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Unexpected Consequence of Literary Exploration [Jan. 8th, 2015|10:12 am]
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Yesterday evening, when the internet was down for awhile, ...for a time yesterday, I read a literary writer's work.

It had a strong effect.  I dreamed about being lowered into a shark tank with one limb at a time dangling so the shark could bite it off about six inches at a time.  When that limb was a little over half gone (and healed) whoever it was would carefully dip the next in the tank.  Eventually I had no limbs left, and was helpless.

Naturally nothing in the book was  that dramatic.  It was, like all such books, about ordinary people living ordinary lives of apparent modest satisfaction and covert modest misery, and mostly nothing happened to change that though sometimes the people made abortive modest efforts or  had pastel-tinted sex with someone who was married to someone else, which did not accomplish any real change except to expose the covert modest misery of both.  The most exciting thing in the whole book was a cow moderately upset by a stranger on the railroad tracks carrying a suitcase.  The moderately upset cow was reluctant to come into the barn to be milked.  But not for long.  Because even the cow wasn't allowed strong emotion.

No, the dream was my brain telling me how it felt as story after pointless story entered my eyes and then brain and then passed on, leaving only gaping emptiness behind.

If the standards of modern literary fiction were applied to fiction of previous ages, we would not have any of the classics, but a collection of anecdotes told by polite people sitting around in the ancient equivalent of beige living rooms and classrooms.  "In the market, it was dusty.  Sarah bought two shekels' worth of unground grain.  It was warmer than usual.  She was aware of Josiah's wife Leah watching her. She went home and made bread as usual.  First she ground the grain.  She always ground the grain first, though her mother-in-law Rachel sometimes softened the grain in water before grinding it.  That made the mush sticky, she said."  And on through a day in which at the end Sarah gives her husband bread for supper and he says thank you but you missed a grain--look, this is still whole.

And it would be said to fairly reek with Meaning.

Oh, and nuance.  Nuanced Meaning.  Subtlety, one shade of beige among many but if you're really an expert, you will know exactly which one, though there may be a polite argument about whether it's beige 234 or beige 233.   You must go to college and study hard to learn to tell the difference and apply the correct number to the correct shade.  No one who mistakes 234 for 231 is a real reader--only 2 digits away are allowed to educated persons.   Anyone who said "It's all beige" would be outed as a common person hardly able to read "See Dick run," who probably read (gasp) genre fiction and (sneer) liked it.

I am going to spend the day helping my brain regrow four limbs and my tongue, which was nibbled off by minnows in the last part of the dream.

To start the recovery process, I shall swear not to read any more literary fiction this year.

My brain's a little clearer already, though I can't trust it with the day's work of writing fiction, because what I wrote while in Beigeland certainly colored my complaints about Beigeland.  I need to get rid of the beige floaters in front of my mental vision.  There are red gas cans and blue gas cans sitting the yard--different fuels for the lawn tractor (which is green and yellow--not beige) and the chain saw.  The cat, by the pond, is frustrated because it is frozen.  She usually drinks her morning water out there.  Birds were skidding on it earlier.

No, see, the beige is still in my writing.  "The lion leapt on the wildebeest's hindquarters, digging in with its claws, weighing it down, kicking and [what noise to wildebeests make?], until the other lion caught up, clamped down on the wildebeest's throat...."  No.  Still. Damn beige.  Damn the shark tank dream.  Even strong language can't scrape it off my mental teeth.  Between me and the story I'm writing is a so-far impenetrable pane of dirty glass, making everything beige.  Or maybe taupe at the edges.

Already I can't remember the names of the people in the literary writer's books.  Or the scenes, though they were described, I believe, accurately enough, just without any attendant color.   There was snow here.  Trees there.  A field or two (with a cow in it.)  Railroad tracks.   Houses.  Apartment buildings.  Streets.  The usual generic settings for modern fiction.   All in the muted colors of yarn in some knitting shops where everything is dulled, softened, and if there's one skein of red, you know it's in the fall, the red is called Christmas Red, and it looks garish.   People and settings and situations, all flattened, softened, made as close to beige as possible--the faintest touch of blue or green or yellow mixed with the beige, just enough to see vague outlines of the generic Everyman/woman/child, Everyhouse/store/neighborhood.

Sigh.   Every year I read at least one volume of literary fiction, and most of the time I come out of it feeling as if someone had soaked me in water until all the flavor was gone.   Or as if parts of me had been removed, the interesting parts.  I don't mind that people write this way--it's their right, and everyone should write what he or she wants.  But why, with so many examples of vivid, interesting, colorful, memorable writing in the past, is beige the only color range in the literary palette?


[User Picture]From: montedavis
2015-01-08 05:41 pm (UTC)
Every year I read at least one volume of literary fiction...

You can stop. It's all right. It won't affect your grade.

Edited at 2015-01-08 05:41 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-01-08 07:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the laugh. I'm glad my grade won't slip if I skip a year (or more. Come to think of it, in a month and some days I'll be 70, after which I may become even more resistant to the "shoulds".

Every once in awhile I've found a literary book I actually kinda liked. There were some Nadine Gordimer stories I quite enjoyed, though now I remember the enjoyment, not the stories.
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[User Picture]From: montedavis
2015-01-09 09:17 pm (UTC)
I was certainly lucky in having reading/writing parents who gave me a subscription to F&SF for my 10th birthday in 1959, some great teachers and great professors, and a chance to do some teaching of literature very early on. No one whose opinion was important to me has ever said that I was reading too much "bad stuff" or not enough "good stuff," either while I inhaled mass quantities of SF&F in my teens and twenties, or since then on a more broad-based diet.

Whatever the reason, I intended my comment part-seriously, because I thought I detected in your post

(1) a note of defensiveness -- Someone Out There Thinks I Should Read More Literary Fiction, And I say it's Spinach and I Say To Hell With It. As you note and I agree wholeheartedly, we're both more than old enough to drop that... and I would add, have been since last we encountered a syllabus.

(2) a self-fulfilling definition of literary fiction as "beige" and vice versa -- and here I disagree strongly. Alice Munro's and William Trevor's stories, for example, seem to fall under most or all of your strictures: mostly domestic life, friendships and marriages, few dramatic narrative turns -- but damn, they pack an emotional punch.

And I don't think you could find anyone who'd deny the label "literary fiction" -- or apply the deprecatory "beige" -- to (off the top of my head)

Nabokov's Ada (world-building / alternate history to put most SF&F to shame, a sizzling decades-long quasi-incestuous affair)...

Any of Pynchon (global conspiracies, V-2s and black helicopters, Chinese-Jesuit-Indian schemes beyond the colonial frontier, dynamite-crazed anarchists)...

George Saunders (let's start with "The Semplica-Girl Diaries" and its brain-wired human garden ornaments) or Jim Shepard ("Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay," your basic beige tidal wave)..

Rachel Kushner (The Flamethrowers --Red Brigade terrorists and motorcycle speed records) or Jennifer Egan (The Keep -- low hijinks in a Transylvanian castle), or Donna Tartt (multiple murders, bomb in a museum, etc)...

Jonathan Lethem's not beige. Barbara Kingsolver's not beige. Michael Chabon's not beige. Marilynne Robinson's not beige. Elena Ferrante's not beige. A.M. Homes isn't beige. John le Carre (whose "spy thrillers" incorporate some of the most accomplished literary craft of the last half-century) isn't beige.

So... does "literary fiction" as you used it mean anything more than "fiction that I don't like, but suspect some invisible authority figure or academy somewhere might insist that I should"...?
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-01-16 06:44 am (UTC)
I have had literary proponents (not you, obviously) explain to me that literary fiction is not *supposed* to have plots, because the whole concept of a plot, of a story, is not literary (I argue Aristotle, they inform me that I'm archaic and now we are all more refined.) Dramatic action of any kind is not literary. An emotionally satisfying resolution is not literary, because that is too easy.

You have a proposed a number of books, some of which I've read and some not, that clearly have a plot, a story, and quite often something dramatic happening. You consider them literary. I consider them good writing on top of the something happening. I don't consider good writing--good style--"literary" in terms of content. That's on the basis of what I've been told by people who claim the chops to make such pronouncements. When a noted literary writer includes elements that I consider important (back to Aristotle) then I read with pleasure. I mentioned liking some stories of Nadine Gordimer's. I love good wordsmithing.

Defensiveness, no. Not now. Wistfulness, maybe. I have read famed literary writers whose letters, and sometimes essays, were lively, interesting, and pulled me right in. And whose short and long fiction was dull, opaque, and beige. What happened to the personality, the liveliness? Why not put that in the books, too? Alice Munro does indeed fall into my beige category--excellent wordsmith, but they pack no emotional punch for me. (FWIW, I feel pretty much the same if forced to listen to a lot of Philip Glass's compositions: tweedle-tweedle-tweedle-tweedle...) I come out of them stale and tired, which seems to be the point of most of them. Trevor...well, I don't think I ever made it completely through, because the tone was so offputting.

So your final "gotcha" question is wide of the mark. Literary fiction as I used it fits the description I have been given repeatedly--it's fiction in which nothing much happens (or is supposed to happen) other than some subtle emotional changes in the protagonist, fiction in which emotional intensity is flattened, "so the reader has to really dig into it to understand it" as one of them said.

If you use as your definition any fiction that is excellent in its use of language as well as its other qualities...then we're into the four terms situation in logic and we need to agree on a definition or a marker for our different definitions.
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[User Picture]From: montedavis
2015-01-16 12:50 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I intended no "gotcha," and entirely agree about using "so the reader has to really dig into it to understand it" as a criterion of merit in itself.

That's the princess-and-the-pea stance: my superior breeding is proved by my exquisite sensitivity, while you, poor thing, respond only to broad, vulgar stimuli. But I think of that as a character flaw in some critics, reviewers, and teachers -- akin to food and wine snobbery -- rather than as diagnostic of a category of fiction. (And it points to broader questions about education used for status display rather than enlargement of experience.)

Agreed, also, on your last paragraph. I suspect that mass literacy and publishing have made "literary fiction" hopelessly equivocal: as a definition it's a hash of marketing convenience, "genre" vs "mainstream," and assumptions (rarely explicit) about authors' intentions and readers' expectations.

Edited at 2015-01-16 12:50 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2015-01-16 05:02 pm (UTC)
Did you ever read the volume of essays "Rehabilitations and Other Essays" by C.S. Lewis? I think I read it first in my late 20s, and then found a copy for myself in my 30s. The three essays "The Idea of an 'English School,'" "Our English Syllabus," and "High and Low Brows," made a considerable impression on me, as they fit well with my own perceptions of the education I'd been dragged through. The book was published in 1939, so the essays were written before I was born, but it explained to me, in part, why the writers assigned us from the 19th c. and before--acclaimed as great writers whose works we should read--were on the whole so much more interesting and satisfying to read than the books we were being pushed toward in the late '50s and on up.

Looking back a little farther, I could see the seeds of the contempt for ordinary readers with a) the growth of a literate population that was not the result of high birth and b) the social movements of the 19th century that were contemptuous of the "bourgeoisie" and regarded reading for pleasure as just as sinful as a 14th century monk or a 17th c. Calvinist might have. Lewis suggests that the shift to studying modern works in the university increased the pressure to reward difficult works because otherwise readers needed no help to unlock a hidden/obscured/complicated 'meaning.' If all your students are already inhaling a currently popular novel...what is there to teach? (Well, we can think of things--but they're not all necessary to every readers.)

So perhaps we need to drop the whole category of "literary" fiction, and instead let the content categories (family saga, historical, fantasy, political, thriller, supernatural, etc.) define content while "good writing" is used to recognize good writing in any category--rather than contrasting "literary" and "popular" or "literary" and "commercial"--with a sneer usually pointed at popular and commercial by academics (other than you, maybe) and then pointed back at "literary" by people who think that category lacks liveliness and interest. Readers can learn to recognize, and can come to prefer, good writing to bad writing wherever it turns up. I'm a fan of John McPhee's nonfiction books--read his essays first in The New Yorker--not just because of his way of approaching a topic like a farmer's market in NYC or geology or fishing. He's a stylist. Never a word too many. Never a wrong word. Never a blurred description or contrived clever show-offy bit. Just a command of the language put to good use.

I read a lot of nonfiction, current and past, by a variety of writers, some of whom are very good but one of McPhee's caliber is rare indeed. (Laurence Gonzales, whose _Deep Survival_ is one of my current reads as I write the new book...he's very good, he's vivid, but he's also obviously showing off in places. One or two startling metaphors a chapter is enough. Fits his personality, but slightly interferes with the reading.

Anyway. Maybe it would help to remove the term "literary" from conversations about books, because it's become both a brag and a target--and very blurred in both uses.
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[User Picture]From: montedavis
2015-01-16 06:45 pm (UTC)
No academic here: 15 years of science writing (magazines, books, TV), then 25 of un-bylined business writing (CEO speeches, white papers, video scripts, web copy) for high-tech Fortune 500 corporations. I taught a few years of AP-level literature and composition courses at private schools during and just after college, then a few years of PR writing for Temple U. undergraduates a decade ago. You're surely right that a premium on "difficult" writing provides academic job security; the mandarins we have always with us. I was lucky enough not to encounter that in my own teachers (and do know some professors and critics who do valuable work in making a space for innovative writing while it finds its audience.)

Maybe the real luck was that both my parents were readers and lived by writing: WWII correspondents, then newspaper and magazine journalism, then PR and trade journalism. So I took it for granted before ever thinking about it that writing for others to read is just something people do -- and was perhaps immunized against the idea that writing, or judgements about it, are owned by publishers, critics, or teachers.

We are one in admiring McPhee's work. He's the best writer of expository English prose in my lifetime. I'd read the geology articles as they appeared in The New Yorker, then took the omnibus Annals of the Former World along on a summer trip to the Colorado Plateau and scenic parks.

One day on a trail near Bryce, a rain shower began. It beaded on the dust and bare rocks at first -- but within minutes there were rivulets, joining into streams, headed for gullies, ambitious to become new canyons. Suddenly (and very much thanks to McPhee) I realized that I'd been seeing the terrain as *old* because of associations with Egypt, Holy Lands, Ozymandias and all that... when in fact it was so rugged and dramatic, the billion-year-old Vishnu schist exposed in the Grand Canyon, precisely because it's geologically *new* -- rapidly uplifted, rapidly eroding, becoming faraway silt much faster than are the green-mantled, root-protected Appalachians near here in Pennsylvania. OK, the Appalachians were once Himalaya-high, rugged and fast-eroding, too. But now I can see them as old, the canyonlands as new. Nothing could have done more than McPhee to help me see the deep time *and* the transience in both.

Edited at 2015-01-16 06:46 pm (UTC)
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