Martin Amis on a Slow Train

Eudaemonia has a very thoughtful post up about what she looks for in a novel, in which she first considers  what a few other people have said about their preferences before she explains her own. As I was reading the post — which is beautifully put together and worth the effort — I was thinking about Martin Amis.

Most specifically I half remembered an interview with  Amis on Salon. And lo and behold, I found it right where I left it.

Here’s one relevant quote:

Discussing his fiction in an interview with the Paris Review, [Martin Amis] dismissed “story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form” as merely “secondary interests” compared to a novelist’s prose, little more than the apparatus on which to hang some bitchin’ sentences. So it hardly seems an insult to say that his specialty is not substance, but style.

From “Terror and Loathing” by Laura Miller, Salon 1 April 2008

Then I went back to Lisa’s post and read the comments, and I came across Steve (who writes a weblog called on the slow train).  I’m going to quote an excerpt from his comment  on Eudaemonia because he has expressed something I have been trying (and failing) to say about  the literary genre (as it is represented by Amis)  for ages:

I’m afraid modern literary fiction is going the way of orchestral music in the twentieth century–aiming toward such a specialized audience that it alienates virtually everyone else. Just about anyone can enjoy Beethoven or the Beatles, but few can appreciate Alban Berg without years of study. And even then, it can be an ordeal.

I think Steve has hit it on the head, and some evidence of that is provided by Amis himself (passively, I admit). He  is a very large presence in the literary genre, but I always wonder how well known he is outside those confines. If you asked ten people at random if they recognized his name, what kind of return would you get?  And why this perverse pride in honing his art to a point that it alienates the majority of readers?

In any case, if you are interested  you can read more about Amis in a lot of places. For example: the review of his London Fields in the New York Times (calling Amis “fiction’s angriest writer”) and a biography of sorts at The Guardian.

Finally, I repeat my mantra: literary fiction is is just another genre with a self-defined readership and a set of arbitrary conventions. That is, it is not intrinsically better or worse than any other genre. No matter what Amis may think.

talking about reading

Sandi at Fresh Fiction has posted about what it’s like for her to give up on a novel she’s reading. She feels compelled to finish, no matter how bad the match. This reminds me of the fact that I still feel guilty for reading all morning. I read and write for a living, but it was drummed into me as a kid that I READ TOO MUCH, and I can’t shake it. Even though I do, sometimes, read all morning.

As far as starting a book that doesn’t work for me, here’s my routine: I put the book-that-isn’t-working into one of three piles:

Pile 1: The problem has to do with me. It’s where I am at this moment, emotionally or in terms of work. I can see that I might like or even love this novel at a different time — or at least, that I might learn something — but that day is not today. I put the book on the “try again later” pile. On second reading, this novel may be recategorized as Pile 2 material.

Pile 2: The story is sound, but the  subject matter is inherently not a good match. Example: A few years ago there was a historical novel, the title of which I am blocking out. It had to do at least in part with the development of hypodermic syringes. It doesn’t matter if it is best book ever written, I can’t read it. It goes into the “probably worthwhile but I can’t for personal reasons” pile. I don’t read religiously-themed, cautionary novels (what are those romances called again?) for the same reason. There are most likely many such novels that are very well written and plotted, but I am not the right reader for them.

Piles 3a and 3b: There are two kinds of unreadable novels, in my view of things. One is so horrifically poorly put together that I keep reading it in the same way I would keep watching a propane truck skidding at high speed  into  backed-up traffic on the other side of the highway. I think of it as the awful-book trance. I could name three such novels without trying, but I won’t because (1) there’s nothing to be gained by hurting anybody’s feelings  and (2) there’s a lot to be lost by offending them. Offending another writer just for the thrill of it is a useless and counterproductive thing to do. It damages my  self-respect, but there’s  also the possibility that I will be launching  a wild-fire-type internet war. Some people thrive on the chaos of battle. Some people are almost pathologically  provocative and offensive (think: Ann Coulter). That doesn’t work for me. This is not to say that I never get involved in such battles; just that I avoid them if at all possible.

And finally there’s the book that I cannot find any value in, not even in the abstract.  Pile 3b contains  the ones I donate to the library, because it is possible that somebody else will find value in them. Hard to imagine, but possible.

Pile 3a is an interesting category, because any author lives on both sides of it. If I come across a novel that is really, really bad, I will not write about it here unless there is something to be learned, and I can do it in a way that it is at least somewhat objective.  I can only remember one review I’ve written of a novel that stunk, and it took me a long time to decide to write it, and a long time to get the tone right.  People who don’t write for a living but who talk about books online don’t have the same inhibitions, which is to be expected and even welcome. How else does an author get honest feedback?

Google sends me an email when somebody posts something about one of my books. I usually go have a look, and this is where I find out where other people rank my stuff.  It might be something fantastic — just recently a major author mentioned on her discussion board that she was loving Pajama Girls, for example. This is not somebody I have met or corresponded with, so it was very gratifying, because I respect that person’s work and opinion. On the other extreme, this is one paragraph in a longer post (dated June 2008) from a young woman who graduated from college a few years ago, and who is active in the theater. She did not like — really did not like — Pajama Girls. My Pajama Girls fall into her category 3b:

There are several troubling elements in this modern Southern romance. The handful of African American characters are treated like caricatures from a minstrel show. Agnostics are referred to as heathens. And “Yankees,” in general, are objects of scorn and suspicion. Local churches stage haunted houses about the dangers of birth control. Grown women are referred to as “girls.” This portrayal of the South may or may not be realistic, but it will likely inspire more irritation than amusement in feminist readers.

And that’s not the worst of it, but honest feedback means just that, and it’s sometimes pretty brutal. So what did I do?

Nothing. The author is entitled to her reading.  I may find the way she expresses herself strident and her interpretation offensive, but she’s within her rights.  It seems to me that she has not read very closely, but that’s not a discussion I can have with her. Any response from me would be seen as bellicose or self-serving or worse still, bullying.  So I didn’t respond, and I haven’t put a link here, because the idea is not to have anybody else respond, either.

I do wonder if she wrote her review thinking that I would see it, or assuming I would not. I’m not sure what either of those would mean.  For my own part, I try to remember that I shouldn’t write anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be comfortable repeating to somebody’s face. This doesn’t mean I can’t be honest in a review about a book I don’t like, but it does make me think about my tone and approach.  Which is why I keep this little reminder  on a sticky note on my computer: You can no more take something off the internet than you can take pee out of a swimming pool. (Attribution unknown)

subjective illusions: on criticism

This quote is from W.H. Auden, who was one of the principal poets of the last century. It comes from his autobiography (it’s not a standard autobiography, but there’s not much else to call it), A Certain World:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

This both interests and disturbs me, because while it looks very even handed and reasonable, there’s one flaw I can’t get past. Every book must fall into one of two primary categories: this is good or this is trash.

So I tried to figure out how this does or doesn’t work for me. I’ve named novels that fall into each category, for me personally.

1. I can see this is good, and I like it. The Magician’s Assistant; Pride & Prejudice; A Thread of Grace

2. I can see this is good, but I don’t like it. almost all of James Joyce

3. I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that [with perseverance] I shall come to like it. Atonement

4. I can see that this is trash but I like it. I prefer the wording: guilty pleasures: Princess Daisy

5. I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it. DaVinci Code

But there are so many books that don’t fit into any of these five categories. Many, many books that I cannot call good, or trash. So now I’ll try to come up with my own variant on Auden’s list. In the meantime I’m off to Starbucks, my laptop firmly under my arm.

With apologies to Auden, this book evaluation scheme works for me better than his more streamlined version.

***** well written, great characters, great plot

**** some flaws, but still all around pretty darn good

*** nothing out of the ordinary

** some redeeming features

* poorly written, cardboard characters, terrible plot

(+) I like it.

(-) I don’t like it. (boring, annoying, irritating)

(~)Under other circumstances, I might come to like it.

Storyworkings-1

Now, thinking about this further, I would be even more comfortable going the whole way and using the system I set up when I was trying to figure out why some novels become best sellers. You see the diagram here, with seven categories. That would mean, for example, that a given novel might be a 6(~) or a 4(+) or (less likely) a 1(+), in my evalation.

A German idiom comes to mind: warum einfach, wenn es kompliziert auch geht?

The comment function should be working now; however, if you run into an error message, please email me, okay? Because that’s the only way I know that something’s off. In the meantime, this comment from Robyn on my Auden-esque ramble:

I’ve decided that my qualifiers for a Great Read (one
worthy of shelf space and re-reading and pressing on
to others) is, it: made me laugh, made me cry, got me
sexually or sensually involved, made me think, and had
at least one compelling character who CHANGED or
LEARNED and whom I still cared about some time after I
had closed the book. For bonus points, or if one of
these areas was weak or neglected, having been
surprised in a satisfied manner (or satisfied in a way
I didn’t see coming).

If it made me see something in a new way, or had a few
words that stuck in my head that I had to copy down to
read again, that’s extra points, too.

If I can’t muster that much critical energy, then the
fast, economy test for me is a two-pronged question —

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,
etc.)

So, interesting — I, the consumer, judge a read by
the effects it has on me. You, the pro, (pro-ducer and
pro-fessional) describe it in terms of its structure,
prose, etc.

I love your illustration, btw. Putting things in their
proper spot on a Venn diagram always makes me feel
that the world is in a teeny bit better order [g]

Now see, this is why I need input. Because Robyn’s qualitative questions work in a way that my venn diagram does not. I suppose my approach has some merits, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, basically Robyn’s two-pronged question:

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,
etc.)

I’m not sure where the compulsion comes from to quantify something so objective and personal as a story. Maybe my academic training; maybe the fact that my right and left brains are always in a struggle for the upperhand. Maybe because it’s what I do for a living, and as Robyn says, it just gives me a feeling of having some kind of understanding or control over a process that is opaque by its very nature.

Off to write.

Sell-Out

You may remember a two-part post from a while ago on the subject of anonymity. Part two dealt specifically with foetry.com, which started as an anonymous poetry-prize watchdog.

You’d have to decide for yourself if I made my point in my post or not. Alan Cordle (the founder of Foetry) takes exception to a number of points, and his readership agrees with him. (L is for Loser, in case you didn’t realize.) In the comments Cordle says:

I never met her, but she had a contentious relationship with her colleagues. Her (only) friends in the department told us that she got a settlement from the university when she left. Maybe that’s why she’s imagining litigation everywhere.

She calls Kathleen’s career “half mast,” but remember that’s from the perspective of someone capable of writing literature who sold out to write genre. I’m grateful Kathleen didn’t lower her standards and that she has three books published in an ethical manner.

He doesn’t remember that his wife introduced us; he recounts (inaccurately) how I left the WWU; and best of all he pronounces me a sell-out. I am capable of writing real literature, you see, but I chose to write for the masses.

In his post he also claims he can’t link to this weblog or the relevant post, which I believe is simply his way of responding to me in an under-the-radar way. It’s so much safer to pontificate in a whisper.