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Slices of Life, Pieces of the Pie

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It’s odd how you can be brought up short by things you didn’t even know you had an opinion about.

That’s pretty much what happened to me yesterday with  Robert’s “slice of life” comment.  My immediate, visceral reaction to the phrase was a kind of distaste, and it took me a while to figure out where the reaction was coming from.

The term, when I was growing up, tended to apply to books about poor people with ugly problems, or rich people with even uglier problems, and the unhappy ending was more or less assumed.

This was by no means a formula that applied only to “literary” novels–and there was less distinction in those days between the literary and the popular, anyway.  There was a vast distinction made between “real books” and “pulps,” but that’s another issue.

Valley of the Dolls was a “slice of life” novel, as was Peyton Place, which was probably the prime example of the genre.  I think Robert is dead wrong to believe that he could put a camera on a street corner and get the same effect.  Nobody on earth has ever lived the way people live in “slice of life” novels.  They’re more like soap operas than soap operas.

That said, I continue to be strenuously opposed to the idea that literature is supposed to somehow “improve” us, morally or spiritually.  I have nothing against the odd ideal type in literature–Dostoyevski’s “idiot,” for instance–but I don’t think literature can, or should, attempt to provide us with some sort of uplifting instruction. 

People missed my point about spinach.   I didn’t mean that reading in the high art traditon was an unpleasant duty we should observe because it’s good for us. 

I meant that I grew up, and after I grew up I liked spinach. I agree that some of my tastes have not changed since childhood, but a lot of them have.  I’m not eating enormous salads for lunch because they’re good for me.   I’m eating them because these days,  I prefer them to hamburgers. 

You couldn’t get me to drink bad Scotch these days even for money.  I just don’t enjoy it any more.  And I eat a lot of things these days you couldn’t get me to touch as a child, like Indian food. 

Of course, I never did learn to drink coffee, and I still don’t like the taste of it–but very few people do like the taste of it when they’re young, and they persist in drinking the stuff until they do get a liking for it.  Hell, they persist in drinking the stuff until they prefer it black, unadorned, unadulterated, kind of like a sock to the eye.

I’ll stick to my old standby–I think the purpose of literature, of fiction and drama and all the rest of it, is to provide us with a record of the full range of what it means to be human in our time.  That camera on the street corner tells us little or nothing about our fellow human beings.  At the most, it records their surface activities.  It doesn’t even begin to tell me what they think and feel, or allow me to live for a while inside their heads so that I can experience a little of what it means to be them. 

And no, psychology doesn’t do that.  At most, it attempts to describe, abstsractly and from the outside, what’s going on in people’s heads.   Which may be part of the explanation for why it seems to fail so badly to predict–or even understand–the behavior of individuals.

Maybe the bottom line is that I don’t believe that there is anything on the earth that can “improve” us.  I think that we can sometimes improve ourselves, and that all kinds of things can help us do that, including being able to live for a while in  ways of life and ways of thinking and feeling we didn’t know existed.

It seems to me I’ve made this speech before, but you know, it’s always there in the back of my head.

And I’ve got Kipling to read.

Written by janeh

December 2nd, 2009 at 6:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Slices of Life, Pieces of the Pie'

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  1. Another coffee-hater! I sometimes think I’m the only one in the world.

    Improvement vs surface activities.

    While I like the idea trying to improve oneself, and think it’s generally a worthwhile endeavour however likely it is to be not achievable. On the other hand, for a decent society, we don’t need self-improvement in the sense of us becoming better people. All we need is to constrain our behaviour (or have it constrained for us!) within limits that are necessary for a civilized society. What these limits are is of course debatable, but to take as an example one of the most obvious ones – from a social point of view, as long as you don’t murder your neighbour, it doesn’t really matter if you hate him or love him. From a personal and moral point of view (and probably a psychological one), it’s not enough to avoid killing your neighbour; you need to become a better person, to stop brooding over how much you hate him and put your feelings in a proper perspective, or overcome them, or do *something* (depending on your moral views and psychological state) other than merely refraining from disturbing the public peace by killing him.

    So surface activities are important too. I dislike hate crimes legislation intensely, partly because they try to legislate thought but largely because they are unnecessary. I’m far more interested in restraining ‘surface activities’ – vandalism, assault, murder – than I am in varying the level of offense based on what the perpetrator was thinking rather than what harm he caused. Ideally, of course, he shouldn’t hate – but he can work on that on his own time, while he’s sitting in prison for disturbing the peace that we all try to live under.


    2 Dec 09 at 8:49 am

  2. I try to improve myself – generally by reading more. But then, I value reading. My husband isn’t so sure I’m improving. He thinks I’m getting more radical as I get older, and I spend too much time reading and not interacting with him. So, what does it mean to improve oneself? Aristotle argued that you must habituate yourself to virtuous acts and, thereby, become a virtuous person. Virtue ethics don’t appear to be very popular right now.

    As far as ‘slice of life’ goes. I do think good literature distills life. It looks at moments that shape the character or event, and then provides us with insights about that process. Some literature simply stays with me – lingers in the mind – percolates and streams out in little rivulets. It does impact me – for better or worse – helps me reject or accept actions and ideas, moves me to think more deeply about something, shifts my perspective.


    2 Dec 09 at 1:29 pm

  3. In the 19th century and possibly the early part of the 20th, public librarians felt it their duty to collect fiction that “uplifted,” what they considered quality literature (I can’t offer lots of titles, perhaps classics like Jane Austen’s books, Hawthorne’s, even Horatio Alger.) Certainly not anything like Twain’s Adam’s Diary or (probaly) a great deal of Thomas Hardy. They got over it and became more inclusive. Although I’ve purchased some of the Chicken Soup for the . . . books for library members, I am not uplifted by them.

    Interesting that you should mention slice of life books at one time as being about poor people with ugly problems. I am reading a book like that now: Push, by Sapphire, the book that the movie Precious is based on. Although some of the situations Precious finds herself in pushes the envelope of credibility, the dialogue and characters are both exquisite and explicit. I’ve not finished it yet but I like it a lot so far.

    To me, cameras on a street corner and reality shows are equally inept in providing even a glimpse of what it means to be human. The former is random and relies solely on the video photographer’s selection. It is all surface. The latter claims reality but it’s actually more contrived than bad fiction. I fail to understand how heroin addicts and their families can reveal their struggles on camera. And how rehearsed are they” I don’t feel that way about print that does the same thing. And I don’t know why.

    Until the past few years I enjoyed coffee. I still like it now but it rips my digestive system apart. And I’ve never developed a taste for scotch.


    2 Dec 09 at 2:43 pm

  4. No coffee for me, thanks. Now if they ever made stuff that REALLY tasted as good as it smells…

    Connecting “slice of life” with PEYTON PLACE is a red herring, neither what I meant nor what I heard used to describe them when those books were new–though as I recall, Metalious based PP on a real scandal, just like Melville and the sinking of the ESSEX. The point is that even the grim realism crowd want a selected bit of life, not a random sample. To write of an ordinary day, you have to have an ordinary day in unusual circumstances, like “Denisovitch.”

    As for the interior life, we are all alone in our own skulls, and I’ve read enough Approved Literature to suspect that many who write in excellent prose understand their fellow creatures no better than I do. To judge from their personal lives, many of them may be worse than average, falling for con men, criminals with sob stories and crooked publishers and agents. Real understanding should be evident in behavior. I suspect mostly “shows insight into the human condition” is Litspeak for “agrees with my view of people.”

    As for liking the High Culture, good for you! Some I like, and some I don’t–which, remembering Milton and WAR AND PEACE, seems to be your condition too. But the Latin tag normally tranlated as “taste is not disputable” means, as I understand it, that you can’t move the argument from there. I loved Niven & Pournelle’s OATH OF FEALTY, and Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but would have to be paid to read Dickens again. With you it would be the reverse. But this takes us nowhere. If my liking a book is not an argument, neither is yours.

    And if taste is not an argument, neither is changing taste. Heinlein was right. “‘de gustibus non disputandem est’ reduces most literary criticism to the senseless murder of trees.” (See? I did remember it!)


    2 Dec 09 at 5:59 pm

  5. Wow, it’s like a convention of coffee-haters. Neither my husband or I have ever drunk it. When I was younger and watched both my parents and cow-orkers stagger about and be useless until their second cup of coffee, I vowed I would never be a slave to caffeine. Also, although really fine coffee can smell heavenly, I’ve never liked the flavor. I won’t even eat coffee ice cream.

    Tastes do change as one ages. I used to be mystified watching my elders sprinkle pepper on everything. I don’t think I ever used pepper at ALL until I was over 30. Now I find it essential on almost every savory item. Young taste buds taste much more intensely, and so some items one loathed now are tasty, and some things one loved now have little savor. My husband is on an endless hunt for a hot dog that tastes as good as he remembers from his childhood. I have refrained from telling him that the essential ingredient wasn’t the dog, it was his youth. He seems to enjoy the quest.

    Taking in both today’s post and yesterday’s, I think that while one may enjoy or dislike almost any form of art on first being exposed to it, clearly perception of depth, meaning and nuance come with education of one’s perceptions in that art form. I used to nearly writhe in distaste at all rap music. Now, after 15 years or so, I can actually appreciate the aesthetic of *some* of it. Not all, certainly, and not the stuff with egregious lyrics. But now I can actually perceive it well enough to think “Hey, that piece has something to say!”

    Enjoyment can develop out of deeper understanding where one was first disliking an art form. Where you like it from the first, then understanding can lead to passionate enjoyment.

    More later, maybe.


    2 Dec 09 at 7:17 pm

  6. Ok – I confess – several cups of coffee in the morning – worse – I love Starbucks. In the afternoon I switch to tea – several cups.


    2 Dec 09 at 11:06 pm

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