Monday, July 14, 2008

not a false dichotomy, but perhaps an exaggerated one

I may be a relativist in many other ways and openly revile "Objectivism," but I should never be accused of making the argument that there is no such thing as "bad" literature. Whatever you think of the books I have been reading and reviewing, I come down clearly on the line of "good" vs. "bad." And I try to discuss the merits and weaknesses of each. In some, the prose is lacking, whereas in others the characterization or plot. In each case, I try to assess whether the novel in question succeeds at what it attempts. Is this a particularly good murder mystery that keeps you constantly guessing? Is this a failure of a graphic novel in integrating picture and story? Is this a novel of masterful prose and quiet meditation of big important themes? For a novel to be "good," it has to be good at what it is trying to accomplish. There are different standards for different genres, but within that modicum of flexibility there are indeed standards.

And yet, I must take issue with this, via SEK:

In an April interview concerning the three-month lag between the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and his anxious, Gnostic appreciation of it, [Harold] Bloom confessed he finds it “increasingly difficult to remain abreast of major works of late because so many of them suck balls.” Asked to clarify, Bloom refused to mince words: “When I declared this the best novel in the history of ever, I must have been asleep. It wouldn’t be the first book I’ve composed thus.”

In a linked article, Bloom blusters on:

What's happening is part of a phenomenon I wrote about a couple of years ago when I was asked to comment on Rowling. I went to the Yale University bookstore and bought and read a copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible. As I read, I noticed that every time a character went for a walk, the author wrote instead that the character "stretched his legs." I began marking on the back of an envelope every time that phrase was repeated. I stopped only after I had marked the envelope several dozen times. I was incredulous. Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing.

But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now read only J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn't, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn't that a good thing?

It is not. "Harry Potter" will not lead our children on to Kipling's "Just So Stories" or his "Jungle Book." It will not lead them to Thurber's "Thirteen Clocks" or Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" or Lewis Carroll's "Alice."

Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I'm 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I've seen the study of literature debased. There's very little authentic study of the humanities remaining. My research assistant came to me two years ago saying she'd been in a seminar in which the teacher spent two hours saying that Walt Whitman was a racist. This isn't even good nonsense. It's insufferable.

I began as a scholar of the romantic poets. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it was understood that the great English romantic poets were Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But today they are Felicia Hemans, Charlotte Smith, Mary Tighe, Laetitia Landon, and others who just can't write. A fourth-rate playwright like Aphra Behn is being taught instead of Shakespeare in many curriculums across the country.

Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise. Thomas Pynchon is still writing. My friend Philip Roth, who will now share this "distinguished contribution" award with Stephen King, is a great comedian and would no doubt find something funny to say about it. There's Cormac McCarthy, whose novel "Blood Meridian" is worthy of Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick," and Don DeLillo, whose "Underworld" is a great book.

Instead, this year's award goes to [Stephen] King. It's a terrible mistake.

Now, I will be the first to say that there is an extraordinary amount of shit out there, and on occasion I accidentally read it because some yet-to-be-retracted review in the NYT. The Emperor's Children, I'm looking at you. Next will be All the Sad Young Literary Men. Bloom certainly has a point, even if he gets it wrong about Aphra Behn. I hate Behn--but she's arguably one of the first novelists, and why shouldn't she be taught? She's one of the few women novelists, and the very first, and Oronoko is an important excavation of slavery and colonialism. And I simply cannot agree that those are the only living novelists deserving of praise. How about Alice Munro? Joyce Carol Oates? Annie Proulx? I am about to say something that would make Bloom smack me in the jaw: I hate that every "good" writer he cites is male, and most of the bad authors he cites are female. Bloom has always been exceedingly pompous and vaguely misognynist. Calling him "Eurocentric" is not quite enough; and silly considering he wrote the very excellent The Western Canon. But such a charge was leveled at him by my Harlem Renaissance literature professor back at UC Irvine, and it's one that's stuck with me. It's not a damning charge in and of itself, but it does speak of Bloom's myopia: good literature isn't good by any set of objective standards or genre-specific standard--it's what's good by Bloom's standards. The problem is that his words carry so much weight.

In any case, his remarks remind me of the storied conflict between novels and histories, and male and female writers (and the devaluation of the latter):

Historians and novelists are kin, in other words, but they’re more like brothers who throw food at each other than like sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. The literary genre that became known as “the novel” was born in the eighteenth century. History, the empirical sort based on archival research and practiced in universities, anyway, was born at much the same time. Its novelty is not as often remembered, though, not least because it wasn’t called “novel.” In a way, history is the anti-novel, the novel’s twin, though which is Cain and which is Abel depends on your point of view.

The transformation of history into an empirical science began as early as the sixteenth century and became entrenched only in the nineteenth century. By the time the American Historical Association was founded, in 1884, the “cult of the fact” (as the intellectual historian Peter Novick has called it) had achieved ascendancy. Ever since, generations of historians have defined themselves by a set of standards that rest on the distinction between truth and invention, even when that has meant scorning everyone who came before them.

In an 1806 essay called “Historical Characters Are False Representations of Nature,” Brown suggested that the historian’s grossest deception is promoting the idea that only the great are good: “Popular prejudice assists the illusion, and because we are accustomed to behold public characters occupy a situation in life that few can experience, we are induced to believe that their capacities are more enlarged, their passions more refined, and, in a word, that nature has bestowed on them faculties denied to obscurer men.” But great characters are not superior to obscure men, who are, alas, condemned to obscurity by history itself. “If it were possible to read the histories of those who are doomed to have no historian, and to glance into domestic journals as well as into national archives,” Brown speculated, “we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy to those few names, which eloquence has adorned with all the seduction of her graces.”

Fiction, in other words, can do what history doesn’t but should: it can tell the story of ordinary people. The eighteenth century’s fictive history (not to be confused with what we call “historical fiction”) is the history of private life; the history of what passes in a man’s own mind; true to the Book of Nature; and written in plain, simple style, exhibiting both judgment and invention. And it is the history of obscure men. Who are these obscure men? Well, a lot of them are women.

For every Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe, there were a dozen Clarissas, Pamelas, and Charlotte Temples. If eighteenth-century novels are history, they’re women’s history. And they were adored, above all, by women readers. “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity” was the revealing title of an essay published in England in 1797 and in Boston five years later. Everyone from preachers to politicians damned novels as corrupting of both public and private virtue and, above all, of women’s virtue. “Novels not only pollute the imaginations of young women,” one American magazine writer insisted in 1798; they give them “false ideas of life.”

What, pray, was the remedy for this grave social ill? Reading history. “There is nothing which I would recommend more earnestly to my female readers than the study of history,” Hume wrote in “Of the Study of History” (which is why he gave his lady friend Plutarch’s Lives, and told her it was a novel). But, on the whole, women were not particularly interested in reading history. Hume attributed this to the fair sex’s “aversion to matter of fact” and its “appetite for falsehood.” Men “allow us Poetry, Plays, and Romances,” Mary Astell wrote in 1705, “and when they would express a particular Esteem for a Woman’s Sense, they recommend History.” But why read it? “For tho’ it may be of Use to Men who govern Affairs, to know how their Fore-fathers Acted, yet what is this to us?” Much as writers of history tried to woo women readers, they made very little headway. Near the end of the century, Mary Wollstonecraft was left to ask of women: “Is it surprising that they find the reading of history a very dry task?” (After publishing her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman,”* in 1792, Wollstonecraft started writing a novel, “Maria; or, the Wrongs of Women,” to make sure that her arguments would reach women readers. Her husband, William Godwin, had it published in 1798, after she died, in childbirth.)

Women were not only not interested in history; they didn’t trust it. In “Northanger Abbey” (completed by 1803), Jane Austen’s comic heroine, who adores novels, confesses that she finds history both boring and impossible to credit: “It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Austen saw fit to echo this exchange in “Persuasion” (1818). “All histories are against you,” Captain Harville insists, when Austen’s levelheaded heroine, Anne Elliot, argues that women are more constant than men. “But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men,” Harville guesses, and Anne agrees. “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story,” she observes, saying, “I will not allow books to prove any thing.”

By the end of the eighteenth century, not just novel readers but most novel writers were women, too. And most historians, along with their readers, were men. As the discipline of history, the anti-novel, emerged, and especially as it professionalized, it defined itself as the domain of men. (Women might write biography, or dabble in genealogy.) Eighteenth-century observers, in other words, understood the distinction between history and fiction not merely and maybe not even predominantly as a distinction between truth and invention but as a distinction between stories by, about, and of interest to men and stories by, about, and of interest to women. Women read novels, women wrote novels, women were the heroines of novels. Men read history, men wrote history, men were the heroes of history. (When men wrote novels, Godwin suggested, this was regarded as “a symptom of effeminacy.”)

Is “history at risk”? If women barely read it at all, and if men mostly read books with titles like “Guts and Guns,” it just might be. “A History of Histories” and “The Purpose of the Past” offer a useful reminder that history is a long and endlessly interesting argument, where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else. But, as for telling stories, maybe historians still have a few things to learn from novelists. Reading Jane Austen being I think very excusable in an Historian.

Occasionally on the literary blogs there will erupt a debate about "masculinist" vs. "feminist" literature. Why don't female readers respond to Philip Roth or Chuck Palahniuk as positively as male readers? Why didn't some women "get" Into the Wild? These debates annoy me. Fiction shouldn't essentially be limited to one gender or another, but it does speak volumes if an author's misogyny undermines his artistic endeavor. But what makes me uncomfortable about such debates is that they also track the discussion of what is good literature, and why it must be "universally" appreciated. I am guilty of it myself, but the devaluation of "chick lit" (a charge against Austen in her time) is extremely condescending. But at the same time, I wish I could shout to Harold Bloom that it is not only "masculine" prose that is great--there are plenty of excellent female writers! It seems that the "good literature" is only written by men, as are the standards for greatness, and as are the arbiters of that quality. Not too long ago, fiction wasn't even considered worthy of male attention. The literary playing field is still as gendered as it was a century ago.