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Literary Reading in Decline


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#41 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 15 March 2013 - 11:33 AM

I'm an amateur when it comes to actually writing poetry, but I try once in a while - and I did have fun with this one.

#42 NBooth

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Posted 08 September 2013 - 10:46 PM

Dunno that this fits here, exactly, but it's as good a place as any (I feel like we have a number of threads that overlap each other)

 

We Have Never Been Well-Read: Franco Moretti's Pact with the Devil
 

 

“How to read” is no longer an unspoken creed for the discipline but a set of fighting words, as new digital techniques for data mining large bodies of texts and new, cognitive scientific propositions about the nature and experience of reading inject unsettling questions and (to some) unsightly applications. Furthermore, increased awareness of the long provincialism of a Eurocentric focus has engendered a sense of wonder (and at times near paralysis) at how reliant the standard categories of literary analysis—genre, form, taste, and their interrelations—are on a relatively small corner of the globe. While things may not fall apart, the fallout of these mostly intra-academic debates promises to irradiate the broader literary culture just as thoroughly as the dominance of the old model, close reading, has done for many decades.

 

[snip]

 

[...]Moretti is also swimming against an even stronger current, one that flows not just from the academy but even from people who disdain the academy. It is a sentiment well and often expressed in Clive James’s writing (the critic, not the music mogul)—I’ll take one example from Cultural Amnesia (2007): “It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.” Moretti and others are struggling against the weight of precisely this sentiment, this aspiration to completeness, to being “well-read.”

 

But what I think Moretti’s work reveals—and what is most practically relevant to our everyday lives as readers—is that this aspiration is a myth, pernicious and unnecessary. To borrow a title from the sociologist Bruno Latour, we have never been well-read; no one has.To presume that there is or ever was a possibility of being so is delusional: not a very good goal, therefore, for either academic study or personal fulfillment.

 

 

That strand, alone, interests me--but I'm equally interested in the description of Moretti's M.O. [MMO?]:

 

First of all, it is important to recognize that he is, in the most literal sense, inimitable. His experiments are, as he often self-effacingly confesses, one-offs, little tinkered-together bits of one and another theory soldered onto the apparatus of one or another non-traditional tool: maps, graphs, trees, network theory. What they are meant to do is fit a particular problem—understanding the plot structure of Hamlet, retracing the development of the market for novels in 18th century England, determining the importance of clues in accounting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s success—and each problem, once identified, requires an original contraption.

 

 

And then there's the penultimate paragraph:
 

 

What Moretti would have us do are two of the hardest things to attempt in an intellectual environment—academic or non-academic: admit ignorance and ask for help. New ground is better than common ground: not “I haven’t read that yet—let’s discuss something else” but rather “I may never read that, so tell me about it, it sounds interesting.” Relinquishing the vanity of believing that some personal completeness of knowledge is attainable may be the price of successful, meaningful exchanges about and real knowledge of literature in an era where the breadth and depth of culture is supra-individual, if not superhuman. We ought to learn how to enjoy and gain knowledge from the vast oceans of literature we’ll never read, and we need to learn to do that by talking with, collaborating with, learning from others.

 



#43 Christian

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 10:28 AM

I'm not sure which of our lit/fiction thread is best for this post, but I'll put this here.

 

On March 26, The Diane Rehm Show will take an hour to discuss why fiction matters:

 

special March Readers' Review: Diane and her guests discuss why fiction matters. A recent study indicates that fewer than half of all Americans are reading novels today. It suggests that those who do read fiction are better able to understand the emotions of others. A conversation about the social and personal benefits of reading fiction.

Guests
Rebecca Mead 

staff writer, "The New Yorker" and author of "My Life in Middlemarch"

Mark Brazaitis 

professor of English, West Virginia University, director of the West Virginia Writers' Workshop and author of "Julia & Rodrigo"

Monica Hesse 

writer, "The Washington Post" and author of "Burn"



#44 Jason Panella

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 09:19 PM

 

I'm not sure which of our lit/fiction thread is best for this post, but I'll put this here.

 

 

I feel like I've seen some variation of this phrase at least a dozen times in the past year in the Lit subforum. Maybe we should make a catchall thread for these kinds of articles? 



#45 NBooth

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Posted 22 April 2014 - 10:35 PM

The genre debate: "Literary Fiction" is just clever marketing

 

"Genre fiction" is a nasty phrase – when did genre turn into an adjective? But I object to the term for a different reason. It's weasel wording, in that it conflates lit fic with literature. It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature – and therefore Important, Art and somehow better than other writing.

 

The term sneaks back into the past in a strangely anachronistic way, so that, for example, Jane Austen's works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense. Can anyone think for a moment that were she writing today she'd be published as lit fic? No, and not because she'd end up under romance or chick lit, but because she writes comedy, and lit fic, with a few rare exceptions, does not include comedy within its remit.

 

[snip]

 

Fiction is a broad church, but let it be a Lollard church with wide aisles, not a Counter-Reformation one where the lit fic authors are in the sanctuary with the priesthood of the literati and acolytes in attendance, while the lesser "genre" types are banished to dim side-chapels as though they belonged to some kind of minor cult.


Edited by NBooth, 22 April 2014 - 10:39 PM.


#46 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted Yesterday, 11:16 AM

The genre debate: "Literary Fiction" is just clever marketing

First, I don't think anyone views "literary fiction" as a "genre." Instead, it's a distinction having to do with the quality of writing. And anyone who writes should understand that quality of writing is real. The word "literary" doesn't have to be the word used to make this distinction, but it's a convenient one.  For purposes of the distinction, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark and Suzanne Collins do not write literary fiction - while authors like Zadie Smith, Paul Harding, Donna Tartt, David Foster Wallace or James Ellroy do.  But all these authors cut across different "genres."

 

Second, the sheer volume of published writing is not now what it was in Jane Austen's day.  Given shifts in our culture, the distinction between literary and unliterary writing was not a necessary distinction in Jane Austen's day but it is very useful now.  If Austen were writing today, and I hadn't heard of her, I would like some distinction that would encourage me to read her over against, oh say, Stephanie Meyer or Danielle Steel.

 

Third, this distinction does not determine whether books get reviewed or not, nor does it determine whether they are shelved at the bookstore, nor does it regulate nonliterary works to some sort of disadvantage.  On the contrary, whether a book is literary or not almost never has anything to do with whether it makes the best seller lists.

 

Fourth, if Ms. Edmondson does not think there is comedy in literary fiction, then she has never read Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Christopher Buckley, Tom Wolfe or, even Christopher Moore.  And these guys are not just exceptions.

 

Fifth, that she even considers the argument "We feel proud to be seen reading the latest important 'literary' title – but how many people never get beyond page 50 on their Kindles … ?" worth making as an argument drives in the last nail in the coffin that is her essay.



#47 NBooth

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Posted Yesterday, 11:44 AM

Yes, I'm afraid folks do view literary fiction as a genre. It's a marketing ploy, on the one hand; on the other, it's a class of literature that is "respectable"--such classification is the essence of generic work and carries with it a number of expectations. Put simply, it's a way of designating a brand of writing that is "respectable" rather than not-so-respectable. People sniff all the time that they don't read genre fiction (or else sheepishly admit it)--not realizing that most "high" literature of today was the genre fiction of yesterday: Shakespeare, Dickens, and--yes--Austen.

 

As such, it's tied in with problems of class which go back in English to at least the sixteenth century--see Sidney's Defense of Poetry, which is a gambit to make "light" reading "respectable"--and which in turn ties in to the movement to use colloquial language rather than "Classic" language. See also the Book of the Courtier [not in English, but formative of the discourse in various ways]. And that's not getting into the distrust in which the novel was held from its inception, up through Henry James [whose Art of Fiction is a plea for respectability], and even in some ways to the present day.  So, yes, the question of "literary" versus "genre" was very much a live question in Austen's day--and long, long before that. Volume of publishing does play into it, but not in the way you're suggesting: the 16th C saw a huge explosion of print culture and with it intense anxiety over what was proper literature and what wasn't. This ain't a new thing. It's very, very old.

 

BTW, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page on the history of Austen's reception should confirm that she wasn't praised as a literary genius in her day. She was essentially chick lit--fashionable writing for fashionable women. And afterward she became a class-signifier, which is how Literature is often intended. Appreciation of the right books doesn't do anything more than indicate that you're the "right" kind of person; people who would rather read penny dreadfuls than Jane Austen [me, for instance] are a lower sort of humanity, less intellectually developed, than people who can drink deeply of the Divine Miss Austen.

 

To which I do, most emphatically, say hogwash. Liking Austen says nothing more than that you like Austen. Any implication to the contrary makes me a bit cranky.

 

Anyway, what I find valuable about this essay is precisely the way in which it calls the very idea of Literature into question and suggests that what actually exists is good writing [never mind how terribly difficult it is to determine that], and any other way of parsing things is at best illogical and at worst maddeningly pretentious. I'm in favor of puncturing pretentiousness, and pointing out that "literary" just means "that kind of writing we happen to think 'educated' people like" is as effective a stick as any.

 

[Note, too, that this post is in the context of a broader debate taking place on that website right now]


Edited by NBooth, Yesterday, 12:11 PM.


#48 Josh Hamm

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Posted Yesterday, 05:39 PM

I want and expect to be entertained, enchanted, transported into the world of the writer, lost in a good book. I don't want to be lectured, have issues thrust down my throat or, dare I say it, be called upon to admire the beauty of the language. If a writer writes well in addition to being a great storyteller, I'm grateful and delighted. If they write well but there's no story, I don't want to read it. For profound thoughts expressed in poetic language, I turn to poetry. For intellectual arguments and ideas that appeal to reason, I'll read non-fiction.

 

This bit from the article has me wincing. This is the problem with these types of genre wars is that each side is reduced to insulting the tastes of the other. She's upset about literary snobs who look disdainfully upon plot driven novels instead of "thoughtful" or "poetic" ones, but then she goes on and derides books that aren't great stories, but are just about ideas or language. She does qualify that these are her individual tastes, but it's as if she can't justify her own taste without taking a dig at someone else's. 

 

I too am tired that this debate is even taking place. It calls for another iteration of the whole "once you label me, you negate me" line of thought (apparently attributed to Kierkegaard, but I've never found the source). As someone who reads a lot of genre fiction, be it noir, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or what have you, it's incredibly painful to have to defend my reading habits to people who ask what I like to read. I find myself using for more qualifiers than necessary: "oh, it's a far better book than most of -insert genre- " or something similar.  Am I embarrassed by what I read? No, I generally think most of what I read is well written and engaging, but I know/suspect that a good many people will look down on me if I admit to reading certain books. 

 

To which I do, most emphatically, say hogwash. Liking Austen says nothing more than that you like Austen. Any implication to the contrary makes me a bit cranky.

 

Sorry to potentially make you cranky, but I think it does say a little bit more than that. There's a reason why "Recommended For You" selections on sites like Amazon work some of the time. It tells us about their tastes and the style they like. And liking/understanding some books does say something about your education (which in some areas could say something about class): poetry by Geoffrey Hill, or later works by Herman Melville, require a vast knowledge of literary, philosophical, and historical context to understand on a deeper level.  But just because something is more complicated does not mean that it is superior. 

 

It says nothing about your character or intellectual virtue if you like/dislike Austen. It says what your taste is, but it doesn't make a value judgement about that taste. And the notion that that has to be stated makes me a bit cranky too. 

 

Anyway, what I find valuable about this essay is precisely the way in which it calls the very idea of Literature into question and suggests that what actually exists is good writing [never mind how terribly difficult it is to determine that], and any other way of parsing things is at best illogical and at worst maddeningly pretentious. I'm in favor of puncturing pretentiousness, and pointing out that "literary" just means "that kind of writing we happen to think 'educated' people like" is as effective a stick as any.

 

I've become very careful about calling anyone or anything "pretentious".  It's a descriptor that's impossible to throw off or defend against. It's like Laura in Wilkie Collins' Woman In White; if you're declared insane and placed in an asylum, you cannot defend yourself against the accusations.  There may be some people who try to judge the worth of people by the genre of literature they read, but I hardly think most people even think about the genre distinction so much as to be pretentious. 

 

 Instead, it's a distinction having to do with the quality of writing. And anyone who writes should understand that quality of writing is real. The word "literary" doesn't have to be the word used to make this distinction, but it's a convenient one. 

 

I think this has a great deal of truth to it. There is a need for a convenient distinction for quality of writing, even as that very quality is almost impossible to define. I think that the likes of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem belie the "genre" of literary fiction. Their works span across multiple genres, and most of it is darn good writing. But I'm glad I was introduced to their writing in university (under the literary genre tag), because otherwise it's doubtful I would have stumbled across them in a bookstore with any indication of their quality. According to wikipedia, there are approximately 2,200,000 books published worldwide each year. Some sort of distinction has to be made, in order to begin to separate the good from the bad, but I don't know if any distinction/label/genre would be any better than the ones we currently have. I don't know if we can get rid of the idea of Literature and the literary genre, no matter how we name it. 

 

At the end of the day, I think everyone should read China Mieville's Perdido Street Station so they'll realize that defining books by genre is impossible. 



#49 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted Yesterday, 07:30 PM

BTW, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page on the history of Austen's reception should confirm that she wasn't praised as a literary genius in her day. She was essentially chick lit--fashionable writing for fashionable women.

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.)

Appreciation of the right books doesn't do anything more than indicate that you're the "right" kind of person; people who would rather read penny dreadfuls than Jane Austen [me, for instance] are a lower sort of humanity, less intellectually developed, than people who can drink deeply of the Divine Miss Austen.
 
To which I do, most emphatically, say hogwash.

Look, some of the sharpest defenders of the superiority of literary reading or writing will agree with you about that. Saying that being "unliterary" or "literary" is somehow related to being the right or wrong "kind of person" would be ridiculous.

Exibibt A: excerpts from C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism:

"Some critics write of those who constitute the ... ‘many’ as if they belonged to the ... rabble. They accuse them of illiteracy, barbarism, ‘crass’, ‘crude’ and ‘stock’ responses which (it is suggested) must make them clumsy and insensitive tin all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilisation. It sometimes sounds as if the reading of ‘popular’ fiction involved moral turpitude. I do not find this borne out by experience. I have a notion that these ‘many’ include certain people who are equal or superior to some of the few in psychological health, in moral virtue, practical prudence, good manners, and general adaptability. And we all know very well that we, the literary, include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent."
- pgs. 5-6

"... Thus good writing, in one way or the other, nearly always offends the unliterary reader. When a good writer leads you into a garden he either gives you a precise impression of that particular garden at that particular moment - it need not be long, selection is what counts - or simply says ‘It was in the garden, early’. The unliterary are pleased with neither. They call the first ‘padding’ and wish the author would ‘cut the cackle and get to the horses’. The second they abhor as a vacuum; their imaginations cannot breathe in it.

"Having said that the unliterary reader attends to the words too little to make anything like a full use of them, I must notice that there is another sort of reader who attends to them far too much and in the wrong way. I am thinking of what I call Style-mongers. On taking up a book, these people concentrate on what they call its ‘style’ or its ‘English’. They judge this neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules. Their reading is a perpetual witch hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that ends with a preposition ... Such people are of all men least qualified to have any opinion about a style at all; for the only two tests that are really relevant - the degree in which it is (as Dryden would say) ‘sounding and significant’ - are the two they never apply."

- pgs. 34-35

I'm in favor of puncturing pretentiousness, and pointing out that "literary" just means "that kind of writing we happen to think 'educated' people like" is as effective a stick as any.

A critic can be interested in literary writing as opposed to nonliterary writing without being pretentious. Snobbery and pretentiousness are bad and elitist, yadda, yadda, yadda. But pretentiousness is always boring. Reading any book because it is a "class-signifier" is a dull reason to read a book, and it has nothing to do with quality - in fact, it is a motive that is entirely uninterested in quality. Pretentious literature professors interested in class-signifiers are bad literature professors. Literature professors interested in recommending high quality in the place of low quality are not automatically pretentious.

#50 Jason Panella

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Posted Yesterday, 07:54 PM

 

 

First, I don't think anyone views "literary fiction" as a "genre."

 

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

 

(I also realize you've never worked in a book store or read a lot of book industry news.)



#51 NBooth

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Posted Yesterday, 09:53 PM

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.}

 

[b] 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, Today, 10:38 AM.


#52 Jason Panella

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Posted Today, 09:09 AM

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. 



#53 Ryan H.

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Posted 36 minutes ago

First, I don't think anyone views "literary fiction" as a "genre."

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

Me too.

Edited by Ryan H., 36 minutes ago.