Reading Versus Watching: Toward a New Aesthetic
There are some problems with my RvW of two weeks ago about my favorite television programs. I say at the beginning that what we like is often something we feel in our gut and justify after the fact. Perhaps this explains why my attempt to explain why I like what I like fell so far short, why it felt so unclear; it is an unfortunate for a critic to not be able to articulate why he does or does not like things. Does it all come down to taste? What does that mean, really? One just as easily says "It's a matter of taste," implying that taste is subjective as one says, "he has poor taste" or "she has good taste," implying that it is not. But the last thing I want to do is go down some maddening Deconstructivist train of thought about "what does 'taste' signify when we talk about it."
When I was a kid, I knew what a good television show or a good book or a good movie was. "Good" meant that it took me away, that I forgot about where I was and how I felt and it made me happy. "Good" meant Star Wars and Iron Man and The Transformers and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As I became a teenager, I sought after more serious fare, at first from Vonnegut and Kerouac and later from Philip Roth and Gabriel García Márquez. The only comics I still read were Neil Gaiman's The Sandman and Dave Sim's Cerebus, until I discovered Eightball and Acme Novelty Library and rest of the lit comics set, and as for movies and television, I think I thought of them both as inherently inferior to books; while I still watched them, I didn't put much stock into them.
Much as I now wonder why I can't get into "The West Wing," I think at the time I wondered why I couldn't get into many of the "great" writers, especially the high modernists from Flaubert to Joyce to Beckett. Even Hemingway leaves me cold. And yet I do get a little angry when I talk to people in the entertainment-first mindset (who are legion), who try to say that writers like Joyce are somehow "bad" just because they're difficult or not "thrilling" in the contemporary sense of "thrillers." I remember reading an Amazon review of Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire (a review now nowhere to be found), saying that the book is as bad as Flaubert and Camus and Joyce. Which is a little like saying someone's cooking if as bad as a five star restaurant. Joyce is clearly a great and important writer. Works like Dubliners or Ulysses are brilliant and changed the way people write. So why would I rather read Kelly Link?
I'm not the first to ponder this sort of question. In an essay called "Mr. Difficult," Jonathan Franzen wondered why he couldn't finish a number of "difficult" novels, including seemingly odd (to me) choices like Moby Dick and Don Quixote. (But then, he might find it odd that I can't get into Hemingway.) He divides up attitudes on the quality of books into "Status" versus "Contract" authors, which strikes me as a fancy version of Neal Stephenson's "Dante" versus "Beowulf" writers. That is, whether writing fiction is primarily about entertaining your audience or primarily about creating something of great literary merit, Flaubert's art for art's sake. Of course, one could argue that a person could be entertained by an "art" writer just as much as another person is entertained by an "entertainment" writer, and we return to the thorny problem of taste. But what I really question is the whole division between art and entertainment; fundamentally, I wonder why it has to be this way at all. Why can't literary novels be just as entertaining as genre novels? Why can't genre fiction have the depth and psychological sensitivity of literary fiction? Who made this division in the first place and why do so many people take its existence as gospel truth?
JF Quackenbush enjoys talking about how readers of literary novels are simply more intelligent than readers of genre fiction. My suspicion is that this attitude is born largely from his own frequently frustrating conversations with genre fiction fans and writers and the tenor of the discussion among them. His attitude may still strike you as snobbish and even insulting, not to mention generalizing, but that doesn't mean it's entirely without basis. That is, most genre fiction seems to be cranked out at an alarming pace, peopled with two-dimensional characters and have as its only purpose the stringing together of one cliff-hanger after another (or in the case of comedy, one joke after another). This is just as true for prose fiction as it is for television and movies and comic books. One can hardly imagine one of the Karamazov brothers walking into The DaVinci Code and giving the characters searching for the "true" story of Jesus a thoughtful lecture on the nature of religion. Dostoevsky's ruminations on religion are complicated and meaningful and challenging and all the things that The DaVinci Code's religious quest is not. And yet one can't help but feel that the sorry state that genre fiction finds itself in today is the direct result of the invention of the concept of "genre fiction" in the first place. Sure, there's always been bad writing. But in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the writing of entertaining stories was not at all seen as precluding literary merit. Edgar Allen Poe wrote detective stories, Frankenstein came into its own as an important literary work, and H.G. Wells had no less a fan than Henry James, who said Wells' novels filled him with "wonder and admiration." What happened in the twentieth century with the bloom of modernism on one hand and the niche-ification of genre fiction on the other was that publishers and writers seemed to decide that this sort of people only want this kind of fiction, and that sort of people only want that sort of fiction, and this is the only way that we can market this material. This served to cement in the popular mind the idea that any story that had, say, time travel or detectives was pure entertainment and serious works were plotless, chiefly psychological and, if not realistic, then at least "Kafkaesque" or "Absurdist." In a lot of ways I think movements like Postmodernism in the anglophone countries, the "Nouveau Roman" in France and Magical Realism in Latin America and Iberian Europe were all reactions to this mindset. By the 1960's, literary fiction seemed like it had reached a dead end. As Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote in Pour un Nouveau Roman in 1963:
The art of the novel has fallen into such a state of stagnation—a lassitude acknowledged and discussed by the whole of critical opinion—that it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change.
Robbe-Grillet wrote novels that stripped all interiority from their characters and displayed them as they appeared purely on the surface, a direct response to the emphasis on psychology introduced by the modernists. The Magical Realists brought magic and wonder to their stories, things modernism had stripped away in favor of gritty realism or the terrifyingly bizarre. The anglophone Postmodernists went to great lengths to create distance and jarring juxtapositions in their work to show their awareness that this was fiction and that nothing fictional could ever truly be real, that "realism" was ultimately impossible. And yet, while all of these efforts to find new relevance for fiction were going on, genre fiction simply became ever more specialized, emphasizing cheap thrills over anything and everything else, and literary fiction felt ever more removed from the cultural mainstream .
Critics like the reactionary James Wood think what we need to do is go back to modernism and start writing like Chekov and Flaubert again. ("Novelists should thank Flaubert like poets thank spring," wrote Wood in an article in the New York Times Book Review.) It won't surprise readers that I think this is a singularly terrible idea.
Another response, something that might already be termed a "movement," has been articulated by Michael Chabon. In his McSweeney's collection McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Chabon championed a simple idea: in the past some of our greatest writers wrote thrilling, plot-driven stories. Why shouldn't the great writers of today be writing thrilling, plot-driven stories? Of course, in some ways this may sound as reactionary as Mr. Wood's position. But really, something has been quietly gathering since the mid-1980's or so that Chabon's collection is merely an outgrowth of. Work as diverse as William Gibson's Neuromancer, Alan Moore's Watchmen, the novels of James Ellroy and the films of Quentin Tarantino all point toward something new. An entertaining fiction imbued with the psychological and stylistic lessons of modernism and the movements that followed it. And this is the real lesson of a program like "Deadwood," the gauntlet thrown down by a writer as brilliant as Kelly Link. That genre fiction can be literature too.
But I propose that this movement is as much about reclamation as it is about invention. If one travels back to the earliest stories we have, what we find is ripping tales from one end of the world to the other. Consider The Odyssey or Gilgamesh or The Ramayana, consider the chivalric poetry of Li Bai (some of his best and least translated work), the Popol Vuh or the story of King David. Thrilling tales all, tales of heroes and adversaries, gods and men, magic and mayhem. This is the great literature of our past, a tradition that continues through The Aeneid, Beowulf, Le Morte d'Arthur, Outlaws of the Marsh and Hamlet. In some fundamental way it strikes me that this is what stories are supposed to be like. That is, great literature is supposed to be exiting and finely-crafted and artistically inspired, and somehow by dividing up work into "genre" and "literary" we have gone horribly astray, and now it is up to us to find our way back.
It is no coincidence that some of our greatest and most popular directors, television writers and novelists are people who intentionally dip their feet in both the genre and literary side of the pools. For example, Ang Lee is a man who can move comfortably from Eat Drink Man Woman to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to The Hulk to Brokeback Mountain. Why is the new "Doctor Who" series so much better than the old? Could it have something to do with the fact that its show runner and head writer, Russell T. Davies, is someone also able to create the critically acclaimed "Queer as Folk?" Could Alan Moore owe his greatness to both his appreciation of Thomas Pynchon and the Superman comics of Mort Weisinger?
And yet there are still so many hurdles to overcome, obstacles in a writer's way, especially in the world of publishing. Kelly Link, for instance, had to self-publish her first book because publishers didn't understand how to market her, fitting as she does between literature and genre fiction. Indeed, books on writing and publishing written by "experts" are filled with advice that seems jerry-rigged to impede creativity and progress. They tell you "don't switch genres," "adhere to formulas," "follow trends," "don't write long novels," I've even seen such astoundingly obtuse advice as "don't write in the first person." It is exactly this kind of thinking that has made Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions, into such a dead thing, pumping out formulaic nonsense written and rewritten by script doctors until it satisfies some producer who thinks Robert McKee is a god. So much genre fiction seems to be caught in a self-cannibalising loop in which each generation of writers is more derivative, more formulaic than the last, each new crop taking lessons from their predecessors and from publishers and agents and marketers about 'what readers of this genre want' based on what they bought before, as if what they want is more of the same. As if their readers are, well, stupid. And this is exactly why we need to take the lessons of literary fiction with us when we move forward in fiction. Because literary fiction taught us that stories don't always make sense, that heroes can't always take control, that reality isn't always trustworthy, that people sometimes do things and don't even know why, and most importantly, that readers are sometimes even smarter than authors. The first and most important decision Joyce made while writing "Ulysses" was to assume that his readers were smart enough to understand him. While I certainly don't want to suggest that anyone must use genre conventions or genre ideas to create interesting and thrilling and intelligent works (to the contrary, many of the best works of the kind I'm talking about defy genre labels altogether, or create their own genre), I contend that the best and potentially most popular work that does play with genre conventions will also use literary techniques to buck or reinvent those conventions.
Part of the reason I wanted to do this website is that I knew that writing about literature on a regular basis would help me solidify many of the ideas that have been percolating in my head for some time. Articles like the one about my favorite television shows, or the one about Dante (which I later felt was so inadequate that I had to qualify it) have been failures, but they forced me to look closer at why I was saying the things I was saying. This essay clarifies both for me and hopefully for you many of the things Quackenbush and I first proposed in What is Wet Asphalt? Consider this an aesthetic, and a way forward.