Heading Into Literature

Following on from his earlier Twitter thread about “readability”, Sam Byers has a sharp take on what’s really happening beneath the surface of cultural discussion about the death of the novel in light of the rise of streaming entertainment. Netflix says it’s competing with books for the attention of readers/viewers. Byers says this:

Of course Netflix might say they’re competing with books. That doesn’t mean they are. And when we talk about them as this all conquering force we are in some ways doing their work for them. But there is a deeper problem, and that is the way we talk about literature and the way that conversation has become increasingly dominated by a single word: story. … If we regard both television and literature as mere delivery mechanisms for an entertainment drug called “story”, then it seems to me that, yes, TV is the more efficient delivery mechanism. However, both forms are actually more than that, and the ways that they are more than that are fundamentally different from each other. Ironically, I think both forms suffer when we reduce their strengths to a nebulous concept of story.

Literature is not actually just about story. Literature both arises from, and is concerned with, language. More significantly, literature is a medium almost unparalleled in its ability to explore a key aspect of our lives: our interiority, our consciousness. TV and film, meanwhile, are able to bring a level of visual and auditory experience that literature obviously can’t match. They can tap right into our senses. In the race to the bottom to regard all broadly narrative art forms as mere story mechanisms, we’ve lost sight of both those things. We’re fixated on “what happens”. We expect a certain rhythm of being “gripped”. We want everything to be “addictive”, “can’t put it down etc”. The novel is so much more than this, and in my view the future of the form lies not in the ways it might mimic the structures and narratives of TV series, but in the courage of writers to use language to access places TV can’t reach. …

I think a real timidity has developed around literature that is not televisual. And I think writers have compounded this by often seeming very uncomfortable talking about literature in “pretentious” intellectual and creative terms. This is a great time, I think, to head into literature, to remind ourselves what language and the written world can do, and to think about “stories” that just wouldn’t make it onto TV.

From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. Continue reading

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.

In Memoriam, John Ashbery

Following the death of John Ashbery earlier this month, a number of eloquent, incisive memorial essays have been appearing on the web. Given Ashbery’s long history of publishing in the New Yorker, it’s no surprise that some of the best would come from others involved with that magazine. Here, for instance, is Ben Lerner, a great admirer of Ashbery and effectively his protégé:

The first time I met John (a decade ago), he thought I was someone else. This became slowly clear to me because he kept asking me questions about the poet Landis Everson, about whom I knew basically nothing. (It turned out that John thought I was the writer Ben Mazer, who edited Everson’s collected poems.) There was something appropriate about being misidentified by the poet who’d become my hero, in part because of the beautiful fungibility of his “you”: the way sometimes the poems address you, are alone in the room with a particular reader (yes, you), and sometimes address all possible yous, expand until we feel the mundane miracle of address as such — that there are other people, that there might be a common language.

Lerner’s remarks on the experience of reading Ashbery’s poems, which appear in his novel Leaving the Atocha Station and should rightly be attributed to his narrator Adam Gordon, have also been haunting me since Ashbery’s death: Continue reading

On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. Continue reading