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Literature Disguised as Crap

Michael Allen of Grumpy Old Bookman comments about a review of Kate Atkinson’s book Case Histories (which if you haven’t heard already) was picked as a notable book by the literary co-op).

Kate’s publisher offers us two brief ‘reviews’, which most of us would call puffs, from other writers, and a link to a longer review in the New York Times. Here’s a brief quote from one of the short ‘reviews’: ‘Kate Atkinson’s funny, furious fourth novel rumbustiously drives a path through the genre of detective fiction, demolishing its careful, forensic summations of human behaviour and replacing them with bloody, believable, vigorous tales of wrongdoing and loss, of personal eccentricity and recognisable fate, and most importantly of people who were very much alive before they were dead.’

You get the general drift of all that, don’t you? What this worldly-wise, deeply experienced and generally infallible judge is saying is that detective fiction is all formula-driven crap, and what we have in Case Histories is Literature with a capital L — or even LITERATURE — which is clearly seen as a far superior genre altogether. Indeed one is left feeling that to use the word genre in the same sentence as the title of Kate’s book is an insult in itself.

On another note, Michael Blowhard seems to defend books that aim first and foremost to tell a good story (with a slight dissent by Dan Green) .

I know what this discussion is getting at. We are uncomfortable with experiencing a story just as a story. But there is no shame in admitting the fun (and escapism) of “unreflective art.” It is why I will watch a horror film or will go to see Star Wars next week. Most people seek stories more for entertainment and escape than insight. The storyteller’s challenge is to satisfy the reader’s restless desires while surreptitiously planting certain sublime qualities not immediately apparent to casual readers. Shakespeare and other prolific writers like Stephen King have coopted pop culture formulas and current events to engage us, but time will tell if these sublime qualities can be discovered and continue to be savored by more discriminating audiences.

As Hapax Legomenon points out,

Art has many functions, not just one. People read books to be entertained or educated or titillated or horrified or simply distracted. Beauty or aesthetic release is not indispensable. Even pleasure comes in different flavors. For a film, I can enjoy the humorous dialogue, the occasional bared bosom, the zany dance number or the magnificent special effects of flying through space at warp speed. An old man can reread a childhood tale not to experience great literature, but to revisit memories of a simpler time when the tale first engaged him. A geek can appropriate a Picasso painting as a screensaver, and a teenager can download a Beethoven ditty onto his cell phone to impress his girlfriend. Would Beethoven approve? Or even care?

Art must entice before it can satisfy. In an age of hectic schedules, 100 TV channels, several thousand singers, hundreds of thousands of books and billions of web pages (not to mention hobbies, sports, national parks, parties, household chores and grocery shopping), is it any wonder that humans have the attention or energy for any art at all? How does art entice? And how can text-only content hope to compete with multimedia works that offer (to the male at least) the sight of beautiful female breasts? By comparison, the pleasure from reading Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov seem inadequate, even quaint.

(Another great thought on the subject by Stephen Michelmore ).

When I read novels in general (genre-al), what troubles me is not what I believed it to be in the recent past – a lack of concern with form and language but an over-concern. Its a concern that manifests in a denial of what it cannot accommodate – the real feeling beyond the local palliative of the narrative order. Once established as a popular retreat, the form of the novel has become a world in itself to be mastered and exploited with all the talent and ingenuity that we’ve come to admire and which seduces the industry of reception (though the latter seems to come before the former). Here, we think, is the gift of literature. But it is a gift the greatest writers do not receive.

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