As we read one blog post after another taking issue with some or all of Lev Grossman’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, we began to suspect that Lev would want to respond to his critics. I contacted him and offered to post that eventual response on Genreville, and he graciously accepted. Here’s what he has to say.
Hi everyone. So a lot of people had comments about my piece in the WSJ this past weekend, and I figured I should write a response to the responses — a re-response — and Josh was nice enough to offer to let me do it here. So here I am. I would have done it sooner but I’m on vacation and traveling around and haven’t been onlne.
I know there’s a ton of stuff out there that I’m not responding to, really a lot, and I want to respond to that stuff too, but I haven’t had a chance to read through it yet. I’m still traveling — I’m writing this on a train — and I’m literally getting my wifi in random 5 minute snatches. I’ll write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.
I’ll do this in bullet points, because that means I don’t have to think up transitions to go between the paragraphs.
1. I have no idea who you are or what that piece you’re talking about was.
Really quick summary of the argument I made:
– There was a powerful tendency among the Modernist novelists to be skeptical about and critical of conventional plot and storytelling.
– That skeptical attitude, or whatever you want to call it, has been a major influence on 20th century fiction, to the point where we now associate a zippy plot with trash fiction and crass commercialism, and lyrical, static, and otherwise unzippy plots with literary fiction.
– That’s changing. The novel is making its peace with plot and storytelling. We’re rediscovering the fact that a powerful conventional narrative and powerful, sophisticated literary art are in fact not incompatible.
2. You make some really big generalizations about the Modernists. That’s lame.
Yeah, that is true. But the Modernists are a really seriously heterogeneous bunch of writers. There isn’t much you can say about them, in aggregate, without a lot of counterexamples cropping up. And yet you have to try. Otherwise you can’t make arguments about Modernism at all.
It would be insane to say that no Modernist novel has a plot. Obviously. There are books by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among others, that come quite close to the level of plottiness we associate with commercial fiction. For Whom the Bell Tolls, for example. So to say that the Modernists, to a man/woman and to a book, were anti-narrative, would be a wild exaggeration.
But something radical did happen to plot as we passed from the Victorians to the Modernists. Books like Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury and Mrs. Dalloway (and In Our Time and Tender is the Night for that matter) are, from a narrative point of view, very disordered, static and/or opaque ways that almost nothing that came before them was. Those are extreme examples, but SOMETHING changed. How would you describe it? My take is, there was a broad tendency in Modernism to distrust and critique the basic conventions of novelistic narrative, and that that skepticism has never completely worn off.
3. This is bullshit. You are a dick.
I’m not actually a dick. When you disagree with a person about books, it does not make that person a dick.
Though since you bring it up, I realize that the piece could have come off as arrogant and know-it-all-ish, rather than just, ‘I have this theory, maybe you’ll think it’s interesting/true, but if not that’s cool too,’ which is how it was meant. I hope it didn’t, but if it did, that’s bad writing, and I feel bad about it.
While we’re talking about this, even aside from whether or not you agreed with the piece, I think there’s a natural tendency for people to assume that people like me, who write for ultra-mainstream media-type places like Time and the Wall Street Journal, are dicks. Personally I make that assumption about other writers all the time. When you publish in places like that, especially pieces where you express strong opinions, it sometimes just comes out sounding snotty. It’s something I’ve had a lot of trouble with. I probably will have trouble with it in the future too. Unfortunately I have strong opinions, and I live off my writing — and other people live off my writing too — and places like that pay really well. It’s a problem.
4. You wrote this piece to promote your book.
Yeah. Of course I did! You have to promote your book, it’s just part of being a writer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe what I wrote.
5. You’re implying that you think Stephenie Meyer is a good writer.
Well, I think that one’s a yes and no. I think it would be more accurate to say that I’m interested in the fact that tons and tons of people read her (I’m one of them), in numbers that make the number of people who read literary fiction a borderline statistically insignificant number. I want to know why that is.
Obviously there are a lot of things the Twilight books do, and don’t do, that you can point to and say, good books do/don’t do those things, therefore the Twilight books are ass. But — hear me out — millions of people love them. All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that. Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is. But I’m interested in it.
6. You have total slippage going on in your argument between the idea of a ‘plotty’ novel and the idea of an ‘easy’ novel. There are other ways for books to be easy than to be plotty. For that matter plotty books can be difficult to read. There are unplotty genre books and plotty literary novels. Christ, you even drag in Eliot, who’s not even a novelist.
Yeah, that’s true. I wasn’t very careful about that distinction. It was partly a side-effect of having to cover a hundred years in the history of the novel in 1400 words. But it was partly just sloppiness. Sorry about that.
But the thing is, I don’t actually think it kills the argument. Plotty writing (and ever notice how bad the terminology for talking about plot is? Compared to the stuff they have to talk about poetry? The state of narrative theory is totally pathetic) is one way to make a book more readable. Just not the only one.
Still, I should have been more careful. And I should have left Eliot out of it.
7. What’s the big deal anyway? The novel has always hybridized with other genres. Nothing’s changed.
OK, this is one that I actually disagree with. One of the hallmarks of the Modernists was that they declared a moratorium on this kind of promiscuous interbreeding, as far as the novel was concerned. They created a new category of fiction that we now call the ‘literary’ novel (or more accurately, they embraced a category that had been pioneered by proto-Modernists like Flaubert, James, etc.). The literary novel held itself apart from and above genre fiction, and existed in opposition to it. Look at the snotty way Hemingway (whom I love) writes about The Purple Land in The Sun Also Rises, for example. Genre writers (like Raymond Chandler etc. etc.) were influenced by Modernism, but I don’t think the arrow went the other way. The Modernists closed the borders around the literary novel, sealed them off. Those borders are opening up again.
OK, my train has now arrived. More later. In conclusion: even if you think all this is bullshit and that I’m a dick, yay for everyone caring about contemporary fiction enough to argue about it. I love that.