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.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken — Daniel Mendelsohn

After reading enough fiction—although how much constitutes “enough” probably varies by person—it seems natural to search for deeper meanings and connections in what you’ve read. Although I can’t pinpoint where I crossed that threshold, somewhere I did—hence Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, most of James Wood’s books, including How Fiction Works, Milan Kundera’s criticism, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Add to that stack Daniel Mendelsohn’s How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Most pieces hail from “The New York Review of Books,” and they reflect the trade-offs inherent in that magazine’s style, including lengthy introductions so elliptical relative to the main point that one can sometimes start at the first paragraph break, which is often a couple pages in, and miss something, but perhaps not much. It’s a bit like a politician whose great ideas don’t get quite entirely heard because an overly long disquisition looses his audience. Willie Stark suffered from that malady, and Barack Obama was criticized for the same tendency. Readers of criticism should and probably do have considerably longer attention spans than a voter’s, but even that can be stretched only so far. It’s not that a particular essay of Mendelsohn’s suffers from excessively from it, but rather that the overall effect is one of such relentless prep that one becomes weary by the time dinner is actually to be served. This sense of weariness is what led me to allow my subscription to lapse. But keep going through those introductions: the digging brings intellectual gold, and that goal is worth the pursuit.

This is especially true because How Beautiful It Is is tied together better than the average “New York Review of Books,” and its consistent interest in classics and their continuing interpretation and impact give it a sense of building, of constructedness, that helps alleviate the occasional sense of tediousness. As Mendelsohn says of some of the first “9/11 movies,” “The problem with all this realness is that [United 93] itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning.” So too with criticism, and his larger structure rotates around Greek and Latin classics. When Mendelsohn is on, he’s fantastic, and his impressive knowledge of classics lets him bring seemingly disparate works together, like a metaphysical poet yoking two images that at first appear opposites. They obviously play into some of the sword and sandal epics he mentions, and less obviously into say, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I wish he’d written more about novels and less about theater, novels being my great interest, but what he does include is richer than many longer works of criticism and helps direct my own reading; Mendelsohn’s argument against The Lovely Bones, one briefly hot book, inspires me to avoid it with more diligence than I do Mitch Albom, another sentimental, schlocky, and vastly overrated bestseller who appeals to the Hallmark card reader in all of us. The Hours, however, is now on the list; one danger of reading How Beautiful It Is and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is the perpetual extension of one’s reading list, practically giving you the tools to better perceive recent and ancient culture. And, perhaps more importantly, yourself.

Mendelsohn never abandons the critic’s ultimate purpose of judicious judgment, and one impressive thing is the way he manages to be unsparing but not mean, rooted in culture but not pedantic, and conveys his sense of joy, history, and sagacity. The three together are not easy. Some of his pieces seem like overkill, and so many words on the movies Troy, Alexander, 300, and Kill Bill seem wasted, as they’re not worth the skill Mendelsohn lavishes on them. A great critic can only reach his highest level when pitted against great works, and none of those reveal much about much of anything because they lack the depth necessary for the highest level of engagement. Still, Mendelsohn improves imperfect material, demonstrating the possibility better material gives us when he discusses writers, especially Virginia Woolf. The primary thing holding him back is the aforementioned habit of endless introduction and circling needlessly around the main point before he hits it: with James Wood’s criticism, you get the idea that every idea is essential to the argument. With Mendelsohn, you get the idea virtually every one is, but not quite every one: “Nailed!”, about the “Hatchet Jobs” of the writer Dale Peck, doesn’t nail the reader till three pages in. The habit isn’t fatal, and Mendelsohn is still worth reading, but he gets just a tad stuffy as he goes. Still, this is the worse thing I can repeat about Mendelsohn, and his essays convey so much insight that they’re worth reading even if you occasionally skim, because the wonderfully strong justify the others.

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