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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 25, 2005

one man's trash

Getting a bit patchy in my blog-posts, here. Yesterday it was the delayed arrival of Bruce, the handyman from Homepro Handyman Service. At 3:30, two and a half hours after schedule (not bad by trades standards), he arrived: tall, friendly, talkative. We headed out back to look at our garbage-box, and developed a plan for proofing it against animal and human incursion (mainly surrounding its insides with half-inch wire mesh). Then, while he whisked away to pick up materials, I set about clearing the inside of the hot, dusty, garbage-impregnated, enclosed box. I emerged an hour and a half later, while Bruce was setting to work (he wouldn't call it quits until dark).

That's my excuse for yesterday.

Now: here it is 3:30 p.m. again, and I'm busy at my blog-post for my few but devoted and highly discerning fans.

After my morning notes (Alexander the Great, A History of Technology), I spent some time browsing the handful of blogs I keep tabs on. First up: the Grumpy Old Bookman, regular as clockwork every weekday with well-crafted, well-informed prose on the state of publishing in Britain. Today's post was a long entry in praise of a book called The Intellectuals and the Masses by John Carey, which evidently vilifies the British literary intelligentsia of 1880-1939, accusing them of inventing intellectual literature as a means of isolating themselves from and keeping themselves above the "masses"--people of the middle and lower classes who could now, mostly, read.

Today the Grumpy One lived up to his handle, vehemently supporting Carey's thesis, and getting quite a few licks in of his own for good measure against the hypocritical, parasitic, narcissistic, racist, sexist, wife-beating crew responsible for English high-brow literature of that and subsequent periods. The Grumpy One has never made any secret of where he stands on the issue of "literary" fiction: it is fiction at its most obscure, least readable, and least enjoyable. Its small share of the market is well earned, and would be smaller if its sales were not artificially boosted by the efforts of self-serving eggheads to promote it. He has no use for it.

I found myself experiencing mixed feelings as I read the post. While I have little doubt that the evidence presented in the book is true (Nietzsche was not a very pleasant person; H.G. Wells worried about a world overwhelmed by dark-colored races; George Gissing whacked his wives with stair-rods), I wasn't persuaded of the truth of the underlying thesis: that high-brow fiction was invented by these people specifically to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, as a kind of circle-the-wagons gesture--a laager of intellectuals trying to stay above the barely literate. I haven't read Carey's book, but if this is what it's saying, then I think it's probably just too reductionistic for me.

The key question is about quality. What is a good piece of writing? What makes it good? Who says so?

The GOB takes the view that a regular reader's enjoyment of a good mystery or romance novel is in no way inferior to or less than that of an academic reading a "difficult" work of literature. By whose decree is one better than the other? Whose enjoyment is of higher quality?

I would agree that there's no way of measuring this. Indeed, quality by definition is that which cannot be measured: it refers to the nonmeasurable aspects of something, which in their turn fall under the label of quantity. There is no way to make a case that one work is absolutely better than another.

But what about relatively? Is Crime and Punishment no better than, say, Valley of the Dolls? Many would say not: they can read Valley of the Dolls, but not Crime and Punishment, because the latter is too boring, is set in a faraway place, has no sex scenes. But I mention it for a reason: that, as I've said before in this blog, when I first read Crime and Punishment at age 13, I was aware that I was reading a new and higher, better type of literature. I didn't enjoy it less than the science-fiction that had been the staple of my reading diet thitherto, I enjoyed it more. At 13 I was not a university-educated egghead; I was an elementary-school-educated boy living with his single working-class mother. I was a member of the masses. I wasn't trying to "better" myself or fit in with a higher-class set; reading this book was a private experience of communion between my mind and Dostoyevsky's. It's not an overstatement to say that it changed me.

Crime and Punishment was a step in my literary education. I didn't accept that it was good because somebody told me so; its quality was part of my direct experience--an experience, I realized, that had been shared by many before me.

We accept as natural that the tastes of a 40-year-old will usually be different from those of a nine-year-old. Education and life experience cause us to change our view of things. An important part of the difference is that the 40-year-old has already had the nine-year-old's point of view, while the nine-year-old has yet to arrive at the 40-year-old's. They are not merely different; one is a more evolved view than the other.

Literature (and I use this term in contrast with the different idea of "literary fiction") is that more evolved point of view as it applies to writing. As we mature, we engage with life on a deeper, more subtle level. As our understanding and appreciation of life deepens, we will need writing that speaks to that deeper understanding--indeed that helps us go further with it.

And what of "literary fiction"--the highfalutin stuff that is the real target of GOB's wrath? Here I emphatically agree with him. To me, the whole deconstructionist/postmodernist project of the 2nd half of the 20th century is a dead loss. But I'm not sure that even this product of frenetic academic inbreeding was the result of a desire to elevate its producers above the "masses". I suspect it has more to do with power struggles within academia, in which certain factions ("women", "minorities") got their hands on new weapons with which to attack their supposed oppressors. (The GOB does engage in some politically correct white-male cringing.) Harold Bloom in The Western Canon and other works describes how the "politics of resentment" has infiltrated and rotted the literary academic world in the U.S. I've never visited literary academia--and I don't want to. But the product of such an establishment, with such a program, can only be dreck.

In sum: my impression is that while there may be some substance to the idea of a coterie of turn-of-the-20th-century eggheads inventing an abstruse literature to keep themselves apart from and above the unwashed masses, the idea that this was a prime mover in non-pulp literature seems far-fetched and, dare I say it, cynical. Even popular writers can be not very nice (how about Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, reputed to beat blacks more harshly than he beat Jews, who in turn got rougher treatment than fellow WASPS?). And Malcolm Lowry, living in a squatter's shack only a few miles from where I sit, idealized the common man while writing Under the Volcano, one of the most difficult literary novels of the 20th century--and one of the best.



  • Good post. Interesting analysis. I find a great weakness in Carey's thesis is his ad hominem attack on certain writers. Lawrence, Wells, and Wyndham Lewis may have held views on sex, race, and class that we find politically incorrect today or anti-social. So what? That in no way impairs my reading of their fiction. Since I read for entertainment, not political education or moral uplift, I am not bothered by an author's views when they diverge from my own.

    Also, Wells can hardly be said to have contributed to writing books that were abstruse or inaccessible. Quite the contrary. His writing was enormously popular during his lifetime and many of his best novels and stories remain in print.

    By Blogger Peter L. Winkler, at August 25, 2005 8:02 PM  

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