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Let Me Entertain You

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Yesterday was Sunday.  I usually call Sundays my day off, but that isn’t entirely accurate.  I feel very frustrated and unhappy on days when I do not write fiction, so I write fiction on Sundays.  It’s the rest of what I do most days that I let go by the board if I feel like it.  I write the blog or not.  I pick up the living room or not.  I correct papers or not.

What I do do on Sundays, of course, is read.  I also listen to music–harpsichords, usually Bach, but sometimes other things–but t his is about reading, so we’ll go there.

Because yesterday, I had one of the most incoherent reading days I can remember.

In the very early morning, right after writing, I finished up a long essay by Ayn Rand called (in the book I have) “For the New Intellectual.”  In most places it’s reprinted, the title is “Attila and the Witch Doctor.”

Around lunch and into the afternoon, I read two short stories by Poul Anderson, “How to Be An Ethnic” and “The Problem of Pain.”  I have a feeling that I’m leaving out the end of the title of that first one.

Then, in the evening, I started a book of literary criticism by F. R. Leavis, called The Great Tradition.  This is not the kind of book you think it is.  It’s not about the canon, or classical education, or any of that.  It’s about “the tradition of great English novel,” which Mr. Leavis restricts to the works of four writers:  Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, and Henry James.

Mr. Leavis was a Brit.  He did know that Henry James was an American, and Joseph Conrad was a Pole.

I think it was reading all these things together, sort of on top of each other with no space in between, that made so many of the things Leavis was saying sound so inadequate and peculiar.

The difference between a Great Novel and a not-Great one, according to Mr. Leavis, is that a Great Novel has high moral seriousness and undertakes to tackle significant themes, while a not-Great novel is meant primarily as an entertainment.

Unlike many other critics writing in and around the same period–the book was published in 1948 and references people like Yvor Winters–Mr. Leavis does think that a Great Writer can write entertainments rather that Great Novels.

That’s his assessment of Dickens, whom he is happy to pronounce a genius, but whose novels he relegates to the minor ranks.

Of course, on the other hand, he also has nothing againt the reading of entertainments.

But what struck me about this, aside from Leavis’s annoying habit of ranking everything he’s ever read, was that this is the second time I’ve run across “explanations” of the phenomenon that is “popular fiction” that seem to have been invented without the authors ever having actually looked into the subject.

The other characterization came in a textbook, by a writer whose name I don’t remember and don’t need to.

But here they are:

1) popular novels are written primary to make money.  That’s the motive for writing them, so things like originality and serious issues won’t be found in them, because that would lose readership.  (That one was in the textbook)

2) popular novels are written primarily to entertain, so they’re likely to contain things people already think they know, rather than challenging their ideas or beliefs. (That one was Leavis, more or less.)

Now, the interesting thing about these two ideas is that they seem to have no connection with lived reality.

Maybe the problem is that the people who try to “explain” popular novels know very little about them, even if they’ve tried to read a few.

The claim that the writers of popular fiction write “for money”–and, by implication, nothing else–is a constant of a certain kind of criticism.  I think it comes from a fundamental category mistake.

Critics who do not read popular fiction much or at all pick up their morning papers and find out that Stephen King makes millions of dollars a book, J.K. Rowling makes tens of millions of dollars a book, Judith Krantz gets into seven figures on a regular basis, and makes the not completely insane deduction that popular fiction must be popular, and therefore that it must make money.

In the meantime, he (or she) is unaware that there is a lot more popular fiction out there, some of which is making very little money indeed.

And some of which is being written by writers who would make more money if they would try to bend their principles a little and do what the public wants.

Except, of course, that they couldn’t.  Writers do not write that way.  And the ones that try usually fail. 

Readers don’t read that way, either.

The other thing, though–that there’s a distinction between “entertainment” and tackling serious things–is odder once you look at it.

I know that a lot of people say “I read for entertainment” when what they mean is that they read to shut their minds down, sort of the way I watch television.

But I can’t for the life of me believe that MOST readers read this way.

Cynthia Ozick once famously said “I am not entertained by entertainment.” 

On one level, it was a silly and snobbish thing to say, especially in the circumstances under which she said it (she was condescending to Ed McBain, a writer so awash in tackling serious things his books were like labyrinths, and twice the writer she is even on a technical level).

On another level, though, I understand it.

There really are books out there whose purpose seems to be to present something that you can read without having to think at all, and I’m not entertained by those any more than Ozick is.

My confusion comes in that I don’t  understand why it has to be an either/or proposition. 

Anderson’s “The Problem of Pain” was entertaining at least in part because it was a riff on the classical dilemma of Christian theology–if God is good and loves us and is omnipotent, why does he allow pain?–and because it presented a non-Christian alternative and a non-Christian concept of God.

It did that without descending into the didactic.

So, I have a couple of possible alternative answers to what popular fiction is and why.

1) Writers write what they write.  What comes out is as inevitable as breathing. 

Not all writers are like this, but some are.  And all real writers are like this.

Think H.P. Lovecraft.  Or J.R.R. Tolkein.  Or even Harlan Ellison.

2) Of those writers who don’t write what they write whether that would have chosen it or not–of those writers who do consciously choose between possibilities they believe are open to them–

What they are choosing is not a genre (with “literary” being understood as a genre), but an audience.

It is who they are talking to that matters to them.  And it is the clear and obvious decision of so many self-consciously “literary’ contemporary writers to write for an extremely restricted group of people that makes so much of contemporary literary fiction so annoying.

In some cases, a writer writes for a restricted audience because he has to.  She writes what she cannot help but write and the number of people out there who connect with is is very few.

But too much contemporary literary fiction is the result of decades lived not in a bubble, but in Sylvia Plath’s airless bell jar–life among the upper middle class with little or no contact with anybody else, yes, but even more claustrophobic than that. 

Life among that segment of the upper middle class that identifies first and foremost with academia.

Next to that, the faults of the genres seem to me to be fairly minor.  At least most people who write genre fiction have had non-academic jobs and families with non-academic people in them.

And some of them even do the good old thing of signing onto a tramp steamer to go See Life before they write about it.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2012 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Let Me Entertain You'

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  1. Dig through McDonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” and you’ll find your Explanation 1 nearly word for word as an assessment of “mass culture.” Two or three lesser lights use it in Rosenberg & White’s MASS CULTURE.

    It isn’t just wrong in that plenty of people write popular fiction without making much money at it, and without changing their style or substance to improve sales. It’s demonstrably wrong in the implication that “writing for money” is a way of distinguishing the writer of popular fiction from the Great Artist. We have, after all, biographies and correspondence, and I think by any sane reading, Jane Austen was more concerned with the financial rewards of authorship than either HP Lovecraft or JRR Tolkien. (I name those three because I’ve read the works, correspondence and at least two biographies of each. Let others use what authors they know.) For that matter, I never heard of McDonald editing a magazine gratis, nor waiving his fee as a writer. No doubt his case was different. Such cases usually are.

    It is interesting to me that, while a professional writer—and many popular writers are not professionals–will sometimes change genres and go between short stories, plays and novels as the market dictates, they seldom escape themes, settings and beliefs. Kipling writing science fiction, Heinlein writing mainstream and Poul Anderson writing detective novels have not put aside their usual concerns. They are just expressed in a different context.

    And of course, you’re quite right: having something to say is no obstacle to being entertaining. Nor, to judge by Homer, Shakespeare and Tolkien, is popularity necessarily achieved by lack of content or careless composition.

    But you must admit it simplifies the critic’s life. If you can divide the literary world into Great Art—already conceded to be such—and Popular Trash Written for Money, you are in the enviable position of being able to despise the Popular Trash without ever having had to read it, let alone examine it seriously. No other critical standard yields such a return.

    But in the lesser point, Leavis is quite correct, and the distinction does him honor. Great English Novels should rightly be chosen by skill with language and story, not the bloodline or birthplace of the author. There have been critical schools and even nations which have not recognized that. This does not mitigate his major error, but credit should be given where due.


    11 Jun 12 at 5:11 pm

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