Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Narratives in their Place

with 5 comments

I still think the most interesting thing, to me, about this blog, is finding out what conclusions people jump to, and what assumptions they hold, that would never have occurred to me in a million years.

Let me start by saying that I was not talking about giving high end writers “a place” in the sense of giving them a job–the issue is not some official position somewhere, paid for by taxpayer money or otherwise. To an extent, we already have that, and I’d say it’s worse than useless.  It combines all the bad news about the capitalist response to high end writers with all the bad news about the Socialist response to the same. 

No, that isn’t what I was talking about.

But let me get to Lymaree first, who said that she didn’t know who was creating our narratives now, but it wasn’t literature, etc.

First, no single person creates a narrative, at least not usually.   I can think of one or two exceptions over time, but by and large a society’s narrative is a compendium of many things and many sources.  A novel, a film, a television program embodies such a narrative, but it does not in itself invent it.

That said, to the extent that a society’s narrative is shaped by its high end writers–and it always is–the process is indirect.   You may not read Gore Vidal, but the professor at the local community college does, and he passes Vidal’s ideas on to his students, who recognize them in the Bratt Pitt movie they see this week-end, and transfer them to the news story they read afterwards.

Narratives are the great example of trickle down economics.  No society anywhere has had a mass base with an interest in, or even glancing acquaintance with, high culture, but every society’s mass culture is shaped by its high culture. 

So literature is shaping our narrative today, and it is shaping it in ways consistant with the history of the liberal democracies in the West in the twentieth century.  That is, it is shaping our literature in a direction that tends to attack those very liberal democracies, to expose them as flawed and worthless. 

And it does that because large hunks of high end writers across the Western world, in the US and out of it, need liberal democratic culture to be worthless.  They need it to b worthless because it treats them as worthless, and what we’re looking at here is a fight for survival.  If it’s a question of us and them, we tend to pick us, if only to go on breathing.   In a world in which the present social order seems to promise nothing but contempt and indifference, we tend to want a new social order.

Several million posts ago I complained about a subgenre of the thriller field in which the Big Bad Corporation is the cause of all the troubles in the world, despoiling the environment, contracting murders for hire against its critics, stealing the public blind.   As trite as that plot is, it has become part of our national narrative, so much a part that my students often make such assumptions about large businesses even though they’ve never been in contact with such businesses and really know nothing about them.

My students are not reading Gore Vidal, to go back to the most important present example, nor are they reading Noam Chomskey–but their professors are, and the people who make the movies they see are, and the ideas trickle down in forms that are far more palatable than a plow through Chomskey’s Manufacturing  Consent could ever be.

High end writers–the most technologically accomplished, the most intellectually rigorous, the most educationally broad–always write our narratives for us, even though what they actually write is often difficult to read and therefore reaches few people.

It’s which people it reaches that matters, and the biggest bang for the buck doesn’t come from admirers in academe.  Being turned in to a CAT (course adoption text) is very nice, and can be lucrative, but most college students these days don’t bother to do half their reading and even the ones that do forget most of what they hear in class before they’ve gotten their first pay check.

The biggest bang for the buck comes with the influence of high art on popular art–readers may reject James Joyce as experimental, but a generation of detective novelists and horror novelists loved him, and now his techniques (and many of his attitudes about people) are so much a part of the mainstream we no longer recognize them as experimental.  Maybe they’re not experimental any more.

Certainly a book that is sufficiently popular can, if it’s popular long enough, drive a general narrative in the population at large. That is definitely what has happened with the novels of Ayn Rand, and they spawned a political movement that has had significant results across the US.

But Ayn  Rand is a popular writer, not a high end one, and her ideas have had little or no impact on the broad range of movies and television that we see.  The ideas in those are almost always a reflection of the high art their writers loved but coldn’t produce themselves–the  Rod  Serlings of this world are almost always people who start out wanting to be Hemingway and Faulker and then find that they have to settle for less.   They import as much as they can of what they love into the popular work they do, and their audience takes “their” ideas and move them into the culture at large.

The primary narratives of the Western world have, at least since 1900 or so, been increasingly shaped by what Paul Hollinger called an “adversary culture,” a high art culture in direct revolt against the very basis of the societies it exists in.

And this antagonism, this adversary culture, filters down.   It gets into our music, our movies, our popular novels, our television shows, even our fashions.   People pick it up automatically, whether their schools teach it or not. 

The antagonism comes, I think, because this group of people not only sees no place in these societies into which it can fit, but because, to the extent that it is recognized at all, it tends to be ridiculed and insulted.  “Eggheads.”  “Pointy headed intellectuals.”  Even the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

The solution isn’t to install official jobs for high end writers.  As I said earlier, we already do that, to an extent–writers in residence programs operate on most elite campuses, there are foundations with grants, etc–and the result is predictably dismal.  

It’s dismal, in the first place, because such arrangements are counterproductive to writing on any level.  The French film industry has not been helped by decades of  French government support.  It’s been largely hurt, because government support has made it possible for those filmmakers to avoid the work of figuring out how to actually communicate with people. 

The writer in residence racket is similar.   A writer installed at Edenic University has a nice office and can often afford a nice house in the area.  He’s got health insurance.  He’s got money in the bank.  What he doesn’t have is any incentive to make himself understood, or to himself understand the culture in which he lives.  

Writers in the high art tradition almost never have huge sales figures, and wouldn’t even outside writers in residence programs, but in the long tradition of intellectuals being outside academia, not in it, there was a discipline imposed by the little magazines and the publishing companies that said the writer had to participate in the world in which he was living in order to write about it.

So no, I’m not talking about giving writers official government-paid positions, or even more university positions.  If it was up to me, I’d get rid of the writers in residence programs entirely and get these guys out into the world.  You can complain a lot about Gore Vidal, but he’s a writer, not an academic.

When I say that this society needs to find a place for its high end writers,  I mean it needs to learn to understand and value what they do.  In a society in which the watchword is the old anti-intellectual “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich,” where the arts are considered matters of “taste” with no objective standards of good and bad to judge them by, where knowledge and art and the Great Conversation are just “hobbies” with no particular importance to the world at large–

Well, the people who engage those things are likely to show us just how every important those things really are, if only by kicking us in the ass with them.

Written by janeh

February 20th, 2009 at 6:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Narratives in their Place'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Narratives in their Place'.

  1. To be a contrarian – it is possible that this is simply part of the evolution of human society. There are always competing narratives and competing technologies for spreading them and encouraging the competition and there are always people who see the value of what is being lost. Perhaps the new narratives will be more varied and personal than we are used to, and our knowledge of how human societies work is far too primitive to predict how these changes will work through society, much less how any individual or group of individuals can direct the effect of narratives – new or old ones – on society as a whole.


    20 Feb 09 at 10:13 am

  2. I’ll stand by my point. The modern societies which purchased the loyalty of writers did so at exactly the price I described–and found that the loyalty of first rate writers was not for sale.

    “High end” evidently means “beloved of academics,” which to my way of thinking is a long way from first rate. At this point I ought to refer to an article titled “Why Academics (or was it “Intellectuals?”) Love Marx” and suggest that a taste for liberal democracy might imperil one’s “high end” status, but there’s a technical difficulty here.

    But no, I don’t think you can build a deferential free society, and that’s what you’re talking about. You want people who have no use for these writers to take them seriously anyway. It’s not money. Plenty of us have worked jobs which didn’t pay well but satisfied us. These people have that. They even have the adulation of the English Lit departments. That’s not enough either. The “place” we’re talking about is the tugging of the forelock when the Great Man passes, even when you don’t think much of him, and that’s FAR too high a price to pay for the good opinion of anyone who can be so purchased.

    As far as writers in residence on campus, HP Lovecraft wanted a WPA project for maintaining “gentlemen.” I think we’ve found it. They’re not starving on the streets. Some of them aren’t even tax-supported. They write less than they would otherwise, and I don’t have to read any of it. As long as they don’t give a stipend to an author I read, I don’t see the problem.


    20 Feb 09 at 5:03 pm

  3. For what it’s worth, when I wrote about high-end writers being given social respect & dissemination of their ideas, I did *not* have in mind any kind of governmental program, job or promotional scheme.

    Robert is right in one way, though. If these writers don’t have respect and monetary success, it’s because what they’re selling doesn’t appeal enough to the vast majority. Yeah, academic presses will publish them, other academics will require them in classes (maybe) and eventually some of their memes will make it into general circulation.

    The adversarial nature of the relationship between high culture and the culture at large isn’t all one-sided. Of course American culture has always had a strong streak of anti-intellecualism. But what about the anti-regular-folksism of the intellectuals? It’s certainly there, and obvious. It’s not the people in Nebraska who invented the term “fly-over land.”

    The reason the people who generate the high art feel there isn’t a place for them in general society is that they don’t like the place they have and they haven’t earned the place they want. From my perspective, they want respect, and wealth, and special treatment, seemingly, for being essentially free-lance critics of everything around them. Nice gig if you can get it.

    Even those who are earnestly trying to explain us to ourselves are falling short of being able to effect change. Why? Americans believe they know best, and they could, if they wanted to, do what the other guy is doing, and probably better. So why listen to some writer? Either he’s an egghead with no connection to real life, or he’s a regular guy who doesn’t know anything more than me. (grammar deliberate)

    I criticize other people all the time, but I don’t publish my criticism nor would I expect thanks for them if I did. By the time a chunk of narrative makes its way from high art into general culture, it’s entirely divorced from the person(s) who generated it in the first place. That makes it more palatable, and thus easier for people to integrate. Why isn’t this an acceptable method for transmission of ideas?

    Putting high-end writers in greater proximity to the end result of the process by valuing what they do, would give them greater control and influence, and I’m not sure that’s good for anyone. Right now, the filtering, mutation and softening that takes place during the process of transmission to the culture as a whole has a moderating influence. Or maybe it just makes it all wierd.

    I doubt we’ll ever lose those people, valued or not. They seem compelled to do what they do. If they were happy, would they still be who they are and produce as creatively? I personally think we need to keep them cranky. As you point out, writers in residence do not produce quality.

    But that’s a discussion for another day.


    20 Feb 09 at 6:54 pm

  4. “Why isn’t this an acceptable method for transmission of ideas?”

    I think it is, and it’s an important method – perhaps less consciously manipulative than advertising and outright propaganda, but all the more influential because of that.

    The problem with it is that the ‘high end’ writers and their interpreters to the rest of us seem to be promoting ideas and views that are damaging to the basic ideas on which our society is built – a kind of cutting off the branch while we sit on it.

    Obviously, our society is and always has been continually changing, and it’s never been easy to figure out what way it’s heading. The question is whether the current tendency to divorce ourselves from any ideas and morality pre-mid-twentieth-century is going to produce a culture so different from what went before as to constitute the fall of a civilization which preceeds the rise of another? And if it does, can we do anything about it (assuming we want to because we think our civilization has things worth preserving).

    By ‘morality’ I don’t mean ‘religion’, although obviously religions teach morality, and Christianity had an immense influence on our culture. I mean that of the range of moral philosophies available, some of the more modern one have views on utilitarianism and the over-emphasis on the rights of the individual wouldn’t fit well with some of the enlightment philosophers who helped construct the society we live in. And that’s without postmodernism and whether there is any reality other than that we contruct for ourselfs. I’m putting this badly. I can’t bear to read a lot of this stuff so I don’t think I’ve got my mind wrapped around it well enough to really critique it properly.

    Of course, criticisms and mockery of the current state of affairs has always existed. I’m currently working my way through Gilbert and Sullivan’s DVDs – some for the first time, most not. Last night’s was “Pirates of Penzance”, which I must have seen or heard dozens of times, but this was the first time I noticed the degree to which G&S mocked that central Victorian virtue, duty. I’d mostly watched it for the comic reversals and word play.

    Now, I’m not going to say that civilization is going to fall because some long-dead entertainers mocked duty and people nowadays don’t feel a need to do their duty anymore. But it is one example of the ways in which our society has shifted since Victorian times. We don’t hire child chimney sweeps. We don’t ostracize unwed pregnant women (unless, of course, they have 14 babies and toddlers, no job and went to considerable and expensive lengths to get pregnant). We rarely put unwanted children in orphanages (although foster care and abortion are hardly the best solutions. And we don’t talk about duty much.

    I wonder whether Jane’s weaker students would understand duty enough to get what was being mocked in ‘Pirates’?


    21 Feb 09 at 8:41 am

  5. “…high end writers across the Western world, in the US and out of it, need liberal democratic culture to be worthless. They need it to be worthless because it treats them as worthless, and what we’re looking at here is a fight for survival.”
    I must be sicker than I thought not to have focused on that before. “Survival” doesn’t come from food and shelter, nor self-respect, nor the respect of my peers. “Survival” requires that total strangers have a high opinion of me and my profession. If only enough of us would genuflect when Noam Chomsky’s name is mentioned, he’d speak more kindly about freedom and democracy. Notice the “high end artist” “intellectual” or philosopher can have all the contempt for me he pleases–and has since at least the days of Arnold.
    I have been repeatedly assured that Ayn Rand is not a “high artist” or intellectual. It’s a pity, because her concept of the “second-hander” is exactly the right tool for dissecting people who think the opinion of others is a matter of survival.
    Note also the unvoiced assumption that it only works one way: contempt for the high end artist and intellectual is mere yahooism, and has nothing to do with them being consistently the enemies within our gates.
    Well the serfs have been freed–and the slaves–for about a hundred and fifty years now. Perhsps it’s time for our “high end” artists and intellectuals to stop looking for a new master class and adapt to a world without one. Failing that, perhaps we need new intellectuals.


    21 Feb 09 at 9:38 am

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 737 access attempts in the last 7 days.