Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What's Good Reading: A Discussion

Remember when Tricia and I had an argument about whether James Patterson was or wasn’t a hack?

I’ve been having a similar argument with another friend about J.K. Rowling; but this time it is me who defends Rowling and the friend who thinks of her as a hack.

What began as a continuation of the same argument we’ve been having for seemingly a decade stretched into some related tangents that are pertinent to this blog, so I’ve included it here.

(I should warn you, this will be a long post by my standards. If you were thinking about getting a glass of lemonade or relieving yourself, you may want to do it before you begin reading.)

It began with an e-mail the friend sent me that quoted Roy Peter Clark:

“I conclude with a disclaimer: The wealthiest writer in the world is J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. She loves adverbs, especially when describing speech. On two pages of her first book, I found these attributions:

said Hermione timidly
said Hermione faintly
he said simply
said Hagrid grumpily
said Hagrid irritably

If you want to make more than the Queen of England, maybe you should use more adverbs. If your aspirations, like mine, are more modest, use them sparingly.”

or put another way: “Rowling is a hack.”

My response:

Normally I don’t bother responding to people who are commenting on books they haven’t even read. But I thought you might appreciate this Norman Mailer quote. (For context, he was describing his own The Naked and The Dead.)

“Overcertified adjectives are the mark of most best-seller writing.”

My opinion on Rowling remains unchanged. She has a knack for characterization, though not language. Her early books are kid stuff, perhaps above-average kid stuff, but nothing special. Somewhere around the third book, the series becomes genuinely good.

In later books, her storytelling becomes bloated but she maintains a knack for characterization and longitudinal plotting. Is she Shakespeare? No. She isn’t Margaret Atwood either, but she is not a hack.

James Patterson is a hack. Mary Higgins Clark is hack. Rowling is a decent storyteller who has had an unjustifiable amount of success. (But, to be fair, no one can justify having as much success as J.K. Rowling.)

The friend:

I do not doubt the ability of Rowling’s storytelling.

I’d advise her to go make movies. Oh, wait ...

Me:

So authors can’t be storytellers? Rudyard Kipling would disagree.

Friend:

Everybody is a story teller. Go have lunch at Bumps. A novelist or poet do something more.

Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck tell stories, yes, but as stylists they do not need magic or creatures to move us. It’s like music.

Me:

An author can absolutely be “just a storyteller.” Mark Twain often stressed that he was just a storyteller. (Those looking for a moral will be shot, remember?) Granted, he was being humble; but not every author needs to be a Hemingway or a Steinbeck.

There is a vast ocean between Thomas Hardy and Patterson. Not every author that falls between is a hack.

And Shakespeare wrote science fiction, also. (Both “The Tempest” and “MacBeth” depend upon supernatural elements.) The genre, as a whole, should not be dismissed.

Friend:

You’ve chosen to qualify Macbeth as science fiction in an attempt at a defense for J.K. Rowling?

I think that should be repeated.

You’ve said Hamlet was science fiction because of the appearance of a ghost.

No, not every author is a hack in between. And yes, there are some storytellers, like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, possibly Kurt Vonnegut, who are not just pure stylists, but have written great stories, but now I disagree with that as I’m typing.

Those men were stylists. Vonnegut rarely used adverbs and never used trite adverbs.

Me:

No, I classified MacBeth as science fiction to defend science fiction. You seemed to be dismissing the entire genre and I was replying to that.

And if you want to talk about bloated, British prose – Dickens. Excessive adjectives and adverbs are a turn off but we forgive them for authors we like.

Sometimes, I suspect you don’t have your own tastes when it comes to writers. You simply wait for someone with a doctorate to tell you it’s good. Name a non-classic author you enjoy.

Friend:

Dickens is excessive in those categories. Agreed. And he is known more for his characters, stories, social justice, etc.

But, as you’ve said many times before, Dickens already established his place. We needn’t debate him anymore.

I have read Dan Brown, all of Thomas Harris’ novels, Chuck Palahniuk (I looked up that spelling), much of Christopher Moore, and many, many others that I cannot recall at the moment. Including novels about Warcraft, Spellfire, Dungeons and Dragons and years of comic books. Years.

I’m sure there many parts of these books I’ve enjoyed, at times. But while Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter is fascinating, those books teach us nothing about how to be writers, and mostly fall back on cliche gadgets of drama, suspense — and we turn the page because it excites us in some way, we are moved toward the end. I enjoy a good thrill as much as anyone, but like to save those moments for movies and media that does it much better.

Writing is a completely different animal.

Let me say, I enjoy writing, its techniques, its voice, its poetry, its phonology, its music, its play on words, its mechanics, far more than most people do or even should.

But to encourage people to read books just for pleasure, or thrills, like Tricia, I think, does not unlock their potential.

I totally disagree with your comment about people with doctorates. Most of what they write about exceeds both of our thinking, much of the time. It may interest me but does not govern my opinions.

As a former jock obsessed with all things sport, chronic video game player and someone who is heavily engaged in the news, gossip, politics — let me state this unequivocally for anyone who thinks that I enjoy some sort of mental masturbation:

Books, stories, plays, poetry engage us in a way that enriches our lives and helps us figure things out in our own way. If we want to watch Harry Potter, we should have already watched Lord of the Rings, and we are watching Twilight now. All the same. Marketing departments have figured out how to make us want to read the same things and enjoy them. It’s utter rubbish. And if that makes me a snob, fine sir, then let it be so!

Me:

I think you and I may be closer to agreeing than we realize.

Things on which we can agree:
1. There are different tiers of author.
2. The best authors should be experienced, appreciated and enjoyed.
3. The most popular authors are not necessarily the most popular. (In fact, popularity may indicate that they sacrificed some of their writing for the sake of popularity.)
4. We do not always read the best authors.
5. Lower quality books (whether they be Spellfire novels, Twilight or Harry Potter) can also be enjoyable, but they lack the edifying qualities of the best authors’ works.
6. While there are some general rules to writing, what makes a writer incredible is ultimately subjective and can only be reached by consensus (whether that be a consensus of two or 2,000,000.)

Things on which I suspect we disagree:
1. I think that books of medium quality are still worthwhile. They can have worthwhile features—a memorable character, an original plot or narrative device—that justify reading them. (This is just a restatement of my previous argument that an author can be something besides brilliant or a hack.)
2. I think that not every book needs to unlock the full potential of writing, just like every song does not need to push its genre forward. Yes, I enjoy books that make me look at writing in a different way—(I recently wrote about an Italo Calvino book that did that)—but a book is not worthless if it doesn’t.
3. I read to learn the potential of writing. But I also to read to meet new characters, learn facts and—gasp!—be entertained. There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.

Some final bits of minutiae: The “doctorate” shot I took was a low blow. Consider it rescinded.

I didn’t like The Lord of the Rings books. I think Tolkien created a thorough world, but his obsessions with Elvish languages and genealogies distracted from the story. Also, he tacked on about 200 pages of unnecessary epilogue to The Return of the King. He would have benefitted from more focus on storytelling.

I don’t dwell in mediocrity. The last four books I read are Their Eyes Were Watching God, Outliers, The Tao of Pooh and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. I’ll defend the quality of those two novels to anyone. Outliers and The Tao of Pooh are nonfiction on topics in which I am interested. Just because I’ll defend the merit of moderate books does not make me a glutton—someone who will read anything regardless of quality.

I suspect I’m just slightly less judgmental than you when it comes to reading (which is, I realize, a judgmental thing to say).

The friend got the closing words:

I agree to part or much of what you’ve said. Except for this sentence: There is a happy medium between your and Tricia’s approaches.

That is the type of argument that gives us free passes, like “Such is life,” or “To each his own.” We don’t feel as though Jeffrey Dahmer’s lifestyle fell into those categories.

The problem is most people feel “good” books, plays, poems are unapproachable, boring, etc. and so they dismiss them. Sounding very judgmental, as if I know what’s best for people, I’ve found very few people who upon reading a poignant poem by Emily Dickinson do not feel it very deeply. If people can turn to Deepak Chopra for answers they surely can turn to Euripides. It isn’t he who fails the masses, it’s his marketing department.

The carpenter has more satisfaction after he has labored, choosing the wood, sketching the plans, and then saws and chisels and hews and nails, before presenting his cabinets with finished paints and layer of shellac — then he does preparing the shim. Luckily, spending a little bit of time reading each day is much less labor intensive.

-Jason Lea

P.S. No disrespect is meant toward Tricia from this post. I got nothing but love for her. I just disagree with some of her reading tastes.

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2 Comments:

OpenID okcopatrick said...

Taking arms against Harry Potter, at this moment, is to emulate Hamlet taking arms against a sea of troubles. By opposing the sea, you won't end it. The Harry Potter epiphenomenon will go on, doubtless for some time, as J. R. R. Tolkien did, and then wane.

The official newspaper of our dominant counter-culture, The New York Times, has been startled by the Potter books into establishing a new policy for its not very literate book review. Rather than crowd out the Grishams, Clancys, Crichtons, Kings, and other vastly popular prose fictions on its fiction bestseller list, the Potter volumes will now lead a separate children's list. J. K. Rowling, the chronicler of Harry Potter, thus has an unusual distinction: She has changed the policy of the policy-maker.

I read new children's literature, when I can find some of any value, but had not tried Rowling until recently. I have just concluded the 300 pages of the first book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," purportedly the best of the lot. Though the book is not well written, that is not in itself a crucial liability. It is much better to see the movie, "The Wizard of Oz," than to read the book upon which it was based, but even the book possessed an authentic imaginative vision. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" does not, so that one needs to look elsewhere for the book's (and its sequels') remarkable success. Such speculation should follow an account of how and why Harry Potter asks to be read.

The ultimate model for Harry Potter is "Tom Brown's School Days" by Thomas Hughes, published in 1857. The book depicts the Rugby School presided over by the formidable Thomas Arnold, remembered now primarily as the father of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian critic-poet. But Hughes' book, still quite readable, was realism, not fantasy. Rowling has taken "Tom Brown's School Days" and re-seen it in the magical mirror of Tolkein. The resultant blend of a schoolboy ethos with a liberation from the constraints of reality-testing may read oddly to me, but is exactly what millions of children and their parents desire and welcome at this time.

In what follows, I may at times indicate some of the inadequacies of "Harry Potter." But I will keep in mind that a host are reading it who simply will not read superior fare, such as Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" or the "Alice" books of Lewis Carroll. Is it better that they read Rowling than not read at all? Will they advance from Rowling to more difficult pleasures?

Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by social classes, but by the distinction between the "perfectly normal" (mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery. The sorcerers indeed seem as middle-class as the Muggles, the name the witches and wizards give to the common sort, since those addicted to magic send their sons and daughters off to Hogwarts, a Rugby school where only witchcraft and wizardry are taught. Hogwarts is presided over by Albus Dumbeldore as Headmaster, he being Rowling's version of Tolkein's Gandalf. The young future sorcerers are just like any other budding Britons, only more so, sports and food being primary preoccupations. (Sex barely enters into Rowling's cosmos, at least in the first volume.)

August 26, 2009 at 5:13 PM 
OpenID okcopatrick said...

Harry Potter, now the hero of so many millions of children and adults, is raised by dreadful Muggle relatives after his sorcerer parents are murdered by the wicked Voldemort, a wizard gone trollish and, finally, post-human. Precisely why poor Harry is handed over by the sorcerer elders to his priggish aunt and uncle is never clarified by Rowling, but it is a nice touch, suggesting again how conventional the alternative Britain truly is. They consign their potential hero-wizard to his nasty blood-kin, rather than let him be reared by amiable warlocks and witches, who would know him for one of their own.

The child Harry thus suffers the hateful ill treatment of the Dursleys, Muggles of the most Muggleworthy sort, and of their sadistic son, his cousin Dudley. For some early pages we might be in Ken Russell's film of "Tommy," the rock-opera by The Who, except that the prematurely wise Harry is much healthier than Tommy. A born survivor, Harry holds on until the sorcerers rescue him and send him off to Hogwarts, to enter upon the glory of his schooldays.

Hogwarts enchants many of Harry's fans, perhaps because it is much livelier than the schools they attend, but it seems to me an academy more tiresome than grotesque. When the future witches and wizards of Great Britain are not studying how to cast a spell, they preoccupy themselves with bizarre intramural sports. it is rather a relief when Harry heroically suffers the ordeal of a confrontation with Voldemort, which the youth handles admirably.

One can reasonably doubt that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is going to prove a classic of children's literature, but Rowling, whatever the aesthetic weaknesses of her work, is at least a millennial index to our popular culture. So huge an audience gives her importance akin to rock stars, movie idols, TV anchors, and successful politicians. Her prose style, heavy on cliche, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page--page 4--of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven cliches, all of the "stretch his legs" variety.

How to read "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. is there any redeeming education use to Rowling? Is there any to Stephen King? Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality? For all I know, the actual wizards and witches of Britain, or America, may provide an alternative culture for more people than is commonly realized.

Perhaps Rowling appeals to millions of reader non-readers because they sense her wistful sincerity, and want to join her world, imaginary or not. She feeds a vast hunger for unreality; can that be bad? At least her fans are momentarily emancipated from their screens, and so may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book.

And yet I feel a discomfort with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages. Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong? yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.

A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages. At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes. The cultural critics will, soon enough, introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum, and The New York Times will go on celebrating another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.

- H. Bloom

August 26, 2009 at 5:14 PM 

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