The pseuds vs the plebs

So, after all the hoo-ha, after all those silly comments from the panel of judges seemingly promoting populism as a criterion of literary quality, after a speech from the chairman of the panel that raised a few eyebrows, the Booker prize is awarded to a very literary author who takes serious literature seriously. But all these shenanigans have opened up a debate on the populist versus the elitist. Well, not quite a debate, but, rather, what passes for debate on the internet – unthinking soundbites rather than argument, liberal use of terms that are not defined, name-calling,  refusal to engage with any specific point anyone makes – the usual sort of thing that anyone who follows internet “discussions” will be all too familiar with to require further evidence. And on top of all this, there appears to be an assumption amongst many that what they have to say settles everything once and for all. End of. 

So what’s all this about, then? Well, it seems to be that old chestnut about whether fiction should be written to provide enjoyment, or whether it should cater merely for effete, pretentious elites who are up their own arses. No, let me rephrase that. It seems to be about whether fiction should try to understand and to depict the nature of our human lives, or whether it should merely provide banal, unthinking pap for the masses. 

And that’s just the first problem: the two sides can’t even agree on a common set of terms. But let us rush in foolishly where angels can’t be bothered to tread, and try. Let us, at least, try to understand what we mean in this context by the word “entertainment”. 

Many say that anything we like reading is by definition entertaining, because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be reading it. This defines entertainment as anything we like doing, for whatever reason, and I can’t help feeling that this definition is a bit too broad. There is many a book I can think of which cannot really be described as “entertainment” in the sense in which we normally understand the term. There may be various reasons for this – e.g. the uncomfortable or even gruelling nature of its content, or the effort required from the reader to address its extreme difficulty, etc. These are not, in short, books that provide an agreeable diversion for a few idle hours. Of course, the fact that I (and many others) do read and value such books does indicate, some may say, that they must entertain me at some level. That’s hard to argue against. But if, on that basis, we apply the term “entertainment” even to works as demanding as, say, The Wings of the Dove or The Master Builder or The Four Quartets, it seems to me that we’re stretching the definition of the word beyond the point where it can be at all useful. For even if we consider as “entertainment” whatever pleasure I get from untangling the various difficulties of The Wings of the Dove,  it must surely be conceded that this “entertainment” is somewhat different in nature from the entertainment I get from, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is a distinction, and this distinction should, I think, be acknowledged. For convenience, let us mark this distinction by referring to The Wings of the Dove as “art”, and The Hound of the Baskervilles as “entertainment” – much as Graham Greene classified his works as “novels” and as ”entertainments” – without making any assumption about either being inherently superior to or more worthy than the other.

Of course, it will be argued that the distinction between “art” and “entertainment” is not always obvious, and sometimes not even particularly meaningful: I know this will be argued, because I’m happy to argue this myself. There are many examples of works that fall easily into both categories. And there are also many works that have been written purely to entertain, but in which the level of craftsmanship is so high that the term “artistry” is not misapplied. All this is true. But we must, I think, allow that certain works can have artistic value even if they are not immediately entertaining, and even if they’re not easily accessible; we must acknowledge that certain books can be works of art even if they do not zip along, even if they are disturbing or harrowing, and, yes, even if they are excessively difficult.

At this point, those on the more populist side of the debate may argue that difficulty is merely the consequence of the writer dressing up that which is essentially banal. But I don’t think I’ll be going along with this one. Of many books, this observation is undoubtedly true. But it’s not always true: there are many books where difficulty is inescapable given the elusive or the profound nature of what the author is attempting to communicate. This is not to say that profound works are necessarily difficult, but, in my experience at least, they often are.  And even those which may not appear particularly difficult often have hidden depths: in some senses, these are the most difficult works of all, as it is all too easy merely to enjoy the surface, without seeing what lies beyond it.

So given all this, I’m afraid I do not really understand what the “populism vs elitism” debate – such as it is –  is really about. What is the issue being debated here? That popular books should not be excluded from consideration? Yes, I’d go along with that. Or is the issue more along the lines that difficult books lacking popular appeal should be excluded from consideration? If so, that’s just plain silly: there is no reason whatever to consider popularity and accessibility in themselves as criteria of literary merit. If they were, we should award the Booker Prize automatically to whichever book tops the year’s best-seller list, and dispense with the judging panel altogether.

Mind you, given the kind of things the judges have been saying recently, that may not be such a bad idea!

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27 responses to this post.

  1. Since I so seldom agree with the Judges on much of most any thing – of this sort – since I am apt to growl – “Oh Please !!” or “oh for something’s Sakes” -; or else attempt to call upon the Gods to witness the witlessness of people who set themselves up as Judges – Juries and frequently Executioners as well.

    What shall I claim to be? – I say I am an appreciator of Literature – of good stories and tend to “uncover” a book being read – whilst under the cover of another book – which the reader wants to be “seen to be reading” – I have no idea why there are books which are classed as Books to be SEEN to be reading – but a book bt Solzhenytzin (sp?) was during the late sixties – a book to be Seen to be Reading – by any self confessed person interested in Literature – Are we there yet ?? – yes just about – I am adding a Rant here – to the Falsity of people who think there is a very real Cachet to be seen to be reading “something recommended” – Bloody Hell – it is like Name Dropping of the very worst sort. And I promise you this really happened – I took the Solzhenytzin’s cover off a pretentious colleague’s book and showed what she was actually reading under the COVER of A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (damn my spelling here)

    So there you are Himadri I hope I have helped your rant along – because I feel so much anger – I’m letting of steam – snobbery of any sort is bad but snobbery of the value of a book – is wickedness, I am an argumentative old bitch – well maybe !!!!!

    Appreciator may be wrong – sub – Appreciatrix hee heee I think so

    Reply

    • Hello Patricia, I don’t really get this “snobbery” business. People should beentitled to read whatever they damn well want, I think, without any aspersions being cast on them. If someone wants to read Dan Brown, well that’s fine: it doesn’t make them stupid. Conversely, if someone wants to read Henry James and Edith Wharton, that’s fine also: it doesn’t make them effete or pretentious. Of course, that is not to say we shouldn’t be entitled to exercise our judgements: I don’t see why it should be considered snobbery to rate James and Wharton highly, or to deplore the very poor quality of the writing of various airport blockbuster novels. But as long as the criticism is directed towards the books, and not towards the readers, I don’t really see a problem with that.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

      • I have – I can see – explained myself but badly – the essential SNOBBERY – the whole word is directed at people who profess to be judges and sneer at those who read “Airport Literature” and then they do as a one time colleague of mine actually did.

        She used a Jacket cover of a book of Solzhenytzyn (sp?) to cover up the book she was reading, so she might be seen to be a reader of serious books and be acknowledged accordingly- that worked until I took the cover off her book and some of the staff at the office laughed to see this happen – now I am wondering was I wrong to uncover her pretentious view of herself.

        I thought I had pointed out – exactly what my opinions were on Snobbery – I am against people who Name-Drop – so you “know” they are reading what they see as the “Right” books. I am new to this “blogging” and very sorry that my point was clearly missed.
        Perhaps I should go get a little practice in

      • Hello Patricia – mea culpa: it was my fault entirely for misunderstanding you.

        But yes, i agree fully: to put the dust-jacket of a book by Solzhenitsyn because one is ashamed to be seen reading a light book is plain daft, and perhaps people stupid enough to do this are more to be pitied than reprimanded! 🙂 But yes, I do agree with you on this point.

  2. Congrats! You’ve managed to write a whole post about this without using the word “readable”. Was that a literary experiment, like “blogging under constraint”? 🙂

    This has made a lot of noise in the UK, hasn’t it? It’s been eveywhere on the blogosphere.
    What strikes me is the difference between science and literature. Take the Nobel. Nobody rebels against the fact that only a few people in the world can understand the work of physics Nobel prize winner. Why should all books be accessible to everyone? I have limits in my reading, and I know it. Some writers are too difficult for me but there are enough of good books I can read anyway.

    Good thing about all this: literature still interests people enough to create passionate debates.

    Reply

    • I hadn’t noticed till you pointed it out that I hadn’t used the word “readable”. Well, I have to make up for that now: I think I’ll title my next post “On readability”! 🙂

      The difference you point out in attitudes to science and to literature is an interesting one. I think I touched on it in a blog post I had written earlier about the teaching of literature in schools. I often hear people say that teaching Shakespeare in schools put people off literature; or that we shouldn,t be teaching Shakespeare in class because the children don’t enjoy it, etc. But one never hears such arguments applied to other disciplines: no-one says, for instance, that we shouldn’t teach trigonometry because children don’t enjoy it, or that we shouldn’t teach about teh periodic table of elements because that puts children off chemistry. The underlying assumption appears to be that subjects such as mathematics or science are serious subjects, whereas literature is merely a diversion, with no other purpose than to provide a bit of light entertainment.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Erika W. on October 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    You have made me do a flip-fop.Before reading these comments I would have said, without too much thought, that books are presumably written to be read and if they are unreadable what are the authors up to? But of course there are levels of comprehension and I skim between many.

    My life has periods of chronic pain and then I can only concentrate on light, predictable reading. But then i may light upon a magnificent book and gasp with delight and flex my mental muscles. A recent one of these was Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” and I still shake my head in disbelief at it being published for children and young adults–completely crazy.

    Mind you, I do think that a deal of poetry is written with self indulgence and no thought for the readers and I have a certain contempt for this.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, much does depend on how on defines “readable”, and looking through the various discussions on this matter around teh internet, it seems “readable” is usually defined to mean “easy to read”. And there are, indeed, times when that is what one wants I can well imagine that there are times when you would want something light to read. (And I am sorry to hear of your period sof chronic pain, by the way.) I feel the same way when I am ill, or when I feel exhausted at the end of a hard day: reading a Henry James or an Edith Wharton novel would require the kind of mental effort that my mind isn’t in a state to make – far better, in such conditions, to read some Wodehouse, or to read a Sherlock Holmes story, where all the enjoyment lies on the surface and no effort need be made to dig below that surface. I certainly wouldn’t be snooty about well-crafted light entertainment: far from it. The craftsmanship of such authors as Arthur Conan Doyle of PG Wodehouse or Daphne du Maurier is such that the question “Is it art?” really does bevcome irrelevant.

      But this is not to dismiss books that are demanding, where one does need to make the effort to dig below the surface. This is not to deny that there do exist books where the difficulty is but a
      consequence of self-indulgence: I am merely worried about the summary dismissal I see around the net of anything that is difficult, or, to use the term currently in vogue, anything that is “unreadable”.

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Literature can be compared to the common collections of crossword puzzles (American) that appear at the newsstand ever month. Open the magazine and there are puzzles marked Easy, Fun, Hard, Insane, whatever. If you seek puzzles to pass the time with some pleasure in fitting words together, then you probably will stick with the Easy puzzles; but if you insist on having blood come out your ears while scouring your reference library for clues to a puzzle solution, then you might discard the Easy puzzles and go right to the puzzles considered Dangerous-To-Your-Sanity.

    So it is a personal choice whether to do the hard puzzles or the easy puzzles, just as it is to read the difficult, demanding books or to relax and enjoy the easy entertainments.

    But I find that this open view says nothing about the quality of these books. Here is where the argument over what makes good literature comes in and I have always positioned myself somewhat in the center of the argument.

    The argument that reading a good book is pleasurable is just silly. What constitutes pleasure? I say that I like pizza because it tastes good but what is it about pizza that makes it taste good?

    This is where I take my centrist position: the same ingredients that make a demanding book good—that engage the reader and linger after the book is finished—are also found in the easy, pleasurable, entertaining book. Furthermore, I find that the better authors tend to write in a manner in which the fundamentals of fiction are followed but it is never obvious. A stereo salesman once told me that a great stereo never called attention to itself but only to the music. The idea was that someone walking into my place would hear the music but not have any idea where it was coming from.

    Books are like this too. An academician can deconstruct a novel and point out all the elements of writing that made it a good book and the same results can be uncovered whether the book was an enjoyable entertainment or a canonical masterpiece. The common reader, however, can enjoy the book without being consciously aware of those elements.

    But if the author ignores or abuses those elements in writing his book, whether for the general public or for the literary elite, it runs a good chance of landing on the remainder rack before the reviews hit the internet.

    http://mdparker46.com

    Reply

    • Hello Mike, and thank you for your comment.

      I do agree with you that different types of books serve different types of needs: when my mind is tired and unable to concentrate, then, no, of course I don’t pick up a Henry James novel. It is then the literary equivalent of the Easy crossword I turn to rather than any of the more difficult varieties. But even then, I want to read good light books, and not the kind of slipshod rubbish that all too often passes for entertainment. I get the impression that an idea has taken root that if a book is intended purely for light entertainment, then literary standards don’t matter, and I really can’t subscribe to that.

      The controversy that has kicked off here thank to various comments made by Booker Prize judges concerns “readability”, but, as ever, the term is used without an adequate definition. Last year’s winner, Howard Jacobson, defines “readability” in much the same way as I had defined it in an earlier post: as far as Howard Jacobson is concerned, a book is “readable” when it engages the reader’s attention, and makes the reader want to read it. I agree totally. By this definition, I find even such difficult writers as Henry James or William Faulkner “readable”. But this is not how it is generally understood, and it is clear this is not what the Booker prize judges meant by the term: by “readable”, it is generally meant that the book is easy to read. And if, using this definition, books considered “unreadable” – i.e. books that are difficult – are rejected, then our literary culture can only suffer.

      As to what make a book a good book, or even a great book, it seems to me that a book can be good or great in so many different ways, that general crteria cannot be formulated. “It isn’t realistic” may, for instance, be a valid criticism to level against a book that is aiming to be realistic, but it is not a valid criticism to level against, say, Alice in Wonderland. And yes, I agree that in many a great book, the techniques are invisible – i.e. unless the reader goes to the trouble of analysing closely, he or she may enjoy the novel without necessarily understanding, or even needing to understand, what it is that made the book so good. Tolstoy, for instance, was particularly proud of his technique in Anna Karenina: he had, he said privately, placed key scenes and arches in such a way as to hold together the intricate architecture of the novel, but in such a way that the reader won’t be able to see them. But i can’t hel[ feeling that there are certain other kinds of novels – Henry James comes to mind here – where at least some of the aesthetic pleasure of reading them actually comes from us noticing how very sophisticated the techniques is. At least, that is what I feel about Henry James novels: I could be wrong, of course!

      Best regards,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • What makes an easy book good can be as simple as a character you enjoy or admire (Spenser comes to mind, the thug, not the poet). Formula Fiction which is often called Genre Fiction might earn its accolades by sticking to the formula but would be rejected for going over the line and actually being imaginative or unique.

        When I think of good fiction, that last thing I consider is the story. I am much more prone to admire how well fiction is written and tend to fall for the more imaginative (experimental) pieces of fiction. Although sometimes this can get a little too cute. Some experimental authors go to great lengths to make sure that number of letters in a chapter heading or the number of chapters in the book is significant or that the character’s name is an anagram of an obscure Nahuatl river god.

        I have no desire to have a character who reminds me of the neighbor down the street, or an emotional situation that is just like one I had last year, or just about anything that smacks of fiction trying to appeal as realistic or real-life. My observation is that fiction does not mimic real-life but the real-life actually mimics fiction.

        Thus my mantra: It’s All Fiction!

        I furthermore find that the idea of readable is possibly associated with a complaint I hear often, something about life being too short to have to go to any effort to read some book (Ulysses is often the culprit, even though I have been trying to get everyone to just read the book for the fun of it and not worry about all the literary and historical allusions and references). So I guess that means a book is readable that you can glide through while your brain is in neutral.

        On the other hand, perhaps is relates to Roland Barthes’ writerly and readerly theory of literature. I’d have to go back and review Barthes but I’m thinking that might be it.

        Question: Do you consider Raymond Federman readable?

        http://mdparker46.com

      • Hello Mike, I find it very difficult – indeed, downright impossible – to formulate rules for what makes good fiction, as the qualities that make fiction good vary from writer to writer, from book to book. Like yourself, I too like experiment. But some experiments are bound to fail: such, indeed, is the nature of experiment. But the failures do not invalidate the necessity for experiment in the first place.

        Raymond Federman I am afraid I haven’t read, but I do know he was an experimental writer. Whether or not his experiments are successful, I am in no position to say, but I certainly wouldn’t criticise him for experimenting n the first place. And are the results “readable”? By the usual definition of “readable” – i.e. something that is easy to read – I’d guess he possibly isn’t readable, as experimental writing generally tends to be quite difficult. But by my definition of “readable”, it will depend on the extent to which his experiments have been successful. If his writing captures my attention, and makes me want to read it, then, yes, no matter how difficult it may be, it is – by my definition at least – “readable”.

        This may be going off at a tangent from the subject of the initial post, but I don’t know that I am entirely comfortable with your assertion that “fiction does not mimic real life”. Agreed, it does not have to: Lewis Carroll, say, wasn’t at all interested in mimicking real life. But is this a general rule? Many novelists I can think of attempt in their fiction a representation of real life. Tolstoy certainly did. So did Zola, Flaubert, George Eliot, etc. Of course, there are different types and levels of stylisation, whereby the author depicts not so much “real life”, but, rather, a somewhat distorted form of it: I wouldn’t describe, say, Gogol, Dickens, Dostoyevsky or Kafka as “realistic” writers; but their fictional worlds, stylised though they are, must necessarily, I think, have links to the real world.

        Unlike visual arts or music, literature cannot be entirely abstract: it has to relate to something outside itself. This is because the basic material of literature is language, words: and each word necessarily refers to something external to itself. So when I use the word “chair”, for instance, I am referring to that physical object in the real world that we all recognise as a chair. And I cannot rid the word of its association with that physical object. In a painting, one may enjoy a colour or a shape for its own sake: hence, abstraction is possible. In music, one can enjoy certain sounds for their own sake: hence, once again, abstraction is possible. But given that we cannot divorce any word from what it denotes, I do not see how abstraction can be possible in literature. In other words, literature must refer to something external to itself – it ,em>can’t be abstract. And this “something” is, I venture to suggest, the real world. Or some stylised, imagined form of the real world.

        I don’t know if I have interpreted you correctly – please excuse me if I haven’t.

        Regards, Himadri

      • Actually, you do misinterpret me in this sense: I do not say that literature is not grounded in words or objects found in the real world but rather that the purpose of literature is not to recreate the real world (and if anything, the society of this so-called real world tends to emulate fiction rather than the other way around … look at our politicians).

        Of course, we could get into a rousing discussion of whether that chair is any more real than the word “chair,” but that wasn’t my concern so I’ll leave it for an exercise. What I hear constantly is that the fiction is not believable, or that someone’s Aunt Tilly was just like some character in a book, or the book was terrible because it didn’t contain a single character the reader would have a beer with, or (as actually happened in an online reading group last week) that the actions of the characters after the book is completed are still open for continued discussion.

        It is this kind of irksome approach to literature that I group together in my mind as trying to make fiction mimic real life. Fiction does not need to be believable, the author is under no obligation to include familiar characters or characters you can go bowling with, and the idea of characters living beyond the last page of the book is ludicrous (although characters living inside the novel is very postmodern).

        Just a quick quotation from Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

        http://mdparker46.com

      • Thank you for that, Mike – and sorry for the misunderstanding. I think I am still smarting from an article I commented on recently in which a learned professor informed us that literature can have no connection whatever with reality.

        I think I now understand what you are saying, and largely agree with you, although when you say “that the purpose of literature is not to recreate the real world” I think I’d add the word “necessarily” – i.e. “that the purpose of literature is not necessarily to recreate the real world” :e many writers do aim to give a sense of re- – creating the real world. Some fiction communicates a sense of reality so powerfully that it is easy to believe in the characters carrying on with their lives after the story has ended: Chekhov, especially, did this often. Some fiction actually invites us to speculate what happens to these characters afterwards (e.g. Great Expectations) – although, of course, such speculation cannot form any part of the analysis of the book.

        When a fiction does set out to mimic reality (as, say, Tolstoy does in his major novels), then for a character to act unrealistically must, I think, be counted a flaw. But we must be very careful before we make such a criticism, for if we do, the obvious question to be directed back to us is: “How do you know?” How do I, the reader, know what this particular character, in this particular situation, would or would not have done? Much of the greatness of writers such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Henry James, etc., comes from their ability to imagine the world from the minds of other people – to understand how other people feel, think, and act. So it would be, to say the least, somewhat presumptuous on my part to imagine I understand human behaviour better than they did.

        But I do agree with you fully that literature is under no obligation whatever to mimic reality, and that the criticism “It isn’t realistic” is of no value in the context of a fiction in which mimicry of reality is not the point. The reader may, no doubt, relate certain characters to certain people they know in real life, but their doing so, or their inability to do so, is no measure one way or the other of the work’s quality.

        And neither does one need to like characters. A criticism I hear often is “I couldn’t relate to any of the characters”, and I feel like asking “So what?”

        I like the Emerson quote, by the way: I hadn’t heard it before.

        Cheers, Himadri

  5. This is what I was getting at Himadri – as you say

    <>

    There is that idea – that if a book is for light entertainmant then it does not matter how it is written – but for the same reason – there is a class of book – probably a Booker Nomination – that is a book to be seen to be reading
    My Husband was fond of PG Wodehouse, and the Berry Books of Dornford Yates – he and my stepfather had a regular “falling out” over books in general.

    Anthony – the stepdaddy from Hell thought they were rubbish – and Arthur the Husband – thought they were witty and amusing – we used to quote bits to one another.

    Reply

  6. I can’t answer for Dornford Yates, but if anyone reckons PG Wodehouse is “rubbish”, then they lose all credibility as far as I’m concerned! 🙂

    Reply

  7. Thus my mantra: It’s All Fiction! >>>>

    “The World’s a Stage and all the men and women merely players
    and each one plays many parts …………!

    I think that Wil Shakespear said it or something very like

    Reply

    • In As You Like It Shakespeare wrote:

      All the world’s a stage,
      And all the men and women merely players;
      They have their exits and their entrances,
      And one man in his time plays many parts,
      His acts being seven ages.

      But remember that by this time these conceits were obvious clichés and Shakespeare used them to further ridicule the unpleasant character, Jaques.

      A similar quotation which is much more powerful is in Macbeth

      To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
      Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
      To the last syllable of recorded time,
      And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
      The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
      Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
      That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
      And then is heard no more: it is a tale
      Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
      Signifying nothing.

      Shakespeare is good … no doubt about it.

      http://mdparker46.com

      Reply

  8. I have begun to wonder if this is all a case of Relativity, there are people who are fundamentalists in every walk of life.

    Fundamentalism creeps in on so many counts – A dry white wine is better than a sweet one, I have heard it so said and quite dogmatically – a serious book is so much better than a commonplace cheap paper-back. But with those two examples – I like Christmas pudding – and not with a Pouilly-Fuissé – better a rich and sweet wine to go with the pudding. It’s the same with books, I have some books for which I want to keep a notebook near at hand – then if I want to be entertained and laugh – Terry Pratchett is perfect for my purpose.
    The judgement of Critics is fundamentally flawed – they are paid to give their opinions and this results often in their becoming very opinionated, I do not think any one is RIGHT or WRONG.in any case it is a matter of personal taste, Are the Critics ALWAYS giving their genuine opinion or that of the Magazine paying them. I could be essentially missing something here

    Reply

    • Anyone can give an opinion, but I think good critics provide judgements rather than opinions. The difference is that judgements, unlike opinions, are reasoned, and are based on analysis.

      One is entitled to read and to like what one wants. I don’t think that has ever been at issue. If one prefers to read light books instead of serious ones, or vice versa, there is no problem with that at all. And I don’t think anyone is suggesting there is.

      But while personal taste is an important factor, it is by no means the only factor in determining quality. That Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, etc. were all novelists of the highest quality is not merely a subjective opinion. If it were, then the very concept of “quality” would be meaningless.

      Similarly with light literature: Alexandre Dumas, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, George Macdonald Fraser, etc. all set out purely to entertain, and they were such absolute masters of their craft that the term “artistry” is not misapplied. This, once again, is more than merely subjective opinion.

      To return to the principal issue I tried to address in my post, I do not think it reasonable to claim that the ease with which a book may be read is in any way relevant in determining the literary quality of that book. Some books need to be difficult.

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  9. I find the idea that some books NEED to be difficult very acceptable – the more I read on line – and here especially, the easier I find it to be objective.
    I am getting some valuable lessons in objectivity, by studying other peoples opinions. I cannot, or rather do not want to get away from studying, I am having a whole year away from University – and the formal study of a subject, but it seems that the learning here, is an association of other peoples Ideas – I hope to learn more about understanding others and learning to express myself better so that when I return in year 2012-2013 maybe my essays stand a chance of improving.
    During this year – I shall be getting my life / my act together!! My next years studies will be related to the Humanities.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Jacques on October 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    “Oh dear! I find myself rather warming to Jaques! ”

    me too.

    Reply

  11. Posted by pseud on October 25, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    I recall someone saying something along the lines of : Since the advent of general relativity, the notion of a Newtonian ‘stage’ upon which everything else is an ‘actor’ has now been replaced with a view in which space tells mass how to move, and mass tells space how to curve. Another way of saying this is that the actors are now part of the stage.
    As discussed elsewhere on your blog, the extent to which scientific theories have influenced literature is open to much debate.
    I’m writing this as an occasional piece of pseudery to which I hope to add more at a later date.

    Reply

    • Oh, but this goes without saying, doesn’t it? Those poor benighted souls such as Austen or Ibsen or Chekhov had no idea about relativity, and so, naturally, did not even think of depicting their characters as integral part of their environment. But then, along came Einstein, and bang! – it all changed:, and post-Einstein writers such as Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, etc. showed their characters and their environments as one integrated whole. Mind you, if recent reports are correct and particles can be shown to be able to move faster than light, that would mean Joyce and Woolf and Kafka would also be consigned to the dustbin along with Austen & co. But there you go – you can’t halt the march of science!

      We did debate the influence of scientific ideas on literature in the comments section of this post, but I don’t think we addressed the specific point you are making here relating to the inter-dependence of space and the objects inhabiting it: we were talking rather about the decline of belief in absolutes, and the possible influence on literature of this decline. I argued at some length against the idea that scientific ideas have significant impact on the direction of literary development, and I don’t know there’s much point going over all that again here, as I don’t see the relevance of that particular debate on the point of this particular post, which, to summarise, is that certain types of books, both pre- and post- Einstein, need to be difficult, and that the ease with which a book may be read is not a relevant criterion when judging the book’s literary quality. But do feel free to resurrect the debate here on the impact on literature of science!

      PS I preferred your previous screen-name.

      Reply

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