Friday, May 02, 2008

Who needs Literature?

I don't ask that to put literature down, but because I'm truly ambivalent about whether I should care that I rarely read fiction, let alone that class of fiction that can or should be classified as literature, anymore. I'm not alone. Razib at Gene Expression posts his own admittedly half-baked theory on why we have literature:
Here's the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I've read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven't (though I don't read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren't dumb, and not all of us have Asperger's. We just aren't interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.

But ancient fiction; epics, myths, etc., do fulfill these requirements. I didn't seek out fiction in any form before I was 13 or so (I was assigned books in school of course); but I had read Bullfinch's Mythology as well as translations of the Iliad and Gilgamesh. In hindsight I suspect that my interest in these works is due to the fact that they are recognizably High Fantasy. Either they are explicit myths, or, they refer to peoples and places whose lack of banality is due to their distance in time & space (obviously I have never been to the Zagros mountains!). I also have read historical fiction which is sufficiently distant in time, e.g., the whole of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.
If you read Isaac Asimov's biography, In Memory Yet Green, I think you get a sense of why his novels depict flat characters. Though Asimov seems to be a gregarious individual, he was very narcissistic and self-involved. I don't get a sense that he was a socially sensitive soul (though he did resent the anti-Semitism he had experienced or slights from strangers). Asimov wrote something of an apologia for science fiction as a genre of ideas, but I think it reflects the set of values which I've expressed above and which many science fiction oriented individuals embody; plots, not people. (if you want every stereotype of science fiction readers confirmed, check out William Sims Bainbridge's Dimensions of Science Fiction, which is based on surveys at science fiction conventions)

I can identify up to a certain point with the plot vs character dichotomy, though I do enjoy psychological richness in characters, which is probably why I much preferred Philip Dick to Isaac Asimov. But certainly the strangeness and novelty of science fiction settings did much to engage my interest.

But is fiction mainly about escapism and enjoyment? If so, why is it taught in school as a mandatory subject, one that most students have as much enthusiasm for as math. But math is recognizable as a very utilitarian subject, one that lifts careers and national economies. What is the utility of literature?

This article by Brian Boyd reminds me of why the study of literature makes my head ache:
Precisely because who will partner whom matters so much to us, love stories have always flooded the story pool. Any new romance therefore runs the risk of neglect through habituation, the fading of interest in repeated stimuli. But the passionate sexual love of a mature man for a girl is not an overfamiliar love story. As a novel about an unusual love and an unusual murder, Lolita appeals to immemorial interests but from unexpected angles. It surprised and shocked the public when it was first published, and it still does. At over 50 million copies sold, it is surely the most demanding novel ever to sell so well.

Let’s dive into the details of Humbert Humbert’s story to see if they bear out the idea of art as cognitive play with pattern, and to see how Nabokov eliminates habituation and animates attention. Humbert begins:


Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.


I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.

No other novel that I can recall starts with more patterned prose than Lolita. And its initial patterns themselves form parts of other patterns, like Humbert’s self-projection as an artist, a poet, an adoring lover, or his aestheticizing Lolita. But pattern and tantalizing hints of pattern saturate the text. Humbert’s mother is “the granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps.” That in itself may be coincidence, or perhaps meaningful pattern; what are the odds of these two subjects containing the adjacent letters a, l, e, o? Is that accident or design, and if design, why?

Nabokov has been called the greatest prose stylist in English, and not, I think, for the likes of Humbert’s patterned prose, but for his mastery of the psychology of attention, his capacity to shift our imaginations so quickly. Lolita’s name supplies the first word of Humbert’s text, and the last; his attention is obsessively on her, and he cannot introduce her name without caressing each syllable with lips and tongue. But even as he lingers on her in the second paragraph, the sudden images of Lo with different names and in different circumstances flash her into our mind’s eye: “Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. . . . Lola in slacks. . . . Dolores on the dotted line.” Nabokov knows how to catch our attention and fire our imagination by unexpected details and shifts.

Or notice the saccadic jump in attention, without sensory detail but with the surprise revelation of “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Or the shift again from summary to “I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture postcards.” Everyone sits up here, because Humbert suddenly breaks frame, as it were, and because of the sudden concreteness: the mere idea of passing around these polished postcards activates motor, tactile, and visual areas of the brain—as neuroscientists have only recently established.

Along with Ulysses by Joyce, Lolita is one of those books that I tried to force myself to read on more than one occasion, only to throw down in either utter boredom or disgust. After asking myself why I should consider it my intellectual duty to comb a sordid tale about an obsessive pedophile for some rich treasure trove of meaning and coming up blank, I'm left with the options of either considering myself a dunce or writing off the whole puffed up literary enterprise as some sort of confidence racket.
But pattern and tantalizing hints of pattern saturate the text.

So its just about pattern recognition? Is that it? Is there any need for conveying meaning or truth in literature, or has it become merely an aesthetic exercise? It takes a well developed aesthetic sense to notice these intricate patterns of prose, and probably an even more developed sense to care so much about them, but my question still remains: what is the utility of such a well developed aesthetic sense? Does it improve me in any way? Given that there are so many other vehicles to indulge one's curiosity, is anything truly lost to the individual or to society when works like Lolita are ignored by the masses?

To underscore the downside of an overly developed aesthetic sense, Rachel Donadio warns that it can create a divide between lovers:
Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”

Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused, but it wasn’t even the ideology that did it. I just thought Rand was a hilariously bad writer, and past a certain point I couldn’t hide my amusement.” (Members of, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)

Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,” Heiblum said, adding that “life-changing experiences” are a “tedious conversational topic at best.”

Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.) After all, women read more, especially when it comes to fiction. “It’s really great if you find a guy that reads, period,” said Beverly West, an author of “Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives.” Jessa Crispin, a blogger at the literary site, agrees. “Most of my friends and men in my life are nonreaders,” she said, but “now that you mention it, if I went over to a man’s house and there were those books about life’s lessons learned from dogs, I would probably keep my clothes on.”

OK, so I've finally stumbled on literature's utility - it helps men to get laid.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You go, guy. Enough with the weenies that surround us. The world needs fewer novels and more ray guns.

Been watching a lot of WCF this week, Duck?

May 03, 2008 5:15 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Define "a lot".

I did see "Iron Man" last night. It was awesome, dude. And there were actually women there, too.

May 03, 2008 7:25 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

SWIPIAW and I saw Iron Man last night as well, and she liked it.

P.S. Doesn't that comment from Jessa Crispin imply that getting naked when is the default action when she goes over to a man's house?

May 03, 2008 7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And there were actually women there, too.

Can I assume they weren't the prissy kind who are into silly stuff like novels and chick flics and always get headaches at the wrong time? Women made for us iron men? All Right!!!

We middle-aged men are just too cute sometimes.

May 03, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, you need to get with the program. Iron is the new "sensitive".

May 03, 2008 9:47 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That was Dylan Thomas' purpose; that and picking up booze money.

His pickup line on his first American tour was, 'Can I jump you?'

The answer usually was yes.

My take on lit talk, as opposed to lit'tratur itself, is that it is a direct outcome of the OQ (Obscurity Quotient). No American fictionist ever did a better job than John O'Hara, but nobody writes critiques of him, because he said exactly what he wanted to say in a fashion that anybody could understand,

May 03, 2008 1:09 PM  

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