpful, or important to know. It only means that it's arbitrary [another tautology].

 

But, to temper everything I just said: you're right about the socially molded circumstances. To once again bring in Melville: Moby-Dick was generally disliked by most American critics until the 1920s, but it was better liked by the British at the time, and even more so by the French, who saw Melville as great before America realized it (Although the European and American publications were different versions - the American ones were edited counter to Melville's intended format). Circumstances entirely changed perceptions. Even so, his works would have been just as great/not great if they were never recognized as being so. I don't think that there is "nothing in themselves" that makes books great. There has to be something in the text. It's great on a subjective level because we interact with the intrinsic properties of the specific book. Somewhere down the line is the something in itself that makes it worthwhile.

 

 

Right, but "what makes it worthwhile" is itself dependent on how we read it [i mean, "we-as-society,"]. If it isn't doing the kind of work we happen to value, then it isn't valuable. [To quote--or possibly misquote--one of my favorite hacks of all time, "there's nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so"].

 

I think I might be arguing more extremely than I care to [though, as I point out, I'm a nominalist when it comes to literary value]; or else, what I'm saying is sounding like a burn-the-canon rant. I don't think anyone's seriously argued that the whole edifice should be ditched, or that it has no value whatsoever. That's certainly not what I'm arguing. I'm just suggesting that it's possible to value the Canon because, for whatever reason, it's the sort of thing we value--and not worry about basically metaphysical questions as to whether it has any value transcending its position as a thing valued [i.e. whether or not Moby-Dick would be great if it wasn't canonized--the fact is that it is canonized, and unless there's a tremendous sea-change in literary studies it will be canonized until long after we are dust].

 

In other words, I'm arguing for the freedom to dip into "Literature" and into trash fiction without feeling the need to halfheartedly explain that one knows that Shakespeare is superior to Max Brand. Because that's incredibly boring. I'm also arguing against an approach to literature that treats it like a glorified vitamin pill: you take your dose because it's Objectively Good and it will make you a Better Person [whereas reading trash will make your mind feeble and probably cause you to become an axe murderer--yes, I exaggerate]. That's also incredibly boring. I say that as a bore; I know my wares. 

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Mr. Hamm and Mr. Booth or anyone else interested,

 

Have you read An Experiment in Criticism?  It's a slightly more rigorous (and shorter) form of the argument in Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, namely, that the main purpose of reading is to give the reader joy and pleasure.

 

But, assuming that we live in a world with an objective reality, there are still objective standards that relate even to pleasure.  Lewis turns the critic's argument about literary books and nonliterary books on its head.  Instead, for the sake of the experiment/argument, he suggests that there are literary readers and nonliterary readers (not that the same reader can't do both kinds of reading).  The above quote of Lewis that I referred to earlier is a necessary presupposition to his argument (i.e., that being a literary or nonliterary reader says nothing about one's moral character or value as a person).

 

The first argument in the book that Lewis makes (that there is, in fact, a difference between literary reading and nonliterary reading) is, as far as I can tell, both logically unassailable and useful.  There are, of course, further arguments that follow directly on point to this entire thread.

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Mr. Hamm and Mr. Booth or anyone else interested,

 

Have you read An Experiment in Criticism?  It's a slightly more rigorous (and shorter) form of the argument in Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, namely, that the main purpose of reading is to give the reader joy and pleasure.

 

But, assuming that we live in a world with an objective reality, there are still objective standards that relate even to pleasure.  Lewis turns the critic's argument about literary books and nonliterary books on its head.  Instead, for the sake of the experiment/argument, he suggests that there are literary readers and nonliterary readers (not that the same reader can't do both kinds of reading).  The above quote of Lewis that I referred to earlier is a necessary presupposition to his argument (i.e., that being a literary or nonliterary reader says nothing about one's moral character or value as a person).

 

The first argument in the book that Lewis makes (that there is, in fact, a difference between literary reading and nonliterary reading) is, as far as I can tell, both logically unassailable and useful.  There are, of course, further arguments that follow directly on point to this entire thread.

 

It's on my list, but I've got about a hundred WWII-era-and-after books [and criticism thereof] ahead of it. The distinction reminds me of Thomas Roberts' An Aesthetics of Junk Fictionwhich makes a couple of suppositions: [a] that there is a difference between "literary" and "non-literary" reading, that most people do both, and [c] that the aesthetics of "non-literary" reading partake of the aesthetics of the scholar when s/he reads criticism. Also, [d] that one isn't more valuable than the other--they serve different ends and shouldn't be evaluated comparatively.

 

Which is to say, I agree that there's a difference between "literary" and "non-literary" reading, and the distinction quite usefully shifts attention onto the activity of reading, rather than the object read. I can get behind that.

 

[it also throws a twist into the topic of this thread: the problem ceases to be whether people are reading literature--whatever that is--but whether they are literary readers. Of course, [a] such a proposition is difficult to prove one way or the other, and the likelihood is high that, even in eras with high literacy, the number of folks who were "literary readers" is probably very small. Most people just don't care, and have never cared, about reading in the way literature people care about it. And that makes worrying about the "decline" of literary reading a bit puzzling]

Edited by NBooth

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An Experiment in Criticism is on my list as well, but I too have hundreds of books lying around that I need to read. I hope to get around to it soon, when I have the time. 

 

And, for what it's worth, I agree with the point about literary readers. 


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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Will Self declares the death of the novel.

The populist Gutenbergers prate on about how digital texts linked to social media will allow readers to take part in a public conversation. What none of the Gutenbergers are able to countenance, because it is quite literally – for once the intensifier is justified – out of their minds, is that the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. 

 

 

 

Scott Esposito makes the obvious rejoinder:

 

I hereby propose a variant of Godwin’s law, wherein if you start out an argument about how a certain art form you cherish is dying by comparing its (obvious, inevitable) decline to how technology killed the music industry, you immediately lose. (Also: musicians are doing just fine and are coping well with technology.)

 

 

Unsurprisingly, I'm more convinced by Esposito's snark than by Self's mournful lay.

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Two things:

 

First, the top ten favorite books in America [via Criminal Element]:

 

1) The Bible 
 
2) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
 
3) Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
 
4) The Lord of the Rings (series) by J.R.R. Tolkien
 
5) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
 
6) Moby Dick by Herman Melville
 
7) The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
 
8) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
 
9) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 
 
10) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
 
Second, as far as the literature/not literature thing goes, at 1/3 of the way in, I'm convinced that Beneath the American Renaissance is essential reading. The author, David S. Reynolds, still holds to a distinction between "literary" and "nonliterary" effects, and [insert my own grumbles here] but what the book does--and pretty effectively, I think--is demonstrate that, to crib a phrase from Bruno Latour, we Americans have never been literary. He also helpfully highlights the ways in which the major authors of the period are indebted to popular fiction of the day.

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The item that most surprises me on that list is Gone With the Wind. I know it was enormously popular in its day, but I didn't realize it was still widely read.

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The item that most surprises me on that list is Gone With the Wind. I know it was enormously popular in its day, but I didn't realize it was still widely read.

 

Well, it's still widely praised, at least. ;).

 

Honestly, there's a huge cult--still--centered around the movie, so I can see it bleed over into appreciation for the book. [Delighted to see Atlas Shrugged exit the list, in any event]

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Cue the tut-tutting: it looks like teens are watching tv and surfing the internet instead of reading books.

 

Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that.
 
That's way down from a decade ago.

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
The sky is always-already falling. 

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Huh. The thing that jumped out at me when I read the top ten books in America list: they're all also popular movies. Especially number 2, 3, and 4 - they're each some of the highest grossing movies of all time. I know that both Harry Potter and LotR book sales increased, especially for LotR (no links, but five seconds of googling should corroborate it). I think it's great that both mediums can be mutually beneficial. The books aren't diminished by the movies, but in some cases are read more widely because of it. I wonder if the film versions of the other books that appear on the list had a significant impact on their popularity as well...

 

On the subject of declining reading and tut-tutting: I'm sad to see people forgo reading because I've found so much joy and meaning in literature. I can't help but think that these teens who don't read for pleasure are missing out. Also, just because people have been complaining of the same thing over the years doesn't mean the complaint isn't valid. Maybe the sky is always-already falling, and we keep failing to recognize it as such (this is meant to be slightly tongue in cheek, but also slightly serious at the same time).


"What's prayer? It's shooting shafts in the dark." -- Frederick Buechner, Godric

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Well, I'm a bit tongue-in-cheek as well; I certainly don't have the training to argue with the raw data (statistically, it does seem that kids read less, though you've got to carefully define "read"). But I'm slightly serious, too: the constant drum-beat that "no-one reads anymore" has been going on for the entirety of my own comparatively-short life, with the parallel whinge that, if kids do read, they don't read the right kinds of things (Fredric Wertham, for instance, in his famous diatribe against comic books). It goes hand in hand with the idea that "kids these days" are (take your pick) lazy, entitled, obnoxious, disrespectful, lewd, loose, etc etc etc. 

 

Which means that, whatever the data, there's a tendency to hysterical over-reaction whenever these stories come up--an over-reaction that isn't, I think, warranted. The kids are alright. 

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This is one of the best argument in favor of "literary" reading that I've ever encountered.

 

“Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that advocates free speech. “It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.”

 

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I posted this in the YA literature thread, but I think it's relevant here as well. Joshua Rothman:

 

Frye’s way of thinking is especially valuable today because it recognizes that the clash of genre values is fundamental to the novelistic experience. That’s how we ought to be thinking about our books. Instead of asking whether a comic book could be “as valuable” as “King Lear,” we ought to ask how the values of tragedy and romance might collide. Instead of lamenting the decline of “literary fiction,” we ought to ask why the novel, with its interest in society and rules, is ceding ground to the romance. And as for the rise of the romance—with its larger-than-life passions, revolutionary aristocrats, and “nihilistic and untamable” occurrences—maybe we’re living in a romantic age.
Edited by NBooth

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This one kind of fits the thread. Not that anyone hereabouts [except me] has much trouble keeping up with new fiction.

 

NYRB: Why Read New Books?

 

[T]his uncertainty of ours, as we tackle, say, our first Eggers, our first Pamuk, our first Jelinek, our first Ferrante, or as we switch from an early Roth to a late Roth, is actually part of the pleasure. And this pleasure in adjusting to the new—waiting to see if it will seduce us or bore us, understanding the nature of our readerly expectations precisely as they are challenged—can become addictive, or simply more interesting to us than the easier pleasure of finding yet another book pleasantly similar to others we have already enjoyed. Regardless of whether in the end we entirely enjoy a contemporary novel, we may nevertheless enjoy thinking about what is being asked of us. This was certainly my experience reading Murakami, Jelinek, and Saramago. I don’t greatly enjoy any of these writers. But I enjoyed grappling with them. Hence “it is even arguable,” as Woolf says, “that we get actually more from the living, although they may be much inferior, than from the dead.”
Edited by NBooth

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Adelle Waldeman offers "An Answer to the Novel's Detractors."

 

The novel form isn’t the reason so much contemporary fiction seems uninspired; for that, we’d do better to consider other causes, of which there are plenty: an emphasis on documenting social conditions and modernity over the study of individual characters, a post-Freudian tendency to lean on secondhand psychoanalytic ideas as a cover for incomprehension or shallowness, a corrosive commitment to niceness at the expense of the kind of social and moral judgments that used to be at the novel’s center, MFA programs, to name just a few possibilities. 

 

Scott Esposito offers a short-but-pointed response:

 

I understand the temptation (and pressure) for a place like The New Yorker to have people like Waldman write essays like this, but perhaps from time to time they would turn to the less glamorous, but perhaps more substantive, realm of professional critics for such tasks.

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Trafika Europe has an hour-long interview with Barbara Epler, publisher at New Directions.

 

Includes a discussion of how New Directions came to publish Roberto Bolaño.

Edited by NBooth

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From earlier in the year, but new to me. Here's Daniel Green:

 

If we still have the impression that the 1950s was a friendly time for the serious novel, this is mostly because our perception is filtered through the critical commentary of the time, commentary by prominent critics such as the New York Intellectuals, whose legacy endures. That this legacy remains alive, however, is mainly due to the contrast it provides to the current critical scene. The late 1940s and the 1950s was a time when serious literary criticism still appeared in general-interest publications that avoided both the hermetic preoccupations of academic criticism and the superficialities of newspaper reviewing. These kinds of publications no longer exist (efforts are being made to re-create them online), and thus if a golden age has been lost, it is this age of consequential literary criticism that has passed. That the Los Angeles Times is now what passes for an authoritative source of critical discourse is itself a sad commentary on current literary culture.

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