The Calculating Critic

More than half a century ago, Randall Jarrell was invited to speak at an academic panel on “The Obscurity of The Modern Poet.” The problem the panel’s title obviously implied was that “the Modern Poet” had adopted a strategy of willful difficulty, shunning the common reader. Jarrell began his talk with a cheeky misreading, saying that after hearing of the panel’s subject,

I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don’t read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn’t understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry. . . . Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure—i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected—they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.

I thought of Jarrell and the conflation of difficulty with neglect after reading Time book critic Lev Grossman’s rather unfortunate consideration, in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, of the Obscurity of the Modern Novelist. “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” would make a fine, snarky dismissal of Grossman’s argument, were it not the actual title the Journal had given to the piece.

“Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins’s young-adult novel ‘The Hunger Games’ instead of contemporary literary fiction?” Grossman wants to know. His conclusion is almost tautologically correct: “Because ‘The Hunger Games’ doesn’t bore them.” We are not invited to consider for a moment the possibility that Jarrell might suggest: that adult readers are bored by even the most engaging contemporary literary fiction because the only fiction they know how to read is written for adolescents. (The term “young adult,” while not without its market-tested charm, is a somewhat creepy euphemism for a 13-year-old.)

It turns out that the real reason that no one reads grown-up (old adult?) novels these days dates back to the Modernists, who initiated a “plot against plot” which has abided throughout the literary novel’s subsequent “100-year carbonite nap.” Luckily, this is all changing thanks to a new crop of writers who are “busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction … forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.” I suspect that Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Joyce Carol Oates, among many others, would be surprised to learn how impenetrable this seal has proven up to now. At any rate: now we have Chabon, Lethem, and, one is left to assume, Lev Grossman himself, whose literary-fantasy novel The Magicians was published last month. Finally, Grossman assures us, “the true postmodern novel is here,” a novel marked not only by plenty of plot, but by a mixing of high and low, by exuberance and openness and fun.

How neat to think that the writers we thought were Postmodernists all this time were really just the same old dull Modernists with worse haircuts. Except of course that exuberance and openness, the mixing of high and low, and above all plot, were exactly the tools with which Pynchon, Barth, Coover, et al. rebelled against their Modernist predecessors. And then there’s the generation of British novelists—Graham Greene and Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh—who rejected Modernism’s static seriousness as surely as Joyce and Woolf rejected the Victorians.

What then is the cause of the literary novel’s century-long Rip Van Winkle routine, if not plotlessness? Well, it happens that the “plot against plot” came with “another, related development: difficulty.”

“It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a time when literary novels were not, generally speaking, all that hard to read. Say what you like about the works of Dickens and Thackeray, you pretty much always know who’s talking, and when, and what they’re talking about.”

Of course, this leaves the rather awkward question of why so many adults read The Hunger Games instead of Dickens or Thackeray. Perhaps Dickens with his moral outrage and core of sadness, Thackeray with his corrosive cynicism, present their own challenges, even if you always know what they’re talking about. (Perhaps one feature of Thackeray’s all-encompassing irony is that we don’t always know what he’s talking about; but why make things difficult?)

One’s almost tempted to ask why the size of the readership should matter quite so much, except that Grossman has an answer to this question: “The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader.” And what does “power” mean in this context? Here’s precisely what it means: “Nam Le’s ‘The Boat,’ one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback. . . . In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the ‘Twilight’ series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books.” Eight million, in the first quarter alone! Never mind that Bruckheimer does that in a weekend, it’s an understandable concern for Grossman the novelist, what with earnings season almost upon us. But for Grossman the critic it’s a bit perplexing. And yet it is as a critic that Grossman is writing, and to his fellow critics that he eventually works his way to addressing himself: “The critics will have to catch up. … These books require a different set of tools, and a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren’t mutually exclusive.”

I’m intrigued by this clarion call, in part because I can’t think of a single prominent critic who looks anything like this strawman, standing athwart Lethem and Chabon yelling, “Stop the plot.” But more than that, I’m eager to learn what new critical tool the critic requires, to avoid praising books that sell in the low five figures. A calculator?

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