Lost in the narrows

September 11, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Barbara Kay and Lev Grossman seem cut from the same cloth. Both of them, in their own ways, disdain what they perceive as “difficult” novels. Kay, whom some of you may recall took issue with a generally laudatory (or, in Kay’s own words, “gushy”) assessment of Lisa Moore’s second novel, February, recently published a column in the National Post decrying Canadian literature that she claims is “dying in beauty.” For Kay, Moore is, “like so many others of her sensitive, creativeworkshopped-to-death ilk, a writer’s writer privileging an artistic, leisured rendering of memory and feeling over prole-friendly dialogue, action and, above all, plot.”

In this, she echoes Grossman, whom she name-checks in her article, and who, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, criticized the modernists for neglecting plot and inculcating the idea that literature has to be difficult in order to be valuable:

The novel was a mirror the Modernists needed to break, the better to reflect their broken world. So they did. One of the things they broke was plot.

To the Modernists, stories were a distortion of real life. In real life stories don’t tie up neatly. Events don’t line up in a tidy sequence and mean the same things to everybody they happen to. Ask a veteran of the Somme whether his tour of duty resembled the Boy’s Own war stories he grew up on. The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it’s actually lived. They took in The Mill on the Floss and spat out The Sound and the Fury.

Grossman takes issue with the “discipline of the conventional literary novel,” which partakes of “a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience,” and asks, “Isn’t it time we made our peace with plot?”

Both Kay and Grossman are rehearsing the distinction that Jonathan Franzen draws (in his 2002 essay, “Mr. Difficult”) between the “Status model” of fiction and the “Contract model.” The Status model is premised upon the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine.” According to the Status model “the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of whether people are able to enjoy it.” In the Contract model, by contrast, the writer offers “words out of which the reader creates a pleasant experience.” For adherents of Contract, “difficulty is a sign of trouble,” which “may convict an author of violating the contract with his own community: of placing his self-expressive imperatives or his personal vanity or his literary-club membership ahead of the audience’s legitimate desire for connection.”

Obviously, both Kay and Grossman are Contract adherents. Kay holds little truck with novels that are “dying in beauty,” novels in which the technique or the language is an end in itself. Similarly, Grossman approves of Cormac McCarthy’s late-career digression into genre fiction, and applauds the normally prolix Thomas Pynchon for writing a straightforward hard-boiled crime novel. Where both of their arguments fail, however, is in their implicit assumption that “difficult” writing – writing that demands to be appreciated on its own terms – and pleasure are mutually exclusive. Franzen, himself an admitted Contract person, acknowledges this stumbling block when he adumbrates the extreme end of Contract thinking:

Contract stipulates that if a product is disagreeable to you, the fault must be the product’s. If you crack a tooth on a hard word in a novel, you sue the author. If your professor puts Dreiser on your reading list, you write a harsh student evaluation. If the local symphony plays too much twentieth-century music, you cancel your subscription. You’re the consumer; you rule.

The only problem being that nowhere is it written that the consumer of fiction actually does rule, at least not in the way that Kay and Grossman would have it. If a reader runs up against a “difficult” book, or a book that doesn’t play by conventional rules or act in the way the reader thinks it is supposed to act, perhaps the fault lies not with the obstreperousness of the writer, but with the narrow prejudices of the reader. A reader who assumes that plot-driven novels are the only kind that can give pleasure will not be won over by books like Century by Ray Smith, in which the main source of pleasure is revelling in the author’s technical mastery. Nor will they gravitate toward McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, where what happens is infinitely less important than the author’s exuberance in the uses and possibilities of language.

In her assessment of February, Kay locates “[t]wo feeble points of what-happens-next ‘tension,'” and the dismissive quotation marks around the final word indicate that for Kay, even these two moments were pallid and underwhelming. But as a writer, Moore has never been all that interested in conventional approaches to things like plot or suspense. For Moore, language has always been more important than plot; the tension in Moore’s writing exists in the technique itself. To not recognize this says more about the narrowness of a reader than about the inherent pleasurability of Moore’s writing.

Ultimately, both Kay and Grossman suffer from an artificially proscribed view of the pleasures literature has to offer. For them, a novel is only enjoyable if it does what they want it to do (which is, finally, to behave like other novels they’ve enjoyed in the past). Such a reader will never be able to derive pleasure from books like Ulysses or Wise Blood or Hopscotch, because these are novels that demand to be met on their own terms. In order to find pleasure in them, readers must abandon their preconceptions and open themselves to an experience that is unfamiliar, foreign, and, yes, possibly even difficult. They are novels that require work, but their rewards are commensurate with the effort a sympathetic reader is willing to put into them.

Comments

2 Responses to “Lost in the narrows”
  1. August says:

    As Davies used to say, a book is like a mirror: if an ass peers in, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.

  2. Kerry says:

    This was excellent! I liked it very much. I continue to find fault with criticism that takes on a book for not being a different kind of book– what kind of insight can this lead to about the book in question? Of course, it happens just as much with reviewers who knock a book for not doing what *they* want it to do– be unfamiliar, foreign or difficult. And I’m not sure this makes any more sense.

    I do think, however, that there really are some readers for whom plot-driven novels really will be the only books that bring pleasure. Most readers will never make it through *Ulysses* no matter how hard they try, and however much it will be their loss, they’ll never, ever know. Or care.

    But I maintain there are books of all kinds to please every sort of reader, and that that’s really quite all right.