Fiction, Non-Fiction, “Popularity,” and “Seriousness”

Back in December-January, I wrote a series of posts on fiction and non-fiction writers, in particular, on the relative endurance of their writings in posterity. I wondered whether essayists and non-fiction writers stood less of a chance of having their work read by future generations than did novelists and fiction writers, what the causes for fiction’s greater enduring power might be (if indeed, that was the case), what the “popular-serious” distinction in writing amounted to, how meaningful the distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers” was, whether traditional reportage-style essays were particularly susceptible to datedness and so on. (There were three posts in all, titled Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essays and Posterity; Essays and Expiry DatesFiction, Non-Fiction, Essays and Posterity.)

With respect to these discussions, the Letters sections of the first two issues of the London Review Books (Vol 1, No. 1, 25 October 1979, and Vol. 2, No. 2, 8 November 1979) provide some interesting reading. In them, the LRB featured replies from readers to a question posed by the journal: What should a literary journal now be doing, and what else would they like to say about the current state of literary journalism and publishing? 

I am reproducing a couple of letters in their entirety–sans commentary. The LRB Letters archive pages are accessible to paid-subscribers only.

From Vol.1, No.1, 25 October 1979.

Brigid Brophy:

My hope is for justice for fiction.

There is a mythical syllogism that goes: Fiction (or at least fiction in hard covers and with artistic ambition) doesn’t sell; its publishers don’t, therefore, advertise it; papers are therefore doing an act of charity if they allot it review space.

That, however, is to ignore the readers (as distinct from buyers) of books. (In Britain those two are very distinct, thanks to the unique size of our public library service.) All papers depend immediately on advertising, but a paper about books must find itself an ultimate constituency among the people who read books. And the books those people read are, predominantly, fiction.

Puritans, who hate and fear fiction, regularly pronounce ‘the novel’ dead, using the singular because they wish there were only one. But champions of fiction often do it no better justice, with their appeals to pity and duty on behalf of the poor, démodé, tottering old thing.

The old thing is in reality a bounding pop art. Some 65 to 70 per cent of adult borrowing from public libraries is borrowing of fiction. In absolute numbers, 365 or so million volumes of fiction-for-adults a year (or one million a day) are given temporary housing in British homes.

It is regrettable for novelists who want to stay alive, and for readers who want them to stay alive to keep up the supply, that British readers borrow rather than buy their fiction. However, they do it for the most sympathetic reasons: namely, that they want such a lot of the stuff. Fiction is perilously addictive. Even though publishers still keep the average price of a fiction book considerably lower than that of a book-in-general, any addict who bought all he wants to read would be quickly bankrupted, not to mention crowded out of his home.

It is probably true that many of the works that addicts borrow in such mass are not imaginative creations but commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review. But so long as there are misapprehensions about fiction’s standing in present-day society, any squeeze on review space squeezes fiction first, with the result that good novels, too, get ignored or slighted, especially the ones that are written within a given form. Snobs who dismiss thrillers, for instance, because they adhere to a set of conventions, should re-examine their attitude to Greek tragedy.

Even the novels that are reviewed are for the most part treated like dirt – that is, swept up in swathes by whoever can be persuaded to take on the chore. Addicts of fiction positively like having their credulity stretched, but even they balk at the straining symphonic bridge-passages (‘From Amsterdam to intellectual agony may seem a big jump’) of round-up reviews.

A more catholic choice of titles for review; more space; and solo space: these are the least that decency demands for what is at the same time the most popular species of books and the one ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed’.

From Vol. 2, No.2, 8 November 1979

N. F. McDowell:

The first issue of the London Review expresses a concern for the public usefulness of literature, and in three of the letters printed in that issue there was evidence of a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘commercial’ literature. Mr Hamilton asked if anyone wanted a ‘serious reviewing journal’; Mr Rosenthal made a request for ‘serious poetry reviewing’; and Brigid Brophy distinguished between ‘imaginative creations’ and ‘commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review’. I wonder about these hard-and-fast distinctions.

Byron’s works were best-sellers, but they were hardly ‘commercial manufactures’. In a commercially-dominated world, something might be achieved through a critical, ‘serious’ reading of books written specifically for financial gain. Literature is still part of many people’s cultural fodder: it can also be the antennae of a culture. If arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘imaginative’ are left unquestioned, we might consume our own antennae unawares. Shakespeare’s genius flourished in the commercial environment of the theatre, and as soon as a piece of writing is for sale it is commercial manufacture. The London Review should encourage critical reading over a wider range of literature than seems to be promised in the first issue.

Aguirre and the Rainforest: Madness in a Theater Made For It

Werner Herzog‘s Aguirre: Wrath of God is a supremely effective cinematic meditation on madness. It is able to marshal several progressions: that of the cinematic narrative, the journey into, through, and hopelessly within, an alien jungle-land, the simple passage of time, and run them alongside the descent into insanity of the movie’s eponymous central character.  It is this relentless, fatal, spiraling downward into a place we wish we never will see that remains the movie’s grimmest and most compelling attraction. It is entirely unsurprising to find this movement toward the darker regions of mind and space features a soundtrack that enjoys critical acclaim; Aguirre’s journey into madness has a symphonic majesty to it that demands, and finds, an appropriate musical accompaniment.

And this journey does not just take place anywhere. It  has a very singular location: the Amazonian rainforest.

What is truly peculiar about the rainforest is that it runs the contrasts of the wild densely together in an unrelentingly claustrophobic space: here is life, thick, lush, green, omnipresent, struggling constantly for space, water, air, sustenance; here too is death, the generations of plant and animal life trodden down, buried, integrated into the flesh of the rainforests’ new inhabitants; here is open space, untouched by man; here is space colonized by the forest’s growth.  All wildernesses remind us of remoteness from human concern; the rainforest throws up perhaps the thickest barriers against the exertion of human will.  This is a theater of madness par excellence.

When Aguirre’s daughter, Flores, is told by their Indian prisoner that they will never leave the rainforest, that they are doomed, the chill the viewer feels has been building for a while; the Indian has merely articulated what has thus far remained unsaid. He has finally forced attention to the elephant in the room: this journey is doomed, not just because of its leader’s megalomania, greed, and insanity, but also because of all the places in the world that he could have chosen to exercise his fevered, misguided vision, he has done so in a place so implacably indifferent and hostile to human ambition and desire. The backdrop for Aguirre’s story is that of the conquistador’s ‘conquest’ of the Americas; here, even that unstoppable juggernaut must finally come to a grinding, muddy, watery halt, strangled in the flora and fauna of the rainforest.

Aguirre‘s book-ends possess a beautiful structural perfection: the opening scene captures the descent of a chain of tiny, struggling, destined-to-be-outmatched humans into a misty valley, accompanied by the soundtrack’s haunting opening notes; the final scene shows us Aguirre’s insanity is complete; he has announced his hallucinatory vision of his promised kingdom; the forest has crept up to the edge and started picking off stragglers; the monkeys–possibly symbolic of the forces of madness set loose in Aguirre’s mind–run rampant over the raft; all is lost. And the raft floats on, toward its final union with the ocean, carrying on it the latest victims of the encounter of human hubris and nature’s indifference.

Goethe and Nietzsche on the Freedom Program

A couple of days ago, while whiling away my time on Twitter, distracted from writing, and possibly other, more “productive” activities, I noticed Corey Robin tweet: “What would Nietzsche say about the fact that I need the Freedom program to write about Nietzsche?” My glib reply: “I think he’d love the irony of it! You haven’t ‘overcome’ yourself (or your distraction) yet.” To which Corey then wrote, “Or maybe he’d see it as the life-giving form I’ve imposed on myself in order to create. Crap, yes, but create nonetheless” and then went on to quote Nietzsche himself (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 188; the passage is worth reading in its entirety):

But the curious fact is that all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness, whether in touch itself or in government, or in rhetoric and persuasion, in the arts just as in ethics, has developed only owing to the ‘tyranny of such capricious laws’.

A particularly appropriate quote under the circumstances.

On an academic note, I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between constraint and creativity for a long time. In Chapter 3 of Decoding Liberation, Scott Dexter and I tried to develop a theory of aesthetics for software, a crucial role in which is played by the presence of technical constraints on programmers’ work. More personally, as someone who is perennially distracted, who finds writing almost fiendishly difficult for that reason, and has often attempted to impose ‘Internet-fasts’ on himself in order to ‘produce,’ I remain intrigued and challenged by the need to restrain oneself in order to be truly free when it comes to self-expression (I’m indulging in the conceit here that writing is an activity that enables that.)

My struggles with working in the presence of the distraction–a ‘freedom’ that detracts from the ‘freedom’ of writing–are constant; sometimes those distractions are other daily, mundane responsibilities, sometimes willful procastination, and these are experienced by almost any one that sets out to ‘create’ in any shape or form whatsoever. And in those moments of struggle to get to work, where a particular freedom awaits us, we always struggle with the call of the alternative ‘freedom’.   And the peculiarity of it all, when we do manage to get to ‘creating,’ is a sense that somehow, restraint is an inseparable part of being free.

Of course, poets have said it better than I could.  So, without further ado, we have Goethe on the subject:

Nature and Art (Natur und Kunst)

Nature and art–they seem to split and flee
And find each other before one thinks about it. 
My stubbornness too has been completely routed
So right now both seem to appeal to me.
What’s missing is only an honest preparation!
The fact is that if we first devote hard hours–
Of spirit, of work–to art, accepting its powers, 
The heart once more feels nature’s illumination
That’s how it goes with every transformation:
All struggles to reach the perfection of airy summits
Prove useless to spirits feeling only liberty.
Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination:
A master first reveals himself in limits,
And law alone can truly set us free. 

On Seeing a Tiger in the Wild

Despite being condemned to mediocrity, there is at least one percentile ranking out there in which I do really well. Among the many billion human beings that have lived on this planet, only a vanishingly small fraction has seen a tiger in the wild. I’m one of those lucky ones. It’s only happened once, and I’ m not sure if it will ever happen again. But that event’s occurrence has ensured I occupy the 99.999th percentile of what seems to be a particularly interesting scale.

In 1981, I set off to observe spring vacation at a friend’s tea-estate in the Dooars region of North-Eastern India. I was not alone; I was accompanied by several classmates from my boarding school. Our host, a fellow student, had enticed us with tales of the dense forests that surrounded his estate, which promised to provide many opportunities for as-yet-undreamed-of adventures. It didn’t hurt that these verdant forests were home to rivers that featured limpid pools by the dozen for swimming hijinks in the spring heat.

The tea-estate was everything it was made out to be. Its manager was a mustachioed, larger-than-life adventurer with a booming voice and an insatiable appetite for big meals, large Scotches and driving his jeep rather recklessly through the narrow, rutted, and often spectacularly pot-holed roads that ran through the surrounding region. His sole concern during our visit seemed to be the arranging of one foray after another into the wilderness–each more delightful than the last–for his city-slicker wards. (These included a night-time high-speed drive through an abandoned WWII airfield; I hope to blog on that someday).

One fine warm evening, our plans called for a dip in a particularly salubrious riverine bathing establishment that lay some ten miles away. We drove there in two jeeps, one pulling an open-bed trailer behind it, on which some of us parked ourselves, frolicked in the river for an hour or so, and then headed back at sundown. As we drove on a narrow metalled road winding its way through forested landscapes rapidly being enveloped in the gathering darkness, the jeep in front stopped. Back in the rear vehicle, sitting on its open-bed trailer, we looked ahead, wondering what had caused the sudden halt.

The driver of the jeep raised his hand to call for silence, and then pointed to the right side of the road. Standing there, eyes wide open, with what can only be described as a calm, collected, and perhaps curious expression, was a Royal Bengal Tiger. (It looked pretty damn regal, and we were in Bengal.) We stared back; none of us carried cameras–or smartphones with cameras. There was no photo-opportunity here; there was no question of anyone alighting to take a closer look; someone would have to blink to bring this encounter to an end.

The tiger did; its inquiry into our affairs over, it turned and was gone. We stared into the undergrowth but all was dark.

I’ve often wondered, how that brief encounter could best be described. Nothing much happened in it: a little staring back and forth; no spectacular displays of tigerish speed or power; no dramatic visions of a lithe, brown blur; even its eyes were not “burning bright” enough. But all of that didn’t seem to matter; for those seconds as I stared at the tiger, it seemed to me that I wasn’t even staring at some concrete, flesh-and-blood entity, as much as I was staring at the product of a set of imaginations, the collective one of all those that had described the mythical tiger to me in print, image and story, and the resultant imaginative response that their efforts had triggered in me. Something tells me that it was just as well that I saw that tiger when I did, possessed as I was of that mix of naiveté and receptiveness to mythology that is distinctive of adolescence.

David Brooks on “Centralization”

On May 23-24, 1865, the victorious Union armies marched through Washington. The columns of troops stretched back 25 miles. They marched as a single mass, clad in blue, their bayonets pointing skyward.

Those lines, dear reader, are the openers of a David Brooks article about the “centralization” of power in Washington via the “Obama health care law” (whose official moniker is “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”). “Obama health care law,” then, in the next sentence or so, becomes just plain “Obamacare.” Another sentence or so later, as Brooks commences a four-step listing of how “Obamacare” has “centralized” Washington’s authority, we are told about how “Obamacare centralizes Medicare decisions — and the power of life and death — within an unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board.”

At this stage, I am eight paragraphs through this seventeen-paragraph missive, and thus far, I’ve been exposed to civil war imagery, Obamacare, and the “death panels” made famous by Sarah Palin.

As far as polemical or rhetorical accomplishment goes, I’d have to say that Brooks got off to a flying start by talking about “Union armies” in Washington, “clad in blue” ready to bayonet any surviving Confederate unfortunates scrounging about in the undergrowth. Civil War? Red versus Blue? Bring it on!

The militarized bluster of this beginning was maintained by his choice of “Obamacare” as a tag for the health care act, but he seemed to have lost some nerve when it came to the “death panels.” Rather than use that term Brooks merely sticks in a coy subclause “and the power of life and death” when talking about the “unelected Independent Advisory Board” that allegedly wields it.  This is someone who is dying to soar and swoop in his political engagements but finds himself unable to do so.

Later, Brooks continues his milquetoast rambling by committing to what he terms a “Hamiltonian” position: “centralize the goals, but decentralize the means people take to get there.” I honestly have no idea what it means to “centralize a goal” but I’ll assume in this context that it means deciding to do something, as a legislative authority, as a government,  for the nation and its peoples. Which, of course, means that just about any legislation signed to realize ends of national interest (i.e., without regard for a particular region, people or geographic interest) represent the “centralization of goals.”  This understanding of “centralization” certainly seems to take some of the possibly threatening totalitarian sheen off it.

Be that as it may, possibly more interesting is Brooks’ decentralized solution:

[G]overnment insists everybody has coverage but then encourages companies, families and Medicare beneficiaries to engage in a regulated process of discovery to find the best care at the lowest cost.

It isn’t clear, of course, how such “encouragement” would work, and it is entirely mysterious, at least at this level of description, how or why such a “regulated process of discovery” would be any more efficient, and conducive to the production of better outcomes than the “centralized” process that Brooks so abhors. And Brooks shouldn’t be happy about the “regulated” nature of the process either; that seems to smack of control and direction, frightening entities for our brave unstructured, decentralized, Hamiltonian warrior.

Hegel’s Stoic and Prison Literature

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll notes that,

With great sociological and psychological insight Hegel says that “stoicism, the freedom which goes back into the pure universality of thought, could appear as a general form of the world spirit only in a time of general fear and servitude but also of general education, which had taught men to think” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 153). The point seems to be that the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration. Where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought. Hegel seems to suggest that the stoic’s freedom is what Freud might call a substitute gratification.

While Soll goes on to argue–in the very next sentence–that,

However, this suggestion, interesting and true as it may be, is not completely consonant with the genesis of stoicism in the Phenomenology. Although stoicism arises from servitude rooted in fear, it does not arise because the servant is not allowed to act freely, but because all action proves ultimately futile.

it is still worthwhile to think about why this “insight” of Hegel might be thought perspicuous independent of the particular theoretical standing of “stoicism” in Hegel’s system.

This perspicuity is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress etc–is truly staggering and populated with luminaries–Boethius, John Bunyan, Marquis De Sade, Jean Genet etc–seemingly beyond count. Here, constraint becomes conducive to creativity; the slamming door of one gate is merely the prompt to the unlocking of another. It is not a conceptual necessity associated with the act of confinement, but rather, a very particular, contingent reaction by some. For this actor, confinement does produce the search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and, to continue to use Freudian language, the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not so appropriately, powerfully, and masterfully, directed towards the substitute activity of alternative expression it can, of course, become pathologically repressed instead. (The Nietzsche of the second essay of The Geneaology of Morals would nod his head at this point, I think.)

The prison writer is, like the Hegelian stoic, still a seeker of freedom but, unlike the Hegelian stoic, not one that considers all action futile. Rather he has come to see that actions are still available to him, even if not those that had previously been available to him as a fuller mode of physical expression. So, like the Hegelian stoic, he has moved from considering freedom to being a purely practical affair to being a “peculiarly theoretical and epistemological one” (Soll, 30) but one still grounded in the activity of writing.

Those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for the oppressor: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to as much totality as possible.

Update: Just chatting with Corey Robin over on Twitter, who suggested adding Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn and Bukharin to the genre of prison literature, and also noted the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism to my last sentence.  Good points of course; my small list above merely scratches the surface, and I would even supplement Arendt with the Orwell of 1984.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will: Still Scary After All These Years

I have a confession to make: I had not seen Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will till Friday evening. I’ve talked about it, seen clips from it, read critical essays on it, and even seen a biographical film–The Wonderful, Horrible, Life of Leni Riefenstahl–about its director, but never seen Triumph Des Willens itself. On Friday night, thanks to its availability on Netflix, I fixed this gap in my movie viewing.

An unavoidable response to a cinematic document that is so beautifully constructed but that has such malignant associations is to experience violence done to our vocabulary of aesthetic predicates: Which parts of our language of critical appraisal can we bring to bear in describing the movie without feeling they have been tainted by such association? This question, explored almost endlessly in all scholarship on Riefenstahl’s masterpiece, is not going to find any particularly perspicuous answers being mounted here, other than for me to note that I am now familiar with the visceral nature of the dilemma it poses for anyone perplexed by his appreciation of the movie.

More chillingly, when noting the date of the movie, and its location in the series of denouements that culminated in VE Day, the viewer cannot but wonder if there are records of our age that will be viewed in the future with the same mixture of fascinated horror; we too, like the ecstatic crowds that greet Hitler in Nuremberg, do not know what lies ahead.  Hitler’s joyous reception in Nuremberg, with its images of smiling, laughing, exulting, women and children, running toward the Führer to welcome him to their city, also makes us wonder how many of those same citizens died in the war to come, how many of them realized this visit by the Nazis to their city was the foreshadowing of a death sentence as the Nazis took Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world into war. The pictures of massed Seig-Heiling crowds are by now passe, but there is still a curiosity to them, to witness the orchestrated maneuvers that made the raised arm the most famous and enduring symbol of fascist power.

Riefenstahl, having mastered the grammar of propaganda, utilizes much else to establish the Nazi vision of collective power. Her shots of virile young men engaged in eating, bathing, and wrestling, are as important in this project as any of the more well-known massed parade or marching shots.  Ironically, so sensitive has the viewer become to the racial politics of Nazi Germany that it is with a slight shock that one realizes, all over again, just how little so many of its party functionaries resembled the blond, blue-eyed robust Teutonic ideal, and how many instead, appear pale, sweaty, obese, undistinguished specimens of mankind. (We are also relentlessly, inevitably, reminded of the clichéd banality of evil as these officials issue boring party progress reports at the Nazi Congress.)

Perhaps I can best sum up my response to TOTW by noting a little moment of heightened sensitivity that it had created in me. At the twenty-one-minute mark, as Hitler inspects the Youth brigades of the Nazis, I noticed a young man, standing in the ranks for inspection as the Führer walks by them, who seemed to possess the semitic features that Nazis were so keen to isolate. With bated breath, I wondered if the Führer would notice. But he does not. I exhaled, feeling slightly ridiculous; the carnage to follow would still claim its terrible toll.