Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not Just for the Pretty Words: Form and Content (Notes on NY Times Review of "The Use and Abuse of Literature")

Of course I had to read an essay that started by quoting Norman Mailer on The Sopranos.

But it goes on to get at a more meaty question that troubles all readers--or at least troubles me, personally: the ever-present distinction (conflict?) between form and content, and the unsettling insistence with which many critics, and the writer of the reviewed book, defend the strictly formal approach to works of art.

I agree that it's cool to analyze works formally, but what happens to me personally is that it causes me to disengage myself from the work, to see it as meaningless--even though I am precisely supposed to see "how it means," according to Marjorie Garber.

Let's say you have a book, and the writer of the book has something to say. And here you are, the critic, telling the writer: I am not going to pay attention to what you say, I am only going to acknowledge that it is said with pretty colors.

When I see a narrative work as simply pretty words (because that's what formal analysis comes down to, right?), meaning that the actual message that the author is trying to convey is supplemental, then why am I reading it? Why don't I just go read an essay?

This gets at one thing I think all writers should do: Be Intelligent! Have Something to Say!

Take the case of George Pelecanos, for example. He is grouped under the "mystery/thriller/crime writing" sections in bookstores, and he certainly does make a lot of use of the conventions of crime fiction (focus on plot, practical prose, sharp dialogue, and of course, cops and robbers and criminals), but he also applies a sociological (humanizing) lens to the stories he's writing. Pretty soon you find yourself not caring as much about the development of the plot as you do about knowing his characters intimately. His characters, the downtrodden and the forgotten of Washington DC ("the city, not the capital"), come to be seen as products of their environment. You see, as a reader, how all of a life comes to bear when a character makes a fateful decision, how one moment can make a life, for better or worse.

And, after reading one of his novels, you could just as well visit a public school, a prison cell, or talk to an ex-drug addict, and feel the connection--in other words, I'm saying that you learn more in his novels than just about literary conventions.

Of course, the language does count, and for a lot. For example, there's a reason why Pelecanos will describe a character as wearing a "wife-beater" rather than a "sleeveless shirt." It says a lot about where the character comes from.

But it sickens me when the formal conventions of a story take the center stage and the actual truth that the story is trying to express--or whether the story expresses a truth at all--is given little, if no, attention. It seems to me solipsistic and selfish.

If only analyzed for the sake of their pretty words, the only role of books will be to occupy pretty space in a pretty room of a pretty ivory tower.

I'll leave you with a quote from the review:

Even assuming that we could separate form from content in such a way, it seems an oddly self-impoverishing gesture. Why is it unliterary — even abusive, as Garber’s title would have it — to read literature “for wisdom or moral lessons”? The best answer Garber gives is that such readings are reductive. “The clumsy formulations I grew up with — what is the moral of the story? what is the hero’s or heroine’s tragic flaw? — still influence and flatten the questions people often ask about literary works,” she complains, “as if there were one answer, and a right answer, at that. The genius of literary study comes in asking questions, not in finding answers.” But “What is the moral of the story?” is not an answer but a question. If it’s not a particularly inspired one, that only shows that Garber has given us a false choice: there are plenty of subtle, open-ended questions we might ask about what a book means. It’s strangely rigid to say that we stop being “literary” when we ask them. For that matter, to say that literary reading doesn’t concern itself with the what of meaning is itself an answer, not a question. Garber’s problem here is precisely the one she criticizes. After documenting the protean history of the term, she ends by wanting “literature” to mean only one thing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace on Television and Commercial Literature

I just bought "The Pale King," and I am excited. It is my first David Foster Wallace book.

I found these two very enlightening videos (below). In the first one, he speaks about the split in the American scene between commercial literature (Stephen King, Grisham, Crichton, etc.) and the more complex literature that's not as immediately gratifying. In the second video, he talks about television and drugs as other forms of this kind of immediate entertainment.

There is a "pleasure to hard work in reading," he says in the first video. The idea is that there are certain aesthetic experiences, in all the arts (he also references classical music), that call for more "work" on part of the reader, that demand a long-term intellectual effort that might even be frustrating but, in the end, more fruitful for the soul. I am reminded of Roland Barthes' essay, "From Work To Text," in which he makes a similar distinction.

Certainly there are television series, like the ones I mentioned in my earlier post on Television as an Epic Medium, which also demand that kind of effort on part of the reader--it's why The Wire never won any awards. It was, by any standard, a highly complex narrative.

But there is, as he points out, a very capitalist underpinning behind the idea that we want something, we pay a certain amount of money for it, and we get it, without any work thereafter or therein. Mental exertion is undervalued.

It's all the more poignant when we think just how vulnerable he was, and how depressing it is that we lost such a great thinker whose ideas boiled down to those very essentials that many wise men and women told us a long time ago: to be able to listen to silence, to be able to sit still, and to be able to be frugal with one's needs, being able thus to tell what one really needs versus what one wants.

Anyway, here I am with "The Pale King," a work that, in its incompletion, is even more of a challenge to read. David Foster Wallace's words in these two interview fragments serve as a good introduction to the reading.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Television as an Epic Medium

This essay fragment focuses on the capacity of television to be an "epic medium." Though the Internet has definitely surpassed the television set in terms of influence, I think that television has produced highly singular works, works that are uniquely and exclusively televisual, if I may. They share traits with other media, particularly the novel and film, but they are unique: they demand to be seen as television and to not be looked down at from other genres. They do not aspire to be other genres. The Wire, Tremé, The Sopranos, and Mad Men are just a few examples of great television, period.

As Christopher R. Beha writes in The New York Times:

Near the end of his life, when he’d mostly given up lobbing oddball provocations at feminists and masturbators, Norman Mailer anointed “The Sopranos” as a cultural successor to the “great American novel.” It was a genuine compliment, though a strange one. Just as Mailer and Truman Capote once advertised the literary intentions of their journalism with the term “nonfiction novel,” Mailer now honored a television show by suggesting that it wasn’t a television show at all, but something else, something literary. The irony was that Mailer had it backward. “The Sopranos” represented the end of whatever remained of television’s status anxiety; it didn’t need to be anything but itself to be taken seriously.


(…) Even though more than thirty years have passed since its publication, the most highly regarded work on the aesthetics of television remains Horace Newcomb’s TV: The Most Popular Art, published in 1974. Contemporary television scholar Jeffrey Sconce attests to this in the opening paragraph of his 2001 essay What if?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries: “the status of ‘aesthetics’ within the larger field of television studies has changed very little since the appearance of Horace Newcomb’s work, one of the very few… to propose a poetics of the medium” (93).

Newcomb’s insights into the aesthetic nature and potential of television are still fresh. In the beginning chapter of the book, he recalls the initial reactions among scholars to the phenomenon. Many, fueled by utopian optimistism (Newcomb refers to them as “visionaries”) gave television the role of the “herald towards a new world." One such scholar, Thomas H. Hutchinson, wrote, “Television means the world in your home and in the homes of all the people in all the world… [it will] bring peace and understanding to the earth…” (2). Even though his optimism seems now outdated, it is curious that he mentions the fact of a “world” in the television.

The mere prospect of being able to perceive a world in such a small object just by switching it “on” must seem as magical as rubbing a delicate lamp in order to conjure up a genie. Yet nothing could be truer.

Newcomb understood this, and knew that by their mere existence, television genres, be they comedic, tragic, or even of a documentary nature, “create their own special physical world” (28). Containing a “world” is essential to the epic, and television has proven itself up to the task since its inception.

Another important parallel between the ancient epic and The Sopranos can be found in the creative processes that gave birth to them.

While both works are distant to each other temporally, they were both created over long periods of time. In the case of The Sopranos, it was over the course of seven years, as a product of the collaboration of David Chase, the series’ creator, with the writers, the producers, and the directors of the episodes and, of course, the actors. In the case of the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, the oral tradition was developed over hundreds of years. A blind man who went by the name of Homer epitomized this tradition, in the eyes of the Ancient Greeks. Yet while they attribute the authorship of their epics to Homer, today his existence is almost as legendary as the epics themselves. It has been an enigma for centuries, and it may as well be forevermore.

But the Greeks needed a name.

As scholar Charles Rowan Beye writes: “Greek historical thinking has always insisted upon ascribing every act, no matter how general or sweeping, to the creation of a single person . . .” (1). We have inherited this tradition; the twentieth-century auteur debate in film criticism attests to this. Thus, even though scholars have long agreed that epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are the products of a long oral tradition, in which hundreds of oral poets participated over a period of a great many years, people still speak of “Homer’s Iliad.”

Homer is not a person, but an image, a symbol—the blind bard who could see deep into the heart of the human mystery and create a magnanimous works of spoken verse that encompassed it.

One may thus not think of Homer as this or that particular person, but as the consciousness that ran throughout the tradition of the epic—that first voice that gave birth to the poetry, which, years after the creator’s death, was alive in the voices of all the bards who followed him.

There is then, an element of authorship in Homer. And he might have been a person after all, but who this person was, we might as well face the fact that we will never know. Yet, in the case of The Sopranos, we do see clearly how David Chase was the creative force behind the television series. And we do know who he is. Actively involved in every single aspect of it, even in the selection of the music for each episode, he was the inciter of the constant process of creating this series, of setting up its world.

Here we arrive once more at the crux of the matter, one of the paramount similarities between the ancient epic and the television series: at no one moment is either of the two fully a “work of art” until this process of collective creation is finished.

Though we can now see it in its finished form, for many years the Iliad was very much a work-of-art-in-progress. We could say that the Iliad was precisely that—a process-work-of-art. It was never contained in one thing or entity, as it is now in a book. Every bard that sang it could give a new epithet to Achilles, could add or subtract a word or a verse in the moment of the improvisation. It was not until the narrative was dictated that it settled down from the ethereal and volatile nature of spoken words to the finality of the written word. Similarly, throughout its seven years of running time, The Sopranos was a constantly evolving work of art. With the television series and the ancient epic we see the similarity that the experience of creating the work ran parallel to the experience of viewing the work.

When one views an episode, one wonders: what will happen in the next scene—and after this episode, what will happen in the next one? At one point in time, the “authors,” in a sense, (that is, the directors, actors, writers, and the original “bard” David Chase himself) were also asking this to themselves—just as the oral poet, as he chanted the verse, was in his mind creating the next verse, in just as high a state of tension and mental activity as the listeners.

Thus we see that the television series doesn’t only show us a world—it shows us a world still in the process of unfolding itself.

Only after it is canceled or it reaches its end can one can buy all the DVD’s and enjoy it without the dread of waiting a week for the next episode. So we see that, in this particular aspect of the process of creation, The Sopranos and the Iliad have more in common than one would at first think.

Swept Away By the Fictive Dream: On Fantasy Fiction

Storytellers create worlds that are at once familiar and Other.

Fiction is always a kind of dream; we always feel like we're encountering a strange world. The genre of fantasy fiction is a colorful exemplification of this.

The Wizard of Oz, for example, places the encounter at the center of the narrative; you could say that the narrative is precisely the unfolding of the encounter. In the first fifteen minutes, a world that is “real” is presented to us; then, once the tornado comes, the rules of that world are thrown away and we are put in this bizarre landscape, where people and faces look similar, and other things look unreal. The scarecrow, the lion, and the tin man all carry semblances of a world we know, their faces smile and wink and cry like those of people we recognize, but are imbued also with unreality. Things not-human--straw, tin, a mane--are suddenly a part of them the way teeth are a part of us. And Dorothy is the reader encountering the strange new world as she is the tour guide guiding the reader through it.

Dorothy’s encounter with Oz is the reader’s encounter with the fictional world.

When Dorothy got swept up by the tornado, we did too. We've been swept up by the tornado since our parents told us bedtime stories--or since our televisions screened them to us.

There are two ways of creating a fantasy story. One was delineated above: a character living in a world with set rules is pushed into extreme circumstances, and learns by differentiation how the newfound world works. This is Narnia, Harry Potter, Inception (Ellen Paige is the character being informed), Artemis Fowl. Then there’s the story where the world is simply assumed, and the viewer has to figure out by himself how the world works. Of course, the author will provide bountiful clues. For example, in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the creepy monsters directly face the viewer during the introductory song, explaining what “Halloween Town” is all about. Miyasaki is a creator who does this in subtler ways. In Howl's Moving Castle, for example, we never really figure out what's happening. It is almost as if the narrator himself is at the mercy of the fantasy world.

In Spirited Away, Miyasaki achieves a synthesis: Chihiro does learn how the world works, but only obliquely. We never get a sense of the whole structure of it. We get glimpses, and just like the girl, we work from those glimpses, groping our way through the narrative. In this case, the creator is expecting a lot from the reader. This seems to occur much in animé; Ghost in the Shell, for example, seems to assume that you won’t get it the first time. That is, some stories are deliberately created with the intent of being seen at least twice.

But in any case, there is always some degree of exposition. And, more so, the hope that, once it is over, the detour-experience will be of some aid to us--that is, that after this journey through the land of a story, we have learned something, as Dorothy learned that there's no place like home.

Hence the tornado. This blog is a meditation on different tornadoes, mostly the ones that are worth the detour.