Re: I Don't Read

1

One of my colleagues says this all the time about our students, that they are constantly reading and writing online, and we need to tap into that in our assignments. But from what I've seen, bloggers tend to overestimate what percentage of the population participates in text-heavy online culture.

That said, people do read all the time. Just like at any other point in modern history, they primarily read religious devotional texts or self-help books, with pop fiction pulling up in third. It's not like anything has changed, except maybe that more of the traditionally-snobby folks with multiple degrees are also reading pop fiction on occasion. Nothing's lost here!


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:42 PM
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Don't be obtuse, ogged; people read traffic signs, too, but that doesn't count either.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:44 PM
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You just managed to summarize a big chunk of my book in a paragraph. I don't know whether to be happy or depressed about that.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:45 PM
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I think that when we were growing up, we wrote much less than the current generation. There was virtually zero writing for communication's sake. I wrote letters occasionally to buddies from summer camp, but that's all.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:47 PM
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Besides, I doubt that blog culture can effect a retrieve of the most primal words and their forces, or open man to Being, or whatever.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:47 PM
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Is your book out yet, KF? If not, I'm going to sue you.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:49 PM
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4: yeah, but now, you know, SMS.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:50 PM
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Yes, it's out, thank god. It's been out for a year.

Of course the new one is still in the works, but I've got timestamps on everything.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:50 PM
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I've actually wondered about whether anyone's noticed an increase in writing fluency among middle class college kids. I, snob that I am, was shocked by the stiffness and emptiness of a lot of the student writing I saw when I was an undergrad at the U of Chicago, but that was probably at text-culture's lowest ebb. A clever college freshman now probably does a fair amount of recreational writing that my contemporaries were much less likely to.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:50 PM
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I used to work in a book store and was always surprised how huge self-help sales are. The section is half the size of "literature," but easily moves three times as many total volumes in a day, usually of three or four main titles. Before I started working in special collections, I thought this was, like, teh end of teh world ZOMG. Then I worked in a special collection that's highly representative of what people actually bought between 1600 and 1800, and realized most of it was gossip, self-help, devotional texts, and political punditry.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:50 PM
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IAHECKWITIIJUTFL.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:51 PM
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11 to 7.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:52 PM
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9: I've wondered that too. Is ubiquotous messaging & blogging etc. likely to be trading off grammar for, i don't know what to call it, `flow' perhaps? If so, it's a lot easier to clean up bad grammar then empty writing.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:53 PM
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11: gesundheit.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:53 PM
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A serious hoot in this regard, if you're looking for one, is the NEA's 2004 report, "Reading at Risk," which announces something like a 56% decline in reading among American adults over the past 20 years. Of course, this only obtains where "reading" is defined as "book-length works of literature printed and bound between covers." Nothing else counts in the survey, at all.

There's one little statistic in the report, though, that they attempt to blithely skate past, which is that over the same period of time there's been a significant *increase* in writing among American adults, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of percentages of population....


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:54 PM
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(I've said this recently, but I'm repetitive like that.) I've become much better at kicking writer's blocks for professional e-mails, etc, since I started commenting and blogging.


Posted by: heebie-geebie | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:54 PM
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Yglesias in comments:

Needless to say, it's not anybody's responsibility to get me interested in literature. But insofar as people who are interested in literature make themselves come across as horribly unpleasant people whom one would never want to meet or speak to, and whose primary interest in books is as an adjunct to the vicious hatred of human beings, then I think it's natural that lots of people won't develop an interest in literature.

Mee-YOW-za!


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:55 PM
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It's been out for a year.

Alas. I could have sued you and treated myself to an ice-cream cone with my winnings.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:55 PM
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God, I hate safari. I had a long comment typed out and then hit refresh to see what had come up in the meantime; in FF, this will preserve whatever's in text areas. Not in Safari! Wiped.

Anyway, the basic point was, ogged, that your post seems predicated on the idea that people who complain about reading are concerned about words/day read, and might be placated by, say, people reading the backs of cereal boxes. Which is idiotic; obviously that's not what anyone cares about. Neither, equally obviously, is it personal taste as regards specific works. It's got to be something in the area of your last suggestion, but that doesn't need to be spelled out so that we know that's what it is, because obviously it's something like that. It needs to be spelled out because as it stands it's not specific enough in either formulation.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:56 PM
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Not sure whether or not I would consider a blog like this "reading." Does Ogged grade our comments? And if he does, are you likely to learn anything from "you're dead."


Posted by: swampcracker | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:56 PM
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That ice-cream cone would constitute more income than I am likely ever to see from the book. About an ice-cream cone's worth of more, in fact.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:57 PM
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Ben, I have no idea why you're working so hard to disagree with me.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 2:58 PM
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No, he's got a real point. There's a sense in which someone reading text messages is doing a different thing than someone reading blog comments than someone reading extended arguments or narrative. If what you care about is the last, all the text messaging in the world isn't a counterexample.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:03 PM
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Needless to say, it's not anybody's responsibility to get me interested in literature. But insofar as people who are interested in literature make themselves come across as horribly unpleasant people whom one would never want to meet or speak to, and whose primary interest in books is as an adjunct to the vicious hatred of human beings, then I think it's natural that lots of people won't develop an interest in literature.

He writes as though there were something wrong with that. Horribly unpleasant people -- the last minority it's OK to hate.

But we'll soon be the majority. Suck on that, haters! You'll get yours -- very soon.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:03 PM
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Critics who complain about literacy believe that readers aren't participating with texts that promise to change the culture for the better. If you ever read a book that made you better, than you get the idea. (If you ever read a book that you thought would make someone else better, you're a critic.)


Posted by: Armsmasher | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:04 PM
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See also Tom Wolfe's bloviation about how blogs -- which he conflates with Wikipedia -- are bad, because they don't feature enough shriveled conservatives in white linen suits writing masturbatory fantasies about the sexual depravity of co-eds. (Get on that, Ogged.)


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:05 PM
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22 is a transparent lie. You have a perfectly good idea of why he's working so hard to disagree with you.


Posted by: washerdreyer | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:05 PM
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But I said that in the post, the first part of which is "people don't read" is misleadingly broad, and the second part of which is that people must mean something else by it.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:05 PM
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You have a perfectly good idea of why he's working so hard to disagree with you.

Yeah, but we're cutting back on the YOUR MOM jokes.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:06 PM
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28 to 23!


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:07 PM
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The Right Things appear to be novels with a certain level of literary import. That is, it's not enough that you're reading, it's not enough that you're reading novels, it's that you need to be reading novels with a certain amount of intellectual heft or you might as well be watching Everybody Loves Raymond. Books with sufficient intellectual heft are, of course, written by the complainer and/or his/her friends; witness the chick-lit wars that Curtis Sittenfeld set off a couple of years ago.


Posted by: Magpie | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:08 PM
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One of the reasons I think it's important to teach pre-1800 texts is that it takes practice to tease out long sentences if all you've been reading is Chuck Palahniuk. Long, well-crafted sentences are more likely to offer examples of subtle, careful rhetoric. I've said before that I'm really attracted to dudes who know how to use a subordinate clause--not because I like Ivy-League dudes who are way into Milton, but because it's a sign that the mind is supple and sees in more colors than black and white.

That said, I don't privilege the novel over anything else. That's just ridiculous.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:10 PM
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Man, Harry Potter threads are impossible to troll. It's like wandering into a Jr Hi slumber party where they're talking about who's cool and who's not.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:11 PM
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Jesus, Vanya is keeping his great grandfather's opinion of Stravinsky alive.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:13 PM
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The lit prof in me wants to agree with you, AWB. Long, well-crafted sentences are worth the work.

The media studies prof in me wants to point out that the best writing done in US culture in the last five years has been done for television. (The Wire, ogged, in case you're wondering.)


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:14 PM
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WT


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:14 PM
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A good deal of this is the well-known gender gap in fiction reading. Compared to women, men read very little fiction.


Posted by: Gonerill | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:14 PM
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It's definitely a challenge to rag on the vacuity of books that Wendy Freakin' Doniger thinks have merit. Not that Emerson isn't up to it, of course.

The astonishing thing about Potter popularity is that anyone's astonished. Few of us live in an ivory tower where we do nothing but ponder Proust (en francais) while sipping rare vintages of port and listening to Telemann on original instruments. Those are all good things to do, but so is eating a hot fudge sundae, or turning up "Sweet Home Alabama" while driving, or reading Harry Potter books.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:15 PM
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Memory has changed. A simple story is people used to read so that they would know things (Armenian-Turkish history, say, or quantum chemistry). Now, google knows everything, so no need to read anything longer than a paragraph. An optimist would say people are choosing breadth over depth. I think this is happening, but that there is not much choice in the matter.
The AOL search corpus was interesting to browse for
how it showed people thought of the latent text at their fingertips. I was surprised at the number of queries which started "How do I..." as if consulting an oracle.


Posted by: lw | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:16 PM
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the best writing done in US culture in the last five years has been done for television. (The Wire, ogged, in case you're wondering.)

I just looked up your book and was about to mention that I skipped a second paragraph in the post about how what people want us to read novels for can be found in things like The Wire. Partly I skipped it because very few people actually watch the show, partly because we all have one paragraph attention spans now.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:16 PM
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I'm sorry, you were saying something? My mind wandered.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:17 PM
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32 gets it right.

People say "You contemptible cur, read Federalist Papers X sometime and you'll see what the Founders really thought." I try to read the Federalist Papers and it's impossible. The sentences are too long and the paragraphs are too long. It's like trying to read Hegel. It's literally impossible for me to get anything from text that consists of abstract arguments that build upon each other, in which every word is significant and no page makes sense unless you've read the previous page.

And I can read something like Tony Judt's "Postwar" in about four days, comprehending everything (but not retaining much). There's several levels of reading/writing ability, and that may seem elitist but it's the true kind of elitist.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:17 PM
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35: Depends what value of "good" we're talking about. Television writing is good, I'm presuming, when it sounds right coming out of the mouth of a particular character (either realistic or not), and creates a lot of interesting tension and causality in relation to other voices and actions. "Good" philosophical writing might be judged as good because it makes fine distinctions clearly and constructs a coherent view of the problems, thus requiring, usually, some nicely-turned sentences.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:18 PM
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28: I'd argue that there's something useful to be said about form rather than subject matter -- that it makes sense to care not that people aren't reading 'good' or 'important' books, but that they aren't reading anything with an extended argument or complex sentence structure. A lot of novels written during the 19th century are absolute tripe, but there are skills to be picked up from reading that sort of tripe that may be useful.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:18 PM
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Wendy Doniger! That says it all.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:19 PM
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ogged, you're the one who linked to Derrida looking bemused when asked if Seinfeld is deconstructionist. You know exactly what the difference is between expressing an idea freighted with its full nuance and gesturing at that same idea.

This said, Harry Potter has its merits, and fer Chrissake, dude, if you don't like Harry Potter, don't write an entire article full of cutesy-poo Harry Potter references.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:20 PM
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Right, exactly what 32 and 42 said.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:20 PM
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42: I suggest that my students try reading stuff like that aloud. It's easier to make sense of those sentences when you can hear the rhetorical rises and falls. In some ways, 18th-c texts require even more orality than 21st-c ones.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:21 PM
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Wait, people don't seriously privilege literature in this regard, do they? I mean, if someone spent a lot of his free time reading philosophy or serious works of history, would anyone accuse him of not reading enough? You might encourage him to try some good literature, but you wouldn't think he reads insufficiently (the same way you might if he divided his free time between reading unfogged, traffic signs and cereal boxes).


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:21 PM
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I try to read things aloud but it just takes so long. During the time when I had to read such things I should have just kept reminding myself "It is impossible to comprehend this unless you read it aloud, so don't even try to read it any other way".


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:22 PM
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Depends what value of "good" we're talking about.

Well, exactly. Which was I think part of ogged's point, that the "good" is always only left implied in assertions that no one reads anymore (i.e., no one reads anything good anymore), and then that "good" is never defined. My "good" in 35 is long-form complex narrative with rich, difficult characterizations, presenting compelling problems without easy solutions, using sophisticated storytelling strategies and poetic but believable language.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:22 PM
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One of the reasons I think it's important to teach pre-1800 texts is that it takes practice to tease out long sentences

I would guess that the percentage of the population capable of reading and comprehending those texts when they were published is much lower than the percentage capable of reading and comprehending them now.


Posted by: Bellatrix | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:23 PM
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49, see 15.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:23 PM
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You know exactly what the difference is between expressing an idea freighted with its full nuance and gesturing at that same idea.

Absolutely, and I'm even probably a curmudgeon about the world we've lost, etc., but I wish, per KF's 51, (and as people are doing here) that people would spell out what they think is lost and what we might do about it.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:25 PM
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Right, KF! And what's neat about good TV is that it requires a very sharp attention to detail, emotional nuance, and a great memory. One of the things I loved about Arrested Development was how, despite their catching-you-up voiceovers, none of the episodes made any sense if you hadn't seen the previous ones. And I think maybe it got canceled because audiences hadn't yet been primed by the more dramatic series for that necessary attention to detail. One of the fascinating things about most really good TV shows now is that they're no longer framed as "episodes"--arbitrarily ordered mini-narratives that create little change for further narratives.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:27 PM
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One nice thing about fairly old fiction is that if I can find it without working at it, it probably doesn't suck too badly. It's a pretty good filter (except the converse fails badly) but it takes too damn long.

I often miss being a kid omnivorously reading through any old tripe and thinking it was ok. These days I get indignant at bad writing. Starting a bad novel can ruin my whole evening.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:28 PM
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My "good" in 35 is long-form complex narrative with rich, difficult characterizations, presenting compelling problems without easy solutions, using sophisticated storytelling strategies and poetic but believable language.

My "good" is works approved by Mortimer Adler. Nothing else.


Posted by: Brock Landers | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:28 PM
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You know how on political threads, one of the major complaints is about how passive and anaesthatized most of the populace seems to what's going on around them? Here's a thought: the correlation of this with the high numbers of people getting most of their text from magazines / sports pages / blogs / facebook / text messaging with their buds is not random.

Not to hate on blogs and digi-culture generally, of course; I think a certain amount of Internet literacy is a must. OTOH, the kind of political blogs that form a crucial part of the news and information environment today are a pretty minuscule part of "the blogosphere" as a whole, snd a lot of the information needed to be really informed about any number of subjects is still in dead-tree books.

Also, being able to engage with complex narratives is an important skill, even civically important, and outside of nonfiction, the novel is still a major source of complex narrative. I love comics and action movies, but people who avoid "high culture" in favour of these sources do, I think, pay a cognitive price.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:30 PM
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57: Not even books approved by Sir John Lubbock?


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:30 PM
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People in the 19C and early 20C were much more into literature than we are today, sure. But I'm not sure that they should be the baseline. IIRC, books of all sorts had become fantastically popular and cheap then; they were the main shared culture. The hectors want people reading Dickens; but Dickens was pop literature back then, right?

So today, we've switched to TV/movies for our shared-culture fiction fix, and books are retreating to the older bulwarks (see 10) and a smaller amount of fiction. As long as people stay literate one way or another, and are still capable of rational and critical thought, I don't know how it's that big a deal.

Whether visual media have truly filled the gap is a valid issue, but not the same.


Posted by: Minivet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:33 PM
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I think the hell-in-a-handbasket folks should be willing to make a distinction between bad writing (Da Vinci Code, etc.) and writing that is easy to read (HP, etc.). Lemony Snicket, for example, takes an adult about as much effort as cutting soft butter, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single sentence error or mangled image in any of those books. It's good prose, even if it's not, like, Hobbes.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:33 PM
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AWB: Jason Mittell has an excellent article about narrative complexity in television, if you're interested. It's in Velvet Light Trap, and available through Project Muse if you're on a subscribing campus network. The article talks about a bunch of different series and the new strategies they use, and touches briefly on Arrested Development...


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:33 PM
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Also, being able to engage with complex narratives is an important skill, even civically important, and outside of nonfiction, the novel is still a major source of complex narrative.

Yes, but the key word here is "a," as in "a major source of complex narrative." Not "the," as it once was. The hell-in-a-handbasket folks are mostly nostalgically longing for the days of "the."


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:35 PM
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61: Sure, this is a very important distinction. Holding up complex writing as paramount is snobbery --- but emphasizing good writing is a great idea. Pretending that country would be sorted out if only everyone would work their way through Ulysses is nonsense. Being depressed about the poplarity of Dan Brown and the like is rational.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:40 PM
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I guess that you folks live in a different universe. Offhand I can think of three friends of mine who don't read. Educated, financially successful people who may, at most, read one local newspaper a day. No magazines, no books, no difficult blogs.

A lot of people don't read. Noodling around
http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/sample_items.asp
I notice that fewer than half the adults tested were able to look at a price tag saying "price per lb $1.59" and figure out the price per ounce. Similarly, after reading a short article, fewer than half were able to "List two facts that Mr. Martinez cites to support his belief that the Hispanic market is a valuable one.".


Posted by: Michael H Schneider | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:42 PM
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The hell-in-a-handbasket folks are mostly nostalgically longing for the days of "the."

Which, as with all nostalgia, is bullshit; there were no such days.

I think part of the Potter problem is that people are eagerly waiting to find out what happens, which offends those who think that "reading for the plot" is beneath them.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:43 PM
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What about the argument that television/film has a harder time capturing the interior life of characters than written media (with possible implications for how we sympathize with others)? There's only so much you can do with voiceovers and monologues, and even if a scene is being narrated in the first person, you generally see the characters from the outside. (With exceptions like Suzhou River.)


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:43 PM
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65: It's funny, but I used to know a bunch of people who didn't read because they literally could not read. These days, everyone I know reads. The breakdown now is people who only read technical material, people who only read technical material but read more than they have to, and people who read recreationally also.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:45 PM
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68 conti: crap, hit post too quick.

What I really have difficultly understanding is people who can read but choose not to.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:46 PM
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9: Students are stiff when they think of their writing as formal ('for the teacher'); much less so if you can get them to treat it more as communication/freewriting/play. They can actually write pretty well once you rid them of the "tricks" they learned in high school about "how" to write--the 5-par essay, the "dawn of time" intro, the "have you ever wondered?" intro, etc.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:46 PM
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67: Well that's true, they are different media. But while I don't buy the idea that TV writing has caught up with the best that can be done in, say, a novel, it's pretty clear that the writing has improved immensely, and part of this is allowing long complex story arcs (chicken and egg there, I guess). Almost all TV writing used to be dreadful. Now it's just most of it.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:48 PM
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Throughout the History of Mankind should be the name of a band.


Posted by: Armsmasher | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:49 PM
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What about the argument that television/film has a harder time capturing the interior life of characters than written media...?

Interiority is difficult for predominantly visual media, yes. Actually, though, the thing that I usually point to when I'm thinking about what the novel can do that film or television haven't been able to match is the unreliable narrator. Multiple points of view (a la Rashomon), or the Alias-style switches in which you discover that everything you believe is going on really means something else entirely, but there hasn't really been an effective reliable narrator that I know of in film or TV. Which is why the 1998 film version of Lolita skeeves me so badly; it's totally literal in its adaptation, and manages to completely miss the point.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:49 PM
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Joke recycler!


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:50 PM
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73: reliable s/b unreliable


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:51 PM
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63: No nostalgia is needed to realize that the novel, say, is a source of complex narrative in ways and to an extent that is simply not true of other media.

Taking some of the examples in "The Velvet Light Trap," for example, I think it would be pretty difficult to argue that Veronica Mars or Lost or Firefly or even -- here I commit heresy -- The Wire or Deadwood stack up very favorably against even an average literary novel in terms of "complex narrative." They're head-and-shoulders above what preceded them in television, of course, but arguably that just demonstrates how yawningly wide the gap really is.

And it shouldn't be a surprise; television and film just aren't suited for some kinds of narratives, while text is. People who deny this because they imagine they're bucking a generation of stuffy scolds are not, I think, being as hard-nosed and realistic as they think they're being.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:51 PM
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there hasn't really been an effective reliable narrator that I know of in film or TV

s/b unreliable?


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:52 PM
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Whoops,partially-pwned by eb, I see.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:52 PM
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you generally see the characters from the outside

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I find that movies are better when they don't try to excessively explain their characters (whether through voice-over narration or dialogue that serves the same purpose), but rather just let the events unfold "naturally", for lack of a better term. Film (and tv and theatre) differ from literature in that there's a visual component in addition to the written words, and this changes how much detail needs to go into the spoken script.


Posted by: Matt F | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:52 PM
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I don't buy the idea that TV writing has caught up with the best that can be done in, say, a novel

Why? The dialog in The Wire stands up to dialog anywhere else.


Posted by: Armsmasher | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:52 PM
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The thing that makes me feel like a cranky old person is the auto-complete (or T9 or whatever) for text messaging. What I loathe about it is that it seems to actively constrict your vocabulary.

As far as I can tell -- not having tried it -- its value hinges on its being able to anticipate which word you're trying to type. If you are a predictable writer -- that is, if your text message of "See you l___" is frequently going to be "See you later", then auto-complete is a boon for you. But if you write unpredictably; if you like to use a variety of words even for simple communication such as "Will you be home for dinner?" -- well, then, something is lost.

I am consoled by the thought that search is getting better and thus auto-complete is also getting better; in seven or ten years the technology's anticipatory skills will be less pedestrian. I hope.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:53 PM
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KF, no unreliable narrator? What about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang?


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:53 PM
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80: I didn't say I don't believe TV dialogue hasn't caught up with novel form dailogue, did I?


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:54 PM
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67 - Except most people in real life are pretty inarticulate. Isn't one of the nice things about well-done drama that you can see actors expressing their characters' inner lives wordlessly?

73 - The Usual Suspects? The Conversation?


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:54 PM
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82: Not having seen it, I couldn't say. But part of what I'm after in the no unreliable narrator bit is that the camera gives the illusion of objectivity in most cases; once we've seen it on screen, it appears in some neutral sense to have happened. It's mighty rare for the camera to flat-out lie in the way that a narrator like Humbert Humbert does.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:56 PM
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The dialog in The Wire stands up to dialog anywhere else.

Yes, dialog isn't writing. What about the interior narrative of states of mind in something like (and yes, everyone will now throw appropriate brickbats) Henry James's Portrait of a Lady? Stuff like that can't be produced on film or for stage. And it has social value inasmuch as understanding of another human being's inner life can lead to empathy, and empathy is pretty nice.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:56 PM
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It's mighty rare for the camera to flat-out lie

There is a bit of that in KKBB, though it's very light fare.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:57 PM
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85: This is a deep, perhaps fundamental difference. It's very easy to see things through a characters eyes in a novel, particularly if it's well done. It's harder to convince yourself that what you saw with your own eyes is suspect.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:57 PM
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And it shouldn't be a surprise; television and film just aren't suited for some kinds of narratives, while text is.

And vice versa. The question to me is not which medium is perfect, it's how do you use each medium's strengths to develop critical thinking skills, empathy, and all the other good traits that we want our fellow citizens to have.

If you've ever sat with a young child and read a book, stopping periodically to speculate with them about what is going to happen next or why a character is behaving as s/he is, you know one way to foster those skills. If you look at the way that the Daily Show and You Tube are teaching us to interact with the one-way monologues of news reports (slicing, dicing, and speaking back to them), you see another.


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:57 PM
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The clumsiness of unreliable-narrator stuff on screen is difficult. There was a funny sequence on 30 Rock a while back mocking this problem. Liz remembers having given all these insincere compliments to Jenna throughout their friendship, and, in her flashbacks, Jenna is totally grateful. And, for some reason, each flashback depicts Liz as better-dressed and with a handsomer date. When Jenna renarrates all those moments, the flashbacks show her as being obviously pissed, and Liz on dates with total trolls. It's funny, because, like, how do you depict the possibility that Liz has a really vain memory of things? It puts her whole perspective as a narrator into question.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:58 PM
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W/r/t interiority, I'm not actually talking about good or bad art or, to an extent, complexity, but the different way novels and visual media are experienced. I'm not explaining that well, but I have to do a bunch of chores now.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:58 PM
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I have zero interest in HP, but that whiny WP piece made me want to spit. The critic's daughter doesn't want to go on, and he decides that 'we' became disinterested? As though it had nothing to do with his own lack of enthusiasm? Jerk.

Also, not to pretend that complex writing is inherently better in some general way, but I spend a lot of my time writing newspaperese and other species of EZ-reading consumer content, and reading mostly things that are similarly here today and gone tomorrow, and I want nothing more than to leave it all and pick up Proust where I left off. It feels like the equivalent of meat hunger.

Finally, because she just came on the radio: the book critic for Fresh Air? Cannot stand her.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:58 PM
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84: ditto. The Usual Suspects is a prime example of the Alias effect, in which the viewer has to go back and re-evaluate what s/he's seen, but I don't think the camera ever really lied. Or perhaps I'm misremembering; do we get sequences in the film that absolutely did not happen, or that misrepresent what did happen?


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:59 PM
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But slol seems to be thinking along the same lines.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 3:59 PM
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76 - Because serial narrative is generally most effective at complexities of plot, and visual drama is not particularly good at the communication of experience (although it can be good at displaying character). Compare the machinations in a given episode of The Wire with the complexity of plot in the average work of literary fiction (which I will helpfully presume to be Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate, because I was thinking of it the other day), then think about the depth of even one of the major, complicated characters in The Wire versus Anna or Ralph.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:00 PM
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89: I'm not interested in which medium is "perfect" and don't have a problem with healthy appreciation of the strengths of each medium. I have a problem with unhealthy denigration of the novel as a preserve for nostalgics, and for too-quick dismissal of the notion that maybe certain kinds of reading are important and currently under-represented in the current textual mix.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:01 PM
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And yes, of course there are novels with no interior life. A lot of history writing, for that matter, lacks the interior life of the subjects, because the sources aren't there.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:01 PM
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93 - The implication of the big reveal in The Usual Suspects is that every single scene shown in flashback may have been fudged to one degree or another, and I've actually argued with rfts about the extent to which The Conversation's unreliable narration makes it artistically unsatisfactory.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:03 PM
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(She held that it was a perfectly cromulent technique, whereas I felt that the very lack of a filmic tradition of unreliable narration in that way made it feel like cheating. She's right, of course, but it's still not satisfying to me.)


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:05 PM
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81: You say you haven't used predictive text input, but are holding out hope that it'll get better!?

Trust me: it works fine. And no, it won't make you a worse writer. It's very, very rare that I start a word, am presented with a quotidian alternative beginning with the same letters, forget my original word, and settle for inexact speech.


Posted by: Tom | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:05 PM
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Ok, I'm going out on a limb a bit here because I really know nothing about literature and many people here do.

but.

Isn't it another salient thing about these sorts of devices in novels that they had to be discovered as techniques? Am I recalling correctly that there was a huge stink about Jude the Obscure when Hardy published it, basically because people couldn't deal with the ambiguity? I'm also remembering the shock I had when reading Le Morte de Arthur as a kid, and someone told me (when I asked about it) that the reason it was structured so differently from the novels I was used to was because nobody had figured out how to do that yet.

So I guess my point is that television (and also film) writing is pretty young, and maybe people will come up with new devices to extend what they can represent, but also maybe people will have to get used to them.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:05 PM
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95: I'm not really familiar enough with the Mantel book, but I think I see what you're getting at.


Posted by: DS | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:07 PM
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Hey, we had an argument over that here -- The Conversation completely pissed me off for that reason. Not trusting a character's perception is one thing, but unambiguously causing me to perceive the conversation one way, and then switching it seemed very out of line somehow.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:07 PM
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98: Hmmm. I'll have to watch US again, and will add KKBB and The Conversation to my queue. That the unreliable narration makes the latter unsatisfactory on some level is really interesting, though; I'd argue (as long as I'm being argumentative) that no first person narrator of a novel can really be successful without being unreliable, to some extent. Any narrator earnest enough to tell you the whole truth, all the time, without blind spots or omissions, is going to be tedious. But we need to trust, at least to some extent, what we're seeing on screen, even if (as Mittell suggests in that article that I linked to) that what we're trusting isn't the literal truth of what we're seeing, but instead that we understand the narrative strategies being used.


Posted by: KF | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:07 PM
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The Conversation cheats, sure, but just subtly enough that one can imagine it's Harry's expectations that created his first interpretation.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:10 PM
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fwiw my recollection about the Usual Suspects was that none of it lied, it just omitted bits that would have forced you to question your assumptions about the Soze character. In other words, every scene works either way. I could be misremembering though, it's been ages.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:10 PM
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Wait, what the heck's wrong with The Conversation? I like that movie. I mean, it's creepy. But as far as creepy goes, it's good.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:10 PM
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Just the change in emphasis on one of the overheard words that happens when he listens before the climax and then after.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:14 PM
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Here's the prior Conversation conversation, although it's about every twentieth comment, so not coherent.

The problem is the first time you hear the tape, and misinterpret it with Hackman, and the last time when you finally understand, it's two different takes with the emphasis changed. I feel cheated by that.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:15 PM
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Can't that be explained by technical means? We're talking about olde-fashioned tape recordings.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:15 PM
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As I remember it, it's quite clear. Old fashioned tape recordings were staticy, but they didn't change the emphasis from one word to the next.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:16 PM
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Something like a 56% decline in reading among American adults over the past 20 years....over the same period of time there's been a significant *increase* in writing among American adults, both in terms of raw numbers and in terms of percentages of population....

Soon we will achieve the condition of Ireland, where, as somebody or other said, everybody writes poetry, and some of them even read it.


Posted by: mcmc | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:17 PM
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And yes, of course there are novels with no interior life.

Hammett, The Maltese Falcon, comes to mind. At some point, hopefully, every reader catches himself & realizes that, for all he/she knows, Spade *did* kill his partner.

N.b. that Falcon is quite a good book, which defeats any equivalence b/t interiority & quality.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:21 PM
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81: You say you haven't used predictive text input, but are holding out hope that it'll get better!?

Um, yeah. ::befuddled look:: I send fewer than 10 text messages a month. Nevertheless, from observing how other people use them, I am unimpressed by the current capabilities of predictive text input (thank you for the jargon). I think it makes people more inclined to say "Yeah, good enough" and adapt to the machine's choice of word, or the machine's suggestion based on their own past usage, rather than laboriously type out the synonym they may have intended to use.

And having watched how online (web) search engines have improved over the past decade, and knowing how many smart people are likely to be tackling this problem, I am reasonably confident that PDI will be better in the future.

Trust me: it works fine. And no, it won't make you a worse writer. It's very, very rare that I start a word, am presented with a quotidian alternative beginning with the same letters, forget my original word, and settle for inexact speech.

Eh. I am less convinced of this. Obviously I'm not questioning your personal experience; I'm just saying that I think options like predictive text and pro forms replies such as "Answer is YES" do make people "worse writers." Good texters, maybe, but worse writers. Same goes for chat. It's a different set of skills.

and re: 101, IIRC Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was extremely controversial for just that reason. (I don't have to give spoiler warnings on a 75-year-old book, do I?)


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:26 PM
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Pro forma replies.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:27 PM
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Roger Ackroyd was controversial because it adopted that technique for a genre thitherto pledged to the principle that seems to animate LB's objection to The Conversation.

I never went back and reread RA to see if you could have figured it out, theoretically.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:30 PM
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I accidentally posted this in the Maybe! thread:
[No one seems to have mentioned that Ron Charles's daughter probably got bored with hearing Dad read HP in a monotone somnambulatory tone. This is why my students like the poems I like, because I read them well and with passion. When they can sense I'm just going through the motions, even if I'm putting forth effort, they won't like it either.

Reading things aloud is a difficult skill that takes a lot of practice. Kids, especially, learn to love the books you read to them when you do it as if you care about those books. Kids will love the things you love because they want you to use that same excited voice when they hear to talk to and about them. ]


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:31 PM
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117: I did in 92, but perhaps I was too subtle.


Posted by: Jesus McQueen | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:34 PM
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MY via 17:
horribly unpleasant people whom one would never want to meet or speak to, and whose primary interest in books is as an adjunct to the vicious hatred of human beings

I don't know Yglesias, but apparently he knows me.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:34 PM
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I never went back and reread RA to see if you could have figured it out, theoretically.

What irritated the daylights out of me was that I noticed the key sentences ("The mail came at twenty to nine. It was just on ten minutes to nine when I left...") when I first read the book, but actively thought to myself, "That ten minutes must not have been important." Argh.

(The answer as far as I'm concerned is that it's not spelled out in the text, and you would have to make a couple of leaps, but yes, you could figure it out.)


Posted by: Witt | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:35 PM
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RE: unreliable narration in film, Mullholland Drive should count. IMO, it works pretty well.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:37 PM
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18: Not too subtle. I've just got the attention span of a goldfish today. I should turn the AC on.


Posted by: A White Bear | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:38 PM
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Let me pick up on what LB said way upthread: it's my opinion that there was very little writing fifteen years ago, communicating through prose as we are doing here, compared with what most people so inclined do now. I have an advanced degree in Literature from an elite university and 10 years ago wrote very little, and with all kinds of blockages. Since I've started commenting, I've gotten better at a very rapid rate, and my spelling and facility have increased too. It spills over into other writing tasks, which I do much more easily in the last several years.

When visiting Springfield a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that Lincoln wrote many dozens of notes and letters, I mean personal not professional ones, every day. He would often get up in the night if he had a thought he wanted to share with some particular person. He was doing something, the whole of the literate classes of the 19th C were doing, something very much like what we're doing here, accept that it was more often one-to-one, like email. I grew up in the nadir of written communication, which has sprung back to life.


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:40 PM
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I've just got the attention span of a goldfish today.

The attention span of a goldfish.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:42 PM
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TV shows and novels have normative content, people. They impart other things besides cognitive skills--besides even moral capacities like the empathy mentioned in 86. On some level the choice between The Portrait of a Lady and Halo: The Fall of Reach comes down to which of these works agrees with our idea of the ethical good. Hokey as it sounds.


Posted by: Michael Vanderwheel, B.A. | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:43 PM
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Rfts's dissertation discusses the issue of 116, btw. I wish she were around to weigh in on genre expectation.

Also: The Conversation is a good movie that might have made a good book. The Maltese Falcon is a good book, and a good movie (although I wish the final chapter of the book had made it into the movie). A Change in Climate is a kind of devastatingly good book (I heartily recommend it), but it would be a -terrible- movie. Nobody needs another movie about white people's infidelities.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:49 PM
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48: heh, orality.

I do, though, like this quote from Donald Hall:

"Late James is the best prose for reading aloud. Saying one of his interminable sentences, the voice must drop pitch every time he interrupts his syntax with periphrasis, and drop again when periphrasis interrupts periphrasis, and again, and then step the pitch up, like climbing stairs in the dark, until the original tone concludes the sentence. One's larynx could write a doctoral dissertation on James's syntax."


Posted by: JL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 4:49 PM
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I'm sure someone else said this while I was out picking PK up from camp, but anyway. All that stupid Wapo article is saying is that people aren't reading *fiction*. Which is itself bullshit--romance, mysteries, science fiction, are all fiction, and all sell quite well, thankyouverymuch. What the author *means* to be saying is that people aren't reading "literary" fiction (and this is clear in the way he looks down his nose not only at the HP novels--which he and his daughter realize aren't really that good, after all--but also at adults reading HP novels).

But the fact of the matter is that literary fiction of the type he means has *never* been all that popular. When it's popular, it gets looked down at: Pride and Prejudice, Clarissa, and so forth were "women's novels" back in their day, the same way that Harlequins are right now.

Which is why one of the fun things about teaching is when you get a room full of students who initially couldn't believe you were going to "make" them read this stuff find themselves getting incredibly involved in the plotlines by the time they're well into the novels. The only reason people who've learned that this stuff is fun don't read more of it (myself included) has a lot more to do with habit, time, ease of access, and so on than it does with whether or not they lack "taste."


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:11 PM
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127: Donald Hall needs to read The Golden Bowl to my wife, then, b/c when I tried it she cried off by the 3d page. And I am usually accounted a good reader-aloud.

Damn, that is a good book. The Merchant/Ivory movie was one of the most evil abortions ever committed to celluloid.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:12 PM
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When it's popular, it gets looked down at: Pride and Prejudice, Clarissa, and so forth were "women's novels" back in their day, the same way that Harlequins are right now.

Yah, tho recall that the Prince Regent was a big Austen fan, and not afraid to allow her to dedicate one of her books to him. Wonder whether he was mocked for that?


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:14 PM
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129: The quoted passage, as it happens, comes when Hall is describing reading James aloud to his late wife. She was perhaps a bit more tolerant listener.


Posted by: JL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:17 PM
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Whoa, I didn't know she was married to Hall. (You see how much I get around contemporary poetry.) Hot photo, too.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:21 PM
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93: The Thin Blue Line? (Although in that case, the flashback sequences are explicitly reconstructions of the various subjects' narratives about the crime, not really presented as omniscient truth.) Also, I thought of Minority Report, but that may be another example of what you're calling the Alias approach. The various scenes in the precogs' visions do happen (unless aborted), but they may be missing key details that radically affect the interpretation of the vision.


Posted by: DaveW | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:23 PM
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133: Oh shit. I'm pretty sure this blog is already at its DaveInitial limit.


Posted by: DaveL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:25 PM
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I CAN HAZ INTELLECTUAL CREDIBILITY FOR READING UNFOGGED!!!1!


Posted by: ohnoes | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:27 PM
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I read an interesting letter to the editor in the latest Harpers, to the effect that for most of human history, stories were received around the campfire rather than in writing, and that the current trend is something like a return to tradition.


Posted by: CharleyCarp | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:34 PM
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130: So? Are the current princes readers of HP? I wouldn't be surprised.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:35 PM
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130: So?

Just sayin' that the "women's fiction" moniker back then may've been as condescendingly *mistaken* as similar jibes nowadays. Which may've been your point as well.


Posted by: Anderson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:37 PM
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133, 134: Indeed.


Posted by: Mrs. McCave | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:40 PM
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IM PRAYIN IN UR AIRPLANES SCARIN UR XTIANS


Posted by: DaveN | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:44 PM
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I vaguely remember flipping back through Roger Ackroyd and being really annoyed. I don't remember why.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:48 PM
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138: There was a lot of mediocre stuff written back then, and there's a lot of mediocre stuff written today. I've no doubt that there are occasional "genre" novels that are popular precisely because they "exceed" the usual limitations, and that in a couple hundred years if we're still teaching literature, those will be in the canon and people will be tut-tutting about how everyone nowadays reads crap, and why aren't they reading (say) Harry Potter?


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:48 PM
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139: I did manage to come up with something vaguely approximating a clever pseud, but I don't like it much so I don't use it. Cogitation continues.


Posted by: DaveL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:55 PM
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142: I'm kind of terrified by the number of Ayn Rand books I saw in the "classics" section of the airport bookstore on my last trip.


Posted by: DaveL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 5:57 PM
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144: just wait until you see the `left behind' series there


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:02 PM
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145: or Gil Thorp, the Jenkins Years.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:04 PM
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134, 140, 143: Heh. This is nothing - I was once at a games group of eight people where we had three DaveWs present on the same night (I was Dave2 in that report). I've also had to distinguish myself from the Dave W. who's posting over at Unqualified Offerings.


Posted by: DaveW | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:10 PM
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145: I'd be fine with it, if they were actually gone.


Posted by: TJ | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:24 PM
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Man, Potter motherfuckers are hard and no fun to troll, here or anywhere else. They're like Quakers or Baha'i or shit. They don't seem to realize that they're destroying my happiness. Or maybe they do realize and are filled with ressentiment.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:34 PM
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Let it go, John. Seriously. For all our sakes. Or else I'll start praying for you.


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 6:41 PM
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Genre fiction is a decaying corpse. But not in a bad way!


Posted by: rapoli | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 7:03 PM
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I have been staring at this thread for an about an hour. Remember, I gave up literature in the early 80s, and it was giving up on love.

The Peak of High Modernism came at the near exact moment of the collapse of the Ancien Regime or whatever. What would Nietzsche say? That we as a culture, or the elites of that culture, have lost the necessity and ability to organize according to rank. Or that creating shared heirarchies is a moral imperative.

The Oscars, Pulitzers, NBAs, even Nobels don't seem to matter as much anymore. And look what we have as President, if you don't understand the consequences.

De Toqueville also had his worries about America.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 7:20 PM
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The Peak of High Modernism came at the near exact moment of the collapse of the Ancien Regime or whatever.

I like the "or whatever", but what does this sentence mean? If the Ancien Regime doesn't mean what the French Revolution overthrew, then what does it mean?

You're right that the mass media has no interest in paying lip service to the intellect any more, and feels no shame about that because of capitalism. Once teen culture was created there was no turning back.


Posted by: | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 7:23 PM
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I like the "or whatever", but what does this sentence mean? If the Ancien Regime doesn't mean what the French Revolution overthrew, then what does it mean?

I didn't write the above, but damn, I wish I had. And with that, to bed.


Posted by: JL | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 7:55 PM
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My ex tried to convince me that reading the cereal box should count as my son practicing his reading.

?!??!??!?! WHAT THE F-ck?!?!?!??/


Posted by: will | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 8:08 PM
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"I like the "or whatever", but what does this sentence mean?"

Ok. 1875-1925 or thereabouts. The Nobility. Class structure. Culture and religion as a tool of organization. In America and The Far East as well as in Europe. I am not sure myself what happened, and I do not think politics and economics has come anywhere near understanding and assimilating it even yet. And of course it is mixed and qualified with reactionary elements. A flash and catastrophe like the Renaissance or Periclean Greece. I don't yet buy the post-modernists.

Somebody said of Georges Sorel:"What isn't amazing is what he wrote, but that a lifelong civil servant would retire and write what he wrote." Which was a lot more the Reflections, a lot deeper and profound and exemplary of his time.

Not just the artists

Spengler. Toynbee. Ortega y Gasset. Pareto's non-economic works. The fascists and socialists and feminists. Freud. The philosophical and political and social implications of the economists. Keynes somehow scares the fuck out of me, I see his Bloomsbury milieu in every sentence. Not a happy camper. A gay Englishman who hung with Strachey and Wolff and went back to Malthus to reform economics. Deep & dark dude.

Anyway. High modernism saw itself as the last gasp attempt to save civilisation with secular culture. And if that stuff isn't important, more important and useful than other stuff, then we likely literally doomed.

I do not think we can organize to meet Peak Oil and Global Warming, but will go all centripetal and billions will die in your lifetimes. I think High Modernism predicted it, Post-modernism sickly revels in it, and LitCrit going Spidey and Harry a prime symptom of it.


Posted by: bob mcmanus | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 8:17 PM
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I taught myself to read off cereal boxes when I was about 4 or 5. How old is your son?


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 8:20 PM
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"but will go all centripetal"

Always with the gyres.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 8:57 PM
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I don't buy 142 for more than a fraction of a second. I need a lot of proof that quality has a meaningful impact on genre novel popularity before I'd concede any of what B is suggesting.

Dan Brown is, of course, the ultimate proof of this, but I'll take on HP as well: even conceding that HP is readable and better than most (let's say 75 percentile), it doesn't approach in quality actual, time-tested literature (ordid your students, B, say things like, "Wow, Jane Austen is almost exactly as good as Goblet of Fire!"?).

Furthermore, the fact that some people looked down on the Bront√ęs and some people also look down on Harlequins doesn't, in fact, provide any evidence that Harlequins belong in the same universe of literature. I know that you know that, B - it's obvious. But that tracks pretty closely to your actual argument.

Look, I'm not sure that lit fic was any bigger a proportion of what was read 100 years ago than it is now; what I do know is that people - at every level of society except the illiterate - are reading less than they used to, even including "reading" like SMS (forget decent books, just look at newspaper and mag circulation and the pulps). So, even if there's just as much worthwhile writing out there now as there was then - including high quality pop lit - it's simply being read less. It's not controversial, and unless you want a gig with Slate, you shouldn't try to argue against it.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 9:07 PM
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While I'm at it, I think 123 is nuts. When I was in late HS and college, 12-19 years ago, I wrote letters all the time. I wrote postcards. To absent girlfriends, to present girlfriends, to friends two towns over. Real, old-fashioned, substantive letters.

I've written maybe one of those in the last 6 years. I'm not sure I've ever written a letter to my wife. And no, goddammit, email doesn't fucking count. I've been on email for 17 years, and I doubt I've written 3 that were worth what the postcards I wrote in HS were. Email is not a medium for thoughtful writing, nor for documenting ongoing thoughts and feelings - the number of people who pull out a laptop to write a couple more lines in a long email as they walk from campus to cafe is vanishingly small.

I'm not saying, IDP, that your personal experience is invalid, or that email doesn't have pluses (such as immediacy and a certain frankness), or that some peolpe don't write thoughtful emails. But those people would also have written thoughtful letters. I simply don't believe that the quantity of email sent equals the quality that it has displaced.

Just as, to bring it full circle, I don't believe that Unfogged equals Moby Dick.

I now ban myself.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 9:16 PM
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I don't believe that Unfogged equals Moby Dick.

Well now that's ridiculous.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 9:22 PM
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159: I've never heard a very useful definition of `genre novels'. It seems like you either drop any idea of exactness for the concept, or try some sort of indefensible pick-and-choose which amounts to retroactively removing the genre lables off anything good. Like your Jane Austin -> Harlequins example, there seems to be a continuum with no clear break. 1984 is a science fiction by any useful criterion I can imagine. Midnights Children is fantasy. There are no shortage of examples.

I think it's more an issue that the vast majority of novels written aren't very good. Some of them are dreadful but still manage to hit print. All sorts of dreck shows up binned in the `literature' section as bad as any formulaic mystery or sci-fi or romance. There may be more of the latter, but that's simple economics.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 9:48 PM
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It's been awhile since I've seen it, but I don't think Usual Suspects qualifies as an unreliable narrator for the same reason that Sixth Sense or Memento don't qualify - these involve accurate, but incomplete, perceptions. Nobody is lying to his or her self, they are just unaware of events outside their own limited point of view.

To further KF's point, I'd argue that the unreliable narrator in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest had to be junked in the film version.

As everyone knows, blanket statements are always wrong. But I'm stumped on this unreliable narrator issue. Maybe there really isn't one in film/video.


Posted by: politicalfootball | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:03 PM
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I was implicitly looking down my nose at the HP novels the other day, but I don't so look at those who read them. There are many more people out there much more deserving of the nose-look: most people don't read at all beyond cable guides and instruction manuals (and most of the time not these). Translating text into an image of a character who has emotion and motive is a skill, and one that most Americans willfully lack, or at least decline to exercise. Genre or no, the printed word is something I respect, and I reserve the bulk of my scorn for those who do not share it.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:03 PM
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163: I think the aforementioned (by me) Mullholland Drive still qualifies.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:05 PM
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One key assumption, or maybe two key assumptions, that whiners about HP make that I think is unwarranted is that were a child or an adult not reading Harry Potter, she would be reading something else of more literary value, and if a child or adult reads Harry Potter, she does not read anything else.

This seems to me plainly false. Arguably, if all anyone ever read was Harry Potter, they wouldn't become talented writers. (I subscribe to the theory, if there is one, that if you want to learn how to write, read and pick it up that way. And stay off the damn blogs if you don't want your dissertation to sound as if it was written in crayon by a drunk.) Why, however, should reading one exclude the other?

That seems to be like saying (fuck you and your analogy ban) that those who watch Star Wars can't appreciate all the innovations of Citizen Kane. Or that connoisseurs of wine and fine cuisine never have a Coke and a Big Mac. People are capable of liking more than one thing.

It's not like our heads have capacities such that if you read all gazillion pages of Harry Potter and the Search for an Editor all of Midnight's Children will leak out your ears.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:08 PM
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159: Well, don't believe me, but actually early novels are one of my academic specialties, and I've spent a lot of time reading them. And what I say about them is true.

As to the "people read less now" argument, back in the day, the Spectator had a print run of 2,000 at its height. And according to contemporaries, "everyone" read it. The population of London at the time was over 600,000.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:08 PM
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162:
Genre has two senses. In one, a genre includes a grouping of similar elements that are distinct from, if not excluded by, traditional narrative. So, if Queequeg turned out to be from Rigel 7, this would be a (minor) violation of the terms of traditional narrative, and Moby Dick would be Sci-Fi. If 1984 lost its two-way TVs, were set in a fictional Eastern European country in a recognizable time-frame and referred to actual events, it would cease to be part of a genre.

In the second, and entirely made-up, sense genre fiction consists of those works that are far too crap to exist on their own, and use established formulae of the genre to leech off of genuinely original works. (c.f Robert Jordan, David Drake et al)


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:17 PM
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I largely agree with 166, except fuck Big Macs. That's not Harry Potter, that's Who Moved My Cheese?


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:21 PM
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And stay off the damn blogs if you don't want your dissertation to sound as if it was written in crayon by a drunk.)

Uh oh.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:29 PM
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170: no kidding, eh?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:34 PM
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169: God that book is awful. Hem and Haw? Groan.


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:34 PM
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In the second, and entirely made-up, sense genre fiction consists of those works that are far too crap to exist on their own, and use established formulae of the genre to leech off of genuinely original works. (c.f Robert Jordan, David Drake et al)

Orginality is a virtue? One of the functions of telling stories around the campfire is to reinscribe norms. That's done by repetition, (often with diferent names and events but the same message). I suspect (without evidence) that this is the appeal of the Left Behind series. It may be crap as literature (as are, I'd suggest, Paul's Epistles), but it is socially meaningful and important crap.

Now, of course, creation of a shared mythos from the undifferentiated chaos is done by Fox news (speaking of unreliable narrators).

To say that only 1 in 300 read the Spectator is to say that most everyone didn't read then, either.


Posted by: Michael H Schneider | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:47 PM
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173: wait. Your point is that originality is overrated, and your example is the Left Behind series? What blog do you think this is, exactly?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:51 PM
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168: I was inarticulate about part of it; I understand the word it's the usage I have trouble with.

Thinking a bit more, it seems that genre is used in both an inclusive and an exclusive sense. The inclusive sense it to describe how a story might fit with others, perhaps give you an idea of the idioms to expect, etc. A `what would you call books like X' sort of thing. Using it this way may be lazy (pigeonhole something so you don't have to think about it) but it's probably not dismissive.

Far more often it seems to be used in an exclusive sense, by those trying to look down their noses at something. `X is literature, Y is merely ' is the typical, moronic, application of this sense.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:51 PM
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never a good sign to start of an inarticulate comment with `I was inarticulate'. I should probably call it a night.

my point in 175.3 was supposed to be about the tendency of many to `elevate' any book they actually think is good from its natural genre if it has one. This is annoying and ridiculous.


Posted by: soubzriquet | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 10:58 PM
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OK, 173, I'll respond to you better in a minute but I have to say I'm a Christian, and . . . fuck Paul. If I weren't a Christian, I'd invite him to suck my hairy Protestant balls. But I am, so Paul for teh win I suppose. And teh lose for me now that I think about it.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 11:06 PM
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OK, I feel a bit better now.
to 173: I think 175 clarifies this. Initially, genre is defined as separate from the general style of the day. As genre develops, it assumes modes and idioms differing from traditional narrative. One of my favorite short story writers, Arthur Machen, illustrates the initial exclusive mode of genre. Given the supernatural subject of his work,he didn't really fit into traditional English literature. After Lovecraft/Tolkien, he could be identified as "proto-fantasy". but when writing, he used the language and idioms of the traditional novel. Tolkien adapted Machen's supernatural elements and adaptation of Celtic mythology into the structure of the epic, and related it as a novel. After Tolkien, almost all fantasy adapted this structure. Hence, the low-status hero makes some sort of journey, and, despite supernatural opposition, succeeds. This mirrors the classic Joseph Campbell thing, but the content, if not the structure, is quite british (with a bit of Scandinavian mixed in)

So, in the above example, all "fantasy" novels are expected, with some variation, to conform to a) the traditional "hero's journey" structure b) the Anglo/Scandanavian mythos) and c) end well.

So, initially rejected by the litfic tradition, the Machen/Tolkien line assumed its own restrictions which you now know as Fantasy.


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 11:34 PM
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Also, how do you do the crayon font?


Posted by: foolishmortal | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 11:35 PM
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Originality is important to literature only since novels--at least if you're talking in terms of original plotting. And while it's true that literacy in the early 18th C was lower than it is now, the fact is it's pretty difficult to know how many people *were* literate at the time. Definitely a lot more than 2,000 in London and on the post roads, however.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-17-07 11:42 PM
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re: 180

It's my understanding the literacy levels by the late-18th or early-19th century weren't that low. Certainly in Scotland* they were a lot higher than people tend to think. Ordinary people may not have read novels widely, but they could certainly read. The literacy level in urban England seems to have been quite a bit lower, though.

* which, admittedly, with more or less universal education an official state policy from the late 15th century and a practical reality from the 17th century was a bit of an outlier, but not completely sui generis. Lots of the Lutheran nations were broadly similar.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:36 AM
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Stopping after only having read through 99 to point out that people who don't like The Conversation are on crack.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:43 AM
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181: There really aren't any definite data on it, and in part the problem depends a lot on how one defines "literacy": the ability to write one's name? To do sums? To read the bible? To write or read short notes? Literacy levels were incredibly high compared to only 50 years earlier, but surely not high by modern standards. Still, they were high enough for there to be a popular press.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:45 AM
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Ben is correct.

Hey, so, I wonder if you could consider the old movie serials where they would "cheat" with the cliffhangers to be a kind of unreliable narrator? Is that giving them to much credit? Fuck authorial intent!


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:46 AM
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And it doesn't cheat! It's perfectly justifiable! Read section xi of Philosophical Investigations!


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:49 AM
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It's a pretty good way of representing interior life, now that I think about it. How else are you going to represent the role that the trained interpreter plays in the analysis of surveillance data?


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:52 AM
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re: 183

Yeah, I did a bit of googling and all kinds of figures come up for England at that time. Figures that vary wildly depending on how literacy is defined. My vague memory of discussions (at university) of Scottish literacy at the same time is that because of the role of the church in education and the priority placed upon it by the state, it was really quite high -- a lot closer to 100% than people would think. With 'reading scripture' (for obvious 'all teh Presbyterian' reasons) the key test at the time.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:52 AM
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Interesting, that would tie in pretty nicely with the publishing going on in Edinburgh at the time, too--if memory serves, Edinburgh was more of a publishing powerhouse than London.

All I know is that at some point when I was writing on this stuff I just decided to declare that reliable figures for English literacy at the time are impossible to come by, and no one's told me different yet.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 12:54 AM
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186 has it right.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:00 AM
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Yeah, universal education was legislated for in Scotland from 1496. Not actually a practical reality until 100-150 years later, though. Still, that's pretty early by European standards and largely a result of i) being a very small, very homogenous country and ii) very protestant.

Of course, I was taught about this stuff in Scotland, by Scots, so it's possible the presentation of literacy rates and educational levels was slightly biased!


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:00 AM
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If it's not scottish, it's illiterate!

(end hammy brogue)


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:02 AM
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Of course, I was taught about this stuff in Scotland, by Scots, so it's possible the presentation of literacy rates and educational levels was slightly biased!

In contrast, because I studied British literature, I know very little about Scotland. Despite its relationship with England being kind of a major 18th c issue.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:06 AM
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Hammy brogues tend to be impractical in my experience. They just don't stand up to regular wear and tear and the waterproofing is terrible.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:06 AM
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Not to mention the way they attract dogs.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:09 AM
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Despite its relationship with England being kind of a major 18th c issue.

Heh. Yes, something of a major issue.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobite_rebellion


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:12 AM
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Yes, I know *that* much.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:13 AM
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Mmm, untanned ham.

In other news, the etymology of the linguistic term brogue is one of the weirdest things I've heard in my life.


Posted by: Sifu Tweety | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:14 AM
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After all, I had to read Waverly once.

Which I did on a beach in Florida. Seriously bizarre beach reading, that.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:14 AM
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re: 198

Heh, ironically, I've never read any Walter Scott.

I did spend literally years at high school being taught, in tedious detail, about the 1715 and 1745 rebellions, though. Our history teacher's great-great-great-grandfather [for some number of greats] led the charge at Culloden, so he wittered on about it endlessly. He could also be distracted from other boring stuff [the history of 18th century agricultural inventions, for example] by a cunningly interjected mention of Culloden.

'So, as you can see the invention of the iron swing plough ...'
'hey, sir, is it no true that at Culloden we had nae chance, whit wi' the outmoded tactics ae the highland charge, and that?'
'funny you should mention that, did I ever tell you about ...'

[cue the entire class turning to each other to have a more interesting conversation while tuning out the teacher]


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:20 AM
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I haven't been reading - been away from a computer since 6 July. Did I miss any classic unfogged threads?


Posted by: Willy Voet | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:26 AM
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I'm with McManus here. There is an assumption in elitist culture that the world is complicated, and demands our best efforts -- moral as well as intellectual and aesthetics -- to understand and to master.

People don't like to believe that. They are lazy. they suspect that even their best is not going to be good enough. And so there has been a real falling away into all sorts of meretriciousness.

I don't mean that visible difficulty is itself a mark of quality: one sort of meretriciousness is to assume that complication and obscurity are merits in themselves -- see the critical reaction to the lyrics of amphetamine period Dylan.


Posted by: Nworb Werdna | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:31 AM
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Sometimes I hate Unfogged.


Posted by: teofilo | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 1:32 AM
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Boy, me too.

How's the house-sitting going?


Posted by: Lunar Rockette | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 2:15 AM
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One of my ancestors, named Lucas, was supposedly a Jacobite refugee in Holland. This doesn't make sense to me -- weren't the Jaboites resisting the Dutch king Wm. of Orange? That part of the family was very Protestant when it came to the US.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:05 AM
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There were lots of lowland protestants on the Jacobite side in '45. It wasn't a monolithically Catholic or Highland rebellion. So that side of the family being Protestant isn't necessarily strange. The '45 rebellion wasn't against Wm of Orange himself, obviously, since he took power 60 years before. It wasn't even really against his descendants, since the Hanoverians replaced the Stuart line in 1714.

So, fleeing to the Netherlands wouldn't necessarily have been odd either.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:16 AM
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I read Waverly in a graduate seminar on historical novels as a genre. It's quite "representative" in just the way we'd expect from genre descendants like Michener or Herman Wouk, and one of the things it represents is lowland support for the Jacobites. The wild, romantic highlander appears in this novel as a figure, and would be developed by Scott a major cultural trope, but Waverly's sponsors and love interest, etc, are lowland Jacobites.

It's hard to exaggerate how much the 19th century took novels like Waverly for granted; everybody had read them. Later novels, like Stevenson's excellent Master of Ballantrae represent twists, retellings that take Waverly for granted.


Posted by: I don't pay | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:34 AM
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167: Which thing that you say about early novels is true? That P&P is really comparable to Harlequins? I mean, seriously - defend this or admit that it's a specious comparison (Preachers called both The Beatles and Anthrax "devil's music;" does this tell us anything about their respective merits?).

I conceded already that the % of books read now that are worthwhile - by whatever definition - is probably comparable to what it was 150 years ago. So I'm just not sure what in my 159 you're asserting is wrong. That people read more books of all types before the invention of radio, TV, and the internet?

Meanwhile, the proportion of Americans reading, say, the New Yorker or the Atlantic is 10% lower than the percentage of Londoners reading The Spectator. So perhaps the smart magazine set is fairly steady.

I will say this: reading blogs has made me a more critical thinker about specifically bloggy topics - politics and pop culture - than mere literature and college made me.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:39 AM
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I thought Notes on a Scandal was a good entry in the unreliable narrator genre. (Only seen the movie, though, not read the book.)

Also, I loved that 30 Rock episode that AWB talked about above.


Posted by: Becks | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:40 AM
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It's hard to exaggerate how much the 19th century took novels like Waverly for granted; everybody had read them. Later novels, like Stevenson's excellent Master of Ballantrae represent twists, retellings that take Waverly for granted.

See, this is really an interesting statement. I can think of very few contemporary (ie, published in my lifetime, which approximates ogged's) novels of which the above could be said. Especially depending on your definition of "everybody" - even granting the 1/300 proportion that you might consider literature-friendly based on our Spectator/New Yorker numbers, how much of our shared literary culture is stuff we read in school? A few big hits like The Corrections are pretty widely read, but do they become cultural references? I keep thinking of DeLillo, but his writing is precisely designed to be unable to appeal to anyone who isn't 1/300. Haven't read Waverly, but I dont gather that this was its flavor of popularity.

Or did Waverly take a generation or two to become "universal" - so that people read it in school, or had it handed down, so that it was successive members of the 1/300 that gave it its ubiquity?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 6:48 AM
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Witt at 81 and 114: predictive text doesn't quite work the way you seem to be envisaging it. It doesn't "know" what words you previously typed in the sentence, it only "knows" what words are spelled with the same pattern of keys. So the chances of your letting it go with "David" instead of "Father" or "of" instead of "me" are pretty slim (except by accident). You can put words into its dictionary, too. It might still slightly encourage laziness - but it discourages textspeak.


Posted by: emir | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:10 AM
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re: 209

I suppose I can think of a number of 20th century novels that might fall into that sort of category. Lolita, perhaps? Master and Margerita? Some of the early 20th century modernist 'classics'? Bits of Graham Greene?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:21 AM
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Well, that's why I was specifying contemporary. If you go to HS and college, you get the Modern Canon - even if you're not taught it all, you're exposed to it all - but that doesn't get at the question of people reading on their own initiative. No one needs to be assigned HP.

But part of my question was whether this was really the case for something "universal" like Waverly - was it widely-read because people beyond the 1/300 liked it, and it also was well-written?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:26 AM
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BTW, never heard of Master and Margerita. So there you go for shared literary heritage in the 20C.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:27 AM
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Numbers in regard to publication and literacy are often misleading. For one thing, the coffeeshops often had "house" newspapers, which got passed around between many readers. For another, there used to be a lot more reading aloud, in for example trade union meetinghouses where one more literate person would read from the paper to a number of less literate people. I've totally forgotten where I read a more detailed historical treatment of this phenomenon, but I think it's fairly broadly accepted.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:44 AM
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And while I'm monopolizing things as the West Coasters sleep - or simply decide not to resume this thread - I wanted to add a couple thoughts on the whole genre thing.

Of course lots of people use genre as a term of dismissal, but anyone who's not a snob will recognize that straight genre stuff can be high quality. That's why I don't like arguments along the lines of "Isn't 1984 really sci-fi?" Because that evades the question. You don't need ot turn to Orwell to prove that something with scifi characteristics can be thoughtful and well-written. Indeed, that's an insult to Asimov, Bradbury, and others. But I also think it's silly to pretend that someone like Asimov or Bradbury who is consciously working within a genre somehow isn't - that it's just an elitist pigeonhole, or whatever. Like it's The Man who made Asimov put all those robots in his stories.

Anyway, what I relaly think is interesting is B's suggestion that high quality has a relationship to popularity, at least in terms of genre stuff. As I said above, I don't much buy it, but I think it's worthwhile to tease out ways in which it may be true. First off, as was mentioned above, bad writing is bad in either (or both) of 2 ways - bad prose and bad storytelling (lots more ways to break it down, but this will do for now). Bad prose includes both poor/simplistic grammar and cliche-ridden or poorly-imaged writing ("furious as a lapdog" or something). Bad storytelling spans everything from poor characterization to hackneyed plots (what was that terrible dragon movie? Eragon or something?) to internally inconsistent action.

So what I'm wondering is, does absence or presence of bad prose or bad storytelling hurt or help genre novels achieve popularity? Is the DaVinci Code in any way higher quality than comparable, but infinitely less popular, potboilers? Is it just an interesting topic written well-enough, or is Dan Brown a better storyteller than his peers (it surely isn't the prose)?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:45 AM
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My ex tried to convince me that reading the cereal box should count as my son practicing his reading.

I learned to read off cereal boxes at the age of 3. What's your problem with it?


Posted by: OneFatEnglishman | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:53 AM
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214: Thanks, JM - I meant to say something about that in response to B's Spectator numbers.

Following on to that, as I think the reading aloud phenomenon illustrates, I think we used to be better - more literate - listeners. Not that El Lector in Ybor City was reading Don Quixote to the workers - although he could have been - but that in a culture with storytelling as a major pastime and the written word as the primary communication, it's inevitable that people are more attuned to the elements of what I described above as good writing. After all, as every writing teacher in history has said, good writing can be read aloud well.

Interesting parallel to music, as well - before recordings, people made their own music. Now, we're surrounded by recorded music, but music literacy is much, much lower.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:54 AM
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Just dropping in, I haven't read the whole thread.

What about "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" as a very primitive example of an unreliable narrator in film?

I feel like there have to be other films that are designed to show the main character going insane ("The Last Laugh?")

As far as genre,


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 7:59 AM
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I'm ok with people reading and liking the Potter books. I've read some of them and liked them. But Ygelsias transitions rather easily from "I read and like Harry Potter books" to "therefore you must admit that Harry Potter books are literature." And I think he needs to do some work, or cite to some work, before making this transition.

Do the books open you up as a person? No. It's still ok to like them. The early ones, at least, were well-paced, and there's something engaging about them. And it's nice to have something to talk about on blogs.

Is it such a great burden to admit that you like reading fiction that isn't very deep? I'd watch the Transformers movie, and I think it's probably very shallow. So why get all defensive about Harry Potter? If critics don't start analyzing it, you'll never pick up Coetzee? Too bad for you.

This I put to you, Matthew Yglesias.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:00 AM
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I would say that yes, quality has a strong relationship to popularity in genre novels. Maybe not 'quality' on every axis -- there are literary qualities that increase difficulty and interfere with naive pleasure. But mostly, IMO, things that make something a 'better' (yes, I know this is a ridiculous word to use without a whole lot of explication) book make it more appealing to the average reader, and that shows up in popularity. Unsophisticated readers (or sophisticated readers looking to relax) may seek out simpler pleasures, but not incompetently produced pleasures.

Part of the reason I get bitchy about Harry Potter is that, again IMO, for some reason that association doesn't work for the Harry Potter books. I don't dislike them as unambitious or not high art -- I'll roll around like a dog in a mud puddle in all sorts of books that are unambitious and not high art. I read lots of stuff at that level, and delight in it. They seem to me to be incompetently executed even at the unambitious level they're aiming at, and that confuses me -- I don't understand at all what drives the fad.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:00 AM
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220 to 215.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:01 AM
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I'm 100% convinced that reading audiences used to have a much greater auditory appreciation, although it would be very difficult to prove. You get traces of it in form (more metrical play and more complex rhyme schemes in poetry, more rhetorical effects and stylistic play in prose), but I think the anecdotes are more immediately striking: Shelley hearing Wordsworth's The Prelude read aloud once or twice and then lifting the sound or content of some passages; the audience at Hugo's play Hernani rioting over enjambments; all of our great-grandfathers and mothers who could recite an hour or so's worth of poetry learned fifty years previously....


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:01 AM
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Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy is the canonical place to start, but it's awfully macro.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:03 AM
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I would say that yes, quality has a strong relationship to popularity in genre novels

But do you think that better quality tends to get more popularity, or that better quality is a prerequisite for more popularity - that real dreck never (or rarely) gets big?

Do you think that competent prose is more important than competent storytelling for popularity, or can it be either one, as long as there's at least one?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:09 AM
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You know what's an interesting angle on orality and literacy? Children's books. It's the only kind of writing that's read aloud these days. It's fascinating to me, as a parent, that so many crappy children's books get published. I mean, like a bopard book called "Be Bop Baby" that doesn't fucking scan. WTF? Talk about needing a better gatekeeper function.

That said, this is clearly a case where quality wins out - Good Night Moon is fucking brilliant. I could probably still recite it word for word, and it's been a year or two since it was regular reading material.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:15 AM
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I do believe that in general, the better genre books tend to get read. Not with the sort of superstar break-out numbers of Rowling or Dan Brown, but slowly, steadily, those better books generally find their audiences.

Genre is a really tricky concept to describe over time, though. It's not so very hard to take a cross-section of the publishing market at any given time and to put all of the books in various categories. It's much more difficult to track, say, how the courtship novel incorporates elements of journalism to become a realist novel with a courtship subplot. Harlequin has a vampire-hunter line of romances these days, you know.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:20 AM
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But do you think that better quality tends to get more popularity, or that better quality is a prerequisite for more popularity - that real dreck never (or rarely) gets big?

I'm not sure, and not sure that there's a clean distinction to be made -- certainly I think real dreck rarely gets big, but there's not a clean line between real dreck and less competent. Real dreck doesn't get published -- pretty much anything in Barnes and Nobel hits the standard of 'better than I could do', for example. And again on the plot v. prose front, it's hard to tell because more competent writers tend to be more competent across the board -- even for genre writers who are read for their plots rather than their prose, the prose is usually at least unobtrusively competent for the most part.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:33 AM
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"Real dreck doesn't get published -- pretty much anything in Barnes and Nobel hits the standard of 'better than I could do', for example"

A blank sheet of paper is better than Left Behind, so I don't buy this.

All other things being equal, I think better genre writers sell better, but all things aren't equal--being popular is no guarantee that it's any good, and being good is no guarantee of publication or popularity.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:37 AM
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Children's books. It's the only kind of writing that's read aloud these days.

My honey and I read out loud to each other a fair amount (he's on big Shelley kick right now). Recently, I inflicted a whole bunch of Mother Goose poems on him since as a heathen immigrant, he didn't know any of them; we were both astonished at how wild and awesome the meters were.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:37 AM
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There's horrific awfulness, and then there's absolute incompetence. I couldn't draw a house as well as Thomas Kinkaid The Painter Of Light ™, grotesque though the results are, there's some workmanship there, and the same with the Left Behind books or anything else that gets published.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:41 AM
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Hmm. Kinkade has a minimum technical skill that he uses for evil. The Left Behind authors may lack even that.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:45 AM
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even for genre writers who are read for their plots rather than their prose, the prose is usually at least unobtrusively competent for the most part.

For certain low values of "unobtrusively competent" I suppose. I've certainly enjoyed raced to the end of potboilers with interesting plots even as I recoiled at some of the prose. OTOH, if you're inured to hackneyed plots, presumably that same plot with vivid writing would be more engaging.

Even when I read SF in HS, I never read it widely enough to get a feel for where the balance of competence lay. But I lean towards plot over prose (as a factor in success). And "interesting plot" can be pretty independent of "good storytelling."

Hey, is this different between male- and female-oriented genres? Do Harlequins have (marginally) better characterization, and potboilers more interesting (eg, alternate history, clever technology) plots? And would that come from nature or nurture?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:46 AM
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At the same time, there are probably some writers who have a hard time getting published who are better than LaHaye. I haven't met any of them, but I think that Kafka is a good historical example.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:46 AM
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You know, I actually purchased the first volume of the Left Behind series during the year I was basically stranded in Germany. I read anything and everything, really, anything, and this was such an outrageously shoddy book that even severe boredom and linguistic isolation couldn't get me through it. I tried, too! I kept at it until like fifty pages before the end, and I just couldn't care how it came out. That's pretty damned bad.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:46 AM
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As against LB's "better than I could do" hypothesis: John Grisham.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:47 AM
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229: What edition of Mother Goose are you using? One board book we were given that was ostensibly MG was awful - terrible illustrations and bad, non-canonical rhymes. Tragically, the 2 yr old liked it, and always found it again when it was hidden (yes, I know, we should have thrown it away).

Agree with 231. You really could do better than LB, LB. Any of us could. Including (especially?) OPINIONATED GRANDMA.

Christ, quarter to 11 - I gotta get to work.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:48 AM
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Harlequins all have the same plot. The difference between a bad and a better Harlequin (-style) book is character and setting, and then qualitative elements like prose style and thickness of historical detail.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:49 AM
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236.---Wallace Tripp's, now sadly out of print. I got the copy through interlibrary loan, nerdily enough.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:50 AM
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234: Ah, but how did you do in getting to the end of Revelations?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:51 AM
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re: 235

I don't know, Grisham, or at least the couple of his earlier novels I've read, is a competent writer. The likes of Dan Brown are orders of magnitude worse.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:53 AM
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238: Interesting Mother Goose resource.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:55 AM
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Do Harlequins have (marginally) better characterization, and potboilers more interesting (eg, alternate history, clever technology) plots?

Nope, unless we're talking 'romance novels' generally for Harlequins. Harlequins specifically are really pretty astonishingly lame on all fronts.

I lean toward the potboiler rather than the romance novel for my chosen form of tripe, but I'll read a romance if I find it somewhere, and I'd say they're pretty similar in plot v. characterization balance. You just have different stock plots, and different stock characters, which can be executed with more or less ingenuity.

I've certainly enjoyed raced to the end of potboilers with interesting plots even as I recoiled at some of the prose.

There's nothing like a clanging howler to pop you out of absorption in a book. I remember one of my father's spy novels that I read as a teen that included someone pacing like a leopard while talking in a phone booth. It's hard to get really leopardlike in a box three feet square. And more lately, I've read a bunch of really kind of awful but fastmoving books by a British author about a detective/tough guy who's supposed to be a retired US Army officer, and at least once a book the author will drop something so wildly unamerican that I have to put it down and go do something else for a bit, like having the main character describe a dark night as "Black as the Earl of Hell's waistcoat." I sincerely doubt anyone English talks like that, but I know Americans don't.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:57 AM
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239.---I've read it at least ten times and wrote a paper on it for a semiotics class. Left Behind managed to make the apocalypse boring. I know they were trying to inject realism into it with the everyday characters and their everyday conversions, but their idea of realism was boring and sanctimonious.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:57 AM
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242.---You're talking about the Lee Child series, right?


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 8:59 AM
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Well, so that's why you couldn't finish LB - you already knew the ending!

I assume you've at least looked at the Slacktivist's brilliant work


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:01 AM
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Um, 245 should have ended with "on LB?

And started with "243: "


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:02 AM
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Harlequins specifically are really pretty astonishingly lame on all fronts

I once knew someone who wrote them, and Harlequins (or similar brands) are quite literally plot-by-numbers books. She told me that she was given a list of things, some quite specific, that needed to be included in the book prior to beginning work on the book. And so the books suck. The romance novel genre includes much, much better work.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:04 AM
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ECHO BURNING: A JACK REACHER NOVEL


Posted by: OPINIONATED GRANDMA | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:04 AM
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I mean, like a bopard book called "Be Bop Baby" that doesn't fucking scan. WTF? Talk about needing a better gatekeeper function.

bopard?

I really cannot figure out what this word is supposed to be.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:06 AM
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That's them. They're tripe, but mostly competent tripe, if you don't mind reading books about comic-book characters. And I find it kind of endearing that while the main character is developed as some kind of mutant violent superhero (not literally, but there is a point in one of the books where he gets shot in the chest and the bullets are deflected, I kid you not, by his massive pectoral muscles), the plots tend to turn on persnickety Murder-In-The-Vicarage style clues.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:06 AM
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The romance novel genre includes much, much better work.

I note that this opinion is not attributed to your acquaintance.


Posted by: ogged | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:06 AM
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board?


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:06 AM
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249: Bopard=Board

And 250 to 244.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:07 AM
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But Ygelsias transitions rather easily from "I read and like Harry Potter books" to "therefore you must admit that Harry Potter books are literature."

No he doesn't. He says "I read and like Harry Potter books" and transitions to "Since I read books, I could theoretically read literature, but I don't. And these writers who claim that literature readers are a breed above Harry Potter readers are seemingly trying to drive me away from reading more serious novels instead of encouraging me to do so."


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:08 AM
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250.---Oh, I've read them. The most recent one I've read seems to me to indicate that his run is almost over: when the loner superman resurrects a whole posse of superheroes from his former life, you know the author's idea-well is coming up dry.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:10 AM
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Here's a good question:

Agatha Christie: good writer, good genre writer, or just genre writer?

My mom loved them, but I haven't read one since before HS, so I have honestly no idea.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:10 AM
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251: I think I've already admitted that I can, and in the past did, swallow romance books whole, like candy. I like romcom; sue me.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:12 AM
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Ah. That's the latest? I haven't read it -- I have a puritanical resistance to reading tripe in hardcover.

They're made for TV, really -- it'd be The Incredible Hulk for the 21st century. The same 'drifter comes into town, with a mixture of sensitivity and emotional warmth and judiciously applied ultraviolence solves everyone's problems, and wanders off again, alone and unloved' structure.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:13 AM
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257: This is a new facet. Georgette Heyer?


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:13 AM
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Agatha Christie's a good writer.

Compare to M.C. Beaton or that Cat Who lady...each of whom I enjoyed about six books by before realizing that they were all incredibly similar. They are good genre writers compared to most genre writers. With Christie it took more like 25 books before I got to that point, and it was more like "these books are all the same length and the plot points always happen at the same point" than "the plots are all the same".


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:14 AM
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256: Good genre, not impressive overall. Ingenious plots, flat prose and characters.
.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:15 AM
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to 260: See, I think Christie makes it to 'good genre' rather than just 'genre', but not further. But she's head and shoulders over the Cat Who... books.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:16 AM
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258.---It's all about the public library, LB. I'm pretty surprised the Jack Reacher novels haven't become movies yet.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:17 AM
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Are the The Cat Who.... books any better than they appear to be? I mean, they've always looked just awful.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:18 AM
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254: Yes he does. He says:

"This, it seems to me, might be a moment of opportunity for a literary critic. A chance for someone with the requisite chops to publish in the popular press an article that said something about the Potter books as literature, something smart and insightful that made me think "hey, this guy has smart things to say about books!" Something that would situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel. Something that might get an intelligence person who enjoyed the Potter books interested in some larger, more highbrow segment of the literary enterprise."

If you will allow a paraphrase, Yglesias suggests that the critics' failure to take Potter seriously justifies his disinterest in the literature that the critics enjoy. In the comments, he backs somewhat away from this claim, admitting that he does enjoy some literature.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:18 AM
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Ingenious plots, flat prose and characters.

Yeah...flat characters, that's true. I like the dialogue but it doesn't contain anything particularly interesting outside of what services the plot.

I guess it depends on whether you would say there are something like 50 "good writers" active in the world at a time, or more like 5,000.


Posted by: Cryptic Ned | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:18 AM
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264: I think I enjoyed the first one. I read one or two more after that, and very quickly got to the point where I couldn't care what was happening enough to keep track of it.

266: I'm in the '50' camp.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:21 AM
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I'm probably in the 5,000 camp. Depending what you mean by 'good'. There are easily 5000 writers writing competent engaging fiction. The number of really great writers, a lot less.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:24 AM
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257: This is a new facet. Georgette Heyer?

A little. Other authors much more.


Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:24 AM
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Well, probably the threshhold between "good writer" and "good genre writer" is, Would someone who doesn't care for the genre (doesn't hate it, but is indifferent) enjoy reading the book?

Again, I'd say that at least some of Asimov and Bradbury are enjoyable to anyone who doesn't hate SF. Larry Niven, OTOH, is pretty enjoyable to someone who likes SF. Someone like Card probably is closer to the threshhold of mediocre genre writer with occasionally interesting idea/plot. Which, I'm guessing, might cover The Cat Who.... But that's a pure guess based on comments above.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:25 AM
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265.---That's not the best reading, text. He's saying (among other things) that he would be interested to read an intelligent treatment of Potter as literature because such a treatment could "situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel."

That's the kind of socio-historical literary reading that has very little to do with dividing books into highbrow and lowbrow but is generally only practiced on highbrow books or historical artefacts. Literary critics are supposed to be able to do this sort of thing, and I think a few have actually done so with regard to Pottermania but couldn't drop any names or links.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:25 AM
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I would vote for 50 great writers, 500 good writers, and 5000 good genre writers. Or maybe 10/100/1000. But there's a lot of genres out there.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:27 AM
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For all the '50 good writers' people, are you thinking only of writers working in English? Or 50 writers, full stop.


Posted by: nattarGcM ttaM | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:28 AM
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Sorry, writers working in English. I'm monolingual enough to have no sense at all of current literature in other languages. And it does all depend on what you mean by 'good', of course.


Posted by: LizardBreath | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:31 AM
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271: It might not be the most charitable reading, but it seems to me that "something about the Potter books as literature" is a kind of plea to treat the books seriously. It's put as a matter of strategy: "hey guys, treat this seriously and I might read other things you think are serious."

What's implied here? That anything Yglesias likes must be worthy of analysis? That critics should all care whether Yglesias reads serious literature? Seems a bit much.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:35 AM
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I like a small % of most genres (including romances--I didn't read Harlequin or Heyer, just a few writers whom my mom & older sister said were decent. I eventually got sick of those writers & my sources of recommendations dried up, so I haven't read one in about, I don't know, 5 years or so).

Characters you care about are pretty key, & literary fiction often doesn't bother with that. Without it, lovely prose descriptions leave me pretty cold.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:36 AM
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This whole discussion reminds me of Komar & Melamid's satirical paintings Most Wanted, based on a survey about which image elements were most and least pupular.

Description:

"The survey results are as wry as the undertaking itself. Blue (with a 44 percent approval rating) exceeds all other colors as a preferred hue in painting, followed distantly by green (12 percent) and red (11 percent). Outdoor scenes are vastly more popular than indoor studies, by 88 versus 5 percent. Twice as many people (60 percent) favor realistic, photolike images as would choose compositions that are "different-looking" (30 percent). Only 25 percent of respondents would pay over $500 for a work of art, and no more than 3 percent would display a nude on their walls. Forty-nine percent react positively to water settings but only 3 percent to cityscapes. Two-thirds of all viewers (66 percent) like soft curves, while only about one in five (22 percent) would opt for sharp angles. (Reading such deadpan tabulations, some critics might begin to long for more timely and pointed questions, like one concerning "murky images of explicit sex acts" or "big messy installations with overt political messages.")"

Interview

"AM: Yeah, because, you know, we had this image in Russia of America as a country of freedom, of course, where the majority rules--which in a way is true, because in the election, you can win by sheer majority. So if 20,000 more people voted for you, it means that you are the President. That's why we mimic this in the poll. We trust--it's interesting--we trust this people, we believe that this system, among existing systems, is the best political and social system. We trust these people to vote for the President. But we never trust them in their tastes, in their aesthetic judgment. And nobody can prove to me that the painting made from this poll is worse than Ross Bleckner's piece, for instance. There's no proof, in the whole world, of this. And I think that it's a better picture, because there was more effort put into this. So many people worked--I don't know, more than 1,001. We spent $40,000! For the size of this picture it's quite expensive, I think."


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:37 AM
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Aren't Yglesias and ogged slightly pulling our collective Internet leg, here, pretending to be more aggressively lowbrow than they really are? Or are they in fact more aggressively lowbrow than I think they are?


Posted by: slolernr | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:37 AM
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With regard to his request to "situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel," why do they deserve this treatment? Because Rowling sells lots of copies? He needs some kind of argument here. I guess what he's asking for is someone else to give him the argument, but I can't see a reason to do that, aside from his desire that the thing he is reading be analyzed.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:40 AM
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I should add that, having only seen the Most/Least wanted painting for America, that the gallery showing similar paintings that they did for a variety of audiences including "the web" is both interesting and funny (and off topic, but this is unfogged).


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:41 AM
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Re: the discussions of orality and reading, I'm reminded of one of my all-time favorite snuh? moments in college: in Augustine's Confessions, Augustine mentions that Ambrose had mastered the weird and baffling trick of reading silently.


Posted by: snarkout | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:44 AM
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277: that's cute, but to even claim to accurately represent the majority's preferences it seems to me you'd have to poll about actual images rather than subject matter.


Posted by: Katherine | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:45 AM
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273: I thought about that. When I lowered it to 10/100/1000, I was specifically thinking of English - it's hard for me to believe that there are 500 good writers (writing books, BTW, is my standard) in English. There may be more than 10, but I can't believe there are as many as 50 great writers - as in, will be part of the Canon 50 or 100 years hence.

I wonder if good genre writers can actually outlive better, non-genre writers who aren't good enough to make the Canon, but also don't have status as Best of Genre. Setting aside genre writers who are actually good writers, I'm thinking of, say, Eugenides, who's quite good, and fairly successful, but I'm not sure Canonical. So who will read him in 100 years? Not Lit 101 students, nor SF or Romance hounds. Early 21C Lit hounds, I would imagine (no offense to Eugenides).


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:47 AM
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282: Of course! That's what makes it satire. I happen to like it as satire -- as opposed to populist art.


Posted by: NickS | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:49 AM
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281: Yes! I wish I could use this piece of information more often. It's almost literally unbelievable.

If you were the Connecticut Yankee in Julius Caesar's Court, you could prove you were a magician simply by reading silently. Spooooooky.


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 9:49 AM
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283.---Eugenides is mad overrated.

279.---why do they deserve this treatment? Because Rowling sells lots of copies?

In a word, yes. In more words, because they've become such a gigantic mass phenomenon, it would be worthwhile understanding a bit better why and how and in wht direction. Seriously, the Potter books have transformed children's publishing, publishing in general, and a whole shitload of people's relationship to books. Irrespective of how good or bad they are qua Literature, there's something important and wierd going on with them.


Posted by: Jackmormon | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:01 AM
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I guess I just disagree that the sales themselves merit serious treatment. Lots of mass phenomena are quickly forgotten. What Yglesias wants is a sociologist.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:07 AM
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For a poo-flinger, text can be pretty insightful.


Posted by: ben w-lfs-n | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:11 AM
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you warm my heart, b-wo, such that I might not throw this wad of poo at the bars of my cage just now.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:16 AM
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286: Well, I like The Virgin Suicides, and my wife is enjoying Middlesex right now, but mostly I was trying to come up with someone that I was quite confident would not be in the Canon 100 years hence, yet is clearly writing LitFic of some quality. The first 3 writers I thought of have all won Pulitzers or Nobels, and so seemed like bad examples.

I agreed with the second part of 286, but then I agreed with 287. You're both right! Just stop fighting, ok?


Posted by: JRoth | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:22 AM
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I thought we were both being pretty nice.


Posted by: text | Link to this comment | 07-18-07 10:26 AM
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Academic work:

In the years since the author introduced her characters to the public, they have become beloved and meaningful; and not to children only. At present, the catalog of the Library of Congress records 21 volumes of criticism and interpretation on the novels, in six languages. A collection called Harry Potter and International Relations, for example, published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2006, analyzes the significance of Hogwarts, the academy of magical arts at which Harry trains, with respect to the nation-state and geopolitical realism. It also contains an essay (and I swear this is true) called "Quidditch, Imperialism and the Sport-War Intertext." At least 17 doctoral dissertations and seven master's theses had been devoted to the Harry Potter books, at least in part, as of last year. Chances are good that all these figures are on the low side.

I guess people better start reading other things than Harry Potter now.


Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-19-07 3:00 PM
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293

It's worse than I could imagine. Tell me no more.


Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-19-07 3:02 PM
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did Waverly take a generation or two to become "universal"

No, Scott was hugely popular in his day.

214: Yes, of course there were far more than 2,000 *readers*. OTOH, they didn't have libraries back then.


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-19-07 3:05 PM
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it's hard for me to believe that there are 500 good writers (writing books, BTW, is my standard) in English.

Whaaaaat? First, there are tons of good writers who don't write books, or haven't published books--the entire anti-HP argument rests on the idea that publishing is about Commerce, not Art. (Which is true, btw.) So not having a book published doesn't mean one isn't a good writer--it merely means that the publisher(s) one has approached don't think the thing will sell.

Second, it's insane to think there aren't 500 good writers in English right now. There is an absolute TON of stuff getting written, every day. Some bloggers are good writers. Some reviewers are good writers. Some journalists are good writers. Some novelists are good writers. Some poets are good writers. Some diarists are good writers. Some letter-writers are good writers. Some scientists are good writers. Etc., etc.

There's a good book that came out several years ago about romance novels, popularity, commerce, reading, and "quality" called Reading the Romance. It's kind of a classic--it's academic and it's still in print--and it's surprisingly readable. Recommended.

In any case, I wasn't arguing that popularity = quality. I was arguing that popularity doesn't imply a *lack* of quality. Of course some popular books are pretty crap, if what you're talking about is prose style. And of course popularity is at least as much about marketing as it is about content. I don't happen to think that the HP books are exceedingly well written stylistically; I just don't think stylistic excellence is the only thing that makes a book "good."


Posted by: bitchphd | Link to this comment | 07-19-07 3:16 PM
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