An American Editor

May 11, 2010

The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective

Sue Lange, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger on culture and technology at the Singularity Watch. Two of her published books of science fiction satire (Tritcheon Hash [2003, Metropolis Ink] and We, Robots [2007, Aqueduct Press]) are available at Amazon. Sue also has an ebook compilation of her published short fiction available in the Kindle Store or at Book View Cafe. Sue followed my articles about the downfall of literature and what follows is her take on the subject.

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The Rarefied Literary Critic

by Sue Lange

Rarefied: lower in oxygen. Extend that idea to all gases. Extend it further to the world of literature and you get a critic who is not full of hot air. I have nothing against windbags, but when it comes to literary criticism, perhaps less is more. Less gas maybe means more substance.

According to the Microsoft dictionary, rarefied also means “very high quality in character or style.” We worry that the high quality in character and style publishers and critics have exhibited in the past will go away in the new, anything goes Internet models. Consider Ben Elowitz’s assertion in “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless” that times have changed. The credentials, accuracy, objectivity, and craftsmanship of those presenting published materials no longer matter. Speed and relevancy matter now. Content is king and the people alone crown it. No high priests. No swearing in with the right hand on the Bible.

Can the Internet audience find a king, let alone the right one? The one that can pull the sword out of the rock? Or do we need a rarefied literary critic that can recognize blue blood and ensure that we don’t go down in history as a pack of ignorant, tasteless, illiterates? Further, does it matter if we can’t leave behind evidence of our scholarliness and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? Civilizations have come and gone without a trace. I doubt the citizens of such races suffered because they left no record, let alone one of literary achievement. However, we maybe suffer having no access to the lessons those unrecorded civilizations learned. Perhaps what you leave behind is important.

Beyond that, though, I say, yes, there is need for accurate and intelligent comment on our published works. As an author I want to know I hit the target. Sure it’s nice to get a bunch of five-star reviews by writing to the lowest common denominator, but if you put more into the material than just sex and violence, if reviews are not detailed and thoughtful what good are they? I mean beyond all the money to be made from a runaway bestseller that speaks to the lowest common denominator. There is that. But I daresay, deep down inside, every writer wants a competent analysis of their work. Because without that, an author is simply the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. No sound is made because no one is hearing it.

Does this low-gas, high-substance critic exist anymore? It’s easy to bemoan the fact that the Internet makes a democracy of criticism as Elowitz’ article implies. Every one of the unwashed others is a critic now: educated, uneducated, those with an ax to grind, those who have something to gain personally. Everyone has access to a platform on which to exclaim their judgment. How can we glean understanding from the opinions of such?

Not only is everybody a critic, but there is exponentially more material to wade through to find the good stuff. Where will our John Kennedy Tools, Zora Neale Hurstons, Herman Melvilles come from now that the playing field is not only level but overflowing with talent? Competition for readership is so fierce no writer is going to get more than a little sliver of the fame pie. How can the critics familiarize themselves with all that is out there in order to make an intelligent decision on who is worthy? In case you didn’t realize it the first sentence in this paragraph was sarcastic. All three of those now worshipped authors were at one point dissed by either the publishing industry or the critics of the day. I’m sure there are many other such tragic instances, not to mention thousands of genius authors whose work never even saw the light of day. The point is things were never perfect and maybe the art of kingmaking was never much better than it is today.

So we, the consumers of the Internet, are heirs to a system of criticism with a history of mixed results. Where do we go from here? Our tools are suspect, our present style ruled by the mob.

Take a look at our assets. We have a collective conscious comprised of a million voices communicating with a million keyboards. This appears to be a deficit: isn’t the democracy of the marketplace why pop music sucks? Pop music is not a genre, it’s merely music that is popular. And the banal always has the broadest appeal because no one is offended.

Although music and literature are both creative arts, the end products of their criticism have different effects. The common man’s voice is now the written word. When the common man voices his opinion on music, the musical continuum is unaffected. But in writing about writing, a lesson is learned and the lesson is about writing. What happens when you write? You get better at it. And then what happens? You recognize other people’s writing and what’s good about it. In other words the medium of the Internet actually teaches people about good writing by making them do it. It teaches them nothing about good music. Maybe there will never be such a thing as pop literature then. Wouldn’t that be something?

I don’t kid myself, people find greatness in opinions that they agree with. The form of the opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it. But some amateur critics will learn from form, about the form. Something will sink in. A more educated public will produce better criticism and better recognition of criticism.

Will it ever produce a critic as enlightened as someone who does nothing but read and write all day? Perhaps. Unfortunately, though, our system does no more to nurture the budding critic than it does to nurture the budding author. Yes, the avenues are there for a would be writer or critic, but it does nothing to nurture them and nurturing is required for excellence. An author is nurtured not only by a three-book deal, but by an editor and a public that understands the nuance and gives competent feedback. How will the critic be nurtured?

Technophilic bloggers spend more time reading tips on how to garner readers than the latest, greatest writing. With their huge readerships, they appear to be viable tastemakers, when in reality they’re just good at the pop mentality. Serious criticism requires a knowledge of what has gone before and what is out now. Who’s reading all that literature? Certainly not the technophilic blogger watching visitor stats and thinking about search engine optimization.

There is one group that does educate itself on what has gone before: the authors. The self-respecting authors, anyway. The ones that deserve critical acclaim. True critical acclaim, not just best seller status. These are the serious writers that respect the art. The ones that voraciously read and study the competition. The ones who love a good book. And they will seek and support an intelligent critic.

Perhaps the industry will turn to self-policing then. It will judge itself. I’m sure that will work. Look how well it works for the military.

I believe we need competent, thoughtful critics to help us wade through the dross. We will find those that have educated themselves on what is out there, what has gone before. Much like scientists who once were knowledgeable in every field, but now specialize, they will not know every book in every genre. They will have a field in which they know every book. We will trust them. They will decide who the king of content is. We, the people, however, will decide who the critic is. Welcome to the world. Breathe. Lots of air, lots of oxygen. It’s healthy, but don’t be afraid if things get thin. A little less gas means a lot more substance.

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As you can see, Sue and I have differing points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 days.

I know some of you weighed in on this discussion by commenting on my articles, but does Sue’s perspective change your mind? Do you agree with her? Have you something to add?

April 27, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I

My previous article, Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?, turned out to be quite controversial, provoking lots of comments around the Internet, few supportive. Arguments against my article ranged from free speech (which is a legal concept that really doesn’t apply) to with so much dreck the cream will rise to the real culprit being print on demand to literature includes dreck by definition to … pick your own dart. Many commenters lauded the ability of anyone with a computer to “publish” their ebook. Swimming through an open floodgate is not, in my view, a good way to swim; it is only a good way to drown.

It is obvious to me that — although others assure me to the contrary — I failed to articulate my point very well, or that if I did articulate it well, it was too subtle or esoteric or whatever because no one really zeroed in on the issue. So I not only want to try again, because I think the point is deserving of debate, but I plan to do so over the course of several articles (thus the round numbering).

So, let’s start the great debate (divide?) by defining literature. As some commentators pointed out, the dictionary definition of literature is all-encompassing — it includes all writings in prose or poetry form. The dictionary definition, however, goes on to say especially “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.” Literature is something more than words assembled in a logical stream. It is this “writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest” that is the literature of my discussion. 

I use literature to be synonymous with that small portion of writing that by consensus is of such caliber that it will still be remembered, read, and pointed to as an exemplar of literary merit long after the particular style has gone out of fashion and the author has died. I use literature to mean that body of work that society in its amorphous whole has determined should be put on a pedestal, distinguishing it from all other publications.

I do not use literature to mean popular or fashionable or award winning. James Patterson’s books are popular but I do not see society declaring his novels to be literature. I guess what I mean by literature is what many call great literature — works such as Shakespearean plays that are still read and performed hundreds of years after the death of the author. It is possible for a work to be both literature and popular, but whether something is literature is independent of whether it is popular. The terms literature and great literature are synonymous here.

When we look at what has been denominated great literature over the course of time, we can observe that there is something more to the work, something that may be indefinable or something that caused a revolution in thinking or perspective. It is that intangible that separates literature from simply being in print.

Consider music. People recognize the greatness of a Beethoven symphony — a masterpiece of music that has withstood the test of time. Yet, not all of Beethoven’s symphonies were well-received at the time of their premiere — other composers were more popular, but once they died they became dust in the dustbin of musicology. The great composers — the Mozarts, the Bachs, the Beethovens of music — had patrons and publishers who acted as gatekeepers.

The same is true of art. Consensus is that van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Da Vinci, for example, were true masters. But that hasn’t stopped your neighbor from painting and trying to sell his or her artwork. The great artists were represented and their works competitively sought after by galleries that acted as gatekeepers. The gatekeepers began the separation of run-of-the-mill art from great art.

Writing is similar to art and music. And before the advent of ebooks and print on demand (POD), the process of separating literature from the rest of what was published or available to be published was easier. eBooks and POD have changed the landscape. In 2009, at least 1 million new books were published, 75% nontraditionally, i.e., as ebooks, POD, and micro-niche publishing.

With 250,000 traditionally published books it was already difficult to separate literature from run-of-the-mill work. We relied on gatekeepers to start the process. But in 2009 we were overwhelmed. Name 1 novel that was published in 2009 for which there is consensus that it is great literature and will withstand the test of time?

When J.D. Salinger published Catcher in the Rye in 1951, it was but a short time until a consensus was reached that this book was literature. By the 1960s it was standard reading in high schools across the country. Publishers, book reviewers, teachers, and readers were already comparing new works by other authors to Catcher, looking for the next book that could be called literature. Catcher had become a standard. Probably the next book to reach that status was Harper Lee’s 1962 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Catcher, Mockingbird became a literary staple, a standard, and required reading near universally. We continue to celebrate these books today.

So, out of the 1 million books published in 2009, name the novel that is today’s equivalent of Catcher or Mockingbird. Perhaps there is one, but I admit I don’t know of it.

Literature is significantly more than numbers, more than a good story that is well executed. Literature comes about by building a societal consensus, something that is easier to do when there are fewer choices.

The debate continues in round II…

April 22, 2010

Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?

According to statistics released by R.R. Bowker and published in Publisher’s Weekly, more than 764,000 self-published and micro-niche books were published in 2009, compared to 288,000 traditionally published books. I wonder if those numbers include ebooks?

We already know that a goodly number of the traditionally published books — all of which presumably were professionally edited and produced — aren’t of particularly high quality, so what does that portend for the three-quarters-of-a-million nontraditionally published books? Odds are that many of them aren’t even of the lowest quality traditionally published books.

I readily admit that among the nontraditionally published ebooks are some gems; I’ve bought a few and throughly enjoyed the writing style even if there were a lot of significant annoyances (see for some examples, On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) — but I wouldn’t name a single one as great literature.

The problem isn’t just in the lack of the finishing touches, the kinds of things that professional editors, designers, and producers can provide (for an understanding of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). The problem is that they really aren’t new twists on old stories and the old twists aren’t particularly well executed.

Pick up a novel — doesn’t matter whether it was written by a world-famous author or your next door neighbor — and the story is probably a rehashing of a story that is at the core of thousands of other books. It isn’t a wholly original story. How many times have you said to yourself that the eighth book in a series is really just a repeat of the first book — just different characters and different locale? How many different ways can someone be murdered or armies clash or elves have pointy ears?

It is clear, however, that there is a distinction between run-of-the-mill novels and literature. Would anyone mistake Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for their neighbor’s mystery novel? I’m not talking about whether I like a particular author or story, I’m talking about whether the story will stand the test of generations: Will future generations be reading the work for anything more than research? (Will researchers even bother reading the work?)

This is the problem I see with nontraditionally published ebooks (and to be honest, even with many traditionally published ebooks). Sure there are some that will sell several thousand copies and be considered a financial success by their authors. But financial success doesn’t equate with good literature. Ponzi schemes bring financial success but no one I know considers investing in such a scheme to be good financial planning.

There are no clear or easy resolutions to the problems that ebooks bring to the reading world. It isn’t possible to equate single-digit sales numbers with poor literary merit any more than 5-digit sales numbers can be equated with it. There is something significantly more elusive about what makes a novel literature as opposed to nonliterature. I admit that I can’t put my finger on that elusive trait and identify it clearly for all the world to see and acknowledge, but readers do know it exists.

Great literature is often the retelling of an older story but in a new way or in a new light. Fantasy adventures, for example, are often a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. (Unfortunately, too many are retellings of the retelling of the retelling — ad infinitum — of the original retelling.) It is how they are retold that separates the wheat from the chaff. And it is the ease of publishing ebooks that makes the separation process so difficult.

Many people have a story that they want to tell. The question is: Should they tell it? Is there really a place for wooden characters, wooden dialogue, and repetitive plots? Should there be? And with the ease of nontraditional publishing of ebooks, will literature soon disappear? Or will it become unrecognizable? Or will it become more readily recognizable?

Although I can’t identify the precise thing that makes one book great literature and another not even poor literature, I do recognize that there is a certain broad, cultural identification of a work as great literature, even if some of the recognizers would not themselves call it such. Consider Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both are considered literary masterpieces of the 20th century; I don’t dispute that accolade even though I think Salinger is well overrated and Steinbeck deserves greater praise. I also think Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry should be in that esteemed company although I have yet to read a Philip Roth novel I would recommend to anyone. My point isn’t that I think yea or nay but that there is a developed consensus that says yea or nay.

How do you develop such a consensus with nontraditionally published ebooks? It takes more than a village of 10 people to move an author from the wanna-be to the great category. Two generations from now, what will be the great literary works of the late 20th-early 21st century that are discussed in schools, that everyone can point to as being in the list of top 100 must-read works? I fear that the future of ebooks will be the downfall of literature as ease of publishing sinks everything to the bottom. I fear that we are seeing the birth of mediocrity as the new great literature.

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