What’s So Literary about Life?

D. G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog (whom Bookbread almost always agrees with) recently observed:

The American continent no longer compels [American novelists] into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.

Thus all their characters sound like literary intellectuals. Thus they cannot even imagine what their own non-writing spouses, nor anyone else for that matter, do every day at work.

I couldn’t disagree more when Bookbreads primary motivation for reading fiction is to escape the experience of things like “every day at work.” Bookbread seeks enchantment, as in “Good Readers and Good Writers” where Nabokov points out how:

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…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” [01]

C. S. Lewis will call these three categories: “the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet,” in The Allegory of Love (1936). Lewis goes on to explain, in a large paragraph worth quoting in full, how the enchanter is a modern phenomenon [02]:

But the lasting consequence of all these writers, for the history of imagination, is far more certain than any assessment of their individual merits. In all of them alike, as I hinted above, we see the beginnings of that free creation of the marvellous which first slips in under the cloak of allegory. It is difficult for the modern man of letters to value this quiet revolution as it deserves. We are apt to take it for granted that a poet has at his command, besides the actual world and the world of his own religion, a third world of myth and fancy. The probable, the marvellous-taken-as-fact, the marvellous-known-to-be-fiction—such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to London and Warwick, Heaven and Hell, Fairyland and Prospero’s Island—each has its own laws and its appropriate poetry. But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. The poet has only two of these three worlds. In the fullness of time the third world crept in, but only by a sort of accident. The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils: that, we know, is what happened to our incalculable loss in the history of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its ‘third world’ of romantic imagining. And when they rose they were changed and gave poetry that which poetry had scarcely had before. Let us be quite certain of this change. The gods—and, of course, I include under this title that whole ‘hemisphere of magic fiction’ which flows indirectly from them—the gods were not to paganism what they are to us. In classical poetry we hear plenty of them as objects of worship, of fear, of hatred; even comic characters. But pure aesthetic contemplation of their eternity, their remoteness, and their peace, for its own sake, is curiously rare. There is, I think, only the one passage in all Homer; and it is echoed only by Lucretius [Odyssey, vi, 41 & Lucretius De Rerum Nat. iii, 18]. But Lucretius was an atheist; and that is precisely why he sees the beauty of the gods. For he himself, in another place, has laid his finger on the secret: it is religio that hides them. No religion, so long as it believed, can have that kind of beauty which we find in the gods of Titian, of Botticelli, or of our own romantic poets. To this day you cannot make poetry of that sort out of the Christian heaven and hell. The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth. For this to come about, the old marvellous, which once was taken as fact, must be stored up somewhere, not wholly dead, but in a winter sleep, waiting its time. If it is not so stored up, if it is allowed to perish, then the imagination is impoverished. Such a sleeping-place was provided for the gods by allegory. Allegory may seem, at first, to have killed them; but it killed only as the sower kills, for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.

Only enchantment lets readers escape the ennui of modern life.


[01] Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982).

[02] Lewis, C. S.. The Allegory of Love. (1936). Reprinted with corrections (1946). Oxford UP. pp. 82–83.

Recent Trends in the Treatment of Books by American Readers

Lately when reading, it is not uncommon to come across someone dismissing all books under the category of “dead things.” Three trends that treat books as such occur when folks either: analyze and attend to books, neglect and negate them, or embalm and preserve them. None of these trends relate much to the act of reading.

In the twenty-first century, if fiction happens to be found in a book, it is attended to like a cadaver in anatomy class, analyzed by gangs of pathologists who conduct autopsies in front of students of literature [01]. Yet nobody should expect these pathological non-readers (or their students) to administer any sort of attentive care when their patients, their books in hand, are already assumed dead and subjected to such techniques of dissection as “snippet” and “balanced reading” [02]. True, the dissection of texts was always practiced upon the holy books of a society, but never has a legion of non-reading pathologists institutionalized the reading standards for an entire nation. After their investigations are finished, one wonders whether a mass grave will be provided for these books? Or perhaps cremation is the best option when books bear the burden of neglect [03].

Accompanying the neglect of books is their negation, for readers, grieved by unsatisfactory texts, now demand the negating or “unpublishing” of certain words, phrases, and facts [04]. No longer will unpublishing be limited to kings, judges, and journalists. Moreover, the amount of current, active writers has multiplied as well as diversified [05], and in like manner, books are undergoing their own mutations in their standards, procedures, design, and formats [06]. Book publishers too have resorted to marketing a variety of textual containers (particularly Kindles and iPads). There is a touch of irony in the observation that for well over a millennia books never had any trouble finding their way into the hands of substantially poor readers, writers, and owners—but only in the twenty-first century do we find publishers being shoved into equality with their book-bearing brethren. Today’s writers, publishers, customers, and their books stand united in a democracy of poverty.

Books nowadays are also being embalmed on a new scale—their physical traits are now preserved and standardized by the cramming of books into the backgrounds of consumer catalogues, hotel lobbies, and studios that house television morning shows [07]. Here, in the backgrounds, books are kept preserved (or rather embalmed), but preserved only if one believes the medium of the book to include everything that is a book except its own text.  Today it seems only the container of the text is worth preserving.

In such circumstances is it so strange for a book blogger to ask, “How do I display or otherwise admire all these books I keep buying for the Kindle?” [08] Surely limiting the function of books strictly to decorate a space is a habit of society agreed to by all, but to amputate a text from its medium seems somewhat novel, at least as far as book behavior is concerned. As a result we are no longer driven to idealize the memorization of a text—a thing George Steiner once concluded as an ultimate goal for readers [09].

Only a few readers in the republic remain anyway—we who read not for pleasure but to escape, to forget the currency of now, to distract our attention’s natural focus on the void of joy [10]. True, sometimes this escapism comes accompanied by a belief in acclaimed benefits of “learning,” “being well informed,” or “the discovery of something new,” yet such benefits are beneficial only in the sense that they allow us to read more material with slightly more speed, intuition, and understanding which thereby increases our rate of escape from reality. The ultimate benefit of knowledge gained through reading resides in the access that knowledge provides for further reading, but if bad books are still printed, remain unread, left for dead, and continue to be complained about, has anything really changed in human–book relations [11]?

01. This terminology for autopsy was inspired by Mark Bauerlein’s Literary Criticism, an Autopsy (1997). Recently, however, Joy Hakim has claimed in “Let Them Read Whole Books” at the Oxford University Press Blog (03-29-10):
Our schools aren’t letting children read whole books. In this information age, when young people are very aware of the real world, we’re keeping any book-driven consideration of it out of classrooms, especially in those crucial middle school years. Studies show [though not shown by Hakim] that the average American schoolchild never reads a single whole nonfiction books [sic] during middle and high school (except maybe a textbook).
Today, it is only homeschoolers, and children at a few elite or unusual schools who even read as much as one whole book. Teachers are much too busy teaching reading to actually let their students read a nonfiction book.
There is also E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s “How to Save the Schools” a review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10). Hirsch writes:
Two decades ago I was appalled by an international comparison showing that between 1978 and 1988 the science knowledge of American students had dropped from seventh to fourteenth place. In the postwar period we have declined internationally in reading from third place to fifteenth place among the nations participating in the survey.
02. These techniques of dissection are warned of by Hakim as well as in Hirsch on Ravitch:
What schools are doing—endlessly—is teaching reading “strategies.” Our young students are analyzing paragraphs. I call it “snippet” reading…. They tackle reading “strategies….” [A teacher] may take a chapter, or maybe a few paragraphs from a book, combine it with an original document and an activity—and there you have it. No one has to actually read a book. [“Let Them Read Whole Books” at the Oxford University Press Blog (03-29-10)]
Many of the weekly hours that are assigned to language arts in the early grades are now being devoted to practicing reading strategies such as “questioning the author” and “finding the main idea.” Ravitch describes in detail a highly touted reform in New York City and San Diego called “balanced literacy,” which requires students to spend a lot of time practicing such reading strategies but does not prescribe any particular books, poems, and essays to practice them on. [Hirsch “How to Save the Schools” a review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10)]
03. Not only does the intensive inspection of selections of excerpts of texts, in a way, neglect the text as a whole, but Hirsch, via Ravitch, reports on an American tradition of institutionalized book neglect:
By the early twentieth century worries about the stability of the Republic had subsided, and by the 1930s, under the enduring influence of European Romanticism, educational leaders had begun to convert the community-centered school of the nineteenth century to the child- centered school of the twentieth—a process that was complete by 1950. The chief tenet of the child-centered school was that no bookish curriculum was to be set out in advance. Rather, learning was to arise naturally out of activities, projects, and daily experience. [Hirsch “How to Save the Schools” a review of Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education in the New York Review of Books (04-19-10)]
04. As Melinda Burns thoroughly reports in “As the Internet Replaces Print Publishing, Urge to ‘Unpublish’ Means Censoring History” at AlterNet (03-01-10):
In a recent survey of 110 news organizations, the Toronto Star found that increasingly, publishers are fielding regular requests from anxious and embarrassed readers to “unpublish” information, sometimes months or years after it first appeared online…. Some readers don’t want their marital status or the price of their home known, or they were quoted saying something they now regret.
As Kathy Steiner of the Jamestown Sun wrote, “‘Unpublishing’ is a word that doesn’t accurately reflect what people are asking. They’re asking to censor or rewrite history….” Yet, as Paulette Haddix of the PostTribune of Northwest Indiana said: “If something happened, it happened. If it was said, it was said. We don’t want to set any ‘unpublishing’ precedent where we are rewriting history.”
05. “Journalism’s next generation: A new wave of writers are going online to get their message across” by Ian Burrell of the Independent (04-22-10) notes:
It is a widely held view that the internet has made writers of everyone. Whether we prodigiously blog or just contribute to message boards, we all like to think that we can make a pithy observation. That shouldn’t mean the specialist correspondent cannot have a greater resonance.
06. Burrell reports that the changes in British publishing now include “creating a network of expertly written websites that cater for the specialist audiences that are arguably no longer being served as they once were by more traditional media organisations.” [ Journalism’s next generation: A new wave of writers are going online to get their message across” in the Independent (04-22-10)]
Jeremy Caplan, a blogger for the Wall Street Journal, expands the conversation concerning the mutations of published texts in “The iPad and the Future of Text” (04-28-10):
Digital text is at a crossroads, and the iPad’s momentum could nudge it in one of two directions.
Down one path lies a world in which words are increasingly digitized in iPad-like e-readers that function like locked glass boxes. That renders books, magazines and newspapers easy to carry around but difficult to share or remix.
Down the other path, openness wins out, and text can be shared in myriad ways. This brings digital books closer to a historical precursor: commonplace books. These were personal scrapbooks created centuries ago expressly for spontaneous text sharing, long before Web links made that concept, well, commonplace.
Concerning the Kindle and other electronic reading devices, Virgina Hefferman, in “The Medium” on the Shelf Lifeblog of the New York Times (03-04-10) notes: “The [Kindle], which consigns all poetry and prose to the same homely fog-toned screen, leaves nothing to the experience of books but reading.”
07. See Rob Walker’s comments in “Books, the idea: Suggesting wealths of learnedness” from his marketing/design blog murketing (04-22-10):
Unlike other collectibles, books “represent a different order of plenitude,” [Nicholson Baker’s piece, “Books as Furniture,” from the June 12, 1995 New Yorker] writes, one that encompasses “the camel caravans of thought-bearing time to read them through.” And he quotes William Gladstone arguing against a fashion for ornamental bookcases; those objects should remain plain, Gladstone says, because books “are themselves the ornament.”
Also note Herrman (ibid.):
If [Walter Benjamin] says not reading books can be as sophisticated and European as reading them, I believe him, and I will try to think of my books as Sèvres china. But Sèvres china, if I had any, would be for display on its days off, wouldn’t it? [Virgina Hefferman’s post “The Medium” on Shelf Lifeblog of the New York Times (03-04-10)]
08. Ibid.
09. Steiner, George “Critic”/“Reader”. New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 3, Anniversary Issue: I. (Spring, 1979), pp. 423–452. < http://www.jstor.org/stable/468921>:
But a text can only enter into the full life of the canon when it is woken by, housed within, the negated distance of precise memory. It follows that “total reading” has an inherent logic of dispensation, that it tends towards a condition in which the materiality of the text is no longer required. The icon has been wholly internalized. (p. 444)
10. As Twain put it in his last known story, Captain Stormfields Visit to Heaven (1909): “Happiness ain’t a thing in itself—it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant.”
11. A recent, semi-humorous example can be found in Sean Fennessey’s post (“Cancel Publish: A Call For the End of Tumblr Book Deals.”) On GQ’s pop culture blog, The Verge. (04-27-10). Fennessy calls for an end to such “spawn of social media,” noting that:
Agent Jason Allen Ashlock explained to Galleycat why he connected at the idea: “The blog to book projects seem tired because so many of them have been one-trick ponies. They’re based around a gimmick: They tell a joke and then they tell it again and again. Image, caption, laugh. Image, caption, laugh. Their concepts are thin. The ones that have been really successful, and have a chance of making the backlist, have had a clear editorial voice: there’s an honest critique or cultural observation built into the ostensibly humorous project.”

The Death of Fiction (and the Livelihood of Talking About It)

Back to Ted Genoways’s “Death of Fiction?” article in Mother Jones, which has, apparently, generated chatter among book bloggers. Bookbread noted earlier that Genoways concluded his piece with some tart words for today’s American fiction writers, words much inline with Rebecca West’s call for abusive criticism, and equally applicable to our country’s book critics:

I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.

Several book bloggers, however, don’t like what they’ve read recently from Ted Genoways, as he argues over the decrease of readership for literary magazines (or is it America’s decrease for things literary?).

George at Bookninja posts “The Death of Fiction” and notes:

[Even] as fiction has become a common pastime pursuit for the vocationally undecided idly rich (re MFA prgs), its viability as a commercial venture has fallen further than ever.

Tolmsted of Booksexy comments on George’s Bookninja post (and thereby Genoways’) and wonders:

Realistically, what were the actual circulation numbers [for literary magazines] to begin with? How much of an impact did they really have? With or without those magazines, catching a break in the literary world will always be a crap shoot.

On the other hand, over at The Reading Experience, in a post entitled “Rescuing Public Discourse,” Daniel Green confesses:

I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd….

The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored. Unless he’s suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction: “With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere.” This concern for “public discourse” seems more immediate to Genoways than his ostensible concern for fiction or for literary magazines and their loss of audience.

Lastly, “How Many Times Can We Kill Fiction?” by Brian Ray contains much blather and froth but still manages to recognize:

Genoways bewails how in “the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction.” But that’s only because the world has yet to see my retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which instead of sailing along the Congo will follow the mission of a lieutenant sent to whack a colonel gone mad on power who’s established himself as a demagogue among Taliban chieftains. Don’t worry, Ted. I’m going to show America that plenty remains to be said about foolish wars run by colonial powers. It’s not the same story told over and over again.