Saturday, July 28, 2007

where did it all go wrong, Ilya? i tried so haaaaaaaard

Perhaps once in a generation, the science of criticism is shaken by a conceptual breakthrough so revolutionary that the literary establishment can only dismiss it as deluded quackery. Such a breakthrough is described in these pages. If I draw comparisons with Darwin, Einstein, Lysenko, the sceptical reader may smile. Yet they laughed at Leavis; they creased themselves pink at Edmund Wilson; they barfed up gobs of lung tissue at Derrida's Of Grammatology. To all such shallow-minded so-called "scientists" I say: go ahead and hoot! The High Speed Train of progress makes no unscheduled stops to pick up late travellers, nor can it be tilted in its tracks.

The failure of the old paradigm is simple. There's a curious bias in the vernacular of critical discussion towards the qualities that make a book good. Most of the language traditionally used to describe a book's achievement has to do with its positive qualities: the plot, characterization, style, ideas, significance. Moreover, it's a bias that carries over into all those gruesome handbooks on How To Write Totally Brilliant Novels and Win Big Cash Literary Prizes. The reason nobody's yet become a big time novelist by reading up on Diane Doubtfire is just that all the advice in such booklets is directed towards getting you to write a book full of plot, characterization, style, ideas, significance. in short, a good book.

Now, it strikes me that this is completely misconceived. You've only got to look around you to realize that most books that get published are NOT good. This simple point makes a nonsense of conventional criticism, which lacks any sort of vocabulary to discuss badness in any meaningful way. And yet badness is the dominant quality of contemporary literature, and certainly of SF. All orthodox criticism can say of a truly awful book is that the characterization is terrible, or the use of the English language makes your bowels move of themselves. It fails completely to grasp that bad writing is governed by subtle rules and conventions of its own, every bit as difficult to learn and taxing to apply as those that shape good writing. But do you ever find workshops offering instruction in how to write the sort of really atrocious garbage that leers at you from every railway bookstall?

words of advice from Nick Lowe, in his classic article The Well-Tempered Plot Device


Tom Slee said...

"There's a curious bias in the vernacular of critical discussion towards the qualities that make a book good."

I'm not sure if this is related, but for most critics designating a book (or whatever) as "art" or "literature" - as opposed to mere entertainment or genre fiction - is praise. This leaves them incapable of talking about "bad art" or "bad literature" in any useful way.

Any coherent set of ideas about art & literature has to have bad art & bad literature right there in the middle.

Lee said...

What a delicious essay. I'm going to start work on a bb right away.

Ithaca said...

Tom - C S Lewis once wrote an essay (whose title I naturally forget) on the subject of bad good books (an example being Johnson's Irene) and good bad books (an example, possibly not his, being H Rider Haggard's She). I suppose the NYRB and the like do in fact spend a lot of energy distinguishing the good good books from the bad good books -- that is, they don't bother to review "bad" books, however, good, but focus on those with a claim to be art, or literature, or some such thing. One effect, perhaps, is that little thought is given to what makes a good bad book.

Lee -- If it is the next Da Vinci Code we hope you'll remember your friends.

Tom Slee said...

I love the idea of good bad books and bad good books. Google tells me that is was actually Orwell, and the essay is posted here.

He actually credits Chesterton: "what Chesterton called the “good bad book”: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished."

Thanks for the pointer (indirect though it might have been).