A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

Archives: The Joys of Literary Bushwhacking

When I teach English literature, possibly the most difficult thing to communicate is the reward of wrestling unruly books into submission. The entertainment value of books that fly by is self-evident; if readers were not interested, they would not be turning the pages so fast. Every book that has been advertised as something that will “get children to read” is a page-turner, and my own blog feed is full of authors and publishers who emphasize the necessity of “readability,” how the most important characteristic a book should have is the ability to keep its readers turning the pages. Far too often, I see students consider “bad” any book that requires a larger than average amount of effort and concentration to complete.

This makes sense intuitively- if readers actively seek out the page-turning compulsiveness of the Harry Potter series or the latest Dan Brown novel (and whatever the merits or demerits of Rowling and Brown, both know how to keep you wondering what happens next), then clearly books with the opposite effect must be bad: the nigh-impenetrable first half of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, the plodding and ponderous openings of most Dostoevsky novels, the hodgepodge of confusing phonetic spellings that bamboozle first-time readers of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then of course Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which somehow manages the trick of seeming disorienting and meandering at the same time. These works, and many like them, often present an apparent contradiction that most students are unable to ever resolve: teachers say these are the best works of literature the language has produced, but the books so named are frustrating and obscure, with language that is often difficult to understand and characters that are often impossible to sympathize with. The students conclude that high literature is “not for” them, and retreat to the safer waters of genre lit and bestsellers, with Oprah’s Book Club entries marking the outermost edge of their reading level.

There’s nothing objectively wrong with imposing such limits on one’s experience, any more that there is something wrong with, say, knowing how to use a computer without really understanding how computers work. But most people who work on computers are at least aware that this knowledge is an option, that it would be possible to understand the inner workings of hardware and software, and that for many otherwise average people this is a desirable thing to do. When it comes to reading Moby-Dick, however, the average reader seems to mentally separate himself from the type of person who enjoys such books. Many individuals seem to believe that there exists a class of people who find such reading as easy and relaxing as they find the Harry Potter books, people that attend Ivy League schools and spend their spare time engineering a fully-functional Iron Man suit. People who believe in the existence of such an intellectual super-class are likely to decide that such works of literature are somehow “above” their own understanding. Either that, or they believe that literary studies are a large-scale fraud, a sort of intellectual pyramid scheme wherein teachers do not understand difficult books any more than the student, but agree to say they are astonishing works of art in order to impress everybody else and gain a false intellectual reputation. To such individuals, the entire literary tradition is little more than a Masonic handshake of ever-diminishing cachet in today’s technological age.

Both of these understandings of literature are equally misguided. There is neither an intellectual super-class nor a faux-intellectual conspiracy in literature, or any other part of life for that matter, and even a passing acquaintance with most experts is enough to convince the average person that the two of them are more similar than different. Between a reader of “literature” and a reader of “books,” the difference is not one of intellect, or even of taste, but rather a different understanding of what literature is capable of accomplishing, and what its goals should be.

For the reader of books, the goals of reading are straightforward and functional: be entertained by the plot, be allowed to care about the characters, be given some knowledge about the world (either fictional or real) that they didn’t have before. Note that this applies to nonfiction books as well as fiction. Strong narratives and interesting characters are a must no matter the type of book. The benefits of this reading style should be clear to most people, because it’s the reading style we all start out with, the basic type of cognition necessary for reading. It keeps the text tied to some sort of tangible reality, keeps the basic telepathic, transformative, miraculous operation of reading intact. By looking at small shapes written on a page or screen, we begin to imagine events and people, each of which, if drawn particularly enough, may begin to seem as real as something we actually witnessed, or a person we really knew.

This type of reading is a necessary component of reading, say, Virginia Woolf, because no matter what the importance of style or narrative tricks may be for any given novel, we still need to be able to break it down into basic actions and people- in order to appreciate the way To The Lighthouse deals with the effect our conscious and unconscious thoughts have on our perception of reality, it is first necessary to understand the existence of the various members of the Ramsay family, and the events that they experience in the course of the novel. But if we read To The Lighthouse using only this basic, characters-and-events understanding of books, To The Lighthouse is likely to be underwhelming: the reader will notice that not much of consequence seems to happen to any of the characters, that the most dramatic events all occur between or before the book’s three sections and are only alluded to, and that the characters often seem contradictory, passive, and frequently unlikable. The reader of “books,” if he tries to boil Woolf’s novel down to its basic plot, will find the story slight and the language overwhelming, and is likely to turn back to his eminently digestible mass-market paperbacks, which only require the one type of reading he feels comfortable performing.

Anyway, what’s the problem with that? Why should anyone feel obligated to read obscure and ponderous writing that they have to fuss over before they can understand? Isn’t this distinction between “books” and “literature” just an elitist attempt to privilege complicated writing over direct writing, and make the readers of murder mysteries and vampire romances feel bad for reading books that are actually fun? Well, I’ll explore the implications of this distinction later, but for now I’ll address the main problem with “book reading.” If one limits one’s reading to only those sort of books that are immediately readable and straightforwardly written, one quickly finds that most of the stories fail to really sink in. In high school, I read The Janson Directive by Robert Ludlum (or, as I later found out, from an old manuscript of Ludlum’s that was completed and touched up by a ghostwriter), and ten years later, I remember exactly one thing from that book: that the radar detectors you can install in cars to let you know if a cop is reading your speed occasionally come with jammers that increase the amount of time it takes to get a read on your car, and that these detectors are illegal in many states. Nothing about the plot, except that it seemed fairly similar to the Bourne books. Nothing about the characters, except that they seemed to fit into the same general archetypes employed in the Bourne books. In fact, I’m probably exaggerating The Janson Directive‘s similarity to The Bourne Identity because I remember the latter so much better than the former, because The Bourne Identity is a genuinely good book, whereas The Janson Directive is merely empty competence, at least as far as I can be bothered to remember it. Anyone who’s read the mid-80s output of John Grisham, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or Tom Clancy can remember how those novels tend to blend into one another, becoming reworkings of the same few situations- a lawyer gets caught between two powerful institutions that both possess the ability to destroy his life, some aspect of everyday lower-middle-class life becomes fraught with the supernatural, some advance in scientific understanding promises great things for humanity and terrible things for the people who first encounter it, various new advances in military technology become the cause of, and solution to, all of America’s problems in establishing global hegemony over various foreign powers. The plots blend together and genre fatigue gradually sets in. Anyone over 40 has read books by at least two of those four authors, and since stopped because they got the sense that every new book was the same old thing. Of the four, King is the only one who has broken out of his 80s mold and is still creating appreciably new types of stories; Grisham made a break for it in the late 90s with A Painted House and some other non-legal-thriller works, but he was gradually pulled back into his previous orbit.

This is one thing that literature (as opposed to “books,” and yes, we’re getting to that distinction) offers the reader, at once one of the simplest and most important things in writing: texture. The difficulty, the elusiveness, the overwhelmingness of a literary work creates a stronger impression on the mind than work designed to disappear completely. Once one has read a book by Henry James or William Faulkner, the elusive, allusive, and radically indeterminate qualities of the former, or the manic, incantatory, and effusive verbal assault of the latter, will forever be encoded in one’s brain. Writing stops being a mere description of events and people, something that puts the pictures in your head and gets out of the way, and instead becomes physical and tangible, as three-dimensional as the characters and as important to the novel’s success as the plot. This, I would say, is the ultimate distinction between “books” and “literature”- one gets out of the way, gives you the important events and character traits, and keeps you moving from one page to the next; the other requires that you modify your usual way of thinking, that you accept into your own brain a process of expression that you would be unlikely to come up with on your own.

Ultimately, this process of altered thoughts, of inhabiting another’s mind or grappling with non-intuitive means of expression, is one of the principal benefits of literature. By coming to terms with these alien types of thought and expression, we come to appreciate the variety that exists around us. By forcing ourselves to understand this new perspective, we are reminded that our one perspective is one in a sea of millions, that the people we interact with every day see the world in a fundamentally different way than we do, and that we must keep this in mind if we want to truly understand the world. This sounds like a pat lesson that can simply be repeated, as one would repeat a mantra or prayer – and it’s worth mentioning that both mantras and prayers are, at the bottom, attempts to reach some greater understanding outside one’s self – but in my experience, the lesson only really sticks as long as we continue to practice it. And it is this practice that readers of literature continually engage in when they set out to read Melville, Joyce, Pynchon – all authors that they find just as difficult as the book-readers who grumble through them in school and then retreat to the supermarket for the remainder of their life’s literary diet. The difference is that the readers of literature welcome the struggle such authors provide, and turn to it with the same happy labor that one employs in the service of Things That Just Need To Be Done. Anyone who regularly works out or makes a point of cleaning their entire house every spring knows the attitude to which I refer.

It is true that reading purely in the literary sense can present its own problems, particularly with contemporary fiction. Attempting to read a new “literary” author who has remained untested by the scrutiny of the ages, the reader of literature may be too easily seduced by evocative language and unique expression, and fail to realize that the novel has no ideas, or at least none worth engaging. This is one of the unsung benefits of reading the classics- you can be sure that what you’re reading is at least decent, and if you feel strongly that anything is not, the reputation of the book’s supporters require you to create a theory of fiction sufficiently comprehensive as to provide an effective counterargument – Kingsley Amis and Mark Twain are two examples of authors who have effectively done so.

Likewise, it’s true that the distinction between “books” and “literature” is not nearly as clear-cut as I seem to make out. Literary theories rarely survive contact with reality, but take a single economics class, and you begin to understand that theories that don’t necessarily reflect reality can still be of use. Most people read a mix of books and literature, and many of the works they read aspire to tell an exciting story AND create a distinctive voice, falling somewhere in the middle of the two categories. But if you keep trying to read an older work that everyone has been praising, but can’t seem to get into it, it’s helpful to try reading it differently, paying more attention to the form of expression and the ideas behind the writing, and a little less to the superficial details of plot and character. Sometimes, the best way to conquer a book is to surrender to it.

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This entry was posted on 15 August 2013 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , , , .
August 2013

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