Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, September 10, 2009

the Vigilant School lives!

Here’s J. C. Hallman:

I was at a dinner party one night. There was a nice pork loin and a big oval table, and good wine, and cheerful table-talk through the main course. Then, somehow, the subject of “good books” came up — by which was meant a common standard of objective aesthetic merit. Another tricky subject, to be sure, but not one that necessarily has to lead to discord. In fact, precisely to establish some common ground, I threw out what seemed to me — in a room full of sophisticated readers — to be a fairly obvious truth: a book like Dracula, say, had been very popular, of course, but it was in fact a very poorly-written book.

There was silence for a moment. And then the Victorianist next to me said, “I like Dracula.”

Was I itching for a fight? Had I drunk too much? Probably. But I didn’t steer the conversation directly to authorial intent. First, I allowed that bad books can make for interesting subject matter. . . . [But] Good, serious books were written by good, serious people who knew what they wanted to say! People who took pains — suffered! — to say it. To assume that you could treat books with authors in the same way you treated authorless “texts” was an abomination. And to then turn around and assign some standard of quality to a book that had an author, but might as well have been authorless (Stoker having merely organized a set of tropes bouncing around in vampire literature for a hundred years by the time he came along), was not only wrong, boring, and frightening, it was actually a pretty good description of what’s become of the modern practice of literary criticism. I won’t describe the melee that followed — suffice it to say we corked the wine and some people went home early. Relationships were compromised. Not that I’m bothered by it. What I came away with was a new sense of impetus, a new drive.

Well, good for you, J. C.! I’m sure your “new sense of impetus” was worth ruining a dinner party for. I mean, it’s not as though you could just sit there and drink your wine while sitting next to someone who likes a book better than you do.

Hallman portrays himself as an anti-academic, but notice that here he’s doing the snooty, superior thing that academics are usually accused of: How dare you approve of a book whose poor quality is, among people who truly know, “an obvious truth”?

Hallman’s problem with modern academic literary criticism is that it isn't elitist enough — clearly he’s a fully-paid-up member of what C. S. Lewis used to call “the Vigilant school of criticism,” for whom reading is a form of “social and ethical hygiene.”

Well, whatever floats his boat, I guess — but dear readers, if any of you end up sitting next to me at a dinner party and you express your approval of a book I don't like, I can assue you that, while I might think you’re wrong, I won't automatically think you “boring” and I certainly won't find the experience “frightening.” Even if you’re an English professor.


  • That's actually kind of funny. Some people have the luxury of getting upset over the relative merits of 'old' fiction.

  • Okay, but doesn't the anthology he's about to publish look really interesting? It's too bad the editor sounds like such an ass, but I love the idea behind the book (criticism from a personal perspective).

  • Well, while it's true that writers too are prone to snootiness and a sense of superiority, my problem with literary criticism is not, in fact, that it isn't elitist enough. (And I don't think a lot of C.S. Lewis's criticism, either.) My problem with criticism is that more often than not it chooses to write colorlessly about the color of literature -- thus causing it to fade. Don't get me wrong: not all critics do this, but there is a trend. And I think literature is better served by the kind of writing about books that writers have been doing all along. In that spirit, I appeal to Dorothy W. I might be an ass, but I didn't write The Story About the Story, so you don't have to like me to check it out.

  • J. C. H., to say that literary critics (academics especially) tend to write "colorlessly" is putting it gently. You'd not get any complaints from me about that point. But I wasn't responding to that point. You could celebrate vivid writing about vivid writing without being bored and frightened by a person who likes a book you don't like; in fact, I don't see the connection at all, and can't understand why you associate your dinner-party anecdote with your anthology. What's the connection between celebrating vivid writing and being offended by those whose taste isn't as strict as your own?

  • J.C. sounds right on to me, but then some people think I'm an ass too. ;) I'm looking forward to raising my snoot in the air and reading this book.

  • I like Dracula.

  • Dracula? They wrote a book about him too?

  • Oh no, I hate it when two writers I respect get in-to-it.

    There is a distinction to be made, one which his eminent Victorian failed to make (you would think the guy would have read him some Wilde). The distinction goes like this. There is taste, that which you like, for which there is no accounting. (Example: I like Joy Division, and I realize that they were never great composers like Beethoven.) And then there is that which is great, sublime, enduring, a thing of beauty forever, etc. (Example: Everyone knows Whitman and Dickenson are the two great American poets, though most of us have a very strong preference for one over the other). Sometimes these two domains – Like and Great – overlap. More often they don’t. Hallman’s neighbor at the dinner party failed to see the difference. It is absolutely possible to love “Dracula” while acknowledging that Stoker wasn’t much of a stylist. To tell between the two is the beginning of criticism, and by extension, wisdom.

    The real problem is that most people approach great works as if they “Have-To” appreciate them, as children eating their vegetables. No one has to read anything. But isn’t it always much more exciting -- when your first reaction to a great work of art is boredom, confusion, and even revulsion -- to choose, to surrender, to allow the author to train up your taste, and thus to learn to like it. That is what a classical education is good for – learning to love the difficult.

  • To back up a bit slightly...the story of this dinner party (and Alan, you treat the section you excerpted as though it's the whole of the post, and it's not) simply serves as a way to help get the word out about a book that has its own introduction. The connection between it and the book is that this particular dinner inspired me to actually pursue publishing the book in the first place. As I say at the beginning of the post, origin stories may or may not be of value -- that's up to you. In any event, in the anthology itself I do celebrate vivid writing about vivid writing without attacking people who like books I don't like. For those interested in the anthology, you might check out the reaction to its introduction over at Quarterly Conversation.

    [http://quarterlyconversation.com/from-the-editors-on-the-right-way-to-write-criticism Quarterly Conversation.]

    The rest of this debate is one I think it's valuable to have. I like michaelmussman's argument about the difference between Like and Great. I have no problem with people liking relatively pedestrian books. In fact, I've known a few workshop instructors who liked to read mysteries on the sly -- and even allowed that these books had taught them something about how to handle plot. Yet they're not going into workshop classes trumpeting these books as great literature. I'm frankly offended when someone tries to tell me that Dracula must be great literature because it has been published in a Norton Critical Edition. That doesn't make it a Great book. And I worry what happens to our collective soul, our collective aesthetic, when our baser tastes become confused or replace a much more fundamental drive for the universal and the timeless...and when, furthermore, this confusion is passed on to students in the form of instruction.

  • J. C., I don't mean to treat the dinner-party anecdote as representative of anything else — it and it alone was the subject of my post, because it seemed to me representative of an attitude that I think unfortunate.

    The distinction between liking something and thinking it great is a basic one, but not one that was employed in the anecdote itself. If you had reported that the Victorianist at dinner had said "I think Dracula is as great a book as Anna Karenina," or if — and this would be more likely, in my experience anyway — "We need to get rid of the old-fashioned idea that some books are 'greater' than others, that Anna Karenina is somehow intrinsically superior to Dracula,” then I would have been much more sympathetic to any party-compromising annoyance on your part. But if all the person really said was that he or she liked Dracula, then I think that's wonderful. English professors don't confess to liking books nearly as much as they should.

    (Plus, I do think that Stoker, while no "stylist," is a much more interesting writer than J. C. would allow. Style isn't the only literary virtue. Neither is originality.)

    But, since J. C. has a book to promote and I don't want to stand in the way of that, let me just say that I think it sounds like a great idea. Though it may eliminate the need for an essay I've been sketching out on writers as readers — not necessarily of other "creative" writers, but of other kinds of works. For instance, Marilynne Robinson is a brilliantly acute reader of John Calvin, more illuminating than most Calvin scholars. All that to say that I am very sympathetic to J. C.’s anthology, if not to his dinner-party manners.

  • Oh, do write your essay! Hallman's book sounds great, but that means we need more. His anthology surely isn't the end of the subject.

    I don't get Hallman's comment that implies mysteries can't be great literature. The vast majority of them aren't, but that doesn't mean none of them are. And the same is true for other kinds of genre fiction. True for most fiction, in fact.

  • I agree with Dorothy...write your essay! And I'm much better with neighborhood bars than dinner parties...should we ever find ourselves in one, I'll buy you the beer you surely deserve.

    And, indeed, as we skim over thoughts here, all subtly gets lost. Certainly, one can work within a genre tradition to effect: The Dispossessed and The Handmaid's Tale leap to mind, and even more recently The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Henry James's ghosts stories certainly count, and I'd even say that Bolano's 2666 wants to make a link between the serial killer genre and not only James, but (egads!) vampire literature as well (a significant scene takes place in Dracula's castle...) In any event, there is a difference between the art and the dross, and, as James said of "The Turn of the Screw" (my own contribution to The Story About the Story is about James), his goal was to save the ghost story from those writers who had tapped it of what he called "the dear old sacred terror."

    I particularly like that "sacred" part...

  • "I particularly like that 'sacred' part..."

    Yes, but the genius lies in coupling it with "dear old."

  • Now imagine this sort of thinking determines where or not it is legal to publish your book, even whether or not you go to jail.

  • I don't object to the idea of a rankable, arguable, defensible canon of great literature. I also think that Hallman is right that literature can be a communication with an author. But I think real trouble comes when concentrate on the unique qualities of particular authors that we begin using genre tags as a sort of shorthand for what one might kindly term "sub-great" literature. The supposition becomes that while certain exceptional instances of a genre may achieve greatness thanks to their authors' personal abilities, the mere fact that a work employs the tropes of a particular genre makes it "guilty until proven innocent" in a way that books of a different genre are not.

    For example, Hallman cites Henry James' ghost stories as examples of meritorious literature, but I wonder if he doesn't give Henry James a leg up on the competition merely because he wrote non-ghost story material as well, through which Hallman came to appreciate James as an outhor. What would Hallman's opinion be, I wonder, of another James who wrote ghost stories -- M.R. James?

    Having read both, I consider M.R. James' stories vastly superior in literary quality to Henry's, but because he did not happen to have as high-profile and varied a literary career as the latter (M.R. was primarily a medievalist, and wrote as ghost stories as an avocation), his stories are not much considered aside from their place within the genre.

    This seems related to the often-expressed concept that good literature "transcends" its genre. That is to say, in order to have merit, a work must in some respect operate externally to its genre. I do not know Hallman's critical work well enough to judge whether he partakes of this opinion, but the comments I've read so far trouble me.

    Particularly when he dismisses "Dracula" as "a book that might as well have been authorless" just because it employed extant vampire tropes, one gets the sense that some genres' authors don't get the sort of break that others do. One might say that in "The Turn of the Screw" Henry James merely organized tropes that had been floating around in Gothic fiction for a long time. In neither case would this be a reasonable ground to dismiss the work in question, but for some reason Henry gets a break where Stoker doesn't.

  • I think I can let The Story About the Story speak for itself in response to Ethan C. After much soul-searching, I went ahead an included an essay of mine in the book, about "The Turn of the Screw," and placed it immediately after Michael Chabon's essay "The Other James," about, of course, M.R. James. I hope the two together answer these important questions...

  • Well, in that case I'll definitely have to read the book. :)

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