Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Good Book Is Hard to Find

When I recently posted about Pamela Paul's NY Times article "The Kids' Books Are All Right," I promised that I would return to something that intrigued me at the time: Lev Grossman's statement that more grown-ups, including himself, are reading YA because, "a lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot... I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives."  It's an honest statement and perhaps even an accurate one, but there's something odd in it too.  The implication here isn't that YA is giving readers something new, but that adult literature is shirking its duties.  It's a consumer's mentality.  Give the people what they want, he seems to be saying, or they'll (rightly) take their business elsewhere.

At first glance, it seems like Lev Grossman is an odd person to be saying that.  For one thing, he's a contemporary novelist himself, the author of three books for adults (most recently The Magicians, which I adored and loathed in near-equal measure); for another, he's a literary critic.  Recently he got a bit more spotlight than usual, when he did the unthinkable by landing an unabashedly serious novelist – Jonathan Franzen – face first on the cover of Time.  Inside the magazine, Grossman says the Franz "is a member of a perennially threatened species, the American literary novelist... [and] I would argue — that he is the most ambitious and also one of the best."  Later, he praises Freedom by saying, "It doesn't back down from the complexity [of modern American life]."  Yet, despite Grossman's admiration for "ambition" and "complexity" and his apparent awareness that forces in our culture exist to threaten the works of literature that display them, here he extols the superior curb appeal of kiddie lit to adult readers.  What gives?

Some of the answers can perhaps be found in his obnoxiously titled Wall Street Journal piece "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard" (brought to my attention by alert reader John).  Go ahead and click the link, but be forewarned: qua essay, it's awful, lumping together disparate writers like Kafka, Hemingway, and Proust under the single heading "Modernism," then simplifying their aesthetics to the point of moronic absurdity.  "To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don't tie up neatly... Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world."  As much as I love the mental image of Virginia Woolf screaming, "You can't handle the truth!" Jack Nicholson-style, I have to point out that shit like this wouldn't fly in a tenth-grader's term paper. 

And it goes downhill from there.  Grossman reaches a nadir of substance when he writes, "There was a time when difficult literature was exciting... But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag," then attempts to "prove" his "point" purely through statistics from Bookscan, without making a single statement about the form, content, diction, or aims of any contemporary novel.  If Grossman's only standard for a book's success is how much money it made the year it was published, he might need to reconsider his opinion of some of those beloved Modernist texts, not to mention his own career as a book critic, which, according to his own logic, was made obsolete by the invention of the adding machine.  Yet, despite the hamhanded anti-intellectualism and flat-out rhetorical laziness of the piece, there's an observation hidden in it that I found pretty interesting.

"Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance," Grossman writes.  "They're forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century."  Unlike the Modernists of old and the unnamed "difficult" writers working today, these authors, he argues, are striking "compromises with the public taste," using humor and suspense and, he implies, sometimes intoxicatingly sniffable glue bindings to keep readers crawling back for more.  With this new postmodernism – the postmodernism of fun, fun, fun! – "the balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader," he concludes.

There's something to what Grossman is saying here.  Going back to Barthelme and Vonnegut there have been postmodernists who have slung their weird capes over the dress dummies of genre.  But we're currently seeing a proliferation of them.  And a few of these wackos are brilliant enough to see by in the dark – in my personal estimation, so good it hurts.  But why are they so good?  Is it because, as Grossman claims, they're caving to the pressure of the marketplace – because they've observed that book sales are on the decline and they've decided to roll up their sleeves and pitch in?  One morning, did Kelly Link sit up in bed and say to herself, "Okay, Barnes & Noble shoppers, you win: I'm chucking my stream-of-consciousness novel of marital ennui.  From now on it's all zombies, all the time"?

Maybe she did: I don't know the chick.  But I do know her work, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say I don't think it's the result of a series of "compromises with the public taste."  I don't think it compromises at all.  And, although her writing is certainly accessible, I don't think that her story collections (which, I'd imagine, do not Bookscan in the millions) are great because of their widespread appeal, or, to put it more bluntly, their sales.  I think they're great for the same reasons Grossman calls Franzen's work great: because they don't shy away from the complexity that they present.  Because, although they're small in scale, they're imaginatively, aesthetically, thematically ambitious.  Because – and this is something Grossman doesn't quite say – the form and content are of a piece, neither artificially imposed on the other.

In "Good Novels Don't Have to be Hard," Grossman's fatal mistake is, I think, overlooking that last point.  He seems to think that the form of a novel can be "compromised," made palatable to readers, without altering the content.  But I don't think Kelly Link's zombies, or Chabon's comic book superheroes, or Lethem's gumshoes, or Clarke's magicians (or Grossman's magicians, for that matter), are just a concession, something tossed in to keep antsy readers placated and entertained.  I don't think they could be swapped out and replaced with something trendier (OMG vampires!!1) without some intrinsic meaning being lost.  These authors aren't Jerry Seinfeld's wife, disguising the vegetables of literary merit inside the junk food appearance of genre.  Genre is part of their work's DNA, its birthright, part of what it wrestles with and makes sense of – it's no more arbitrary or extraneous to their books than middle-class American pseudo-realism is to Franzen's.  The forms these authors use aren't impressive because they hide the content; they're impressive because they're inextricable from it.

 Thank God the new postmodernism doesn't leave kale stuck to the back of your throat.

And, in the same way, if a "difficult" book succeeds as art, it's not because we have decided "pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience," as Grossman says (there's his consumer's mentality again); it's not because we're willing to strain our eyes peering through the clouded lens of difficulty to glimpse the work's true subject.  It's because that particular difficulty is part of the work's subject, and not in a vague, general, and therefore uninteresting way ("The Modernists' idea was life is, like, way complicated, y'know?"), but in a way that's concretely, specifically tied to the unique vision of that novel.

Which raises the question: what is this "difficulty" that Grossman and I keep referring to oh-so-vaguely, without providing any examples?  The flip response, which is also partly true, is that there are as many different kinds of difficulty as there are readers, since different things are tough or unfamiliar or simply disagreeable to different people.  But in my next post, I'm actually going to talk about what I think makes certain pieces of fiction difficult for me, and why.


John Wiswell said...

Grossman's WSJ article drove me batty, too. I spent two hours ripping it apart, then deleted my diatribe for the sake of sanity. It's relieving that somebody else took such issue with it. Did you get to the part where he claimed The Great Gatsby was full of action?

I agree with your idea, "But I don't think Kelly Link's zombies, or Chabon's comic book superheroes, or Lethem's gumshoes, or Clarke's magicians (or Grossman's magicians, for that matter), are just a concession, something tossed in to keep antsy readers placated and entertained. I don't think they could be swapped out and replaced with something trendier (OMG vampires!!1) without some intrinsic meaning being lost." Grossman, as a student of sales, sees people mixing the literary and the entertaining as concession and market movement. I think it has more to do with people growing up loving those Genre Genres and thoughtful fiction, and bringing both to their work. It's something I certainly play with. But a lot of modern criticism exists as "anything positive you claim is false, anything negative you claim must be true" - cynicism would lead people to assume self-interest and scheming.

The Chawmonger said...

John, well put -- and I totally agree. I definitely think that these authors, far from being motivated by "marketability" (whatever that is), are using writing as a means of exploring their own peculiar obsessions and influences, which in my opinion is the aim of any worthwhile art.

It's interesting: Grossman seems to think this piece (and others he's written) somehow serve to restore "entertainment" to its rightful place in our consideration of literature. But to the contrary, I actually think that a piece like this helps open the perceived gap wider between "entertainment" and "art." Because what Grossman is saying here, basically, is that any elements readers find "entertaining" in a work are there simply to increase readership/sales, not for any larger aesthetic purpose. Which in my opinion is insulting to just about everyone involved, readers and writers both.