...or IS there a universal value and quality of literature or not. Tim Parks seems to think not (I strongly disagree), and argues his case as I understand it, in the NYRB:
To put it bluntly, if I cannot finish a novel, I tend to think it is badly written. That there's a disconnect between the writer and me as a reader (which to bridge the writer had a shot at with his novel) seems a rather trivial observation. I read this article as saying that there is no universal value of literature as such. That there's just identity matching. Well, I think that's crap on a cracker.
What do you think?
Now that I've got that out of my system...
I tend to overlook badly written prose in a novel if the story is sound and full of the kind of reality that makes you look twice and listen for the background sounds.
I've seen some rather beautifully written novels that put me to sleep for the passionless fluidity of trivial tinsel that sometimes passes for literature.
As a reader, I need to connect with a story. As a man with history, you can't fool me. Even exciting experimentation has limits in a novel that cares naught for neither plot nor the poor soul who paid cash and feels that he must finish the damn thing, no matter what...
Now that I've offered an opinion, I'll go read the article.
(when all else fails, read the instructions)
Haven't read the article yet either, but I DID just read a well-know(ish) book of short stories and was comically, brutally, astoundingly confusedly displeased and disappointed by the entire thing.
Not one story was satisfying in the least, though it was the Winner of the This Award, and a Finalist in the That Award, etc.
Depressng, isn't it?
The article put me to sleep. So I'll stick with what I writ.
You are wrong, sirrah!
I'll not be responding to sirrah, but I'll tell you this...
Different strokes for different folks, but I agree with Marcus. There are universals. Music. Laughter. The stars. When you go to a museum and you stand before a painting you very much like, it starts to turn things inside you, to align with a bunch of other things you might have even forgotten about, until finally you a have a true,genuine feeling. Maybe you don't have the right words for it right then and there, but the experience speaks for itself.
When I stand in B&N at the bestsellers or new fiction book table, and scan the first page of a book, I need to be pulled in right away. Otherwise I start yawning and shut the book. There has to be 'something' going on that touches my unconscious or I don't get into it. Lately I find very few commercially produced books I want to buy. Small Press is doing better in terms of producing books of interest and excitement. I think the problem is in part our (boring) culture. We are a 'culture' without culture. How many books can I read about someone's (boring) drug addiction? Give me something fresh and I'll buy the book. Give me something compelling. Just give me SOMETHING. Most 'commercial books' don't deliver for me these days. They aren't being published to 'deliver' because nobody knows WTF the 'delivery system' is... the publishers and editors are in flux at the big houses. Half the time they don't read the books the publish, they read the 3 page synopsis from the author that is now required!!! The last 'fantastic' commercial book I read was..... hmmm... can't remember...
Whenever I look at lists like the NYT bestsellers, I know I'm looking at a bunch of books that (most likely) aren't worth my time. But someone likes these books. It can't be all scheming business.
And I went to a Nicholas Sparks signing and it was mobbed. I don't consider him to have universal value, but his fans do.
I know a lot of the books I read and enjoy appeal to me becaused of who I am an my particular tastes.
So I don't think you can really so it is strictly one thing or another.
I think there are some definite rules for "great writing" that great books tend to break.
It's funny, I read the piece in question as attesting nearly the opposite. That there might well be universal, continuing, whatever, values of literature, but that they didn't necessarily inform our preferences as individual readers. In the article, Parks makes a fairly good case for the continuing themes in works by Chekhov, Lawrence and Hardy but there's no equivalent correspondence demonstrated with readers tastes, or in accounting for why an individual reader may put down a particular book without finishing it, Parks's own described predilictions notwithstanding. For me the reasons why I might continue reading--or not--a particular book, are varied and fairly unknowable. I've continued books that I thought were fair crap just to see if they got any better and have often been presently surprised that they did. The last time this happened was with Milan Kundera's THE JOKE (read it!) where it took quite a long time since I despised the main character, who it turned out despised himself for something of the same reasons. His despicability being somewhat the product of his attempt to live in the despicable social/political setting of his country.
Parks's mistake, I think, is attributing to both writers and readers, an inability to stretch beyond what may be a given--the story of one's own origins--to broader and deeper implications. I seek this extension-beyond-the-self all the time in my reading, it's what I go to literature to find, I suppose, which may be the answer( for me, at least) to where those universal literary values really lie .
By limiting Chekhov to the question of family "belonging," Parks, by the way, misses the hugely important proposition that his works also pose, which is how to find personal authenticity in a system and society that suppresses every opportunity for expression and fulfilment and in effect requires falsity and lies at every turn in order to survive. You may or may not find this applicable to circumstances and places away from late tsarist Russia, but I do.
Brian-- If you know of any "rules for 'great writing,' I wish you'd pass them along. I could really use some of those.
Most of the time I agree with the quote attributed to Goethe that affinities are important, although I don't think affinities are necessarily restricted to the story of one's own origins. I'm not sure that universal value equals equals guaranteed interest. First time I saw some of Picasso's works in a gallery I was surprised that I felt nothing. Bach usually does not move me to anything except admiration (which does not equal passion), and so on.
To James' point- I gotta have both: Engaging content, well written. One without the other- I don't have that kind of time.
Sweet Susan Tepper, I must disagree with you and agree with you. I'm like Mark, I have to have both content and good writing. I have read some outstanding books in the past few months: The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks, The Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen, The Artist of Disappearance: Three Novella's by Anita Desai and Daniel Woodrell's Outlaw Album - just to name a few.
All were fresh, compelling, beautifully written and commercially published. . .
A liberal attitude towards reading and writing, to all forms and ways of producing and creating is very important to me, too. But I read this article rather as an attempt to validate all that "fake good writing" (as my wife calls it) which says so much about so little, belittling life and man in the process. Nothing can be said against pulp (or any purely commercial writing) as long as pulp knows itself (which it usually does). But the melange of contemporary criticism (rarely better than its subject), "lit types" (as James Robison called them on my facebook page) and postmodern political correctness as a political stranglehold on free, experimental, wild, erotic expression of truth about us and our shit, declares pulp is literature and classics are poop to smuggle literary dwarves into the pantheon of the greats. Usually in the interest of commerce, which is forgivable because it is small-minded and easily found as such.. But if these folks come dressed up, like this man Parks, in the rags of philosophical relativism I get as passionate as the pope, who said (in a different context) that relativism "...does not liberate man, but takes away his dignity and enslaves him," I can but applaud. This, by the by, is no judgement against the importance of systemic theory and action (I'm a systemic therapist myself), which Parks puts forward as a witness, but to use systemic concepts in this reductionist fashion is intellectually abusive, or perhaps he hasn't understood the systemic viewpoint at all.
Of course we'll never agree on taste (that's the definition of taste), but the issue isn't taste here, but values and moral (something we've often discussed here!).
Or perhaps, as my clever spouse thought, Parks' article is merely a small-minded attempt to get back at Nan Talese who gave his novel a thrashing...
Marcus, I enjoyed your summary points here. Nan Talese (who used to have her own imprint at one of the big pub houses) rejected a novel of mine about a decade ago. That book was subsequently shortlisted in the Zoetrope contest, so somebody apparently thought it had "some merit." However Nan Talese did not. My husband said she "didn't smell the money." (just wanted to toss in a little personal anecdote here, for the 'fun' of it)...
And it is most definitely a "taste" thing, what we choose to read and buy, and apparently my tastes aren't running in synch with what is considered 'hot'right now in commercial publishing.
Recently I have read some terrific books by: Kathy Fish (Wild Life), God Bless America (Steve Almond), Domestic Apparition (Meg Tuite), and Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. None of these books made the bestseller table at the bookstores.
Popularity doesn't guarantee longevity. The readers go where they want to go, read what they want to read. They aren't signing to sites like these because they just want to read, not write. The label of 'literature' is given by the people choosing texts to teach. Write what you can write and let the future decide what's literary. It's out of our control and is fairly fluid.
@David I find it highly applicable, thank you for that thought on Chekhov! I'm reading Tolstoy's "What Is Art?" now, which also is diametrically opposed to Parks' thinking, was published in 1911 and is as relevant for today's publishing as anything else written since... | here's a quote that I found personally relevant, from my blog http://bit.ly/9FRenQ
@Susan thanks for the New York publishing anecdote..."smelling the money" is outside of my scope at least as far as publishing is concerned. Cheers!
Also wanted to add to the Nicholas
Sparks comment by Brian:
He does have a huge fan base.
And on TV right now the hottest thing going is the "Housewives" series-es. What does that say about 'commercial tastes'?
It says "UGH" to me. It says "lowest common denominator."
At its best it can be called Camp. At its worst it can be called unwatchable junk. But it's racking up the ratings and the moolah.
Sparks is a commercial writer. Who knows if he's actually writing his own books anymore.
But regarding books, I have always understood them (fiction and poetry) as art that aspires to something greater than your basic everyday "Housewives"...
It's an interesting conversation, thanks for starting this thread Marcus.
Too late last night to wade through Parks' article; this morning I made it through most of the first page. Lotta words to say little and nothing especially beneficial. Of course it's all subjective, and of course who we are plays a huge part in what we like. Who doesn't recognize that. What I consider good writing others don't, and vice versa. True of those who read for pleasure, and editors as well.
I'm probably oversimplifying. I'm no systems theorist.
It's easy to overgeneralize about any category of literature. Always love it when someone says oh I don't read genre. Like it's beneath them or something. CJ Cherryh's and Mike Harrison's prose skills and storytelling are as strong as I've ever read or will. But because they're both thought of as primarily writers of SF, they're not Pulitzer or Booker candidates etc. It's a shame. They should be regarded in literary circles with the same reverence as McCarthy. Lots to learn from all.
Again, all subjective, and only my take.
I beg to differ...
Popularity is neither a gauge nor a hindrance to the relative value of literary work. In their day, Shakespeare's plays were enormously popular.
When readers disagree, it's largely a matter of taste. Time determines value. Time and consistent, continued appreciation.
Popular culture today hardly includes literary work in the main, but it's not dead. Some literary work manages to cross over into interperative film versions that become popular.
As for the plethora of reality shows? I think that's more due to the fact that such series are cheaper to produce for the crowd which seems to embrace them, than for the lack of dramatic material available for interperatation. People should try to transcend their disdain for popular fiction and genre-driven stories. Genre is more a marketing concept than anything else.
How would you classify Crime and Punishment by Dostoevski? A police procedural? 'S all relative, I think.
Ah, me. Couldn't force my way through David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. Put down Paul Auster, too. Many of today's po-mo, more cynical and worldly-than-thou authors make my knickers itch. There's a sort of self-satisfied, look at me look at me look at me tone that I simply can't stomach.
I do buy and read as many of my writer friends' new books as possible and most are fresh and compelling, but ordinarily I read about seven books a week and probably couldn't tell you the titles or name of the authors of most of them. I read (and reread) "literature" in the summer when I can take the time to enjoy it and swim in its depths.
Have my eye on Cervantes come the end of May as well as a plan to reread lots of Carver, Hemingway, and Cheever, and perhaps some Delillo and McCarthy. I read commercial, junk food books to avoid becoming a television zombie, though sometimes they offer almost the same experience.
Reading has always been a profound pleasure. For me it adds to life in every way. Everyone has favorites. How could it be otherwise? But is there anything more thrilling than getting lost in a book? That feeling you get when it's over that you wish you could experience it all over again, but you know it's too soon. So you seek out the new experience. Because that's what it truly is--an adventure with words and thus with ideas, with feelings,with perspectives,with the whole world of being.It also gives me strength in my own life to carry on. Stories add up to a kind of continuity of living.
Well put, Darryl.
JLD, as for Shakespeare, it doesn't add up for me. Yes, he was popular but there wasn't much to compete with him and his cronies who were writing then (the other 'real' Shakespeare...?) No TV, no DVDs, no CDs, no phones. No Phones. And much of Shakespeare appealed because of its humour and even his serious works touched a vein in those living then, because life was a series of laughs and miseries, with not much else except starvation thrown in for good measure. Shakespeare served as a respite from the hard life of the masses so naturally he would be well liked then. Today we are a spoiled lot with baser tastes. As for reality tv, the "stars" are all agented now and pulling in huge salaries.
No one read Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime. They were only published two decades after his death by Ben Jonson et al. Because there was no such thing as copyright, playbooks were carefully guarded items and no one ever got their hands on one unless they stole it. This is why there are still arguments over slightly differing versions of the quarto and folio editions and which lines in certain editions should be accepted as true. His poems were printed and sold, though, and that's how he made much of his income before he invested in the Globe and his actors became the Lord Chamberlain's men. anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying Shakespeare isn't a good example of a popular author because people went to see his plays, they didn't read them.
I was aware that Shakespeare's plays were not printed for the masses. I was stating that his plays were wildly popular, and they were. I didn't think I had to say that it was the performances that were popular in their time, not the scripts. I'd assumed that was a foregone conclusion. Silly me for thinking that.
Of course, they had to be written before they were performed and they were written powerfully, no matter who actually wrote them.
Susan, I think our tastes are no less base than those of Elizabeth's England. In fact, our modern tastes are likely more tame by comparison, but that's just me and I'm a silly fellow.
It's too bad to see two writers I respect allude to doubts about Shakespeare's authoring the plays. This beaten horse is so dead it ought to be well buried by now but amateurs keep producing " theories" of alternate authors of the plays without any credible evidence. Reputable scholars agree that all the evidence we have, both internal to the plays and external ( including the poetic testimony of his contemporary, Ben Jonson) points to Shakespeare's authorship.
My goodness. Can't we all just get along?
I thought we WERE all getting along...don't have to agree to get along...right? right??
Sorry. There's a pompous pseudo-academic poltergeist who occasionally takes command of my body and keyboard.
Nos dimittimus vobis...
Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis.
Mihi ignosce. Cum homine de cane debeo congredi
I'm Latin but not that kind of Latin. Guess I won't be able to chime in on this one. :O)
Seriously though, great discussion.
We are getting along, we're just expressing different pov's re Shakespeare. It's true, all culture's are/were base. But I think with fondness back to the times (mostly during my parents adulthood) when people went to a cocktail party and actually discussed the latest great book and were embarassed if they weren't "au courant." Now they go to parties and discuss their phones. That is a "difference" from where I sit.
Ok, so I just can't resist. Susan's right, of course, about conversation. As far as Shaxper goes, I just don't understand the temptation to treat him like the bearer of the holy grail. Voltaire said S's work consisted of "a few diamonds in a giant pile of merde." Does that mean we don't respect Voltaire?
Besides, treating S like a god demeans his achievement. Like Dante, he's just a guy who sat down at his desk, like you and me, and wrote. He put on those tight pants one leg at a time, like any mortal. That's what makes the things they wrote so stunning, not the idea that he had a direct line to The Muse. As for his contemporaries, when the Queen noticed him at all, it wasn't for something like the Tempest. She told him to write a play with Falstaff in it, rather as if a later Elizabeth commanded a special edition of the Benny Hill Show.
The authorship arguments are good fun. I rather like the idea the plays, and the sonnets, were written by a woman, who found some likely looking doofus to pretend he wrote them. ;)
But I'm more interested in Marcus' original question. For myself, I'm not concerned with plot or characters or any of that stuff. I'm one of those creatures who picks up a book and opens it randomly in the middle. I just read a few sentences. If those sentences are filled with passionate syntax, the book will hold my interest. If not, back it goes on the pile. And even if tastes vary, we can all agree on what constitutes passionate syntax. Can't we? ;)
Yes, Shakespeare's always been a little messy for the French.
Passionate syntax: Is that like copulating copulas?
Pious devotion to literary canons is almost (but not quite) as absurd as the current fashion of self-loathing surrounding English literary roots. Diversity is wonderful, but the celebration of it need not be accomplished at the cost of our own sweet history of letters.
I'm the guilty party for having made a reference to Shakespeare herein. Little knowing it was sinful to do so.
I've always enjoyed Shakespearian plays, always will. I've seen some marvelous productions. I don't like everything Shakespearian, but appreciate the tragedies of Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III and others. His is a remarkable body of work, much studied and admired for good reason.
My favorite is Henry V. The language is intoxicating and the passion magnificent. There is a particularly wonderful production on film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh in the title role. Well worth watching.
Here's a link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097499/
I think it's available on Netflix. I've seen it several times and never get bored with it. It's the best.
As for Voltaire... It's my understanding that Voltaire didn't like anybody.
Branagh was amazing in this role (regardless of who wrote the text!)
True, Susan. And Derek Jacobi, his mentor as the Chorus started the whole thing off with a shout and a rousing intro.