Here Comes Everybody – And She’s Karl Kraus!

by John Holbo on September 21, 2013

We are bookish intellectuals here! Why then should we lack for a thread in which people can complain about Jonathan Franzen’s essay? I can sort of sympathize with Franzen’s evident desire to hit a trollier-than-thou Krausian high note. Suddenly Here Comes Everybody – and they all want be just as individual and superior as I do, the bastards.

In his defense, Franzen does seem to be aware that he looks like Calvin, complaining about the results of using the Duplicator Machine.

When Coase died I thought about penning, in his honor, a prolegomenon to a possible sequel to his Theory of the Firm. I would propose a theory of the Fall of the Book, organized around an account of precipitously falling transaction costs, sentence by sentence. Why is it ever better for an individual sentence to incorporate with hundreds or thousands of others? Why isn’t all intellectual life transacted on Twitter? (I’m busy today, so maybe you could write this theory, piecemeal, in comments, so I don’t have to.)

What happens to writing when every sentence can be – hence is under peer pressure to be – its own marketing department?

I do get why Franzen feels that he, as the serious author of big, serious books, is heroically trying to hold the line. (Full disclosure: I have never read The Corrections. I don’t have the time.) But the irony is that his Guardian essay isn’t complaining about anything for which there aren’t already perfectly good, complaining memes on Know Your Meme. Still, as Kraus remarks. “Many share my views with me. But I don’t share them with them.”

{ 332 comments }

1

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 5:09 am

and they all want be just as individual and superior as I do, the bastards.

Nah, he thinks we don’t have the taste to want to be like him. We all want to be Jennifer Weiner.

I have to say that from what I thought I knew about Kraus, I am surprised and not surprised that Franzen admires him.

2

John Quiggin 09.21.13 at 5:11 am

And here was I thinking: It’s way past Bloomsday!

3

minnesotaj 09.21.13 at 5:40 am

There are many delicious ironies in effect here… have been poring in and out of the Franzen book (I got an ARC from a pal this morning) and it’s not as bad as you think—but that’s not necessarily saying anything.

Lucky for Kraus, Franzen only “translates” 5 essays (or is it Reitter? Or Kehlmann?), so there is still plenty opportunity for some enterprising soul to exhume Kraus.

As for Franzen… I hope he hopes this all blows over quickly & he gets a CV notch for finally nailing, “The Kraus Project.”

4

Meredith 09.21.13 at 5:45 am

“And the mental work that fiction fundamentally requires, which is to imagine what it’s like to be somebody you are not, further undermines anger. The more I wrote novels, the less I trusted my own righteousness, and the more prone I was to sympathising with people like the typesetters at the Globe.”

This is as far as I have gotten at this point (it’s late, I’ll return tomorrow, and if life allows, after tomorrow, too). But I think this essay is far too dense and thoughtful — a cri-de-coeur — to be treated dismissively. (I’m put in mind of Whitman, of all people. Multitudes.) (I’d add, in general it’s true, Anglo’s don’t attend enough to Vienna.)

5

Hidari 09.21.13 at 6:40 am

What’s to complain about? Is the reading that this is some kind of Harold Bloom-esque rant about how things were better in ye olden days? Because that reading is self-evidently wrong.

6

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 6:51 am

“What’s to complain about?”

Sorry, I was just referencing the fact that there have been lots of complaints about the Franzen essay the last few days.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/09/19/jonathan_franzen_hates_the_internet_pens_an_oversharing_subtweeting_indictment.html

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114762/jennifer-weiner-responds-jonathan-franzen

7

Hidari 09.21.13 at 7:02 am

Thanks for that John. As a result of following that first link I now know that

1: Someone called Amanda Hess exists and that

2: She is an idiot.

So that’s two things I’ve learned today. And it’s only eight am!

8

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 7:10 am

Perhaps my own post is not clear. I don’t think Franzen is, exactly, perpetrating a ‘good old days’ rant, although there’s some of that in there. And that’s fine. (A little bit goes a long way.) I’m more struck by how typical his frustrations are. Twitter is idiotic! The internet is giving us ADD! He knows these aren’t exactly original sentiments, but he still offers them up as if they were sort of original. Same for the Kraus stuff.

9

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 7:20 am

“2: She is an idiot.”

I don’t agree with everything in the Hess piece. The Franzen essay isn’t as bad as that. But she scores a few good hits.

“But Franzen is less enthused about the prospect of other humans actually responding to his stories—or, God forbid, telling their own stories without the aid of Franzen’s refined literary filter.”

This is true. It’s less sinister than Hess makes it out to be. ‘I wish I were the only Karl Kraus, because if everyone else is one, too, it’s less glorious,’ is a natural way to feel. But kind of silly.

10

William Timberman 09.21.13 at 7:34 am

Personally, I think Franzen has anticipated all who’ve come to poke some gleeful holes in his rant. COnsider, for example:

…the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful.

No dummy, this Franzen. Ready or not, he sees y’all coming alright. He’s cranky, yes, but he knows as well as any of us, and maybe better than some of us, that once you string more than, say, a half-dozen or so words together, what surrounds them is inevitably much larger, much richer than what they enclose. If this doesn’t exactly make a pontificator more humble, it tends to make him/her more careful, and Franzen is a very careful pontificator indeed. Consequently, I think I have more sympathy for him than the OP does.

11

William Timberman 09.21.13 at 7:38 am

Damn. Like so many others before me, I forgot to close the blockquote. I know all true CT-ers can figure it out, but for the record: everything after beautiful is me. (And if that’s true, maybe I’m one of those folks Franzen is bitching about.)

12

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 7:56 am

Fair enough, William.

13

novakant 09.21.13 at 8:12 am

But Franzen is less enthused about the prospect of other humans actually responding to his stories—or, God forbid, telling their own stories without the aid of Franzen’s refined literary filter.

Oh my god! A novelist who is grumpy, egocentric and slightly misanthropic – and an elitist and a luddite. I have never heard of such a thing!

How dare he not love us all equally and think his stories are better written than ours – it’s just preposterous, he should be crucified live on Twitter or something.

I wonder what they would make of Thomas Mann these days.

14

bad Jim 09.21.13 at 8:21 am

My local paper used to publish Kissinger’s opinion pieces, which frequently left me feeling wooly-headed, which at first I tended to attribute to not having finished my coffee, or to being hungover. Eventually I took a look and concluded that the wooliness was in the article, not my head. There may be some of the same thing in Kraus.

Take, for example, the contrast between the German concern for content and the Romance focus on form. What does that even mean, especially when applied to the arts, and most especially when applied to music? Form and content aren’t easily teased apart. Schumann’s difficult harmonies and Debussy’s distinctive scale aren’t obviously different experiments, and both can be traced back to Beethoven, and even to Mozart and Haydn. What’s on display may be nothing more than an exhibition of agreeable cleverness which disappears on closer examination.

On a personal note, I found Franzen’s experience with anger quite unlike my own. I had a hair-trigger temper as a kid, although I stopped getting into fights after grade school, and when I got to college I realized I had better control over my emotions than most of my contemporaries, which even at the time seemed rather odd. It might have had something to do with my father, a very bright guy, a psychologist and an engineer, with whom I was on a friendly basis even in high school, a loving parent and doting employer, who was also an Irish drunk out of a Sean O’Casey play (I had to throw him out of my brother’s wedding). Odi et amo.

A few times in my life I’ve had emotions spin out of control, leaving the main version of me looking on in bewilderment, vainly struggling to get back on top. Jealousy in high school, then as an adult shame (having made a vague pass at a someone) and then anger. Which seemed odd, because getting angry was normally as unremarkable as glancing at a newspaper, but I found myself, once again, maintaining a normal persona while irrational storms stirred within me, and, in the throes of this emotional maelstrom, encountered the target of my wrath at a performance of one or two of Beethoven’s symphonies by the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, and had to agree that this was really something wonderful.

15

Jerry Vinokurov 09.21.13 at 8:34 am

Franzen’s essay is fucking awful.

I haven’t read his fiction, but I’ve read a good deal of his non-fiction over the years, and all of it has the same theme: an exploration of Jonathan Franzen’s centrality in and to the world, coupled with laments about everyone else’s inability to live up to his standards, all intended to represent Franzen as one of the Last Serious Writers. A good 75% of his non-fiction is a kind of unbearably self-aware self-flagellation; just look at the quote already supplied above, with the added benefit of the first line in the immediately following paragraph:

and, the next thing you know, you’re translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful.

And maybe this is not such a bad thing.

There’s Franzen in a nutshell. Just self-aware enough to understand that he’s basically Grandpa Simpson, but lacking any sort of understanding that might help him avoid it, or indeed, any will to look at the world from a perspective that isn’t perpetually centered on Franzen himself. Everything he writes is like this, from his essays on organic foods to his bird preservation schtick. It’s 10% genuine concern about something and 90% posture, only that posturing makes Franzen feel kind of bad (since he’s just self-aware enough to know that it’s posture) so he takes it out on himself (and others) in excruciating detail in his writing.

The worst thing about all of this in my view is Franzen’s inability to see things in a systemic fashion. Since he’s an entirely self-centered writer, all he can see are the various things around him that he doesn’t like, but he has no sense of how those things connect to each other. There’s no explanation in him, just lists of things. And it’s true, some of those things are quite terrible, but it doesn’t take a genius to make a list of bad things on a page; it just takes some reasonable level of awareness about the world. Franzen could be using his literary gifts, such as they are, to draw connections between all these things he bemoans; instead, it seems the best he can really do is punt to a long-dead Austrian.

I haven’t read Karl Krauss, so maybe he’s totes awesome and someone ought to be working real hard to bring his writings to the masses. But I doubt that Franzen is the right someone; I actually don’t even believe he cares about Krauss at all except as a corroborating voice for his curmudgeonry, or that this project is anything other than an attempt to cloak himself in the writings of another and thereby bask in the glow of whatever halo he imagines Krauss wears. I’m sure the name is weighty enough to further cement his appointment as Our One Very Serious Writer Today, although in passing I note that his promotion of the “deliberately hard” Krauss is infinitely ironic in light of his terrible hack-job on William Gaddis.

People will surely say I am being ungenerous, and maybe that’s true. But I have yet to read anything at all in Franzen’s nonfiction that suggests to me that he’s anything other than a moderately talented prose stylist afflicted with a crippling earnestness and a desire to be thought of as a serious thinker without actually having to think serious thoughts.

16

QS 09.21.13 at 8:48 am

Franzen’s essay had nothing on Mourinho’s telling off of Juan Mata. Oh why does the Guardian put such delicious teases on the sidebar; I’ll never get anything done today.

17

Maria M. 09.21.13 at 8:54 am

When I read the Franzen essay, as an Austrian an admirer of Kraus I resented Franzen’s take on him, almost an abuse of that wonderful author. Kraus was fanatic on precise and clear usage of language, an early opponent of what Orwell would later call “doublespeak”. And Franzen claims he’s deliberately obscure as a matter of policy!

The translated passages in Franzen’s article give no real flavor of Kraus’s beautiful style in German. He really should be read in the original, where his passion, wit and love of language can be fully appreciated. Kraus and Franzen are not a good fit, as Franzen seems to admire Kraus for all the wrong reasons.

18

Aaron Schroeder 09.21.13 at 9:17 am

“I don’t have the time.”

It seems more than a little rich for a self-proclaimed bookish intellectual to be so smug in refusing to pick up a novel that’s made the kind of aesthetic mark that Franzen’s has.

19

bill benzon 09.21.13 at 9:19 am

Who the eff is this Jonathan Franzen character and why should I care about him? Anyone who thinks Mac vs. PC is worth worrying about is clearly more taken by symbolism than substance. Compared to Alan Kay’s vision of what personal computers should be about, neither is worth spit.

20

Phil 09.21.13 at 9:19 am

I thought Franzen’s France/Germany Mac/Windows musings were so shallow and juvenile that I stopped reading there. Never mind blogs, I’ve read more complex and interesting thoughts on beer bottles.

OK, so then I’m in the comments and Meredith is all hey guys it’s not so bad and it’s like she’s read the whole thing, OK, so I’m like duh, what do I know. Guess it’s a case of once more into the breach dear friends, you know?

(But the Mac/Windows bit is just awful. Shouldn’t have survived Franzen’s own edits, let alone the Graun’s.)

21

Phil 09.21.13 at 11:21 am

Well, it gets better. It needs a rewrite and some serious pruning, and the Kraus translations felt wobbly to me (which may be a gross injustice, as I don’t read German). But the discussion of whether the world really is going to hell in a handcart or it’s just a perception born of middle-aged angst – and if it’s the latter, whether that invalidates it (it’s my middle-aged angst dammit!) – is pretty good.

22

Old John 09.21.13 at 11:58 am

Being angry that all the women in the world won’t fuck you is called being a heterosexual male. Get over it.

23

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 12:24 pm

“It seems more than a little rich for a self-proclaimed bookish intellectual to be so smug in refusing to pick up a novel that’s made the kind of aesthetic mark that Franzen’s has.”

I’m glad you got my point.

24

Cheryl Rofer 09.21.13 at 12:30 pm

I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books.

Thank you, Belle.

25

Hal 09.21.13 at 1:03 pm

Has anyone seen Jonathan Franzen and Russell Brand in the same room at the same time?

26

Mitchell Freedman 09.21.13 at 1:22 pm

Wow. After reading John and Belle, and Amanda Hess, I decided to read Franzen’s article thinking it was going to be all about his wanting to have sex with every woman in the world. I find out that he didn’t have sex with one woman, but then met someone else and married her. No Wilt Chamberlain lifestyle for him. I was also expecting Franzen’s to have some sort of anti-woman rage, when his rage is against the decline of community values and good wages posing as part of a hip technologically based machine.

I did not read Franzen’s “The Corrections” or “Freedomland”. Maybe I should, though, because like Franzen, I am mired in reading old, dead authors from Victor Serge to Somerset Maugham to Thomas Hardy. And Richard Dawkins just told me in an engaging interview he did recently about Elspeth Huxley, who I am now reading. This is not a brag, just a set of facts, to personify something Will Sonnett said on a short lived American television program in the 1960s.

The obsession of the identity politics people, and Belle, I’m talking to you now, makes me sad. For Belle, and to a great extent, John, focus on the wrong aspects of Franzen’s article, and then miscast the tenor and content of Franzen’s article. It’s as if they and particularly Belle can’t comprehend anything that does not have to do with sex and sexual politics. Instead, Belle and John should be defending Franzen’s rant, because it contains important academic insight into a guy who should be remembered, Karl Kraus, but more importantly for our time, an insight into the way global capitalism is unfolding. I realize it’s more fun to snark at the guy for oversharing, but really we’re just oversharing when we’re snarking at the guy.

Oh, and I read the Jennifer Weiner piece in the even the “liberal New Republic,” and found that she admits she had earlier attacked Franzen, even going so far as to create a hashtag that snarks against him. For people to link to her article without revealing that information is, to quote Captain Hook in Speilberg’s film, “bad form.”

Franzen is capable of defending himself. But I think it’s important in any event to expose the mendacity and shallowness of both John and Belle, and the ridiculous Amanda Hess.

27

Belle Waring 09.21.13 at 1:30 pm

Russell Brand, while viscous with sleaze, has genuine sex appeal. I would say it’s the male equivalent of jolie laide, but it’s not that, because he’s a conventionally quite attractive person. It’s something like a cross between that and peacocking, though, where you think, “there is no way on God’s green earth I would fuck a man wearing those damn necklaces,” but then you suddenly have reservations, “hold up, hold up here! I don’t want to paint myself into a not-having-sex-with-Russell-Brand corner! I think I might, actually, fuck that guy. Huh. I was not expecting that, for real.” He rolled natural 20 on charisma.

28

Brenda Johnson 09.21.13 at 1:34 pm

I’m sorry, but Franzen lost me when he compared fin de siecle Vienna to Windows Vista.

29

Belle Waring 09.21.13 at 1:41 pm

Mitchell Freedman: I recommend that you do, in fact, read The Corrections, as it’s widely regarded as his most important work. After you do so I would be happy to discuss with you whether his views about women color his work in a way that makes it fatally flawed as literature. When I read Hardy I’m not inclined to protest at the fate of his female characters, who tend to be caught up in threshing-mills with yet more blades than his male characters. One is charitable when reading great works of the past. Reading works of the present day, which are not remotely great, and which set themselves up as Important Novels in a way that has only been open to Important Male Novelists of the latter 20th century, one is less charitable. Not filled with the spirit of forgiveness. Particularly when you know very well he could have known better. Just don’t write female characters or do it right, but not this other thing, not since literature has had to notice that women have interior lives that outstrip the bounds of “yes I said yes.” There is no excuse for this bullshit and women and men who are feminists are perfectly well justified in saying,”this fails as a work of art in virtue of failing as something that respects women’s human dignity.”

30

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 1:48 pm

Meredith, if you’re going to strive to be as charitable as possible, shouldn’t you read all Franzen’s essays before you comment on this one? (She says, suspecting a pattern might emerge.)

novakant: Oh my god! A novelist who is grumpy, egocentric and slightly misanthropic – and an elitist and a luddite. I have never heard of such a thing!

That’s the point, I guess. A novelist just over fifty writes a grumpy, misanthropic piece, fine, the newspaper is going to publish it, of course. In the old days, we’d say, “not news, nothing to see here.” Now, we’re expected to mine it for contributions to our own pet projects and write about that. There’s no reason to do either of those. Franzen doesn’t want the second but he seems to think we should be doing the first. And he’s objecting to other writers discussing trivial things at time-wasting length but he does it himself. (And he can’t shake the image of being “young” and “up and coming” either, so what he writes still gets tagged as “young thing surprisingly is grumpy and misanthropic”.) Not that I don’t want to write about this scandal too. But it’s hard to see a reason why it would be a good idea.

31

bob mcmanus 09.21.13 at 1:54 pm

an insight into the way global capitalism is unfolding

Part of the way global post-capitalism (post- because everything and everybody and everything we do is now on the dark side of the moon is now exploitable for surplus) (although surplus itself…never mind) …is unfolding into “identity politics.” Your identity is now a profit center. And denying or resisting that your individuality has been commodified is also a profit center. Not your profit of course, all upward distributed. Feminism and anti-racism and libertarianism and socualism are now like the prayers and simony at Chartres. Indulgences.

The process is of course massively deflationary (of value). Heat death of the twitterverse. Franzen ain’t all that anymore, and it adds little relative value to point out
our total formal subsumption.

I liked the Franzen, but Holbo is right and none of this is at all new. Tiqqun said it better at the Millenium.

32

Mitchell Freedman 09.21.13 at 1:54 pm

I have to say you miss Hardy’s point. Hardy, in many of his novels, is attacking the Victorian attitudes that were killing women or making their lives miserable. He is deeply sympathetic and supportive of women and is not someone a feminist should be attacking in his era or ours. If his women characters prospered at the end of his novels, it would have undermined his point because people of the time would say everything is all right after all. Things were not alright, and British culture, politics and economics needed to change to be more humane. That was Hardy’s point in nearly every novel, including his most political-economic oriented novel, “The Mayor Casterbridge,” which explained in novel form what EP Thompson was getting at his magisterial work on the rise of the British working class.

As for Franzen, I will take up your suggestion. Still, his article was not focused on women, and he did not say, as you and Amanda Hess argue, that his goal in life was to have sex with every woman on the planet. You and Hess misled readers such as me when I finally read Franzen’s article.

And for the record, I have no use for Roth and applauded a few years ago when a female judge for the Booker Prize stood tall against the Roth worship that continues through this day among too many in the Anglo-American literary set. Also, if Franzen is just a Gentile Roth in his cultural attitudes and writing, I doubt I will finish “The Corrections.” For me the best modern writer in America remains Barbara Kingsolver. But heck, what do I, a mere white male lawyer in the American suburbs, know?

33

R. Porrofatto 09.21.13 at 2:01 pm

Let’s see.
√ Oversimplified ethnic pigeonholing
√ Mac vs. PC
√ hoi polloi vs. elitist hackneyism
√ Big-shot novelists shouldn’t use Twitter
√ Technology sucks but less than a typewriter
√ Lawns that kids should get off of aren’t nearly as nice as they used to be.
Etc.

While I might agree with much of what Franzen is ranting about, and for all his neue-Luddismus, this bit of echt trolling felt like Stephen den Beste once gave Mickey Kaus a column-foot for his very own guest post.

34

Belle Waring 09.21.13 at 2:09 pm

Argh, “this fails as a work of art in virtue of failing as something that respects women’s human dignity.” This is the second-order problem! Firstly, it fails as a work of art by means of failing as a work of art, namely, the motivations of its female characters are to a large degree incomprehensible because they perform many actions in the novel only in order to serve crucial roles in the male protagonists lives. Franzen clearly, totally, utterly fails to see that this is so. Fails. Fails to try to represent some of the most crucial characters “from the inside” and then fails to notice that he has failed. And, as the novel needs characters, and structure, and in the particular case of this novel a kind of repetition and stagnant re-working of the same life material, the novel–fails! It is as simple as that!

It is important that a slew of earlier, somewhat better writers such as Roth and Updike and earlier, actually good writers such as Gaddis and Pynchon have erected the edifices of Important Novels which Franzen seeks to build again upon a really horribly shaky foundation of horrible, no good, sexist bullshit. There was just enough sexual liberation to allow these men to talk freely about sex in their novels, but not enough feminism to render them capable of writing real human women, in the round. The result was mostly quite awful. Most women I know would much rather read literature from the 1800s–we don’t expect anything better from them! But the closer it gets to our own time, the more we know this is a man whom we could have met, who we knew, a real person who–still doesn’t think we are real people? Still? Still not, even now? To be wounded by this is not to be bound to identity politics. It is to demand humanity in art, and deem art that fails to offer us a look at humanity a failure.

35

Anon 09.21.13 at 2:09 pm

The general response to Franzen’s article saddens me. I don’t like his novels, and I found the article tedious and puzzling, but something serious and interesting is at work in it. I think Mitchel Freedman’s post make the point very well: the OP focuses on the wrong aspects of the article, and while the article has the flaws of oversharing and indulging in easy obvious predictable criticisms, all the snarky replies have the same flaws.

I didn’t like Franzen’s article, but I’m going to be wondering and thinking about it for some time–which I almost never have reason to do about newspaper opinion pieces or blog posts. I’ve almost already forgotten this blog post, for example.

36

Lynne 09.21.13 at 2:11 pm

Belle, I wasn’t going to chime in here since I haven’t followed the links and can hardly remember The Corrections, but when you said “Just don’t write female characters or do it right,” Oh! it took me back to the 1960s to a period when my younger brother and I would come home from school and watch TV in his room. We got only two channels, one English, one French, so we watched whatever was on the English channel. Usually it was Lloyd Bridges’ Sea Hunt, sometimes it was a movie. In either case, sometimes a woman would be in the show we were watching and my brother and I were always sorry. “Oh no, there’s a girl in it,” we’d exclaim, because her role was always so lame and annoying. Many years later I feel the same way. Give me all-male books, TV programs or movies any day if the alternative is a token female or two to be a foil for the male lead. Thanks for your eloquence, as always.

37

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 2:11 pm

I didn’t see either The Corrections or Freedom as especially marred by the author’s attitudes toward women. Not perfect, maybe marred by something or other. Nobody’s being forced to like either of them. I do think Franzen’s idea of the ideal novelist’s personality is a little peculiar. He’s free to describe himself and call that “the ideal novelist’s personality,” of course. If that’s what he’s doing.

38

Mitchell Freedman 09.21.13 at 2:17 pm

Oh, one more thing, Belle. I also don’t like Updike, Gaddis or Pynchon, either, and my reasons include the one you are making, which is they are anti-female, as is Roth. And if Franzen aspires to be them, well, more is the pity–and you are right to attack Franzen for his novels on that basis. But don’t berate him for what he did not say in his article.

39

Belle Waring 09.21.13 at 2:20 pm

I’ll take that information about your literary tastes, as well as your concern that I am unable to understand any matters other than sex and sexual politics under advisement, Mitchell. I’ve got a lot to think about.

40

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 2:21 pm

Belle:
I could probably argue (a bit unfairly) that Franzen not only doesn’t see women as real people, he doesn’t see men as real people either. He seems, at times, to want his novels to be these subjective, poetic Germanic yearnings for the Unseen, and frustrated with the fact that so many people think they ought to be about people and stories. And he doesn’t want to go full Auster, much less Kafka, and just write this way. I’m not going to speculate (here) as to why. He’s trying to have it both ways, in a way, to write big social-style novels and get credit for soulful Germanic romanticism. I think.

I know the “he doesn’t see men as real people either” is a cliche. Also Franzen’s version of the Unseen seems a bit tilted toward maleness, more than admittedly, though though that seems a different problem than not being able to write realistic women.

41

Bloix 09.21.13 at 2:46 pm

The anecdote about the woman in Munich is a story about a young man who has chosen not to engage in a fling in a foreign city in order to remain faithful to his fiancée back in the US. He’s angry at himself for acting like a chump. (Note the mention of a wedding present in the next paragraph.) The author of the Toast article is either not paying attention or acting in bad faith, or both. Both, I think.

And Belle, did you read Freedom?

“Goodbye, poorly drawn female characters who exist as trophies for when the protagonists level up after a boss battle with Freudian analysis!”

Um, Belle? Patty Berglund IS the protagonist. Freedom has an old-fashioned plot about a woman who consciously makes a life as a wife and mother with a man she knows is not satisfactory for her. I thought it was a well-done traditional novel and I thought Patty Berglund was insightfully realized. Well, I’m a man. Perhaps you would disagree. But you can’t say that Patty Berglund is a trophy for the protagonist.

42

William Timberman 09.21.13 at 2:48 pm

What I don’t like about Franzen’s writing, and for that matter, the writing of a lot of modern novelists, is the sheer muchness, of it all, something that’s as characteristic of Updike’s and Pynchon’s work as it is of Franzen’s. Even when narcissism isn’t what’s making a thousand words do in place of a hundred, it still gives me the shudders.

The thing is, that sometimes that kind of writing actually offers us goodies we can’t find elsewhere. The fountains and pools of Borges are healing to some, even though most of the time I myself would rather pop a beer in a roadside tavern. Then, too, very spare and bony writing can be just as laboriously artificial — Hemingway’s, for example — and just as mistaken about all sorts of things. Narcissism isn’t exclusively a disease of the verbose.

I say it’s hard to make the case that poor Franzen is evil, and the weaknesses on display here, from his greased pig-wrestle with Kraus to his invocation of the Mac/PC demon, are not exactly unknown to the rest of us. Be as savage as you like, I say — it’s in the spirit of the thing, after all — but keep your tongue firmly in your cheek.

43

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 2:52 pm

“It’s as if they and particularly Belle can’t comprehend anything that does not have to do with sex and sexual politics.”

?

“Instead, Belle and John should be defending Franzen’s rant, because it contains important academic insight into a guy who should be remembered, Karl Kraus”

What do you mean ‘important academic insight’? Is that different from a regular old important insight?

If what you are saying is that we are obliged to praise Franzen just for talking about Kraus, that seems like soft bigotry of low expectations, and I’m sure Kraus wouldn’t approve.

I don’t suppose it matters – so I didn’t mention it in the post – but, for the record, my dissertation was about Kraus, in a small way. I was writing about influences on the early Wittgenstein, especially Schopenhauer. So there was Kraus in there. Kraus is interesting, although my merely passable German does not permit me to appreciate the (I am assured) brilliant idiomatic qualities of his language.

44

Andrew Burday 09.21.13 at 2:53 pm

From Belle’s piece:

“Let us never speak of Jonathan Franzen again.”

I agree with this, except for the part about “again”. But, too late for that.

45

Z 09.21.13 at 2:55 pm

I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books.

Yep, this is the kind of sentence that I wish weren’t true, that I would in fact passionately want to disprove and then… Philip Roth? Not great. Umberto Eco? One book I read was 99,9% devoid of female altogether, but seeing that the action was taking place in a medieval monastery, the author may be forgiven. The other had a very nice and complex female character and few interesting other but their impact on the plot remained negligible. So, yeah…. Haruki Murakami? Ah! Have you read any Murakami? Norwegian Wood and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are both full of interesting complex female characters driving the plot.

Also, Freedom from some author, while a pretty bad novel all things considered, contains a quite wonderful female character.

46

matt 09.21.13 at 2:57 pm

To me, Franzen’s toxic status anxiety makes his fiction almost unreadable.

It’s a more extreme version of what plagues a lot of contemporary novels: in order to count as serious writing, the writer must indicate that he or she is well aware that the class position of the characters implicates them in some sort of immorality. This usually feels pretty cheap.

47

marcel 09.21.13 at 3:04 pm

Belle wrote:

Now, dudes, part of shared bank accounts and having children and shit like that is that you can coordinate on stuff and divide responsibilities sensibly. Am I going to sit down and read about the Fourfold Root? No, I will ask my husband, “hey peaches, what’s this with the Schopenhauer here, am I giving a f*@k or what?” Then he can answer on account of having written a dissertation about it. And he arranges for everyone to go to the dentist, and parent-teacher conferences, and guy stuff like that which I as a mother, am not really into. Similarly, as John is a busy person who doesn’t have time to read novels which are both extremely long and quite bad, I can read them on our joint behalf. No, I can also read long good books on our behalf, so I can tell John crucial stuff about Proust like when the last volume opens and it seems as if all the characters have come in fancy dress but then…

Then she closed comments so we could get into the foodfight all in 1 place.

This Division of Labor reflects, in a fun-house mirror kind of way, the one in my marriage. My wife enjoys reading literature and tells me about it; I enjoy reading, well I probably shouldn’t say, so I won’t, but I tell her about it and answer her questions about weighty matters.[1]

So I too haven’t read anything by Franzen.

Thinking about this parallel, and also thinking about how hard it was to find interesting female characters in books and movies when my daughter was little (20 years ago), Belle’s comment that the problem with so much of modern fiction is the incredible female characters therein (and I mean incredible in the most literal way) suggested to me another parallel.

The standard explanation for my problem way back when was that little boys were unwilling to read books or watch movies or pay attention to stories in which the main character was a girl, even adventure or action stories. Little girls did not have similar objections to books, movies or stories in which the lead was male. Maximizing audience or sales (or trying to keep a mixed sex group of kids quiet) meant stories (primarily) about boys. Perhaps something similar is true of modern fiction. Women do not demand (only) stuff about women. Men are not only less likely to read fiction generally, but are willing only to read stuff about men, so maximizing an audience or sales …

[Keep in mind that, like Larry Summers, I am not so much generalizing here as talking about a distribution, but unlike him, I am trying to characterize the whole distribution, not just one tail of it. Also, I am offering my observations not as wisdom but to raise the issue to hear where I am wrong. I offer an anecdote or two and ask whether they are consistent with the general pattern of the data.]

[1] In a weird way, this DoL has passed down to my children. Although my daughter enjoys and reads fiction, it is generally not what one refers to as literature; it is my son who enjoys literature, and indeed received his undergraduate degree in literature. However, he married a woman who is at least as well read in that way as he, and I would be mildly surprised if my daughter ends up with a man who dominates her in that regard.

48

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 3:06 pm

OK, one more. “For people to link to her article without revealing that information is, to quote Captain Hook in Speilberg’s film, “bad form.”’

If so, then good form must be terribly inefficient. The information is in the linked article. I can’t remember “Hook” very well but I remember that it seemed a mess. So, in the spirit of trading “Hook” references, let me say, Mitchell: like “Hook”, your comment seems a mess.

49

Metatone 09.21.13 at 3:08 pm

“an insight into the way global capitalism is unfolding” says Mitchell Freedman.

This is what bothered me most about the article. It doesn’t bring any new insight to the table, not even for people who merely read the opinion or book columns in The Guardian. Throw in that whatever warmed up insights of others it does throw up are expressed obscurely and thus destined for little impact and it’s hard not to feel disappointed in Franzen.

50

William Timberman 09.21.13 at 3:09 pm

Just to turn the flame a little higher, what’s my all-time favorite novel? A Sport and a Pastime, which is as carefully staged as any — so much so, in fact, that you have to will yourself not to hear the creaking of the boards as the characters move about. And yet, dammit, it just seems to work — for me anyway. God knows what actual women think about whether or not Salter understands women. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that not all women would agree on a judgment. Best to stop here, though and scurry back to my burrow under the bridge. If I know what’s good for me.

51

Anon 09.21.13 at 3:21 pm

“the writer must indicate that he or she is well aware that the class position of the characters implicates them in some sort of immorality. This usually feels pretty cheap.”

I know! Stay classy, class consciousness!

“What do you mean ‘important academic insight’? Is that different from a regular old important insight?”

Pretty cheap way to score a point, no? I don’t why Freedman used ‘academic,’ and I don’t know Kraus’ work at all. But I think Freedman’s right that there’s insight here. I think Franzen’s point is, on the one hand, a critical one about the psychology and context of Kraus’ style–suggesting that Kraus’ hatred *could* be inaccurate because pathologically motivated–and, on the other hand, the appreciative point that his criticisms are nonetheless often apt and beautifully made.

This seems to be the point of his oversharing about his personal life in relation to his own hatefulness toward contemporary technology and culture. He’s making the critical psychological point that his own attitudes and article are pathologically driven, a reflection of his historical place, background, and personal story and, at the same time, insisting that doesn’t disqualify them from being apt. He seems to be recommending to the reader that we take the same thoughtful critical stance towards his haterdom that he does: be on your guard, but don’t dismiss it.

I think that’s why I found the article both confusing, disatisfying, and thought provoking. It’s undecided, it’s against itself and for itself, it’s thinking in process, which we rarely see any more.

But of course I don’t think that can beat the nuance of: “These criticisms are not ex nihilo novelties in the known universe” or “kids get off the lawn!”

52

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 3:29 pm

“Pretty cheap way to score a point, no? I don’t why Freedman used ‘academic,’ and I don’t know Kraus’ work at all.”

Sorry, that one was a bit of a Kraus joke. Kraus is always picking on little things like that, so it seemed funny that, in defending Kraus, Mitchell was doing the sort of thing that especially annoyed Kraus. Meaningless insertions of words like ‘academic’, for non-effect. But never mind.

“But I think Freedman’s right that there’s insight here. I think Franzen’s point is, on the one hand, a critical one about the psychology and context of Kraus’ style–suggesting that Kraus’ hatred *could* be inaccurate because pathologically motivated–and, on the other hand, the appreciative point that his criticisms are nonetheless often apt and beautifully made.”

I agree that Franzen is making this point, and I agree that it’s a good one. At least a correct one. But – perhaps I was not clear – what I find vexing about Franzen is that he doesn’t think the correct point through. And at such great length!

53

Anon 09.21.13 at 3:34 pm

On a related note, I think the entire critical category of “haterdom” is incoherent, dishonest, and hypocritical. Misplaced or not, Franzen’s hatred is defensive, based in his love of threatened things: the toleration of people and things that aren’t beautiful and efficient, navel-gazing overlong books, bookstores, unfinished and meandering 120+ character thoughts, tweets from birds not phones.

He may be mistaken in thinking these things are truly threatened, or that they ought to be loved by anyone else, or that the costs of technology outweigh the benefits, but one man’s hater is another man’s lover.

Or, as Nietzsche used to say: Haters gonna call lovers of things we hate ‘haters,’ then praise each other for not being haters.

54

LFC 09.21.13 at 3:34 pm

I haven’t (yet) read the Franzen Guardian piece.

I have however encountered a couple of Franzen’s novels. I picked up The Twenty-Seventh City a long time ago but only got through a little bit, as I recall (even had to look up the title now). Later I bought a paperback of The Corrections as something to read on a train ride. I managed to get through some of it though I skipped some parts and doubt that I ever finished it. I thought there were some passages of memorable writing, such as the passage where the protagonist, having lost his academic job b.c of having ****** a student, goes sort of berserk and smashes the glasses and bottles on his dining table. Or something like that. So there were a couple of passages that stayed with me, and F. does some reasonably clever poking-of-fun at po-mo in the academy (now perhaps has a slightly dated feel?). But I found the book as a whole overlong and uneven. But then I also couldn’t get through Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, despite some superb writing in it. I guess I’m just not a huge fan of long, sprawling post-1970, say, novels. With the exception of Iris Murdoch’s novels of the late 1980s, such as The Book and the Brotherhood, which, as with so many things, you either like or you don’t. I do, though haven’t read them in a long time.

55

nnyhav 09.21.13 at 3:40 pm

Franzen has long been a lightning rod, but the latest iteration sparked a worthy redirection and a grudging nod

56

bob mcmanus 09.21.13 at 3:44 pm

when was that little boys were unwilling to read books or watch movies or pay attention to stories in which the main character was a girl, even adventure or action stories

Men are not only less likely to read fiction generally, but are willing only to read stuff about men

Well, you know, anime. Miyazaki, Anno Hideki, Oshii amd the rest for thirty years. Do these three have anything with male leads? Have to think. Miyazaki’s latest and last is different. And female leads in anime action roles is entirely ordinary, Miyazaki gets too much credit.

We are not talking so much about boys as about seinen/young men when we talk about the preference for female leads, and God knows it is problematic in its own ways. And it hasn’t exactly turned Japan into a feminist utopia. So maybe selling a female imaginary to a male audience doesn’t do any good, as long as it is a socialized capitalist female imaginary. Still workin on it.

57

Cheryl Rofer 09.21.13 at 3:48 pm

@ marcel #47: I can’t point out whether you’re wrong about the marketing, but you have touched on a social point familiar to me. When I was a child, I read stories that had male protagonists and believed that what they were doing, or striving for, was open to me. By having lucked into a family that believed that was true, and by ignoring teachers who didn’t, I managed to avoid being disillusioned on that until quite an advanced age. There were small indications in graduate school, and then the world of work made it quite clear that not all that would be open to me.

Perhaps, like Frantzen, I am becoming crankier as I get older, but Belle’s comment about the sexism of mid to late 20th century male novelists rings true to me. It’s not just the inability to write good female characters – whole novels are shot through with assumptions about things that are important or interesting that simply don’t connect with my life. It is interesting to read about others’ lives, but not so exclusively as those male authors write.

58

b9n10nt 09.21.13 at 4:00 pm

Belle, the Corrections casts everyone in the family as unreal, distracted from their inner lives. The original sin for the family is sexual repression and patriarchy, culminating in a traumatic (sex) life for both parents. The unreality of the characters, especially the wife and daughters (I think I remember there being 2), is precisely a consequence of the society and family they emerge from. How can we fault Franzen for writing unreal charactacters? as real people we all inhabit persona’s that are only more real because we have bodies and are not trapped on the page, as fictional characters must be.

Sexism has consequences that present as the stunted development of personality and the inability for our society to make space for authenticity. This is forcefully portrayed in the Corrections.

I write on hazy impressions of the novel, hoping to provoke from yourself or others a counter-argument.

Regarding the essay: the most important “grumpy old man” criticism of modern society is its distractibility. We have the resources, civil freedoms, and just enough potential political power to make enormous strides towards securing our civilization’s sustainability and alleviating hardships for millions. Yet the weekly gross for “Sandra Bullock in a space suit” will far out-gain a hundred good causes. For me, that’s the only point that Franzen makes that’s worth making.

Regarding the thread: If you are ticked-off by a Franzen essay in the Guardian (and any of the other countless “wrong on the internet” battles) , doesn’t it become emotionally awkward to pivot towards something in your personal life that might authentically matter? My sense is that sought-out emotional turbulence regarding trifles really does enable a degree of self-alienation.

59

marcel 09.21.13 at 4:02 pm

Cheryl wrote:

When I was a child, I read stories that had male protagonists and believed that what they were doing, or striving for, was open to me. By having lucked into a family that believed that was true, and by ignoring teachers who didn’t, I managed to avoid being disillusioned on that until quite an advanced age.

My daughter was a varsity athlete in HS and college, and one of things I am proudest of about our child rearing is summed up in the following anecdote. She was on the HS track team & one day during a meet when she was in 9th grade, she came over after one of the boys’ races, having noticed, apparently for the first time, that boys who were fairly mediocre runners had times that were less than those of the fastest girls in the corresponding race. Outraged, she pointed this out and asked, “Did you know about this?” I had to admit that I had, but I was thrilled that it had taken her until she was 14 for her to learn about this.

60

LFC 09.21.13 at 4:03 pm

Men are not only less likely to read fiction generally, but are willing only to read stuff about men

But many novels are centrally about both men and women, obvs. (Take the women or the men out of say, Middlemarch or Wuthering Heights or etc etc, and the books wd collapse.)

I fairly recently read Banks’s Matter, b.c so many people here were on about Banks and how great his books are. Can’t say it did a lot for me but, you know, you need the men *and* the women there. (Otherwise you’re just left with the spaceships and the avatars and the Octs and the various other non-human species, and really, who cares that much? Ok, trying to be provocative here [and failing, no doubt].)

61

geo 09.21.13 at 4:28 pm

OP: his Guardian essay isn’t complaining about anything for which there aren’t already perfectly good, complaining memes

The three stages of middlebrow response to revelations of political atrocity or assaults on conventional wisdom: 1) That’s nonsense; 2) That’s exaggerated; 3) That’s old news. John, how often do you find yourself thinking that the nth+1 criticism of sexism or the war in Iraq or the National Security State is tedious and superfluous because the point has already been made? “I’ve heard this already; tell me something new!” is a response I’d expect from Maureen Dowd or some other Beltway airhead but not from you.

The flattening of consciousness by the commercialization of culture doesn’t happen in a week. It’s a long arc, centuries-long by now, and infinitely ramified. It demands persevering criticism, reformulated in every generation, from Diderot to Hazlitt to Arnold to Kraus to Lawrence to Adorno to Trilling to Mills to Mailer to Birkerts to Franzen and Rebecca Solnit. And we’ll still probably lose. But it’s urgent work, and it’s terribly discouraging to hear an intelligent person respond to it with “been there, heard that.”

62

LFC 09.21.13 at 4:29 pm

Belle Waring:
It is astringently refreshing to have a novelist not care about having sex with you at all. It’s the best! Goodbye, poorly drawn female characters who exist as trophies for when the protagonists level up after a boss battle with Freudian analysis!

What about novels by women in which female characters are interested in having sex with men? Presumably BW has no problem w that. She’s only bothered by male novelists who treat women as sex objects. (So let’s go through Women in Love and strip out all the parts where Lawrence might possibly be guilty of objectifying women and then stitch the remaining pages together and voila! a non-sexist masterpiece of 20th-century fiction. Can’t wait to read it.)

63

Hidari 09.21.13 at 4:35 pm

I suppose it would be absurd, in a discussion of an essay about Karl Kraus, to get anyone to talk about Karl Kraus?

64

Nine 09.21.13 at 4:36 pm

“When Coase died I thought about penning, in his honor, a prolegomenon to a possible sequel to his Theory of the Firm. I would propose a theory of the Fall of the Book, organized around an account of precipitously falling transaction costs, sentence by sentence.”

Can we assume that your next academic paper will be submitted as series of tweets in support of this prolegomenon ? And why are you OP’s – well, not this one – so very long ?

65

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 4:41 pm

You could actually make the opposite argument w/r/t Freedom. There are four threads to the novel: Patty Emerson Berglund, who’s followed from childhood to middle age, in chapters that–it’s eventually revealed–are supposed to be an autobiography written on a therapist’s recommendation (these chapters have some of the same rhetorical issues as the writing about women in The Corrections, which I think are interesting and not necessarily to be condemned as “inccorrect,” but are also annoying from a purely readerly point of view, but anyway); Walter Berglund, her husband; his friend Richard, a famous rock musician; and their son, let’s call him Alex Keaton sans virginity. Arguably, on the basis of the text, Franzen knows the least about Walter’s life as an adult. When he’s forced to write about a man at work, he writes about how young professional women inevitably fall in love with their male bosses (alternating with stories about unscrupulous rich people, greedy poor people and abstract treatieses on population dynamics). Or else he makes the man an artist who doesn’t have to go to an office and does the equivalent of writing essays about his peeves all day (alternating with hot sex with groupies). Or he rewrites “All My Sons” (alternating with the need to choose between the hot rich girl who uses him and the intelligent working class girl who supports him). On the other hand, he knows lots and lots and lots about problems between husbands and wives, and the dissatisfaction of women with the options available to them, and their wish to replace their staid husbands with rock stars. The problem is that–as every reviewer has noted–Patty’s opinions about herself and her own life sound more like Franzen’s than like any woman’s.

66

John Holbo 09.21.13 at 4:45 pm

“I suppose it would be absurd, in a discussion of an essay about Karl Kraus, to get anyone to talk about Karl Kraus?”

Hell, it’s all I can do to get people to notice my Coase joke. Thanks, Nine!

“And why are you OP’s – well, not this one – so very long ?”

Because I’m like Franzen at heart, the bastard!

67

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 4:47 pm

Hidari,
What I know about Karl Kraus is this: None of us is qualified to talk about Karl Kraus.

68

js. 09.21.13 at 4:55 pm

Even by Franzen’s exalted standards, that was some incredibly fatuous bullshit. Also, this:

The Corrections, Jesus. It didn’t even have to be bad! There were many aspects of it that were very well observed and memorable. It needed an editor. It needed a nano-particle of self-awareness that was doing something other than comparing the distance of Franzen’s masturbatory ejecta to that of Philip Roth.

Could not be truer. Maybe the same editor could then have gone to work on this latest “essay”.

69

Anon 09.21.13 at 5:04 pm

“The flattening of consciousness by the commercialization of culture doesn’t happen in a week. It’s a long arc, centuries-long by now, and infinitely ramified. It demands persevering criticism, reformulated in every generation.”

Yes, and–in the spirit of Adorno–part of the task of criticism is to reveal that the commodification of culture is systematic, each little trivial piece adding up to a relatively inflexible, homogenous, and inescapable totality.

So in addition to reformulating these criticisms, another merit of the Franzen piece might be that it draws many small complaints–easily dismissed in isolation–together into a larger whole. I assumed that was part of the point of combining observations about seemingly silly sources of anger (the annoying Mac vs. PC commercial, techno-fads and boosterism) with bigger concerns like global capitalism and the environment–our belief that those small symptomatic pieces of the larger development are trivial or innocuous is part of the problem.

To oversimplify: the point is that if you don’t object to parts, you don’t object to the whole, that if you don’t hate the twitterverse, you don’t really hate global capitalism. And–correct or not–I don’t think that’s the same old criticism we usually hear.

70

Katherine 09.21.13 at 5:05 pm

Belle, your musings on late twentieth century male writers reminds me of this post which had me laughing and nodding at the same time:

http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/07/01/fond-memories-of-vagina-martin-amis-the-pregnant-widow/

Also, LFC, do you read and write purely in strawfeminist -ese?

71

PJW 09.21.13 at 5:08 pm

I like the stuff Franzen points to on adornment/utilitarianism in technology and the links therein to Ruskin, William Morris, the applied arts and recent criticism I read just the other day that Apple has become a fashion company. I suppose one could also link adornment/ornamentation to the women-in-fictional-works undercurrent in these Franzen threads. Relatedly, Cormac McCarthy is an interesting case when it comes to female characters. He said in a Wall Street Journal interview a few years ago that he’s going to try real hard to create a great female character in one of his forthcoming books (The Passenger). As far as women and McCarthy go, I don’t believe his masterpiece Blood Meridian suffers anything for a lack of a strong, well-crafted female character.

72

Anon 09.21.13 at 5:13 pm

“What I find vexing about Franzen is that he doesn’t think the correct point through. And at such great length!”

What I found vexing was that he *does* think it through at such great length, but never reaches any clear conclusion! It feels like thinking in progress: unsure what it’s asking or what it wants to say, discovering these things over the course of the article, never quite getting there.

In the end, I found that as interesting as vexing. Because perhaps one of the worst consequences of social media isn’t just that we speak, speak, and draw conclusions too quickly. Instead it’s that we cut out the development, the thought process, the errors, the second guessing, the wandering–publishing only the result.

Cutting out everything but the finished, perfected product may be good from the perspective of artworks, journalistic professionalism, or commodity production, but not from the perspective of critical dialogue, discussion, and debate. I’m pleased to see someone think too much, too long, and too imperfectly about a difficult question, especially when the goal seems to be to provoke a critical dialogue, not to publish conclusions.

73

LFC 09.21.13 at 5:15 pm

Also, LFC, do you read and write purely in strawfeminist -ese?

No. But I prob shd bow out of this thread anyway.

74

LFC 09.21.13 at 5:20 pm

@PJW 71: agree re Blood Meridian.
ok, now i’m out

75

Kevin 09.21.13 at 5:26 pm

I can’t really dispute the main point about recent male authors being bad at writing female characters. But I think Bloix has a point about Patty Berglund in Freedom — although folks might reasonably disagree about how well drawn a character she is, she doesn’t seem like anyone’s trophy in the novel, and she is most certainly the protagonist.

76

Metatone 09.21.13 at 5:38 pm

@geo/Anon

I think it’s revealing and depressing that you see Franzen in a line with Adorno, because in the end Adorno did much more to bolster the commercialization of culture than to dismantle it. Adorno’s “critiques” (and I use quotes purposefully) are all about solidifying the very power system that enables the commercialization. Franzen does, depressingly, seem very much in the same mould.

(Since no-one wants to turn this into a thread on Adorno, I’ll leave it there.)

77

Main Street Muse 09.21.13 at 5:48 pm

Franzen sounds like an aging character in one of his books. Not really a good thing.

78

JanieM 09.21.13 at 6:09 pm

Katherine @70 — thanks for the link, that was great.

79

Tom Slee 09.21.13 at 6:10 pm

Z #45: Have you read any Murakami? Norwegian Wood and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are both full of interesting complex female characters driving the plot.

Well I haven’t read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but I’ve read my fair share of Murakami. And I love Murakami, but not for any “interesting complex female characters”. His women are enigmatic, beautiful, mysterious, and often unaccountably fall for the bumbling protagonist. They embody qualities rather than action. I thought Steve, who should get back to reading, got it right when he wrote of Norwegian Wood “This is a romance novel for dudes, which is to say that it’s sensitive-dude pornography.”

As I say, I love Murakami, but I’d be surprised if he has a big following among women.

80

Tom Slee 09.21.13 at 6:12 pm

Google provides me with an “I happen to have Marshall McLuhan here” moment. Here is Murakami himself in Paris Review:

In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It’s a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.

81

Ronan(rf) 09.21.13 at 6:17 pm

I’m interested to know which (recent) male writers people think do create fully formed female characters?

82

parsimon 09.21.13 at 6:32 pm

it’s terribly discouraging to hear an intelligent person respond to it with “been there, heard that.”

I’m afraid this made me laugh. Indeed it can be tempting, in the moment, to respond to the ‘get off my lawn’ aspects of Franzen’s piece with a ‘yeah, and you’re an old man’, as John seems to do, but a 30-second attention span doesn’t signal anything good.

83

parsimon 09.21.13 at 6:40 pm

Belle: It is astringently refreshing to have a novelist not care about having sex with you at all.

You know, I have a feeling many, many novelists don’t care about having sex with you at all. This is just such an odd cast to put on things — and I echo Mitchell Freedman at 26 here.

84

roger gathman 09.21.13 at 6:43 pm

I’m wondering, on the fall of the book front, what it means to say I haven’t read the Corrections because “I don’t have the time.” What exactly is the time that you don’t have? Since this is the most common way to putdown books while not reading them, I think it might deserve some philosophical song and dance. What exactly does it mean to have the time for reading x? Say a Vanity Fair article. Or Parallel Stories. Or Ulysses. Or 50 shades of grey. It is an odd thing, this not having time. Because – in this era of the pre-, as in pre-owned cars and stuff – the not having time seems to operate under the register of pre-rejection. I don’t have time to read 50 shades of grey because I have had time to read about it. Funny thing about time, how it ebbs and flows, isn’t it?
The time constraints of the pre-rejection phase are extremely helpful in one, keeping one’s status – one still retains one’s status as an intellectual, because of course you already know about the book you haven’t read, cause of how intellectual you are, and in two, continuing to make judgments on a subject you already have casually said you know nothing about. This way lies the pundit’s career – in fact, the whole of the Iraq war could be summed up in the fact that the warmongers didn’t have time to, well, know anything about Iraq. Not having time is, next to being credentialed by taking courses at the right university – in which time is determined by what mentor one is sucking up to – a prerequisite for upward movement as an authority.
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go into this subject at more length.

85

Anderson 09.21.13 at 6:52 pm

Franzen seems like the classic instance of someone who wants very much to be a great novelist – except there’s that darn awkward part where you hafta write Great Novels.

His prose just isn’t that good; his characters all seem infected by his contempt; and if I ever finish one of his novels, I’ll tell you then what I think of his plots.

… Re: Belle’s point, it is true. Even someone as painfully self-aware as DFW blew it in Infinite Jest. I don’t know what’s wrong with us.

86

Anderson 09.21.13 at 7:00 pm

… This from the Awl was also good (google it, links on my phone are a pain):

“But if you are saying that the language of the book in its near-uniform clumsiness is meant to reflect the inner (and ALLCAPS OUTER) irritations of the characters, then I guess I’d say I’m surprised that Franzen wants all of his characters to sound like not-so-great novelists.”

87

The Raven 09.21.13 at 7:03 pm

The essay, I think, bears more and more careful reading than I have yet done. Still, it seems to me that he is objecting not to modernity, but the dominance of the most popular. If, Franzen is making arguments similar to others, still he does it with style, and that seems to me to be worth the trouble. As to his critique of technology, I look at these two sentences, “What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?”

It is a damn good question, and I wish I had an answer to it. But it is not Amazon or the internet that is shutting down such publication. I live with the office manager of a literary agent, and placing books that have no hope of become best-sellers is near-impossible these days, and was becoming so decades before the internet emerged as a force in letters. The kind of writing and reading that Franzen values always was the province of a small minority, and the people who are funding publishing are not willing to cater to the tastes of any small minority. The business model of the publishing houses has increasingly become the business model of Hollywood, and this began decades before Jeff Bezos was even a gleam in his father’s eye.

Ironically, it is likely to be publication by co-ops, by “small” presses, self-publishing even, that is likely to save the writing and audience that Franzen loves best.

(As a footnote to this, I don’t think he’s recognized that Microsoft has stolen Apple’s lead in UI design in many areas. But then, this is another small minority. In another decade, they may all be using Google devices.)

Croaks the very contrary Raven.

88

The Raven 09.21.13 at 7:12 pm

BTW, Belle, “It didn’t even have to be bad! There were many aspects of it that were very well observed and memorable. It needed an editor.”

This is also part of the “blockbuster syndrome.” These days, the authors who get good editing are either lucky in their publishers or choose their own people to do it for them. Cost-cutting has obviated first copy-editing, then line-editing, and now even the broader sort of editing that gives the sketch of a book its final form.

I can’t speak to the sexism, though. It’s a disease of many men of this culture, who are beginning grasp just how badly patriarchal society has failed and don’t like it at all.

89

Peter Hovde 09.21.13 at 7:18 pm

I’m reminded of Foster Wallace’s piece (included in “Consider the Lobster”) on Updike, which also more generally discusses the “Great Male Narcissists, hereinafter GMN” and, in discussing a particular Updike novel, features such stats as “number of lines about recent global catastrophe” and “number of lines about the protagonist’s penis and how he feels about it.”

90

geo 09.21.13 at 7:26 pm

Belle: “I read very quickly”

This may be a mistake. If someone simply zips along until he/she finds some sufficiently irritating bit, then stops, he/she will have missed out on a lot of awfully good books.

91

PatrickinIowa 09.21.13 at 7:36 pm

In my view, none of Pynchon’s characters are fully formed and in the round, because that’s not what his fiction is concerned with. On the other hand, if Belle (or any other reader I respected) laid out for me how there were systematic differences between the way he depicts his male and female characters that ought to make it problematic for a 21st century reader to continue, I think I’d concede the point that I’m Pynchon’s central audience–let’s just call it “nerdy over-read fanboy” for short–and other people, possibly most women, are not.

Interestingly I had a version of this discussion when I was an undergrad 40 years ago, when my then girlfriend was explaining to me why she didn’t like John Barth, and always found it more appealing to reread Virginia Woolf. I resisted at the time, and boy am I embarrassed about that now.

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Anderson 09.21.13 at 7:37 pm

90: where are you getting the “then stops” part?

93

MG 09.21.13 at 7:37 pm

Ugh Jonathan Franzen. I never even heard of the guy until I heard him trashing the fact that he’d been selected for “Oprah’s Book Club” on NPR. Okay, but he could have said “no thanks” privately, right? Then he goes on to say he felt embarrassed that dudes would be put off from reading it.

And I decided never to read anything by him because why would I want to financially support yet another sexist? Because sometimes it is about sexism (and class and exclusivity).

That said, I did click on this article and stopped halfway through because it was TOO LONG. So add “he is a crappy writer” to my knowledge of JFranz.

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parsimon 09.21.13 at 7:45 pm

I must say, so many of these criticisms are ridiculous: A writer is a crappy writer because his pieces are TOO LONG? Perhaps a writer is a crappy writer because she or he fails to produce nicely-sized paragraphs, writing rather in hugely long blocks of text. I’d actually go for that one: I’m not a fan of neverending, run-on paragraphs.

95

Hidari 09.21.13 at 7:50 pm

Most of the commentators seem to have read a very different essay from the one I read. Perhaps it would help (me) if I selected what I thought were the key passages.

“The concept of “cool” has been… fully co-opted by the tech industries…(and) I confess to feeling some ….disappointment … when a politically committed print magazine that I respect, N+1, denigrates print magazines as terminally “male,” celebrates the internet as “female,” and somehow neglects to consider the internet’s accelerating pauperisation of freelance writers. Or when good lefty professors who once resisted alienation – who criticised capitalism for its restless assault on every tradition and every community that gets in its way – start calling the corporatised internet “revolutionary.”

“America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. Our far left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our far right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that markets have gone global, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep healthcare costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and to let them profit at our expense. Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”

“To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress.”

“For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of “empowerment” and “creativity” and “freedom” and “connection” and “democracy” abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were.”

“Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses, labouring harder for less and less, with no job security, because the warehouses are situated in places where they’re the only business hiring. And the more of the population that lives like those workers, the greater the downward pressure on book prices and the greater the squeeze on conventional booksellers, because when you’re not making much money you want your entertainment for free, and when your life is hard you want instant gratification (“Overnight free shipping!”).”

Not the most original thoughts, perhaps, but rather different from the ones that some of the commentators above have persuaded themselves that Franzen is making.

In any case, whatever intellectual sins Franzen might be accused of (and he is hardly in Kraus’s league in terms of diagnosing cultural sickness), they pale into insignificance compared to Jennifer Weiner’s witless ramblings.

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Anderson 09.21.13 at 7:52 pm

Flaubert killed off Emma B at the end, that adulterous selfish bitch, but at the same time he put himself into her character; remember the story about his choking on her poison as he wrote? He identified with her. And identification is a huge part of the novel experience; one can disagree and point to counterexamples, but I think they are likely to be rule-proving exceptions. (Not that ID is necessarily simple or unironic, natch.)

And I guess my prob with the Franzens and Roths is, one, whom do they love? What characters do they put themselves into? Vs which characters are just there for their own gratified lust or spite? Biographers run risks writing about people they despise. Novelists have a similar problem.

Contrast someone like Stendhal, who was very childish about women in his life, but who really liked women as well. Gina in Charterhouse is a great character, not least because the author likes her, as opposed to wanting his surrogate to fuck her or piss on her (ambivalent organ, the penis … no wonder we’re confused.)

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Anderson 09.21.13 at 7:55 pm

94: an essay of 150 words is too long, if it’s badly written. A well-written essay can keep the reader going to the end, however long. I suggest you consider the chance that the folks here are as smart as you and accustomed to reading long and difficult works.

98

geo 09.21.13 at 8:08 pm

Anderson @90: Perhaps I should have said “stops paying attention” or “tunes out.” How did I deduce that? It was the only way I could make sense of the notion that it’s pretty much impossible to enjoy Bellow, Roth, Cheever, Updike, Mailer, Malamud, Vidal, Powers, Percy, Penn Warren, Taylor, Naipaul, Rush, Price, DeLillo, Banks, Barnes, Yates, Dubus, Trevor, Maxwell, Bowles, Pynchon, Stone, Connell, Stegner, McCarthy, Ballard, Carey, Amis, Amis, Shacochis, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Grass, or any other important male novelists (except William Burroughs) of the mid- to late-20th century (nor, it goes without saying, D.H. Lawrence). It may be impossible not to want to give each of them a piece of one’s mind, or even rip all of them a new one. But inability to enjoy any of them suggests a lack of tuned-in reading.

99

Anderson 09.21.13 at 8:17 pm

98: so to make sense of what Belle said, you have to make stuff up, rather than accept her statement that she finds them to be sexist dilweeds?

Do you think they aren’t sexist dilweeds, or do you think that should be no serious obstacle to Belle’s enjoying their works? Or do we really have to stick with the little woman’s attention span not being up to the challenge?

(Feminism: still news to many, apparently.)

100

js. 09.21.13 at 8:18 pm

Hidari @95:

Practically every one of the paragraphs you quote is a series of non-sequiturs. I guess it’s great that he’s opposed to the ravages of contemporary capitalism and techno-utopianism, but the piece is still an incoherent mess. (And yeah, I guess I’d cut him a bit more slack if he weren’t a writer of serviceable, more or less middle brow fiction who thinks he’s writing the sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow.)

101

bianca steele 09.21.13 at 8:23 pm

geo:
Of course, that it’s impossible to enjoy Jane Austen because she mentions . . . money . . . and her characters sometimes reject men . . . is perfectly reasonable.

102

MG 09.21.13 at 8:24 pm

I have no problem with long articles or books. Or difficult ones. But poorly written ones with just big undigested chunks of quotations? Where you get told that Kraus was popular for his aphorisms and drew thousands at public reading but had a small, exclusive cult-like following due to the intricacy of his code-like writing? Which is it?

Where the third paragraph begins with “First footnote: “? Really? It would have been so tough for a piece for “The Guardian” to begin that sentence a bit less jarringly? Or to have some backup for “Kraus would hate blogs” or “Luddites weren’t Luddites”. This sort of lazy writing does not deserve careful reading or even finishing, really.

103

Hidari 09.21.13 at 8:41 pm

“Practically every one of the paragraphs you quote is a series of non-sequiturs.”

Really? They have no vestige of logic? Merely a string of unrelated words or sentences?

So if I was to say that a certain firm was paying its workers less and less to do more and more work, your immediate response would be “That sentence is illogical and has no meaning!”

Likewise if I was to argue that downward pressure on wages leads to less demand (as workers have less money to spend), again, your response would be that this was an illogical argument, that it had no meaning, that it violated the basic laws of logic?

Really?

I mean I get that a lot of white American members of the educated Bourgeoisie really really hate Franzen for reasons that I can’t summon up the energy to care about. I understand that. Really I do.

But many of the commentators here have simply not read the essay under discussion (indeed some boast about that very fact). Which is fine, but if you can’t be bothered to read the essay, I certainly can’t be bothered to read your comment on the essay that you can’t be bothered to read (especially if the comment is of the ‘this is the sort of thing I imagine that essay might have been about, given that I only managed to read the first paragraph. But let’s face it, it was probably sexist or something. Anyway I have TV to watch’ sort.).

104

Anderson 09.21.13 at 8:56 pm

“but the actual substance of our daily lives is total distraction”

News flash to Franzen: “the actual substance of our daily lives” is WORK, for most of us. I practice law, I come home to my autistic child and the rest of my family … where’s the “distraction”? Is that insufficiently real for the little asshole?

NB the commenter upthread who noticed work as something JF had trouble describing.

Franzen, like Kraus, complains that aristocracy is on its way out, replaced by a new focus of accumulated wealth. The valid points aren’t new – patronage and leisure had their upside – and the new points are a mess.

105

LFC 09.21.13 at 9:06 pm

Said I was out of here, but I’d like to point out that Hidari has missed a category of commenter: those who had not read the essay and who made no comment on it. B.c the thread also came to concern F’s novels since BW and others introduced the topic.

Fwiw, I have looked at the essay and I may end up agreeing w some or much of it when I have read it all properly. Franzen has a prickly personality but he can still be right about some things, e.g., the decline of independent bookstores (though some are hanging on).

Re what Anderson said above about a novelist’s contempt for characters: maybe, but not always. One case in point: V.S. Naipaul’s Guerrillas.
Bad politics? Check.
Contempt for characters? Check.
Sexist? Check.
A good novel? Damn right.

106

Ouranosaurus 09.21.13 at 9:08 pm

I wandered into this discussion immediately after watching the Louis C.K. clip that’s been circulating from his Conan appearance, about how he doesn’t want to give his daughters smartphones yet.

Now, I actually went and read the entire Franzen essay, which was like walking a mile in mud up to my knees. And at the end of that long walk, there was… nothing. Just a vague sense that modernity kind of sucks, and we all die. Wow.

I don’t know Franzen from his fiction (it lacks the essential ingredient I seek, which Margaret Atwood would describe as squid in outer space) so this is by far the longest piece I’ve ever read by him. And it was long. An entire broadsheet of newsprint, if the Guardian ran it unedited, I’d guess.

Louis C.K.’s talk with Conan was not presented as anything as grandiose, just a throwaway conversation. But it was clear that he’s thought about modernity and technology and consumerism for at least as long and deeply as Franzen. And his version has several advantages.

1 – It includes two separate calls to action, in “don’t give your kids smartphones” and “stare into the abyss of existential dread sometimes instead of distracting yourself.”

2 – It’s only eight minutes long, including banter and Springstein impressions.

3 – It’s actually enjoyable.

C.K. feels like the jester throwing out truths and jokes, and maybe he doesn’t mind if no one takes it seriously. Franzen desperately, desperately wants to be taken seriously, because he’s fundamentally an elitist, even if that clashes with his ostensibly liberal politics (see also: Aaron Sorkin). So of the two, Louis C.K. is likely to have much more of an impact, while Franzen is off playing Polonius. And isn’t changing things the point?

107

Anderson 09.21.13 at 9:12 pm

Contempt can be carried off, LFC – I’ve not read Naipaul, so maybe I will look at that one. But I posit that the reader IDs with someone, maybe the authorial persona.

(Again, I’m not equating the experience of literature with consuming Mike Hammer or Silhouettes. But they’re varieties of the same thing.)

108

LFC 09.21.13 at 9:19 pm

I posit that the reader IDs with someone, maybe the authorial persona

yes, i think that’s probably right

109

js. 09.21.13 at 9:20 pm

I mean I get that a lot of white American members of the educated Bourgeoisie really really hate Franzen for reasons that I can’t summon up the energy to care about. I understand that. Really I do.

I’m glad you do, but given that I’m neither white nor a member of the bourgeoisie (seriously, not by a very far stretch), this understanding would seem to have little bearing in this context.

Anyway, I said that the paragraphs were composed of non-sequiturs. Taking just a first one, the concept of “cool” has very little bearing on Rushdie texting (omitted in your quote) or N+1’s piece. The characterization of print media vs. the internet as male and female respectively (which I don’t know what to make of, but I also haven’t read the piece in question), has no obvious relation to the fact that one of the effects of digital media is the pauperization of etc. This complaint against digital media at least has some obvious relation to the following sentence, but the latter is at best a grossly unfair characterization. Sure there nominal leftists who are techno-utopians; there are also lots of people on the left debunking this utopianism. And anyway, were how the former “resisting alienation”? What does that even mean?

So, yeah. Non-seq

110

js. 09.21.13 at 9:21 pm

Sorry. Last bit should be:

So, yeah. Non-sequiturs mostly.

111

Tom 09.21.13 at 9:21 pm

I’m interested to know which (recent) male writers people think do create fully formed female characters?

Kim Stanley Robinson?

112

Dave Maier 09.21.13 at 9:54 pm

I got all the way through Freedom, and I liked it okay, but I agree with the commenter who said that Patty Berglund (i.e. in the parts which turn out to be her autobiography) sounds more like Jonathan Franzen than any actual woman. The poster child for that syndrome though, in my not-overly-extensive experience, would have to be Updike, in particular S., which as I recall (read it when it came out) is an epistolary novel in which the female protagonist’s writings read *exactly* like Updike himself (which of course they are, but as I understand it the idea is supposed to be that we don’t notice this).

As for fully formed female characters, when I read it 25 years ago I found the protagonist of Norman Rush’s Mating very convincing (but I’m a guy, so there’s that).

113

Ben 09.21.13 at 10:04 pm

Ronan(rf) @ 6:17,

Infinite Jest has a number of them, and while DFW’s short stories are largely concerned with masculinity they have a bunch of fully-formed female characters (especially in, ironically, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Suffering Channel, The Ever-Changing Value of the Yen, Suicide as a Kind of Present . . . and the connected Interviews themselves have a silent female interlocutor who is sharply defined but in oblique ways)

Anderson @ 6:52,

I’d say I’d meet you in the parking lot, but I have no idea what kind of warrant you could make for grouping Infinite Jest with Belle’s complaints.

114

Anderson 09.21.13 at 10:08 pm

Ben, the only females I recall in any detail are the pretty girl with a veil, i.e. a walking punch line, and Avril, who is kinda a monster. I am happy to be corrected.

115

Tony Lynch 09.21.13 at 10:43 pm

What a downer to start the day! A guy writes a thoughtful essay, and then in a classic case of “Liberal Interventionism” gets the kitchen sink thrown at him.

116

Ben 09.21.13 at 10:49 pm

Well if I’m being invited to do so:

The pretty girl with a veil (Joelle) is the focus of hundreds of pages and is the most finely-drawn character after the protagonists (Hal and Don Gately). She’s introduced as her own character before we know she’s the Prettiest Girl of All Time (she tries to commit suicide through a drug overdose), is given one of the most dramatic character arcs, and a lot of the heavy lifting in exploring one of the primary thematic concerns (spiritual decay through the metaphor of drug use and recovery) is done through her voice.

(The veil thing is a heavily-pomo-technique-laden exploration of the female response to the “male gaze”, and is not in the same zipcode as a walking joke. Someone somewhere claimed it was shitting all over Lacan, which, alright.)

Avril is portrayed as a monster, but she’s the only Incandenza whose inner life isn’t divulged; the monstrousness is from the viewpoint of other characters . . .

Other finely-drawn female characters: Kate Gompert (the depressive who has the scene with the clueless doctor, (my favorite) resident of Ennet House), a number of kid tennis players at the academy and other residents at the House, etc. (Most of them are used to explore gender dynamics too.)

Plus there’s no-one remotely close to the trophy for the leveled-up protagonist thing.

117

Lee A. Arnold 09.21.13 at 11:21 pm

I work for several handfuls of employed Hollywood writers and directors who are having their own hard times of course, and it is mostly due to technological changes. Starting in about 2001 or so, I was telling them that the internet was going to revolutionize media delivery and anybody would be able to compete with the majors. (I knew this, from following desktop hardware developments since the late 80’s because I was very interested in how to make and deliver animations for my own project — click on my name.) Anyway, back then, they were all like “What the hell are you talking about — that will never happen!” A few of the thoughtful ones said, “Well maybe, but there will still be a terrible marketing problem: how will anybody get their stuff seen? People will only watch stars, and you will still need the studios to advertise and promote!”

Nowadays of course they are all writing for newbies like AMC and Netflix, and looking at what Amazon and Google might think about financing, it is all going to the same idea now, and they say, “Jeez Lee, you were right — audiences are niching, and this whole thing is blowing wide open,” and I’m saying, “No, YOU were right — everybody’s the same size on Facebook; ABC-TV is a 24/7 Disney advertising operation; look at Murdoch and Fox; and it is freaking impossible to break through the indy clutter.”

So I understand. The fact that there are a lot of bad artists out there makes good ones hope they can break through the noise. But the fact is, you are up against potentially millions of other creators, and an audience member has only 24 hours in the day to look at stuff. There are probably more novels being written than could ever be read. For some artists (new novelists in particular, I would think) the world was easier when it was being bottlenecked through just a few book publishers (and like the screen studios, they are still the only ones with advertising budgets to push their product). Now, audiences, attitudes, and intellectual/emotional appetites appear to be fractionating (is that a word?) into very small niche markets. So don’t give up your day job (if you have one).

118

stubydoo 09.22.13 at 12:08 am

Regarding Belle’s point about the “sexist dillweeds” in the other post. I think Belle was employing a little hyperbole and I’d expect she’d grant exceptions at least a few of the list in @98 above. But I think I can relate. I’d does get annoying to see a whole lot of cultural attention devoted to a book that was clearly written by a sexist dillweed. Such as Eat Pray Love, for example.

119

JanieM 09.22.13 at 12:09 am

There are probably more novels being written than could ever be read.

I suspect that there have always been more novels being written than could ever be read. Until the internet, though, there was no way for their authors to get them out to where other people could see them.

Now, not only are there as many people as ever (proportionally speaking, and in relation to about 7 billion earthlings) who want to write stories, but we all have access to them (more or less), and we all also have access to everything that’s ever been written (more or less).

Somewhere along the way I gave myself permission not to try to keep up with … anything. The canon (whose?), anyone’s else’s opinions about “must reads,” books I’ve started but am not liking, etc. Of geo’s list of male authors, I’ve read at least one book by less than half of them, and there’s only one (Pynchon) where I’ve liked the book enough to read a second one by that author. Okay, I’m a philistine compared to geo, but I’ve known that for a long time, and I don’t care. (This isn’t to say that I don’t very much enjoy geo’s contributions here. I do.)

Life is too short. That’s what I mean when I say “I don’t have time….”

I do a lot of rereading, though. A lot. (Why not? Who would ever dream of listening to a great piece of music only once?) I’m fighting against starting a list, but suffice to say that the books I reread tend answer Anderson’s question, “whom do they love?” by saying, “Everyone.”

120

bob mcmanus 09.22.13 at 12:10 am

115: It is to be expected. I tend to view Holbonism as a an enthusiastic anti-Jamesonism. Whether “capitalism is late for what?” and “difference is our business” are handmaidens of Neo-liberalism are questions for anyone who cares. Like I said above, ascriptive politics as social capitalism.

Anyway, started Jeffrey Nealon
Recommended over Franzen, although the Franzen seems more in touch with our times…never mind. Holbonism is part of the dialectic.

Althusserian parentheticals removed, with apologies.

…you have to assume that the cultural rebellion narratives of the ’60s, which often revolved around the liberation of an individual’s or group’s desire in the face of various social repressions, can now officially be pronounced dead. Under an economic logic that is in fact dedicated to the unleashing of multifarious individual desires and floating values, rather than desire’s dampening or repressive territorialization on a gold standard of univocal value, the role of social “normalization” needs to be rethought from the ground up. Put simply, a repressive notion of “normalization” is not the primary danger lurking within contemporary capitalism

I miss the bridging Berube, though I doubt he misses me.

121

Tom Slee 09.22.13 at 1:18 am

I’m interested to know which (recent) male writers people think do create fully formed female characters?

With Dave Maier’s proviso from #112, my recent favourites have been Paula Spencer in Roddy Doyle’s “The Woman Who Walked into Doors”, Isis Whit in Iain Banks’s “Whit” (and my better half agrees on that one), and Kathy in Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.”

122

tenzing 09.22.13 at 2:01 am

If industrial-strength haterade is your thing, check out John Dolan’s review of The Corrections. He’s not a fan.

123

Anderson 09.22.13 at 2:22 am

Ben, I am less impressed than you ( tho I’d forgotten Kate, a minor character but one into whom DFW put a good bit of himself), but I will allow female commenters here to say what they found in IJ. It might be absurd of me to pronounce on what the book’s characterization of women holds for them.

124

matt 09.22.13 at 2:44 am

Homer’s Penelope

125

geo 09.22.13 at 2:46 am

Anderson@99: Some, many, or most of the novelists I listed may be sexist dillweeds. If so, it just goes to show that sexist dillweeds can write great novels. And yes, certainly, their being sexist dillweeds would be an obstacle to enjoying their work. The point about obstacles, however, is to overcome them.

bianca @101: Precisely. I’m not sure, though, why you addressed that exquisite bit of sarcasm to me rather than to Anderson, who doesn’t seem to understand that dismissing great novels because of particular moral or ideological limitations is a bad idea.

stubydoo@118: I think Belle was employing a little hyperbole
Yes, I’m sure you’re right. But the point isn’t to snark Belle or anyone else, but to remind one another of what all of us often forget: the exasperating necessity of keeping contradictory ideas, eg. overall aesthetic success and a specific failure of moral sympathy in the same work, in mind at the same time.

It does get annoying to see a whole lot of cultural attention devoted to a book that was clearly written by a sexist dillweed
Tolstoy treated his wife pretty badly, but Anna Karenina is one of the greatest of all novels, and perhaps the greatest novel about marriage.

126

Anderson 09.22.13 at 3:04 am

Geo, if the ice cream tastes like dillweed, it’s not reassuring that it is Great Ice Cream. Indeed, not to shake your world too much, the qualifications for “Great Novel” may be up for grabs here. “Overall aesthetic success” can be cover for lots of unlovely things.

Tolstoy is a good example, as we aren’t talking about sexist people, but sexist books. Anna Karenina (the character) rather famously ran away with the book, against T’s original and comparatively dull intention. Again, and I begin to feel trite, but Tolstoy didn’t make a fantasy woman out of her; she and Levin ended up representing what T saw as two sides of himself. As opposed to the variations on “Little Wing” that too many Great Novels reenact. (Contrast his failure to do anything much with Kitty, whom he understands about as little as he did his own wife.)

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Anderson 09.22.13 at 3:12 am

PS – Idk the greatest novel about marriage, but I’m sure it isn’t AK. The Rainbow, for one, is surely superior. But I’m not sure “about marriage” is reducible to a category. Levin spends much more time studying peasants than his wife … again, not unlike the author.

128

Pat 09.22.13 at 3:26 am

I am… puzzled that an author penned an opinion piece primarily concerned with the implications for social justice in the publishing world (am I seriously the only one to connect the dots between the Boston Globe typesetters, the immiseration of freelance writers, and the sad fact that the only way to become a published novelist these days isn’t to write a novel but to collect a gigantic Twitter following that will impress a publisher, because the only thing guaranteed to get anyone’s attention is the prospect of making the same amount of money while employing one fewer person whose job can now be done automatically), and the Crooked Timber crowd’s reaction is… I’m still not sure what. But it seems to be that Franzen didn’t write the sort of book Belle Waring would have written (which I heartily encourage her to write) and the Mac/PC and Vienna comments were terrifically un-hip.

I’m sorry, but this: You aren’t obligated to get every answer right, but you are obligated to think, or at least to try to think. And today you have failed in your obligation. This corner of the Internet is valuable because it is notGawker. Please clean up after yourself when you’re done.

And:

Why isn’t all intellectual life transacted on Twitter?

Because while we’re surely headed straight to hell, we’re not there yet.

129

Ronan(rf) 09.22.13 at 3:29 am

@Tom slee 121
I was definitely thinking k ishiguro (remains of the day, though. Haven’t read ` never let me go` yet)

130

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 4:21 am

“The three stages of middlebrow response to revelations of political atrocity or assaults on conventional wisdom: 1) That’s nonsense; 2) That’s exaggerated; 3) That’s old news. John, how often do you find yourself thinking that the nth+1 criticism of sexism or the war in Iraq or the National Security State is tedious and superfluous because the point has already been made? “I’ve heard this already; tell me something new!” is a response I’d expect from Maureen Dowd or some other Beltway airhead but not from you.”

Here again, I fear I’ve been unclear. Kraus emblematizes, for Franzen, a kind of critical attitude that is in danger of being lost, in the internet age. It is genuinely a problem, then, if these Krausian insights look like retreads of laments the internet is actually quite good at making, in a concise and witty (albeit can haz cheezburger) sort of way. In a sense it ought not to matter when or how the diagnosis gets handed down, so long as it is a good one. But it matters to Franzen, so I think it is reasonable to complain. Franzen, insofar as he is a Krausian, is a lot like the plain people of the internet. And vice versa.

131

geo 09.22.13 at 4:39 am

Anderson: we aren’t talking about sexist people, but sexist books
Sorry, I thought your earlier comment — “Do you think they aren’t sexist dilweeds, or do you think that should be no serious obstacle to Belle’s enjoying their works?” — meant that we were talking about people. But either way, I think the point stands: a novel may have lines or scenes or characters or attitudes that are sexist or racist or elitist or otherwise objectionable and yet have a great many others that are brilliant, beautiful, wise, humane, and otherwise rewarding. It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former.

Why do you say that Tolstoy didn’t understand Kitty? And yes, the qualifications for “Great Novel” are always up for grabs. What would you say they are?

Yes, too, The Rainbow is a great novel, as Kate Millett argued in Sexual Politics at the same time as she arraigned its failures of sympathy with some of its female characters and over-idealization of others.

132

Pat 09.22.13 at 4:57 am

@Ronan & @slee, Wally Lamb springs to mind.

133

b9n10nt 09.22.13 at 5:23 am

tenzing @ 122:

Dolan, in eviscerating The Corrections, says he is “dying of bitterness now”. But these are the same words one might use to describe actual psychological trauma. So we understand that Dolan isn’t really bitter (because he’s not a victim of rape, or torture, or severe parental neglect), but god help me he sounds like he most certainly IS bitter.

There’s obviously this tradition in criticizing literature and authors where opinions are allowed to be so important that any generosity of spirit towards people and authors or perspective on the importance of what we’re talking about (stories, entertainment, imagination) is forgotten in a fit of pique. Or so it seems.

It’s confusing to me because it seems that people are feeling real emotions about novels and authors. From my experience, such intensity of concern over “culture” masks an inability to genuinely confront difficult aspects of authentic experience: relationships (with actual people, such as oneself).

We allow language for the real world where dying of bitterness is visceral and requires compassion, and another language for the salon where dying of bitterness is a put on. But if its a put on, I swear the critics have lost themselves in the act and are actually upset.

That’s weird, right?

134

Meredith 09.22.13 at 5:23 am

Hey, I’m about to finish Amis’ Pregnant Widow, another book in a life (my own) that will be too short for all of them. Not anywhere as good (barring some ending I am not expecting) as several other books by him I have read. But The Pregnant Widow has been with me for a while now and has led me to think anew about some things. (Including but not limited to, at all: is Gloria butt-fucked or vagina–fucked from behind?) Me, I’m in my 60’s and have a weird distance from such questions as I pose them — and therein I feel an affinity with Martin, or Keith — I studied with Shackleton-Bailey, btw , and spent many nights drinking with him– because I suspect he Amis shares my distance.)
I think Amis-the-writer would be grateful that I am more interested in matters where he breaks beyond all that. I dunno. Give me the novels, not the novelists or novelists-as-essayists whom “we” get to bash. Just read and imagine in that private space of reading.

(Btw, turns out I had read virtually all of the Franzen essay — that oblong balloon that tells you were you are in a doc includes, at the Guardian site, the comments! Says something, I suppose, about the shape of the essay that I had no idea I was near its end. That’s okay with me. A Franzen does not have to conform to my expectations of an undergraduate paper.)

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John Holbo 09.22.13 at 5:29 am

“a novel may have lines or scenes or characters or attitudes that are sexist or racist or elitist or otherwise objectionable and yet have a great many others that are brilliant, beautiful, wise, humane, and otherwise rewarding. It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former.”

Geo, you write like someone who has read about novels in books, but has never actually read one!

You presume implausible degree of atomism, when it comes to literary value. This line is sexist, but the next line is beautiful, the one after is racist, then there are three stupid ones, but the next one is witty, and then we get another sexist one …

Literary value is a more holistic business. If the plot is implausible, or the philosophy is stupid, or the characters poorly drawn, the presumption is NOT that this is like a defective module in a machine that can be judged to be otherwise ticking along well. Of course there are plenty of cases in which we can say ‘the characters were poorly drawn, yet the novel was strangely brilliant …’ Even so, if someone tells you they are reading a novel dragged down by poor characterization, and you say ‘how sad that you don’t try to separate that out, cleanly, the better to appreciate the other features of this novel,’ that just goes to show that you don’t know how it goes.

Or something.

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JW Mason 09.22.13 at 5:53 am

a novel may have lines or scenes or characters or attitudes that are sexist or racist or elitist or otherwise objectionable and yet have a great many others that are brilliant, beautiful, wise, humane, and otherwise rewarding. It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former.

This is a superficial and, frankly, somewhat stupid way of looking at literature.

Bellow, Cheever, McCarthy, etc. are great writers precisely because they have such a clear and distinct and consistent view of the world. If their books were just a collection of unconnected of scenes, characters, and attitudes all jumbled together, no one would read them today. (Altho that would nicely fit the original conceit of the OP.) If you read Mr. Sammler’s planet and see no connection between Govinda Lal and the black pickpocket, then you aren’t taking the book seriously.

I submit that Belle, who takes what these guys say in their books seriously enough to object to it, is treating them more respectfully than you, geo, whose attitude seems to be, hey it’s all just a clown show.

I say this, incidentally, as someone whose bookshelf at home is pretty much summarized by your comment @98. But even when I first encountered Bellow as a socially maladapt University of Chicago freshman (surely his ideal audience) I couldn’t miss the lack of empathy in his books. Not, Nothing human is alien to me, but, Nothing alien to me is human.

You ever pick up Brent Staples’ Parallel Time? You ever wonder what it would be like to discover that all the great books (genuinely great!) were written by people who hated you?

137

JW Mason 09.22.13 at 5:54 am

(Wrote my comment before JH’s had appeared. Great minds, etc.)

138

JW Mason 09.22.13 at 5:57 am

Also, for the record, The 27th City is a much better book than Franzen’s later, better known ones. Maybe his only genuinely good book.

139

John Quiggin 09.22.13 at 5:57 am

The Mac-PC stuff is tired Charlie Booker did it so much better. Worse, it’s an example of sloppy language leading to sloppy thinking.

Franzen says

when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned

But “clunky” and “utilitarian” don’t go together. The whole point of the anti-PC case is that the need to stop all the time to deal with a clunky operating system distracts you from the quality of your work itself. Franzen would be better off with a 1980s-style diatribe against amateur fontography.

Compare Booker, after a non-apology for 900 words of sweeping generalizations about Mac owners

that’s what we PC owners are like – unreliable, idiosyncratic and gleefully unfair. And if you’ll excuse me now, I feel an unexpected crash coming.

140

js. 09.22.13 at 6:03 am

It is important that a slew of earlier, somewhat better writers such as Roth and Updike and earlier, actually good writers such as Gaddis and Pynchon have erected the edifices of Important Novels which Franzen seeks to build again upon a really horribly shaky foundation of horrible, no good, sexist bullshit.

I do think you’re right about this, but if I may put in a good word for Pynchon (not that he needs one!), I think it’s quite possible to read, enjoy, and even love Pynchon without really giving a fuck about about any of the characters. (This is coming from someone who thinks Tom McCarthy’s Remainder is the best new-ish thing he’s read in the last 3-4 years, so take it for what it’s worth.)

Also, just to make this comment utterly incomprehensible, I’d say about the The Waves something not too far from what I said about Pynchon, and The Waves may be my favorite novel of all time (I’m not close to being very well-read fiction-wise, mostly like modern stuff).

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John Quiggin 09.22.13 at 6:24 am

Like JWM, I liked The 27th City. It’s the only book of Franzen’s I’ve read.

142

QS 09.22.13 at 6:37 am

I went years w/o getting a Mac strictly because you had to pay a fortune to get a matte screen. The fact that we read so much into choice of computer shows how shallow our social discourse is (I’m tempted to say “has become” but, well, I’m sure social discourse of bygone eras had its own Thomas Friedman-esque idiotic reductionisms).

Thanks for whoever above rec’d Louis CK’s version of Franzen’s bloviating. It’s not that his take on the smartphone is particularly innovative — anyone who’s read some Nietzsche or Heidegger is likely to draw similar conclusions — rather, what’s awesome about Louis CK is that you have someone saying it on television!

143

john c. halasz 09.22.13 at 6:48 am

” Of course there are plenty of cases in which we can say ‘the characters were poorly drawn, yet the novel was strangely brilliant …’ “

Dickens.

But since when did literary works become simply a matter of “characters” that “we” can sympathize or identify with, or, alternatively, who the author putatively wants to f*ck?

Is there no “autonomy” to literary works, independent of both author’s and reader’s intentions?

One of my favorite Karl Kraus quotes: “Politics is what a man does to conceal himself, and what he does not know”.

Perhaps with literature, it’s the other way around.

144

Anderson 09.22.13 at 7:15 am

143: ‘But since when did literary works become simply a matter of “characters” that “we” can sympathize or identify with, or, alternatively, who the author putatively wants to f*ck?’

… They’re not, but (I submit) identification is typically the fuel a novel runs on. An author can play with it or subvert it, but we turn a novel’s pages to find out what happens, and ID is why we care to find out. There’s an implicit theory of selfhood as imitation & fiction here. Modern lit becomes self-conscious about this without IMHO quite escaping it; The Waves is an example, tho I think To the Lighthouse is more impressive in its shifting between consciousnesses; there’s a reason anyway why Mrs Dalloway is the most popular Woolf novel even tho not her best. Woolf was fascinated by what it’s like to be someone else, and my pet theory of fiction is that fiction is about bring someone else; arguably the best tells us we *should* be someone else, or at least makes us a bit critical of who we are.

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js. 09.22.13 at 7:21 am

there’s a reason anyway why Mrs Dalloway is the most popular Woolf novel even tho not her best.

Agreed. (With the rest of the comment too. Not sure where that leaves me with my Pynchon fandom….)

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Phil 09.22.13 at 9:04 am

Even so, if someone tells you they are reading a novel dragged down by poor characterization, and you say ‘how sad that you don’t try to separate that out, cleanly, the better to appreciate the other features of this novel,’ that just goes to show that you don’t know how it goes.

As it goes, I’ve just finished reading The Rainbow. I read Women in Love many years ago, and all through the earlier generations I was wondering if, when and how Lawrence was going to make the shift from the slow, thoughtful observation of half-articulated consciousness that he does so extraordinarily well to the pages of angsty hyper-conscious yammering I remembered from WiL. (There is some wonderful stuff in WiL, but there is a lot of yammering.) Answer: he does, in the last couple of chapters, by pitching camp in Ursula’s cranium and staying there, and it puts quite a dramatic kink in the shape of the book.

But it doesn’t stop me appreciating the other 5/6 of the book – and (more importantly) there are some amazing passages in those last two chapters, around the edges of Ursula the unbearable; there’s one sentence which struck me as the most beautiful piece of description I’d ever read. So no, I don’t think one bad ingredient does spoil the stew – and I’m with Kate Millet on whether Lawrence’s work was (a) howlingly sexist and (b) worth reading.

147

Hidari 09.22.13 at 9:13 am

@130 ‘ It is genuinely a problem, then, if these Krausian insights look like retreads of laments the internet is actually quite good at making, in a concise and witty (albeit can haz cheezburger) sort of way. ‘

In other words you are making the claim that Franzen “is a symptom of the disease of which he claims to the cure” (Kraus).

Which is fine. But as geo pointed out one of the most cliched ways of dealing with arguments that the commentator can’t be bothered to read or understand is to argue

1: We’ve heard all this before….and

2: …in any case it’s not true.

(Paul Ormerod makes this specific point in the introduction to The Death of Economics if anyone cares).

It’s quite one thing to argue that

1: Franzen is right, and his essay is a mess because this view has been expressed better by others (a view I have a lot of sympathy with)….

but quite another, indeed the opposite, to argue

2: Franzen is wrong, and his essay is a mess because of this wrongness.

These arguments are antonymical. Most of the commentators to this post don’t really know whether or not they agree with the essay, so they flip-flop between both of these arguments without acknowledging it (remember hardly anyone has mentioned Karl Kraus. Whatever one think of the original essay, it is Kraus’s argument, essentially, not Franzen’s. To repeat, you can argue that Kraus said it better but that says nothing about whether or not Kraus was right). Or else they pretend he made arguments that he did not in fact make (he’s a reactionary, he’s an elitist, he’s ‘sexist’ etc. etc. etc.).

Here’s a thought experiment, incidentally. Imagine an essay quite as bad as this was published by Franzen in which he argued that the Twitterz is da bomb, and that Facebook reelly rulez. Do you think it would be being attacked with the same degree of virulence? Would anyone even have noticed it?

(Just a note: this isn’t anything to do with Franzen’s essay, which I thought was middling, or his novels, which I haven’t read. I am quite prepared to believe they are as bad as some commentators claim they are).

148

Ben 09.22.13 at 11:10 am

Anderson,

Fair enough. I was mainly reacting to your characterization of Joelle as a “walking punch line”, which is almost objectively silly.

Ronan(rf),

Oh Christ yes, Never Let Me Go. Not only does it have an amazingly-drawn female narrator and another as a main character, but I literally got in a car accident because I drove too soon after finishing that thing and I shouldn’t have been operating heavy machinery.

JW Mason,

“a socially maladapt University of Chicago freshman”

Redundant phrase is redundant.

149

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 1:04 pm

“1: Franzen is right, and his essay is a mess because this view has been expressed better by others (a view I have a lot of sympathy with)….

but quite another, indeed the opposite, to argue

2: Franzen is wrong, and his essay is a mess because of this wrongness.”

Just to be clear: I want a bit from column A, a bit from column B. Franzen is right insofar as he thinks through various right thoughts to the point of realizing that maybe he’s, personally, guilty of shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. Which would be wrong. He’s wrong insofar as he then seems inclined to reward himself for his cleverness at figuring out that he might not be right, in this way, by indulging in another wrong shout that the kids should get off his lawn.

“remember hardly anyone has mentioned Karl Kraus.”

Damn straight. Post was basically a Coase joke.

150

Jeffrey Davis 09.22.13 at 1:23 pm

This thread is like reading an old NYRB letters exchange on the subject of Alger Hiss.

151

Anon 09.22.13 at 2:07 pm

“This is a superficial and, frankly, somewhat stupid way of looking at literature.”

This is a superficial, frankly stupid, interpretation of Geo’s post, which was perfectly compatible with–indeed, has to be presupposed to find any sense in–the sort of literary holism Holbo describes in the very next post.

A literary work is wholly sexist when…well, of course, *never*, since a work is never *entirely* anything. But it’s *generally* sexist if the greater degree of the views and attitudes presented and promoted by the book are sexist.

What does that holism consist of? Parts, of course! What are the parts of a novel? They are, to quote Geo: “lines or scenes or characters or attitudes.” It may well be true as you and Holbo say that a book can be ruined when the majority of its parts are sexist, but that’s begging the question. I thought Geo’s point was precisely that the confident dismissal of and general refusal to read major writers and entire epochs of literature suggests they’re failing to see that the preponderance of the parts are better than the objectionable ones.

Or, to make this crystal clear: isn’t Geo implying that its his *opponents* who are failing to read holistically, it’s atomistic reading that’s preventing them from seeing the whole of the work?

In real reading, we don’t calculate the holistic tone of a book, we feel it, often inaccurately at first. To say, with an ease as if stating the obvious “This book (which I didn’t read or read quickly because it’s bad because its sexist) is bad because it’s sexist” sounds, to use Holbo’s criticism, like something someone who has never read a book would say. Real reading is an encounter and conversation with many different characters whose motives and views are revealed to us and hidden from us in different ways, whose relationship to each other and the author is never totally clear, leaving us with a very imprecise, and again, often initially false, sense of the overall “position” of the book.

In contrast, when I say easily and casually the book as a whole is sexist, it implies I’ve approached it both atomistically and mathematically: I added up the good and bad lines, good and bad characters, did the math and, voila, determined it’s holistically bad. And, in the specific comments under discussion, I supposedly did this with 50 years of writing *that I refuse to read*.

152

geo 09.22.13 at 2:52 pm

JH and JMW: Well, we seem to have gotten to the heart of the matter: i.e., whether there really is something like aesthetic merit, independent of whether you’d like to have a beer with the creator. I’d say yes, and in the case of novels it includes things like the structural integrity and ingenuity of the narrative, the moral/psychological depth of the characters, the subtlety and intricacy of the symbolic architecture, the vividness and fullness of the atmosphere and environment, the quality of the wit, the force of the rhetoric, the richness of the prose style. Of course it’s a single novel (poem, painting, symphony), but it has various aspects or qualities, just as people do, and the purpose of criticism is to notice them, describe them, relate them, and finally evaluate the whole they make up. There will almost certainly (as with people) be shortcomings, but to allow them to obscure the merits is faulty criticism.

Thus it would be foolish for a socialist to dismiss the Iliad because of the vile scene where the arrogant aristocrat Ulysses beats and humiliates the plebian Thersites because the latter grumbles aloud about the pointlessness of the Trojan War. Or to dismiss Shakespeare’s plays because they take for granted the divine right of kings. Or Austen’s novels because they take for granted that people should marry in their own class. Or Dickens’ because the union organizers in Hard Times are scoundrels. Or Conrad’s because they pillory revolutionaries. Or Celine’s because they’re anti-semitic. Or Wagner’s music, or Riefenstahl’s films, etc, etc. In all cases, the works have many other merits.

John, there is, as you say, a misunderstanding: Yes, literary criticism should be holistic, but that means precisely what you deny, ie, that one can isolate flaws, put them in proportion, and still judge the work a success. Shakespeare’s philosophy is stupid, but he’s still a great dramatist. Dickens’ plots are implausible, but he’s still a great novelist. Bellow’s and Roth’s novels embody some bad attitudes towards women, but (sorry, JWM) they nevertheless illustrate the political/social/cultural/psychological tensions and possibilities of 20th-century America better than most other novelists, and each in a brilliantly alive and original prose style.

PS – “if someone tells you they are reading a novel dragged down by poor characterization, and you say ‘how sad that you don’t try to separate that out, cleanly, the better to appreciate the other features of this novel,’ that just goes to show that you don’t know how it goes.” — ???

153

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 2:54 pm

“the confident dismissal of and general refusal to read major writers and entire epochs of literature …”

But who is supposed to be doing all this confident dismissing?

154

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 2:55 pm

“that means precisely what you deny, ie, that one can isolate flaws, put them in proportion, and still judge the work a success.”

Where do I deny this?

155

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 2:56 pm

For the record: I don’t deny it. But where do I seem to be denying it?

156

vasvas 09.22.13 at 3:02 pm

” Franzen is right insofar as he thinks through various right thoughts to the point of realizing that maybe he’s, personally, guilty of shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. … He’s wrong insofar as he then seems inclined to reward himself for his cleverness”

So JH you think that the Franzen essay is either right or wrong only on things having to do with Franzen? You thought the whole essay was purely self-referential and has no other topic of significance, nothing else to contribute to the current discourse about the social condition? You don’t even think it makes trite but correct points about homegenization, or independent bookstores and publishers or anything else?

157

vasvas 09.22.13 at 3:05 pm

“But who is supposed to be doing all this confident dismissing?”

Belle. Pretty confident in her dismissing.

158

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 3:20 pm

vasvas, I hope geo (or anon) wasn’t actually talking about Belle, because if there is any predicate less likely to apply to her than ‘confident in dismissing’ in the sense of ‘refuses to read’ … well, it would have to be highly inapplicable. (I am willing to continue the discussion of whether people should or should not refuse to read things, but I humbly request that we place it on a sounder empirical footing by finding plausible targets against which to lay the charge.)

159

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 3:29 pm

“So JH you think that the Franzen essay is either right or wrong only on things having to do with Franzen?”

No. Why would you think I thought this?

“You thought the whole essay was purely self-referential and has no other topic of significance, nothing else to contribute to the current discourse about the social condition?”

No. Again: why would you think I thought this? Obviously the essay is highly self-referential, but no one said anything about it being purely so.

“You don’t even think it makes trite but correct points about homegenization, or independent bookstores and publishers or anything else?”

Why would I want to deny that Franzen makes a few correct points?

160

Dave Maier 09.22.13 at 3:34 pm

For the record, Belle’s comment was: “I think pretty much all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century are such sexist dillweeds that it is actually impossible to enjoy the books. For me.”

I don’t see this as implying that she doesn’t read these books, or think they really are important, or appreciate their good qualities. She just says she doesn’t *enjoy* them.

161

vasvas 09.22.13 at 3:34 pm

Because when asked which of the two it is:

“Franzen is right, and his essay is a mess because this view has been expressed better by others (a view I have a lot of sympathy with)….

but quite another, indeed the opposite, to argue

2: Franzen is wrong, and his essay is a mess because of this wrongness.”

you replied thus:

“Franzen is right insofar as he thinks through various right thoughts to the point of realizing that maybe he’s, personally, guilty of shouting at the kids to get off his lawn. … He’s wrong insofar as he then seems inclined to reward himself for his cleverness”

i.e., that Franzen is right (or wrong) about Franzen things. You didn’t even acknowledge, let alone engage with, any other things he’s right (or wrong) about. Even though it was pretty clear that Hidari, whom you were replying to, was referring primarily to such points, and not to self-references in the essay.

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mud man 09.22.13 at 3:36 pm

When all you are is an isolated cell, loosely coupled to a few hundred other similarly isolated cells, you had best be able to do your own thinking: long, complicated thoughts. When you are a high-frequency, densely packed nexus with numerous and distant connections, just another neuron, specialized thinking is just a hazard. If you want to have literature, or scripture, you need to have local community to have it in.

If we’re lucky we are witnessing the emergence of the Global Brain, which will grow up and learn to think less childish thoughts; one facet of which will no doubt be less preoccupation with individualisticism … originality, authorship, concepts like that. Wealth, hopefully.

Otherwise, the Brain will go on babbling like an exposed baby until the wolves come to eat it. And we can get back to Plan A, learning to grow vegetables.

163

vasvas 09.22.13 at 3:36 pm

The post was about “the confident dismissal of and general refusal to read major writers and entire epochs of literature …” Confident dismissal and general refusal are two separate things. John asked who confidently dismissed. The answer is Belle and the proof is the passage quoted by Dave Maier.

164

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 3:38 pm

“You didn’t even acknowledge, let alone engage with, any other things he’s right (or wrong) about.”

Yes, in discussing some things I didn’t discuss other things. But that’s how it always goes. In response to Hidari, I was trying to explain how there was a certain internal logic to an alleged flip-flop.

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John Holbo 09.22.13 at 3:43 pm

“Confident dismissal and general refusal are two separate things. John asked who confidently dismissed.”

No, I was asking what person was being charged with dismissing and not reading. The latter condition putting the former in a bad light, of course.

But let’s move on. So long as you are only charging Bell with ‘dismissing’ in the sense of ‘rendering considered negative critical judgment, on the basis of having read things’ that’s ok, then.

166

bianca steele 09.22.13 at 4:09 pm

JW Mason: I submit that Belle, who takes what these guys say in their books seriously enough to object to it, is treating them more respectfully than you, geo, whose attitude seems to be, hey it’s all just a clown show.

This.

John Quiggin @ 139

If I may, in the admittedly clearly stupid Mac/PC passage you quote, Franzen is taking two different critiques–that the fanciness of the Mac distracts writers so that PC users do better work, and that the PC works poorly–and combining them. He isn’t analyzing or trying to rationalize the two critiques so they work together. I don’t happen to like that passage, and it seems you don’t either, but you do seem to have gotten something out of it. Obviously there are better and worse ways of doing the kind of thing Franzen does there, and there are all kinds of theoretical or ideological ways of justifying what underlies it (possibly none of which the writer would accept, though).

As for refusal to read, what about Jennifer Weiner? If Franzen hadn’t attacked (on unclear grounds) a fellow successful writer with strong opinions, who’s moreover already been in the news very recently, there probably would have been a few comments in places like Slate but the response would have been lower-key.

167

bianca steele 09.22.13 at 4:11 pm

geo,
It seemed like an acceptable response at the time. If you didn’t hear it that way, I apologize.

You’ll get my WH Auden when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers (or you would if I had a book of Auden), but it surprises me how seriously some people take that sentiment.

168

Anon 09.22.13 at 4:11 pm

Holbo, the comment was mine: “the confident dismissal of and general refusal to read major writers and entire epochs of literature suggests they’re failing to see that the preponderance of the parts are better than the objectionable ones.”

And it was, indeed, about The Dillweed Comment. My impression was that this comment implied a willingness only to read so far, and not to read very much–namely, far enough to make a holistic judgment that the book and author are wholly sexist and not worth reading. Personally, I would not read “all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century” if I found them “impossible to enjoy.” But perhaps that’s presumptuous of me, and Belle really does conscientiously read, all the while not enjoying, all the supposed great novelists of that era.

Now, I’m happy to limit my comment to “confident dismissal.” In fact, I’ll amend it to make it even narrower. Anyone who looks at a book that serious, thoughtful, and sincere people have, in significant numbers, claimed has more than average artistic value, and declares it entirely sexist or, irredeemably flawed as a whole due to sexist content, is failing to read holistically, is reading poorly and atomistically.

I frankly doubt this is true of Belle (just as I’m sure you knew better than to imply geo doesn’t know how to read). So, my conclusion is this: The Dillweed Comment was blog-common jesting semi-serious exaggeration (implied by the “for me”). We shouldn’t take it as serious object of criticism, but the critics of Franzen and others shouldn’t continue to imply or support such exaggerated claims. For example: Franzen’s depiction of character x in novel y is sexist, not “Franzen should never be read or agreed with because he is the devil.”

169

John Holbo 09.22.13 at 4:45 pm

“My impression was that this comment implied a willingness only to read so far, and not to read very much–namely, far enough to make a holistic judgment that the book and author are wholly sexist and not worth reading.”

Well, for the record: I wouldn’t say that Belle reads conscientiously. Compulsively, yes. She had read huge stacks of this stuff she objects to. God only knows how many John Updike novels she’s read. It was a pre-internet thing. Mostly now she would just read some nonsense on Slate or a comment thread instead of an Gaddis novel she, predictably, won’t like. She’s one of those people that needs to be reading, reading, reading, and as a result she’s read hundreds and hundreds of novels, most of which she enjoyed – I assume – but a great many of which she doesn’t like, and probably perfectly well knew she wouldn’t like even before she started. But did she finish? Oh yes. I doubt if she has failed to finish more than a small handful she started. She’ll read a Gaddis novel like a normal person would read a cereal box. (Do you like what’s printed on the cereal box?) There are detective novels she doesn’t like but that she’s read three times, due to them having been in our house, and what with the brownian motion of bouncing along the shelf, needing something to read …

Upthread someone objected to the speed with which she reads as a ‘mistake. Ah, I see it was geo:

“This may be a mistake. If someone simply zips along until he/she finds some sufficiently irritating bit, then stops, he/she will have missed out on a lot of awfully good books.”

You mostly don’t choose your normal reading speed. Belle’s normal is fast. She can – and does – read more than twice as fast as I can. With comprehension. When she’s actually trying to speed read, to cram for a history exam or whatever, the results are page-flippingly terrifying. But normally she is not, as geo supposes she must be, a bizarrely careless cruiser after things to object to. (In general, I would counsel that geo more aggressively filter such hypotheses for psychological plausibility before sending them forth, yet I must admit that Belle’s reading habits are odd. So perhaps it is only to be expected that people make wrong guesses about what she is like.)

At any rate, this is the solution to the riddle:

“Personally, I would not read “all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century” if I found them “impossible to enjoy.”

You are not my wife!

170

Jerry Vinokurov 09.22.13 at 4:54 pm

You didn’t even acknowledge, let alone engage with, any other things he’s right (or wrong) about.

There’s nothing to engage with here. In a long essay full of pointless rambling about his hatred for Boston drivers and old German ladies, Franzen deigns to make some bleeding obvious points that everyone recognizes are true. Well done, chief! Have a cookie! Based on this kind of logic he might as well have scrawled “GLOBAL CAPITALISM NOT GUD” in crayon and people would still apparently praise him because hey, it’s technically correct.

The problem is not the obviously true things that Franzen says; the problem is that, when it comes to nonfiction at least, he’s an incredibly lazy thinker. Not a lazy writer, because he can really get those words out on the page, but a lazy thinker, who lacks the discipline to effectively pursue a topic for 5000 words, or to systematically analyze something. Which is why the space inbetween the obviously true things is populated by recollections of not cheating on his fiancee, for some reason. As a result, beyond, again, the tritely true points, all there is crankitude. It’s not a bad thing, of course, to say unoriginal things that have been said before; the bad things is saying those things, well, badly, which is something Franzen does here at great length.

This is made worse by the fact that Franzen is terminally, perhaps deliberately, dumb about the actual technology he’s talking about. Not enough can possibly be said about how terrible and misguided that Mac/PC::Paris/Germany analogy is, but here’s one thing that hasn’t been said for some reason: none of the details about the actual first part of that analogy make even the remotest amount of sense. It’s as if someone was trying to write an analogy using cars based on the premise that said cars run on rainbows and unicorn farts. Total and complete nonsense.

If you’re going to be a tech critic, which by all means, please go ahead, then it would behoove you to know something about the actual technology and how people use and respond to it. Doesn’t mean you have to be stupidly techno-utopian, but you should at least have some understanding of just what it is that you’re critiquing, and nothing in Franzen’s writing demonstrates that he either possesses this understanding or cares to acquire it. In fiction, you can gloss over these kinds of things, but not in an essay which aims at understanding the phenomenon.

171

Wax Banks 09.22.13 at 5:37 pm

geo sez:

Tolstoy treated his wife pretty badly, but Anna Karenina is one of the greatest of all novels, and perhaps the greatest novel about marriage.

i seem to recall holbo himself referring to john crowley’s Little, Big as the best depiction of a long marriage that he’d ever read. certainly that was the thread of the book that’s never let go of me. i never got through AK, but i was a freshman when i tried. so.

172

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 6:00 pm

Is there a good interesting book that is also fully PC, and written by the impeccably PC author? Other than The Little Red Book, obviously.

173

Anon 09.22.13 at 6:22 pm

“a great many of which she doesn’t like, and probably perfectly well knew she wouldn’t like even before she started. But did she finish? Oh yes.”

I’m compulsive about finishing books, but also good at avoiding starting to read anything I’m likely to hate, so this is a higher tolerance for unenjoyment in reading than I can relate to. On the other hand, I can relate to reading some things I dislike, since there is a kind of intellectual pleasure to be had in figuring out what’s detestable in them. But again, I have my limits. I don’t enjoy most of the Important Novelists of the last few decades, so I tend to try one and quit on the author afterwards.

But I do try to try. I worry that the overall tone of the comments in this thread is “don’t even try to try”–that these authors are so egregiously bad, whether in style or in moral standing, that to even critically engage them is a mistake. And I think that’s a mistake, certainly for those who haven’t read much of them yet, but probably also for the others.

“You are not my wife!”

Can you prove that? I’m posting anonymously after all. Perhaps Belle’s tolerance for unenjoyable reading goes so far as to post and incite posts against her own…

174

JW Mason 09.22.13 at 6:34 pm

it would be foolish for a socialist to dismiss the Iliad because of the vile scene where the arrogant aristocrat Ulysses beats and humiliates the plebian Thersites because the latter grumbles aloud about the pointlessness of the Trojan War. Or to dismiss Shakespeare’s plays because they take for granted the divine right of kings.

Geo, aren’t you the same guy who wrote this?

Not that Shakespeare is such hot stuff, anyway. As Shaw observed in “Better than Shakespeare”:

“… Search [in Shakespeare] for statesmanship, or even citizenship, or any sense of the commonwealth, material or spiritual, and you will not find the making of a decent vestryman or curate in the whole horde. As to faith, hope, courage, conviction, or any of the true heroic qualities, you find nothing but death made sensational, despair made stage-sublime, sex made romantic, and barrenness covered up by sentimentality and the mechanical lilt of blank verse.

175

Anderson 09.22.13 at 6:45 pm

I worry that the overall tone of the comments in this thread is “don’t even try to try”–that these authors are so egregiously bad, whether in style or in moral standing, that to even critically engage them is a mistake.

Maybe I’m missing specific comments, but it seems to me the only author flatly rejected is Franzen himself. (Not without reason.) And as Dave Maier pointed out, Belle specifically denied enjoying them; she didn’t reject “critical engagement.”

176

JW Mason 09.22.13 at 6:46 pm

And then this:

The point is not morality but moral imagination. According to Shaw, Bunyan’s is sublime, Shakespeare’s is pedestrian. Bunyan conceives of the universe as an arena of grand struggle, with the forces of supreme Good arrayed against those of fearsome Evil, both on the cosmic level and in every individual life. The meaning of life is larger than individual or tribal ambition, rancor, lust, etc. This is a heroic conception. Shakespeare’s “heroes” (again, according to Shaw) haven’t a glimmer of this moral grandeur. Their aspirations are petty: political power for themselves or their faction or tribe; sexual possession; revenge, etc. This is why they despair so readily and give utterance to banalities like: “Out, out, brief candle” or “our little lives are rounded with a sleep.” Bunyan and Shaw would regard that sort of feeble self-pity with scorn.

I thought this comment was insightful and persuasive when I read it, though I wasn’t ultimately persuaded. (Among other things, it makes stuff like George R. R. Martin look more authentically “Shakespearian,” in this negative sense.) But I genuinely don’t see the difference between Shaw’s judgment, which you evidently approve of, and Belle’s, which you don’t. Surely a capacity to see women as human beings is not irrelevant to a writer’s moral imagination?

177

JanieM 09.22.13 at 6:59 pm

A few dots to connect:

In the country music thread the other day William Timberman wrote, I never liked country music for the same reason that Jews don’t like Wagner — it was always playing in the background when I was being tortured.

— Anderson wrote, the qualifications for “Great Novel” may be up for grabs here.

— geo wrote, Thus it would be foolish for a socialist to dismiss… and There will almost certainly (as with people) be shortcomings, but to allow them to obscure the merits is faulty criticism.

*****

It’s interesting to note that although a few people suggested mildly that WT might consider rethinking his position, his comment didn’t generate an entire library of mischaracterizations and objections about how “foolish” it was to “dismiss” Wagner, or country music.

JH and Dave Maier have already pointed out that Belle’s comment was explicitly about her enjoyment, or lack thereof. Taking off from that, I keep coming back to the question of why it causes some people so much consternation to find out that we don’t all enjoy the same things. Next to Anderson’s question about the qualifications of a great novel, I would put this one – “Why do we read at all, and one thing rather than another?”

I’m not going to try to answer either question as such, but WT’s comment about country music is a version of the answer I’d give if I were being berated (as I am, by implication) for not spending a lot of time with the Great Male Writers of the 20th (and early 21st) Century: If someone is whacking me on the arm all day long, then even if it’s not a very hard whacking, and even if the whacker has lots of stellar qualities mixed in with the urge to whack me all the time, I think it’s perfectly justified to get out of the way of the whacking and go do something else.

Because you know, bottom line, it’s not as if there isn’t plenty else to read — which is what I was trying to get at last night when I wrote that “life is short” and “I don’t have time.”

And even if there weren’t plenty else to read (thousands of lifetimes’ worth), there’s also plenty else to do (although I’ve surely spent more of my life reading books than doing any other single thing). Listen to music. Make music! Take a walk. Go to a play, or the beach. Play basketball. Grow vegetables! And that’s to say nothing of (as Anderson pointed out) work and family life.

I wonder how many of the people who are so concerned about the “dismissal” of “great” male writers give equal time to great female writers. Or is it that there just aren’t very many of those?

178

Anderson 09.22.13 at 7:00 pm

176: the problem I have with Shaw there is that Bunyan’s “sublime moral imagination” is based on fantasies, and that the 20th century has permanently soured me on supreme Good vs. fearsome Evil. I mean, that was the Nazis’ view of things too, right?

Shakespeare’s focus on “petty” issues, i.e. those experienced by human beings not in the grip of a “sublime” ideology, is looking pretty good by comparison.

Shaw’s own cheering for Stalinism and eugenics may not make him the most reliable guide to “moral imagination.”

179

novakant 09.22.13 at 7:01 pm

I do wonder what the criteria for categorizing a novel as sexist are?

So far it seems what we have come up with are badly drawn or unsympathetically treated female characters. But that surely can’t be enough to be a threshold as I have come across many, many male characters who are treated in the same fashion by male (and female) writers.

Writing from a male perspective? That in itself doesn’t cut it either since most writers write best about what they know (and if they’re honest with themselves that sometimes just isn’t pretty or PC – and honesty rules).

Sexist male characters? Not sufficient, it depends on how the authorial voice treats them, they might be put there as objects of ridicule etc.

That leaves us with an openly sexist authorial voice, but I really haven’t come across many of those, let alone would regard the latter half of 20th century as dominated by them.

Ok and now you can tell me how one of my favourite books of that period

“1982, Janine” by Alasdair Gray

fits into all of this – good luck.

180

Anderson 09.22.13 at 7:15 pm

Novakant, scan upthread for the link Katherine provided, and take a look at the DFW essay that someone mentioned, and you will have some excellent pragmatic guides.

IMHO, sexism is to be expected in male & female writing as a rule – it permeates our culture. But there are degrees.

181

Cheryl Rofer 09.22.13 at 7:19 pm

A great deal of male talking about women’s perceptions and how they are defective.

Again.

I find the same flaw in some of the discussion above that makes those dillweeds’ books so unenjoyable: a far too limited viewpoint projected onto the entire universe. It comes across to me as self-indulgent, much the way Franzen’s essay reads. And a little of that goes a very long way indeed. As someone noted above, identification is part of reading a novel, and it’s very hard for me to identify with an author whose overwhelming preoccupation is his sexual orientation to the world. In what I would consider a sexist novel, that preoccupation is accompanied by a coercive implication that one must agree that that orientation is of great import.

I suspect this could be considered part of a writer’s moral imagination.

182

Cheryl Rofer 09.22.13 at 7:27 pm

I’ll also agree with JanieM @177 that I feel no need to seek out being whacked on the arm.

183

JanieM 09.22.13 at 7:35 pm

To clarify in an attempt to forestall certain objections: “whacking” is standing in for a bunch of phenomena, like disappearing, marginalizing, caricaturing, objectifying, etc. And as Anderson says there are degrees,so there’s always a balancing act going on: how much whacking weighed against how many wonderful qualities weighed against how many other unenjoyable or unsavory qualities….etc.

GBS is a good example. He screwed up sometimes. He was a self-aggrandizing idiot sometimes! But he wrote so much that gives me pleasure and makes me think harder that on balance, he stays on my rereading list.

184

JanieM 09.22.13 at 8:25 pm

Also, as to this: The point about obstacles, however, is to overcome them.

Really?

I think it depends. Sometimes it’s better to persist, but sometimes it’s better to do an end run around the obstacle, or veer off and find a different path, or run like hell in the opposite direction. And it’s often not easy to decide which.

185

Anderson 09.22.13 at 8:40 pm

“The point about obstacles, however, is to overcome them.”

Yes, as my freshman-comp students said when I objected to their grammar, spelling, thesis, structure, and argumentation.

All of which, like sexism, are evidently supposed to be character-building.

… 183, I agree re: Shaw – wasn’t suggesting not reading him, so much as taking some of his critical judgments with a grain of salt. Shaw was a Slate contrarian avant la lettre.

186

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 8:42 pm

Isn’t there a simple rule for separating the wheat from the chaff in cinema and literature? Something about having women talking between themselves and not mentioning men? It’s an easy test, it needs to quantified, and the index value must be printed on the cover of every book.

187

Harold 09.22.13 at 8:54 pm

Three conversations between women without mentioning boyfriends, as I recall. I nominate the Japanese/Finnish “Kamome Diner” (sometimes called “Seagull Café”), 2006, about a Japanese woman who opens a diner in Helsinki.

188

William Timberman 09.22.13 at 9:05 pm

JanieM @ 177

The thing about universal values is always — if not first and foremost — about who gets to define them. The debate, then, is to make sure that no one is allowed to be too unconsciously comfortable with his definition of universal values to the detriment of others with a different set of experiences. Right or wrong, winning or losing, is part of the game, but the game, qua game, isn’t really what’s important. What’s important is that, however prejudiced we are, we don’t dismiss anything out of hand. I give country music full credit for its artistry, its universal relevance, its capacity to inspire — all the virtues that its fans ascribe to it, but I’ll never be able to shake the context in which I was first introduced to it, nor should I be asked to by those who are unaware of that context.

189

LFC 09.22.13 at 9:14 pm

I really liked Shaw once and would still say he’s worth reading but my enthusiasm has probably diminished over the years. On one of the topics at hand, sexism, it’s pretty hard to accuse him of that, what w/ plays in which women boss men around (Candida, Major Barbara) or pursue them (Man and Superman). True, he did write something called ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism’ but one must keep in mind when he lived. Btw there’s at least one book (by Sally Peters) that examines Shaw’s own sexuality, reaching interesting if somewhat hard-to-prove conclusions.

190

mds 09.22.13 at 9:25 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 172:

Is there a good interesting book that is also fully PC, and written by the impeccably PC author?

Well, it’s old and extremely dated, but I thought Mastering Turbo Assembler by Tom Swan was a fairly interesting work. Given the vast gulf between assembly language for the 80×86 and the 680×0 microprocessor worlds, it was also about as fully PC as possible for its time. And the author himself was a contributor to PC World. ‘Nuff said.

191

Jerry Vinokurov 09.22.13 at 9:56 pm

Mao, it’s called the Bechdel test, and you can find said rankings here.

192

Nine 09.22.13 at 10:13 pm

Since no one has posted this yet –

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

It remains to be seen whether time will pardon the Bechdel test.

193

bob mcmanus 09.22.13 at 10:34 pm

187: Naoko Ogigami has made six other movies, and all are recommended. “Rent-a-Cat” is compassionate and whimsical.

In anime, neither Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Girls und Panzers essentially have any males in them, either as actors or as objects of discussion. A little in PM3, but he’s no good, and an irrelevancy. Azumanga Daoih, the Aria series, oh why go on.

Americans, of all genders, ethnicities, or political persuasions, just like to fight and find reasons to fight.

194

MG 09.22.13 at 11:06 pm

I am pretty confident in my dismissal of all works of Franzen based on an interview (hey, some people should not do publicity — for a reason!) , those of Updike based on reading “A&P”, those of Bellow based on “Herzog” and Roth based on “Goodbye Columbus”. No no no no no. The days are not unlimited. Too bad the phrase “first world problems” wasn’t around when I was a teenager. Or “dick lit”.

I am looking forward to reading the sequel to “The Shining” by Stephen King, who can write a complex female characters who have agency (Or are vampires! Or are batshit crazy! Or middle-aged and poor!). According to her NY Times book review, Margaret Atwood is also a fan.

195

AF 09.22.13 at 11:28 pm

Thank you for linking to Franzen’s essay. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I have also enjoyed the discussion in comments (particular William Timberman’s and Hidari’s), which have already articulated much of what I have to say . The original posts above, and on Slate, Toast, etc., not so much. All of their takes on the essay strike me as superficial at best. In fairness to the hosts, John Holbo’s post is self-consciously so, and Belle Waring’s own commentary, as opposed to her unfortunately approving quotation of the Toast post, appears to be directed more at Franzen’s previous work, which I haven’t read, than this particular essay, which, as I mentioned, I liked a lot.

196

AF 09.22.13 at 11:48 pm

“It is genuinely a problem, then, if these Krausian insights look like retreads of laments the internet is actually quite good at making, . . . .”

Yes, but . . .

“. . . in a concise and witty (albeit can haz cheezburger) sort of way.”

Maybe not so much of a problem?

197

Mao Cheng Ji 09.22.13 at 11:49 pm

“Given the vast gulf between assembly language for the 80×86 and the 680×0 microprocessor worlds, it was also about as fully PC as possible for its time. And the author himself was a contributor to PC World. ‘Nuff said.”

I wouldn’t know: I’d never read a book where EBCDIC is not even mentioned. A man’s gotta have standards.

198

Jeffrey Davis 09.23.13 at 12:03 am

re: Bechdel test

I looked at the site and recent activity mentioned America Graffiti. The comment on it was pretty disparaging about the women. Since I think Debbie is one of the greatest women in the movies — likes motorcycles, fights, watching Toad puke, “brooo”, making out, and pretty much has her own agenda — I wonder what the quarrel with the movie is. (Co-written by a woman, btw.)

199

Tony Lynch 09.23.13 at 12:04 am

@167 “If you didn’t hear it that way, I apologize.” Does anyone else dislike this kind of faux apology?
I remember Pastor Ted Haggard: “I am very sorry if I have been the occasion for you to have taken offence…”
At best we have an expression of (mild) regret that someone is so careless/obtuse/confused as to think you have in fact done anything deserves a real apology. And then we have the “if” insinuation which suggests that the person receiving the condescending faux apology is anyway dissembling themselves.
Truly ugly.

200

Tom Slee 09.23.13 at 12:16 am

Jeffrey Davis #198: Not sure what you mean by “the quarrel with the movie”, given that it’s a single comment by a single contributor which is pretty self-explanatory.

Contrary to what Mao asks, I’ve never heard anyone describe the Bechdel test as separating “wheat from chaff” or being a marker of acceptable vs. not acceptable. I’ve always heard of it as a way of highlighting the limited role of women in many movies, which I think it does in an outstanding way.

201

Anderson 09.23.13 at 12:24 am

Thanks for the King pointer, MG. hadn’t heard of that. And that cat IS creepy.

202

bianca steele 09.23.13 at 12:31 am

@199
I’m going to take that as banter. Otherwise, blowing things a little out of proportion, aren’t you?

203

Tom Slee 09.23.13 at 12:32 am

Tony Lynch #199. That’s some weird reading of bianca steele’s comment. I don’t think I could read that ungenerously if I tried.

204

bianca steele 09.23.13 at 12:35 am

Re. JH’s comments about BW, way up above somewhere:

I’ve found that compulsive reading of the Internet can produce a feeling similar to eating too many potato chips, something that doesn’t happen even from compulsive reading of women’s magazines. I’m not sure learning to read slow was a good idea either, in my case.

Thinking about enjoying books, I figure besides plotty books and SF and things like that, there are books about ideas and books about people, and the former are likely to make me angry if I disagree with them, and the latter are likely to bore me if the people are too unlike me. Here’s one that’s not too bad, except for the child abuse, which is leavened into almost-comedy by the ghosts anyway, and is even obliquely about marriage: Hilary Mantel’s “Beyond Black.”

205

Yarrow 09.23.13 at 12:51 am

Tom Slee @ 200: I’ve never heard anyone describe the Bechdel test as separating “wheat from chaff” or being a marker of acceptable vs. not acceptable.

At least one person, albeit fictional, has done so: The character who gives the rule in the original Dykes to Watch Out For strip only goes to movies that pass.

206

geo 09.23.13 at 1:13 am

John: When you said this:
“You presume implausible degree of atomism, when it comes to literary value. This line is sexist, but the next line is beautiful, the one after is racist, then there are three stupid ones, but the next one is witty, and then we get another sexist one … Literary value is a more holistic business. If the plot is implausible, or the philosophy is stupid, or the characters poorly drawn, the presumption is NOT that this is like a defective module in a machine that can be judged to be otherwise ticking along well. Of course there are plenty of cases in which we can say ‘the characters were poorly drawn, yet the novel was strangely brilliant …’ Even so, if someone tells you they are reading a novel dragged down by poor characterization, and you say ‘how sad that you don’t try to separate that out, cleanly, the better to appreciate the other features of this novel,’ that just goes to show that you don’t know how it goes.”

… I thought it sounded like a rejection of an approach like this: “one can isolate flaws, put them in proportion, and still judge the work a success.” Sorry if I misunderstood you.

I didn’t mean to suggest that Belle is “a bizarrely careless cruiser after things to object to.” (In any case, it really isn’t so “bizarre” an approach, or wasn’t when Theory was riding high. When Edward Said indicted Mansfield Park for political insensitivity because Austen failed to point out that Sir Thomas’ estate in the Caribbean probably had slaves, it was a license for every literature graduate student in America to go cruising through every work in the canon looking for ideological shortcomings.) I did assume that Belle’s inability to enjoy Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Cheever, Updike, et al implied a pretty comprehensive lack of esteem for their work generally, and that may have been too hasty of me. My apologies.

In any case, I hope I didn’t seem primarily interested in nailing you or Belle or anyone else for a faulty or careless or overhasty formulation. I was primarily interested in making this point, with which you and JWM disagreed: “a novel may have lines or scenes or characters or attitudes that are sexist or racist or elitist or otherwise objectionable and yet have a great many others that are brilliant, beautiful, wise, humane, and otherwise rewarding. It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former”; or from another comment: that it’s necessary for criticism to live with such contradictions as “overall aesthetic success and a specific failure of moral sympathy in the same work.” Of course it’s hard to do justice to something or someone that irritates the hell out of you. We all need occasional reminders, preferably gentle and charitable, of our intellectual obligations.

JWM: I did (and do) agree with Shaw that Shakespeare’s heroes are less vivid and compelling than Bunyan’s Everyman, and that their passions and ambitions are insipid, even morally vacuous, compared to his. I’d say that Shakespeare is a great dramatist nevertheless, because he’s a wonderful craftsman, a brilliant wordsmith, and extremely astute psychologically. But he’s not in the same league as Tolstoy or George Eliot.

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 1:49 am

When Edward Said indicted Mansfield Park for political insensitivity because Austen failed to point out that Sir Thomas’ estate in the Caribbean probably had slaves, it was a license for every literature graduate student in America to go cruising through every work in the canon looking for ideological shortcomings.

Women, black people, queer people, all those Others–they are not ideological. They exist. Their humanity is not up for debate. It’s okay if they want to enjoy art that doesn’t erase, belittle, or dehumanize them. Characterizing that desire as nit-picking, as “cruising” on a mission to search out niggling little “shortcomings” is unfair, and makes you seem silly. Try to be intellectually honest, would you?

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John Holbo 09.23.13 at 2:05 am

“a novel may have lines or scenes or characters or attitudes that are sexist or racist or elitist or otherwise objectionable and yet have a great many others that are brilliant, beautiful, wise, humane, and otherwise rewarding. It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former”

Geo, obviously I don’t disagree with the notion that we ought to be able to appreciate flawed works for their good qualities. (Who could disagree with that?) What bothered me – surely this is obvious! – was your evident and unwarranted presumption that Belle (and I) would not be saying these things unless she had never considered this strange, outlandish possibility of appreciating flawed works for their good qualities. (You obviously know better than to say ‘how sad that Shaw was constitutionally incapable of even considering that Shakespeare might have his good points.’ Why be saddened by my wife’s dislike of Updike?)

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John Holbo 09.23.13 at 2:19 am

But fine. We should agree to agree, if we don’t actually disagree.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.23.13 at 2:36 am

Indeed, every novel must have a character who is sexist, racist, and even occasionally skeptical of the party line. That’s how the conflict arises. And he might also be in an early stage of alcoholism. The healthy collective will keep explaining to him the errors of his ways, until rehabilitated. And in the end, the character will sacrifice his life to help those he despised only recently. That’s the moment where I always weep. The true art: realistic, optimistic, emotional, and educational.

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John Holbo 09.23.13 at 2:54 am

Mao, if I interpret your satiric attempt aright you are conflating two things. There is a difference between being bothered by a stupid book and being bothered by a book that portrays stupidity.

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LFC 09.23.13 at 2:58 am

Re the question way upthread about male novelists who have written fully-formed female characters: although I wouldn’t want to make inflated claims for it, it occurred to me that McEwan’s Atonement might qualify. YMMV.

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LFC 09.23.13 at 3:03 am

To see Mao satirizing Socialist Realism (if that’s what 210 is doing) is … interesting.

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Ronan(rf) 09.23.13 at 3:32 am

Not wanting to pile on, but t lynch above (199) is idotic

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geo 09.23.13 at 6:02 am

John: You devoted #135 to disagreeing with my main argument in #131, which you now quote again but describe (if I understand you) as too obvious to disagree with.

I’ll try again. A novel is a work of art, and succeeds or fails on aesthetic grounds, some of which I mentioned above (#152): “the structural integrity and ingenuity of the narrative, the moral/psychological depth of the characters, the subtlety and intricacy of the symbolic architecture, the vividness and fullness of the atmosphere and environment, the quality of the wit, the force of the rhetoric, the richness of the prose style.” On these grounds, Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Cheever, Updike, Malamud, and the other Important Male Novelists I mentioned in #98 are successful, in fact great or near-great artists.

Novels also have attitudes and assumptions (the latter often simply imbibed from the air they breathe) about politics, sex, race, and other vitally important matters. These may be offensive, even appalling, but they’re secondary in judging artistic merit. You might not want Bellow to be Secretary of Human Services or anything else that allowed him coercive power over women’s lives (I certainly wouldn’t), but not to be able to acknowledge that Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift or Augie March are great novels, or to enjoy them despite their flaws, is sad and unnecessary.

In your latest, you avoid the word “enjoy” and instead use “appreciate.” Well, OK. But if someone says, “I can see that this is a brilliant novel (ie, appreciate it), but I can’t enjoy it because the novelist has a bad attitude, crackpot ideas, or other ideological flaws” (which is what I took Belle to be saying, though a bit more dismissively), I don’t think it’s aggressive or presumptuous to put in a word for the autonomy of the aesthetic.

Saurs: I’ll get back to you. It’s 2am here.

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.23.13 at 6:22 am

Sorry about that, it was my jetlag talking. And stupid lorazepam only made it worse this time.

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js. 09.23.13 at 6:24 am

Novels also have attitudes and assumptions (the latter often simply imbibed from the air they breathe) about politics, sex, race, and other vitally important matters. These may be offensive, even appalling, but they’re secondary in judging artistic merit.

geo,

You really don’t think that these “attitudes and assumptions” might have some bearing on, umm, “the moral/psychological depth of the characters”? That they might not thereby affect the “artistic merit” of the novel and so not be “secondary” at all? That if a writer can’t inhabit the mind of a female character, it wouldn’t at all affect the “the vividness and fullness of the atmosphere” or “the quality of the wit”?

Look, let’s try this a different way. On CB’s Gram Parsons thread I mentioned that I don’t “get” country music and this may well have something to do with me being brown and the “whiteness” of country—I could’ve used “enjoy” instead. I got some very mild pushback from Belle, …and that was it. Here, Belle and a few others mention that they don’t enjoy Important Male Novelists because of the “maleness” of the novels (I hope that’s a fair characterization) and all hell breaks loose. Now it may well be the case that the objective social value of Bellow is much greater than that of Willie Nelson so that failing to enjoy the former is, well, a much greater failing. Is that your argument? (Which would be a bit odd given other things you’ve said about objective values on previous CT threads.)

Even if all this were true, though, the enjoy/appreciate contrast doesn’t work the way you want it to. The autonomy of the aesthetic cannot by itself elicit enjoyment. Assuming the contrast holds, the most you can ask on its behalf is indeed appreciation.

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John Holbo 09.23.13 at 6:44 am

No, #135 imagined what (absurd) additional premise you would need to leverage the trivial point that sometimes flawed novels have redeeming features into a reasonable hypothesis that my wife is delusional on the mere basis of her saying that she judges many novels negatively, on the basis of some allegedly major flaws.

I proposed an absurd modularity about literary value. In the event, I think the premise you were actually relying on was something more like an arbitrary line of distinction between my wife and Shaw.

“put in a word for the autonomy of the aesthetic”

Well, just so long as we are clear that, insofar as you are taking the other side of the argument, you are shouldering the burden of arguing for the autonomy of the aesthetic from literary quality (not its autonomy from the moral virtue of the author or anything like that). The critical charge is that the literary value of these works is not as high as it has often been rated at, due to compositional problems, due to failures of characterization among other things.

This doesn’t have anything to do with thinking Bellow was a nice guy or any of that. Don’t commit the sin you yourself are warning against: making it all about whether we are going to tut-tut at the author.

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Zamfir 09.23.13 at 6:47 am

It might be easier to enjoy or simply appreciate the occasional sexist Great Author, if it didn’t seem a strong pattern. At some point, it’s no longer a seperate issue, and you have to wonder whether sexist dillweedism is a requirement (or at least an advantage) to become socially accepted as a Great Author.

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Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 6:49 am

Anon: Personally, I would not read “all the Important Male Novelists of the mid to late 20th-century” if I found them “impossible to enjoy.”

You obviously lack the ability to consider serious art carefully, because you don’t have the fortitude to look at ugly things. When many other people regard a body of work as serious and important, but it is something that sticks in your craw, more or less instantly, it is up to you to examine your prejudices and consider whether your judgment is correct or not. In the case of novels, this can only be done by reading them. This is so obvious that I am loath to type the words out. I am shocked by the relatively common consensus in this thread that if I say that I, speaking for myself, can’t read certain books with enjoyment, that means–I haven’t read the books. That just doesn’t make any fucking sense.

If it were a form of visual art under consideration, you would need to look at it thoughtfully, and at the works that preceded and inspired it, and I would argue, read something about the artist and her life. Then you could dismiss it and say, ‘no, this school of sculpture is dreadful, and people only like it because it has a manipulative, emotional appeal bordering on kitsch.’ And if we challenged you and said, ‘but Anon–look at this sublime beauty! How can you be unmoved!’ you could defend your position. But if it’s novels, you must read them. Again, this is very like typing out 2+2=4. geo, this goes double for you.

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Zamfir 09.23.13 at 6:53 am

For geo, 2+2=8?

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 7:33 am

Saurs: I’ll get back to you. It’s 2am here.

And I’ll be happy to read that response if it takes a sharp detour from your previous commentary. Drop the guardian of culture routine, don’t play semantic, school-yard games, stop assuming you match or exceed Belle in intellectual rigor, and frame your answer around the actual subject at hand without injecting your definition and parameters of Great Art, which this discussion–emphatically–is not about. Repeat: this is not about your toys, nor about creating apologia for them.

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 7:37 am

Also,

put in a word for the autonomy of the aesthetic.

That presupposes a pretty peculiar definition of aesthetic that is, decidedly, not universal. Are you sure this isn’t about your toys?

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 9:37 am

In re-reading this thread in its entirety (something of an exercise in masochism), I’ve learned far more than I needed about Belle Waring’s reading habits, reading skills. I begin to suspect that it’s not her skills we need to be discussing.

For instance, when I read her comments at 29 and 34, I glean the following information:
1. Belle reads.
2. Belle reads the White Anglo Male Canon.
3. Often, Belle detects misogyny (in characterization, storyline, subject matter, theme) in said White Anglo Male Canon.
4. The presence of misogyny hampers Belle’s enjoyment of selections from said canon.

Apparently, when other folk read those same comments, they hear:
1. Convince me I’m wrong.

Reading women on the interwebs: some of u r doing it wrong.

It’s odd, ludicrous, surreal, and painfully unfunny, the credence all of us automatically lend good, old-fashioned he-man woman-haters. Even Holbo is bewitched by their peculiar brand of irrational double-speak, going to great and desperate lengths to ensure perfect strangers that yes, his wife reads, yes, she understands what she reads, yes, she reads quite fast. If you weren’t paying too close attention, you’d think he were bearing witness to some spectacularly superhuman feat.

Women reading. Women having opinions about reading. Women not budging when those opinions are interrogated (badly and poorly both). It boggles some men’s minds. Sometimes to the point of logorrhea.

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Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 10:43 am

Saurs: PREACH!

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Anon 09.23.13 at 11:38 am

Okay Belle. I quit after this one.

I read someone claim that every supposedly great male author in the last 50 years is sexist, so sexist that I (and it seemed to be implied, everyone reasonable person should) find every single one of the these countless authors over half a century to be unenjoyable.

My first thought was: what an extraordinarily sweeping claim! I’ll be honest. My first thought was what a fucking stupidly sweeping claim. Then I tried to be charitable. I thought let’s allow that it might be true, even though it’s a claim about hundreds of books over many many years by many unnamed people who have in common only being treated as “great” by the literature industry. In fact, it’s plausible for many of the books in the category that I’ve read. There’s a lot of sexism in literature, and a lot of sexist assholes become novelists.

But then I thought: that’s a hell of a lot of books, I’ve tried to read as many of the supposedly great books, and I read more voraciously than any anyone I know, and I haven’t read nearly enough of them–how many would it be, surely hundreds?–to make a broad sweeping claim like that. So, then I falsely assumed–*not* that you’d refused to read any of them–but that you had not read *enough* of them to make a claim about *every acclaimed novel by every acclaimed male novelist in the last 50 years.*

If that’s a mistaken assumption, I’m sorry. You may well have read most or even all of them. But I doubt most people have read enough of them to make the claim, and I still wholeheartedly object to the casualness and confidence with which you make such a strong, contentious claim. And I’m deeply saddened by the many people here who are happy to strongly agree, when it’s such a strong, contentious claim and when they have likely *not* read as many of them as you have.

Let’s be clear: it’s obviously true that most novels written by men have sexist content. It’s obviously true that many novels written by men are so sexist that it seriously harms their aesthetic merits, making them unenjoyable. I also accept (Zamfir’s?) theory that sexism is practically a prerequisite for membership in the Great Novelist club. So I’m inclined to accept that it is *very likely* that *a great many* male novels of the last 50 years are too sexist to enjoy. But that’s not your claim, it’s a more modest, less sweeping (still sweeping), and less controversial claim.

Anyway, I’ve honestly tried–maybe not successfully–to be charitable here. That got more difficult when the arguments seemed to devolve into unfair insults: e.g., suggestions people don’t know how to read, that people must believe women’s perceptions are faulty or don’t give equal time to novels written by women.

If I wasn’t successfully charitable, I think there’s evidence I tried, and that others, such as geo, have tried too. E.g., we’ve both modified our interpretations of what Holbo and you have said in attempt to be accurate in our disagreement.

Here’s the thing: I don’t see enough evidence of the other side trying to be charitable. For example, I don’t think you made much of an effort to read my post accurately. You don’t have to read it at all, but if you’re going to respond critically to it, you should.

My post said two things, one of which you quoted. I would not read *all* of the celebrated authors of last half century *if I found them unenjoyable.* You claim I don’t have the fortitude to look at ugliness, which doesn’t follow. I give an author a few chances, endure the ugliness, then stop looking. And I read many of them, just not all.

I’d add that the part of my post you didn’t quote made this clear: that I try to read at least one acclaimed novel by every major acclaimed author and, if I’m unimpressed, I move on. Above all, because by doing so I have time for the others. It’s out of a desire to have time to read them all that I’m choosy–like most avid readers, I suspect.

I read your post as an insult. Maybe it wasn’t intended that way, but it sure looks like it. You tell me you are forced by my words to say something more rudimentary and obvious than 2+2=4. In effect (from the Simpsons): here’s a ball, perhaps you’d like to bounce it.

So, I give up. I don’t think you’re trying. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

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Ronan(rf) 09.23.13 at 11:57 am

Thanks for the recommendations btw Ben. T lynch sorry for the snark

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Mitchell Freedman 09.23.13 at 2:13 pm

Since I had been an early and sharp critic of John and Belle, allow me to say where I think they have been wronged to some extent in more than a few comments above. I never read Belle as saying that every male writer of the past half or more century were sexist pigs. I read her to say that too many of the most famous authors of this particular era, and let’s name names to be sure we’re not painting too broadly (Roth, Bellow, Gaddis, Mailer, Updike, Martin Amis and some others I can’t recall now) were largely if not completely insensitive to females. And with her I have agreed.

Are “all” guy writers of that period bad? No. I did not take her comment that way at all. I think of Vidal as one exception who I would defend to the max if that charge was made. The same with Vonnegut. The same with William Kotzwinkle, a most neglected and underrated writer.

I would also defend Graham Greene to some extent because “The End of the Affair” is much more about faith and the cruelty of God, not punishing a woman for an adulterous affair (the film with Julianne Moore is highly anti-female and the director obviously failed to grasp the point of the book, much to my deep disappointment). She gets cancer and dies because God doesn’t care and there is no reason for God’s indifference or even cruelty. That is why the narrator is so stunned by the conversion and so angry at what appears to be punishment, but is not punishment at all. It is in fact a brilliant twist on what Belle properly noted in her criticism in other male writers.

Still, my defense is limited because there is also something to the point that too often in novels, women who die or are miserable at the end. That is something women with literary tastes have taught me to be more sensitive to in terms of plot and narrative. And I am a better more discerning reader for that insight. Still, to say I can still enjoy a novel with racial or sexual issues, however, can be defended. I feel that way about the racism that pops up in early Booth Tarkington books, even though Tarkington was anti-racist himself. Tarkington consciously wrote for a larger public, and he was therefore responding to a highly toxic and racist society at the time he was writing. He felt himself making points to begin to bring the public away from that toxicity. I also find Tarkington compelling reading, particularly The Magnificent Ambersons, which is one of the greatest novels about the rise of car culture I’ve ever read.

My argument is against high brow literature academy’s obsession with sex and sexual activities. My argument against our general culture is its disdain for sentiment and exultation of the cynic as the only truth that exists in human life. These are what I was ultimately attacking in the attacks on Franzen. Had I written a critique of Franzen’s article, it would simply have said:

“Franzen makes some important points about the way in which global capitalism is working at this moment. He is also quite witty in pursuit of his metaphors regarding the PC and the Apple products, and very properly damning about the monopolist urges that are overwhelming publishing. One simply wishes that he did not make these often arrogant sounding diversions into autobiography that at most could be clever, but often muddle his point and divert us from his more important points.”

That should not have been so hard. Yet, I sit outside the academy, loving these folks’ love of literature and recognizing Literature and History’s importance to our societal development including critical thinking, and then think, Why aren’t these literary critics more thoughtful and why their obsession with sex? I then sigh and say, They remind me of clergy….

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dk 09.23.13 at 2:27 pm

Saurs @ 224, thanks for summing up the thread so aptly. Seriously people, read what Belle wrote before sounding off. It’s not hard to understand.

Geo, let me suggest a more productive use of your time: organising Great Film appreciation night at the local synagogue. First week’s feature can be Triumph of the Will.

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JanieM 09.23.13 at 2:45 pm

Ditto dk@229: Saurs @224 is wonderful.

*****

“not to be able … to enjoy [Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift or Augie March] despite their flaws, is sad and unnecessary. “

This repeated judgment is just so patronizingly sad and unnecessary…and at bottom, disappointing.

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Belle Waring 09.23.13 at 2:57 pm

Anon.: it was completely clear from the context that I was talking about a particular canon of “Important Novels of the Latter Half of the 20th Century,” for it is precisely this canon that Franzen wants so desperately to enter. My specific reference to Philip Roth is quite clear in that respect as well. The capitalization of the Novelists makes this extra, blindingly, distinct to a reader who knows the canon, does it not? Does this strike you as the words of someone seeking comity: “To say, with an ease as if stating the obvious “This book (which I didn’t read or read quickly because it’s bad because its sexist) is bad because it’s sexist” sounds, to use Holbo’s criticism, like something someone who has never read a book would say.”? This, perhaps, is full of charity? “in contrast, when I say easily and casually the book as a whole is sexist, it implies I’ve approached it both atomistically and mathematically: I added up the good and bad lines, good and bad characters, did the math and, voila, determined it’s holistically bad. And, in the specific comments under discussion, I supposedly did this with 50 years of writing *that I refuse to read*.” These do not sound to me at all like the words of a person who is willing to extend even a tiny bit of his hand over the gulf. I expressed a personal distaste for a canon of novels (Roth, Updike, Bellow, Gaddis, Pynchon et a very few al.). This dislike of a number of authors was acquired by my having read the books in question (astonishing, I realize.) Rather than consider that I might just be a person like you who had likes and dislikes, various tastes, and expressed them after reading novels, you insinuated–no came right out and claimed–that I refused to read any of the novels in question. Not just hadn’t read. Not just hadn’t read and was pretending to have read. Refused to read. This isn’t uncharitable, Anon., it is deeply rude and unpleasant. If you would like to apologize I am certainly willing to accept it, and I will go ahead and say that I was a little high-handed up there about your lack of native faculties to criticize art. If you fail to see why you provoked me, however, I don’t really know what else to say to you.

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.23.13 at 3:07 pm

My argument is against high brow literature academy’s obsession with sex and sexual activities.

Actually, I find that much of the so-called “high brow” literature I read do quite a bad job of giving sex and sexuality their proper place in the world of human relations. Sex is such an important part of people’s daily lives that it’s hard for me to see why it should be mostly absent (or portrayed in stilted, boring ways) in what we think of as our best literature.

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JanieM 09.23.13 at 5:05 pm

I want to go back to what I was trying to say in 230, starting with a more complete version of what I quoted from geo @215:

not to be able to acknowledge that Herzog or Humboldt’s Gift or Augie March are great novels, or to enjoy them despite their flaws, is sad and unnecessary.

It’s one thing to make a strong and cogent argument for the greatness of these novels, and to revel out loud in one’s own enjoyment of them.

It’s quite another to insist repeatedly that it’s sad and wrong for other people not to agree about the greatness. If you make an argument, and other people don’t agree with you, and your response is to patronize them with judgments like “sad and unnecessary,” that’s one level of unpleasantness.

But the unpleasantness crosses over (shockingly to me, and, okay, sadly, given how much I usually admire geo’s comments) into something quite offensive when you start to pass judgments on what other people do and do not enjoy.

Sometimes when I watch my own reactions to other people’s opinions and enjoyments, I am forced to realize that my disapointment is a form of loneliness. It would be so nice to know some kindred spirits….etc. That makes me wonder if I’m misreading geo’s “sad and unecessary” when I characterize it as a judgment on Belle. But it’s framed as if there’s some objective truth here about greatness, and people who don’t see the greatness are just … wrong.

An old friend of mine used to say, “Different is worse, Jane, different is worse,” meaning that that’s how people often/usually react to the fact that other people are, in fact, other.

That’s what’s sad, in the end.

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Mitchell Freedman 09.23.13 at 5:09 pm

Actually, Jerry, sex is not an important part of people’s daily lives. It is an important part of people’s private lives. When we are accomplishing something important for society, the sex is what brings us down. It is what trivializes the accomplishment. And that is because sex often causes us to be reckless or dumb about our lives. It brings us back to our adolescence when it was important in our daily lives.

Somehow the great novels of the past help us understand it without descending into pornography and TMI. Would that the academy that wants to obsess about sex understand that. If they did, the sooner they would jettsion Henry James and Fitzgerald the way Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington have been jettisoned.

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Anon 09.23.13 at 5:15 pm

Belle,

I think part of the confusion is that I entered this debate secondarily and indirectly. I initially objected to the OP’s take on the Franzen article, and hadn’t really been interested in the critique of sexism in Franzen and others’ books.

I entered the fray to support what I took to be a reasonable post by geo on how great artworks often contain flaws that are compensated by greater virtues, and overattention to the flaws can make us miss them. I jumped in because I think it’s an important and true point, one which has repeatedly been lost in the conversation, where artistic categories and judgments seem to have been reduced too quickly to good/bad, in/out.

I also jumped in because I thought the response to his post was somewhat offensive. One poster simply called it stupid, while Holbo’s more careful response still struck me as rude: that’s a view that would only make sense if you’ve never read a book.

Now, I should have reread the relevant post before switching topics, and for that I apologize. All I remembered was the Famous Dillweed Comment, not the context. And so that led to my misinterpretation of the statement. And that’s where I tried to be charitable: Holbo corrected me, I corrected the interpretation and adjusted my criticism. Your quoted examples of my lack of charity seems particularly uncharitable because *they are the view I that corrected immediately when shown it was false*.

@168 I revised my interpretation, objecting only to “confident dismissal” rather than “refusing to read.” I tried to hint that we should all be nicer, by admitting I got your view wrong, but also implying that Holbo’s comment about Geo’s post seemed too harsh. In another quote you mention, I threw that comment back at Holbo not to be uncharitable, but again as an attempt to quietly suggest we be nicer, that we’re all vulnerable to such arguments. I should have been clearer.

Holbo @169 responds quite charitably, indicating in a friendly way that my criticism is based on a misunderstanding. So, I apologize for implying there was no charity at all on the other side.

@173: here I really did try to go out of my way to make nice, so I’m disappointed that your examples of my failed charity didn’t include this post. In this post, I accepted further correction: I accept that I’ve misunderstood your claim–that you haven’t casually or without reading dismissed these authors–and once again adjust my criticism. And I think the new version is rather modest, hardly provocative or offensive:

“I worry that the overall tone of the comments in this thread is ‘don’t even try to try’–that these authors are so egregiously bad, whether in style or in moral standing, that to even critically engage them is a mistake. And I think that’s a mistake, certainly for those who haven’t read much of them yet, but probably also for the others.”

I still think this is a fair critical assessment. Note that in this post I’ve recanted my direction of the criticism to you, Belle. I’ve admitted that properly interpreted my worry doesn’t apply to your comments. I’ve instead made the case that the problem is in the overall tone of the comments, a holistic claim, rather than an atomistic one. And I emphasize that the worry is not you and your reading habits, but the impact the thread’s tone might have on others, who aren’t quick, voracious readers.

I apologize that I didn’t make that clearer: in shifting the criticism, I should have been more explicit that I was no longer criticizing your comments. The irony here is that my worry in the corrected, modified criticism was that the tone of the thread might encourage people to do what you accused me of: judging what they haven’t read, refusing to look at the ugliness before declaring it. (As I think may be the case with all the major general positions in this thread, the opposing sides are on the same side, but just don’t want the other on their side. The OP quote may have been an uncanny prediction: “Many share my views but I don’t share them with them.”)

So, I screwed up my interpretation many times, but I tried to correct it each time, and I tried to be kinder and less combative each time. It’s probably not your fault that you didn’t see it, since a comment thread disperses the comments, so it’s hard to see the whole. Ironically, it is forced atomistic reading.

I accept some responsibility for the misunderstanding, but I do think there’s more to go around. I still can’t read The Infamous Dillweed Comment without thinking that–even with the context–it invites misinterpretation. It also seems that it might depend on misinterpretation for its bite: if we interpret in the narrow sense you mean, then it’s obviously true, but if we interpret as a stronger claim, then you can say we’ve misinterpreted. I’m not saying that was your intent, but that your supporters in the thread sometimes seem to use it that way, taking the strong reading when convenient.

Anyway, I enjoyed the thread, misunderstandings and charitable failings and all. I still suspect there are no really substantial disagreements here in the end.

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geo 09.23.13 at 6:53 pm

Janie @233: That makes me wonder if I’m misreading geo’s “sad and unecessary” when I characterize it as a judgment on Belle. But it’s framed as if there’s some objective truth here about greatness, and people who don’t see the greatness are just … wrong.

This observation really helps. Yes, the question is whether there’s some objective truth about greatness, or as I would put it, aesthetic merit. “Objective truth” is clearly a complex, contested notion: consider all the philosophical debates about whether there are objective — that is, true independent of any observers, language games, shared but unprovable assumptions — moral truths, or any other kind. I’d say no, there are no such objective truths.

On the other hand, it isn’t true that everyone’s opinion about every moral or aesthetic question is as good as anyone’s else’s. I can’t have a useful argument about whether A or B is a greater tennis player because I don’t speak the language of tennis, don’t have an intimate grasp of the complex practice of tennis. Other people, who do, can.

Writing a novel is, like playing tennis, a complex practice — far more complex, I would say. It requires mastery of characterization (creation of a wide range of psychologically plausible characters, of both genders and every age, race, class, profession, or ethnic background, including their interactions over a wide range); plotting (pacing, level of detail, ingenuity, structural proportion and symmetry); ability to choose and deploy resonant, revelatory symbols; atmosphere (creation of alive, emotionally evocative settings); tone (maintaining a balance between humorous, satirical, edifying, etc); authorial voice (absent, mystified, authoritative); and style (rhythm, color, precision, formality/informality). There are an enormous variety of aesthetic choices to be made and, in turn, judged. Just as with tennis, you have to acquire some knowledge about these things, and practice in perceiving them, in order to make authoritative, or even interesting, judgments about a novel’s success or failure. But once you’ve acquired a taste for such judgments, and skill in conducting the arguments that lead to them, your enjoyment of fiction is multiplied.

Of course (to answer js), a crude, reductive, even vicious attitude toward some potential class of characters (women, blacks, gays, poor people) will probably produce inadequately realized characters of that class (though of course there are genuinely hateful people in those and every other class). We should notice when that happens and say so. I’m just arguing that there are a lot of other things to notice and say about novels, which may be equally or more important in rendering aesthetic judgment.

a judgment on Belle
I’m a little surprised and dismayed by this reaction, which also seems to be John’s, Belle’s, and a great many commenters’. Like virtually everyone else here, I respect and admire John and Belle hugely. But I honestly don’t see why that’s incompatible with taking strong (or in my case, mild) exception to one of their opinions. The point is not to put anyone down, to cheer or boo, but to figure things out together.

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JanieM 09.23.13 at 6:57 pm

Thanks, geo.

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JanieM 09.23.13 at 9:15 pm

geo, you wrote:

On the other hand, it isn’t true that everyone’s opinion about every moral or aesthetic question is as good as anyone’s else’s.

and:

a judgment on Belle

I’m a little surprised and dismayed by this reaction, which also seems to be John’s, Belle’s, and a great many commenters’.

I’ve started several drafts of this comment, and they’ve all gotten too long and convoluted, so I’ll try to shorten it by making a distinction between recognizing something and enjoying it. (As in It would be sad and unnecessary to dismiss or ignore or be unable to enjoy the latter on account of the former.)

One might “objectively” recognize that certain writers are “great” in terms of some of the things you list @236, and still — for the kind of personal reasons William Timberman and Saurs and others have mentioned, or for whatever other kind of reason — not enjoy their works.

I’m still kind of bemused (to put it mildly) that anyone would think otherwise.

But I’ve had too many people in my life tell me that if I don’t enjoy what they enjoy, and think like they think, etc., I’m bad/stupid/wrong. At least I’m old enough now not to give a damn. And I’m repeating myself now, but it’s not as if there isn’t an oversupply (in relation to the time available) of fiction, even “great” fiction. And even if the only choice were between Bellow, let’s say, and Twilight, reading novels isn’t the only way of profitably whiling away the hours.

For me the sense that you were judging Belle also came from the word “sad.” You might be personally sad that someone doesn’t share your enjoyments, and I put that reaction into the same category as the enjoyments themselves: personal, and therefore inarguable. Or you might be sad in a pitying kind of way, which is how I read it, and from which the sense of judgment came.

Based on #236, that seems to have been a misinterpretation.

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Anderson 09.23.13 at 9:20 pm

I’d say that Shakespeare is a great dramatist nevertheless, because he’s a wonderful craftsman, a brilliant wordsmith, and extremely astute psychologically. But he’s not in the same league as Tolstoy or George Eliot.

Well, at least we know Geo is not Harold Bloom. (Also, he hasn’t called anyone “dear.”)

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Substance McGravitas 09.23.13 at 9:29 pm

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Anderson 09.23.13 at 9:33 pm

240: Hm. Geo *may* be Shaw, who would prove much more long-lived than we’d suspected.

But srsly, hatin’ on Shakespeare tells us more about the hater than about Sh’re. Might as well put Homer and Dante in their places while they’re at it. You know Homer’s problem? Repetitive and unoriginal. How many times can a guy write “rosy-fingered dawn” without noticing? It’s like he was giving dictation or something.

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Substance McGravitas 09.23.13 at 9:40 pm

Geo’s is an interesting take that I don’t buy, and I’m glad he has it and explains it.

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bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 10:01 pm

I’m sorry, “no accounting for taste and “you like tomahto, I like tomaeto” just ain’t gonna make it here. It isn’t make a sad.

if Belle saysd “it’s misogynist as hell” and I say “hell yes, it’s misogynist, that’s why I like it” I suspect our social relationship might be slightly damaged. Similarly, if I devote all my Saturdays to reading the Protocols and watching Birth of a Nation, I wonder if janiem will like me quite as much, a shade less than not at all.

Of course it never was just simply, “I can’t enjoy Mailer, your mileage may differ. It won’t matter to me a whit.” We know better.

It always had, if not a moral, then a social dimension.

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Anderson 09.23.13 at 10:08 pm

Tolstoy’s attack on Sh’re is more interesting than Shaw’s, IMHO. But then, Tolstoy is more interesting than Shaw, period.

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bob mcmanus 09.23.13 at 10:10 pm

And all the revelations of individual tastes and preferences above had a social meaning and intent within this thread and in this community.

Why else would anybody ask “Is X ok? X isn’t very sexist, is he?”

Although of course sometimes the intent may have been anti-social.

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Anderson 09.23.13 at 10:14 pm

Of course it never was just simply, “I can’t enjoy Mailer, your mileage may differ. It won’t matter to me a whit.” We know better.

This is correct, and it’s (part of) why this is interesting. Compare “you’re friends with THAT creep?” and how it forces you to reassess who you thought your friend was.

(Wayne Booth had a book, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, that was not entirely successful (what is?) but which IIRC made an argument that associating with good/bad books is indeed a lot like associating with good/bad people.)

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geo 09.23.13 at 10:15 pm

Anderson: at least we know Geo is not Harold Bloom
How do you know that?

Substance: Thanks for the link. That was good fun.

Janie: Thanks for exploring this delicate question seriously and civilly. Here’s an attempt to explain what I meant by “sad.”

Many people who seem to know what they’re talking about say that (late) Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Cage are great composers. I wouldn’t deny it, even though I don’t enjoy any of their music. I just assume that I don’t have the necessary knowledge or critical vocabulary or patience to judge of it. I hate Waugh’s snobbery, rancor, and contempt for the ideals of solidarity and rationality that I cherish. But of course I enjoy reading him, and of course I recognize his literary greatness. I enjoy Tolkein, dislike his ideas, and have mixed feelings about his literary merits. We can have all kinds of reactions to any cultural product, or anything at all.

If I couldn’t enjoy Waugh or Tolkein (or Shakespeare), or bring myself to acknowledge their aesthetic merits, because they all have ideals of conduct and beliefs about natural hierarchy and Original Sin that I strongly reject, I think that would be too bad — a loss for me and anyone I might influence. That’s what I meant by “sad.”

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geo 09.23.13 at 10:18 pm

Anderson @244: Tolstoy’s attack on Sh’re is more interesting than Shaw’s

Shaw may well have agreed with you. He got Tolstoy’s pamphlet published in English and wrote an introduction to it.

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Anon 09.23.13 at 10:29 pm

JanieM and geo,

I hope you don’t mind my interrupting your conversation. But may I suggest an analogy with something more mundane and maybe less touchy than literature? My wife hates cilantro, so she’s less able to appreciate any dishes that use it. Many of my favorite Vietnamese foods have too much of it for her to enjoy. This makes me “sad”–not because I have contempt for her taste, or because I think she “ought” to like it–but because I feel like she’s missing out on a real pleasure. In the end, it’s not really all that sad, since there are plenty of wonderful foods she can enjoy. So the feeling may be mistaken: there’s no good reason to be sad for her. But it is a feeling based in good will, not in judgment or disapproval.

Consider another, maybe more sensitive analogy. I love music, and so when I encounter someone who is deaf, I can’t help but feel a bit sad for them. I can’t imagine life without hearing, and there are so many pleasures I take from it that I feel it’s unfair that they don’t get to share them. Again, this may be a mistake: there are so many other pleasures to be had through our other senses, it may not be truly “sad.” But the feeling is based, again, in good will, a desire to share good things, not condemnation or contempt.

JanieM,

I was struck by your comment: “Sometimes when I watch my own reactions to other people’s opinions and enjoyments, I am forced to realize that my disapointment is a form of loneliness. It would be so nice to know some kindred spirits.”

This rings very true, and I wonder if the sadness as issue is the flip side of that. That disappointment and not liking something others like is based in a sociable desire for company and recognition. The disappointment in others not something I like may be based in a similar need.

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 10:35 pm

Many people who seem to know what they’re talking about say that (late) Schoenberg, Ligeti, and Cage are great composers. I wouldn’t deny it, even though I don’t enjoy any of their music. I just assume that I don’t have the necessary knowledge or critical vocabulary or patience to judge of it. I hate Waugh’s snobbery, rancor, and contempt for the ideals of solidarity and rationality that I cherish. But of course I enjoy reading him, and of course I recognize his literary greatness. I enjoy Tolkein, dislike his ideas, and have mixed feelings about his literary merits. We can have all kinds of reactions to any cultural product, or anything at all.

You can continue to pretend that Belle Waring doesn’t have the intellectual goods to understand what she reads–and that it’s her stupidity that makes appreciating Treasured Books difficult and that misogyny is a feint used to conceal that stupidity–and you can continue to pretend that that’s not what you’re saying. But that’s what you’re saying and you’re fooling no one.

Yes, we all have the freedom to critique art we don’t care for, for any reason we decide. It rankles especially hard for some folk when it’s a mere woman doing the critiquing, hence the two parts outraged bluster and one part weaseling above. Too bad.

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 10:42 pm

And then we have Anon using a deafness analogy to carefully, gentle explain why Belle Waring’s opinions are wrong and sad and that she’s… missing out… on the books… she’s already read?

But it’s not your fault, Belle! You’re just inadequate! Just born that way! If only there was a way you could force yourself to find pleasure in reading books about how woman are stupid / base / sexual play-things / non-entities / castrating bitches! If only, if only.

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Bloix 09.23.13 at 10:47 pm

# 241 – “Might as well put Homer and Dante in their places while they’re at it.”

Somewhere recently I commented that the Iliad opens with a description of a spat between two warriors over which one of them would get to rape a sex slave, and someone responded that I had missed Briseis’ own view of Achilles.

Well, okay. But Briseis doesn’t have any agency at all.

I read the Iliad as a college freshman and the point that the engine that drives the story is an argument between two men who imprison and rape women as a reward for killing people was never addressed. That was in the 1970’s. I don’t know how it’s taught today.

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Bloix 09.23.13 at 10:50 pm

PS- I don’t claim any particular level of raised consciousness – to the contrary, I was a good and conscientious freshman and generally I didn’t have any ideas that the professors didn’t want me to have.

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geo 09.23.13 at 11:04 pm

Saurs @250. This is daft. Do you really believe there’s no difference between taking issue with someone’s approach to a difficult matter and claiming they’re stupid? Do you really believe everyone here believes that?

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 11:20 pm

Nope. Just the person what wrote it. The person, apparently, appointing themselves arbiter of book critiques, he who Takes Issues with Difficult Matters. Funnily enough, no where has Belle asked for assistance in drawing her own opinions, so the matter isn’t so difficult, after all. Belle doesn’t have to square her methodology for criticism by you. I know, it smarts. Again, too bad.

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Anderson 09.23.13 at 11:23 pm

252: last Iliad intro I saw did I think discuss that. Of course, the Odyssey being written by a woman is much more sensitive …

But really, one could film the Iliad as a gang war and stay very true to its spirit, I think.

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Saurs 09.23.13 at 11:23 pm

I’ll say it for the last time, because the gallows’ humor here is growing a bit thin, a bit too morbid: when a woman says no, I don’t care for that, she’s not asking you to convince her otherwise, to tell her to try it again, babe, you might like it this way, this time. I hope my meaning is clear.

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Anon 09.23.13 at 11:28 pm

Saurs, my comment wasn’t about Belle at all. It’s about the sadness any person feels when something they love or admire or find joy in is not loved or admired or a source of joy for others. It’s about the deeply social, sympathetic basis for the sadness, the misguided generosity that might be part of it. Geo’s debate will Belle brought that topic up, but I was discussing independently of that debate.

I don’t understand your posts at all: I don’t recognize anything I’ve said or others have said in them. I think your posts are very unfair. Just remember that it’s at least possible that you haven’t correctly interpreted what others are trying to say, that maybe your attempt to read the intentions and inner minds of others from their sometimes imperfect words is not accurate. Given the tone of your posts, I doubt I can convince you of that, but please consider it.

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Substance McGravitas 09.23.13 at 11:32 pm

The deafness analogy isn’t well-chosen in the context of the thread; it’s precisely because someone’s ability to perceive is acute that the OP is what it is, and in that case the composers of the works under consideration are tone-deaf.

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William Timberman 09.23.13 at 11:39 pm

I’d hate to tempt anyone to rehash the Shakespeare/Bunyan/Shaw/Tolstoy thread linked to above, although I enjoyed it immensely. (It was already part of the CT archives before I showed up on the scene, so I hadn’t read it before.) But…. It occurs to me that Shakespeare was a dramatist who had to keep the cheap seats and the pit filled, be heard above the drunken socializing, and wake up the snorers. Surely that would bias a writer against nuance, and goad him into accentuating the flash and glitter, the witty exchange, etc. (Then again, there’s Büchner. Dantons Tod is pretty nuanced, especially for one so young at the time he wrote it.)

Before anyone rises to the bait despite my careful disclaimer, let me add another one: this was just a quick thought — I’m not sure I’d have the wit or the fortitude to develop it further. Be that as it may, I for one am awfully glad that Shakespeare wasn’t Bunyan or Tolstoy, and I’d even go so far as to maintain that everyone should be glad he wasn’t Shaw.

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protoplasm 09.23.13 at 11:46 pm

Saurs,

You bolded this sentence of geo’s “I just assume that I don’t have the necessary knowledge or critical vocabulary or patience to judge of it.” But his next two sentences were: “I hate Waugh’s snobbery, rancor, and contempt for the ideals of solidarity and rationality that I cherish. But of course I enjoy reading him, and of course I recognize his literary greatness.”

It seems that geo is saying there are many reasons one might not enjoy a work of art. One reason might be lack of necessary knowledge (geo’s reason for not enjoying Schoenberg). Another reason might be one’s strong distaste (indeed, hate) for an artist’s ugly, immoral, unethical attitudes towards things one considers important, worthy, valuable (geo’s reason for disliking, though not to the point that it prevents his enjoyment of, Waugh).

Clearly Belle has the necessary knowledge to judge the Great Novelists (I submit this is clear even to geo). As I read his comment, geo is saying that it is Belle’s distaste for the GN’s sexism, a distaste geo shares, that is causing her lack of enjoyment, a lack of enjoyment geo doesn’t share, and that it’s unfortunate that this distaste leads to lack of enjoyment in Belle’s case.

This is borne out in his final para: “If I couldn’t enjoy Waugh or Tolkein (or Shakespeare), or bring myself to acknowledge their aesthetic merits, because they all have ideals of conduct and beliefs about natural hierarchy and Original Sin that I strongly reject, I think that would be too bad — a loss for me and anyone I might influence. That’s what I meant by ‘sad.'”

My reading of him is more charitable than yours and better supported by his comment. It shows comity between Belle’s and his judgment of the GNs (both think their work exhibits sexism) but divergence in their enjoyments, and his sadness is over this divergence.

If your reading were true, one would expect something of the sort “in order that she may better enjoy the GNs, Belle ought to gain some relevant necessary knowledge”, and that’s precisely what we don’t see.

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Bruce Baugh 09.23.13 at 11:47 pm

Upon due consideration, I am willing to concede that I am less able to appreciate autonomous aesthetics than entities who have no body, class, or gender. They’ll have to do my share of appreciating for me, while I stick to pursuits that I can manage as a physically incarnated entity.

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.23.13 at 11:59 pm

Actually, Jerry, sex is not an important part of people’s daily lives. It is an important part of people’s private lives. When we are accomplishing something important for society, the sex is what brings us down. It is what trivializes the accomplishment. And that is because sex often causes us to be reckless or dumb about our lives. It brings us back to our adolescence when it was important in our daily lives.

Wow, what a sad view of human life. One you’re entitled to, I suppose, but not one I personally find appealing, or one that I think makes for great literature.

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geo 09.24.13 at 1:23 am

John@218: hypothesis that my wife is delusional

Belle@220: the relatively common consensus in this thread that if I say that I, speaking for myself, can’t read certain books with enjoyment, that means–I haven’t read the books

I certainly never meant to imply either of these things. Can you point out where you think I did?

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geo 09.24.13 at 2:07 am

PS – I think I see what Belle meant: ie, from 90, If someone simply zips along until he/she finds some sufficiently irritating bit, then stops. Anderson immediately (92) challenged “then stops,” and I tried to make clear in 98 that I didn’t mean literally “stops” but “stops reading with a literary-critical open mind,” which I thought the only explanation for an inability to enjoy any of the dozens of important male novelists I immediately listed. I never doubted that Belle has read all the novels she’s ever expressed an opinion about, and indeed twice (or ten times) as many novels as I have. It’s only dawned on me this moment that anyone could have supposed I did doubt it. If any carelessness in my own expression is responsible for the misunderstanding, I apologize.

The interesting question all along, to my mind, has been: does even a lot of sexism, racism, elitism, etc in a novel mean that it’s an artistic failure? Of course Belle didn’t say that such a novel couldn’t have worthwhile features, or that no one else could enjoy it without being a sexist, racist, elitist, etc. But there was just enough ambiguity in the original post and subsequent commentary that it seemed worthwhile raising the more general issue: What makes a novel an artistic success or failure? This question doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction in this thread or the following one, which is fair enough. But the idea that it’s all about (or in any degree about) whether Belle is lying or delusional never crossed my mind. What an idea!

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js. 09.24.13 at 4:41 am

What makes a novel an artistic success or failure? This question doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction in this thread or the following one, which is fair enough.

This is bizarre. BW and Holbo both are repeatedly insisting that the failure of aesthetic imagination evidenced in the failure to craft convincing female characters by the (roughly) canonical authors of the latter half of the 20th century makes for artistic failure. This is what this whole thread has been about, best as I can tell. (Well, lots of random nonsense, too, obviously.) I don’t see how you’re not seeing this. Look here’s BW in the newer post:

The point is rather, I judge novels that were written during a time when men perfectly well could have known that the women they spoke to were intelligent human beings, in which the authors nonetheless fail in varied awful incredible ways to represent the 51% of humanity involved, to have failed qua novels.

It’s getting traction! (I don’t think this is the most crucial bit in BW’s post, but it’s short and it does address your point directly. Much better I think to closely read the para starting “Why does William S. Burroughs get out of jail free in this sense…” and the one following—they do nothing but address your point, far as I can tell.)

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js. 09.24.13 at 4:41 am

Whoops. First para is a quote from geo.

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geo 09.24.13 at 5:27 am

BW and Holbo both are repeatedly insisting that the failure of aesthetic imagination evidenced in the failure to craft convincing female characters by the (roughly) canonical authors of the latter half of the 20th century makes for artistic failure.

Thanks, js, I did notice this. But it seemed to me that they asserted rather than argued the point. I proposed, in two or three comments, in both threads, a long list of other criteria, which I don’t feel like reproducing here, which we now and since the beginning of literary criticism have used to debate the aesthetic merit of a novel, and which it isn’t obvious are all trumped by the failure to craft credible female characters. I thought we might discuss the question of how, in judging, to strike a balance among a novel’s many qualities, aspects, purposes, etc. It’s this discussion that doesn’t seem to have gained much traction. So be it.

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Joseph Brenner 09.24.13 at 5:35 am

Well, I like the Coase joke– though I’m not convinced it’s just a joke, I think it may work as an analogy, though perhaps a fairly wonky analogy. Trying to think it through, I don’t see how firming it up could add anything that you might get just by thinking about words as a product, sold by firms of various sizes… (that might seem an odd way of looking at an internet where much of the verbiage is gratis or close to it, but I would guess it’s salvageable by thinking in terms of some return that’s not precisely monetary– free market libertarian doctrine often relies on some sort of contorted thinking like this, e.g. it’s easier to get “self-interest” to cover more territory if you use an expansive definition of “self”).

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Joseph Brenner 09.24.13 at 5:46 am

Most people here seem to be skipping issues that I would regard as fundamental, though maybe y’all just regard them as settled… Do male writers have trouble with writing authentic female characters? Possibly (though I’m not sure they’re any better at authentic male characters), but maybe the entire idea that fiction is supposed to be some sort of realistic, psychologically accurate record of human mental processes is a bit of a stretch. To take a Tolstoy example, Natalie in “War and Peace” is not always very convincing to me as a female character– e.g. her moment of faithless betrayal is not accompanied by any of the usual process of rationalization, instead she’s supposed to be dazzled by the scene, and swept off her feet without self-awareness of what she’s doing. (It’s not at all clear to me that Tolstoy actually understood infidelity at all, which may be why he kept writing about it.) But there are other scenes where Natalie represents some kind of Spirit of Russia, and I think it might be besides the point to complain that she’s not a Real Young Woman or something– this is a character that represents some sort of metaphysical quality, and while it may very well be a Syndrome that female characters play these grand symbolic roles, it *could* be that the real trouble is the male characters often don’t have any such elevated function.
You might think of it as an odd hybrid form of literature, where the women live in a Romantic universe, and the men are stuck in Realism.

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js. 09.24.13 at 5:46 am

I proposed, in two or three comments, in both threads, a long list of other criteria

Sure, but those criteria seem to be obviously question-begging* in this context. This is what I was trying to get at in my earlier comment @217. And your comment about “crude, reductive” characterizations/attitudes frankly doesn’t cut it. When the notion of “artistic merit” and what makes for it is a large part of the issue, you can’t impose a list of criteria and demand that those disagreeing with you abide by it. That’s question-begging in the truest sense.

*In the sense of taking for granted what’s at issue. I know you know this, but given that the phrase has a kind of weird alternative meaning now, I figured I’d make this clear.

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Belle Waring 09.24.13 at 6:10 am

Anon.: now that you have decided to compare your pity for me and my inability to appreciate great works of fiction that do not measure up to my rigid 10-point-feminist scheme with an actual serious physical disability that renders people entirely unable to understand or appreciate anything of an art (music) because they do lack the native faculties (a sense of hearing) I hope you will forgive me for dismissing the faint hope I had that you might have possibly been trying to be conciliatory. You just said my inability to enjoy the novels you enjoy is like a deaf person’s inability to enjoy the music you enjoy. This latter tragedy arises from a complete absence of capacity (OK not really, deaf people do enjoy rhythmic aspects of music, but it’s clear enough). So the former also would arise from a complete absence of capacity, namely…what, I can’t even fucking read at all? This is your new, more generous position?

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Leo 09.24.13 at 8:48 am

This kind of stuff gets me thinking, god I miss David Foster Wallace! He’d be so great to have around right now.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 12:11 pm

Belle, did you read 258?

I’ve gotten myself in trouble twice the same way: I attempt to defend a single post *as an isolated claim*, but in the process clumsily get myself implicated in a larger debate that it was related to. That’s my fault. I should have made that clear.

When I defended geo’s claim about flaws in artworks, I wasn’t initially intending to comment about your comment at all. When I defended geo’s claim that he can feel sad when someone doesn’t enjoy an artwork he enjoys, and that this doesn’t necessarily have to imply a negative judgment of the other person, I was not thinking about your views at all.

So, first, let me make this clear: I don’t think your judgment about the these novelists is mistaken. I’ve already mentioned this but *I do not enjoy* most of the novels I’ve read by the people. To underline this: in my analogy, I could just as easily be the person without hearing.

The analogy was clumsy, but someone please just let me speak on my behalf and plese stop telling me what I really supposedly meant. Here’s what I failed to express: when we disagree about matters of art, both sides believe the other side is missing something. This has nothing to do with real ability or real accuracy of judgment (Substance McGravitas, this is why your point misses mine: my analogy assumes nothing positive or negative about the accuracy of the OP’s perception or the authors discusssed).

For the sake of argument, imagine, that you have a correct judgment of some novel that prevents enjoyment, and I have an incorrect judgment of that novel that allows me to enjoy it. My enjoyment is based on my *poor* aesthetic judgment. I might still feel sad for you, since I believe my judgment is correct, and so I believe you’re missing out on something nice.

So my point was not about whether anyone’s judgment was correct, and even allows for the assumption–if we apply it to your comments, Belle–that yours was correct. Every analogy is of course a complex picture, and not every element in the picture is meant as part of the analogy. That deafness is a disability wasn’t intended to be part of the analogy, and I should have anticipated that it might be taken that way. But then, my additional example of taste in food isn’t about ability exactly, so that should have been some evidence for not taking it that way.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating about this is that I wanted to detach this question of sadness from the specific debate about sexism in literature because I thought it showed something important about any debate and about this thread as a whole: that well-meaning people who are trying to communicate to each other and trying to share things they love with each other can often just hurt each other and leave everybody sad, and that this is not villainy but just a tragic side of ordinary human (mis)communication.

I’m at a loss, Belle. I apologized to you and to Holbo in my last post about a number of things. I admitted that I’d misinterpreted you, and tried to explain how I had been misinterpreted. And yet I still don’t see you trying to see my views from my point of view. I don’t see any reciprocity. I don’t know what else I can do, if you won’t believe me when I try to tell you I’m not saying what you say I’m saying. But (sincerely) thanks for being more civil when you say that than Saurs!

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Anon 09.24.13 at 12:27 pm

Incidentally, to any and all on this thread:

Is there an impartial bystander who might be willing to put in a good word for me–for the fact that I’m trying, even if badly, to argue in good faith? Someone who maybe sees better if and how we’re talking past one another, and might be able to fruitfully moderate? I’d greatly appreciate one small kind or supportive word from someone, even if it’s kind criticism.

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JanieM 09.24.13 at 1:16 pm

I got up a few minutes ago intending to dissociate myself from where Anon took my comment about sadness: i.e., to equating not liking a particular work of art with having a handicap.

For the record, I never meant anything remotely like that. \

I see that Anon has tried to back off from that framing, but in doing so has written this:

Here’s what I failed to express: when we disagree about matters of art, both sides believe the other side is missing something….I might still feel sad for you, since I believe my judgment is correct, and so I believe you’re missing out on something nice.

For the record, I certainly don’t assume that “the other side is missing something” if one of us likes a certain work of art and the other doesn’t. And to the extent that I mused about sadness above, I don’t feel sad for you (patronizingly; that was my point). I may feel sad for myself, because it would be more fun to share something, but in either case, it’s like: I like chocolate, you like vanilla, OH WELL. There’s no superior/inferior, correct/incorrect about it.

*****

Directly for Anon: Blog comment threads can be a rough and tumble place. (I can’t decide if you know that and are having us on, or not.) CT is quite civil overall, as blog comments go; because of that, in fact, it’s the only one I still read regularly.

You keep trying to police the tone in various ways — asking people to treat you a certain way, chiding Saurs for not being as civil as you would like, begging to be taken as you see yourself (in increasing layers of apology for earlier reframings of what you’re trying to say). I’m not going to put in a good word for you (or a bad word for that matter). But I think you’re overdoing it. Chill. If you don’t like it, no one’s making you stay, just as no one’s going to make people reply to you if they don’t want to, or in the way you want them to.

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Mitchell Freedman 09.24.13 at 1:21 pm

#263 Jerry, I have a “sad” view of life? Seriously, Jerry, do we study, listen and revere Beethoven’s symphonies because he had sex? Do we read Stephen Hawking because we want to know how he has sex?

If that’s the best you got, then you ain’t got nuttin’.

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Ronan(rf) 09.24.13 at 1:23 pm

Anon @275

Well I dont have the intellectual chops to moderate such a conversation! But I will say (not being snarky) that I genuinely dont have a clue what point you and geo are making. I know there are ‘many different ways you can analyse a great piece of work’ etc, but is the argument you’re making that its idiotic/wrong to not be able to enjoy a novel because it has poorly drawn female characters ? If it is, then, by extension it rests on the assumption that the person making that argument (about poorly written female characters) doesnt know what they’re talking about, but you and geo have said that Belle and John do know what they’re talking about, so whats they problem? (Surely in that case you’re only arguing over which equally valid analytical tool is most useful when reading a great piece of work?)
I’m sorry if thats not clear, or if I’m missing the point (though I think Saurs has it right, more coherent and succinct above)
I’m saying that as a middlebrow reader all the way down (I found Updike unreadable, Roth enjoyable at times (American Pastoral, Human Stain) in the same way as I find Homeland enjoyable, never read Gaddis, couldnt work through Pynchon, DFWs magazine pieces convinced me not to seriously try his novels, Carver I liked though) So what I’m saying is I’m not a deep reader, give me character and plot – or ideally laughs – and thats fine, so Im definitely open to having gotten the wrong end of the stick on tis thread

(ps I read the ‘deafness thing’ and geo’s:

“I just assume that I don’t have the necessary knowledge or critical vocabulary or patience to judge of it.”

In the same way as Saurs.
That, to me, is how your argument is coming across, that anyone making arguments about not being able to enjoy novels because of poorly written female characters doesnt know what they’re talking about)

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Phil 09.24.13 at 1:54 pm

I always tell students to cut out the “I think” and “it seems to me” clauses, partly because it’s SOP in academia (not unproblematically, but that’s another story) but mainly because they’re a waste of words – surely, every damn thing I ever say or write is what I think about the way it seems to me. I certainly lack any powers to make my words binding on others (even, or especially, as a teacher).

So I’m puzzled by a lot of these comments. When I say “this is wrong”, or “your interpretation of X is wrong”, or “you don’t understand what’s good about X”, or “your reading of X is lacking”, doesn’t that immediately – and, as it were, harmlessly – unpack as “it seems to me that your account misses something important in X” and “I think there are virtues in X that you’re overlooking”? Why should my or anyone’s opinion of someone else’s reading be translated as “I pronounce by the power vested in me that your opinion is invalid and shall not be heard”, and “I hereby decree that you are personally deficient for saying such a thing”? And if somebody did seem to be saying that, why – given that nobody has any power vested in them – should that part of what they were saying be taken seriously enough to even get angry about?

Case in point: Adam Mars-Jones’s review of Kate Atkinson’s latest book, Life after Life. He hated it; he thought the central conceit was shallow and uninteresting & the writing was slack and sentimental. I loved it, & I think he totally failed to “get” something important about the central conceit – and, interestingly, something about the style of the writing (although I haven’t tried to articulate either of these thoughts at any length). I love AM-J’s criticism & I was really disappointed in this review – I’m sad that he didn’t engage with the book in the right way.

Now, obviously(?) “the right way” is “what I consider to be the right way”, and I may be missing something myself; I may re-read the review and/or the book and decide that his criticisms were valid & the thing I thought I’d got wasn’t really there. But here and now it’s my position that AM-J missed something, and I’m sorry about that. If I were to discover tomorrow that he didn’t get on with any of Kate Atkinson’s work, and perhaps that he didn’t much like Kazuo Ishiguro either, I’d be really sorry about that – I’d start to think of him as somebody with an important (to me) blank spot on his cultural radar, like somebody who can’t stand curries or can’t listen to jazz. And as such he’d be missing out in a big way (in my opinion) and I’d be sorry for him. But this would only ever be the opinion of one person about another person, stated at a point in time and subject to revision (I might go off Kate Atkinson myself). Other people (just to complete the picture) could be equally sorry for me – I know I’ve got big blank spots that I’m not particularly bothered about (opera, C+W), and there are probably others I don’t even know about. Wouldn’t mean anyone was saying anyone else was a bad person -f and even if it did there’s no reason why the ‘anyone else’ should take any account of it.

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Yama 09.24.13 at 2:03 pm

I think Anon is making a good faith effort here. I don’t see any good reason to rewrite her comments.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 2:04 pm

JanieM,

Thanks for responding. Yes, our views about “sad” disagreements are very different in that respect–I suspect others realized that too.

My alternate take might better fit with the kind of disagreement Geo and Belle are having, since I think they both believe there is a question of superior or inferior aesthetic judgment.

Do you believe that any judgment about the inferiority of another’s perception or ability must be patronizing or insulting? I don’t believe that’s so. For example, if I’m skilled in a game that only gets really enjoyable the more skilled you become, I might reasonably feel sorry for the less skilled player in good will: they’re playing the game, they like it, it would be nice if they could enjoy it to the fullest.

I realize there’s a worry that this is an arrogant kind of “feeling sorry” or “pity”–but I’d insist on the phrasing I used: “misguided generosity.” It may be mistaken, but it’s motivated by generosity, and I suspect it’s a basic feature of human nature: if I enjoy something, I want to share it. If the other doesn’t enjoy it, my sadness and disappointment is basically grounded in that desire to share. It even applies to a desire to share in disenjoyment. If I taste some dish and it’s awful, my first instinct might be turn to another and say, “Oh, this is bad–taste it!”

You say “it would be more fun to share something,” but you also seem to depict sharing as a one way relationship *in the respect that* you say you only feel sad for yourself if you don’t get to share. But if sharing is a two way relationship, doesn’t it make sense that we would feel sad both for ourselves and the other when we cannot share? Isn’t the sadness of not sharing reasonably a *shared sadness*? Maybe we should recognize that’s a bit presumptuous (for me to believe, possibly falsely, that you’re missing out), so it could be misguided generosity, but still generosity.

On your other comments. Blogs are rough and tumble places, but sometimes the roughing falls primarily one one side, and all the tumbling on the other. You say I’m trying to “police” the tone by “asking people to treat [me] in a certain way”. But asking is not policing. Policing means trying to force. In discussion, this is usually psychological: abusive language, insults, etc. I’ve used the latter, but less than my critics have. And as you say, some degree of rough and tumble forcefulness is just an inevitable part of blog discussion.

I’d add that I think all conversation is performatively a request to be treated a certain way, an ethical act, a request to be listened to, interpreted charitably, respected.

I don’t think any policing is happening, just occasional excessive roughness. But if you do think things like asking to be reinterpreted or chiding someone for caricaturing my position counts as policing, wouldn’t that mean that others are policing too, on your criteria? Belle is “asking” for us to more accurately interpret her original comment, but that’s not policing. Saurs “chided” me for perceived insults, but that’s not policing.

I disagree that I’m asking to be taken as I see myself–isn’t the willingness to correct and alter my views a sign of being attentive to how others see me? There is a question of power balance here: ideally we all mutually correct each others’ self-image and understanding, but in practice, there are some who are granted more authority to tell others who they are and what they really mean. It’s not intentional, but there’s been a degree of that in this thread.

I’m primarily begging to be allowed to speak on my own behalf, to have people respond to my words rather than inferring what they believe are the real, hidden intentions behind them. And again, to request this is not to police or to force. And it’s *not* to beg: because it is to request what is every speaker’s right.

Thanks again for the reply.

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William Timberman 09.24.13 at 2:21 pm

Phil, when approaching someone presumed to be armed and dangerous, i.e known to be intelligent, and of a militantly different opinion, the rituals of politeness can be helpful — even when it’s obvious to both parties that they are rituals. The forms observed don’t always guarantee a genuine conversation, but without them, it’s often hard to get one started. So don’t overdo the if you pleases, and it seems to me thats — which might be taken as obsequiousness — but don’t omit them altogether either. The rules of academia may be different at the moment, but like rules elsewhere, they vary with the times, and with changes in what’s considered fashionable. They also don’t necessarily obtain outside the ivy walls.

That said, Belle’s mastery of the in-your-face challenge has its merits, especially when complacency is the default attitude toward doing away with things which ought not to be. Maybe the true wisdom is to adapt the tools to the job at hand.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 2:21 pm

Ronan, you’re probably all too right about this: “you and geo have said that Belle and John do know what they’re talking about, so whats they problem?”

The main disagreement is resolved for me now that I see what Belle meant: of the literature in question that I’ve read, I suspect Belle is right. (I can’t speak for geo’s current position on that.)

The problem is that this change in position–which I have mentioned in many posts–has understandably lead to confusion, and so we’re still fighting the war long after it’s over.

“is the argument you’re making that its idiotic/wrong to not be able to enjoy a novel because it has poorly drawn female characters ?”

Again, I can’t speak for geo, but I don’t think so. I think the original debate–which I wasn’t part of–was whether or not poorly drawn characters alone make for a bad book, and to what degree the characters at issue were poorly drawn. The question is how serious is a particular artistic flaw, and in the whole work how much do they mar the enjoyment of the whole?

And I would disagree with the linking of “idiotic/wrong.” I’ve watched movies that I didn’t enjoy due to an artistic flaw. Then others have pointed out virtues that I didn’t notice, thanks to the annoying flaw. Then I’ve rewatched those movies and noticed the flaws less and enjoyed them more. The flaws make them artistically worse, but in such cases it might be fair to say I was mistaken–*not* “idiotic”!–in my non-enjoyment, as weird as that sounds. Again, I don’t think Belle is mistaken, so the question here is a new one: whether one can be mistaken in enjoyment and non-enjoyment.

“That, to me, is how your argument is coming across, that anyone making arguments about not being able to enjoy novels because of poorly written female characters doesnt know what they’re talking about).”

Ironically, this is how the opposing argument *originally* (pre-corrected interpretation!) came across to me: anyone who enjoys a large number of novels in a certain category doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

To be fair, it was an aesthetic debate from the start: a claim about the artistic flaws of novels. So both sides were saying that the other was making a mistaken judgment. But that doesn’t amount to calling “idiotic” or saying they “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Thanks for the reply, Ronan.

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Ronan(rf) 09.24.13 at 2:28 pm

@ 282

Yeah linking ‘idiotic’ was poorly written on my part. Sorry about that!

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areanimator 09.24.13 at 2:34 pm

In a discussion on Franzen I had with a (female) friend of mine a while back, she said something that I think pertains to the discussion. We were sharing our disappointment at being unable to enjoy “Freedom”, a book that had been reviewed favorably and seemed popular with our peers. She said something akin to: “Some authors, I believe, win acclaim not because they’re better at writing, or because their writing contains insights new to ‘ordinary people’, nor even because they evoke novel experiences in the reader. They win acclaim because their work makes readers’ ‘ordinary’, normative thoughts, complaints and experiences ‘literature-worthy’ simply because a book now exists wherein those things are portrayed.”

I think this pertains to the discussion, both of the original essay (where Franzen makes an argument that has been made by many people before, and around, him, and where this point has been raised in this thread both as a reason to dismiss the essay or to acknowledge it) and of the subsequent derail into sexism in literatute. When you’re not a member of the same generation, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality or whatever other aspect that separates you from the Great Novelist whose book you’re reading, you miss out on that recognition factor, the boost in self esteem that comes with reading about someone having thoughts, feelings and life experiences similar to yours – making your own life somehow “literature-worthy”.

I think the quality of a novel can be directly related to how much it alienates readers belonging to groups that the author percieves as “other”; how much it centers the experiences of a particular way of being in the world and how it creates this sense of “literature-worthiness” in certain groups of readers but not others. I write “how much” knowing that this is probably not a correct term, since this is most likely unquantifiable. Certainly, these aren’t the only factors that determine quality, but for some readers, and some books, it may be the ones that determine how much enjoyment one will get out of reading it.

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Belle Waring 09.24.13 at 3:07 pm

Anon., honestly, I’m not having an argument with geo; he’s trolling me. The fact that I am talking to you indicates that I think you may be sincerely confused about what I am claiming, and may have expressed yourself in a fashion that unhappily, by chance, runs counter to your actual desires for intellectual comity. But think, your cilantro and subsequent deafness metaphor arose out of your agreement with the following from geo:

I hate Waugh’s snobbery, rancor, and contempt for the ideals of solidarity and rationality that I cherish. But of course I enjoy reading him, and of course I recognize his literary greatness. I enjoy Tolkein, dislike his ideas, and have mixed feelings about his literary merits. We can have all kinds of reactions to any cultural product, or anything at all.

If I couldn’t enjoy Waugh or Tolkein (or Shakespeare), or bring myself to acknowledge their aesthetic merits, because they all have ideals of conduct and beliefs about natural hierarchy and Original Sin that I strongly reject, I think that would be too bad — a loss for me and anyone I might influence. That’s what I meant by “sad.”

If you are a reader of any skill at all, you must realize that this is really, truly, deeply insulting to me. geo is saying, “I too have serious moral beliefs, just as pitiable feminists do; it’s only that I have the keen aesthetic sense that doesn’t let those beliefs interfere with my enjoyment of Art. Would that some *cough*Belle*cough were the same.” You agreed with that, and that was what made you go on to bring up the sadness you feel when you think of a deaf person who can’t hear music. Again 2+2 continues to = 4 and I have not seen anywhere that you have apologized to be in the slightest. Please advise soonest yrs. Belle

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Mao Cheng Ji 09.24.13 at 3:22 pm

Geo is too gracious. Vile Bodies and The Love One are among the funniest books I’ve read. Why should I care about author’s snobbery, his attitude towards solidarity, or whether he’s the Satan Himself?

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Anon 09.24.13 at 3:34 pm

Belle,

I’m beginning to doubt my sanity. Maybe you’ll agree with me on that sentiment? :)

I’ve apologized explicitly many times, and implicitly many more (saying things like: “that was my fault” or “I should have made that clearer” etc). I’ve apologized so many times, JanieM even complained of my “increasing layers of apology for earlier reframings.” (No offense intended JanieM, but I really felt a bit like I was in one of those “why are you hitting yourself?” situations there. Should I not apologize? Should I apologize for apologizing?)

Here’s the full apology list: @226 paragraph 4, @235 p5, 6, 10, 11, and 12, @274 p1 and 6.

I appreciated your statement, “I will go ahead and say that I was a little high-handed up there about your lack of native faculties to criticize art.” But honestly it feels a bit like you’ve taken it back, since you’ve brought up the 2+2=4 comment.

I stand by all of my apologies as listed.

P.S., maybe geo is trolling, but I didn’t have that impression. I usually don’t feel certain enough to make such judgments. I feel particularly unable to in this case since I don’t know geo’s history on the blog–maybe past behavior gives reason for suspecting trolling. But I suspend judgment there.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 3:46 pm

Oh, I forgot to respond to your other points. Yes, I completely understand and agree that the context supported your interpretation of the deafness analogy. In Ye Old Apology List, I included that, so I won’t add additional layers to my World Apology Tour.

I didn’t intend to agree to geo’s points about you, but what I took to be a distinct secondary debate he was having with JanieM, I believe?–the debate about whether feeling sad for someone who doesn’t like an artwork necessarily includes contempt or pity, etc.

On another note, I just didn’t read geo’s comments the way you did. And I’m wary of a form of argument that you and others have used, which involves rephrasing a comment to reveal it’s supposedly true intention.

For example: “geo is saying, ‘I too have serious moral beliefs, just as pitiable feminists do; it’s only that I have the keen aesthetic sense that doesn’t let those beliefs interfere with my enjoyment of Art. Would that some *cough*Belle*cough were the same’.”

It’s possible that’s what he really thinks, but since it’s impossible to verify motives, and since it’s common to misinterpret motives, and since it involved drawing attention away from his actual words or a reframing them with something he doesn’t actually say, isn’t this a bit unfair as a way of proceeding? I suppose if he’s trolling, the case could be made that it’s the only option: trolls obstruct fruitful argument. But I’m not so sure.

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MG 09.24.13 at 3:52 pm

Anon: One of my favorite novels ever is “Crime and Punishment”. I read it as a teen and have read little which matches it for complexity and power and depth and relevance. But if someone were to say to me “I cannot read Dostoevesky”, I’d get it: a Russian novel which takes place in the mind of impoverished and mad Raskolnikov is not for everyone. But, I would not say “Egads, a lowbrow!”.

That’s why “I am sorry you can’t enjoy this” is a putdown. Because it is — it’s an imposition of your superior taste onto another person.

But who knows anyone’s motivation? Maybe you are like some of the Deadheads I knew back in the day — fighting the statement “I don’t care for the Dead” by playing bootleg tape after bootleg tape and saying “Now, tell me wasn’t that awesome?” (SPOILER: It never was!). But they were harmless and motivated by generosity.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 4:20 pm

MG,

Do you think “I am sorry you can’t enjoy this” this is always a putdown, or just often? Because I agree that it can be, but not that it must be.

One issue is what counts as “imposing” your taste. Most tastes come from outside of me in one way or another–my tastes in food and art and music are deeply influenced by my family, my friends, my culture, my upbringing. So just to try to influence someone’s tastes isn’t necessarily an imposition.

In addition, one reason our tastes change is because we have new experiences and influences, above all, because we have a larger framework of comparison. So this raises a second question: do you reject the possibility that some people have “superior taste”?

I think that since there’s an element of learning and knowledge involved in taste, one can have–in a narrow sense–“better” and “worse” taste in the sense of drawing on a greater range of examples when comparing. For example, I watch lots of film and have a lot of film knowledge, but there are friends and professional critics who have much greater knowledge than me about film, and I do give their views extra weight, but that doesn’t mean they impose their taste on me. Another way one can have “better” taste is rather mechanical, in the way someone can be a better piano player or mechanic: they carefully attend to all the elements of the work, they consider the relation of the elements to the whole, etc. I can be careless or inattentive to a work, leading to poor judgments about taste.

Finally, I think there’s another issue that hasn’t been raised: what is the real value of artistic taste? Is having inferior taste a bad thing? It may be that having superior artistic taste is no more intrinsically valuable than, say, being a superior badminton player. It could be that it could even be disvaluable, like being a superior thief or skillful advertiser.

I do think that good taste is a nice thing to have, but I don’t see why we should assume it’s normatively good, and that to lack it is normatively bad or that to say someone lacks it is *necessarily* a putdown (you *ought* to improve your taste).

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Bloix 09.24.13 at 4:40 pm

There was a time when critics praised Birth of a Nation to the skies as a great, innovative work in the art of film. Here is James Agee, in an appreciation (published in The Nation) of DW Griffith on the occasion of his death in 1948:

“To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art…

“The most beautiful single shot I have seen in any movie is the battle charge in The Birth of a Nation. I have heard it praised for its realism, and that is deserved; but it is also far beyond realism. It seems to me to be a perfect realization of a collective dream of what the Civil War was like, as veterans might remember it fifty years later, or as children, fifty years later, might imagine it…

“The Birth of a Nation is equal with Brady’s photographs, Lincoln’s speeches, Whitman’s war poems; for all its imperfections and absurdities it is equal, in fact, to the best work that has been done in this country…

“Today, The Birth of it Nation is boycotted or shown piecemeal; too many more or less well-meaning people still accuse Griffith of having made it an anti-Negro movie… Even if it were an anti-Negro movie, a work of such quality should be shown, and shown whole. But the accusation is unjust. Griffith went to almost preposterous lengths to be fair to the Negroes as he understood them, and he understood them as a good type of Southerner does…”

Like many others who loved Birth of a Nation, Agee was no racist, but he had no difficulty ignoring the grotesque race hatred that was obvious to some contemporaries and to all modern viewers, in a way that is simply bewildering to us.

When is an artist’s bias – toward a race, a gender, a minority group – something we can get over and still appreciate the art, and when does it overwhelm any virtue that the work might otherwise have?

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.24.13 at 4:58 pm

#263 Jerry, I have a “sad” view of life? Seriously, Jerry, do we study, listen and revere Beethoven’s symphonies because he had sex? Do we read Stephen Hawking because we want to know how he has sex?

If that’s the best you got, then you ain’t got nuttin’.

When we are accomplishing something important for society, the sex is what brings us down. It is what trivializes the accomplishment.

I don’t know what to say except to just quote your own words back at you. I don’t know if you’re just role-playing “generic left-wing puritan” online or what; I’m just weirded out by what I think is a generally bizarre and unhealthy view about sex, as if it was somehow peripheral to people’s lives. And that’s not irrelevant to the general conversation, since you seem to believe that honest discussions or depictions of people’s sexual lives are somehow in opposition to good art. Whether we accomplish something “important for society” or not is pretty irrelevant to that question. If some subset of literature is attempting to portray something real and true about human life, then excising sex from those portrayals is pointless and arbitrary.

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Hector_St_Clare 09.24.13 at 5:09 pm

I haven’t read most of the fashionable recent authors to whom Ms. Waring refers, so I cannot comment upon them. I would strongly rise to the defense of Graham Greene though.

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Hector_St_Clare 09.24.13 at 5:11 pm

Jerry Vinokurov,

Tolstoy had the very view about sex that you refer to above, yet no one would deny he’s a great writer.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 5:21 pm

Almost missed @280: Thanks, Yama, I appreciate that!

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Cleanthes 09.24.13 at 5:30 pm

‘Do you reject the possibility that some people have “superior taste”? I think that since there’s an element of learning and knowledge involved in taste, one can have–in a narrow sense–”better” and “worse” taste’.

Good points Anon, however, ‘taste’ feels a bit snobbish as a concept. ‘Enjoyment’ is, perhaps, a less polemical term.

Borges once said that aesthetic enjoyment is independent of knowledge. He provided the example of this verse: ‘and his legacy is the bloody moon’. Is it more enjoyable once we know that it refers to one time when the Duke of Osuna pillaged a little Muslim town which happened to have a red moon on its flag?

Enjoyment is even independent of learning and technical skill and expertise on the subject matter. You can be Debussy and still find Beethoven to be an artistic midget.

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Substance McGravitas 09.24.13 at 5:31 pm

Tolstoy had the very view about sex that you refer to above, yet no one would deny he’s a great writer.

Have you ever seen Charlie Tuna?

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Jerry Vinokurov 09.24.13 at 5:43 pm

Tolstoy had the very view about sex that you refer to above, yet no one would deny he’s a great writer.

Yes, there’s this thing called gradation, and the fact that a writer doesn’t necessarily do one thing well doesn’t mean they don’t a lot of other things well. I’m just saying: excluding a particular sphere of human activity from the ambit of literature is pointless and arbitrary.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 5:49 pm

Bloix: “When is an artist’s bias – toward a race, a gender, a minority group – something we can get over and still appreciate the art, and when does it overwhelm any virtue that the work might otherwise have?”

This reminds me of a helpful distinction in Belle’s view that I failed to catch: our artistic judgments don’t necessarily align with our enjoyment. So, I can judge artistic merit despite its biases, but it could still ruin enjoyment. And I can recognize artistic flaws, but they may not always harm enjoyment.

In many of these cases–The Triumph of the Will comes to mind–I recognize artistic merit even when I can’t get over the bias and fully appreciate or enjoy the work. But it ends up being a kind of abstract, dissatisfying experience. For example, I could vaguely imagine being moved and inspired by the composition, lighting, editing, and cinematography of the Triumph of the Will if it weren’t a hymn to Nazism. But I can’t truly imagine that, so it’s a rather empty appreciation.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 5:58 pm

Cleanthes: “‘Enjoyment’ is, perhaps, a less polemical term.”

True, but I think there’s a helpful distinction to be made between our intellectual judgments about art and our experiential enjoyment of it. So, I think we need an additional term. I’d suggest “experience,” as in, “Joe has a more experienced appreciation of film than I do,” rather than the more snobby “Joe has better taste.” However, that term downplays the element of conscious learning and judgment. Maybe it’s best just to say: “more knowledgeable” about this or that form of art. Then I imply there may be more reason to give Joe’s judgments some weight, without assuming he has superior taste or that his judgments will be correct.

I’m sympathetic to the Borges’ view that aesthetic enjoyment is independent of knowledge. But I think artistic appreciation can include more than just aesthetic enjoyment, if that’s just the immediate experience of the phrase, its sound and rhythm. So I can find that phrase immediately pleasing and beautiful, but upon learning the rest, I may find it more meaningful, moving, enlightening and be inclined to find it artistically superior to just the aesthetic experience.

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Walt 09.24.13 at 6:07 pm

I find it sad that none of you are able to appreciate Twilight.

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geo 09.24.13 at 6:07 pm

Anon: To be fair, it was an aesthetic debate from the start: a claim about the artistic flaws of novels

Actually, no one denies that Roth’s, Bellow’s et al superficial or mean-spirited portrayals of some of their women character are flaws. The questions are: 1) Are they aesthetic or moral flaws, and for that matter, what are the boundaries between aesthetic and moral judgments? 2) If we do decide that sexism is an aesthetic flaw, how should it affect our overall judgment of a novel that has a number of outstanding aesthetic virtues?

Belle @286: this is really, truly, deeply insulting to me. geo is saying, “I too have serious moral beliefs, just as pitiable feminists do; it’s only that I have the keen aesthetic sense that doesn’t let those beliefs interfere with my enjoyment of Art. Would that some *cough*Belle*cough were the same.” … I have not seen anywhere that you have apologized to me in the slightest.

No apology is needed for saying — without a single disparaging epithet throughout two long threads, as far as I can remember, or any personal comment at all except to express admiration — to someone: “I don’t agree with your literary judgments, and I don’t think you’re going about forming them in the right way.” This is trolling?

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bob mcmanus 09.24.13 at 6:18 pm

302:I find it sad that none of you are able to appreciate Twilight.

Wha!!! Newman, Sarandon, Hackman, Garner, Witherspoon, Liev Schreiber, Giancarlo Esposito, John Spencer, Stockard Channing, Margo Martindale, M Emmet Walsh.

The charisma and talent are blinding. Doesn’t much matter what they do, but that’s ok too.

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Bloix 09.24.13 at 6:21 pm

#300 – you bring up Triumph of the Will. I think a modern viewer could find Triumph of the Will emotionally moving in a way that he or she will find disturbing – because the artistry of the movie-making is not undercut by anything vile or repulsive in the images themselves. So we can still respond to the artistic vision of Leni Reifenstahl, regardless of our revulsion at Nazism.

But what about, say, Jud Süss? I don’t think a modern viewer could respond emotionally to that film in a way that the film-makers intended. The content simply overwhelms any possible appreciation of any artistry.

And where is the tipping point? I don’t mind the lightly disguised anti-Semitism in much of Trollope, but I don’t remotely feel the terror and disgust that Dickens wants me to feel in his descriptions of Fagan the Jew. To the contrary, they make me hate Dickens, an author I otherwise enjoy.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 6:37 pm

#302: “I find it sad that none of you are able to appreciate Twilight.”

Honestly, whenever there’s some big pop culture craze like that, I feel a bit jealous. People get a lot of joy out of it, and there’s that added pleasure of sharing that joy with lots of people, even strangers, being part of a big phenomenon, having something in common in a culture where we often feel we have so little in common, etc.

That’s why I earlier raised the question of whether “bad” taste, assuming there is such a thing, is normatively bad. I think a *possible* case (NOT one I’m endorsing) could be made that superior aesthetic taste is largely just more sophisticated, and that this is undesirable because it makes it harder to enjoy the most easily obtained artistic pleasures, while giving one a taste for artistic pleasures that are often more difficult and expensive to satisfy.

For example, if I could the same quality and quantity of artistic joy from, say, any random fast food joint that I might get from cultivating highbrow gourmandise tastes, might that be “better”? (Especially if a possible difference in quality is offset by decreasing quantity?)

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Anon 09.24.13 at 6:44 pm

geo @303:

Right, I was aiming for that with this part of the post: “The question is how serious is a particular artistic flaw, and in the whole work how much do they mar the enjoyment of the whole?” Agreement on flaws, disagreement on what the final judgment of the whole.

There’s an added level that I still don’t feel sure I know you or Belle’s position on: the relation of artistic judgment and enjoyment. If I do judge a work overall as artistically good despite flaws, but the flaw makes me incapable of enjoying it, is this some kind of a mistake? Should I try to “learn to like” it?

Because I can certainly understand saying, no: why force myself to like it despite its flaws if I don’t. On the other hand, so much of pleasure is “learning to like,” so one might also answer by saying: “why not?” There’s no strong reason not to give it another shot–except that the time might be better spent on things you do like.

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Anon 09.24.13 at 6:52 pm

Bloix @305,

Agreed, it can still be moving, but as “disturbing” it’s being appreciate in a very different way than probably intended.

I don’t know Jud Suss, but I suspect on the matter of enjoyment, the tipping point is a psychological matter, entirely dependent upon the character of the audience. As you suggest, some of these psychological contingencies can be generational, not purely personal.

The non-psychological question would be what is the tipping point where moral failings should significantly lower our artistic evaluation of the work. How “bad” (morally) does Triumph of the Will have to be to be “bad” artistically? It’s easier in the case of badly drawn characters to see how moral flaws affect artistic success. But in TOTW’s case of successfully producing emotions of awe or reverence for bad people doing bad things, it’s less clearly an artistic flaw.

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Substance McGravitas 09.24.13 at 6:58 pm

On the other hand, so much of pleasure is “learning to like,” so one might also answer by saying: “why not?” There’s no strong reason not to give it another shot–except that the time might be better spent on things you do like.

“You, reader, are not worth my time” is going to be an insurmountable hurdle for a lot of people. And while you can knowingly exclude people from your audience, it seems like a notable failure in a novel meant to be read to exclude/ignore half the smart people because they have different stuff down there. Surely what wisdom there is in novelist A can be supplied by novelist B who might be less of a dick.

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Cleanthes 09.24.13 at 7:29 pm

Anon, that’s a very useful tandem of concepts about artistic judgement: enjoyment and experience. Thank you for introducing me to it.

On the other hand, some degree of common sense is needed when deciding what we should invest our time in ‘learning to like’. I have friends who tell me that there are some very talented artists working on the field of Guro, and it may be true, but I don’t want to ‘learn to like’ it or even to find out. At some point artistic appreciation becomes a matter of moral judgement; and with that we’re back to the starting point.

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geo 09.24.13 at 7:34 pm

PS to 303: To avoid misunderstanding (of which there’s been a certain amount on these two threads): “I disagree with your literary judgments” should have read “I disagree with a few of your literary judgments.”

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Bruce Baugh 09.24.13 at 7:43 pm

In practice, it seems, canon is about burden-shifting.

If Belle said of some other category of work that she’s read (seen, listened to, etc.) a bunch of it and is aware of various merits in it but simply doesn’t enjoy it because of a pervasive feature that’s unpleasant to her, anyone wanting to argue in its favor would have – and would be generally assumed to have – a burden of evidence. They’d have to make a case for the thing as a whole, including how to deal with the unpleasant part.

But because a work is part of a canon – in this case, Great American Novelists Of The Etc. – people like geo feel they’ve got permission to keep all the burden on Belle. She has to justify herself to them, they think, because it’s canon and therefore clearly important and good, and it’s her job to identify the defects in herself that keep her from a properly full appreciation and to deal with them. The defender is called upon neither to explain nor to actually defend; to name the thing is to defend it, and now it’s all on the attacker.

Which is great if what you’ve been missing in your life is a substitute for the role occupied in some lives by the Scofield Reference Bible.

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geo 09.24.13 at 8:11 pm

Bloix @305): they make me hate Dickens

This seems worth going into. Fagin is a hateful character, but does that mean it was hateful of Dickens to draw that portrait? Was it inaccurate (ie, were there very few Jews in the London underworld in the mid-19th century?), gratuitous (did it have no function in the novel except as a racial smear?), likely to endanger vulnerable people (there was certainly significant anti-Semitism in Victorian England, but Disraeli became Prime Minister thirty years after Oliver Twist was published)? It’s painful to read the Fagin episodes now, since they inevitably bring to mind the horrific crimes against Jews in the 20th century, whose perpetrators claimed, in effect, that Fagin was the type of all Jews. But how responsible is Dickens for such hysterical and dishonest misappropriation of his work?

Anon @308: How “bad” (morally) does Triumph of the Will have to be to be “bad” artistically?

I don’t know, but Susan Sontag wrote an essay on the topic, “Fascinating Fascism,” reprinted in Under the Sign of Saturn. Worth looking at.

Anon@307: the relation of artistic judgment and enjoyment. If I do judge a work overall as artistically good despite flaws, but the flaw makes me incapable of enjoying it, is this some kind of a mistake? Should I try to “learn to like” it? … I can certainly understand saying, no: why force myself to like it despite its flaws if I don’t. On the other hand, so much of pleasure is “learning to like,” so one might also answer by saying: “why not?” There’s no strong reason not to give it another shot–except that the time might be better spent on things you do like.

Yes, this seems like Americans of a certain age would call the $64K question. No, I don’t think it’s necessarily a mistake. Appreciation/esteem isn’t exactly the same as enjoyment. I’d definitely be up for discussing their relation, if I weren’t a little exhausted by now. I hope others will.

And getting down to practicalities: you can’t, of course, force yourself to like anything. I’d say there’s no reason for reconsidering a negative first reaction unless you (or those you respect and have learned from in the past) strongly suspect that you might be missing something important if you don’t. As you (wasn’t it you?) said elsewhere, life is short and there’s just too much else to read, see, hear, do.

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bob mcmanus 09.24.13 at 8:13 pm

312:Nah. It’s easy enough. What if she had said she can’t enjoy a movie with a nude scene because they are exploitative of women. Or enjoy a movie with violence against women.

It wouldn’t cross your mind, at all, even a little bit, to say “But Virgin Spring and Raging Bull are good movies! You can’t enjoy them?”

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bob mcmanus 09.24.13 at 8:18 pm

Or maybe even better.

I no longer will watch anything, movies or tv, with a soundtrack in the English language.
No Breaking Bad, no Mad Men, no Wire.

Do you think I have a problem?

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geo 09.24.13 at 8:21 pm

Bruce @312: people like geo feel they’ve got permission to keep all the burden on Belle. She has to justify herself to them

Jesus Christ, Bruce, I just disagreed — tentatively, at that — with some of Belle’s (publicly posted) literary judgments and tried to formulate some questions I thought might illuminate our differences and lead to an interesting discussion. No burden, no scorn, no suggestion of defects intellectual or characterological, no personal imputations whatever.

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 12:14 am

It’s all good everyone. Let’s have differing aesthetic tastes and some of us will enjoy varying works of art and that will be fun. OK? Great! Anon.: I guess I really didn’t see you say, “I’m sorry Belle, I didn’t mean to imply you were a moron.” I thought if I asked you you’d just link to the comment instead of handwaving at the tone of the thread. But honestly I didn’t read the whole thing very carefully because it was so long, so I probably just missed it. geo: I get it. It only seemed like you were trolling me when you were actually talking about completely different topics with various other commenters in the thread, as why should you not? my bad.

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geo 09.25.13 at 12:38 am

Completely different?

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 1:25 am

Closely related and nearly parallel but not identical? Insofar as they made no reference whatsoever as to my reading habits, particularly, in any way, at any time, hmm, OK?

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geo 09.25.13 at 1:32 am

Yes, OK.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.25.13 at 1:35 am

Consider the fact that Finnegans Wake (“Here comes Everybody”) is the most advanced work of literature in the 20th century, one of the high points of any 20th century art, yet almost no one who considers herself or himself to be a discriminating reader will read it, much less recommend it! Joyce decided to tell a story of one person’s moral/emotional change, in terms of a great guilty dream that ensues after a daytime event that is carefully hinted at, in which the dreamer reaches the collective unconscious (which Joyce invented parallel to Jung, although simply as a literary conceit) and so reinvents in the dream the process of language creation and historical reportage, in order to make sure that there is no real reportage at all!–because he wants to deny the reality of his own personal failure. A dream of denial. It breaks up the language yet applies a strict set of alphabetical rules for new form and meaning. Along the way Joyce relates the story of the two dream sons to the psychologies of archetypes which plague the modern world (dirty radical poets and officious prudish bureacrats as two sides of the same yin/yang coin), and the whole thing ends in a stunning monologue in which the real female who has been transgressed in the daytime is imagined by the dreamer as a river taking the dirt of the city (her husband), out to be lost in the sea her own father. It is what she would say, if she knew… Perhaps the first proto-environmental/feminist work, though Joyce would have disavowed either appellation. So here is something which is sort of like cubism, applied to a single mental state told from various aspects, it happens in a single instant of time, yet stretches over all of history, in which the author has found a way to explore an immense and deep erudition and intellectual reflection that makes Pynchon a mere bounder, while relating a real character story to events in the world. It is a stunning concept that no one else has come near to formulating, much less carried out. It has passages of astonishing aural beauty, it is endlessly funny, yet it ends in a note of bitter resignation that places any of our current cynical writers in the kindergarten sandbox. But no one reads it! It is “too hard”!

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 2:19 am

Lee A. Arnold: I couldn’t and can’t read Finnegan’s Wake. I mean, I honestly can’t tell what the fuck is going on. I read Ulysses when I was 17 for some (really stupid!) summer reading list and didn’t understand it for the most part. But I really liked the parts I understood! And the bits I couldn’t understand, I felt like I could intuit something really cool was happening there too, but I just didn’t know what it was. Then I re-read it when I was 22 and at a much more leisurely pace than I normally employ, because I was traveling (through India; I had used it up and had only Gravity’s Rainbow left when I was so sick at the end as I mention above), and I loved it. Not so long ago I heard part of it on audiobook read by an Irish person and even that was like night and day to the parts I had re-read and understood. It was practically a cakewalk! (N.B. I did not go on to listen to the whole thing on audiobook, but I refuse to listen to any audiobook ever, because I read too fast. I look at the hours of the tracks in iTunes and think, fuck that! I could read it like 10 times in there, no! this is irrational because then I am often not reading but doing something else and would like to be read to, but then maybe I am crazy. Mebbe.) But can I read Finnegan’s Wake? No. I’m not really that ashamed to say, I can’t figure out what the fuck even.

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godoggo 09.25.13 at 2:28 am

I got a book that has a chapter from that alongside the first, preundecipherablized, draft, and the latter is quite readable. I wonder if there’s any more of that available. I would have never bothered with Joyce if I hadn’t happened upon Dubliners 1st.

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godoggo 09.25.13 at 2:50 am

sorry preindecipherablized

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Lee A. Arnold 09.25.13 at 2:52 am

Funny enough, I don’t much like Ulysses. And I only got a hundred pages into Gravity’s Rainbow. I tried it twice, but i’ll never read it, I guess. I could however tell that Gravity’s Rainbow is written like a “film treatment”, a very specific writing format that is a short prospectus for a pitch meeting or a full script: 1st, 2nd, 3rd person present tense. It’s an imagined war movie. Tyrone “Slothrop” is inverse of Tyrone “Power”. Maybe Pynchon books will turn into good movies. We are about to find out, with one of the best directors out there. (Inherent Vice — and “The Master” dazzled me.) In Finnegans Wake, Joyce will do a narrative structure like that for two pages, but then go to something else. And there are no markers. Some pages have a dozen character voices. Some pages have laundry lists of attributes. No scenery is anchored — like a dream, it always floats into something else. Also it has to be read aloud, it’s a dual art. It is a dream, and true to a dream, some parts are light and fairly accessible, and other parts are so dense that no one understands what is going on (I have read most of the criticism, except for the new books in the last few years). So Finnegans Wake may be partly an artistic failure, from Joyce being entirely true to his conception. Finnegans Wake is a single interior monologue, but the dreamer is generating hundreds of character voices. Maybe someday actors who can do emotions will explicate various parts for the rest of us.

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Belle Waring 09.25.13 at 3:09 am

Agreed that if I hadn’t swooned over readable Joyce so, I might not have persevered through-really-really-really-difficult to-read Joyce. But as John mentions, I have (or had at any rate) a kind of mulish stubbornness that will make me read stuff even if I don’t understand it (or don’t enjoy in the other case.) Like many teenagers I was a Marxist, so I read Das Capital, natural enough, that was all right–a slog, but comprehensible. But I knew Hegel was really important influence on Marx’s thought, so then I sat my little 15-year-old ass down to read the Phenomenology of Spirit. All of it. Mostly by the light of a motherfucking oil lantern on the sleeping porch of my family’s home in Bluffton, S.C.. I did not, in fact, finish it. I got to the slave and master part, and I thought, fucking finally, something makes some sense! Then I skipped to the end to Find Out What Happened to The World. I was like–what? Some procedural Prussian bullshit…I… I think it’s impossible, post-internet, to imagine the degree of boredom, dedication, boredom, willingness to do something for the sake of doing it, boredom…etc. that would lead a 15 year old to read that book when she didn’t understand it a bit. Well, no, I wrote a 20-page paper comparing the unsatisfactory capping-offs in both cases (Marx and Hegel) of a dynamic, developing process…why is there no antithesis to end-stage communism? It’s like you spend one billion words accurately illuminating why all these changes took place, in a pretty convincing way, and then you just go Jack and the Beanstalk on some shit and hack it off “just…here: [whack].” My history teacher loved me so I got an A+++. No, not in an unpleasant Humbert Humbert way loved me, that was my photography teacher; my history teacher just regular ‘ ‘look at that l’il ol’ Belle reading Hegel over spring break’ loved me, and there was only one plus.

Um, whom was I yelling at in the other thread (at whom was I not yelling; the bitchez with their screeching, amirite?) He’s not Fosse, he’s Fobbe or something. I had an actual grown-up person (eh, not grown-up, rather aged 28) fall “in love with me at first sight” on my first day of middle school, who wrote an entire novel about me among his many, many other mmmm, actions?, ill-advised, immoral and in some part illegal (does a copy exist? Can I find out and burn his house down it?). Even at 17 when he told me, I had the good sense not to read it so I wouldn’t be skeeved out. (Now I wonder how I think I could have been more skeeved out than I was, exactly?) Plus additional issues. So I’m tetchy. Dudes, if I ever yell at you about the topic, that’s why.

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bob mcmanus 09.25.13 at 3:12 am

There was a time when I wanted FW more than anything in the world, after Mann and Proust and Gide.

I just kinda stared at FW, an hour a day for two years, some of the time on the cliffs and redwoods around Santa Cruz. That was about ten pages a day, so who knows how many times I cycled through it. I had yellow pad paper filled with some of the outlines available. It just takes time, patience, and a suspension of understanding and analysis. I would watch myself reading, seeing why I broke focus or got irritated or annoyed by the confusion, and try to see it was me and the expectations about reading and texts that I took into the book rather than the text. The tendency is to fight it. A meditation thing.

Of course I would focus on a section or go through the secondary literature, but not while I was in the book.

The patterns and rhythms just emerge after a while. What’s it about? Everything. Is it beautiful? Yes, Joyce was. Yes he and his world were beautiful.

Theory: As masturbation = narcissism = Romanticism = sterility in Ulyssses, so fellatio is to FW. Alp blows drunken HCE to avoid pregnancy in “Mamalujo” Search for “seagulls gullet”. (This is also liebestod of Tristan and Isolde, never mind)
Then, the way it works, remember back to the chicken pecking middenheap.

So oral aggression (talk talk) expunges history and forecloses possibility. TV talk and blog comment sections.

Oh, and it’s a very funny book.

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Lee A. Arnold 09.25.13 at 4:37 am

I think the indiscretion that initiates the FW dream is probably sexual, as you might expect with Joyce. It may not have been an action, perhaps only a stray thought that, uncovered, would end the marriage. The female gets the last word (as in Ulysses) but in FW the final voice is in two forms: a letter containing sarcasm and blame, followed immediately by the river monologue. In the letter, Anna Livia comes closest to clarifying the likely situation (p. 618): “…full view, to be surprised to see under the grand piano Lily on the sofa (and a lady!) pulling a low and then he’d begin to jump a little bit to find out what goes on when love walks in besides the solicitous bussness by kissing and looking into a mirror.”

Rather compromising to say the least. Whether that really happened, or the dreamer only imagines that it could happen, it’s enough to spin the end of the world.

Five paragraphs later the river starts speaking. Again, no marker to tell you so. Just: “Soft morning, city! Lsp! I am leafy speafing.” (Soft morning= early light rain. “I am the Liffey speaking.”)

All along, Joyce has been conducting a symphony of the alphabet. He knew he was going to break up the language, to “put the language to sleep”. In its place, being a classicist, he adopts strict rules that everything beginning with h, c, or e is a male word (also f, t, w) and anything beginning with a, l, p, is female (also k and r, for river). The book as a whole moves from male to female, but Joyce plays lots of games: the first word, “riverrun”, is female, the last word, “the”, is male (he is theos, the god of this little tavern holybook).

The final pages of the river monologue uses lots of a’s and l’s, making the syllable sounding “all” or “aw”, which is a watery sound, and it is the dream’s sound of the emotion of bitter acceptance. For example the word “all” appears 12 times in the last page and a half. No accident. Words with “all” in them, fall, small: “First we feel. Then we fall.” (Finnegans Wake, in a nutshell!) “How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time.”

In the last line, the dreamer is about to wake up, the old woman is dying, the river water is dissolving into the ocean, and her consciousness is breaking up: so the a’s and the l’s are separated: “a lone a last a loved a long the”. The a’s are flat, like water drips. But those l-words are each in a different voice: fear, sadness, loss –different emotions from her life. “A long the” is sounded like the beginning of the sentence: “Along the riverrun…” A cycle to the beginning of the book, because it’s “Finn, again!”: End, again! You don’t get out of this, you don’t have a choice. Tonight you are going to fall asleep, and dream it all again.

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bob mcmanus 09.25.13 at 5:54 am

solicitous bussness by kissing and looking into a mirror.”

All the ‘s’s and the mirror indicate (to me) the daughter around here somewhere

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Anon 09.25.13 at 11:25 am

Belle @317:

“It’s all good everyone. Let’s have differing aesthetic tastes and some of us will enjoy varying works of art and that will be fun. OK?”

Agreed.

“But honestly I didn’t read the whole thing very carefully because it was so long, so I probably just missed it.”

It’s in there, but scattered throughout many admittedly long posts, so fair enough.

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Anderson 09.25.13 at 8:21 pm

Belle: But can I read Finnegan’s Wake? No. I’m not really that ashamed to say, I can’t figure out what the fuck even.

Me neither. I signed up for a course at the CUNY grad ctr. on the Wake (Edmund Epstein, RIP), went to the first class, and then decided that if I were going to spend a whole semester reading a single book, *that* was not the book I would pick. Much better the Phenomenology of Spirit!

(Which had kicked my ass during my next-but-one previous grad school foray … I had never read anything before where I could read a paragraph and then go “I have no idea what that just said.” Even the Critique of Pure Reason was a beach novel by comparison. Yow.)

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Alison P 09.26.13 at 6:28 am

Belle: ‘Not so long ago I heard part of it (Ulysses) on audiobook read by an Irish person’

If it’s the one I listened to, that would be Bishop Brennan (whom Father Ted kicked up the arse). Those who like audios – I recommend it.

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