Life—my own—briefly noted

To those who have written and those who have thought about writing and not: yes, more posts are on the way, though most of them remain in my head at the moment, and the stack of books on my desk will eventually be converted to post form. Thanksgiving break starts tomorrow, when I hope to employ some of that lovely, non-allocated free time to writing about The Mind-Body Problem (again), The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, and perhaps a few others.

The short version: both are recommended, although the former more than the latter unless you have a particular interest in the subject of social forces like to continue shaping the world, especially among the young.

With that teaser, if you’re impatient for more, check out some of the lovely websites linked to on the right.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, and meaning in the novel

There are two distinct currents in the writing of novels that I would like to note in particular: the novel often described as “taut,” in which every word, sentence, paragraph, action, plot point, utterance, and the like has a central meaning utterly important to the meaning of the novel itself as a whole. Flaubert began this school in earnest, and it began somewhat after the other school, which a professor described as a “big bag of stuff,” containing a bit of everything and much that seems extraneous and wandering, though interesting. Dickens wrote such novels. The “big bag of stuff” school has never been my forte: 18th Century English novels like Clarissa and Pamela are a drag, and the hysterical realists who emulate them deserve the opprobrium they occasionally get. I generally prefer the Flaubert method of writers like Flaubert himself, Fitzgerald, Melville, and the like.

One novel that gets the balance nearly perfectly is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which succeeds in being pointed and yet digressive, and its meanderings are always illustrative of the characters and related, somehow, to the central plot—or, rather idea, which in the case of Cryptonomicon I can’t explain without including the ending. It’s an exceptions; John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is another successful hybridized novel I like, which has characteristics of the big-bag novels without many of their faults. The temptation toward big-bag novels is clear, especially because the novel lacks a required form—as the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary says, the novel is “now applied to a wide variety of writings whose only common attribute is that they are extended pieces of prose fiction. But ‘extended’ begs a number of questions,” which it then goes on to enumerate. The problem with defining the novel is that the form itself arose as an original production and one major criterion for greatness continues to be originality, which becomes steadily harder to achieve as more novels are published. One could call this “contamination, as John Barth argues in The Friday Book.

If is by its nature a contaminated genre, then one of its chief progenitors is a sterling example of this general phenomenon. Don Quixote is a pastiche, and not just of allusion, but of poems, stories that would, on their own, qualify as “short stories,” and perceived history. Its eponymous protagonist acts as if stories are histories, and vice-versa; in Chapter VIII, a typical encounter whose broad outlines are repeated occurs with traveling shepherds. Quixote assures them he is a knight, and though they assume him mad, their own reasoning processes aren’t so different from his. These shepherds make questionable assumptions and use false heuristics as well—one says, “ ‘I think, Senor Vivaldo, that we are going to be well repaid for the delay it will cost us to see this famous funeral; for famous it must surely be, judging by the strange things that these shepherds have told us of the dead man and the homicidal shepherdess.” Are “strange things” enough to make a funeral worth attending, a film worth seeing, a text worth reading? Maybe, since the speaker implies that strange things can cause fame.

Fame itself lends some measure of reality to their perception, and their perception adds some measure of reality to the proceeding, as fame itself is an agglomeration of interested parties. I read once that a person is famous to the extent that more people know him or her than he or she knows. By that definition, Don Quixote (and, in italics, Don Quixote) has become very famous indeed; but even the funeral itself, within the text, becomes more important by way of its interest to the shepherds. The shepherds are astonished at Don Quixote, and “were likewise able to perceive the peculiar nature of his madness,” and yet his madness is like theirs, only to a greater degree. To be sure, quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin infamously said, but nonetheless the principle remains even when the order of magnitude changes.

So it is with all novels: their parts reflect the wholes, in a recursive loop, just as perception can lead to changes in reality. The process is not perfect and doesn’t have a 1:1 correspondence—whether I “perceive” my computer levitating doesn’t make it levitate, and whether Don Quixote perceives King Author to be the figure made out in tales doesn’t mean he was. Yet when I perceive my computer levitating and use such an idea in a story that in turn becomes widely read as a metaphor for how working in a field one loves can make one accomplish more, or when Don Quixote perceives King Arthur to be a historical figure and then acts accordingly, our perceptions have changed and interacted with the real world—as fiction itself does. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, “However you choose to look at it, I arrived at scholarship by crossing symbolic forests inhabited by unicorns and gryphons […]” In Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, different views of the reality of time affect different worlds that might or might not exist in different ways; in one such universe, “The world will end on 26 September 1907. Everyone knows it,” and they react accordingly. In another: “Suppose that people live forever.” In Don Quixote, one could have a false quote, a quote from Don Quixote in a different universe: “Suppose that Don Quixote believed himself to be a knight-errant.” He does, naturally, and its author or narrator says that details mean little, “providing that in the telling of [the story] we do not depart one iota from the truth.” One can’t depart from the truth of a made-up story.

Don Quixote continually emphasizes the “truth” in a way that’s merely ostentacious rather than clever. The book contains a note referencing the fictional layers that Umberto Eco mocked at the beginning of The Name of the Rose, but aside from hyperbole, there is little if any strong sense of mockery here: “He who translated this great history from the original manuscript left by its author, Cid Hamete Benegeli, states that when he came to the chapter dealing with the adventure in the Cave of Montesinos, he found in the margin, in Hamete’s own handwriting, these words: […]” The novel lets us count the layers of narrative contamination: Don Quixote is the principal actor, who is contaminated by Cid Hamete Benegeli, who is contaminated by (potentially) the translator, who is contaminated by Cervantes himself. Given such uncertainty, the need to draw more attention to Hamete’s uncertainty doesn’t have the effect of allaying uncertainty, as the plea for “how it is impossible for me to believe that Don Quixote lied.” Rather, by calling attention to the possibly fictive nature of Quixote’s adventures, he increases their uncertainty, like someone who guiltily overexplains an absence to a lover. Indeed, the very use of “contamination” so many times and in so many subtly different ways expands it the point of near meaninglessness, like Don Quixote’s constant citation of Romance as a drive to defend his numerous acts of folly.

Furthermore, much of the nature of “truth” in Don Quixote depends on personal reputations rather than any attempt at external verification. Don Quixote is believable “since he is the truest gentleman and noblest knight of his age and would not utter a falsehood if he were to be through with arrows.” In an age with no other gentlemen and no other knights, it isn’t difficult to be the truest and noblest—or the least true and least noble, especially without external checks and balances. If I pronounced myself a Ph.D. and proclaimed myself the truest doctor of the age, and by implication my work the most correct, others would correctly look askance at me: it generally takes the verification and seal of others who represent an institution as well as a large body of work to “prove” myself the finest doctor in the land. Conceivably, however, my work could still be the best, even without the external verification, but it would be harder for others to prove. Don Quixote lacks those proofs by others, and yet in his mind, he is still following their examples—and at bottom, he is testifying for himself, and others are believing him because he of his self-created status, not because of a widely agreed upon status. Cid Hamete Benegali is one flimsy shield against such charges—so flimsy, that he will not testify on Quixote’s behalf in Chapter XXIV, despite the myriad of other far more ridiculous events than the relatively benign one described in a chapter concerning “A Thousand Trifling Matters:” “[…] I would state that if the episode has the appearance of being apocryphal, the fault is not mine, and so, without asserting that it is either false or true, I write it down.” But sophisticated readers should assume such things, and understand implicitly such contamination; it, like the many others of its kind, should be assumed by the reader, rather than stated. Instead, it’s used as a form of paralipsis in drawing attention to the fictionality of the world by arguing over or testifying about its fictionality.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the contamination of Don Quixote by history and by legend, and the standards of truth each implies, as well as the standards of translators and others whose standards might be lower still. It is hard to believe Cid Hamete Benegali if he has accepted Don Quixote’s account of himself simply by the account itself; such tautological reasoning is no more persuasive than Don Quixote’s reasoning about the truth of historical romance. Yet perhaps this is besides the point: in a contaminated narrative, what matters is that characters believe and what it causes them to do, not what they believe. Arguing whether the ghosts are real or fake in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is of less importance than what those ghosts cause the Governess to do. Although I had not previously realized it, the same general principle animates the novel I spent most of this morning editing, which is tentatively titled A Winter-Seeming Summer’s Night.

Don Quixote still believes in the Romance narrative he lives, and he can only live through misunderstanding the nature of fact and fiction. Cid Hamete Benegali seems to believe Quixote. And yet, all this is contained in a chapter entitled “A Thousand Trifling Matters,” in which Sancho Panza marvels, “ ‘Is it possible that a man who can say as many wise things as you have just said could have told the nonsensical and impossible tale that you did of the Cave of Montesinos? Well, well, we shall see.’ ” Given that Sancho Panza believes them nonsensical, as does Cid Hamete Benegali (“in Hamete’s own handwriting”), we have bookends of disbelief around an event not so different than the many other. Such sections make literal the belief in Romance and demonstrate faulty reasoning more efficiently than the LSAT—for example, a group in white going to pray for rain causes “Don Quixote [to imagine] that this must be some adventure or other” only to have him “strengthened in this belief” by further misinterpreting what he sees. In the second half, he becomes more deeply enmeshed in both the reality of his unreality and in the reality outside the novel, further straining the epistemological ropes pulling his arms in each direction. This is because Quixote doesn’t accept standard explanations for truth. Don Quixote and Don Quixote are both quite famous, and they’re famous for exemplifying and defying the epistemological models we have imposed on the past. In defying them, they nonetheless have others apparently upholding them, but neither matters half so much as the end result: Quixote’s adventures fueled by his belief, and the contaminated beliefs of others. Too bad they never infect me, as I see Quixote as irritating above everything else.

On books, taste, and distaste

Jason Fisher made this astute observation in an e-mail:

One thing I will say, as now a fairly regular reader of your blog, is that you don’t seem to read very much that you actually like. You seem, in some ways, doomed to be disappointed either by your tastes or the bar you’ve set up. Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is. I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature, but I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

There are some very fine and accurate observations here: I am disappointed by a lot, as a cursory examination of recent posts will show, although I would also say that some of what comes across as disappointment is analysis. For example, I liked Richard Price’s Lush Life. Even within that praise, however, I discuss the off notes:

Imperfections in Lush Life are minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical.

Occasionally I do find the excellent novel, and I had Fisher’s e-mail in mind when I took Wonder Boys from the shelf and reread it in a great gulp, like a full water bottle after a long run. The last paragraph of my post says:

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Knowing how wonderful writers can be makes those who don’t rise to the challenge of their predecessors and contemporaries rather disappointing, like spending time fixing random and unimportant errors rather than focusing on systematic issues that could prevent them in the first place. Although I don’t think my taste stuffy necessarily—I like the whimsical and humorous far too much—I don’t like to waste my time on the high-, middle-, or low-brow. Faulkner’s weaker novels are of little more interest to me than The Da Vinci Code, and the hysterical realists (see more on them here, in a walled garden).

In How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn says of the critic:

What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

I might quibble with the words “anxiety” and “fragility,” both of which strike me as close but not precisely akin to those ephemeral qualities Mendelsohn is trying to describe, but the idea is fundamentally right: why it is that so many works of art are off just enough to cast them from the great to the good, the good to the mediocre, the mediocre to the atrocious. It’s that initial passion that propels us, and me, forward, however, and as one does move forward, one’s knowledge of what makes good and bad becomes steadily more refined and one’s taste further develops. When I began reading adult books around the time I was 11 or 12, I devoured innumerable pulpy fantasy and, to a lesser extent, science fiction novels. My taste then was much coarser, and as I’ve developed as a critic and person, I’ve become more aware of the—not fragility, exactly, but the very tight rope suspended over a wide chasm, and how difficult it is to stay on that rope and not to fall in. Now commonplaces are more apparent, patterns become clearer, and ideas that seemed vivid the first time I encountered them have become stale. The quest for novelty evolves, and the initial passion becomes more discriminating, and as it does, disappointment becomes common in a way that makes one almost in danger of enervating.

Such discrimination also makes the highs all the higher, and what I before had perceived as the difference between good and bad novels was the difference between a boy evaluating on a mound he just dug to the hole from where the dirt came versus an adult evaluating the difference between the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps that is somewhat overblown—the Himalayas? Really?—but it nonetheless helps express the contrasts in scale that I’m describing. The wonderful and extraordinary don’t necessarily have to be Melville or Tolstoy, and that’s where I’d distinguish Fisher’s point:

I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature […]

I’d count Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado among my favorite recent novels. If they have elements of being half-hour sitcoms, it’s their devotion to humor, but they are all far deeper than most sitcoms—or novels—and have a core of meaning if one wishes to find it underlying their jokes. In some ways, such novels are my favorite: they’re intellectually stimulating but lighter than a perfect souffle. The best sit-coms are like this too: some early episodes of Sex and the City had this mixture of the profound through the banal and vice-versa. But a show like Friends never seemed to have that depth, at least to judge from my relatively limited experience: it was melodrama without the drama, all surface and nothing beneath. Art like that doesn’t usually appeal to me, but I don’t think it a requirement that serious precludes being funny, or that serious is an absolute virtue to be worshiped. For more on this subject, see James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.

In humor we might get at the deepest truths; I can’t remember who said it, but someone noticed that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. But I don’t go for empty vessels in reading or watching. In pop songs I listen to while driving, sure, but very seldom elsewhere. A corollary of that might be that I don’t like a lot of novels, or books in general.

[…] I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

I might be driving toward the same point and might have also misrepresented Fisher’s meaning if not his exact words in responding, above. But I would say that I’m not convinced pure entertainment or pure diversions exist: art needs to have some depth (or height—I’m forced into using these relative positions to average without specifying really whether they should be up or down) sufficient to be genuinely entertaining and diverting in the first place. Failing at that task means they can’t be diverting. To me, greatness in fiction starts with entertainment and diversion, though diversion from what I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the real—whatever that is.

To summarize, Fisher is right that there are many novels I don’t like, but I would also say that those I don’t like throw those I do into sharper relief, and that there is little if any place for a mediocre novelist in this world. Different people have different standards for art and greatness, and I don’t deny those standards exist. Nonetheless, Philippa Gregory and Tom Clancy will never rise to them. The latter is writing speculative nonfiction most of the time, whether he realizes it or not, and the former doesn’t write skillfully enough to distract me from anything because her stylistic and other mistakes are so common. I’ve also noticed that I’ve tended to write more about nonfiction over the last month or two, and perhaps that’s partially because one can still derive something from bad nonfiction; bad fiction, on the other hand, might be a total deadweight loss of time, money, and thought.

I have to quote from Kundera’s The Curtain:

(Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral […])

and, later:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Kundera is perhaps overly grandiose here, but he is more right and wrong. And too many novels are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional, and I usually try to point those novels out and point out why and how they have those qualities. Sometimes I succeed better than others, and I often feel too aware of my own deficiencies in expression, which I try to remedy even as I fear that I am like a short person trying to grow by wishing for height. Fortunately, that analogy is imperfect because intellectual growth is possible, I believe, for all people who are open to it, but I’m not so sure that becoming an intellectual giant is. Nonetheless, I think there are worse quests in this world than the quest for knowledge and for representation.

November links and Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe — Geoffrey Parker

* Books Briefly Noted: Geoffrey Parker’s Success is Never Final: Empire, War, and Faith in Early Modern Europe is another book more likely to be cited than read and whose abstract generalizations are vastly more interesting than the particulars in which they’re mired. The important generalization is that success often carries within it decadence and decline through rigidity, over-extension and arrogance, and such principles apply across a wide range of fields from the national to the individual. One is reminded of Beowulf, a poem usually read as a tale about eventual destruction of the mightiest warrior by the ravages of time and nature. Perhaps that is why we seek “happily ever after” in fiction: as a veil on or eliding against the inevitable.

The specifics regarding early modern and late medieval European machinations can verge on the scholastically tedious; this is a book best sampled like hors d’oeuvre, rather than a full dinner. Learning about the spread of the artillery fortress is much less interesting than its effects on warfare and statecraft. But the last chapter, which is on the nature of law and its uses as seen specifically through the prosecution of sexual crimes by sixteenth-century “Kirks,” or tribunals, in Scotland, says a great deal in a short space. This is not the only essay in Success is Never Final with little if anything to do with the putative topic, but such minor sins can be forgiven.

* Those of you who are following markets—or just paying any attention to any contemporary news media whatsoever—are probably aware that we’re in the middle of a financial crisis that might be the worst since the Great Depression. The best commentary so far, however, comes by way of Megan McArdle:

From a senior who majored in English:

“Is it wrong to feel schadenfreude about my classmates who majored in Economics to get “safe” jobs at Lehman and Merrill Lynch?”

I heard about it second hand, so I’m paraphrasing, but this gave me hope for America’s youth.

* XKCD represents graphically why you should avoid the Amazon Kindle.

* Richard Woodward at the Wall Street Journal attempts A Nobel Undertaking: Getting to Know Le Clézio, who won the latest Nobel Prize in literature. After reading Woodward, I feel pretty good about not getting to know Le Clézio well.

* American Journalism Review argues that “A smaller, less frequently published version packed with analysis and investigative reporting and aimed at well-educated news junkies that may well be a smart survival strategy for the beleaguered old print product.” They should call such a beast a “magazine,” which could be a storehouse of useful or interesting information. Perhaps one based in New York would do well.

* Speaking of newspapers, see The New York Times recursively on Mourning Old Media’s Decline. A sample:

For readers, the drastic diminishment of print raises an obvious question: if more people are reading newspapers and magazines, why should we care whether they are printed on paper?

The answer is that paper is not just how news is delivered; it is how it is paid for.

More than 90 percent of the newspaper industry’s revenue still derives from the print product, a legacy technology that attracts fewer consumers and advertisers every single day. A single newspaper ad might cost many thousands of dollars while an online ad might only bring in $20 for each 1,000 customers who see it.

Ironically, by linking to this article I’m exemplifying the problem the article itself discusses. And the biggest issue actually gets saved until the end: “The blogosphere has had its share of news breaks, but absent a functioning mainstream media to annotate, it could be pretty darn quiet out there.”

The same is true of literary essays and analysis.

* Competent elites: happier and more alive? Maybe, but though I’m intrigued, I also can’t help think about sample size, cause/effect, and comparative problems. I might also title the article, “Competent elites: Happier and more alive and more arrogant?”

* How to lose friends and alienate people, global edition, courtesy of Clive Crook:

There has not been another attack – and Edward Alden, a former Washington bureau chief for the FT and now a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recognises that foreign terrorists find it much harder to get in. The trouble is, so does everybody else, including people that the US needs. On balance, Alden argues, the new regime has done more harm than good even in narrow security terms, to say nothing of the wider human and economic costs. Few who read his compellingly argued and meticulously researched book will be inclined to disagree.

The cure might be worse than the disease. For more on related topics, see Schneier, Bruce.

* Although this has nothing to do with books, Freakonomics reports about the positive externalities of binge drinking for social security, among other unusual ideas.

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