Friday, June 19, 2009

Relative Ignorance & Its Discontents

Just a few quick, passionate comments, this time out, the writer having been driven to the brink at last by one too many encounters with literary ignorance amongst his fellow scribes. The ever-thoughtful Frank Wilson recently posted a thought for the day that inspired me to voice my complaint, for once, rather then just it let it go as a bad business best ignored:

Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.
—D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence's thoughts here are the reason why prophets are never beloved in their home towns, and also the reason most vatic poetry is overlooked in most poetry-critical circles. It's a very unpopular mode these days, usually ignored where not actively ridiculed. But Lawrence is correct about the necessity to speak out—even if only for the sake of one's own mental equilibrium. Langston Hughes once wrote something similar, about the suppression of what one is born to say, to be, to do:

Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—
and then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

In reading encounter after reading encounter lately, my eyebrows go up whenever I see writers of some genuine accomplishment and skill, and even of renowned stature as literary critics, casually mention their ignorance of great works of fiction or poetry outside their usual reading knowledge. The first thing that happens, after the eyebrows come back down, is a nearly unavoidable urge to ask, "Where have you been lately, or all your life?" As a lifelong voracious, eclectic reader interested in nearly everything, I find this attitude astounding, particularly when encountered in literary criticism in all its vicarious splendor. I find it hard not to judge, lest I be judged in return.

Granted, no one has time to read everything. I fully realize that. I don't have time to read everything, either, or be up on all the current literary trends and fashions—setting aside for the moment any questions about the necessity or value of being so tied to fashion and trend. Yet I do find myself able to read a great deal, absorb what I've read, think about it, and weave it into both imagination and experience. Is this so difficult? Apparently so.

In the end, one perceives that there exist within writing-about-writing levels of relative knowledge and relative ignorance. One cannot help but wonder: If I can read all that different material and find links between it all, surely everyone else can, too. Surely I am not unique? It's impossible to believe that I am.

There are plenty of poet-critics out there who throw off names like rainwater of a deer's shoulders, expecting everyone else to be In The Know. Surely we've all read the same things, especially the New Things. The publishing industry can be as fashion-driven as any other time-sensitive, value-based, commercial industry: publicity and marketing are always time-limited in their approach, piping up about The New Thing much more often than The Enduring Thing—unless of course The Enduring Thing has just been republished in a new edition. People who function as critics, professors, and writers, or all of above, certainly do not have time to read everything ever published. What is eyebrow-raising is the apparent lack of interest in even attempting to do so, on the parts of writer-readers who one might think would understand why the attempt is worthwhile, even if doomed to incompleteness.

Some of this is a simple, basic parochial attitude: Why, for example, should any New York City-dwelling critic ever look at anything produced in the "flyover" zone, after all, since all arts and all people eventually come to NYC anyway; and besides they have everything they need right there? Or think they do. This attitude of course ignores that great New York City native, Walt Whitman, who did in fact look everywhere else, as well as at home, for inspiration. Living outside the Big Cities as I now do, I find such parochialism laughable in the extreme. One wonders what many of those "we live in the greatest city in the world!" New Yorker types would do if, for example, Midwestern farmers suddenly stopped shipping their goods to the east coast. Other than complain about the high cost of living, that is.

If you think I'm anti-NYC, think again. What I am is anti-parochial.

One of the most annoying aspects of parochialism in literary criticism is a tendency, probably subconscious on most writers' parts, to praise opinions they agree with on some fundamental level, while both condemning and dismissing viewpoints they disagree with—and thus tend to over-praise those writers who seem to agree with them, and under-praise good writing with relatively unloved contents. Few critics seem able to separate their technical assessments of a work—i.e. the mechanics of craft, the convincing use of method and style—from their value-based assessments of a work's merit as a work of art. This is not an argument against having strong values or opinions, nor is it an argument in support of postmodernism's "value-free level playing-field" cultural and ethical relativism. Rather, it is a reminder that criticism, as a genre itself, is less value-free and less subjective than it tends to think it is. An observer with a bit of psychological training, who might stand on the sidelines observing the literary-critical fray might find his or her eyebrows permanently lofted above their hairline. The by now well-known observation about academia, or about poetry, seems necessary to quote again here: The reason [literary] arguments are so heated and vicious is precisely because there is so very little at stake.

Yes, I could be talking about celebrity-literary-critic James Woods here: but I am also, perhaps more, talking about his disciples, and his detractors. I give Woods credit for having opinions strong enough to incite passionate response, both pro and con. I nonetheless think his attempts to dictate an overarching aesthetic for writing literary fiction, and his many comments dictating what works and what doesn't, what should be done and what shouldn't—his overarching aesthetic is on shaky ground philosophically because it reduces to an essentially moral stance. It is more taste-based than Woods will openly acknowledge; and his tastes are traditionalist. He is trying to universalize an issue of personal preference, by making it into Critical Theory. He's hardly the first to attempt this, of course. In essence, Woods' program confuses the desire to conserve what is good and great in literature with the desire to repress what is not. Woods is a smart man, and there are many points on which he is insightful. Where he often fails to convince me, though, is when he tells us something is bad novel-writing, with little to back up his pronouncement except arguments that reduce to personal preference; his arguments against certain forms of the novel he dislikes are not efficiently rational or objective enough to be entirely convincing. This is most obvious when he is discussing experimental fiction. (It's as if Borges and metafiction didn't exist.) Some of Woods' critics, those who claim Woods to be reactionary, elitist and smug, are unfortunately correct to some extent.

Woods edges into conservative literary bloviator Harold Bloom's territory, with his attempts to dictate, once and for all, a Canon of Great Books. Canonization is fraught, as every good critic knows, with the near-universal human tendency towards list-making, categorization, and ranking. Nonetheless I observe that attempts at canonization tend to come more from the conservative wing: those who would preserve and conserve what they value are more likely to generate these non-ironic Best-Of lists. Yet conservation is not required to be (morally, socially, politically) conservative, a truth overlooked by both Bloom and Woods, and most of their disciples, who conflate the appearance of authoritative opining with genuine wisdom. Conservation of what is good may also be (morally, socially, politically) progressive: choosing to build on what is good, rather than man the battlements against what is bad. In other words: pro-evolutionary and expansive, rather than defensive and reactionary.

Woods can be very convincing when he praises. But when he condemns, he becomes critically uneven. Again, he is not the first critic to do this. In some instances Woods' arguments verge on pretzel-logic when he wants to include some writer's work that he really likes, but contradicts the rules of good fiction that he's previously laid down in stone. (The only way to include Borges in the canon is to redefine metafiction as non-experimental.) I have no problem with logical inconsistency—except when one speaks in absolutes then contradicts those absolutes in later assessments. You want to have your cake and eat it, too? Well enough. Just don't expect me not to notice. It's perfectly fine to say one likes something a whole lot; if it were just left at that, the pretzel-logic would become unnecessary.

The assumption that critics and writers must engage in endless literary and moral warfare, that competition and battle are the only paradigms by which to determine quality, which is the underlying assumption behind all Top Ten and Best-Of lists, is an assumption deeply rooted in our culture's tendency to frame thoughts in binary polarities; but it is a problematic assumption in that it incites competition in both humanistic and scientific spheres of study, where cooperation would be more useful, and perhaps more accurately reflect reality.

Woods is not an iconoclast, even if his tone is rebellious when in opposition to what he views as entrenched -isms and opinions within lit-crit, especially academic lit-crit. Woods is, rather, an icon-maker, one who would forge a tradition (a canon): he uses the language of renewal and preservation, true enough, but behind that curtain one detects a whiff of the perfume of canonization.

Who is the ordained priest within the citadel of literary criticism? Who is the abbot directing the Scriptorium? Who believes he knows better than anyone else what is right and what is wrong? Where is the humility in this enterprise, and where lies its ambition?

I resist saying this is just "egoism," but it is tempting.

And, at last, my real point of dispute: Woods is far less well-read than he thinks he is; for example, his plaudits for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road displayed a shocking (to me) ignorance of the history of apocalyptic fiction, both within "genre" writing (SF) and within literary history. As a result he overpraised a work of fiction far, far less original than generally assumed, and far more derivative than generally believed. (Many reviewers who arrived at similar conclusions, in all the critical reading I've encountered surrounding this novel, seemed equally ignorant of the genre's long history.)

How much of this is cliquishness, of being part of The In Crowd? Nose-in-the-air types are almost always compensating for some other aspect of knowledge or experience which they utterly lack. Literary pretense is often camouflage for poor literary self-esteem.

The general (mainstream) literary-critical dismissal of "genre" fiction, for example, has got to stop. Let's not mince words here: Most of the ghettoization of "genre" fiction comes from critics who, when they say "mainstream fiction," really mean "Fine Art fiction." As in, the Great Books tradition of fine-art fiction writing; as opposed to entertainment fiction, pop culture, and folk traditions.

One habit of fine-art literary-criticism that gives away the game, that tells us it's really about fine-art pretensions rather than good writing per se, is when the mainstream "literary fiction" world is so ignorant of "genre" fiction that they think they've discovered something new whenever a mainstream "literary" writer attempts a work of speculative fiction—i.e. science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or some combination thereof. Such work often gets praised to the skies as original, innovative, brilliant, insightful—when any experienced science fiction reader can tell you that not only was it not particularly original in its speculations or philosophical underpinnings, but that some of the great SF writers of the past century had already written on the same themes numerous times, and written about it better to boot.

For example, when a mainstream literary critic complains about a lack of psychological realism in SF, refer them to Alfred Bester, Ursula K. LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, and/or James Tiptree, Jr.—among others. Or, when a mainstream literary critic opines about SF's (by the way, no genuine well-read science fiction fan ever calls it "sci fi") lack of experimental or avant-garde literary writing techniques or styles, refer them to the entire New Wave period of the 1960s, as exemplified by the Dangerous Visions anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison, which brought experimental literary values into SF permanently; refer them also the ongoing writing of Samuel R. Delany, Ellison, and Walter Jon Williams—among others.

Alfred Bester practically invented the SF-crime noir thriller detective hybrid novel, with The Demolished Man. Bester also practically invented the serious literary SF-adventure novel, with The Stars My Destination, in which serious readers will note several parallels to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Bester also wrote one of the definitive stories of psychological speculation in SF, "Fondly Farenheit," in which the first-person narration shifts constantly between two lead characters, bound together by psychosis, projection, and sociopathic personalities.

Of course, one thing that mainstream "literary fiction" criticism is, if it is nothing else, is highfalutin' and far too full of itself. This is directly proportional to the extent that mainstream "literary fiction" criticism is attempting to establish a lineage of Fine Art Literary Fiction.

Before you get out all your darts of disapproval for what I've been opining here, this is no ignorant anti-intellectual attack on my part; I make no apologies about being well-read or for being versed in the realms of critical theory normally associated with the academic intelligentsia. My target is silly ignorance, not intellectual insight.

Let's return to the bottom line: Far too many lit-critics overpraise bad writing because it deals with a subject matter never seen before by them; far too few read outside the narrow parameters of the artforms they are most directly engaged with.

But reading outside one's realm of expertise is precisely how one makes linkages, thinks new thoughts, discovers new possibilities, and new realms of discourse.

I don't claim to be better than this at anyone else. I contain vast lacunae of ignorance which can never be filled in, as I no more have an infinite amount of time to read everything ever written than does anyone else—nor any desire to, since, as Sturgeon's Law reminds us, Ninety percent of everything is crap. (Theodore Sturgeon was a great SF writer who coined this law decades before computerized publishing technology led to the current boom in writing and publishing. The full original quote reads, Ninety percent of science fiction—heck, of everything—is crap.) A critic might use Sturgeon's Law as a (moralizing) justification or excuse to avoid reading outside their field. One might instead read omnivorously in the full knowledge that one can never grasp it all, but nonetheless do one's best to die trying. So I no longer apologize for being well-read—apparently, at times, more well-read than many professional literary critics, which is shocking—nor do I apologize for having a good memory that retains most of it: this is what allows me to link things together, to follow the brush, to discover patterns and connections, to overview and articulate both the overarching paradigms and the subconscious assumptions, which I love to do. For me, it's always been about seeing the patterns.

The late great SF writer, Octavio E. Butler, in her first published novel, Patternmaster, articulates a worldview in which linking information and experience can lead eventually to transcendent awareness and self-awareness. The novel contains much power-politics analysis enacted by the characters; a great deal of literary-critical writing about Butler's oeuvre has focused more on her politics and ideas than on the quality of her writing, which is not what I'm interested in discussing here. Reading this novel as a young man was no doubt influential on my thinking, if only because it gave me the language to describe my personal experience of gestalt thinking. It was Butler's concept of patterning that stayed with me, as a way of describing how ideas and objects often seem to cluster associatively into larger gestalts, larger concepts, and worldviews.

Well, we're only human. It's difficult to resist the gravitional tide of entropy, of cynicism, of We have limits. We cannot do everything, read everything. But we can try. We can reist entropy, and do our best to fight our way up against the pull of the tides, do our best ot climb out of the gravitational well and into the clerar sky. It's not too much to ask that we do our best. One isn't required to like everything one reads: but one is required to do one's best to comprehend, to place it in context, to find the links and patterns, and to scatter the net of those links and patterns as widely and broadly as possible.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I would certainly never criticise you for being well read, Art. I'm plain jealous if truth be told.

I agree totally with Sturgeon's Law, ninety percent of everything is crap but ten percent of everything is an awful lot of stuff to play with before you have to ever consider looking at the other ninety percent.

Until I started having free books chucked at me I virtually never read any contemporary fiction at all and of all the books I've reviewed over the last few months the one that I enjoyed the most was the Franz Kafka even if it wasn't his best work.

I have found it stimulating however and the stuff has been interesting and useful. I doubt any of it will be remembered in fifty years time though. Apart from the Kafka.

I approach my criticism with the same honesty as the rest of my online writing. I admit to being ignorant, a blank canvas if you like, and so I don't have an ego to clamber over before I can see what it is I'm writing about. I don't know names to throw about except the names of dead people which is one of the reasons I stay clear of reviewing poetry because I am so out of touch with what's going on and really wouldn't want to be a part of it anyway.

I had never heard of James Wood - no s - until a few months ago but I've never read him, not knowingly anyway. I suspect he's one of those know-it-all types who enjoys thrashing people with his own knowledge. I'm just glad you're more grounded than that. Maybe he needs to go on a road trip too, maybe sit at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and realise that he's not so big. I don't know. I don't know the guy.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All very well said, thanks. I was hoping you'd add your perspective. I think you're grounded in your honesty, too, and it makes a huge difference.

I was thinking that if Wood was lost in the Grand Canyon that might be interesting, indeed. It would also work to abandon him in deepest darkest Tennessee for awhile, too. Road trips are very good for gaining perspective on many things, including life and purpose and why most critical wars are so unimportant in the end.

I think you're absolutely right about Kafka, too, in relation to most of what's published lately.

2:06 PM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Remarkable stuff, Art. This is the kind of writing that cries out to be read at least three times. Like a well-told movie, you're likely to see new things in it each time you return. And very glad you made it to Maine. I've seen far less of the country than you, but I have been blessed to spend lots of time in Maine (my in-laws own a B&B not too far from where you stayed), and it's sublime.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, John, on all counts.

More on Maine is still to be posted.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

I think James Wood was a journalist at the student paper when I was at uni (20 years ago or so). He was one of those who already seemed to know exactly where he was going which I find pretty amazing. How do people get like that so young? Where does that certainty come from? I'm still a bit vague about it all...

1:52 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That's an interesting thought in this context, Rachel. Thanks.

It does seem that some people are born with a drive, with clarity, with knowing what they want, or want to do, or what they already believe.

I've always questioned such certainty, when it appears in the very young, not because I don't think it's possible, but because I know life has a way of knocking us off our early opinions. The best cure for certainty in the open mind is experience and time. If one isn't convinced one already knows everything, experience tends to make one aware of just how little one DOES know for certain. You know?


2:05 PM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

Oh yes, absolutely. I suppose it's all about different types of different people think, how they judge success, what they think is important. Some people have very direct line type lives (at least some of the time). Whilst others (perhaps you and me in this bunch) are much more of a wandering, meandering tendency.

3:57 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think you're on to something. I've also heard it expressed as the explorer vs. the stay-at-home, referring of course to mental attitudes rather than activity—the wandering mind vs. the cave-dwelling heart. Both have their good points, and their problems.

I definitely agree that I'm more of a wanderer than a straight-line defined-road type. I like getting lost when traveling, actually, as I discover new places and find surprising experiences when that happens. Sometimes I just pick a road heading more or less in the right direction and see where it takes me.

9:02 AM  

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