Books

Roughage: A Novel

BrankflakespackageEven by the already low standards of internet-based ponderings over the nature of art, the whole question of “Should adults read Young Adult Fiction?” is a particularly stupid one. Sites don’t raise it to encourage meaningful conversations, they raise it to take advantage of Harry Potter and Hunger Games traffic. Even now, bloggists are likely dusting off their essays on the modern myth-making of The Avengers.

And even when the discussion doesn’t fall into the Danielle Steele vs. Madeline L’Engle trap, the people bemoaning the dumbing-down of American society never have to substantiate their claims. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea that of course reading anything non-literary is a guilty pleasure at best, that we immediately go on the defensive. We read smart stuff too!

So it was interesting that an entry in the Books & Beer podcast raised the first non-immediately dismissible argument I’ve heard around the topic. One of the podcasters, Greg Brown, makes the claim that books usually labeled “young adult” are primarily plot-driven and use “cinematic” storytelling. But I was disappointed that the claim just lay there and wasn’t taken any further.

On Twitter, Chris Remo expanded on that by saying that cinematic storytelling is focused on delivery: “pushing” content and meaning to the audience, instead of encouraging readers to “pull” it for themselves. He went on to say that it’s unfortunate to see another medium forced into the same stylistic constraints as movies (presumably, as video games, comics, and television already have been). And finally, he said that this style of storytelling actually discourages interpretation; it trains audiences not to analyze the meaning of a work too deeply.

All interesting, reasonable points!

Before I go into how wrong they are, a disclaimer: I’m completely side-stepping the clunky “young adult” label, which invariably spins off into unproductive tangents. There are plenty of shallow books aimed at adults, just as there are plenty of great books that are typically categorized as being for children. Instead of “adult” vs “young adult,” I think it’s a lot more interesting to talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and plot-driven storytelling vs. (for lack of a better word) “introspective” storytelling.

Art Finds a Way

First, I can definitely sympathize with the argument. When I first read Jurassic Park, I absolutely loved it. I read several of Michael Crichton’s books afterwards, and Jurassic Park remains the most successful example — both artistically and commercially successful — of his formula: take a concept rooted in “real” science, and then spin it off into an adventure story that gives a Popular Science-level overview of the concept.

Jurassic Park was my first introduction to chaos theory and the idea of “the butterfly effect.” It was filled with genuine quotes from actual scientists, and had its own wisecracking scientist on hand to explain everything! It was based on a fascinating concept spun off into speculative fiction, but based most of its action on actual facts: there really are species of frogs that change their sex when the population becomes unbalanced. And even though he took extensive liberties with the details, he gave a genuine overview of contemporary knowledge of dinosaurs. The velociraptor and dilophosaurus were actual species, which was a big deal for those of us whose knowledge of dinosaurs began and ended with The Flintstones.

But then I read a quote from Crichton, where he was asked what he was working on while writing Jurassic Park. He (half-jokingly) replied “I’m writing the most expensive movie ever made.”

I felt like I’d been duped! He wasn’t writing a real book, he was just writing some shallow pre-novelization! Just trying to cash in. I’d gone away from the book believing that I’d actually learned something in a clever and entertaining way, but that just made me look as stupid as if I’d said, “Yeah, The Matrix really opened my eyes, taught me a lot about what it means to be human.”

The problem with that type of thinking, of course, is that I did actually learn something. It’s not like Ian Fleming’s claim in You Only Live Twice that sumo wrestlers can suck their testicles into their body; most of the details included in Jurassic Park were based on actual contemporary scientific understanding.

But of course, facts aren’t meaning. And that’s what I thought was most clever about the book (and still do): Crichton used his formula for double duty. One of the concepts — cloning dinosaurs from DNA found inside a parasite — drove the plot, while the other — concepts of chaos theory — drove the theme.

While I’m not going to claim that the book is earth-shatteringly profound, I have grown to have a renewed appreciation for what it says about arrogance and knowledge. Obviously, it’s a contemporary spin on Frankenstein, with the theme of “tampering in God’s domain.” But it’s also an observation of the changing role of science at the end of the 20th century — we’d moved away from the unbridled optimism of the turn of the century, when we had every reason to believe that we could control and understand everything if only given enough time and enough study. We were starting to come to the realization that the universe is made of systems that are almost inconceivably complex. We’re no longer aspiring to become Conquerors of the Unknown; we just want to better understand the unknown, so that we can coexist with it.

And that message is still in the book, no matter what the motivation was for writing it, no matter how many good and bad movies were made from it, and no matter how entertaining, accessible, and “cinematic” it was. Sphere and Congo? Cinematic and also predominantly dumb. Rising Sun? Cinematic and also tedious, pedantic, and just shy of being irredeemably racist. But the material that’s “real” in Jurassic Park isn’t diminished or made any less real or less valuable just by virtue of its being wrapped in an adventure story.

The question remains, though: is my comprehension of that material diminished by the fact that Jurassic Park hands it to me in the form of a wisecracking scientist and a rampaging T. Rex? Can I really say that I “get” it, when I didn’t have to work for it?

Lost in Translation

Before you can talk about that, it’s necessary to figure out exactly what’s meant by “cinematic” writing that’s supposedly common to Young Adult fiction, and the “stylistic conventions” that are infecting real literature.

I’m assuming that it means plot-driven stories with writing that is more descriptive than interpretive. Since The Hunger Games was such a quick and effortless read, and since I read it in the middle of its major motion picture hype, I’d assumed it was a perfect example of that. But it wasn’t until I actually saw the movie adaptation that I appreciated how much the book actually does, thematically and stylistically.

After the movie, I was talking with someone who’d read the books, and she said that for the first several pages of The Hunger Games, she had no idea that the protagonist was female. I didn’t read the book until well after it’d be synopsized all over the place, and until after the movie casting had already been announced, so I knew from page one that it was written from the first-person perspective of a young woman. But going back over it, I saw that it’s deliberately left ambiguous, until she first speaks to another character. That’s a pretty big deal. For a book that adamant about presenting its target audience with a strong, responsible, and flawed but heroic female role model, it’s absolutely crucial that she’s introduced in terms of her thoughts and her capabilities, and not her appearance.

The part of the book that bothered me the most was the over-reliance on a teen love triangle, the “oh dear which cute boy shall I choose?” that’s not only a well-worn staple of stories aimed at teenaged girls, but which seems to undermine the whole notion of an independent female role model. In the movie, it’s every bit as shallow and predictable as you’d expect: teen romance set against Battle Royale. That cinematic adaptation — the switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one — makes all the difference, and it highlights the novel twist in the book that the movie lacks.

In the book, she’s constantly aware that she’s on camera, and she’s constantly playing to the camera. The line between reality and what’s done for show is so blurred, that she’s never quite aware what she’s really feeling: is she actually falling in love with this guy, or is it just keeping up appearances? And again, for a novel targeted at an already emotionally tumultuous audience dealing with peer pressure and constant exposure to the media, that’s a big deal. It forms the basis of half the novel, but it’s never quite spelled out explicitly.

This Section is About Fevers and Fight Scenes

As for stylistic conventions, I’m going to invite jeers and/or swooning from the literary-minded people in the audience, by comparing The Hunger Games to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Incidentally: I’ve seen The Road dismissed as “genre fiction,” but anyone who doesn’t acknowledge its literary merit is someone I just have no common frame of reference with).

I haven’t read enough young adult fiction to know whether the claim that most of them are written in a “cinematic” style has any merit. Since there’s no way in Hell I’m ever going to read any of the Twilight books, I’ve only got Harry Potter. And those books would definitely apply. They’re told in an absolutely conventional style; every scene and every moment is given roughly the same weight.

But I’d insist that The Hunger Games is pretty impressive, stylistically. It’s not what I’d call “experimental,” but it does have the most remarkable pacing of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The shift between slower, more introspective moments and bursts of action is seamless. What’s most interesting to me is how the actual structure of the writing changes: as the book transitions from the build-up to the games themselves, the paragraphs transform. Sentences crash into each other. Details that would’ve warranted a couple of sentences earlier in the book now only get a passing reference, as if everything is happening at once, glanced out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Later, when Katniss is drugged, the sense of time seems completely elastic, scenes are stretched and compressed, and you’re never quite sure if what you’re reading is real or a hallucination.

The Road establishes mood with its structure, as well. Its characters remain nameless, and its dialogue remains barely offset from the rest of the text, all to give the story the quality of a fable. It repeats words over and over — you’ll be reading a lot about grey ash — and uses long stretches of sentences all with the same rhythm and cadence, all to drive home the feeling of oppressive doom and despair. There are relatively few action sequences, but in those sequences, the rhythm of the sentences transforms. The structure of the sentences conveys as much of the mood as the words themselves: an unexpected word suddenly appears in a long stretch of sameness, just as a threat suddenly appears in a bleak expanse of featureless ash. Later in the book, the main character suffers a fever, and we lose track of what’s real or imagined, and time becomes elastic.

And I’m going to be super-bold and make the claim that on a purely stylistic level, in those scenes, The Hunger Games actually did it better. With one, I never lost the sense that I was reading about a character involved in a life-or-death struggle. In the other, I couldn’t maintain that sense of detachment: I was actually getting tense as Katniss scrambled away from one attack after another, and I felt as if I couldn’t keep up with the action as quickly as it was moving on the page. With one, I was aware that I was reading about a character with a fever; in the other, I was genuinely disoriented, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t.

Of course, the books are in no way equal in “weight,” in what they’re setting out to accomplish, or in how much of the meaning of the book is conveyed through stylistic choices. The ending of The Hunger Games sets up a sequel. The ending of The Road is completely rapturous, a sense of the inherent beauty of humanity that can be understood only after a prolonged journey through Hell.

But both books demonstrate how the reader’s interpretation of a book isn’t wholly cerebral, but visceral. It’s immersive, exploiting the direct connection between the creator and the audience that’s achieved when the medium disappears. That kind of direct connection would seem to be inherently “cinematic.” But it’s not merely descriptive: it doesn’t tell you that the character is disoriented or afraid, but makes you feel disoriented or afraid.

Common Trash and Horns with Fire

Maybe the best way to highlight the differences between “cinematic” writing and bonafide literature is to look at two books adapted by people who have a perfect understanding of how to translate literature to film: True Grit and No Country for Old Men, both adapted by the Coen Brothers.

I haven’t actually read No Country for Old Men, which makes it more than a little difficult to talk about it in a literary context, to be honest. But I’ve read that the film is an extremely faithful adaptation (and that the book was originally conceived as a screenplay). I can believe that, since it’s the most “literary” film I’ve seen in a long time, possibly since The Remains of the Day. Practically every word out of Tommy Lee Jones’s mouth has a ghostly whisper behind it: This is important. This means something.

It’s a perfectly fine film, and you can’t even make the complaint that it’s too arch, or too distant. There are moments of shocking brutality every bit as stomach-turning as they’re intended to be. You’re genuinely taken through the emotions of fear, despair, and even the perverse fascination with horror, instead of feeling as if you’re watching them from afar. It’s neither artificial nor ponderous, but it’s still self-consciously weighty. It practically begs the audience to interpret it, to acknowledge that there’s a message contained inside.

And although it was interpretive, not descriptive, the end result was the opposite for me. I felt as if I’d just been lectured by the nihilists from The Big Lebowski. It seemed not only that everything the movie had to say had already been said by Fargo, but that Fargo said it more effectively, since it took the form of an undercurrent instead of a full-bore, all-channel assault.

On the other hand, I can authoritatively state that True Grit is an outstanding adaptation of an outstanding book. In fact, the one scene that’s significantly different feels as if it was supposed to be in the story all along, and was just cut from the original novel for time or pacing constraints. Both the book and the film exploit the strengths of their media: the Coens use both amazing vistas you’d expect to see in a Western and “smaller” scenes that are no less striking and memorable, and they combine music and editing and dialogue perfectly because, well, they’re the Coen Brothers. And Charles Portis has such a singular gift for characterization through dialogue that he can even make punctuation funny. (Mattie Ross writes, “…I knew if the rattlers got behind me I would be in a fine ‘pickle.’” and you know just from the quote marks how much it pains her to use something as vulgar as slang). They work in concert so perfectly that they don’t even seem like an original work and an adaptation, so much as two manifestations of the same thing: a plot-driven account of the meeting and adventures of two unforgettable, perfectly real characters.

In terms of descriptive vs. interpretive storytelling, I believe it’s the perfect counterpoint to No Country for Old Men. True Grit is plot driven; it’s a story of revenge. It’s not introspective; Portis takes complete advantage of the fact that the story’s told in first-person, but he achieves all of his characterization through the quality of the language, not by extended passages describing Mattie’s innermost thoughts. (In fact, the strength of the character comes mainly from the fact that she’s so absolutely certain of her convictions; any self-doubt or reconsideration would feel wrong).

And most importantly, any “message” contained in the book is there for you to take or leave. It’s not trying to tell you anything, it just is. The characters aren’t symbols of anything, they just exist. If the claim is that a straightforward account of the actions of a group of well-realized characters can’t be as profound as a more introspective character study, then Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn shoot that theory apart. And while it’s true that it’s shallow to have a character explicitly say, “Men shouldn’t be tampering with things that they don’t fully understand,” it’s not significantly more substantial to have a character tell you about a dream he had about his father and a horn of fire, and then leave it hanging there for the audience to figure out what it means.

The Frosted Mini-Wheats School of Literary Theory

It’s counter-intuitive, but: whenever you bemoan the loss of art that demands the audience have to interpret it, you’re actually undermining the true value of interpretation.

We all have a long-held notion of the clear division between the stuff we read just for entertainment, and the stuff that’s “good for you.” Junk food vs. roughage. But that analogy assumes that all of the “nutritional value” of a work is contained in the work itself, and reading it is simply digestion. It assumes that accessibility is at best the sugar coating that makes the content easier to swallow, and it asserts that most often, it’s just empty calories.

To violently switch analogies mid-thought, it puts the writer in the role of puzzle-master. All the answers are contained within; the savvy reader will be able to figure them out, and the process will be so much more meaningful to him because of the effort. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses.

But interpretation is more than just digesting or deciphering; it’s a kind of creation. Even the most insightful piece of writing can only work by triggering connections, correlations, sense memories, and value judgments in the reader. The reader isn’t merely piecing together the concepts laid down by the author, but can form connections the author couldn’t ever have intended. One of the most often-cited examples of that is a sky “the color… of a television tuned to a dead channel”, which to the author was a dull gray but to later readers became a vibrant blue. That implies that even a meaningless string of obscure or archaic allusions and non-sensical stream of consciousness could be interpreted by an insightful reader to have profound meaning. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses. (I admit that I don’t understand how Ulysses works).

There are plenty of people who steadfastly insist that interpretation is the sole purpose and value of art; that once a work is made public, it exists as its own entity, completely separate from the artist. The artist becomes just another voice in the conversation, and the artist’s intent is all but irrelevant. There’s no such thing as an invalid interpretation.

I’m definitely not willing to take it that far, since I believe that art is fundamentally communication. But I believe that it’s two-way communication, always, whether the artist intends it to be or not. So a book (or a film, or a video game) is neither a lecture nor a puzzle, but a conversation. An asynchronous and often one-sided conversation, maybe, but still a conversation. In those terms, a work that invites the reader to “pull” meaning from it is no less didactic than one that “pushes” its meaning onto the reader. Neither accounts for the constant back and forth that all audiences engage in with media, even seemingly “passive” media.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that all audiences are always looking for meaning, constantly. Even when they’re not supposed to be looking for it, and even when they’re not particularly interested in finding it.

(Nothing But) Condescension

I do actually believe that there’s art that’s “good for you,” that we as audiences can become better at interpreting works, as we form new connections that build on old ones. As we’re introduced to new concepts, and just as our tastes change, we lose our appreciation for some works and gain new appreciation for others. It’s almost always a gradual, shifting process. But I can tell you exactly when I stopped liking the band Talking Heads.

It was when I saw the video for “(Nothing But) Flowers”. The song itself is fine; it’s essentially an ironic cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” done with David Byrne’s newfound interest in “world music.” And really, whatever: it was the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and everybody was getting heavy into irony and Ladysmith Black Mambazo back then. But the video (which isn’t easily available online in the US) had everybody singing about the downfall of society while being superimposed with factoids illustrating our slow decline into corruption and apathy: bureaucratic waste, increased gun ownership, depletion of the rain forest. In the midst of all that, one of the factoids stood out: it laments that 29% of Americans have said that they were “moved to tears” by a greeting card.

At the time, it struck me as impossibly pretentious and condescending, but it took me decades before I was able to articulate exactly why. That opportunity came when I was standing in a photography exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art, listening to other museum patrons’ conversations about the photographs. A woman was there with a few of her friends or relatives, and she was looking at a picture of San Francisco from the early 1970s and pointing out specific buildings. Here was where she lived with so-and-so before he died, and here was the building where they’d had a really nice dinner before so-and-so’s baby shower.

My gut reaction, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that she was doing it wrong. This wasn’t a series of snapshots, it was an art exhibition. She was supposed to be commenting on the composition of the shots or architecture of the buildings, or at the very least, making note of how socio-political changes in the city’s population have been reflected by, resisted by, and influenced by the layout and architecture of the city as a whole. Even after being familiarized with the notion of soup cans and comic strip panels and even urinals as “art,” and the concepts of Modernism, post-modernism, and form vs. meaning, I was still clinging to this idea that art has a purpose and a value, even if the purpose was to say “this has no purpose,” and even if its value was only in its ability to question its own value. I was still attached to the idea of a “right” way to interact with art, that one-way communication from artist to audience.

But it took that one incident for me to really appreciate all of those artistic movements, ones that until then I’d only understood on an intellectual level. How arrogant is it to assume that the most a member of the audience can get from a work is already predetermined by the artist? The woman in the art gallery had immediate reactions to a photograph, memories from a lifetime of experiences — how is that not more profound than my detached (and more than likely, shallow) appreciation of the way the photograph was composed?

And how is it anything other than extreme arrogance to assume that someone moved to tears by a greeting card is too dim-witted or easily manipulated to comprehend that the sentiment is simplistic, trite, and maudlin? He’s not moved to tears by the writing’s purity of form or its universal statement of the human condition; he’s reacting to a profound summation of experience, one that the card somehow manages to invoke perfectly. I know I’ve yet to read any piece of literature that’s affected me as deeply as the greeting card I got from my father in the hospital.

Siskel & Ebert & About a Billion Other People At the Movies

Every discussion of “genre” fiction vs. literary fiction invariably has at least one example of a statement that’s trivially true, presented as if it held tremendous insight. This one is no different: people shouldn’t be concerned about high art vs. low art, but good art vs. bad art. If people are able to get a profound feeling of emotion from a greeting card, then they’ll be able to find meaning anywhere, whether it’s Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games, The Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Neuromancer, Harry Potter, or, regrettably, even Twilight and The Fountainhead.

Of course, that’s not saying that each of those books is equivalent in depth, literary merit, or value; if art is a conversation, then the reader’s interpretation will never completely outweigh the author’s intent, or lack of intent. Nothing is ever going to elevate Two and a Half Men and Jack and Jill to the level of valuable contributions to culture.

But the real value in a work lies in its ability to provoke a meaningful interpretation from the audience. (Even if using that overly inclusive definition means that I have to acknowledge that Stephanie Meyers’s and Ayn Rand’s books have “value,” as long as the meaningful interpretation is “the ideas presented in this book are absolutely horrible.”) That leaves one question: does the emphasis on descriptive, plot-driven writing actively discourage this interpretation? Does it “train” readers not to analyze what they’re reading too deeply?

I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that it does, and in fact, you could make a pretty convincing case that the opposite is true.

I can say with confidence (if not actual data) that today there are more people writing about, discussing, and interpreting art than there have been at any time in history. For decades we’ve been living in a culture that’s so media-saturated, critics and commentators have become celebrities. Add in the interactivity promised by the internet, and you end up with a society of people conditioned to believe that their interaction with a creative work isn’t finished until they’ve expressed an analysis of it. For better or worse, we’re living in the age of TV Tropes. (Mostly worse).

For Christmas one year, my family took me to see The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou on opening weekend. It was over my objections, and those objections turned out to be valid — I was sitting in the theater sobbing profusely, while they were mostly bored. That’s not in any way a value judgment; it’s simply not the type of movie that would speak to them. But during the car ride home, they all made it clear that they wanted it to speak to them. “I felt like the movie was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t get what it was.”

Whether you believe that’s some inherent quality of art, or it’s a more recent side effect of living in a society of movie blogs, message boards, and book clubs, it’s clear that audiences are constantly evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting everything. Even the people who insist that “you have to turn your brain off” to appreciate Transformers have at least analyzed the movie enough to recognize that there’s nothing worth further analysis.

And I know from my own experience that I enjoy horror movies not because of any inherent love of the genre — I’m easily startled, and I have such a low tolerance for gore that I can’t even watch the Ring video without getting the shudders. I enjoy them because they’re so easy to pick apart and analyze. The Friday the 13th movies and the millennial Castle film remakes are my sudoku. And picking them apart isn’t just a pointless exercise; it makes it easier to recognize when accomplished filmmakers either exploit the same techniques, or subvert them.

One thing the high art vs. low art “debate” doesn’t want to acknowledge is that over the years, popular entertainment has been steadily getting better. (Television and comics without question, but I’d make the same claim for games and movies). Audiences accustomed to analyzing and deconstructing works of art, instead of passively absorbing them, have grown up to make their own works that invite analysis and deconstruction. When The X-Files first aired, it was groundbreaking in introducing (or more accurately, re-introducing) the concept of season-long story arcs and self-referential storytelling to episodic, dramatic television. Now, you can find that in the most unexpected places: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated and Transformers Prime. (Seriously!)

That’s why I put so much emphasis on pop culture and on mash-ups across multiple media, and why I insist that the line between high art and low art — or genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or young adult books vs. real books — has become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that that there’s no such thing as a completely vapid piece of entertainment — we all know there’s an abundance of those. It simply means that art doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The communication between artist and audience, combined with our overwhelming desire to analyze, interpret, and re-invent, gives rise to a culture in which there’s the potential for “meaning” anywhere and everywhere.

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11 thoughts on “Roughage: A Novel

  1. I’ve been wanting to respond to this for days but didn’t have the time. And I still don’t, really–but a few thoughts. First of all, yes, popular entertainment has been steadily getting better. Or rather, there is more good popular entertainment. Television–there’s some amazing, amazing work being done in TV, much better than in features. I don’t think you can make a good case that feature films have gotten “better” — you might be able to make the case that the average shitty comedy today is smarter than the average shitty comedy of twenty years ago (and the same goes for action movies or whatever else you want) but I don’t think the best films of the last decade are better than the best films of the 1970s or 1940s. Or 1990s — I don’t think “best” is a bar that moves much, decade to decade (have the best novels gotten worse or better?). But it’s possible the lower bound for films, or the average, or whatever, has been moving up, and undeniable the upper bound for American television has been moving up (though I think the latter is a function of money, not increasingly sophisticated filmmakers). If anyone had given Scorsese money to make a TV show in the 1970s it would probably have been amazing; the money just wasn’t there yet. In any event, that’s not something I’m unwilling to concede.

    I think where we start to disagree is the idea that “the real value in a work lies in its ability to provoke a meaningful interpretation from the audience.” More about that soon.

  2. Jesse posing as Jesse says:

    I think the one thing left out here is the idea that Brian Moriarty touched on:

    “Sublime art is… the still evocation of the inexpressible.”

    To wit: the power of a work to cause emotional reaction is a deceptive yardstick with which to compare high and low art. Similarly deceptive is the criteria of a work’s ability to provoke meaningful analysis. Both of those level the playing field too much.

    The ability of a work to bring its audience to contemplate the inexpressible is far more decisive a criterion. It’s not the only measure of value, of course. It’s a goal that much art–high and low–doesn’t even try for. But a case can be made that so-called low art never tries for it at all.

  3. Yeah, I don’t see any appreciable difference in one statement or the other. “Provoking meaningful interpretation” and “evoking the inexpressible” are functionally equivalent. Meaning doesn’t have to be intellectual, and interpretation doesn’t have to be analytical. And for that matter, “popular entertainment has gotten better” is another idea that’s so vague and all-encompassing as to be completely uncontroversial. It’s possible there’s an interesting take on it that I’m not familiar with, but it seems an awful like getting into “if a tree falls in the forest…” territory.

  4. Franklin Delano Jesse says:

    Hey Chuck, good on ya. You really don’t see any appreciable difference?

    It seems like, you know, you’re defending popular culture against elitist dismissal, which, sure, yay, go, do. For the purposes that, for of an assertion that any kind of art can provoke meaningful interpretation, “evoking the inexpressible” is just one of those meaningful interpretations, true.

    But “meaningful interpretations” aren’t interchangeable. If somebody has a transfixing experience watching The Lorax, that’s pretty obviously more on them (and their prescription medication) than the work itself. If someone experiences epiphany watching Ran, it’s certainly still on them to a degree, but there’s also an explicit structure in the work–a scaffold, if you will–that’s been put there for that purpose.

    The Lorax has a scaffold of its own, of course; it has a moral it’s overtly built to support. And so it’s possible to make some analysis of these things, and the reactions a given person has, and look at how much is them, and how much is the work. You’re talking about the same thing with the card you got in the hospital. You can’t give the credit to the card. I don’t think you can even fairly call your emotions a conversation with the author of the card.

    Actually, I guess I should go back on that, and I’m going to call myself on it instead of erasing it and re-writing it so that I’m not wrong. I’m a dad and a husband now, and I’m surprised that I can pick up simple, schmaltzy Hallmark cards in the Rite-Aid–you know the kind, with swirly letters and gauzy pictures of flowers–and when I think of them coming from my wife or my kids, I get teary-eyed. I was going to say that that’s because of me, that the card is still just a stupid card, but I think that’s undermining my own premise. Whatever “scaffold” the card has, it’s having exactly the effect on me that its creator intended. That certainly is a conversation with that creator, and it’s pretty elitist of me to pretend otherwise. Sorry, anonymous-Hallmark-card-writing dude. Good job!

    Anyway, I think it still adds up the same: we can take all these things–the cards, The Lorax, Ran–and talk about their intentions along with our reactions. And you do this, yourself, when you’re talking about The Hunger Games and The Road. There are things they try to do that are similar–and in some of those things, Hunger Games does it better–but there are also things The Road tries to do that aren’t even on the map for The Hunger Games. And The Road succeeds, by your report. And again by your report, it’s “rapturous.”

    So, you know, when it makes you–as in, you, Chuck, not as in you, “anyone”–use a word like “rapturous,” and also in Moriarty’s idea of “sublime art,” there’s a different thing happening there. A qualitatively different thing. It’s an example you yourself are giving, and I think it contradicts your other statement, when you say that “the line between high art and low art — or genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or young adult books vs. real books — has become irrelevant.”

    You know, not to be too simplistic, but things have different effects, and when something has the effect it intends to, it should get the credit. High art, literary fiction, “real” books–they have different goals than the others. Like with Hunger Games, there’s overlap. But there’s also non-overlap. And to say the line is irrelevant seems like a big disservice those people who are putting in the effort to shoot for those goals, as well as kind of a belittlement of their achievement when they succeed.

    And just to be clear, I like comics and games and I read comics and play games and I don’t think I’ve experienced any high art, literary fiction, or “real” books in probably over three years. I’m pretty firmly a “low art” guy. I’m not writing from some kind of “things I like are cool, things you like suck” thing. I couldn’t if I tried. If I was going to put on a front as all “high art,” I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

    Except I like to listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk. Does that count?

  5. Jesse, I suspect that your comment will be similar to the response that Matt has promised/threatened to make. But while you say that I’m contradicting myself, I think it’s more that I’m not saying what you think I am.

    Comparing Moriarty’s definition of sublime art to my comment about the value of art doesn’t mean that meaningful interpretations are interchangeable. It simply means that the two definitions are functionally equivalent. “The still evocation of the inexpressible” refers to a work that provokes an interpretation that can’t be adequately expressed in a synopsis or summation. The Wikipedia article about The Road is not a “meaningful interpretation” of The Road (and neither is my description above).

    And saying that the line between high art and low art is irrelevant doesn’t mean that all art is equal. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have said that The Road has more weight and more intent than The Hunger Games, for just one example. It simply means that it’s irrelevant and purposeless to classify one as high art and the other as low art. It’s only a “disservice” to say that if you’re still clinging to a value judgment inherent in the term “high art.”

    The fact that there’s a value judgment is shown in your use of “real” books; why the need for quotes unless there’s an awareness that it’s a meaningless distinction that doesn’t have real merit except out of convenience? It’s like the distinction between graphic novels and comic books, which implies that calling something a “comic book” is immediately an accusation of lack of depth. And I don’t think the terms “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” have a lot of use, either, since they’re loaded down with connotations of value — it implies that genres are inherently less valuable, and that, say, character studies of New Yorkers in their late 30s trying to process current events are no less a “genre” than “Western.”

    What they all rely on is one of the 2 main concepts I’m getting at in this post: the idea that the value of a work is encoded in the work itself. Most of us get that The Road will tend to have a greater impact on anyone who has a child than it would on me, and that it will have an even greater impact on fathers who have sons. So if you accept that there’s already a sliding scale in the audience/artist interaction for a single work, where exactly does it stop being a continuum, where does it hit that dividing line that separates “high” and “low?”

    Whenever I make the claim that intent isn’t everything, that interpretation is equally important; that invariably somehow gets translated into “intent is nothing, interpretation is all that matters.” My whole point is that taking it to either extreme isn’t just elitism or populism, it’s just plain irrelevant.

    There are plenty of people — the majority of the audience, I figure — who’d consider No Country For Old Men to be a significant, capital-H High Art film. I thought it was technically outstanding but ultimately trite in its desperation to be ponderously meaningful. Who’s right? Is there so much value embedded in the movie itself that it renders my take on it irrelevant?

    And even when I acknowledge that The Road attempts to comment on the universal nature of human existence, while The Hunger Games attempts to tell an action story that provides a role model to teenagers, that’s also missing the point, to some degree. What about the reader who found The Road to be dull and ultimately pointless, but understood exactly and profoundly what it means when the boy in The Hunger Games says that if he has to die, he wants to do it without losing himself? Is her interpretation more facile and worthless than mine?

    We can draw the line between “high” and “low” in all sorts of ways — the intention of the author, the bell curve of who finds a work significant vs. who finds it too simplistic or too complex, the targeted audience, the emphasis on plot vs. introspection, the emphasis on genre vs. present-day “reality,” the inclusion of a cannibal family, the inclusion of genetically created dead child dog creatures called “muttations” ‐ but I ask: if the line is that flexible, then what purpose is the line really accomplishing? (If we’re passing judgment, I’d much rather draw the line between Hunger Games and Twilight, which is the line between saying positive things and saying horrible things, without caring a bit about literary intent or target audience).

    My favorite book is a fantasy/comedy about an angel, a demon, and the reluctant Antichrist. The best book I’ve ever read is written in dialect and is about a boy riding on the Mississippi River with an escaped slave. The book that got the most emotional reaction out of me was about a couple of comic book creators. Which are genre fiction, literary fiction, high art, low art, cinematic or interpretive? I’ve never made much attempt to classify each one, because those classifications are irrelevant. Did each one of the authors deliberately set out to make something “literary,” that would in some way make a profound statement on the human condition? I’ve never thought much about it, because it doesn’t make that much of a distinction.

    I think even with the admission of “putting on a front” about high art while enjoying low art, it still belies an externally-imposed value judgment that doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s the idea of a distinction between reading for pleasure vs. reading for enlightenment (as if enlightenment weren’t pleasurable). Or a hard distinction beween guilty pleasures/”empty calories” and reading or watching “important” stuff.

    Before it gets misinterpreted: there is most definitely some difference between entertainment and enlightenment. I definitely have TV shows, comics, games, and books that I’ll read simply for a diversion as opposed to the ones that I think have genuine significance. But I’ve found that which work ends up going into which category, often has zero correlation to whether someone else classifies it as “high art,” “low art,” or anything else.

    Short version: if you like to listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson, it “counts” as long as you understand it.

  6. Franklin Delano Jesse says:

    Here’s what I think you’re saying: being judgmental about high-art-versus-low-art has no purpose, and the effectiveness of a piece of art–or, if you will, its ability to provoke meaningful interpretation–has nothing to do with any formal designation as high art or low.

    Is that right?

    Here’s what I’m saying: being judgmental about high-art-versus-low-art has no purpose, and to call the difference between high art and low art “irrelevant” is to perpetuate judgmentalism, not refute it.

    The differences between things should be savored.

  7. Okay, time for me to make good on my threats. I’m basically in the same boat as Jesse on this, yes. My thinking about high art and low art has been influenced by reading Nabokov’s “Good Readers and Good Writers” at exactly the right age (20, which is basically like reading Prufrock at 15). If you’ve never read it, it’s here in HTML and here as an easier-to-read PDF. This passage in particular is on point, I think (not sure I can blockquote here):

    “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

    “To the storyteller we turn for entertainment, for mental excitement of the simplest kind, for emotional participation, for the pleasure of traveling in some remote region in space or time. A slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer. Propagandist, moralist, prophet—this is the rising sequence. We may go to the teacher not only for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts. Alas, I have known people whose purpose in reading the French and Russian novelists was to learn something about life in gay Paree or in sad Russia. Finally, and above all, a great writer is always a great enchanter, and it is here that we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.”

    I’m not going to say anything that Nabokov didn’t put better, but my contention is simply that some artists are enchanters, most are not, the difference isn’t entirely subjective, and the difference matters. Genre fiction, plot-driven fiction, whatever you want to call it, are written by writer-as-storyteller, content to “try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction.” Collins, I believe, is a storyteller. Crichton was always writer-as-teacher; at his best, in Jurrassic Park he managed to be teacher and storyteller. He was never an enchanter. (Mark Twain was.)

    Nabokov’s ideas about how to approach a work of art are similar to what you turned away from at SFMOMA–there’s a right way to do it–but I don’t think they’re arrogant or condescending. Everyone has works of art or kitsch that they respond to strongly for personal reasons. We all have weak points, raw nerves that respond to even the crudest pokes and prods. (And because everyone has these things, I agree that the Talking Heads video is arrogant and condescending.) I believe that the woman you saw at the art museum would have responded similarly to any photo of the buildings she remembered, no matter how poorly composed it was, don’t you? Because it wasn’t about the photos, for her, it was about her life. By the same token, when a greeting card makes Jesse tear up, I think it’s fair to say that almost any expression of the same sentiment would provoke the same reaction; it hits a nerve. That’s the author’s intent: mission accomplished.

    But there is a difference between that reaction and the spine-tingle Nabokov talks about, and surely you know the difference when you feel it. If you make the effort to remain “a little aloof” (and note that it’s just a little aloof) from a greeting card, the writer will lose his grasp on you completely. With great art, becoming a little detached only deepens your appreciation and enjoyment. Where that line falls may be slightly different between people (though obviously I draw it at exactly the right point) but it’s nuts to pretend it doesn’t exist at all. If the issue is making it a hard line, think of it as a continuum–one that moves as we become better readers. It does imply a value judgment; enchanters are superior to teachers and storytellers. But Maus is better than Watchmen is better than Archie, whether you call them comics or comix or graphic novels–is that really a disputable statement? I don’t mean “better for you,” by the way, I mean “more pleasurable”–you’re exactly right that distinguishing between enlightenment and entertainment is silly.

    I suspect that some of the reason this issue is so vexed is because there was a time I liked Watchmen better than Maus, and at a certain age would have preferred Archie. As I learned to read more closely, the things that gave me pleasure changed–but the enjoyment I got from reading increased. (The same is true for film; in the last five years or so, the kinds of films I enjoy have changed dramatically, but when I love a movie now, it’s a stronger emotion than I had about my favorite films when I was just out of college. And that isn’t because I have more experiences for filmmakers to prod and poke, unless you think there’s a lot in Andrei Rublev that I can relate to; it’s because I watch more closely.) This doesn’t have to do with children’s literature versus adult literature or genre condescension or whatever: I think The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists is a better film than The Hunger Games (and a much better film than American Beauty) and would have felt differently ten years ago. So when I meet someone who prefers Watchmen there’s something of “I was like you, once, but then became wiser.” But it’s not (entirely) arrogance, it’s more like “If you liked that, this will really blow your mind.

    Anyway, that’s enough for now. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of the Nabokov essay.

  8. My trip to Florida interrupted this conversation, but in the interest of procrastinating tonight:

    I read the Nabokov essay, and I disagreed with almost every point. Giving it a cursory re-read now, I don’t have such a violent reaction to it; at the time, I think what set me off was the claim that being a “good reader” requires re-reading a work. That the process itself of reading prevents us from taking in the work as a whole. Even if I did have more free time, that idea would be absolutely abhorrent to me. I think that process is crucial to literature; it’s why you choose a novel vs. graphic novel vs. painting vs. film, etc. It’s what I spend the bulk of this post talking about, with the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs putting you into the mindset of the character the way that no other medium can.

    It was so baffling to see the author of Lolita, with its astounding opening paragraphs, write about the act of reading as if it were an inconvenience or a necessary evil, that I thought at first the entire essay must be parody or satire. How can the author of something so brilliantly lyrical insist that the words are nothing more than a tedious, archaic vehicle for the ideas?

    So that put me in the wrong frame of mind for the rest of the essay, and the part that I think you’re interested in, the part about storytellers, teachers, and enchanters. I disagree, but only in terms of the extent. I think it still puts all of the value of a work into the hands of its creator. It’s that idea of author as puzzlemaster: all the meaning of the work is encoded in the work itself, and the audience merely decrypts it.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that the value’s entirely in the hands of the audience, either. I’ve acknowledged several times that different works have different intent and different “weight” to them; The Hunger Games is not The Walking Dead is not The Road. You say “it’s nuts to pretend [the difference] doesn’t exist at all,” but that’s not what I’m claiming and never has been. I’m saying that it’s nuts to pretend that the value embedded in a work is universal and objective, although plenty of people have no problem insisting that that’s true.

    The movie Prometheus is a good example. Obviously, it’s not a good movie. But it tries so hard to be. The filmmakers aren’t stupid; there are lots of people involved with that project who’ve proven their ability to be “enchanters” in the past. (You could certainly debate whether Damon Lindelof qualifies, and I guess even Ridley Scott isn’t immune to criticism, but I would have little problem giving both those guys their due. Even after the final season of Lost). They loaded the movie with symbolism and allusions and weighty questions about the nature of our existence, but it all fell apart into a comical mess once it made it to the screen.

    The most obvious lesson: you don’t get to talk about the nature of creation until after you’ve at least figured out how to take care of your villain without having her rolled over by a spaceship. But the implicit lesson from Prometheus is the explicit one in Sullivan’s Travels and Barton Fink: even the most high-minded intentions don’t guarantee high art, or even good art. Those guys were deliberately not making the excellent but campy Starship Troopers, or even the execrable Event Horizon; they had every intention of being enchanters, and they failed.

    (To try and head off any possible objections before they’re raised: when I say that Lindelof & Scott pass the “enchanter” bar, I’m not trying to play up the weighty themes in Lost or Alien or Blade Runner, because the stories all kind of fall apart to one degree or another. I’m talking more about the indelible cultural imagery of the Dharma initiative and numbers stations, chest bursters, and the giant crashed ship in Alien. Just because Lost ultimately made not a lick of sense doesn’t mean that it didn’t accomplish some astounding pop culture myth-making).

    It’s not just that a good idea can fall apart during execution, either. It’s that the surest way to prevent yourself from making great art is to go into it with the intention of making great art. I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, because I have a penis, but Elizabeth Gilbert gave an interesting TED talk about separating the idea of “genius” from the writer to the act of creation. I’m not completely sold on the idea, since I’ve seen enough examples of consistently talented creators to know that not every great work is a fluke. But I do like the idea of shifting the significance of a work away from the creator and towards the act of creation.

    And since I’m assuming it as a given that art is about communication, then the act of creation is inextricably bound to the act of interpretation. If I remember correctly, one of the things that set off the whole conversation a while ago is when I said something along the lines of “a lot of so-called ‘high art’ could take lessons from The Hunger Games about being more accessible.” That immediately set off the Chuck is advocating pandering to mass audiences alarm. But I’m not saying that artists should pander; I’m saying that artists should stop being so self-indulgent and masturbatory, and simply acknowledge the fact that profound and insightful ideas are useless if no one is around to hear them. And audiences should stop taking it as a given that there’s inherit merit in the misunderstood and the obscure.

    And by “obscure,” I mean just that. Not “layered.” I think you make an excellent point when you say that getting distance from a shallow work just makes it fall apart, but distance from a more layered work just yields more depth. Adding layers to an idea enhances it, clarifies it, subverts it, or intensifies it; it doesn’t bury it. That’s the objection I had to Chris’s description of having to “pull” meaning from a work as opposed to having the author “push” it onto the audience: I think a great work rewards a deeper examination and introspection; it doesn’t require it.

    And I still disagree with the notion that it can all be split up into an orderly hierarchy based on age, maturity, or wisdom. That idea of “evolving” from Archie to Watchmen to Maus. Archie, sure. But I still think Watchmen is more successful than Maus, and I’m not willing to concede that it’s because I’ve still got plenty o’ growin’ up to do. (For the record, I can’t really say that I like or enjoyed either one, but I respect them both). A huge part of it is simply the initial barrier to entry: a reinterpretation of golden age comic books gives me more of an “in” than a story about Holocaust survivors.

    You could dismiss that as being hopelessly shallow, but if I remember correctly (it’s been well over a decade, but Wikipedia seems to back me up), that was one of the recurring ideas in Maus itself: the question of how you represent something so horrific in a manageable way, without completely robbing it of its importance. I understand the central conceit, and I respect the thought process that went into it, but it still doesn’t work for me. It never felt like an adequate abstraction, but just seemed like an affectation. Here was a book full of intensely personal and honest stories, but the conceit simultaneously trivialized it and distanced me from it.

    Watchmen is more distant and less sincere, and yes, its impact on me has worn off over the years (and I frankly wasn’t all that crazy about it when I first read it). It’s pompous, and self-important, and also full of affectations. But the structure works. You could read it completely free of context, and it’d still be a reasonably good comic book story. Gradually, as you start to notice the symbolism and the repetition, layers of deeper meaning start to become apparent. Then you see more allusions, more references to comic book history and world history, and notice images that are repeated from one book to the next. Ultimately, my problem with it is that it’s an absolute masterpiece of form that doesn’t really say much of significance; there’s too much artifice there for it to resonate with me. But a masterpiece of form is still, in my mind, more successful than a book whose form alienated me completely from the deeper and much more relevant meaning.

    If I’m going to “grow into” an appreciation of Maus, then I frankly don’t have all that much time left. And let me throw Batman: Year One into the mix. Where does it fit into the hierarchy? It’s a completely straightforward story. It’s shamelessly a “pulp” story, with no hint of the I’m using the format of Golden Age pulp to do something greater self-consciousness of Watchmen. The author is a nut who (in my opinion) never accomplished anything comparable before or since. It doesn’t try too hard for symbolism, or all that much of a sophisticated structure. And still, I’d say it’s a masterwork, which I’d say is more successful than either Watchmen or Maus. The structure is near-perfect. It’s become the definitive versions of those characters, and it’s full of unforgettable, character-defining imagery. I won’t say that I get deeper meaning from it each time I read it, but it does have enough depth that I’ve read it multiple times over the years, and each time felt like reading a new story instead of a simple repetition.

    I may not get a glimpse into the greater human condition from reading it (apart from seeing Miller’s unhingedness begin to manifest itself), but I still get that “spine-tingle” that in my mind elevates entertainment to art. It gave me that when I read it at 40, just as it did at 30 and at 20, so it’s not just an artifact of age or wisdom. It doesn’t reveal new layers of depth on rereading it, so it’s not just an artifact of meaning encoded into the work. Plenty of people think it’s good but not great, or that it’s not that good at all, or that The Dark Knight Returns (which I hate) is indisputably better, so it’s not completely objective. It simply speaks to me. And not just on the greeting card level, because I too am a wealthy orphan driven to fight crime, but because it’s full of perfect combinations of form, image, and words; everybody involved from writer to artist to colorist to letterer is working at the top of their form. And I like comic books about Batman.

    So basically, I guess I’m saying fuck Nabakov. I don’t think “artists are enchanters;” I think works can be enchanting. And what’s just “storytelling” for one reader may be “learning” or “enchanting” for another; there’s some level of objective intent and value in a work, but it’s not entirely objective. And if a reader wants to learn about life in Gay Paris or sad Russia, no “alas” is necessary; it doesn’t prevent him from being transported to a time and place and being transfixed by the structure, beauty, and message of the novel itself. If a reader’s gateway to that “enchanting” experience is an interest in life in Paris as opposed to, say, the memoir of a pedophile, then how is that possibly a negative?

  9. Lots to talk about here and not much time right now, but first, I think all Nabokov is saying is that there are structural things about a novel that you can’t appreciate on a first read, simply because you can’t take in the overall shape of the thing. (The same is true of film, or theater, or any temporal work). That’s 100% true of Lolita, because the single most important event happens in the foreward, in a way that won’t make sense on first reading, and casts a pall over the rest of the book on the second read. Martin Amis makes this point; a bit of his essay about Lolita is excerpted here. Anyway, for all his talk about the ponderous process of scanning words on the page, I don’t think he’s against the process of reading, he’s just saying you can’t see the whole thing on your first go around, and if you want to understand what the writer is doing, and how, you’re going to need to look at the opening paragraphs with the last ones in mind.

    I would unhesitatingly grant Ridley Scott the title of “enchanter,” if he’d never made anything except Blade Runner and Alien. Lindelhof, I’m not so sure, but then I haven’t seen any of Lost except the pilot, and, rightly or wrongly, I blame him for what happened to Prometheus.

    I think your distinction between “layered” and “obscure” is really useful, but have miles to go before I sleep. So that, and Maus vs. Watchmen will have to wait. And I guess I’ll have to read Batman Year One. Because as it happens, I’m a crime-fighting orphan myself.

  10. Franklin Delano Jesse says:

    Hi Chuck. Interesting to get back to this!

    This seems pretty well talked out, to me, I have to say. My sense is that there’s potential here for digression into an unnecessarily exhausting semantic bumblepuppy. And who wants that?

    While the conversation hasn’t run a full course, I suspect I ultimately agree with your opinions. When you’re framing your thoughts in general terms, you can state things in a way I think is short of the mark. But when you’re giving specific examples, I find I’m usually in agreement. So I’m happy to leave it there.

    The only thing I have left is: what’s wrong with poor old “Dark Knight Returns”?

  11. Jesse, I only read it once, not long after it came out. But from what I remember:

    • I hate the art. The cover of the first issue is iconic, but everything else is so ugly as to be distancing. I give David Mazzuchelli (no doubt spelled wrong) and Richmond Lewis at least as much credit as Frank Miller for Year One
    • It’s self-consciously “grim and gritty.”
    • I hate the depiction of Superman as government stooge. It’s just trying to reduce an iconic character into a simple-minded political division.
    • Having mecha suits and monster trucks misses the entire point of Batman. There’s pretty much a direct correlation between how much a story (like many of the movies) emphasizes the car, jets, copters, bikes, planes, and other gadgets; and how much I’ll think it works as a Batman story. (The Dark Knight movie’s coolest scene was the chase scene, but it seemed to have as much cases of Batman being clever as of his just having cool tech. Plus, truck flipping.)

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