A blog on reading, writing and life

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Nobel Judge Yearns for Mythical Epoch When Writers Were Oliver Twist

Certain corners of the internet have been abuzz with the words of one Horace Engdahl, a member of the Swedish Academy and judge for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with French paper La Croix, Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard - but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

Obviously, many people who work as professionals in the creative writing field have been writing rebuttals of this, but really I don't know why the bother. All one has to do is take a look at history to see how all writers of the past had quirky poverty level-careers that somehow granted them the energy for thankless and emotionally draining literary pursuits.

If it wasn't for Edith Wharton's hard knocks as a heiress, she would have never been the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize of literature. It is amazing she even found time to write between interior decorating and having tea with Teddy Roosevelt.

Aurthur Rimbaud's accomplished career being a narcissistic teenager allowed him to prefigure Modernist poetry and invent the French free verse. As he once wrote to Paul Verlaine, "Work is further from me than my fingernail from my eye. Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me. [...] You won't think I'm too expensive to feed when you actually see me eating shit." Hey Verlaine, your teenage lover already had three jobs: brat, poet AND extortionist. And Verlaine himself worked really hard to marry a rich woman.

Emily Bronte's years of experience as a shut-in inspired her passionate Gothic Romance. Ironing, sewing, refusing to speak to anyone outside her immediate family--you can really see how the revengeful anti-hero Heathcliff was born here.

Shakespeare never had to please any institutions. That's why he wrote 8 plays of straight-up Tutor propaganda, because usurping the English throne is evil, unless some guy named Henry does it. Plus, he traveled nearly 100 miles in his lifetime, all the way from Stratford to London, encountering English people of all cultures, which really helped him write all those plays set in Italy.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Why I hate the term "Literary Fiction"

According to a 2013 study reported here by the Guardian, reading literary fiction like Charles Dickens, Don DeLillo or  Téa Obreht inspires empathy in readers in a way that reading popular thrillers or romances don't. But one of those names I listed is not like the others. One of them was a bestselling serial novelist who modified his plots and characters based on reader responses, unashamedly pleasing the unwashed masses--Charles Dickens.

The term literary fiction did not exist in Dickens' day. In first emerged in the 1960s and increased in use during the 1980s with the boom of MFA programs which promoted writing literature for the purposes of high art over appealing to popular taste. But Dickens was a popular writer. If his novels inspire more empathy than modern thrillers or romance novels (which I am suspicious of until I see this study replicated), then it could be his novels are better written than the other examples they were using, but it definitely wasn't because he was aiming to be high culture. (The results could also be caused by experimenter bias, study participants who preferred literary writing, or a few other errors, which is why scientist replicate studies.) And to be clear, when I use the term "better written," I mean they have well-developed characters and complex inter-personal and moral conflicts. Dickens excelled in this sense, that is why some modern critics might label him literary fiction. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was popular in the same time period and wrote realist social satire similar to Dickens, but today rather than getting labeled "literary fiction" people create contest making fun of his florid prose style. In other words, he wasn't as good.

But when talking about contemporary literary fiction, we no longer use quality as the ruling metric, we use intent. In other words, a popular 19th century novel may be literary fiction if is is good, but a modern science fiction novel is a science fiction novel no matter how good it is, a modern fantasy novel is a fantasy novel no matter how good it is, but any time a living author claims she is writing literary fiction, her work gets labeled literary fiction whether it is good or bad. 

Thus, for contemporary writing, "literary fiction" becomes a marketing tool, a way to advertise to a certain highly-educated audience. We all know people who come out of college with the opinion that only literary fiction deserves to be read. But so much of what falls under this umbrella is appallingly bad. A well-written piece of fiction intricately weaves characters with different moral positions in such a way that highlights complex issues about human nature. If certain literature has an affect on empathy more than others, this seems to me a likely cause. When I read a  terrible book that's been listed on several literary "best of the year" lists, I begin to suspect that reading only self-proclaimed literary fiction erodes some people's ability to judge good writing from bad.

To summarize, because the term "literary fiction" is applied by unequal metrics, it is meaningless buzzword, and leads to a lot of poor-quality writing being mislabeled as valuable.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Information Overload in the Literary World

Every few months some new list of a zillion books is passed around on social media with the warning, sometime explicit, that if you don’t spend hundreds of hours reading these you’re a bad literary citizen and should feel ashamed. If you don’t know the classics, you’re ignorant. If you don’t know the latest authors, you’re out of touch. If you yourself are a writer, you’re selfish for not supporting enough of your peers.

According to my Goodreads count, I’ve read 84 books since the start of 2014. Even though this list includes a few poetry chapbooks and volumes of manga, you can’t deny that this is a lot of reading. Many of these books I could have gotten more out of, intellectually or emotionally, if I had spent more time with them. But still, I feel this push for more, more, more.

When people in the literary field complain about easy, fast, consumer experiences ruining reading, they blame the TV, fast food, and Amazon reviews, but maybe they should also be looking at themselves.

Literature is a form of media. We give it a higher status in our society because it has been around longer that movies, TV or social networking, but it is just as much a part of our media saturated landscape as anything else. There are, by some counts, 100,000 new works of fiction released in the United State every year, and each work has its own champions, demanding that it deserves your attention more than the millions of books that are already out there. 

When a work of art is advertised, promoted, touted as “the next new thing” that you need in your life, it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a commodity. There is no difference between telling someone they must read the latest books and telling someone the must buy the latest fashion. What is a book review but a creation of a new false need? As a writer, I must be reading whenever I’m not writing, in other words, I must be consuming whenever I’m not producing. Sure I believe, it is possible to experience transcendence from literature, but I could also experience transcendence from taking a walk, meditating or having a good conversation--you know, living the the present moment.

Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” begins: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

According to Debord, capitalism shifts are values from being into having and from having into the representational--in other words consuming media. High art and low art are equally part of this same system of consumption.

Yes, even literature is one way that human experiences, from walks in the woods to struggles with ailing parents, are turned into commodities, which can be sold in place of lived experiences. There are provable benefits to writing about one’s life experience, and provable benefits to reading about others experiences, but when books are promoted as a never-ending stream of new needs, literature moves away from something life sustaining and becomes a source of anxiety. 

In the future I hope to read fewer books: slowly, deliberately, and for my own reasons. After all, as Ezra Pound said, "Man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."