8.30.2009

In praise of plot and the death of modernism

This article by Lev Grossman is on the right track, I think. At least I kept nodding throughout it.

3 comments:

cek said...

And an excoriating rebuttal.

http://www.conversationalreading.com/2009/08/as-far-as-self-promotion-disguised-as-general-theory-of-the-novel-goes-lev-grossman-could-learn-a-thing-or-two-from-jonathan.html

[Sorry so messy. Can I embed a link in a comment?]

Grendel said...

I think Grossman is trying to make a larger point, maybe not extremely well. And Andrew Seal is throwing a hissy fit because he seems to have been bound and determined to read a different article than I did. If I had more time -- I don't at the moment -- I'd try taking Seal's case apart. Not that he doesn't make some good points, but I think they miss the mark. They may be true but they miss what Grossman was saying.

To me, Grossman is talking about the way the fiction "canon" swerved into extremely difficult material that paralleled the breakdown of the Old Mind and the confusion of the 20the century. That's the standard view now, not the anachronistic ravings of a "Glenn Beck"-type person. I can tell you I went through college in the late 80s for an English degree at a Big Ten School and they had me read even more Derrida, Foucoult, and Kristeva than Joyce, TS Eliot, and Barth.

They made me read a cold French novel about how real estate was as alienating as love. There was no sign of Dickens except as a hopelessly quaint bugaboo of the Old, bad kind of literature. People like Sinclair Lewis had been tossed over the railings, and people like Robert Coover placed in the catbird seat.

I knew something was horribly wrong then, and I'm gratified that so much of what was considered terrific in the 70s and 80s, that I hated as anti-literature, seems so obviously to be pointless navel-gazing now. I do think Chabon and DFW and Lethem and others have been trying to resurrect the excitement of "plot" in recent high-quality fiction.

Maybe it's not even the rebirth of plot per se that Grossman was after but a long-overdue nod to common sense and pleasure in writing? A ref's whistle finally blown long after the spectators have left the stands? It's absurd to stretch these generalizations too far on either side of this argument. It's easy to pluck a writer here or there and thrash them up and down either end of this. (Yes, Nam's book and Twilight were terrible examples to try and make this point.)

Grossman says, "Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters." Um, that's true. Seal responds by clutching his temples and defending the footnotes to the Waste Land.

I don't hate the modernists. I love a lot of what they did. And in poetry its legacy fared better than in fiction, I think. But it is what it is, or was -- it did change the idea of what is considered literary, I don't care what Seal thinks to the contrary. And that change wasn't all for the good. It drove a lot of people away from the idea that great books could also be good books, you know? For decades and decades it did that.

At any rate it's past time to let that aesthetic go and re-remember that reading is supposed to be fun and entertaining as well as thought-provoking -- which is emphatically the opposite of what they taught me in college. Huh, I guess I did have some time after all.

cek said...

To be clear, I wasn't necessarily endorsing one side or the other, but this is a topic that's been floating around the twitterverse for a few days now, which was how I got pointed to Andrew Seal's response in the first place.

This reminds me of my first workshop at Iowa where Sam told us, in no uncertain terms, that a story should be entertainment. Which, after college (even one where I read a fair amount of Dickens and other plot-tastic patrons), struck me as a revelation. It shouldn't have, of course. I should have known all along that entertainment was a worthy goal. But I bought into a false ideal of literature at some point and it took someone saying, out loud, that entertainment should matter, to set me straight.