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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.

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