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The Novelist’s Complicity

13 January 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.

No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness.

. . . .

What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

The imminent death of the novel has been announced every year for as long as I can remember.

. . . .

In 2009, the American novelist Philip Roth predicted that within twenty-five years the readership of novels would amount to a cult. “I think people will always be reading them,” he said in an interview, “but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”

Roth’s prognosis has some data behind it. While the publishing industry might be thriving, buoyed up by cookbooks, self-help manuals and all manner of non-fiction, fiction sales have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years. In most industries, this would raise alarm bells.

Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation. The attention spans of readers, it’s said, is now trained for tweets, Facebook posts, and information in bitesize morsels. Roth suggested as much in his interview. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said. “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”

. . . .

Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?

And if television can reach a wider audience than novels ever did, isn’t the goal of broadening empathy better served by those superbly well-written TV dramas?

. . . .

[T]here may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book. Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction.

Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing.

. . . .

A writer—I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me—suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.” The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG suggests “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has been happening for a very long time (perhaps more slowly in Britain and even more slowly on BBC Radio 4, where the OP originated).

However, “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has certainly not been common everywhere in the world.

Under the general direction of Joseph Stalin, the arbitration of literary taste lacked quite a bit of democratization. For example, per Wikipedia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.

The State Committee for Publishing, (Goskomizdat to its fans) was an enthusiastic arbiter of literary taste in Soviet Russia. PG is not certain whether the literary critics employed by Goskomizdat were ever known to say, “This is a great book even though I didn’t like it” or if their visceral reaction to a book played any role in deciding which author was referred to the Checka or not.

When it comes to deciding what books are available for people to read at reasonable prices, PG is pretty much a First Amendment fundamentalist. If one agrees with a particular literary critic or critics employed by large media corporations in general, (Hallelujah, sister!) let literary criticism thrive. If one prefers synthesizing the opinions of those sharing their thoughts on Goodreads, consulting book reviews in the maw of Amazon itself or (gasp) checking star ratings, illustre stelle vobis.

PG suggests arbitration and literary taste make poor bedfellows. But he could be fundamentally wrong.

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7 Comments to “The Novelist’s Complicity”

  1. Is it really “democratization” of taste, or is it the support of the niche?

    Before, one or few niches had all the control in what everyone could access, with the ability to access others being niches themselves. Folks who like ordering others about had a “right” taste they could learn and then filter with, and folks would listen. Made them feel important, even if they realized folks just listened due to lack of choice, so now they’re insulting those with different tastes in the basic smear campaign of the thwarted bully.

    I’ve never followed book reviews. I rarely even read them; when I do, it’s from a blogger I already know or about a book I’m already curious about. Movie reviews, I follow slightly more, but even with that, I’ve noticed a pattern of the louder and more pervasive the hate, *especially* among critics, the more likely I’m going to love how the movie acknowledges and counters bullying and such.

    Most recent example is Netflix’s Bright, which includes a lot of nods to tropes that are getting jumped on as if they are entirely the trope, and such reviews ignore that the movie is very much about how prejudices warp power. Duh it’s going to have parallels to the white vs. black social issues in the US, but that doesn’t make the elves or orcs stand-ins—and those dynamics happen all over the world, so you could argue that such critics are publicizing their US-centricism and ignorance, too.

    When I have looked into literary critics, their attitudes have seemed at least as entrenched, proud, and proscriptive as movie critics. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve never cared enough to go looking for them.

    • I watched Bright completely cold while visiting my parents. I loved explaining to Dad why the elves were all rich: “Look, they’re immortal so they really benefit from compound interest. In our time they’re living off the interest on their interest.”

      I’m not at all surprised you’ve been encountering stupid reviews about it, though. It’s exactly the kind of movie where I’d look for reviews from a trusted blogger and not any of the “official” critics and tastemakers. When it comes to other media I’m the same; I like thoughtful critics who aren’t parroting the latest “we have always been at war with Eastasia.”

      My favorite anime blogger made insightful comments about the anime shows he recommended; he could make connections to everything from military history to cultural “inside jokes” even for ostensible comedy shows. I love that kind of reviewer, but they’re rare, and getting rarer since he died. I’m trying, but I can’t think of any professional who comes close. I only see the style of critic I like in blogs and random reviewers on Amazon.

  2. Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation.

    Have fiction sales fallen when indies are factored in, or is it only when cherry-picking the big guys? And is that a worldwide trend?

  3. The main problem with film/TV is that it fosters sympathy, not empathy. The problems are clearly happening to the characters, not to you.

    With fiction (my point in a blog post about empathy), you can let the reader have as close as it gets to a first hand experience without having one. That can change someone.

    Far better for certain purposes than watching a movie.

  4. Terrence P OBrien

    Arbitration of literary tastes? One might suppress books that cater to some specific tastes, but nobody can control those tastes. Today, we see some folks don’t approve of others’ tastes, and are distressed that those folks can indeed find what they like without an arbitrator.

    What’s an arbitrator to do when he’s ignored?

  5. What Happened? Politics or profits? Hard Choices. I guess we know which the publisher chose.

  6. The “fiction is dying” part seems to refer to the publishing industry having seen the 23 percent drop, so I’d say this is ignoring the shift to indie.

    Also, I’m curious about the intro bit about novels exploring “interiority” narratives better than screen. Could this be accomplished better in VR?

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