Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Some have greatness thrust upon them…

In the last quarter of 2009, I spent a lot of internal dialogue on a question of aesthetics that formed itself from ongoing thoughts and conversations about the media in my life. First, I had read Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle ( and, needing a pattern to shape my thoughts around and against, I did a little research into the criticism of the novel. With few exceptions, the praise was effusive though I often found that analysis was missing—there was not much by way of examples from the text about why it was so good. But I also recognized as I read it that it just had a feel of "greatness," somehow the book was making me feel like it was supposed to be good, which is a strange metafictional artifact and pretty difficult to express, let alone quantify.

Similarly, much to the distress of Mrs. Speculator and my friends, I just don't understand the fascination with the TV series, Mad Men. I've watched every episode of it now, and while I can appreciate the talent of the writers and some of the actors, it all seems to be in the service of something I am just missing out on. Repeatedly I am told—by friends whose opinions I trust, critics I value, and award shows—that this is good drama and that I should appreciate it more than I do. And all I can see is a particularly well-written soap opera set in an earlier time (which used to be a regular point but is rapidly becoming just a gimmick). Why is Mad Men nearly universally seen as great television? What quality of it makes it good? And again, I keep getting the feeling as I watch it that I am supposed to think it is good, that it is explicitly trying to impress me with how good it is.

I recognize that part of the issue here is going to be semantics: defining "good" is a difficult process, especially since it relies so much on personal values. But in some cases (especially with Mad Men) there is an air of snobbery—if you don't get why it's good, you're just unaware of what good really is. This is never explicit but my well-meaning attempts to understand by asking questions like "What makes it good?" are met with dumbfounded stares or their virtual equivalents. If the conversation evolves beyond that impasse, I often am told that it's very literary, as if that's more easily defined than "good." And since I have degrees in literature and write and talk passionately about books, clearly I should know what "literary" is and that it is the goal to which all story-telling aspires.

And then, over the fall, the speculative fiction community took a long look at itself after some critical remarks were made about how the literary awards never seem to have genre fiction as their nominees, even though the books that do get nominated are rife with themes and plots that would otherwise qualify them as speculative fiction. This all started when Ursula le Guin reviewed Margaret Atwood's latest novel, The Year of the Flood, questioning Atwood's determination not to be "pigeonholed" ( In it, Le Guin talks about some of the manufactured differences between "literary fiction" and genre fiction. Embedded in those distinctions is the belief, or perhaps fear if you view it from a marketing perspective, that genre fiction can never be good, while literary fiction is always good. And taking it a step further, if something puts on the trappings of being literary—calls attention to itself as being literary—then it also implies that it is inherently good. It's like the brick and mortar book stores have been divided into sections: science fiction, mystery, westerns, and over there is the good section. And yet I find myself thinking of Michael Chabon who rejoices in his genre roots, even announcing his genre intentions as his books get placed in the good book section.

So all of these thoughts whirling about in my head eventually led me to ask myself what the heck "literary" means and why literary equals good. What do these literary things have in common and do they really somehow proclaim their own literariness?

On the surface, Murakami and Mad Men have pretty much nothing in common. The novel deals with a young man hitting a crisis in his personal and professional life while the TV show is about a 1960s ad agency, focusing on a troubled protagonist but including threads from all the characters. The book is ethereal and sometimes fanciful, and the series is usually visceral and grounded, but with moments of something else. I wrestled with this for a while—the use of language is different, symbolism is different, the themes are different. What do these things have in common?

Denseness. Not of the reader/viewer, but of story-telling. Layer upon layer of narration, multiple story threads weaving around one another. Not, usually, denseness of language, but complex (not necessarily complicated) stories. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, instead of the usual single-thread narrative of a man's life—all the events that relate to the story the writer wants to tell—we are given nearly every facet of the protagonist's life, from the moment he wakes up and considers what his breakfast might be until he lays his head down on his pillow. And we meet every person he meets and are given part of their stories as well. On Mad Men, the plot revolves around as many as ten characters and their families/lovers, showing the depth of relationships and of personality since no one acts exactly the same way around every person they know and when alone. And the main character is especially rich in his experiences and decisions if not particularly deep. The dense storytelling, looked at another way, could also be called verisimilitude: the stories show the breadth of real people and their range of experiences, even if those experiences are ridiculous (is it irony that we want our fictional people to feel real?).

And denser storytelling usually makes for harder reading/viewing, making the consumer work for the pleasure they get out of it. There's an underlying relationship there: we're supposed to like the things we work hard for—we want our efforts to be spent judiciously—so we are inclined to like it. We may even want to like it, biasing ourselves from the start.

There are some interesting corollaries to this equation. For one thing, associating literariness and goodness to density neglects all the other things that make good writing. I enjoy good stories, but good writing makes me swoon. Powerful language, style used to an intent, narrative structure—all these are just as important as the plot. Critics argue, maybe rightfully, that Neal Stephenson is not very good at plots, but his language and sentences are delightful. Is that not literary? Iain Banks is masterful at narrative structure. China Mieville is brilliant at world-building. And while these authors are recognized as good, they live cleanly on the verge of literariness in the public eye. Maybe it's because they are so clearly genre writers as well (but that's a topic for another time). Arguably, these other aspects are more difficult than good plotting.

Following this line of reasoning, there must be literary things that are not good. Cultural things that are not good rapidly pass from our awareness, unless they are so not-good that they become known and honored for it. I know this is true for TV and movies, but I can't think of an example of bad books becoming beloved for their badness—though I suppose it could be argued that anything by Dan Brown fits the bill. As a result, perhaps, merely having a major publishing house put "literary" or "literature" on the spine of your book or having major chains put it in the literary section becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy (again, in the mind of the consensus).

There's a parallel with "art" here. It's art so it must be good…and I have to like it. And if I don't like it…I just don't get it. And more so than books (and definitely more so than TV), people are explicitly snobby about their ability to "get it" with art.

Which leads to my final corollary—there are good things that are not literary! Why do I feel ashamed that Empire Records makes me smile? Why am I embarrassed to tell people I love Edgar Rice Burroughs? Because the consensus perception is that they are inherently not good—they have no value beyond entertaining me, as if there is something wrong with faithfully and regularly entertaining people. Oh, I do it too—I did it above. People love Dan Brown, and he gets bashed over and over by critics. Even now I'm struggling to write these words—perhaps he deserves some credit for entertaining so many people.

So I hereby resolve to recognize "literary" as another style, another identifier for media, but not a descriptor of value. Literary things are not inherently good. Being a literary movie is not inherently better or worse than being a popcorn movie. What matters is how well the book/movie/TV show pulls off its goal. If it has literary aspirations, has it met them? If it was designed solely to entertain, did it? And then, the critic's real job, why did it or did it not?

And I will no longer be cowed by Mad Men; it's a dang soap opera.

1 comment:

  1. For once I have an opinion on one of your posts! Usually I read them and love your writing but have no exposure to the movies/comics/books.

    The reason I love Mad Men is because it's so much fun to have running commentary with my boyfriend about things like "why doesn't he just email her?" or "holy crap they sure do drink a lot, don't they?" And, I like the story lines.

    I think the reason lots of people are intimidated by opera (which is something I love and am willing to pay $900/season for five operas) is because they think it's heavier than it really is. They're soap operas. They've got ridiculous story lines, there's lots of sex and drinking and death, what's not to love? Okay, I know quite a few people who are bored to death with operas, but that's another kettle of fish.

    I'm not ashamed to admit that I have a deep and abiding love for All Things Reality Show on both MTV and VH1. But I also love me some heavier entertainment as well.

    Good post. Thanks for the moment of thinking about this.