Archive for August, 2009
I’m having one of those weeks, made even less satisfying than it might have been by the fact that my older son went back to college yesterday, which means he’s not going to be around to dump things on when they get overwhelming. I think about this picture I have of us where I’m holding him–an infant in a singlet–in the air with one hand, and it seems impossible to me that he’s now twenty-two and able to yell at plumbers.
But at any rate, I’m having one of those weeks, and it was only Sunday when it started, and what I ended up doing was picking up a book I’d been meaning to get around to for some time and hadn’t managed. The book is The Order of Things, by James Schall, S.J., and before I go into the rant part of this, there are some things I need to say.
First is that Schall is the person I think of first when I hear one of those rants from very public atheists bout how all religious people are stupid, or how the difference between those of us who are religious and those of us who are not is that those of us who are not are thinking, which those of us who are have given up for something called “faith.”
Shall is a Roman Catholic priest–the “S.J.” stands for “Society of Jesus,” the offical name for the Jesuits–and it takes about five pages into any of his books to realize that he had a first class mind and a real knack for, uh, thinking.
He’s also ferociously well educated, in the way that Jesuits used always to be, with a broad understanding of the Western tradition, a decent understanding of at least one nonWestern tradition, and the apparent ability to read five or six languages, at least one of them “dead.”
The scare quotes are there for a reason. Latin is not actually entirely dead. It’s still the language of the Church not only in Church documents, but in a number of Church insitutions. Priest-students at the North American College in Rome, which trains clergy to rise into the hierarchy and to be theologians, speak, read and write in Latin as if it were still in use today.
Or they did at least until very recently. If it turns out that they’ve given that up in the last few years, I’m going to be very disappointed.
One of the reasons Schall cotinues to fascinate me is that he seems to be the only person besides myself to have figured out what I would think would be obvious–if we ever do discover that human beings are “hard wired” (genetically predisposed) to belief in God, this would be at least as good an argument for the existence of God as it would be an argument against it.
But what Schall is, of course, is a reminder that the public face of religion in general and Christianity in particular was not always that of cracker-barrel accented televangelist hawking prayer cloths that have been rubbed in the sand of the Holy Land for nineteen nineety five a pop.
I think it would be hard to underestimate the extent to which the phenomenon of the New (and newly aggressive) Atheism is the result of the the rise of those cracker-barrel voiced preachers to pretty much the only representives of belief in the public square. We have no Jonathan Edwardses any more, and no Fulton Sheens. We have Oral Roberts seeing ninety foot Jesuses in his back yard and D. James Kennedy trying to get the “no religious test” clause stricken from the Constitution.
(I also wonder just how much of the “elite” disdain for religion and religious people has less to do with the religion and more to do with the people. Nobody sneered at Thomas Merton for becoming a Trappist, and his The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the great literary succsses of its day.)
But what struck me about Schall this time was a passage, just about a quarter of the way into the book, that went like this:
>>>The alternative to a creative order is said to be “evolution”, an order presupposed to no order or possible cause. Though it can simply and legitimately mean a way to classify the differing beings that are found to exist over time both in the cosmos and on earth, “evolution” can mean, and generally does mean, a philosophy of how something comes from nothing.>>>>>
The actual discussion of evolution and “evolutionism” went on for a while after that, and quoting it here would be too cumbersome, but it’s easy enough to paraphrase: evolution tells us not just how living thngs changed over time, but how they arose from “nothing.”
And two things occur to me immediately here.
The first is that this is a mistaken idea about what evolution actually says. Evolution does not tell us how life arose on earth–and couldn’t. Evolution as a fact, and the theory of evolution as an explanation of that fact, tell us only how the development happened once life had already begun to exist.
Evolution would remain a fact, and the theory of evolution would be equally satisifying as an explanation of that fact, if life arose from nothing, or space aliens brought it, or God planted the first microorganisms in the primordial soup.
What’s more, evolution not only doesn’t tell us how life arose on this earth, it couldn’t if it tried. Certainly scientists ask the question, but the answer will have to come from some other branch of biology than evolutionary theory.
The second thing that occurs to me is that I understand perfectly why Schall thinks evolution tries to tell us that “something came from nothing.” Schall thinks it because there are a lot of very loud people out there claiming that it does, and those people persistantly portray themselves as “defending evolution.”
Some of you reading this blog know that St. Martin’s Press published a book of mine this year called Living Witness, which takes place in a small Pennsylvania town during a lawsuit over the proposal to include materials on Intelligent Design in the school library and a sticker in school textbooks depicting evolution as a matter of opinion which would be countered by these materials.
Okay, that’s a convoluted way of putting it, but that was what in fact happened in Dover–not, as it was characterized by the media, an attempt by the school board to actually teach Intelligent Desin.
But here’s the thing. Intelligent Design is not science, but neither is the “evolution proves that there’s no God” and “evolution proves that life arose by chance mutations” mantra.
Evolution is a fact. We have documentation out the wazoo that includes evolution within species and between species. We have transitional forms that will take us from reptiles to birds. Virtually every claim the anti-evolution side makes–there are no transitional fossils! there are examples of irreducible complexity!–is a lie, and most of the people on the anti-evolution side know it.
But the declaration that evolution proves that there is no God is a lie, too, and what’s more it’s the same kind of lie.
It claims something for science that science cannot deliver.
Science is the project of explaining natural phenomena by natural means. It cannot tell us if anything exists outside the material. If miracles happen, science could not prove them to be true. The best it could do would be to say that in this case, it had no explanation of what happened or why.
Enlisting “evolution” in a war of metaphysics does no good for evolution, no good for science, and less than no good for the cause of atheism. It will convince nobody who isn’t convinced, and it will make an awful lot of fence sitters decide that evolution is less science than it is a form of theology.
Sometimes I think that the problem is that at least some atheists feel a desperate need for certainty of a kind science can never give them.
If we are committed to intellectual integrity, to accepting as true only those things which reason can show us to be true, then we must be forever in the position of deciding against the existance of God on a negative–since I see no positive evidence of the existence of God, I cannot give intellectual assent to the idea that God exists.
But I can’t know.
And if you need to know, then you shouldn’t be signing on with the secular project.
Wheter you know it or not, you’re looking for religion.
This morning there was a link up on Arts and Letters Daily to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about fiction, and plots.
There was a lot wrong with this piece–not the least of which was to imply that before this latest book, Thomas Pynchon wasn’t interested in plot; it was practically all he was interested in. Go read Gravity’s Rainbow sometime, or V–but what struck me the most was this:
While sales of adult novels in hardcover are down more than 17% from a year ago, sales of young adult novels are up over 30%.
Accoding to the author of the op-ed, the reason for this anomaly is that young adult novels aren’t embarrssed to have plots, while adult novels–well. It’s all the modernism and literary distaste for stories.
But most modern novels are not literary novels. These days, most novels published her hardcover fit into the genres, and the genres are not known for lack of plot.
The writer of the op-ed–Lev something, I think, I’m sorry, it’s skipped my mind–blows by these with a reference to “supermarket novels” (meaning: trash that isn’t to be counted as real books) right before he praises Thomas Pynchon for producing–a hard boiled detective novel!
Ah. Here we are. I don’t know how long this link will last, but here it is:
and the writer’s name is Lev Grossman.
At least I got the Lev right.
At any rate, I’m not going to go into my standard rant here about literary intellectuals and the hard-boiled detective novel. Suffice it to say that think the reason why people like Norman Mailer and your youngish English prof at Yale head straight for the hard-boiled detective when they want to be “commercial” is precisely because the classic hard boiled detective novel represents the worst written fiction in the history of the English language. Agatha Christie was a better writer than Raymond Chandler, because she was not a fraud. My cats are better writers than Raymond Chandler, because they know enough to kill their mice and get it over with.
But the real issue for me in here is this–because Mr. Grossman acts as if adult genre novels do not exist, he manages also to miss the issue. It’s not just sales of contemporary literary adult fiction that are down, it’s the sales of all adult fiction. The genres are losing readers just as fast–and in some cases faster–as the literary novel is.
If you actually look at the differences between adult fiction and young adult fiction, what stands out is not that one has plot and the other does not. There’s more than enough plot in contemporary genre fiction, and it’s still falling off the planet.
The real differences between the two categories are in matters of technique and vocabulary–and, I think, in a result of technique that I don’t quite know how to categorize yet.
First, for the basics: young adult novels have much more restricted vocabularies than adult novels do. There are not so many “big words,” and what words are used tend to be used in their commonest senses and not in their precise ones. Sentences ae shorter. Paragraphs are shorter. There’s a lot more dialogue.
In other words, young adult novels are by definition “easier to read.” And, of course, the easier a novel is to read, the larger the potential audience.
Second, young adult novels are relatively restricted in terms of subject matter. By that I mean that there are some things that have become common in adult novels that the publishers of young adult novels will not put up with–graphic sex scenes, for instance, and lots of foul language, and the kind of explicit gore than always made it impossible for me to finish any novel by Andrew Vachss.
This is, I think, a bigger issue than most publishers realize. I don’t know when we began to think that a novel–or a movie, or a television show–was “better” the more clinically explicit it got in the scenes of death and sex, but my guess is that it was only better for some people. The rest of us do a lot of cringing. I turn away from the television set when the medical scenes come on in House, and I’ve never made it to the end of a Quentin Tarrantino movie.
I also think that these issues are bigger deals for book readers than they are for moviegoers and television watchers. At the movies, I can always run out to the concession stand when the stuff I can’t handle comes on. With television, I can read a book through any show I’m watching and just not look up at the stuff I can’t stomach.
But the third thing is the most important–young adult novels tend to be the only fiction these days that is written with omniscient narrators.
In one way, this is the same issue as the first one–omniscient narrators make it much easier to understand a book than almost any other kind. You don’t have to switch points of view and kieep in mind that one person might not have the same ideas or information as another. You don’t have to ask yourself if the first person narrator is reliable, or worry that he’s going to end up being the murderer.
What you see is what you get. If, on page six, you’re told that Johnny is a bully, then Johnny is a bully, and that’s the end of it.
But as well as making a book easier to understand, an omniscient narrator does soemthing else: he provides a steady, unquestionable, objective moral framework for the story.
And, in fact, young adult novels are usually expected to have such a framework. In a novel for adults, you can play around with things like the possible advantages to smoking cigarettes. In the real world–our world–the cigarette issue is not cut and drived. Nicotine tends to be very good at enhancing concentration, for instance, and in providing mood regulators especially in people who are biochemically depressed. I have a good woman friend who has smoked all her life on the following rationale: when she’s very depressed her life isn’t worth living and she’s close to suicidal; when she takes anti-depressive drugs they run over her like a truck, wipe out any sex drive she might have and make her completely unable to do creative work: cigarettes get rid of the depression, allow her to work as well as she ever could, and leave her sex drive alone. She added up both columns and decided that risking lung cancer was worth it.
You would never find a person like this as a character in a young adult novel. The moral issues are too hazy. In YA, smoking is bad, period.
And that, I think, is what YA gives to so many people–fictional worlds without moral relativism of any kind. Moral frameworks that are clear, absolute, universally valid and largely unquestionable.
I don’t think people are looking for plot when they go to YA.
I think they’re looking for morality.
I’d like to start off by pointing out that I never said that genre was synonymous with badly written–in fact, I’ve said the exact opposite, several times.
What I did say was the genre fiction before World War II was almost universally badly written, and it was. Go back and look at the mysteries of the supposed “Golden Age,” and what you find is not only the predictable plots and predictable characters, but writing that sounds almost cartoon-y. I sincerely love Hercule Poirote, but he’s a caricature, not a character.
There were, as I said, a number of reasons for that, not least of which was the fact that you could simply make more money as a mainstream novelist. These days, it’s obvious that you can make more money as a genre novelist–outside the ranks of the high end of the literary, genre novelists make more money and sell more books than any other kind.
The interesting question, for me, is what it was that happened in those twenty years after the War to change the tastes of the vast majority of the American book reading public–or to change the composition of that public.
In the Fifties and Sixties, genres were still the stepchild of publishing, largely issued as paperback originals and unreviwed in the mainstream press. If you went into a bookstore, the novels prominently displayed at the front would most likely be “big” mainstream items like the works of James Michener, Irving Wallace, an Arthur Hailey.
And it did look, for a while there, as if the higher levels of education promised for my generation and after would increase the audiences for the intellectual end in fiction. It certainly seemed to be doing that on stage and in the movies, with things like Becket and Lawrence of Arabia sweeping Doris Day off the map.
When I sat in my room at my ancient typewriter writing the first things I put real effort into, the role models I saw in the pages of The New Yorker–I had a subscription to The New Yorker when I was ten–and even on the bestseller lists in The New Y ork Times were all “serious” novelists.
I don’t know when this started to change. I wasn’t paying attention to best seller lists at the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies. Unlike a lot of the people who comment here, I don’t think the Sixties was the worst thing that ever happened to America and I don’t think it was a bad thing overall–I had a good time in the Sixties, without having too good of a time, if that makes sense.
And by the time I graduated in 1973, it was obvious that the other change was happening–that students were less interested in politics and protesting than they were in finding careers that would pay a lot of money. It was an odd juxtoposition on the campus where I was. People even started to dress differently, and my senior year there was a freshman who became mildly famous because her habit of changing ball gowns midway through deb parties made the New York papers as a “hot social trend.”
But in that long stretch when I was in college and graduate school, I just wasn’t paying all that much attention to what was being published, at any end of the market. If you think of being in graduate school as being in orbit and leaving as a kind of re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, I can tell you exactly when it happened. For me, at any rate.
I had just taken an enormous series of tests preliminary to the dissertation, and I wandered into the big bookstore in East Lansing, Michigan looking for something to take my mind off it all. What I found were two novels by Charlotte MacLeod, The Family Vault and God Rest Ye Merry.
At that point, I don’t think I’d read any mystery fiction at all for about fifteen years. A lot of what I did read was then–as now–older stuff, Victorian novels especially. I had a run on Balzac one year, and a run on Dostoyevski another. If I read contemporary fiction at all, it was to make a point of picking up first novls to see what they wree like. I wanted to be a first novel myself one day.
Charlotte MacLeod got me started in another direction, and a month or two later I left Michigan for New York and my first “real” job. By then I was reading mysteries by the barrelful in a way I hadn’t since I was very young.
And what occured to me, at the time, was: I could be happy writing this.
I look back on myself and I have no idea why this was the case. I get the impression that the mainstream novels I did read at the time seemed to lack energy in some way. They still do, now, when I pick the up.
The “literary” novel has largely become a genre of its own, with the drawback that the people who write it and the people who read it live in a very insular and constricted world about which, it seems to me, enough has been said already.
But the writers of serious novels–not to be mistaken for the “literary” production about a bunch of upper middle class people wandering around feeling alienated and miserable–seem to come increasingly from outside the United States. There’s Saramago, certainly, and V.S. Naipaul (although is “travel” writing is better), and the British writer with the Japanese name whose name I can never remember who wrote Remains of the Day.
For whatever reason, not just American readers but American writers seem to have changed direction around 1980, and that’s curious, because the exact opposite seemed to be happening in film. The rise of genre movies-action-adventure, space opera, horror–has not led to a coresponding loss of interest in serious subjects. Spielburg did Schindler’s List as well as E.T.
Maybe it’s just the obvious again, and I don’t give the obvious enough credit: there’s a lot more money to be made in films than in books, so the best talent gravitates there. Think of John Sayles, who was a remarkable writer of serious fiction (check out Union Dues, if you can ever find it) before he abandoned it for directing movies.
And it wasn’t that Sayles was unsuccessful as a novelist. Union Dues was nominated for a National Book Award. He had serious if not spectacular sales. In fact, he had a career most novelists would envy, even now.
I have no idea what to make of all this, in case you’re wondering.
But on the subject of the western, I have a suggestion.
Check out John Cawelti’s The Six-Gun Mystique.
It’s a dark morning and I have too much to do today, but I had a very good time last night, and that was because I ewatched a truly terrible movie.
In fact, due to the marvellous inclusiveness of modern cable television, I watched two really terrible movies yesterday. The first, in the early afternoon, was an oldie but goodie: Reefer Madness, released in 1936.
Back when I was in college, that movie was something of a cult classic. Sudents would get high and go watch it in one campus showing or another, and then laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs.
The laughter had a lot to do with content, which portrayed marijuana as something more like what we’d know in methamphetamine today, and marijuana smoking as something you could do without actually inhaling.
But the reason that that movie is truly terrible isn’t the message–which we today, unlike the students of 1971, would find unexceptionable–but the acting, which is so screamingly awful it defies description. One of the “hop heads” goes insane in the end, and he looks and behaves sort of like Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula.
The truly terrible movie I watched last night is much newer. It’s called, I think, Megashark vs. Giant Octopus, or something along those lines. Both the megashark and the giant octopus were in the title.
Some of the awfulness was of a kind I’m inclined to excuse–whoever made this thing had a budget of $12.99 or so, so that several sequences of frames are used over and over again over the course of the film. And it’s not subtle. We see the army guy in camo in sunglasses with the rifle a good four times overall, always standing in the same place and always overwritten by the words “Treasure Island” and the theoretical name of a naval base. They couldn’t have erased the words for the second or third or fourth time through?
Some of the awfulness as a matter of cluelessness, as when we are at one point told that we are looking at “the American naval fleet,” and part of my head kept thinking: which one? Maybe I’ve got this completely screwed up, but I seem to remember something called “the Sixth Fleet” being parked outside Athens, which seems to indicate that we have more than one.
Then there’s the acting, which could have been done better by any high school drama class. I mean, there’s bad acting, and then there’s this, which is sort of breathtaking in its unrelenting awfulness. The Irish scientist has a Scots accent, the heroine seemed to think she was taking part in a truly awful sitcom, and the navy guys all sounded as if the closest they’d ever come to anybody actually in the military was watching the guys run around in camo in the Dukes of Hazard movie.
But the real kicker in this thing was the cliches. And this movie was very careful to make sure it touched base with all of them.
We got the “man is getting his comeuppance” enviro speech. We got the “now we’re going to have to learn to live and work together” speech. We got the military guy who was just itching to explode an atomic bomb on the things. We got the scientist who didn’t want to kill the creatures–no, no, they’re a great discovery, we’ve got to study them!
And on and on and on.
Including, by the way, the really bad science, which claimed to explain how two animals roughly the size of the Chrysler Building–each of them, mind you–had been frozen during the last ice age and thawed out because of…global warming!
I’m not kidding about the supposed size of these things. One of them leaps into the air and snatches a jet in its jaws.
No. That was not a typo. That was the shark. A little later in the movie, he jumps out of the water and snaps the Golden Gate Bridge in half. The octopus manages to get its tentacles around one of those big floating oil rigs–all the way around–and smash it into little pieces.
Robert complained to me at one point that he didn’t know what “transcending the genre” meant, and I can tell him-it means that in the opinion of the publishing company or the reviewer, the book in question is well written.
The assumption, in publishing and criticism, is that genre novels will be cliched ridden and probably poorly composed, with lots of cliches, stock plot bits and stock characters.
And for a long time, good writers did not go into the genres. Why should they? Until the post war period, genre novels did less well, commercially, than mainstream ones. You’d make more money as Faith Baldwin than as any but the top two or so mystery writers, and than any of the writers in other genres.
Besides, you got no respect–the major organizations for professional writers wouldn’t take you, mainstream reviewers wouldn’t review you, and you often had trouble just coming out in hardcover in world where coming out as a paperback original meant “not a real book.”
A lot of that prejudice remains in the business today, even though lots of good writers go into the genres these days, and at least some of those genres have loosened up to allow a few more surface variations than used to be the case.
So when a publisher has a mystery that’s well written with characters that are rounded out, he declares that the book “transcends the genre.”
But it doesn’t, of course. A book that really transcended the genre would no longer be a book in that genre, just like a sonnet without fourteen lines isn’t a sonnet.
And that means two things. First, that the possibilities in any genre are limited by the conditions that define it.
And second, that it will always be possible to make spectacularly bad genre novels, or genre movies, just by sticking to those conditions too well.
The night before last, I had one of those complete disasters I’m prone to on occasion, where I get up around three hours after I’ve gone to bed and then just can’t get back to sleep again.
Actually, it might have been the three hours that was the problem. The United States Army has actually done research on this, and it turns out that the best times to wake the troops so that you can make sure they’ll be awake for whatever you want them to do is three hours, five hours, or seven hours after they’ve gone to sleep.
Of course, having been told that–my older son’s closest friend is a lieutenant–I sat around for a while and worried about how the Army could possibly know that the troops had actually gone to sleep, since just going to bed doesn’t guarantee that.
And will somebody please tell me when and why everybody started wearing camo all the time? I mean, Army guys used to have these khaki uniforms for everday and camo just for combat, or something, and now…
Okay, that was a digression.
I woke up on only two hours of sleep and spent the rest of the day flying on a caffeine high, which was surreal in lots of ways, because, you know, I’m really too old for this kind of thing.
But in the middle of it, I had an e-mail discussion about Jose Saramago which suddenly clarified something for me.
And if you’ve already thought of all of this, I apologize. I’m sometimes very thick.
Jose Saramago is a Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel in the early Nineties. I first discovered his book Blindness right about the time I first went to Portugal, and having become entranced by everything Portuguese, I read it.
In translation. I found a woman to tutor me in Portuguese a few years ago, but then she moved, and I haven’ t been able to get back to it since. In a way, that’s a shame, because there’s another Portuguese novelist I’m interested in–Augustiina Bessa-Luis–and she’s n ot published in English that I know of.
And I may just have gotten her first name wrong.
Anyway, I read Blindness and then I went out and bought every single Saramago novel I could find. I can’t remember the last time I found a writer who did that to me.
Blindness is about the city of Lisbon during a weeks-long period when the population is suddenly struck by an epidemic of blindness. People go blind, for no reason anybody knows–and, since they know nothing about the afflication, they also have no idea if it’s temporary or permanent.
And, as in most epidemics,a small percentage of the population is immune. There are some sighted people.
The book then follows the life of one sighted woman who fakes blindness because she wants to follow her husband to the new quarantine camps and to care for him there. The novel is about the ways in which all these people respond to their blindness, the ways in which this woman helps and cares for them, and (in one very small stretch) the way some other sighted people also respond.
Look, however, at what’s not there–there’s nobody trying to discover where the blindness came from; there are no corrupt government officials covering up a DOD science experiment that goes wrong, no Brave Heroes racing to cure the disease or reverse its effects before civilization collapses–
Therer’s just this woman and the day to day realities of living with and responding to the condition they’re in.
Now, you may love this idea or hate it–I love it to pieces–but the difference between the plot as Saramago wrote it and the Bave Heroes thing I was just talking about is what makes Blindness “just a novel” and not part of the science fiction genre.
Science fiction is the most loosely defined genre in the bunch, but by and large genres are skeleton plots–they give you a narrative arc into which you fit whatever else you want to do. If you’re inventive, you can produce something quite wonderful and novel.
But all detective novels have the same plot. So do all romance novels. So do all serial killer novels.
And, what’s more, all genre novels have a restricted range of characters available to them–detectie novels require at least one person whose essential motivation is to unravel the mystery and uncover the murderer. Any novel about a murder that does not include that character is not a genre mystery. Any romance novel that ends with the heroine deciding that the hero is an ass and she’d just as soon not be in a romantic relationship of any kind is not a genre romance.
Saramago has written a number of novels whose premises fit what Robert would call “science fiction,” and none of them are science fiction, because none of them follow any genre’s narrative arc. In The Stone Raft, the entire Iberian peninsula breaks off from the rest of Europe and goes wandering around in the Atlantic ocean. Once again, there are no Brave Heroes rushing around to deal with the situation, no explanations of why what happened happened–just the people on the peninsula coming to terms with what’s happened to them (and a nice allegory about the EU).
Saramago’s latests novel, called Death With Interruptions (and oh, how I wish I’d thought of that title), is about a period of time when nobody dies, and how day to day people deal with that. But I haven’t read it yet, and I think Death is a woman living in a small apartment and feeling too depressed to get on with work, but I’m not sure yet.
There isn’t anything in the world that is an unfit subject for real, non-genre fiction. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily,” Miss Emily murders the lover who wants to leave her and then spends the next twenty yeas sleeping next to the corpse. It, and what she’s done, is discovered only after she’s dead. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” a family of five is murdered by an escaped convict and his accomplice out in the empty reaches of rural Georgia, all because the grandmother of the group is a selfish, self-absorbed witch.
Genre can be done very well, of course. Like a sonnet, it can provide a framework for a lot of things. There are good sonnets and bad sonnets and great sonnets. They are good murder mysteries and bad murder mysteries and great murder mysteries.
And sometimes genre can provide an excuse–readers who normally wouldn’t touch a novel about the decay of a small rust belt city will read a murder mystery set there, and given the writer a chance to sa what he wants to say about it. They did with Precious Blood, at any rate.
But in the end, what disstinguishes genre from non-genre is not the basic premise, but the existence, or lack, of certain stock characters and narrative sequences.
And it’s that predictability that makes genre the stepchild of English literature.
It’s also what makes contemporary self-styled “literary fiction” a genre.
Here’s the thing, if I got started on the depredations of insurance companies, or the mess that is the maze of insurance law, I’d be here for another year, and I wouldn’t get anything else done. So–
Back to the books. Or, specifically, to one issue in the reading of books, and of poetry.
Robert sent me an e-mail about a week ago with quotes from one of his favoite writers, who split the significance of books between those that people love passionately generation after generation (even a minority of people, if they’re passionate enough), and books that are important because their style changed the way people write forever afterwards.
If I had to split books into two different categories, though, these aren’t the two I would choose. Nor are these the two categories I would choose in deciding what to put into the Canon and ask everyone to read.
On the more relaxed standard of books in general–rather than trying to decide what should be included in a curriculum–I tend to divide fiction, at any rate, between books that are “about plot” and books that are “about people.”
And I will admit, when somebody tells me that a book is “a great read” or “a good story,” the back of my head tends to go, automatically–ah, it’s a bad book.
I do that because the books people have recommended to me as “great reads” over the years have largely been the print versions of television shows: lots of mindless, frentic “action,” “twists” for the sake of having “twists,” and “entertainment” defined as “shutting your mind down and not needing to think.”
There are certainly some exceptions to this rule–the early novels of Stephen King, for instance–but that’s what I usually get. And I really, really, really don’t like this kind of thing. I don’t even like it as television. I fall asleep at Die Hard movies. I’ve got MEGO reactoins to serial killers, car chases, fight scenes, the place in the movie when it turns out that the hero’s best friend at Big Corp is really the corrupt killer, the place where the hero’s car explodes, and the revelation that our murderer had a sex change operation last year and that’s why we weren’t able to find him.
What I do like in what I read is strong characters, fully realized and portrayed in depth, the more depth (and the more individuality) the better. I read fiction almost exclusively for character, and the “almost” in that statement is to accommodate some fiction I read for its sense of place.
I also, of course, sometimes read for prose style. Good writing is like good music. If you’ve got an ear for it, it can be a remarkable experience all on its own, without reference to plot, character, ideas or even general intelligence.
I do, however, have to be in a rather odd mood to read fiction primarily for the prose style. And I’m not in that mood very often.
I also wouldn’t use prose style to determine whether or not a book, play, or movie belongs in the Canon, or even was a candidate for the Canon.
For all the yelling and screaming we do about how the items in the Canon are determined, the simple fact is that no book or play or movie or poem is there unless it lasts for a very long time. I once gave fifty years as the minimum, but in reality we’re looking at at least a hundred, and maybe even more.
That time frame creates a problem that would be insuperable for anybody really trying to judge works of fiction by prose style. Poetic style is somewhat easier, but only somewhat. Poetic form, being highly stylized in most eras, makes it possible for readers to read for style for at least a few hundred years longer than they could do the same with prose.
The simple fact is that we have no idea how great, or poor, a stylist Chaucer was. His language is almost as foreign to us as French, and all modern readers of The Canterbury Tales find themselves in the uncomfortable position of either having to translate the work themselves while they read, or having to rely on somebody else’s translation.
And the stylistic virtues, or vices, of a work in translation belong to the translator. If you don’t believe me, get a little stack of translations of Homer from over the years–start with Chapman and Fitzgerald and then pick up more modern editions. If style was all we relied on to evaluate The Iliad, those could not be identified as the same book.
Three hundred years from now, whatever books of our era will have managed to last will be evaluated for form, for character, even for story, but they won’t be evaluated for style, because readers of that era will no longer be capable of perceiving that style.
And the experimental stuff will be significant only insofar as it is no longer experimental.
Time marches on.
Okay, I know that a lot of you reading this are not from the US and are not much interested in US politics, but this might be an interesting philsophical exercise anyway. And I’m being driven slowly crazy by the whole thing, so I’m going to talk.
There is, as most of you know, an enormous debate going on about “health care” in the United States.
I put “health care” in quotes, for the very good reason that the debate is not actually about health care. It’s about health care funding.
The distinction is important. If it were actually the case that people who are poor, or who don’t have health insurance, couldn’t get health care in the US, there would be an enormous problem, and one considerably different–and with different deamnds–than the one we’ve got.
As a matter of fact, if you get sick in the United States, you will get treated, whether or not you’re able to pay, and whether or not you have health insurance. Scare stories–like Mab’s “conventional wisdom” in Russia–notwithstanding, federal law says that if you’re brought into an emergency room, that emergency room must treat you until you are able to be moved elsewhere or you’re better. If no elesewhere exists, the hospital takes you on and swallows the expense.
What’s more, Americans get even relatively expensive treatment without regard to ability to pay–I know, because my husband was uninsured for four of the most expensive months of his cancer. He got everything his doctors wanted him to have, right away without waiting. And after we were nsured and our insurance company refused to pay for a l iver transplant, he went right on the transplant list anyway.
Bill’s mother, a registered nurse all her life, called us, frantic, having thought she’d heard that Bill had been turned down as a transplant candidate. When she found out it was just the insurance company refusing to pay, her reaction was, “oh, is that all?”
With the exception of one hospital–that we stopped using as soon as we could–we never heard a word about money while Bill was ill.
What happened afterward was something else.
And it’s the what happens afterward that is the real issue in the US health care debate.
Which makes me nuts that it’s not what anybody is talking about.
One of the reasons why nobody is talking about it is that we’ve all stopped talking about insurance. We use the word “insurance,” but we’re not actually talking about it.
What we are talking about instead is health plans, which are not the same thing.
Insurance is a game of statistics–there are some things that can happen to us that are enormously expensive, too expensive for any one person to pay, unless he’s Bill Gates. Tht’s the bad news.
The good news is that these things happen to very few people. That means that a lot of us can band together, pay relatively small amounts into a pool, and then the pool can pay the expenses of the few who get hit with the unual occurences.
Insurance is not “the company/government/whoever pays for anything health related that you have to have done.”
It’s that second thing that we’re all actually talking about in the US these days, and the second thing that most European governments provide, and if you think about it for a bit, it’s not surprising that everybody’s either going broke or going into rationiing.
Insurance can be run on a for-profit basis, or a co-op basis, or even a government basis, without too much trouble. A comprehensive health care payment system cannot, not for long.
It’s bad as a business model, but it’s bad as a government payment model for the same reasonThere is simply no amount of money that can be contributed into the common pool that will cover everything everybody wants, because the pool does not exist to cover unusual events but everyday ones.
In the end, there isn’t enough money in the world to do this, and in the end, everybody comes to the same conclusion–the only way to make the everyday stuff possible for most people is to limit the catastrophic stuff for the truly ill.
So let me make a couple of suggestions.
First, we’re not talking about “health care” or about “health insurance,” but about three separate problems with separate requirements that need separate solutions.
As long as we lump al these things toggether, call them all “health care,” and try to solve them as if they were one thing, we’ll be cutting our throats.
The first issue is routine care–your yearly check-up with the recommended tests at each stage of life, the vaccinations, the visits for colds and the flu and strep and all the rest of the day to day.
Do you know what we ought to do about all that stuff? We ought to remove it from the health insurance system entirely. Make it pay as you go, fee for service, pretty much the way it was in, say, 1950. Hospitals would run clinics. Not for profit organizations like the Visiting Nurses would provide care for people who needed it. The rest of us would write a check when we had to or make a deal with the doctor to pay over time, but this sort of thing does not belong under the heading of “insurance” and all that happens when you try to cover it under “insurance,” or any third party payer system, is that the price of all of it goes through the roof.
The second issue is catastrophic care. This is properly addressed by insurance, because it’s those unusual situations I was talking about above. Insurance pools will work for this as well as for second and third level testing for catastrophic conditions, because catastrophic conditions are rare.
To the extent that the US need “reform” in health care insurance in this area, it needs it because corporations are like tiges-you can’t blame them from behaving the way they do, it’s just their nature, but you want to keep the gazelles from being hunted into extinction.
What needs to be reformed here is a set of practices that skirt close to fraud–one of them is the practice of calculating the profit and loss (and therefore the premiums) of each individual or group as if he/it existed in a vaccuum. If Huge Insurance Corp has 10 million people covered under its Health Options policy, then the profitability of the Health Options policy is the benefits paid out to all those ten million people subtracted from the premiums paid in–it is not 400 separate calculations makes Company A less prifitable than Company B because Company A happens to have more people this year who got cancer.
One of the other things that needs to be reformed is the way in which HMOs, PPOs and other health insurance plans can change their benefits and thei policies at will. You sign on to plan A because it promises benefits B, C, and D, and then at the end of the year you get a notice that Plan A will no longer cover those things. There’s a “contract” only on one side–yours. The company can chane the terms it has to meet any time it feels like it.
Then there’s the dumping. Here’s the dirty little secret of American health insurance copanies–they’re fairly sure (and they’re right) that they can collect premiums for you for years and then dump you when you get sick, or soon thereafter. Individual policy holders can be dumped at will–declared “no longer insurable” and purged from the rolls as soon as they get sick. Members of roup policies take a little longer to get rid of, but nearly eerybody with a catastrophic illness will end up being paid for by Medicaid (the federal-state partnership benefits program for the poor) eventually. People with catastrophic illnesses become unable to work. They leave their employment, and they may or may not be able to afford the premiums for a COBRA plan, but those last only eighteen months. After that, all the health insurance company has to do is jack up the premiums to a point where they know the patient can’t pay, and they’re off the hook.
So, yes, we need health insurance reform here, but I don’t think we need a government program. At least, I don’t think so yet. What we need is law that requires insurance companies to adhere to their own contracts.
The third issue is chronic illness–parapleia, quadraplegia, cystic fibrosis, and the myriad other genetic and accidental messes the human body can get itself into. We can do a lot for people with these kinds of conditions these days, but it’s expensive, and it’s unlikely to be fungible into a workable business plan.
Here’s where I think we do need a public option. We in the United Stattes tend to think that it’s a necessary thing to care for people who cannot care for themselves, and these people honestly cannot care for themselves.
I think that would more or less do it, without bankrupting the country or turning the government into an unsuable only option.
And I know it doesn’t solve all the problems–one of the things I wish we’d talk about is the way in which government price controls on pharmaceuticals in Europe, et al, translate to much higher prices for drugs in the US, and those higher prices become the only incentive those companies have to go on doing very expensive research into new treatments and cures–and what happens if the US also institutes price contorls, and there’s no more incentive to find new treatments and cures.
But that’s another day, and it’s late for me this morning.
Before I start this, a warning–the story I’m about to relate is both true and truly terrible. If you think the pictures of clubbed baby seals make you ill, this will be worse.
That said, I think narratives must arise naturally. The problem with the Marxist narratives is that they were largely manufactured to fit a preconceived set of principles, rather than the principles being organic to, or arising from, the stories. Marxist fiction, Marxist painting, Marxist poetry, Marxist sculpture is all pretty horrible, and not very effective, even within those countries where totalitarian governments allowed nothing else to be shown. While the Soviet government was trying to stuff Socialist Realism down the throats of its citizenry, a lot of its citizenry was meeting in basements to watch bootlegged copies of Elvis movies.
The question becomes, then, how and why some narratives spread through populations, and why others don’t. And that’s not easy to say.
The animal rights people ought to have a few natural advantages in the culture of the US and most of the rest of the Anglophone sphere at this point in time. The tradition not only of having pets but of treating them as practically part of the family is a long one in English and English-derived cultures, especially when it comes to dogs.
And then there’s the thing about the nearly instinctive need to nurture whatever is small and cute, as Robert sometimes says. We see those great big beautiful eyes and just can’t help ourselves. My older son, confronted by the actual mouse we’d been chasing for weeks a few years ago, not only didn’t kill it, but reported a nearly overwhelming desire to “keep it warm and feed it cheese.”
Fortunately for our mouse problem, the cats had no such compulsions. The mouse lasted another day or two, and then I had to throw its dead body out onto the lawn.
The Cheyenne Cherry story is one of those things–well, it’s one of those things.
As far as I’ve been able to piece together from the news stories, the situation was as follows:
Cheyenne Cherry, who was seventeen at the time, and a friend of hers, who was fourteen, broke into the apartment of an Hispanic woman one afternoon while that woman was out. They trashed the place, stole food and money, and then took the woman’s small kitten and put it into the oven. They turned the oven on to five hundred degrees and went back to finding stuff to take. They left the apartment only when the kitten’s frantic cries and savage scratchings at the oven door got to be more than they wanted to listen to.
And yes, the kitten died.
Now, the reason I know about this story is that a former student of mine is part of a group trying to get Cheyenne Cherry tried as an adult for animal cruelty. The way things are now, Cherry has accepted a plea deal that will require her to do about a year in a juvenile facility, and then that will be more or less it as a punishment for the entire incident.
I’m fairly sure that my former stdent and her group are confused about the way the system works–that it’s too late for them to get what they want here, since the plea bargain has been okayed by a judge–but it seems to me that if there could be a strong narrative that will affect the general public in favor of animals rights, this should be it.
And, of course, it is affecting the general population, just as those pictures of the baby seals did. The story elicits strong declarations that there has to be something wrong with the girls who did this, and that they should be locked up for doing it, and that people should n ot treat kittens that way.
What the story does not do, at least for most people, is to recruit them to the position that animals should have the same rights as people (more or less) and the same moral and legal status.
For most people, there is nothing about this narrative to change their opinion that pets are pets and people are people, that the welfare of people should come before the welfare of pets, and that the punishment for hurting an animal should be less than the punishment for hurting another human being.
If the purpose of that particular wing of what Robert calls “the movment” is to equalize the moral status of human beings and other animals–and Peter Singer says it is–or to elevate the moral status of other animals over the moral status of human beings, it’s failing miserably.
I think it’s possible that the success of narratives is limited by present paramaters of human nature–that PETA and company are not getting what they want because most people are n ot capable of thinking the way PETA wants them to.
And that is, I think, the problem with a lot of the “narratives” attempted by people in “the movement.” Since the principles are abstractions of abstractions to begin with, whatever narrative is chosen either isn’t affecting at all, or does not elicit enough of the right kind of response to advance the principles.
Robert suggested Sacco and Vanzetti and Norma Rae–my students wouldn’t know who S and V were, and if they’ve seen Norma Rae they’ll inevitably declare that it was either boring or stupid. If you ask them who they do identify with in movies or on television or in books, they’re favorite answer is…Jack Sparrow.
In the end I think the bottom line is and always will be that human nature will win out, and that the narratives that work will only work insofar as they connect with that nature. To the extent that narratives try to change that nature in any way, they fail.
John asks if it’s possible for someone to make science a religion, and of course it is–it’s even more possible for someone to take science on faith, like the guy on one of the Internet forums I contribute to on and off who, after several days of declaring anyone who took intelligent design seriously to be “stupid” (and several years of declaring everybody who took religion to seriously to be stupid), suddenly said that he didn’t actually understand how evolution worked, but that was different, because that was science.
But science by definition–the search for natural explanations for natural phenomena–is not faith-based. It requires material evidence, and usually direct evidence, to be valid.
But that said, let’s turn to another issue, one that isn’t often encountered in Protestant denominations, at least as part of religion. I do know of secular instances of what I’m about to talk about, though, like the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, so it isn’t something you have to be Catholic to run into.
There’s a traditional Irish Christmas carol usually referred to as the Cherry Tree Carol that goes like this: Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sits down ounder a cherry tree. It’s been a long, hot day. She’s had a lot of traveling to do, and other work, and she’s exhausted. She looks up and sees that the tree is full of fruit, and she desperately wants a few cherries, but she’s too exhausted to get up and get one for herself. Then, from within her womb, Christ commands the tree, and the fruit falls into her lap.
Now, there was a point in the nineteenth century when the Church hierarchy in Ireland had a fit about this carol. The story was not true, it had no place in scripture or tradition, and therefore had to be heretical.
They calmed down after a while, which was a good thing, because I doubt if anybody had ever considered the story to be true in the sense of a factual account of events that had really happened.
It was nearly infinitely true theologically, though, as an illustration of the dual nature of Christ as always and eternally true God and true Man. If Christ is alwas and eternally both true God and True Man, then he is so in the womb as well as anywhere else, and as capable of commanding creation.
There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the early Christian tradition, as there is in the tradition of any narrative which comes to serve as an overarching framework for a good many people. When it’s written about Star Trek or Harry Potter, we call it fan fiction. What it is is an attempt by adherents–let’s not call them fans, for the moment–to put themselves into the story and to make the story itself clearer and more fully understood.
I think that any narrative that has the potential to become the overarching framework for a culture is going to have a lot of fan fiction, and that, no matter how hard everybody tries, some of that fan fiction will end up being considered canonical.
What’s more, once that fan fiction becomes canonical, it becomes nearly impossible for the experts, or the hierarchy, or the guys who hold the copyrights, to convince the adherents that it is not.
Lymaree says Bill’s grandmother’s relationship to St. Anthony was a kind of bargaining, but it wasn’t, really. Bill’s grandmother didn’t worship St. Anthony. She didn’t think St. Anthony was better or stronger or more powerful than she was. She didn’t supplicate him.
She treated him, instead, the way she’d have treated one of her brothers or her nephews, a regular, ordinary guy around the house, her equal or inferior, not her better. When she needed something found and he didn’t find it, she reacted just the way she would have reacted if one of her sons had failed to do his chores.
There was no bargaining about it. She expected St. Anthony to do as he was told, for the same reason she expected her children to.
I think that this sort of relationship with figures in the narrative is a form of fan fiction, too, just not structured and consciously executed fan fiction. There’s a lot of it in traditional Catholic societies, and a fair amount in Orthodox ones, and the phenomenon was a staple of life in the Middle Ages.
It’s also fairly apparent in the big fan societies that exist now, in spite of the fact that we’re all close enough to the origination of the narratives so that nobody at least outwardly admits to thinking that they’re not fiction. Not only Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter, but the various vampire narratives have large organized groups of people writing fan fiction and role playing relationships in their spare time.
And sometimes not so spare time.
So I want to throw in one more possibility, one more thing I think it takes for a narrative to become the framework for a culture: the narrative in question must inspire active participation in itself.
I don’t mean that the narrative must inspire people to go out and do things it commands–like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked–although it has to do that, too.
I mean that a successful narrative must generate in people the inspiration and foundation to continue to story on their own.
I am really, really putting this badly.
I think what I’m trying to say is this: there’s a tendency to look down on fan fiction and on the people who write it as pathetic losers who need to get a life.
I think instead that the existence of fan fiction–and of informal fan relationships like Bill’s grandmother to St. Anthony–is an important indication of whether a narrative can successful function as the franework for an entire culture, never mind an entire civilization.
And that is why I think Marxism failed as a narrative, why I think the general run of “Movement” narratives will fail as well–because at the best they’re only skeletal narratives, there are no people in them.
And there’s no fan fiction.
Every once in a while, I suddenly realize that I have spent the last several decades misdefining some issue I’ve been interested in, so that all the thinking I’ve done about it is completely and utterly useless.
I’ve been having a creeping suspicion all night that that is about to happen again.
The title of this post is the definition of faith as it was proposed in, I think, the early Jacobean period, by the Church of England. I’ve got the seventeenth century Book of Common Prayer around here somewhere, with addenda that give essays and formulas and creeds, but I can’t lay hands on it at the moment, so I’m not sure.
But the fact is that that definition is very different from the kind of things people have said in the comments here, and it’s very different from what I have understood faith to mean over the course of my life.
I’ve never had Cheryl’s problem–or the common Protestant problem–with the idea of “works.” I think it’s the Epistle to James that says that “faith without works is dead,” meaning works as Cheryl was discussing them, and that was always what I thought both Catholicism and Orthodoxy meant.
But what Lymaree calls “faith” I would not–I would call it, I think, trust.
X, y, z has happened a number of times, no conditions have changed that you can see, therefore you trust x, y, and z to happen again.
To me, Lymaree doesn’t need to have faith in the behavior of her husband. She has direct evidence of his behavior over time, and she can therefore trust it.
Faith, on the other hand, seems to me to require having trust in the existence and behavior of something for which you have no direct evidence.
I’m stressing the “direct” here. Someone like Aquinas, for instance, thought he had plenty of indirect evidence of the existence of God. He wrote five very famous proofs of that existence, contained in a long book–the Summa Theologica–that managed to present all those indirect evidences while upholding the Christian validity of both Aristotle and the pursuit of what se’d call science, the search for natural explanations for the phenomena of the natural world.
In Catholicism, intellectual assent to the faith would go somsething like this: you read Aquinas, or the equivalent, and your brain tells you that the case for the existence of God is overwhelming. It’s just that the back of your head, and your gut, are going: nah. Just don’t believe it.
You therefore decide to act on the judgment of your intellect, and to “live like a Chistian” (all those doing good works as in James) and to enter the Church even though you can’t believe.
Faith is a grace, the Catholic Church says, and if you ask God for it He will give it to you. Eventually. When He thinks it would be good for you. In the meantime, you do what your mind (your “reason,” Aquinas would have said) tells you is right and hope that the other thing will come later.
What the people who responded to the last post seem to be talking about is the Catholic Church’s intellectual assent.
And that’s fine–I’ve thought a lot about this, because I write a lot of religious characters, and part of me thinks this is the only way intelligent, educated modern Westerners can be believers.
But it also seems to me to be very different from faith.
From the outside, at least, faith seems to me to be the gut-level conviction of the existence–as the phrase goes–of “things not seen.”
That is, that people of faith are supposed to believe in God in the same way I believe in the local supermarket. They have in some way experienced God just as I have experienced the local supermarket.
I’m doing this badly.
Somebody like Dante, or Chaucer–who was about as thoroughly secularized as it was possible to get in the thirteenth century–lived with God, and the Risen Christ, and the Community of Saints, and the Virgin Mother, the way I live with my sons and cats. These were daily presences in their lives, with whom they interacted in a very matter-of-fact and unstrained way.
It probably required a culture unified in belief to make that possible. Once you reach the stage where cultural pluralism is the norm, where doubt is commonplace and where all beliefs (not just those in God) are continually called into question, belief would have to be a conscious act consciously defined, and the causal familiarity of Bill’s grandmother with, say, St. Anthony, would be imopssible.
In case you’re wondering, Bill’s grandmother used to pray to St. Anthony to find things–he’s the patron saint of lost things–and then, when she didn’t find them right away, she’d turn his statue on its head until her prayer was answered. Any Protestant who thinks Catholics “worship” saints should have seen that statue standing on its head.
At any rate, faith as described here seems to me to be a kind of intellectual assent, and not a “knowing,” which is what I’ve always thought it was.
If that’s all people are talking about, the issue seems to me to be a lot different than I thought it was.