January 14, 2010

Good books don't have to be hard


As if anticipating John Granger's "quest for depth" in Twilight, a few months back in the Wall Street Journal, Lev Grossman came to a similar conclusion. "A good story," he observes about the academic set, "is a dirty secret that we all share."

The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world. If you're having too much fun, you're doing it wrong.

The old jibe about prissy moralists loathing the fact that "somebody, somewhere is having fun" ironically applies to the kind of people who first coined it. If anything, Granger may be trying to hard to avoid the obvious: the people who like Twilight like it because it "doesn't bore them."

Not because there's more there than meets the eye. But because what meets the eye is precisely everything that's there.

The deconstructionists got one thing right, though: what the reader chooses to get out of the text is out of the author's control. But if we've got to go spelunking for meaning, we might well be the only ones who find it. Which is sort of an accomplishment, I suppose. As my sister puts it:

[A]lthough folklore fascinates me all by itself, finding itty-bitty folkloric symbols in stories just doesn't. It never has. I'm all about formal criticism, but I think the story matters more than the itty-bitty symbols (and that kind of analysis always strikes me as rather desperate).

Like mountain climbers, we analyze and critique for the existential joy of the effort. Because it's there. We set up hurdles and preen about jumping over them. Some people find this entertaining. I do. But we shouldn't assume that we're making the world better, even if we are for the mental exercise.

Unless we can tell a cracking good story in the process.

Related posts

The pulps
The magic door
Down with literacy
A scientific defense of fiction

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