Grossman Puts the Knife In

It appears to be open season on literary fiction. First today we have Iain Banks writing science fiction in his literary persona, then Jay Lake pointed me at this article by Lev Grossman in the Wall Street Journal.

Grossman is talking here about the supposed characteristics of quality literature (much as Le Guin did yesterday when making fun of Atwood), but while Le Guin focused on the primacy of character, Grossman talks about the disdain for plot. A proper literary novel, he says, should not have a plot, because real life doesn’t have a plot. It is in many ways a compelling argument, and there are certainly SF writers who have taken it to heart. The world might be a better place if people didn’t think it was possible for politicians to wave a magic wand and make everything better.

As an argument about literature, however, it was always silly. Grossman talks about the historical origins of the Modernist movement, and why they wanted to do away with plot, but to do so completely they would have had to disavow almost everything that came before them. There was no chance that they were ever going to manage to label the likes of Austen and Dickens as “bad” writers because their novels had plots.

And actually, of course, few literary critics are daft enough to take so simplistic a line. I have certainly heard people use it. I’ve also heard people make silly comments about how having alien squid as characters is a hallmark of a bad book. But I also know some very sensible literary critics such as Matt Cheney whose understanding of the issues is much more nuanced and who are not impressed with Grossman’s article.

Where Grossman is undoubtedly right is on the subject of sales. Readers actually like plots. Give them a good yarn and they’ll be happy. All the quality stuff can come later. And in a publishing business that is struggling to stay afloat more “difficult” literature are going to have to take a back seat. Because, you know, you can write a darn good book and still have a gripping plot. Ms. Austen and Mr. Dickens were good at that. And so…

This is the future of fiction. The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.

And who are the writers that Grossman believes are leading the charge. Well, there’s Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price and Kate Atkinson, but he also mentions Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

Got that? An article in the Wall Street Journal says that Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke are in the forefront of modern literature. Whatever is the world coming to?

Update: “i” restored to “Iain”. Very sorry Mr. Banks.

10 thoughts on “Grossman Puts the Knife In

  1. Did you see Matt Cheney’s takedown of Lev’s piece?

    Also, on a meta note, I think characterizing it as an “article” is misleading. It’s an opinion piece, not a news article, and I think it’s much more an expression of Lev’s opinion than the WSJ‘s.

  2. Second Rose’s meta note. I make this point constantly on political blogs: editorials are different from op-ed/opinion pieces are different from news reports are different from news analysis pieces are different from blog posts.

    Each is an entirely different category of writing and publishin and each has highly significant differences from the other, as regards POV, authority, and audience.

    Yours for precision in language, and thanks for providing the links, as always,
    Gary

  3. I’m bemused by the accusations of linguistic inexactitude. AHD says that an article is:

    A nonfictional literary composition that forms an independent part of a publication, as of a newspaper or magazine.

    .

    The Randon House Dictionary has:

    a written composition in prose, usually nonfiction, on a specific topic, forming an independent part of a book or other publication, as a newspaper or magazine.

    In neither case does the definition stipulate the the composition in question cannot simply be an expression of opinion. I’m happy to believe that there may be rules of usage in American journalism that narrow down the meaning of the word “article” to exclude what Grossman has written, but I submit that such rules are merely jargon and not part of ordinary usage.

  4. I’m bemused by your bemusement! Given that you’re writing for an audience of writers, for the most part, I would think that writerly and journalistic jargon is our ordinary usage; do you think of “essay” and “op-ed” as terms of art? And anyway, as Mr. Farber points out, there’s a lot to be said for precision of language if it leads to clarity. If “article” is indeed such a general term, then that’s just an argument in favor of greater specificity.

  5. “I’m bemused by the accusations of linguistic inexactitude.”

    Speaking of inexactitude, it wasn’t an accusation, Cheryl.

    I’d also submit that jargon is, if you like dictionary wars, “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.”

    And that such is appropriate when discussing a specific activity or group, such as when distinguishing between types of journalism and publishing and writing.

    Personally, I tend to find dictionary wars unhelpful, but have written a bazillion times on being neither a prescriptionist, nor a descriptionist, but merely, exactly as Ms. Fox says, favoring any usage that increases clarity.

    YMMV, as we say, and this is meant 100% in friendly spirit, not as any sort of Accusation!

    You should, of course, write as you wish. And will!

    Check for the invisible Tone I include between my ASCII, to view the friendly, by adding lemon juice!

    Also, Iain Banks, not “Ian.” πŸ™‚

    [runs away now, before Cheryl looks for pointy things to wave in my direction]

  6. In my dictionary “accuse”, when not used in a strict legal sense, simply means to find fault with, and has no connotations of unfriendliness. However, I quite understand that, like “criticism”, the word has taken on a negative aspect in popular parlance and I’d like to reassure Rose and Gary that I am not in the least bit upset by their attempts to improve my use of English.

    Just bemused.

    I think I should point out that while this blog is read by many people of a writerly persuasion, it is also read by many people who are simply readers (and possibly even some who are not). In any case, in all my writing I try to make a point of avoiding casual use of specialist terms when addressing an audience that may not be familiar with those terms.

    In this case, however, there was no choice to be made, because I was completely unaware of any tradition of using “article” to mean a specific type of, well, article. And if the distinction was unknown to me then I submit that it is probably unknown to many of my readers (at which point I will doubtless be proved wrong by a storm of comments).

    I am, by the way, familiar with the problems that can arise when a term is used in an umbrella sense by some people and a specific sense by others. There will be something going up tomorrow that talks about that very thing.

    But to get back to Rose’s original point, what she wanted to make clear was that Mr. Grossman’s article op-ed piece was published by the WSJ as Grossman’s opinion, not as the opinion of the newspaper. I had taken that as read. In the UK anything that is not presented as news and is not in the official Editorial column of a newspaper should be taken to be the opinion of the individual columnist. Newspapers run provocative opinion pieces all of the time, for the purposes of stirring up the masses and increasing readership. It certainly wasn’t my intention to suggest that the WSJ was adopting Grossman’s position.

    However, while newspapers are in the business of controversy, they also have editorial stances as to what sort of controversy they will permit. You probably won’t find the racists being given a platform in The Guardian and you probably won’t find anti-capitalists in The Telegraph. With this in mind, I still think that it is quite remarkable to have seen Grossman’s opinion expressed at all, let alone so forcefully, in the WSJ.

    As to the matter of Mr. Banks’s first name, I can but plead incompetence. I’m useless without Anne to proof-read me. I shall go and fix it forthwith.

  7. As one of the non-writers who reads your blog, Cheryl, I thank you for not writing just for writers. πŸ˜‰ I use “article” the way you do (more broadly/generically). My impression from two editors at work (a specialty news org) is that there’s not a uniform rule of usage regarding “article.” (shrug)

    Anyway, interesting article* blog post!

    * I was warned against using the word for blog posts, sorry. πŸ˜‰

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