Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece

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.


14 thoughts on “Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece

  1. kwnewton

    My answer to the folks who trash Stephanie Meyers and other wildly popular writers is to point out that you can be a good story-teller without being a good writer. If you give folks a good story, they won’t all care about the writing. If you can do both, of course, than you can produce a great book as well as a popular book.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer

    Did someone call you a dick? I certainly hope not. I know I didn’t, nor would I. Of the millions who read Meyer, would it be safe to say the majority are teens? Probably. So I’m not sure it’s the best measure–to pit a YA book marketed for teens, that adults may pick up, against a book marketed to adults that the large teen readership wouldn’t have seen on the shelf (assuming teens flock to the YA section and don’t explore general fiction). There’s simply not the same access to the book in the first place. You would actually have to do studies where you gave both books to large groups of readers and compare their reactions, eliminating issues of distribution, advertising, etc., to really get a sense of what people like and why–given equal access and a choice. The samples chosen would also have to have more connectivity to gauge a range of response to stimuli. (Granted, Twilight would still come out on top, but the results might surprise in other ways.) I think I stated in my piece that you were promoting your book and that you also clearly love fantasy fiction of a certain type. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that–it’s what authors do–and I didn’t say so in my piece (maybe someone else did). Anyway, I found it an interesting starting point for a discussion that wasn’t about your book or even, to some extent, your article, and more about the internal workings of the genre community. Finally, I think it’s good of you to respond given that it’s a rag-tag band of blogs that gave the article this kind of attention, probably not even totally half the readership of the WSJ. I’m looking forward to finishing the novel, and thanks again. Jeff

  3. Erin Kissane

    Nicely done, Lev. (And thanks, Josh!) I got the impression that your WSJ essay was pointed more at litfic readers who avoid genre (unless it’s, you know, Atwood or Chabon or whatever) than at the genre readers and writers who’ve written most of the blog responses. If that’s true, I suspect the audience mismatch is responsible for at least some of the venom in the responses I’ve read. In any case, I’m pretty sure I completely disagree with your points about Plot After Modernism — which is great, because working out the details in my argument is good exercise, and the whole conversation’s squarely in the middle of my academic (and readerly) interests. Cheers, Erin

  4. JR

    Lethem, Chabon, and Gaiman in the same list? And I think McCarthy is a v. telling example. No Country For Old Men reads exactly like an excellent ‘genre’ or ‘plotty’ novel, with two (incredibly self-indulgent, imo) exceptions of authorial intrusion that declares: This Is Literature. First, the lack of punctuation. Because refusing to use quotation marks indicates a very highbrow sensibility. And second, the final chapter, which seems willfully, self-consciously grafted on to prove literary cred. Struck me as an interesting hybrid, kinda–and very much to your point, given how well it did. Not boring in the slightest. Except the end, which appears designed to forgive the disgrace of indulging in a ‘guilty pleasure’. (And how on earth did you come across to anyone like a dick? Thought-provoking article, thanks!)

  5. Martin

    I’m not actually a dick. When you disagree with a person about books, it does not make that person a dick. Did anyone actually call Grossman a dick? Or is this “Lev Grossman Responds to (Imaginary) Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece”? As Erin says, it is interesting that the negative response has been from the genre blogs which is presumably the crowd Grossman thought he was playing to. Just imagine how much those in the mainstream must have hated his piece!

  6. Adam Lipkin

    Martin, there are two possibilities: 1. Someone, somewhere, actually called Grossman a dick (not an impossibility on the interwebs these days). In that case, of course, bringing up and responding to the insult still undermines the rest of his post, as it focuses on the personal, non-logical side of the argument. 2. No one called him a dick, in which case, it’s a straw man and one deliberately designed (as with #1) to distract us from the actual discussion. Either way, the entirety of #3 is a digression, filled with straw man arguments (even if he was called a dick, no one is going out there and saying all WSJ writers are dicks), and completely undermines the rest of the piece (which is far from problem-free, as it is).

  7. Erin Kissane

    “Lev is a dick” seems like reasonable shorthand for the weirdly intense personal attacks in some of the responses I saw. “As Erin says, it is interesting that the negative response has been from the genre blogs which is presumably the crowd Grossman thought he was playing to.” You have my point exactly backward. No one thinks they’re “playing” to genre blogs when they send an article to the WSJ.

  8. Liviu

    I found the original WSJ article having a great point but being sloppily argued – maybe because there are no accepted short-hand terms to encompass the huge subject and the resort to generalizations is always easy to attack – but these clarifications make better the points there. The way I see it and I completely agree with is: 1. There is a huge disconnect between Dickens, Tolstoy and other famous literary stars of earlier times who were major personalities, big bestselling authors and read by the whole society and today literary writers who are unknowns selling very little while the Dickens and Tolstoy’s of the day are S. King, JK Rowling and S. Meyer in terms of popularity and name recognition at least 2. Presumably humanity of today is not stupider, interested in sillier things… than the humanity of said earlier times. 3. Explain the disconnect. 4. Argue that the disconnect is starting to lessen so to speak…

  9. Esq

    So… the dick thing can´t be discussed by Lev because… it doesn´t concerns what he is talking about? We can´t accept or deny if someone called him like that. However, he is in all his right to defend himself in a personal way. It was expressed in bullets, for God´s sake! Come on, the one that is making an excuse for finding a flaw in his well written and very respectful response, is you.

  10. janebrenda

    It was John Hawkes who claimed that plot and character were “the enemies of fiction.” He, John Barth,Robert Coover, the brilliant Donald Barthelme, and early McCarthy spun much of their work out from Sam Beckett’s late-Modernist fiction. That was the avant-garde lineage (nb. very white & male) which claimed the 1970s-80s high ground. It’s over now – done in by postmodern crit theory? – and Lev correctly marks the pendulum swing back.

  11. Pingback: What We Talk About When We Talk About Talking About Genre « Lev Grossman

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