Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Literachure, Part Deux

A day, well actually, 3 days late, to be fair.

Yes, Zadie Smith's done the rest of it. Have a look over here for details. The writing's still wonderful, and worth a few reads...

I think I liked the first part better though. Not sure if it's my mood, bias or just my expectations, but at a gut level, I connected more easily with the first section. To me it seemed more vivid and real. It's about experiences and process whereas the second half is a bit more prescriptive. At its core is a plea for people to drop the literary safety goggles and engage with novels on an individual, personal level.

Her case takes some subtle turns - although there are shades of the "different strokes" argument, the way she talks about ethics in writing leaves room for some objective judgement. Since the basis of any criticism, in her view, should be how well the author's personality makes the transition from writer to reader, this can be used to explore the workings of a novel. So in some senses, it's actually more rigorous, perhaps. But the nice thing about her argument is the way synthesises both personal and aesthetic judgement on this level.

I still think there's a bit of danger that her views on criticism could be taken to imply that reviewers should only say nice things. Smith explicitly states this isn't the case, but I worry about the wiggle room here, perhaps because I haven't read nearly enough Iris Murdoch. I will ponder more.

Questions, questions. And some more clich├ęs, mixed metaphors and so on...

Mainly because I finally read through the whole thing with my bolshy-genre-reader hat on, I do have a few questions/thoughts.

For one thing, I'd love to know what she thinks about what I think of as relatively "impartial" criticism: poor editing, grammar mistakes, historical errors - the kind of things that are easier to quantify and hold to some sort of standard.*

Also, she states that a book educates readers at an emotional level. Therefore they need to be open to this experience. I love this idea, because it's very close to the way I read. But this comment makes me wonder how (if at all) she sees genre fitting into her theories. Is this only about High Art?

There is a perception that most genre fiction is the slightly dim cousin of literary fiction**: cute, but shallow and not one likely to stick around for a lasting relationship. Criticism often focuses on the way genre is more about a) entertainment and b) emotional appeal rather than intellectual rigour. In the first part, Smith argues that reading shouldn't be a passive experience, like watching television,*** but in the second, she also asks that readers should immerse themselves wholly in the reading experience, particularly on the emotional level. So is there some sort of hierarchy of emotional experience at work in ranking books?

I'd also argue that well-written non-fiction can also have a similar impact on a reader. Mind you, the view that all non-fiction as less creative and drier than fiction is a pet peeve of mine...

Finally, she argues that the ultimate goal of a great work of fiction is to reveal the soul of another (or an Other, I guess). She also asks that readers open their minds to that experience, by leaving behind the easy systems of analysis provided by literary theory.

Like Smith later on, I'd argue that it's just as easy for people to become entrenched in their own view of "how to read". She asks such individuals to similarly disengage from their own worldview and work to appreciate the novel on its own terms.

But I think that theoretical frameworks can be beneficial. They don't have to be all-encompassing systems, but tools to be used in analysis: they can shake up the individual's own ideas about the world and guide them into a new appreciation of a novel from another's point of view. Therefore, a truly great criticism can have the same impact as a truly great novel, but the personality exposed is that of the critic, not the writer. If this analysis is systematised into a general theory, in my opinion this is no bad thing since it can foster internal dialogue as well as external discussion. The real danger is the seductive assumption that this theory alone reveals the Truth.

* Even taking the whole post-modern view on standards into account. There's a huge difference, imo, between a book which breaks "standard" English rules on grammar/spelling etc. for a reason, however challenging, and one written in standard English that does the same for no discernable reason other than poor editing.

** Although relevant I'm trying (and failing) for brevity, so I'll leave aside the business of literary fiction being another kind of genre.

*** Ms. Smith has clearly never watched the telly with someone like my parents, if she thinks TV-viewing is a passive experience. Their engagement with the medium is pretty vocal and exhaustive - so much so that sometimes innocent by-standers require a gentle lie-down under cold cloths to recover.


Bookwormom said...

I struggled to read through both parts of Smith's commentary. To my ear she drones & isn't as clear as I'd prefer.

That being said, it seems to me she wants readers to be more open to shades of grey. Nuances in meaning and viewpoint and inflection. I came away feeling Smith thinks readers prefer literature wrapped up in neat little packages- easy on the eye and the palette and the mind.

I hesitate to say this, but IMO critical thinking isn't a skill commonly taught. Great literature taught in schools is fed to children semidigested so they can repeat what they've heard on exams. I don't know where I'm going with this line of thought beyond this, though.

I didn't agree with what she said about reviewers & criticism but I can't put a finger on why I disagree. Sad to say, my brain is stuck in low gear. Perhaps I've been opening too many shiny presents lately.

EvilAuntiePeril said...

Hi bookwormom, thanks so much for wading through all that reading, and taking the time to comment. :-)

I think you're onto something about Smith's view of readers as being typically strait-jacketed by their preconceptions. And I really want to think more about the education side of things, because I think that's important too.

For me, the prescriptive tone in the second part set me on edge a bit. And I was nervous about the way it skirts the attitude that negative reviews are the consequence of the reviewer not fully appreciating the writer's vision.

Of course in my case, it was mitigated by my general enjoyment of her writing style. And I really loved the way she talked about "failing better" and explained the personal side of writing in the first part.