On Difficulty

Now that this year’s Booker Prize has gone to Anna Burns’ Milkman, we’re back into a discussion of the value of “difficulty” in literature, as distinct from “accessibility.” The novelist and critic Sam Byers has a typically astute take on the situation, on Twitter:

I think this year’s booker has demonstrated that in fact we do have the means to reward daring, challenging writers. The problem is that we no longer have a mainstream media that’s capable of responding to that intelligently.

I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that there’s something of a crisis in British literary critical culture, at least as represented by the major newspapers, but I think this year’s booker has helped me understand that the way the prize is *covered* is most of the problem

The press is increasingly reluctant to do anything that comes too close to old fashioned textual analysis. All their braying about the booker has in many ways just been a slightly desperate shout of “give us something we can turn into a story”. There has been very little idea of how to cover the books in question. Instead there has been an increasingly blundering effort to talk about “sales”, “readers”, brits, booksellers, “difficulty” etc.

So I wonder now if this year should be the year we come to understand a rather thorny problem. Not only are we over-reliant on book prizes to make books “successes”… [but] book prizes themselves are over-reliant on a media ecosystem no longer adequately equipped to consider in any meaningful detail what they do and decide. Meanwhile, an increasingly anti-intellectual, populist atmosphere has encouraged a way of thinking about literature that is generalist, insubstantial, frequently patronising, and based on limited textual reference.

This sort of “criticism” relies on profoundly woolly concepts: “readers” (always characterised as a homogenous mass), and a fairly useless “difficulty vs readability” metric that apparently no-one has noticed is entirely subjective.

I think that’s exactly right, and worth elaborating on. My suspicion is that there are two really basic, often unarticulated assumptions underpinning 99% of literary criticism and reviews in the press. Continue reading

Speed Reading

Midsummer was an interesting time for online discussions of literature and the reasons for which readers of literature actually read. Kevin Hartnett and the team at The Millions were the first to kick the hornets’ nest when they “asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest.” Mission accomplished, especially when Tom Ferraro, Associate Professor of English at Duke University, nominated Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as the Great American Novel:

The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?

When the comments section at The Millions exploded with dissents and disagreements, the discussion spilled over onto The Daily Dish, the blog of Andrew Sullivan, where one of Sullivan’s readers was given prime position to offer backup to Ferraro and take down the naysayers: Continue reading

A Reorientation

Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.

“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,

you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they ❤ so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.

One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3’ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal — one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading. Continue reading

What Need?

Over the last few months, at the blog of the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has been posting a succession of lighthearded but provocative musings on the norms and nature of reading and writing. In February, he questioned the transformation of writing from a personal vocation into a profession. “[W]hen did being a writer become a career choice,” he asked, “with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?” In early March, he wondered under what circumstances it becomes acceptable to abandon reading a book. “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish?” he asked. “Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?”

Now, in his most recent post, Parks sets out to “tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on.” The orthodoxy in question is the notion that “the world ‘needs stories.'” To illustrate just how orthodox this notion has become among the members of ‘the literary set,’ Parks quotes Jonathan Franzen as one of its major proponents. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” After unpacking Franzen’s self-serving motivations for expressing such a view, Parks goes on to catalogue several variants of the same position and then to relate an anecdote which illustrates the institutionalisation of that position: Continue reading

Discussing UNESCO Cities of Literature

Heads up. I wrote about Melbourne’s UNESCO City of Literature initiative a while ago, drawing a pretty unfavourable comparison between Melbourne’s efforts to capitalise on its City of Literature status and the remarkable things Edinburgh has achieved after it became the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. Have Melbourne’s efforts improved in the last year? With the city’s Emerging Writers’ Festival kicking off today, I’ll be taking part in “EWFDigital,” a series of online panel discussions focusing on an assortment of literary topics. The panel I’m on is accessible here; the topic under discussion is of course the UNESCO Cities of Literature project. I’ve just fired my opening salvo and I’ll be keeping an eye on the Festival website to answer any questions from the “audience” until the Festival draws to a close on June 5…

Genius?

What counts as genius? Sometimes it’s clear-cut: in 1981, with four sophisticated but commercially lacklustre novels to his credit, Cormac McCarthy used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Blood Meridian, arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century. Other times, it’s more counterintuitive: in 1988, with Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and V already under his belt, Thomas Pynchon used his Fellowship to fund the writing of Vineland, a work more experimentally adventurous (for him) if ultimately less successful than the earlier three novels. Mostly, though, what counts as genius is a major achievement that contains a hint of truly outstanding things to come. David Foster Wallace won his Fellowship on the back of Infinite Jest, Aleksandar Hemon won his on the back of Nowhere Man, and Edward P. Jones won his the same year he picked up the Pulitzer for The Known World – without doubt the best American novel of the last ten years. That decade also saw Fellowships awarded to Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Stuart Dybeck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Edwidge Danticat, and Deborah Eisenberg, as well as Colson Whitehead, who used his Fellowship to write the criminally underappreciated Colossus of New York, and Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories is one of this year’s best books for all the reasons Dan Chiasson has [recently] raved about.

I have a few quick thoughts on this year’s MacArthur Fellowships over at Killings, the Kill Your Darlings blog.

Cultural Cringe

Dear world: on behalf of the Australian people, I’d like to apologise for Christos Tsiolkas.

In my experience, one of the most irritating things about simply being Australian is that, whenever you make any initial attempt to participate in any sort of cultural enterprise alongside anyone from virtually anywhere in the Western world, you must first thwart and dismantle the preconceptions of parochialism attributed to Australians in general before you can expect others to take you seriously. The global assumption — reinforced by the “colourful” behaviour of so many Australians abroad — is that the nation itself lacks a sense of cultural sophistication and that, as a result, the people of Australia do not recognise cultural sophistication when they encounter it either within their own country or elsewhere. The assumption isn’t true, of course, or at least not on any essentialist basis; but it is widespread and resilient, and its persistence has long been a source of grief for those who champion Australian culture: “How can we best prove to the world that Australian culture is worthy of serious attention and respect?” Within Australia itself, the assumption is understood to have historically fuelled a phenomenon known as the cultural cringe: a reflexive “awareness” amongst Australian artists and their audiences that Australian art of any type is inherently inferior to the art of others — that, indeed, Australian artists “have something to prove” in the first place. Continue reading