This title comes from a conversation I was having with one of my brothers regarding literature. I gave him a crappy answer, comparing today’s popular fiction to the ‘classics’, mourning the ease with which certain crap is published and celebrated today … and not really answering him at all.
This post will be an attempt to answer him for real.
For as long as I can remember, this brother and I have been polar opposites. I liked strawberry ice cream, he liked chocolate. He liked peanut butter on toast, I liked jam. He is calm in an argument, I get agitated and overexcited. I’ve always liked reading, he’s always liked doing other stuff. Don’t get me wrong, my brother is definitely not some mouth-breathing illiterate, it’s just that given a half hour of free time, he will frequently do something else whereas I will sit down with a book.
Given our differences, it has never surprised me that this brother hates some of the books that I count as my favourites. He is in the camp that loathes The Catcher in the Rye; I, on the other hand, loved it in high school (though as an adult am finally seeing flaws in the protagonist). Even mentioning the name Margaret Atwood sends my brother into a ferocious literary craze; I like her writing, for the most part, when it’s not being crammed down my throat in a CanLit frenzy. One of my favourite writers is Virginia Woolf, who I’m sure would drive said brother nuts with her stream-of-consciousness meanderings, though he admits he’s never read her and thus cannot comment. The book that inspired the above question? Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce. No, I am not tackling this giant tome for a blog post. And said brother has not read it either, but the fact that it is considered the most difficult book in the English language spawned this discussion.
So. The question really is: what makes certain pieces of literature great?
And the answer really is: I don’t know.
I was reading another blog recently about genre fiction. Literary snobs like to look down on genre fiction. “Oh, you’re reading a crime thriller?” the LS will say to me. “I only read The Classics.” I cry for these people. Single glistening tear. And yet I realize in doing this, I have seemingly contradicted myself — didn’t I condone classic literature in my opening paragraph, slamming today’s popular fiction? Yes, but no, not really. Before condemning anything, I read it. So I have read all of the 50 Shades and Twilight books before condemning them. I have discovered a guilty pleasure in Kelley Armstrong and Gillian Flynn novels. I have been wait-listed at the public library for some prizewinners (give a book a Giller and every closet LS will place it on hold). I read voraciously and indiscriminately, casting the shadow of judgement only after reading a book (though I have recently learned the art of giving up on a book — certain stories may start out slow and thus I will persevere, but nothing can forgive poor writing, which, quite frankly, I have no time for anymore).
In my slightly defensive stance above, I mention quite a bit of genre fiction, some good, some bad. Some genre fiction is truly great. My favourite genre fiction happens to be science fiction. And while there is frequent finger pointing to my childhood for this preference, it was actually while I was in university that I discovered how much I really loved science fiction. I was fulfilling requirements for my undergrad degree and needed a genre course, and realized that I could opt out of CanLit/American Lit/Native Lit/et cetera, and take Science Fiction instead.
My fellow undergrads were a little bit stunned (undergrads really are the very worst literary snobs), before deciding that I was taking a bird course. Bird course, indeed. The reading list was intense. The discussion groups were small enough that there was nowhere to hide. The professor was extremely well-versed in her subject matter. The assignments were difficult. I put equal amounts of effort in as I did for third year biochemistry, possibly more, because I finished all of the readings for SF.
Our professor showed us large-scale metaphors, brilliantly turned phrases, incredibly detailed worlds and characters. Introduced us to the Dozois collections (which I still buy sporadically), Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Le Guin, to name a few. She worked us hard. And yet, my friends in whatever course that required them to read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene would ask me scornfully “How is Science Fiction going?”.
Literary snobbery at its finest. I told you undergrads were the best at this.
So why, if the calibre of writing that I came across in this SF course was so high, are these novels considered ‘lesser’ than the purported classics? Or, why is it considered the height of literary genius when certain windbags puke on a page?
I will hypothesize that the less accessible a work is, the more highbrow it is considered. I don’t mean accessible in terms of how easy it is to get your hands on it — in this day and age, with a library card and a credit card, you can pretty much get any piece of writing that your little heart desires. No, I’m talking about the work involved in reading it. Most people read for pleasure. Most people want to read a sentence and know what it means, not have to slag through piles of imagery, unpack metaphors, and look up obsolete words before coming to a conclusion as to what the writer may have meant. Most people want to go from A to B to C and they want to understand how they got there.
I mean, honestly, I am often accused of literary snobbery. Frequent literary snobbery. But even at the height of my LS-dom, I still don’t want to come home from a 12-hour shift and try to figure out what this means:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs. Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe totauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface. The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. (Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce, 1939)
This is so much easier to decipher at the end of a long day:
Then Mohan Kaleer realized, as did Helena Lyakhov at this same moment, that history as men had known it had come to an end. The glittering monsters sailing beyond the clouds, more miles above his head than he dared to guess, made the little cluster of spacecraft up there at Lagrange seem as primitive as log canoes. For a moment that seemed to last forever, Mohan watched, as all the world was watching, while the great ships descended in their overwhelming majesty.
He felt no regrets as the work of a lifetime was swept away. He had labored to take man to the stars, and now the stars — the aloof, indifferent stars — had come to him.
This was the moment when history held its breath, and the present sheared asunder from the past as an iceberg splits from its parent cliffs, and goes sailing out to sea in lonely pride. All that the past ages had achieved was as nothing now; only one thought echoed and re-echoed through Mohan’s brain:
The human race was no longer alone. (Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke, 1953)
So. Since literature is so subjective, some people will prefer to read Joyce, some Clarke. But is one better? Not necessarily. Is one more accessible to the casual reader? Probably. I will note here that SF presents an inherent problem to some people, in that they can’t wrap their heads around the science-y bits (in the above passage, the mere mention of spacecraft will shut some people down). If you are one of those people, I present to you another, non-SF passage to consider for comparison with Joyce:
The sun was setting as he drove across the Park, an hour or two later. He was thinking that he had forgotten something; but what, he did not know. Scene passed over scene; one obliterated another. Now he was crossing the bridge over the Serpentine. The water glowed with sunset light; twisted poles of lamplight lay on the water, and the cab entered the shadow of the trees, and joined the long line of cabs that was streaming towards the Marble Arch. People in evening dress were going to plays and parties. The light became yellower and yellower. The road was beaten to a metallic silver. Everything looked festive.
But I’m going to be late, he thought, for the cab was held up in a block by the Marble Arch. He looked at his watch — it was just on eight-thirty. But eight-thirty means eight-forty-five he thought, as the cab moved on. Indeed as it turned into the square there was a car at the door, and a man getting out. So I’m just on time, he thought, and paid the driver. (The Years, Virginia Woolf, 1937)
To me, this passage, if we say that accessibility is a sliding, continuous scale, lies somewhere in between the Clarke & the Joyce. To me. I will read Woolf when I come home from a long shift at work. I will actually read Woolf during my half hour lunch at work. Same with Clarke. And maybe I’m completely intimidated by Joyce, but I can’t see myself pulling out Finnegan’s Wake in the staff lunchroom and working through it over a sandwich whilst people talk around me. To me, from passages I’ve read, this is an alone book.
Accessibility may not be the only factor at play here, but it definitely is an important one. This includes (but is not limited to) language, metaphors, imagery, themes — if you will, the objective parts of literature. That is to say, you can sit down and make a list: Book A uses difficult/archaic language, is heavy in metaphors and imagery, deals with complex themes; Book B uses moderately easy/contemporary language, has some metaphors, is light in imagery, and the themes are clear-cut and tangible. Book B is more accessible than Book A.
But do you enjoy Book B more? Or Book A? And therein lies the subjective nature of literature, which I’m going to deal with in the next part (this one’s gotten quite long).
(As an aside, I will note that what I am calling accessibility is also subjective; however, for the sake of argument, I’ve tried to slot it as a somewhat objective parameter, or at least build it up out of objective parameters, in order to help clarify these muddy, muddy waters.)
Books This Post:
- The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger.
- Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce.
- Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke.
- The Years, Virginia Woolf.