An Advertisement for Himself

As far as self-promotion disguised as general-theory-of-the-novel goes, Lev Grossman could learn a thing or two from Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, Tom Wolfe [pdf], and David Foster Wallace [also pdf], because his entry in that genre is distinctly lackluster. Actually, before he learns how to write one of those little exercises, he might want to refresh himself on literary history, aesthetic terminology, and logic. His essay "Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard" in The Wall Street Journal is about the literary equivalent of a Glenn Beck broadcast: "I'm sorry, but I love the novel. And I fear for it."
Here's how he actually begins:

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It's what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it's also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

Straw man? Why stop there? Let's create a straw galaxy. A straw galaxy where smart people look down their nose at you if you watch, say, The Wire, or read Roberto Bolaño. "Oh that Don DeLillo," they say, "he's just too plotty for me. Too many, you know, consecutive related events."

In Grossman's straw galaxy, there is, however, A New Hope: "If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot." And he sees this Hope from his vantage as a critic and semi-lauded novelist, and offers us a valuable lesson for why it must be so: "There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness… Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists." And then he lists a number of Classic Modernist Works, the majority of which are inarguably, unequivocally and extremely self-evidently plot-driven in a classic nineteenth-century sense: "The Age of Innocence,'… 'A Passage to India,'… 'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' 'The Sun Also Rises,' 'A Farewell to Arms'… 'The Professor's House,' 'The Great Gatsby,' 'Arrowsmith' and 'An American Tragedy.'" Oh yes, that Edith Wharton, Patron of the Plot-Slayers.

Grossman continues: "The Modernists broke the clear straight lines of causality and perception and chronological sequence, to make them look more like life as it's actually lived." Firstly, I didn't realize that some of us were pursuing "life as it's actually lived" out of chronological sequence, and secondly, I didn't realize that the classic idea of plot was confined to the straight lines he mentions. I thought I remembered reading some novels published before the Modernist era which had narrative frames and other techniques of breaking up chronological sequence and tweaking causality and perception… oh yes, like that über-experimental Wuthering Heights. Which is not even to touch upon the (quite successful) tradition of Cervantes and Sterne, a tradition that surely did more to break the "clear straight lines" than Forster or Fitzgerald ever did. But the beat goes on:

It's hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who's talking, and when, and what they're talking about. The 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. The motto of Ezra Pound's "Little Review," which published the first chapters of Joyce's "Ulysses," was "Making no compromise with the public taste." Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.

The whole paragraph is just temple-clutchingly ridiculous: I'd love to hear him tell a scholar of Dr. Johnson or Hazlitt that before the Modernists, no one considered writing about and interpreting literature "work"—and definitely not work that benefited from a learned intellectual elite. Additionally, he seems to have failed to understand that the footnotes at the end of "The Waste Land" actually did constitute a sort of "compromise with public taste"—they make the text more accessible, not less, and were provided at the publisher's insistence, although their main function was to pad the page total, allowing the poem to be printed as a single book. But if Eliot were so intent on being as cryptic and exclusionary as possible, he could have done a lot worse than giving detailed citations for his sources.

But more consequentially, Grossman seems to be under some confusion that, because Dickens and Thackeray are classics today, they must have been the "literary novels" of their day—you know, the type of book which would now be mainly marketed to New Yorkers (or readers of The New Yorker). I don't even think the term "literary novel" would have been intelligible to Dickens, and certainly not in the way that it signifies today as a genre that defines itself against genre fiction, as more mature and substantial than sci-fi or fantasy or mystery or romance. Applying the term to the type of novel that Dickens wrote is not just anachronistic, but misleading: it pretends that there is a potential continuity of audience, of literary production, which has been broken (betrayed even) by the Modernists such that if we had just continued on with the nineteenth-century system of literary production and consumption, we would have novels like The Pickwick Papers or A Tale of Two Cities standing in the places occupied in our culture by Gravity's Rainbow or Blood Meridian. Grossman calls an orange an apple, and then proceeds to imagine what would have happened if that apple (which is still an orange) had produced a line of apples.

And, he asserts, we would have been better off with this imaginary line of apples (which began with a misnamed orange).
It would even, he strongly implies, have saved us from the Doomful Decline of Reading. Modernists taught us that we shouldn't enjoy reading too much, so how can we help it if we have stopped doing so much of it? He brings out Stephenie Meyer and compares her boffo sales to those of Nam Le's (quite plotty) short story collection, The Boat. Just look at those numbers! Surely the enormous difference means something! Surely it means "Literature: You're doing it wrong."

I don't know if Grossman is just really unaware that the sales:pleasure ratio doesn't work the way he's describing, or if he's being purposely disingenuous, but this idea that "readers" aren't getting what they're looking for in The Boat and so they turn to Twilight is intellectually reprehensible. Grossman has imagined "the reader" as an extremely simplified consumer of pleasure, uniform in age, means, education, and taste; and the world of literature as a wholly unified, absolutely non-diversified market. Does this sound like a bookstore to you?  

Firstly, Twilight's sales aren't based on the failure of other books to satisfy a universal demand for plot; they're based on Meyer's ability to meet a set of demands that have almost nothing to do with the type of fiction that The Boat represents. All readers—of The Boat and of Twilight—have a diverse set of desires for literature (and other forms of culture), some of which may even be contradictory. This is why lots of people read many different kinds of books. Secondly, while I'm not skeptical that there are readers who have read both Twilight and The Boat, I find it very dubious that the market for Twilight overlaps to any significant extent with the market for The Boat. Grossman's assertion that Twilight fans "need something they're not getting elsewhere" rather depends on a presumption that they've all looked elsewhere—and I'm not sure there is any reason to grant that presumption universally, and certainly not the presumption that they've all looked into something like The Boat

Regardless, Grossman wraps up by offering a mini-canon of writers who are already responding to this supposedly universal demand for plotty, undifficult books, and declaring that critics had better catch up, because these writers are the new wave of greatness:

This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.

There are changes occurring in terms of the way self-conceived "ambitious" novelists are composing their works, and there are changes in the way these works are being evaluated; I am not arguing against that. But I think there is a responsible way of making this argument, and then there is Grossman's way. The responsible way consists of being accurate about literary history, separating the artistic sloganeering and critical nostrums from the actualities of literary production. There has never been a time when "suspense and humor and pacing" have disappeared, even from the reading of cultural elites, and there has never been a time when plot was universally hounded from the Republic of Letters. Fiction—even the fiction read by cultural elites—is simply too large and diverse an enterprise for these kind of sweeping statements to hold. Literature is a system, not a mood; it hasn't just been feeling cranky and abstruse for 80 or 90 years only to brighten up in the last five to ten. It does not wake up from naps of plot-deprivation, nor take them in the first place.

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Excellent post! Ha ha! I seem to recall him peddling this line of thinking at BEA, too. It all has to do with reading books on cell phones, or something.
And I for one know several people who have read Twilight or The Boat – but none who have read both.

Excellent post! It’s Groundhog Day though isn’t it? I seem to have read arguments like Grossman’s several hundred times and those like yours not at all.
I read only for pleasure but I don’t like stories. So why do I feel like the freak?
Trying to argue with people like Grossman is futile. It reminds me of the passage in Sartre’s The Words:
‘At Saint Anne’s Psychiatric Clinic a patient cried out in bed: “I’m a prince! Arrest the Grand Duke!”. Someone went up to him and whispered in his ear: “Blow your nose!” and he blew his nose. He was asked: “What’s your occupation?”. He answered quietly: “Shoemaker,” and started shouting again.’

Hee. Hilarious post. Shooting fish in a barrel, but hilarious. It’s always struck me that those of us who read for a living and try, really try, to do an honest, open-minded, and intelligent job of it have more to fear from blowhard day-trippers like Grossman than we do from people who openly profess their hatred of books. Glad to have the likes of you on the watchtower, Andrew!

You nailed it. Then you nailed it some more. And then some more.
The biggest fallacy in Grossman’s argument is the idea that plot is the only way to sustain a reader’s interest over the course of a novel. Obviously not. Just as obviously, the Modernists worked very hard to sustain a reader’s interest, they just didn’t do it through plot.
I wonder what Grossman would make of someone like Manuel Puig, who wrote extremely robust plots but tended to tell them in ways completely alien to 19th-century realism. Could he stand the contradictions?

“Literature is a system”? Please explain. (That is a sincere request.)

Strangely enough, Grossman’s biography on his website states that he was in a Comparative Lit graduate program for a few years, yet his knowledge of and outlook on literature has always seemed extremely limited to Anglophone (if not just American) literature. I doubt it even occurs to him to look at someone like Puig when formulating his little histories.
What I mean by “literature is a system, not a mood” is that literature is never as dominated by a single type of fiction as Grossman suggests: even if we’re just considering the reading habits of cultural or intellectual elites, the idea that there is a single or unquestionably preeminent standard idea about what constitutes good and proper fiction is plain bogus. There is always a network or system of cross-pollinating ideas about what good literature is, and, what’s more, that systematic nature of literature insures that no standard is ever going to be “pure” or unalloyed by other ideas and standards. Even avant-gardes incorporate ideas and standards from mass or low culture–look how profoundly affected Modernism was by the cinema.
We shouldn’t treat literature, as Grossman does, as some unified abstraction, a sort of zeitgeisty, generalized set of ideas that shapes how literature is written. Instead, we should remember that there are many different, continuously interacting processes that affect, regulate, and influence not just what writers write, but what critics praise (or damn) and readers read. It’s just not as simple as Grossman imagines it here: that this idea (or mood) called Modernism has held readers and writers in check from pursuing their more natural inclinations toward juicy plots, and now this mood is dissipating and being replaced by another mood or idea that glorifies plot and suspense and humor and (conveniently) novels like the one he’s just published.

Well-done. This really needed to be said. Thanks.



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