Friday, April 15, 2005
But I know what I like
I’m sure I’m not the only one to have become seriously irritated, at various points, with some of the discussions over the past several days. I’ve felt the urge to respond; I’ve felt the urge to do anything but; I’ve wished this was turning into a blog with more people who shared my assumptions … like I said, I’m sure I’m not the only one. But I have discovered — and no, this isn’t a new discovery or a particularly original one, but it is useful to be forcibly reminded now and then — that it is invigorating to be forced to articulate my position, even when I manage not to actually type it out in the comments.
So that is one thing.
The other is: the tone of this blog is different than my own. Obviously, because I am one of a large group, and there is a radically different set of commentators here (though one or two who also visit me. Well, one, maybe. Who comments sometimes, I mean). See, I’ve been feeling self-conscious about some of the bloggy things I sometimes do, like linking to funny stories, or posting comic book covers, or, god forbid, quizzes and memes. But then I realized something else, something quite interesting: while the What Kind of Quiz Taker Are You? quiz has a certain self-reflexive charm, some of the various book memes that have gone around have caused me to think about the books I like, and that in turn has led to my realizing that some of them have much in common. So, memes — one of those things people who don’t mind others sneering at them post on slow news days, and generally with apologies — have proven useful, to me at least.
Some of you will remember the monster thread some time ago on Crooked Timber in response to a post from Harry Brighouse asking for suggestions for “two books you think every educated person should have read, published 1970 or later.” I contributed some favourites, and then some more . Sometime later there were one or two book lists going around: one was to bold the books one had read. (Then, niche memes: same thing, for children’s books, then for banned books). There was a quiz in The Independent: women, which books have changed your lives? (my answers here ). Then another meme: from which author(s) have you read more than ten books? Then another: which five books would you take to the proverbial desert island? From these various quizzes and lists, I have unwittingly compiled, by default, a sort of personal top ten. (Bear with me; I’m going somewhere with this and will in fact tie it in with various strands in previous discussions.)
So, here is a short list of some books that opened my head like a can, that had I not read them, at least, when I did, I would probably be different somehow. Here is a list of my own greats, books I would defend to the death (fair warning):
Doris Lessing, The Children of Violence series; The Four-Gated City
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Samuel Delany, Dhalgren; Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (in translation)
The alert reader will notice a theme here: these are all books with sweep. Some may not think that all these writers write very well; there was in fact a remark in the comments here, a few days ago, to that effect, about Lessing, which I choose to believe was a joke (don’t disabuse me, please). But these are not perfect little jewels of books, these are not books one ponders like poems. These are books to delve into, to get lost in, to live in, for as long as one can. These are books that create full and complicated worlds that linger on, that become part of the reader’s (this reader’s) mental terrain. Something about range; something about one protagonist, moving across time and space, at times suffering from disassociation; something about the evocation, or creation, of somewhere — somewhere outside as well as inside the protagonist’s skull — layered and real. These are social books. These are books that believe in history.
There, I told you I’d bring it around.
They are also densely imagined, intricately plotted, beautifully written (again, get thee behind me, Lessing-hater) behemoths of books. Like I said, they opened my head like a can; I read some of them more than twenty years ago and still remember scenes, pictures, words.
I love these books. They have become part of me. I love them in a visceral, primary sort of way. I would say that I appreciate them, but “appreciate” is such a colourless word. I appreciate someone opening the door for me; I love these books. I don’t love them because they align quite nicely with my feminazi/pinko/poco theoretical perspective.
Yet, they do align with that theoretical perspective.
So, I’m not sure whether I’m defending the engagé reader from charges of being prescriptive, or proving … I dunno, something banal about the same.
[Cross-posted to my blog].
Do you think it’s a coincidence that these novels all press readers through byzantine plot structures involving hundreds of characters and thousands of extras? I only ask because I’ve found that there’s a good reason books of that length and complexity accord with feminazi/pinko/poco theoretical perspectives...as well as any other theoretical perspectives one might bring to them. It’s because they’re long and complex. I don’t mean to sound glib, but there’s an expansiveness to those novels (as well as a number of others I could list but won’t) that allows a body to inhabit them in a way that people of all theoretical inclinations can’t inhabit, say, a slim Jeanette Winterson novel. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Winterson novel--far from it--only that its length and the way in which it forces its readers to interact with it are entirely different from the way Dhalgren imposes itself on the life of its readers.
Nitpick: The Invisible Man is Wells. No article in the Ellison title. And you keep adding a letter to Delany’s surname.
On a more substantial note, my own liking for such sweeping monstropolous universe-building books doesn’t, I think, have to do with theoretical inclinations. I just developed a taste for such worldscapes upon reading Bleak House and The Idiot at fourteen. They do a lot to “take me out of myself,” in Conrad’s words, and I haven’t found enough of them in the fiction of the recent half-century. Elkin and Gaddis wrote huge books that I quite enjoy (I haven’t read anywhere near the complete oeuvre of each), but I don’t find their worlds as rich as Ellison’s, Pynchon’s, Garcia Marquez’s, Powers’ (talk about believing in history!), Morrison’s. The hermetic books you’re using as a foil ("inside the protagonist’s skull") work best for me when they are indeed slim.
[Blush] Nitpicks fixed, Josh. And now that you mention it, I think Bleak House should be on my list.
A. Cephalous, are you saying that books like these are amenable to almost any perspective? I take your point, but there is only so far that they can reflect ourselves back to us, right? They may be complicated to the point of functional incoherence—for the sake of argument—but they are still saying something.
I think the length and complexity of a book is necessary if there is some greater social theoretical/political/blah/blah nature to it. One’s needs length and complexity to deal with these issues because they can’t be summarized. To really explore the idea you need that expansiveness, that sweep. And in a book like Dhalgren it’s almost infinite (due to the circular nature of the book).
I suppose most of the can-opening (oh dear, wrong anatomical idiom—surely it should be “coconut-cracking” instead?) books on my list might count as big drown-me-deep volumes—_Dhalgren_, _Villette_, _Sentimental Education_, _Ulysses_....
But not all. At least as effective were (and are) the icepicks of _Trouble on Triton_, _The Tenant of Wildfell Hall_, _The Glass Key_, _Have With You to Saffron-Walden_, “The Way of the World”, _The Female Man_, all my favorite poetry, and, well, this list could really go on and on, and it’s sort of surprising that anything’s left in my noggin after all this opening up.
Like Miriam, I don’t feel any conflict between my theoretical perspective and my loves. The experience of living and love comes first. My theoretical perspective came because (being oddly abstracting sorts of people) I think about my experience.
Which is why I’m more inclined to complain about secondary literature being taught before primary, and about literature being _required_ at all, than about which brand of secondary or primary literature is being distributed. Joining a critical discussion before you’ve read or before you care about the original works reminds me of teenage boys talking about sex—mostly sad, mostly deleterious when not pointless, even if some inciting occasionally results.
A. Cephalous, are you saying that books like these are amenable to almost any perspective? I take your point, but there is only so far that they can reflect ourselves back to us, right?
Miriam, I have witnessed acts of unparalleled solipsism in my time in graduate school, but most of them are performed upon shorter works. Perhaps everyone always imports their interests into whatever text they’re reading and it only seems more legitimate in lengthy and complex works. Shorter works can dictate their intentions whereas longer works, by virtue of their length and complexity, cannot. Exceptions abound, no doubt, but even highly experimental, complex shorter works lack the sheer expansiveness of their longer counterparts. (To be clear: I’m not valuing longer works over shorter works or vice versa; I’m only being descriptive.)
Also, a lengthy complex work is more likely to unintentionally reflect those aspects of the world its author didn’t consciously understand. I understand that this mimetic model has its problems, but at the same time, theoretical problems with the idea of the novel as reflecting social reality don’t necssarily carry over to ideas of the novel as representing a particular social reality. If an author encompasses enough of it, he or she is bound to touch upon the complexity of all types of lived relations; even, perhaps, one he or she isn’t necessarily aware exists.
So the bigger novels are more <i>scriptible</i>, A.?
Ray, have you encountered many people who’ve had secondary literature taught to them before primary? I’ve only met two to my knowledge: the Bryn Mawr English grad who, when pressed to name a poet or novelist she liked, said, “In college we mainly studied Theory” and then finally came up with Winterson; and the Purdue American Studies PhD who said, “I really ought to read Highsmith: Zizek is very enthusiastic about her.”
I love Villette more than any of the Big Books on Miriam’s list, but it somehow doesn’t feel sweeping to me. Probably for reasons that aren’t terribly interesting.
Why do the italics tags work irregularly?
Josh, I almost put Villette on my list, but left it off for that very reason: even though it is a rich and lengthy text, it nevertheless feels intensely focused, from Lucy Snowe’s consciousness outwards, in a way that the others don’t.
(Can’t speak to the HTML tags; they are working for me, apparently… Anyone?)
Darn, I wish I could go back and edit my comments sometimes: of course none of the other books is focused on Lucy Snowe’s consciousness… I should have said, “the protagonist’s consciousness” ...
Josh, constantly, counting the book-review chatter on weblogs and at parties. In school, the old-fashioned text-centric approach would be to read guides, introductions, and the professor’s monographs instead of the books. (Even though I’ve physically had my eyes above every page of Finnegans Wake, I still only know the various critical summaries.) More recently, I’ve read and heard admissions from members of the various critical subcultures that they sometimes lack time or energy to teach both their highly referential philopoliticritical texts and the pre-subcultural texts being referred to. Successful students will certainly understand which set is of most interest.
Miriam, my own attempted contrast between Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall looked very odd in retrospect for that reason. It’s true the latter is (a bit) shorter, but the former has more in common with shorter, more (as you say) “intensely focused” works which flipped my skull cap, such as Watt, or The Talented Mr. Ripley, or Emma, or, um, Dhalgren, or The Sentimental Education, or....
Actually, forget it. Sorry, A. C., I gotta say that all of Miriam’s and my “big” books also seem much too voice-centric to count as scriptable. None of these make suitable storage bins for random concerns of the readers, and the notion that greater length improves the chances that the author will start to burble unconscious wisdom sounds plausible only so long as I don’t look at the actual work.
I’m a little uncomfortable calling them “scriptible” because I always associate a scriptible text with jouissance...and I’m not a fan of psychoanalysis. That said, I’ll grant you Barthes’ general distinction, but I think--if I understand the argument I’m muddling through, in public, at great risk of sounding foolish--what I actually mean is that any text of a given length and complexity will become, necessarily, scriptible. Even if, as is the case with Dickens, the novel’s by all appearances “lisible,” I think the reader’s long, thoughtful interaction with it transforms it into a scriptible texts. (I recognize that I’ve emptied “scriptible” of its contextual meaning and am now using it to refer to nothing more than “texts in which meaning proliferates.")
Your point is well-taken. The originality of the narrative voice in the books you and Miriam have discussed is undisputable. But a powerful, unique voice isn’t necessarily inimicable to a text becoming “suitable storage bins for random concerns of the reader.” Nor do I want to criticize any text that does open itself to the reader’s “random concerns.” As I said earlier, I don’t intend my comments to stand as aesthetic criteria or an implicit value judgments. All I’m saying is that I’ve read, for example, criticism of Finnegans Wake from almost every single theoretical perspective around, and they all seem more legitimate then, say, a queering of the Ancrene Wisse. (As you might guess from my comments, the majority of my friends spend the majority of their time queering everything in sight, so for beating that dead horse, I apologize.)