THE POSITIVE MESSAGE OF NEW AMERICAN ART AND LITERATURE

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Blind Spot

TODAY'S LITERARY PEOPLE
have a blind spot in that they don't realize how most people view literary writing.

They're like fans of Mozart, who when listening understand every nuance; each note of play or pomp, pathos or humor.

Most people today, raised in a different world, don't hear this from Mozart. They hear something different-- only the notes. In the same way, the general reading public sees something different in a novel by Michael Chabon. Literary people smile and nod and appreciate. Everyone else is bored.

I'm not saying to write Dreiser. We need writing that does what Dreiser's did in his day but which is new. It's our task to recreate the art form. What undergrounders are doing are fledgling attempts. We need to present to the nation a literature people can get excited about.

But forget about literary writing. That's dead. That's done. That's over. The path that way is closed. We can only move forward.

14 comments:

John said...

Actually, most people don't care about reading at all. TV and the internet are the dominate media now.

Anonymous said...

Dreiser was a writer with enormous influence but his audience was not particularly vast or particularly varied. More people saw the movies of Dreiser's books than read his novels. Your preference for realist style seems to lead to a fantasy that your favorite authors reached a wider swath of the public. Facts don't bear this out. It's true that readers of serious fiction tend to come from the upper classes, but this has always been the case - mostly due to the amount of free time afforded those who work cushier jobs, or no jobs at all. Those with less contemplative time on their hands used to read pulp - and now watch it on the tube.

I'm an educated guy from the middle-upper class who reads serious fiction. My appreciation for authors you don't like isn't a "blind spot" - it's just a preference. I don't think William Vollman would appeal to very many people who work in factories - but neither did Dreiser, at least not as much as the pulp stories that sold way more copies.

Basically the only difference between Dreiser and Chabon is that you prefer one over the other. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not a social movement.

--The Wandering Jew

King said...

Substitute Erskine Caldwell or John Steinbeck then for Dreiser; or Jack London.
My point, beyond your nitpicking, is that literature needs to come up with a product which can and WILL be read by more than the educated upper-middle class.
You don't deem this possible.
I do.
I'm trying to imagine what this is. If you can imagine something, you can create it. I'm not nearly so pessimistic as to think reading among the general public is through. I know otherwise from personal experience.
Please don't weigh me down with your pessimism and disbelief. . . .
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say it wasn't possible.
I said you didn't know what you were talking about.
None of the writers you mention had a huge working-class audience. They just wrote about the working class. That's not the same thing.
It's noble to look at people who aren't reading and to think that there ought to be a vibrant literature for them. I salute your dream. I don't see a thing you're doing to make it a reality - but I salute the dream nevertheless.

--The Wandering Jew

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

They had large, if not huge, working class audiences. (At a time when the vast bulk of the American population was working class.) Check Caldwell's paperback sales figures sometime.
Jack London remains one of the most widely read writers on the planet, whose tales bridge cultures.
A question, WJ: Please explain to me the demise of the American short story, which was once an extremely popular art form.
Why are tales by London, O. Henry, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, et.al., instantly memorable and loved, while on the other hand I've read many of the "Best" story collections of the past ten years or more and can remember not a one of the "fictions" enclosed.
The short story is lit's 45 rpm. If it's not popular, something is seriously wrong.
Could it be the story itself?
A similar problem afflicts the literary poem.
How many lines and phrases from our most lauded poets of the past thirty years have entered the language?
Have the Ashberys, Glucks, and Rectors said ANYTHING memorable???
The goal HAS to be to change this-- which means reinventing the art.

Anonymous said...

In America, Caldwell and London had primarily middle class appeal. The middle class has disappeared. You can scarcely find Caldwell in bookstores (London is in the kid's section, for high schoolers on assignment). You do the math.

Internationally, those writers have a higher profile, but class structure abroad allows for more flow-through, as middle and working class citizens have more free time. Six weeks' paid vacation in France means you're going to read more Caldwell than a guy with one day off a month.

The short story found its legs in America through magazines which also appealed to the middle class. (The New Yorker was founded as an upperclass reaction to publications like the Saturday Evening Post.) Most of those magazines have gone under (Life), or cling to a vanishing audience (Reader's Digest).

Working class culture hasn't changed much - bread and circuses, to distract them from the class war, which is certainly at white heat right now. Working class lit has always been escapist, not realist, and now it largely appears on TV, although some pulp writers still survive, while the upper class consumes the literary fiction you disdain. (This is also vanishing, as even the upper class condenses.)

Serious literature with social awareness and political engagement has never been what the working class has consumed, at least not in postIndustrial society. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but there's no modern historical precedent for it.

--the wandering jew

King said...

You avoid the point that today's short stories aren't connecting to readers on a very wide basis, as happened in the past.
Middle class today are the fairly affluent people living in suburbia. There was a time when people from other classes read real literature widely-- if Caldwell or Mickey Spillane be considered literature. They still read now. I've discussed often working in a tiny import office, a low-pay job, and many of the workers around me read on the off-shifts. Indeed, when I worked at Dodge Truck as a young man, I and others would read during our breaks. Maybe what we read was largely "trash"-- but remained and remains a gateway to a better level of reading. Which is exactly what happened with me. I began with comic books and monster magazines, then genre stuff; sci-fi and mysteries, which lead me ultimately to the great, great writers of the 19th century. The first idea is to get people reading! From ALL backgrounds. Which in part is the job of the short story. This task right now is a failure.
We have to give people BETTER, more compelling stories. Don't flinch from this task, to seek to escape into some monk-like cocoon of the "literary." We owe the art more than this. It's up to us to provide it-- whether through exciting new zeens and magazines, or exciting new stories that demand to be published and read; which seems to be even what many of my critics have been urging.
We zeensters have been taking our words directly to the populace-- writers like Wred Fright, who can connect with anybody. The solution is in front of us. I'm simply announcing it.

Anonymous said...

You assume that short stories connect with fewer people nowadays because the literature has changed - but it's America's class system that has changed. The audience for the literature you favor has shrunk. There is plenty of pulp, a small amount of highbrow fiction, and a vanishing midpoint.


From what I've read of Wred Fright online, he writes about young people partying and living their lives. So does Jay McInerney. I like Fright's stuff better, but there's no reason to think he'd attract a larger audience. You can make the argument that the New Yorker ought to published Fright - but that doesn't increase literature's audience.

Your mission seems personal - you have some writers you like who are largely ignored, and you'd like to get them a piece of the action. Good for you. But that's not a social movement, no matter how you dress it up.

(And, also, it's not working. You've been doing this for how many years? And have any of your writers gotten real exposure - not a mention in a piece about you, but real exposure for their writing? I know that you think consistent setbacks only prove the nobility of your quest, but at what point do you question your own tactics?)
--the wandering jew

King said...

I question my tactics every day.
Why should you want me to?
Am I really that big a threat to the literary world?
I'd think you'd applaud a lone guy out there optimistic-- maybe insanely-- about what can be done.

Anonymous said...

If we're going to applaud optimism based on a shaky grasp of relevant history, then I think Bush is going to apologize...and buy me a pony.

This is why arguing with you becomes tiresome. You pick the topic - literary history - get the facts wrong, defend yourself on philosophical grounds rather than on your actual argument and point accusingly at whoever's disagreeing with you.

--the wandering jew

Joel said...

One thing I love about your blogs is your true democratic spirit. Also, I sometimes think that this is a put-on and that you're just performing as the London character, Martin Eden. Either way, I just hope that you don't lose your faith as hard as Eden did.

However, I have to agree with John's comment up top. The popularity of literature has a lot to do with technology, distribution, and cost-to-profit ratio than it does with the character of the reading public. The novel replaced the narrative poem as the most popular literary form because Walter Scott and his partners found a way to produce multi-volume stories that would make more money, and cost less to print, than the slimmer and more expensive volumes that Scott and Byron had once sold. I think the magazine story of pre-TV America had a similar golden moment. That's just my analysis, but it shouldn't change your desire to create a literary equivalent of the punk-rock scene. It's just difficult to find a way.

King said...

To Wandering:
1.) Facts? WHAT facts? Sales figures of Jack London and Erskine Caldwell versus those of Robbe-Grillet and William Vollmann?
2.) You sound like we're playing a game and keeping score. That isn't what this is abou. I'm presenting ideas for rescuing literature.
3.) Exactly why is it important that I be discredited? What's gained?
4.) My scorned tactics, when applied, have worked well-- too well in fact.

Harland said...

Try -- just try -- to suggest to the King that he might be wrong, that there isn't some sort of mass narcotic known as midlist fiction conspiratorially being peddled to the People. Mention to the King that, well, actually, the real commercial trash out there "ruining" things isn't by MFA graduate A or PEN board member B, but by King, Evanovich, Grisham, et al.

The King has created a literary equivalent of the punk rock scene. I've told him that about six times. "King, you're making literature." "King, nobody's stopping you -- you can do what you want!" "King, the whole point of DIY is to write/play/paint/act as if nobody in their right mind would pay you to do it!" But the King wants to have his cake and eat it too. The King wants to be famous, but not famous like any of the people whose names are the shibboleths that make him shake with rage -- he wants to be known as the Man Who Changed Literature. If you try telling him, well, look -- Joyce couldn't get published; Look, Hemingway's first book was a privately printed pamphlet, he just gets mad.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

This is nonsense, Goneril. I've written about the Lost Generation of Hemingway, Joyce, and Company for years. they are, in fact, among my strongest models. They've given hope that underground writing CAN break through.
If you agree with this, why so opposed to what I'm doing?
Yes, Grisham and Company are subpar-- but their success pays the way for the literary fakers. I've always said that we need a new synthesis of the literary and the popular. This notion is behind everything I've been writing on this blog-- a return to writers LIKE Erskine Caldwell, Jack London, Frank Norris, Rex Beach, and so many others who created literature and were also popular.
To realize this we need an aesthetic literary revolution and we also need to change the process.
Why you have opposed this so strenuously was perplexing until I saw who you are.
If I'm wrong, let me know, under your real identity. You have my e-mail. Otherwise I'm tired of your lies and your nonsense. Goodbye.