Lev Grossman vs the haters

I’m on the record praising Lev Grossman’s essay “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.” Predictably, that piece generated a fair amount of blowback (and a concomitant amount of misinterpretation, like the fallacious argument that Grossman is arguing that good books can’t be hard); see a sample of it here, complete with a comment from yours truly.

Now, however, we can see how Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece, as spoken by the man himself. Read it when you get a chance. It’s not terrible, but I think he could do better, and I hope he does “write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.”

One thing I’d strongly disagree with comes when Grossman discusses Twilight’s sales: “All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that.” I don’t, and they do have bad taste. I’ve read a book and a half of the series, and they’re so cliche-ridden that they make Harry Potter look like Shakespeare, and the writing has originality and verve that make Dan Brown impressive by comparison.

To be fair, he goes on to say, “Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is.” She might be doing something well, yes, but writing isn’t it. That’s why a lot of people who are literary and/or like good writing don’t think much of her.

Why and How to Write a Blog: Questions on Hacker News

A recent discussion on Hacker News asked, in effect, what makes a good blog, which in turn asks the question, “why write a blog?” There’s no perfect answer; as Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters indicates, people write for practically as many reasons as there are people: prestige, boredom, ego, whatever.

That being said, the best blogs focus on specific niches but often use those niches to explore the wider world. For example, Marginal Revolution is nominally an economics blog, but it also discusses foreign travel, ethnic cuisine, books, and more. The blogs I contribute to try to follow the same general principle: the one you’re reading now focuses on books (this focus can be very broad: some of my posts about keyboard reviews, for example, get a lot of traffic) and Grant Writing Confidential discusses grant writing. The latter in particular has a purpose beyond random musings: it’s there to show people how to write proposals and that we know how.

If you’re thinking about writing a blog, read Penelope Trunk’s comments, which are invaluable if not always accurate. In addition, I wrote a post called “You’re Not Going to be a Professional Blogger, Regardless of What the Wall Street Journal Tells You” that got slashdotted and ought to dissuade you from the idea you’re going to make money directly at it, at least in the short term. But if you’re looking for a means of expression and you want to write primarily because you want to write, then just roll with it.

“Without a purpose for writing, though, I don’t see how to even try writing a blog. Any suggestions?”

As others have said, don’t write a blog if you don’t have a purpose. Your purpose should come from something you care about deeply enough to know something about that you’d like to transmit to others: in my case, that means books, chiefly, but also grant writing. For many HN readers, it probably means programming. Remember too that the deep knowledge/writing/transmission process isn’t linear, but recursive: I’ve probably learned more about books by trying to sort my ideas about them out in a logical, rational way than I would if I just read a lot (this, incidentally, is why good schools require you to write a lot: writing forces you to embellish the ideas you do have and often to come up with ideas you didn’t have previously). Sometimes you don’t need a purpose in advance: you’ll find one as you start writing.

It’s been said by various writers and scholars (see, for example, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel or Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel) that the novel is the genre that consumes all other genres—that is to say, it can contain elements of epic poems, Romance, poetry, history, philosophy, and more. By the same token, blogging is the genre that can subsume any other genre if you want it to, because blogging is more a form than a way of presenting content, and over the past 10 years we’ve hardly touched on what is possible.

Just don’t write about your cat. That’s the only rule. There are enough blogs about people’s cats.

See also Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters.

Novels, notoriety, and memoirs

Megan McArdle discusses contemporary literary culture in the context of yet another fake memoir that’s apparently famous but I’d never heard of prior to its notoriety:

I do think, though, that Matt has hit on something about our own time, though I’m not quite as down on contemporary fiction as he is. Since the modernists, all contemporary literary fiction–including narrative fiction–has focused less on certain aspects of telling a story. I understand that some cognitive scientists theorize that the reason we enjoy stories so much is that they activate the parts of our brain that deal with social cognition and learning. The reason that genre fiction, even though it is usually not a masterpiece of prose styling, can be so absorbing is that it provides this function. The fantasy of a space opera or a bodice-ripper is compelling because we’re imagining ourselves as the hero–imagining ourselves as a better, more interesting version of ourselves. We’re also exploring how we should/would act in certain (unlikely) situations; the novels that do best in these genres are the ones where the hero ultimately acts rightly, which is to say, producing the best result in some sense. This is possibly silly, even counterproductive–one sees women actually acting like heroines of romance novels, and wondering (though not in so many words) why men do not respond to them in the same way as in the book. But it’s a deep element of most peoples’ fantasy lives.

This is an itch that contemporary novels try very hard not to scratch. “The moral of the story . . . ” is an archaism.

So for people who wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bodice ripper, memoir fills that space. Having neatly separated fact and fiction, we now read only “fact” as a way to learn about correct behavior, where a hundred years ago people were perfectly accustomed to taking moral or social lessons out of obvious fiction (from whence the term “morality play”). Memoir alone do we permit ourselves to read for the (now conscious) purpose of obtaining information about how human beings behave in other situations than ours.

My take: I’ve never been interested in memoirs because fiction and journalism are vastly more interesting than what a person did/has done, especially if that person hasn’t done something vital or important. Call this preference for something vaguely important an offshoot of the popes and princes school of history. My lack of interest in the memoir notwithstanding, the genre seems to be quite popular, and I suppose McArdle has as plausible an explanation about why this is as anyone.

But I’m not sure I buy the premises that McArdle’s piece is based on, which I’ll call the stultifying literary hypothesis theory or the literary/genre split theory. Neither, apparently, do some of McArdle’s colleagues. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it comes from, as was discussed recently. Furthermore, I don’t think I’ve seen all that many people highly invested in defending airless literary fiction; if I could find these strawmen who wield influence out of proportion to their size, I would love to meet them.

Furthermore, the biggest problem with these literary / genre distinctions is that different people have different wants, and the quality of writing itself cannot be measured by what “genre,” if any, a book belongs to. I hesitate to say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s true, and how a novel uses language to express itself is an important quality of what makes good fiction. What the fiction says is, I think, a separate issue that too often gets muddled in with how it is said.

That being said, I think the novel still has many places to go, and rumors of its death have been circulating such a long time that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still dying whenever I am. Being 24, I hope that won’t be for a while yet.

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