Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"30 things to tell a book snob" -- A Literary Elitist's Response

from booktrust.org (4/19/2013)
article found here

 

the optimistic literary elitist

A little editing done: 4/26.

So, obviously, this is not from PoetryDaily, and not even a poem. But very much to point, and still a response to a text. And did you really think I wouldn't branch out sooner or later? (Don’t worry, it won’t happen often.)

[Note added 6/11/2013: Matt Haig followed up this "30 things" post with a second, "30 things to tell a grammar snob." While I didn't respond to the second one point by point, I did respond, and give some words to grammar, and the attitudes thereto (here).]

 
As always, I prefer transparency, so let me say up front that before this I knew nothing about Matt Haig -- or, at least, nothing I have read about him since rings any bells. So I have nothing directly at stake with him.

The essay was cross posted by a friend of mine, and the title easily caught my attention, for, yes, I have been called a book snob. Though, I think it a bit of a mislabel: better would be to call be a literary elitist. It is not wholly my fault, however: I was born to the title. After all, my first real taste of the magic of the adult written word was reading Eliot's "The Hollow Men" -- and some bit of criticism thereon -- somewhere back when my age first found its second digit. Though, in truth, it would be many, many years before my elitism truly blossomed. In part because of that delay, and in part because of my very expansive and exploratory curiosity, my reading has been very broad. I have read Anne McCaffrey and Edgar Burroughs, but also Samuel Delaney and Alfred Bester; I've read both Leon Uris and Joseph Conrad; I've read Toni Morrison and I've read Nathaniel Hawthorne; I've read Harlan Ellison and then also Jorge Luis Borges; I've read Anonymous, and I've read de Sade. I've read the all of E.E. Cummings, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and T.S. Eliot; and, yes, I've read both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake multiple times, and was nearly through the Cantos last I put it down. I have started The Lord of the Rings three times, but never with success. But, then again, the same can be said for Gravity's Rainbow.

The former, however, I will never again lift. While the latter is patiently waiting my next attempt. And that is because the former, however much it is read, and however influential it has been, is not that terribly good. And it is difficult for me to read hundreds of pages of something that is not that terribly good. As Ray Charles once said on the Johnny Carson, I’m really only interested in music [in literature] that has something to teach me. And I will openly admit, after five Maya Angelou poems my brain cells are threatening mass sepukku should I continue.

Why? Because there is a marked and substantial difference between Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" and pretty much anything written by Angelou. And that difference it is not technique, nor the presence of allusion, nor the five-dollar words. Rather, it is because while Maya Angelou may be making personal statements, they are being made with rather banal and not terribly good poetry. While “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” –- also a personal statement -- is first and foremost a poem. And I am a lover of literature, not of people’s personal statements.

But the difference goes deeper than that. There is also a fundamental difference in the modality of thinking and perceiving and understanding. We live in a world of two modalities: a social modality, and an individual modality. Say it again, everybody thinks and perceives and experiences the cosmos in two modalities: everyone has a ‘social’ self and an ‘individual’ self. The question is which one do you, to wit, ‘prefer.’ The reality of the situation is that most people live their lives, most people let the world be defined through their ‘social’ self, and suppress to a great degree their individual self.

This is what was observed by Ortega y Gasset in viewers of what we now call modernist art at the early in the last century. If I may a quotation:

Every work of art arouses differences of opinion. Some like it, some don’t; some like it more, some like it less. Such disagreements have no organic character, they are not a matter of principles. A person’s chance disposition determines on which side he will fall. But in the case of the new art the split occurs in a deeper layer than that on which differences of personal taste reside. It is not that the majority does not like the art of the young and the minority likes it, but that the majority, the masses, do not understand it.
(This is from his essay “The Dehumanization of Art.”) Ortega y Gasset is not the only person to observe this. Jung speaks about it, the whole of post-structuralism is a discussion about it. And it was much of what Manet was demonstrating with his Olympia, and Picasso with his Demoiselles D'Avignon.

Without a doubt, society can be split into two general groups: those dominated by the ‘social’ self, and those who strive to live primarily through the ‘individual’ self. The root question (which few people address), is whether this is a difference or a division. That is, are you fated at birth to one and not the other?

As with gnostic cosmologies (not an arbitrary comparison), there are two answers. The pessimistic answers yes. If you cannot understand, you cannot understand, and you will never understand, and apples and oranges etc. (It might be argued that Ortega y Gasset falls in this camp, though really his point in “Dehumanization” is merely to say we are fools for not recognizing, admitting, and utilizing this elemental aspect of human beings.) The optimistic, on the other hand, says, no. While there is a difference, it is one that can be crossed. It is this optimism that brings Zarathustra down from the mountain, and, even after he returns in dejection, will guarantee that sooner or later he will come back down again.

Nietzsche was, perhaps, the world’s greatest optimist. He dedicates Human, All Too Human to “Free Spirits,” knowing only such persons will really understand the book, but hoping, and believing, that anyone could potentially enter the book and emerge a free spirit. I also am an optimist. I have seen too many light bulbs go on to deny what is, admittably, a philosophical and emotional predilection. I believe that sophistication can be developed; and, in truth, naturally develops with any effort by the individual. Perhaps that is why I reject the word "snob" and identify myself a (slightly ironicized) elitist: for, inherent to snobbery is the idea of east is east and west is west.

It is “snobbery” that Matt Haig is talking about. Though, I have to say, never in my many days and years and decades of living with, among, and around books and readers, have I ever met a person who believes, as Matt Haig states, that there is a snobbery "that says opera and lacrosse and Pinot Noir and jazz fusion and quails' eggs and literary fiction are for certain types of people and them alone." Now, perhaps this is a aspect of some small social class. But, then, if it is, I don't think it even merits the effort of a list of thirty elements. Such snobbery has far more to do with social identity than anything what with literature, and there is no need to defend the written word from them. And, indeed, I could not name a single author that would ascribe to such a statement. Yes, of course, writers can very much be elitist, and, even, a social snob. But does it then apply to their works and their attitudes thereto? Have I ever heard an author say “Yeah, you know, I’d much prefer it you didn’t even bother with my work”? (That is, without it being a slam against that specific individual.) No.

(OK. What I have encountered are what I would call literary assholes, people who think because they read Shakespeare they get to treat people who don’t like second class citizens (I am being polite) – and I am sure we all have. But, then again, everything about them is really about them, and do we need to defend anything against the attitude of an ass? No, you just throw your drink in their face and laugh.)

A writer writes to an audience. The more sophisticated the writer, the smaller that audience. Which is true, but which is also not true. Eliot writes "The Waste Land" knowing only others steeped in literature are going to be able to fully enter and engage his work. And believe me, Eliot was an exemplar of the literary social snob. But, Eliot also believed that anyone willing to steep themselves in the tradition would also, with the effort, be able to read his work and experience it deeply and fully. While Ortega y Gasset described what was and is an obvious division in the human populace (you need only watch, and you will see it play out continuously), and while Manet and Picasso et al knew that few people would really be able to understand their work, and the majority would not, I would argue that it is inherent to artists that they hope, and want, and wish, their work to be received by everyone. In fact, I would say it is important to them. Indeed, it is the rule that the Eliots and Pounds and Joyces and Picassos and Matisses and Schnittkes of the world are inherently and irremediably optimistic. I have seen, heard, and read plenty "I'm better, smarter, and faster than you and my book proves it" type snobbery; but never "I therefore do not want you or anyone like you to read my book" type snobbery.

So it is difficult to respond accurately to Haig's list, since I have never seen such snobbery to exist. Perhaps it is rampant in the UK. (Though, I seriously doubt it.) Nonetheless, I would like to respond to each of his thirty points, as, reading them, I believe that in his attacks on snobbery, he is in fact defending its opposite: literary philistinism, the defense of the lowest common denominator as a permissible standard. Indeed, I am saying that Matt Haig is a low-brow snob. That he is saying -- even if by accident -- that there is no difference between Pound and Angelou but high-brow snobbery makes it so, and that if you are low-brow, you should be satisfied with low-brow: something, I would argue, every author of any merit would vehemently deny.

In fact, this I strenuously deny. For my elitism is saying there is something 'better' (to use an admittedly faulty word) about Pound over Angelou. And I want you to be able to see it. Because if you can, when you can, the world, too, becomes better. To use Haig’s word: the magic is by orders of magnitude all the greater.

So let's see how it goes:

 
1. People should never be made to feel bad about what they are reading. People who feel bad about reading will stop reading.
Yes. Of course. That is obvious.

Except I wonder if Haig has ever read a Star Wars tie-in novel. Tie-ins are the dredge of the literary world. Tie-in novels can make fan fiction website look like the Algonquin Round Table. People who defend tie-ins as acceptable reading material should be repeatedly brow beaten. Now, you might say it is the publishing companies that should be taken out behind the shed: but that is the nature of capitalism. A company will gladly admit that they are making millions of dollars off of selling crap, and laugh all the way to the bank. Capitalism loves the low brow; it loves mediocrity, and it loves lowering the bar. Basic economics: you make more money when you spend less effort. The reason tie-ins are so often so bad is because they are generally contract work: the company asks somebody, "Hey, I'll give ya' 50 large if you whip out something about the Star Wars universe; don't worry if it's good." And, so, you get what you get. (But don't get me wrong, I'm up for the gig! You know I love you, baby. You know my number: 392-7704. Call any time.)

(A little Tom Waits there, so you supply the voice.)
 
2. Snobbery leads to worse books. Pretentious writing and pretentious reading. Books as exclusive members clubs. Narrow genres. No inter-breeding. All that fascist nonsense that leads commercial writers to think it is okay to be lazy with words and for literary writers to think it is okay to be lazy with story.
The logic here is mostly imaginary. There's some serious dividing by 0 going on (to mix mathematical metaphors). How we get from snobbery to exclusive members clubs is beyond me. I don't think there is a publishing company on the planet that would make it policy to publish editions of fifty. Nor one that would stake its financial existence on an annotated Finnegans Wake. See #1, above. No matter how many snobs there are, there is always going to be a Timothy Zahn making Lucasbooks a heap o' money with absolute crap.
 
3. If something is popular it can still be good. Just ask Shakespeare. Or the Beatles. Or peanut butter.
Yes. But, unfortunately, that is not exactly proven to be the norm. The demonstrated truth is that “popular” equals mediocre, or worse. There is no small humor in the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s frustrations that his novels were being way outsold by popular romances -- books with very little literary merit.
 
4. Get over the genre thing. The art world accepted that an artist could take from anywhere he or she wanted a long time ago. Roy Lichtenstein could turn comic strips into masterpieces back in 1961. Intelligence is not a question of subject but approach.
I am going to assume he means criticism of genre, because that would be the natural conclusion. The statement above does not, on its own, get us there. The statement that "the art world accepted that an artist could take from anywhere" is actually rather both missing the point of the art to which he is referring, and assuming that anything labeled 'art' is, somehow guaranteed to be of quality. The best definition of ‘art’ ever: anything for which someone will pay money, so they can hang it on their wall. Possibly also the most accurate definition as the word is most commonly used: and it has nothing to do with the aesthetic. But that's another issue. Let's instead just focus on genre.

Yes, there are natural rejections of genre within established communities: there is a reason The Silence of the Lambs is the only even quasi-horror film to win Best Picture Oscar, and why The Sting won over The Exorcist. Fantasy and Science Fiction is likewise often given the brush off in literary circles, which is ironic since fantasy and science fiction are firmly placed in the literary canon (see Gargantua and Pantagruel and R.U.R. for an example of each.) But, imaginative fiction is making itself known within the coursework: I not infrequently see Stephenson's Snow Crash on reading lists, and, Bester and Delaney's works. But, I think Delaney would agree, that much of the problem lies in that the defenders of imaginative fiction are too quick to defend the mediocre or worse, and too slow to be familiar with the very good. Beyond that, I will hold off on genre, because Haig doesn't wholly demonstrate an understanding the idea, as is demonstrated below (see #17).
 
5. It is harder to be funny than to be serious. For instance, this is a serious sentence: 'After dinner, Alistair roamed the formal garden behind this unfamiliar house, wishing he had never betrayed Lorelei's trust.' That took me eight seconds to write. And yet I've been trying to write a funny sentence for three hours now, and I'm getting hungry.
I am not sure of the point, here. At all. Is he saying humor is not established in the literary convention? Nash, Joyce, Rabelais, Sterne, Pound, Eliot, W.C. Williams, Cummings, Shakespeare, all have written in the humorous vein. Finnegans Wake, arguably the greatest achievement in English literature, is nothing if not humor.
 
6. Many of the greatest writers have been children's writers.
Again -- I don't see the point. A snob can also be a snob about children's books. (In fact, I have met children's books snobs. Though, again, not as he defines it.) But, so also can childrens books can suck. I would argue it is very easy to write a crap children's book and have it be accepted as ‘good.’ And that there is a reason most children’s books seem come and go without so much as a blurp.
 
7. It is easy to say something to people who are exactly like you. A bigger challenge lies in locating that universal piece of all of us that wants to be wowed, and brought together by a great story. There isn't a human in the world who wouldn't enter the Sistine Chapel and not want to look up. Does that make Michelangelo a low-brow populist?
What literary tradition is he engaging? "Universality" is frequently upheld as one of the marks of great literature. Very possibly, it is the forerunner nominee in the category. How does looking up at the Sistine ceiling result in low-brow? I think rather he is arguing my point, rather than his: that is, that there is a difference between accessibility and sophistication. Handel may be very accessible, but he is not "low-brow."

(I should state, for clarity, that while “universality” is very frequently upheld as a mark of great literature, I myself argue that the “universality” being upheld is not the “universality” that writers of the ‘individual’ self would uphold.)
 
8. It does not matter about who the author is. The only thing a book should be judged on is the words inside.
Yes. Absolutely. But, are you willing to stand by that statement? Have you ever read the blurbs slapped on books (by people who have ostensibly read them)? I can show you accolades such as would make Sophocles blush on the back of incompetent, unsophisticated drivel. Recently the New York Times Review of Books came under criticism -- through one of their own polls, I believe -- that there was not nearly enough negative criticism, and far too much praise. And the amount of poetry published in journals because of the author’s name -- as opposed to any real quality in the work -- is mind-boggling.
 
9. Martin Amis once moaned on the radio that there were too many writers talking across the table to their readers rather than down to them. This was the point I went off Martin Amis.
Well, I don't want to respond directly to Amis's words since I do not know the context. (To be transparent, I’ve never read Martin Amis.) As for myself, in educational or explicational situations I try never to talk down. I always aim to talk just over the head, just within reach. Experience has showed me that the audience will rise to the occasion. (That is rather the purpose and joy of discourse, no?: that everyone in the discussion comes out the better for everyone else expanding their thinking? Talking down only dumbs down.) And that is very much to the purpose of optimistic literary elitism, and “high-brow” literature as a near whole: literature wants its audience to rise to its level, and will, when the opportunity arises, help them to that. There is an often spoken of characteristic of good, sophisticated literature: it is said it strives to teach the reader how to read it. Of course, the reader has to put in the effort. And there’s that rub again.
 
10. You don't have to be serious about something to be serious about something.
I am going to guess his point and say: No, you are wrong. If you want to write, say, poetry of merit, you have to study poetry. You have to be serious about it. The people who say otherwise are people are almost always people trying to inflate the importance of their own mediocrity to the status of merit. I have seen a person write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite a poem with all the seriousness and earnestness they can muster, but only to fail and fail again, because they are assuming that success lies in serious effort. Serious effort is necessary, yes. But success lies in serious study. You can not build a house without studying houses. (If that wasn't to the point, then I missed it.)
 
11. You don't have to be realistic to be true.
I presume this is also meant to be in defense of imaginative literature. Realism in literature is a genre. It is a chosen mode of writing. It is not defining of literature; and I do not think any scholar of literature would say it was. Though, to be fair, I have met plenty of literary scholars who are flummoxed by, say, the end of Ironweed because they can’t make it be ‘real.’ And a far greater number of scholars who can’t understand that not every poem is autobiography. (People, H.D.’s Trilogy is an imagist poem: by definition it cannot be biography.)

But, that said, the statement "it has to be real to be good" is, actually, mostly made by people of lower sophistication. In fact, even within readers of imaginative literature there is the equivalent of “it has to be real to be good.” It is with them simply a different reality. (These are the people who are flummoxed by the likes of Bester and Dahlgren. The idea of “character development” you often see in sf/fantasy magazine submission pages is an extension of this desire for reality.)
 
12. You are one of 7,000,000,000 people in the world. You can never be above all of them. But you can be happy to belong.
This reads to me like a bumper sticker. So I am just going to pass it by to avoid sounding like a bumper sticker myself.
 
13. The only people who fear people understanding what they are saying are people who have nothing really to say.
I can't figure out how this applies to snobbery, either in how Haig defines snobbery or in general. But, even on its face, I don't agree with it. Even reversed I don’t agree with. For example, the poetry world is full of people who really have nothing terribly interesting to say. I don't know if I would say they “fear discovery.” (They may, however, react to it!)
 
14. Books are not better for being misunderstood, any more than a building is better for having no door.
I believe Haig is trying to make a statement about inaccessibility, which I've already covered in saying there is a difference between inaccessibility and sophistication: one does not necessitate or create the other. But, I would like to take a moment on "misunderstanding," because it touches on a concept that is very important to my talking about literature: validity. Everybody approaches a text as themselves (though, if they are approaching it as their 'social' self more than their 'individual' self, that self tends to identify with and be like the other people in that person's social circle). As such, every person's response to a text is neither correct nor incorrect: it is their response, their engagement. However, we can talk about whether that response is valid or invalid: to do that, we must bring in a second person, and begin discourse on the text. Then, there can be a comparison of ideas and experiences, a swapping of knowledge. And with that, the individual can come to understand whether a viewpoint has validity: whether it can be sustained within the reading of the text as understood by that person at that time.

(Obviously, that second person can be the same persion: say, I read "The Waste Land," then read up on the literary works referenced, and then read "The Waste Land" again. The second me is going to find many of the ideas and responses of the first me invalid with the expansion of knowledge, understanding, and ability to engage.)

In a sense, every reading of a text is valid, until accepted by the reader to be invalid: at which point the reader has to go back and come up with a new reading that they find, for themselves, to be valid.

I think the statement "books are not better for being misunderstood" actually perpetrates the problem Haig is approaching. A book cannot be misunderstood: until something points out to you that you misunderstood it, and you accept that ‘pointing out’ as a valid statement on the text in question. I would say that each individual has their experience with a book, and that's it. But, the comparison of experiences, the development that comes with comparison, and with testing validity, is equally important. In fact, it is central to the point of the aesthetic: yes, aesthetic literature appeals to the ‘individual’ self. But that does not make it isolationist: it is inviting discourse between ‘individual’ selves so that the experiences – both of the work in question and of the world in general – are the greater for both.
 
15. Shakespeare didn't go to university, and spelt his name six different ways. He also told jokes. (Bad ones, true, but you can't knock him for trying.)
I'll skip this because I'm an Oxfordian. There’s a reason Shakespeare mispelled his own name, and it has nothing to due with being clever. And if you’re not laughing all the way through Much Ado About Nothing, you’re missing out. (And it might explain why you have such difficulty writing humor.)
 
16. Avoiding plot doesn't automatically make you clever. (See: Greene, Tolstoy, Shakespeare.)
No. I've no problem with that. But, I also say it's a statement that has no point. In fact, most sophisticated writers would say to up and comers "please master writing with plot before you try to write without it." Rather parallel to Eliot’s “you have to learn to write formal verse before you can write free verse.” (That’s not a direct quotation.)

(Also: are you giving Greene, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare as examples of people who avoided plot and thought they were clever but weren't?)
 
17. Freedom is a process of knocking down walls. Tyranny is a process of building them.
And here we are back to genre. There are two general uses of the word "genre.” (1) The looser is that of the nature of the bookstore sign hanging above the "fantasy/science fiction" section, and its value as a descriptor does not go very far beyond that use. (2) The more exact definition refers to a type of work (of whatever medium) that is writing within an established body of conventions. For example, the epic-fantasy genre is a body of work that most writes according to conventions that have been established by the writers and then accepted and -- most importantly -- demanded by the readers. It is not too hard to demonstrate how works that fit within a genre are, essentially, the same work rewritten with, merely, variations on the theme. (With epic fantasy, you generally have the story of a youth, with uncertain parentage, who is cast out of their normal world by a (locally) catastrophic event. Usually, that event is tied in to the hero and their heritage. There is also in the idyllic start usually a character who is the hero's friend, and who will at some point play a central role in the key moment of decision. There is also usually a mentor type who often does not make themselves overtly known as the hero's mentor until right before or after the catastrophic event. (Though, they may have been playing the mentor role without overt recognition.) This character usually either dies or disappears early on, forcing the hero to move away from dependence on the mentor. I can go on but I'm wasting time.)

My point is that genre, by definition, is the building of walls: of conventions, of strictures, of "if you want to be successful, you have to do it this way." Break those conventions too severely, and you lose your readership. A genre reader wants every book to be in the nature of every other book in the genre. They want the same story over and over. Now, the why again goes to modality: and, here, I will give a slight moment to explanation. The modality of the social, the nomos, as it is called, is the modality of truth, of convention, of repetition, of tradition, of "this is the way it is supposed to be, ergo this is the way it is done." The modality of the individual, however, which is also called the modality of the aesthetic, is about open engagement, is about experience rather than verity. What Ortega y Gasset noticed, the whole purpose and point of Olympia, was that people whose thinking was governed by the modality of the nomos could not engage the art that was created out of the modality of the aesthetic: that because the modality of the aesthetic is not about repeating conventions, but is about creating something new; it is not about stating an accepted truth, in fact it is not about truth at all, it is about experiencing the cosmos, and aesthetic art strives to create new experiences. But people of the modality of the nomos were looking for art and literature – and life – that followed recognized and accepted (and insisted upon) conventions. So the aesthetic art was wholly alien to them.

Now, am I saying genre=bad, aesthetic=good? No. Not at all. We are, again, of both natures. Roland Barthes pointed out that there was something very enjoyable to reading Victor Hugo, an author of genre fiction. And Barthes did not deny that he did, in fact, very much enjoy reading Hugo. What he did insist, however, is that there is something better about engagement with the aesthetic. In fact, there is a deep irony within Haig's statement above: freedom, in the end, is not going to be found in convention or genre, nor in the “low brow.” Aesthetic thinkers agree whole heartedly: freedom is about knocking down walls. So I must ask, why are you defending the walls that are raised to shut out the aesthetic, a modality whose very engagement knocks down walls? With his attack upon an approach to literature that Haig is falsely identifying as "snobbish," he is doing just that. He is, in essence, attacking Olympia, a bomb set against the gates of the walls of convention, as being “snobbish,” and he is building walls around her, so as to defend the walls of genre.

Two points to add: (1) intellect or education does not equal freedom from conventionality. Literary academia is replete with people who cannot escape conventionality, and there are plenty of books and such raised up as great literature that are little more than a wad of very well written conventionality, usually bundled with some political or social message. (2) The reason why genres exist is because they are easy to read. If you already know most of what you are going to find in a book because of the genre conventions, you do not really have to make all that much effort in reading it. Unfortunately, beauty, brilliance, “freedom” demands effort.
 
18. There can be as much beauty in short (words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters) as long. Sparrows fly higher than peacocks.
I think this is rather a straw man, followed by a rather spurious metaphor. Read Eliot’s prose poem “Hysteria.” (Here’s a link.) Within novel-form, imaginative fiction, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books are quite short, and very much high-brow literary experiments. And on the other side, Native Son is very long and very generic (even, not very good). Again, no one in literary studies would ever say there is something inherently better or worse about long or short.
 
19. Snobs are suckers, because they have superficial prejudices.
Ok, a rather shallow slam in its own self. (Not sure how superficial prejudices leads to suckers, either.) If you want to define snobbery though the idea of social strata, and if the literary tastes of that class was governed wholly by artificially derived standards of judgement, then, ok, yes. Except: "artificially derived standards of judgement" is a definition of genre. When the people Ortega y Gasset watched could not understand the modernist art, it was because the art did not follow their "artificially derived standards of judgement." Manet was attacking the "artificially derived standards of judgement" of the Salon with Olympia, and it was the public’s adherence to those same standards that brought them to deride the painting wth such performative vehemence. Popular poetry is currently defined by “artificially derived standards of judgement.” Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, is deriding the popular poetry of his day for their artificial -- and, thus, very a-poetic -- standards. In the end, "superficial prejudices" are what justify and define the low brow. The high brow (to continue to use the words that Haig established) are works that reject convention, that strive to create literature/art that does not have a 'social' self, but exists as an 'individual' self.

(There is a famous quotation about how genius is the opposite of convention that I cannot pull out of my head, however I try.)

And, hopefully, you can here see why people like me, why us optimistic elitists, want to raise one body of literature over the mass of popular literature: because only one is truly about the individual self, and we want people to experience that brilliance and that freedom.
 
20. The book I am least proud of, that I didn't work hard enough on, was my most ostentatiously highbrow one.
Well, self admission, so I have nothing to say.

Except a question: did it fail simply because you were trying to follow an "artificially derived standard of judgement" that you were incapable of replicating? (That is, did you try to write a high seas adventure when you really only know the conventions to westerns?)
 
21. Reading a certain book doesn't make you more intelligent any more than drinking absinthe makes you Van Gogh. It's how you read, as much as what you read.
The hyperbole of "makes you Van Gogh" is what betrays the sentence. No one would say that, in the manner that you are saying that, ever. BUT, what absolutely would be said is that Van Gogh became Van Gogh in part because of who and what he studied. You can not be good without studying the good. If you never read literature, you will never write it. As Eliot pointed out, you can only go so far on your own: you need to steep yourself in the works and thoughts of those greats who preceded you. If you do not study English, you will never master it. And, no matter how adamantly you try to justify the literary merits of your work, it will speak for itself. Nicholas Sparks is a competent writer, but nothing more. And if all you read is on the par of Nicholas Sparks, you will, in the end, achieve the greatness of being a competent writer. Congratulations. As I have said before, you are missing out.
 
22. Never make someone feel bad for not having read or not read something. Books are there to heal, not hurt.
As for the first sentence, yes, obviously. But Haig is repeating himself (see #1). As for the second statement: it is not something I would ever say. There are plenty of things I have read that are meant to stick a thorn deep in your side. In fact, it might be easily argued that aesthetic works are always meant to prod, and conventional, nomic works are always meant to relieve you of effort. So, in a sense, low brow works do heal, because they tell you, “don’t worry, everything is ok, you don’t have to think, you don’t have to make effort; you will never have to face the possibility of your thoughts being invalid; everything is exactly what you expect it to be.”
 
23. Imagination is play. Snobbery is the opposite of play.
Ok, I can accept that. But, I have to qualify with saying that conventional, mediocre books can be very imaginative and still be the same book on its thousandth time warmed over. And that texts written out of the aesthetic self, the texts that are apparently being derided as high brow, are pretty much always play. (In fact, if they are not, that is reason enough to question them.)
 
24. I used to be a snob. It made me unhappy.
Well, I guess good for you. You should try optimistic elitism: there is nothing like opening up a new sophistication to a reader. Nothing like sharing the experiences of your ‘individual’ self with other ‘individual’ selves.
 
25. Simple isn't always stupid. When I write a first draft it is complicated. There is mess. The second and third and fifteenth drafts try and get it to make sense, to trim away the frayed edges.
Well, yes, editing, pretty much for everyone, is in no small part trimming away all the superfluous crap. (I'm sure I could produce a list of words that are ever present in my first drafts, and mostly absent in subsequent. And, as you probably can tell by now, I tend toward the verbose.) But, "Simple isn't always stupid": that depends on what you mean by simple. Much of Yeats's poetry is very accessible: but that doesn't make it simple. (It is, however, much of what made him a national hero.) Accessibility only marks how easy it is for a reader to get something out of it. Handel is very accessible: nearly everybody can enjoy him. Though, not everybody is going to see the art in his symphonies. Schnittke, on the other hand, is not so accessible. His music demands more up front effort and sophistication from his listeners.

Conventional reading is easy: you already know what you are looking for and what you are going to get. Aesthetic reading is hard: every text is different. Yeats' couplets may look simple: but I can show you many, many contemporary, published poets who could not write with equal grace.

But permit me one more step, one that might justify why I do indeed give assault to such works as Zahn, or Robert Jordon, or Dragonlance, or such. Because they are easy. And easy is, in the world, not good. Growth and development -- of reading and of the self -- takes effort. And it is not that with out effort you tread water: without effort you sink. Low brow only breeds the low brow; and, generally, even lower brow. That is the way of the world. Genres, if not given new life, will deteriorate into blather, and then disappear. (Those romances that Hawthorne so hated are an example.)
 
26. Stephen King was right. Books are 'portable magic'. And everyone loves magic.
Yes. Absolutely. Even convention-ridden books are still in some way accessing your 'individual' self –- if you make the effort. If you decide to just ride the current of the conventions, not so much. As I said above, Barthes very much loved to read Hugo. I enjoy picking up the random fantasy every now and then, just to see what I found. Yes, magic. But if all you are reading is low brow, oh the magic you are missing.
 
27. Inclusion is harder than exclusion. Just ask a politician.
I think I've addressed this idea enough. But to repeat for emphasis, genre, and all works of the nomic modality, is, actually and by definition, exclusory. Where as works of the aesthetic modality are, by definition, invitational.
 
28. The brain can absorb many things. So can a novel.
No idea what this has to do with snobbery, except as an attempt at a general statement against limitations. I’ll pass on it.
 
29. For me, personally, the point of writing is to connect me to this world, to my fellow humans. We are all miles apart. We have no real means of connecting except via language. And the deepest form of language is storytelling.
Ok. I can live with that. For me, great writing is about making beautiful things. And I am a literary schmecker.
 
30. The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can't reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.
Of course, I must ask, which self? It is a very important question, that. Very important. Indeed, there is a tradition found in every religion in the world -- the mystical tradition -- that says your very soul rests upon the question.

Final Statement: Reading a book (or a poem, or a play, or an artwork, or a movie) and reading the world in which you live is pretty much the same thing. The political side (so to speak) of the aesthetic modality of being is to show that the two modes of being that make up our psyches are not equal; they are not A and B set in opposition. In fact, the nomic modality of being can only survive so long as strives to deny the existence of the aesthetic modality; whereas the aesthetic modality recognizes the necessary existence of the nomic, and says “let’s use it to our ends.” Of the two, one is restrictive; one is liberatory. This may seem high brow thinking, and it would be easy enough to attack this by calling it “high brow snobbery.” But it is not so very much. It is merely asking a question: do you experience the world for yourself, or do you experience the world as convention tells you to? This, arguably, is the central question of literature (and the arts). Snobbery, of course, can be seen as a social circle, one defined by arbitrary convention. But, then, Haig’s statements here, against the “high brow,” are really little more than low brow snobbery. Yes, it is a terrible wrong thing to set up lines between the named “good” and the named “bad.” Sophistication, growth, development is not a light switch: it is a process. And we all start somewhere.

However, it is equally wrong to say “good” is “good enough,” to attack a body of work because it is difficult, or challenging, or complex, or because it requires some knowledge on the part of the reader, or because it requires effort. Believe me, the number of science fiction/fantasy enthusiasts who refuse to read Bester because it is not space opera, who refuse to read Tanith Lee because she continually screws with the conventions of fantasy, is far more than those who refuse to read Robert Jordan because Tanith Lee is such better writing. I have encountered many afficionados of poetry who refuse to read the nigh whole of the tradition of English poetry because it is too difficult. And believe me, their poems speak that to that world.

Nothing wrong with Andre Norton. In fact, her Here Abide Monsters had no small influence no my early imagination and mind. (In fact, the last time I re-read it was about five years ago.) But I do prefer to live in the world of the ‘individual’ self, a world much more imaginative, strange, wondrous, and magical yet.

It is fairly easy to read the film Bladerunner with Roy as a kind of Zarathustra, who has come down off the mountain to teach Deckard. His tears in the rain speech is very much a statement of aesthetic optimistic elitism:

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
If you read the writings of Pound, this is what he is saying to the world. This is what, for me, makes Pound’s writings so potent: he is through and through an optimist. He is saying to the world – just as Roy says to Deckard (and Chew) -- , “if only you could see what I have seen . . . . . . . and you can.”

9 comments:

  1. In summary; a pretentious rebuttal to someone calling out book snobs on their high and mighty crap is made by spewing more high and mighty crap.

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  2. Although the gentleperson above this comment was unnecessarily brutal, I think it's reflective of the response you should expect.

    The larger point is why the original 30-list poster (I can't be bothered to find his name again, nor does he deserve the recognition)created his post in the first place. Obviously, as you have gently demonstrated, he is self-absorbed, and pretty fucking stupid.

    You, however, are guilty of the first sin (self-absorption) but clearly not the second (although you should give Zahn a break, his books crush in comparison to the Twilight novels or whatever). Obviously, the kind of person who liked the original post won't be swayed by facts and deep thought, and I think you instinctively know this, but wrote out your post for the same reason the 30-facts-snob-guy wrote his: to say "hey, look at me!"

    And although yours is clearly researched and of greater value, it still is hard to ignore the sense that you are attempting to show off, and failing (there are some great references in there, but mostly unnecessary,and sometimes incorrect). My suggestion is to trim this down to the point by point section, limit those to a paragraph each, use small words so the anti-elitists won't be given ammo (this guy is using three-syllable words - burn him!), and try to take a gentle, but mocking tone. You might actually change the mind of a couple of these idiots. Don't hold your breath though.

    Either way, I thank you for your post, because you took the time for a reasonable rebuttal, and you did so in a way that clearly took a lot of effort and thought. You have a lot to say, and I hope you can find the right audience for it.

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    1. Thank you for your response. There's a couple moments worth addressing, in courtesy, and conversation, and explanation.

      (1) One of things said about me more than once by people who know me is that when they read my writing they can hear my voice, because my written language is so very close to my spoken. (Or vice versa.) So, unfortunately, that is not going to change much. (Though, even after 50 posts, I still think I am still finding my rhythms, here.) But, at least, people do generally realize after a while I am not striving for pretense; it is how I legitimately am and sound. (That also frequently said.) Believe me, your suggestions are not new, and are appreciated; but I limit myself to two runs-through and an edit: else I'll take far too much time on these posts. And, as the saying goes, I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn't have the time.

      Also, much of what I am doing here, and on my other web projects, is to write out a concept of literature and the aesthetic that, unfortunately, takes a lot of pausing and explaining. These ideas are not all my own, but are rarely spoken of in the way and to the ends I am seeking them. Yes, it makes for some rather long responses, but it is the ideas I am putting forward are what are most important to me. So I need to take the time and space to make them more accessible and understandable. Indeed, part of the reason I responded to the "30" post was because I saw an opportunity to talk about these ideas on this blog.

      (2) But, no, I assure you, "look at me" is not a motive in this. In fact, before I began it, I seriously considered using what would have been an obvious pen name. One of the reasons I decided against it was, actually, to combat "look at me" by forcing myself to "look at me."

      (3) And, really, my hope and purpose here is conversation. To start a site (or two) that wants to talk about poetry and creative writing using ideas and addressing issues like what might be addressed in a graduate atmosphere, but open to anybody and everybody. As I said, I have found I should never talk down, and that if you don't, people who are interested will rise up to meet you. (Yes, you can teach Derrida in a freshman English class: and very successfully.)

      (4) Finally, I pick on Timothy Zahn because once upon a time I did a sentence by sentence critique on about ten pages out of the middle of one of his Star Wars tie-ins, and it was terrifically bad writing on his part, and made for very much fun both for myself and those readers in the audience at the time (a list-serv, it was). I have no doubt he has written other books that are much better.

      Just to say, and for the humor of it, I have successfully stayed away from Twilight thus far (both books and films). Though, I will admit, I was momentarily struck dumb by a foolish glance into one of the Shades of Grey books, where I saw the phrase "hoist the sails," I believe it was, used straight-faced. It was painful, but only momentarily, and I recovered. (And my 5-year-old daughter still talks about it -- which is also very funny.)

      (I did recover. No need to worry.)

      Thank you again. I hope you check back in future and add your thoughts.

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  3. I started to type out a response, but it was so vile and hate-filled (not towards you, I should clarify - towards the type of human who would ever agree with the "30 things to say...booksnob" post) that I decided to delete it.

    After reading its litany of f-words and euphemisms for self-fornication, I realize it would serve no good, as the type of person who would ever actually self-bestow the title of "anti-elitist" is certainly not going to be swayed by calling them a "cowfucking hillbilly shitwad", no matter how 100% accurate that statement is.

    Instead, I will attempt to ignore that sad, overwhelming majority of US Americans, and instead respond to you, as you seem to be the rare type of person who enjoys life, or at least conversation in the comment section of a website (which is quite likely the exact opposite of life, but WHATEVER).


    1. Ok, that makes sense, "I can dig it" as the adults say.

    2. Does it matter, though?

    3. I can accept that reasoning, too. I thought you wanted to change the minds of idiots, but I'm glad you see the futility of that. And I agree with not talking down to people, unless they are in a bar and bigger than me, in which case I do everything I can to make sure they know how much I like Led Zeppelin, or whatever they like in general.

    4. The finest response to 50 Shades can be found here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/340987215?class=mediumText&order=a&page=91 (if the GIFs don't load, keep at it, they are well worth it)

    I still say Timothy Zahn is, far and away, the best writer they have had writing tie-ins for Star Wars (not counting Brian Wood, who is currently writing one of their comic series).

    That may not mean he is a good writer, although I would actually argue that he is, in the same way I would say that AE van Vogt is. They both have terrific imaginations, and if their writing skills are suspect, they make up for it by telling interesting stories and creating little imaginary universes.

    In comparison to someone who's just a flat out bad writer, like Thomas Friedman, who says stupid things stupidly, and is a terrible person, and causes real-world damage with his lunacy. Or, as I look at it now, the entire top 5 of the NYT bestsellers list. All garbage.

    Anyway, since I have you here, and I'm too lazy to read any of your earlier posts (especially if they are as wordy as you've warned), could you suggest a modern poet? The only current (still producing) poet I'm reading is Tony Hoagland, and if there are others you'd recommend that might be reminiscent of him, it would be appreciated.

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    1. Well, things are just starting here, so I have plenty of time. (And what with Stanley Cup, I might as well accomplish something while I'm growing my playoffs beard.) And, oh, yes, I can relate to the derisive and vile: very often beneficial to write; very rarely beneficial to let live any longer than that. And the images in the Fifty Shades link were all dead. But, yes, "He's an unsufferable douchenozzle, oh my!" alone made it worth the read. If you're into poetry, might want to give the other pages a look. They vary in length, but are never nearly as long as this .(Well, maybe once.) And while they really are aimed a writing audience, it would be very interesting to hear voices from a solely reading audience.

      I went back and looked up what was Zahn book. It was Star Wars: Heir to the Empire. It shows all the signs of having been written in one go and handed to an editor to be cleaned. But, enough of Zahn.

      As for recommendations, three points. First, I don't terribly keep up with contemporary poets that much -- I've been rather out of touch with it for nearly a decade. And to be honest, most of them don't interest me terribly much. One of the personal aims with this blog project was for it to be a doorway through which to refamiliarize myself with names. Second, To be honest, I think any 'preference' for contemporary poetry should be distrusted: it will always be that most of the great poetry will have been written by people of the past. (What's the point of your fourth conteporary poet-book if you've never read Carruth, or Cummings, or Whitman, etc.?) Third, I'd rather know what characteristics you were looking for than who you read. If luck was resting on your shoulder, and you knew the next book you were going to pick was going to bullseye your literary joy button, what do you think it would be like?

      That said, while reading Hoagland, I thought of James Wright (though he died in 1980). And, oddly enough, Norman Dubie, who is still alive and writing. (Though, I'm know him mostly through pre-1995 stuff.) I like Dubie better than Wright, to be honest. (Dubie is more a poet's poet -- he's not talked about as much, but you'll find him on a lot of poets' shelves.) But , really, since you've given the opportunity, I want to push Mick Imlah as often as I can, a Scot who died a couple years ago from Lou Gherig's. I just bought my first of his (I believe) four books, The Lost Leader, and it's flat brilliant. And then, Jacob Polley, an up and coming Brit, whose The Havocs is only book thus far I've thought to buy for reading for this blog. Very good stuff. He deserves some attention.

      (I'm hoping to start a side current on this blog at some point that rather follows this line, just to say.)

      Thanks for the comment. Keep clear of the douchenozzles.

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    2. It could be Hoagland himself answered your question. I am not saying I stand with him or anything, but I was piqued by the coincidence of it:

      http://harpers.org/blog/2013/04/twenty-little-poems-that-could-save-america/

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  4. The tasteless resent the tasteful. That's just the way of the world.

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    1. The resent of the tasteless for the tasteful.

      The tasteless resent by the tasteless for the tasteful.

      The tasteless resent of the tasteful by the tasteless.

      The tastelessness of the tasteless's resent of the tasteful.

      The tasteless's tasteless resent of the tasteful.


      (Sorry. Couldn't help myself. :)

      (I can't get them all on one side without adding too many more words.)

      The tasteful, and the tasteless's tasteless resent thereof.

      (Aha!)

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