Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Literary Toxicology

It seems to me that there are times when it is obviously true that environmental protection depends less on the development of fresh ideas than the censure of polluters. Starting up an organic farm downriver, say, is less important than closing the chemical plant higher up.

Might the same be true of literature? I just read two highly respected but very bad novels in a row. (I knew the second one would bad. I read it inspired by the first.) Sometimes I want to write a novel. And sometimes I want to write diatribes against bad ones. (I also sometimes want to write appreciations of good novels, but I'm never quite sure that's necessary or even a dignified activity.) I'm wondering, though, whether it might not be the case that a good novelist, in a particular age, is wasting his talent. He should be writing scathing critiques of the garbage that is being poured into the river. That's Cyril Connolly's image (I'll provide a reference later)* and I think his criticism—coupled with his (surprising) lack of any serious original literary output—is a good example of how individuals weigh the demands of the age.

Pound seems pretty "balanced" in this regard.

*Update: "The English language is like a broad river on whose bank a few patient anglers are sitting, while, higher up, the stream is being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." (TUG, 93)


Andrew Shields said...

I know it's the obvious thing to ask, but I'll put it cleverly: Why won't you say what the two bad novels were?

Thomas said...

Mainly because it might occasion irrelevant controversy. We can all agree that there are bad novels, worthy of censure, without always agreeing about what the bad novels are.

The question is: given the existence of widely admired novels, it the production of another novel that might be likewise admired more important than denigrating work that is not worthy of admiration?

In literature, I think, there is a presumption in favour of putting paper where your mouth is, i.e., not complaining about bad work if you don't intend to produce good work of your own. But in other spheres (like environmental polution), like I say, good work hardly matters if the bad work isn't stopped.

So I'm asking: given that I find these two novels awfully bad, should I spend my energies demonstrating their badness or producing alternative novels. Of course, it might turn out that I'm wrong (just as that factory upriver may not be as bad as we thought), but perhaps the next novel by the same author will be much better because of my critique (like the factory might clean up its act).

Since you ask: Hustvedt's What I Loved and Auster's Leviathan. I will probably write a post on them soon.

Andrew Shields said...

Did you see this?

Tim Parks, of course, does put his money where his mouth is, by writing novels of his own. (And several fabulous ones.)

Thomas said...

Yes, I've been wanting to read Europa for a long time. I flipped through it in a bookstore once many years ago, and should've bought it then. A passing insight about the Dead Poets Society has stuck with me ever since, completely without context. His book about pelvic pain was just reviewed in the New Yorker, and I saw an interview with him. Seems like an interesting guy.

Thomas said...

But I hadn't seen his review of Franzen. Interesting. I've heard the "list" critique also made of Auster.

Andrew Shields said...

The pelvic pain book is fascinating. His book on Italian football, "A Season with Verona," is excellent.

Europa and Destiny are perhaps the most ambitious novels Parks has written, but I particularly like some of the more recent ones, such as "The Rapids" and his India book, "Dreams of Rivers and Seas."

A superb novel that addresses all the things the Jonathans want to do but much more successfully is Mark Wallace's "The Quarry and the Lot," recently published by BlazeVox in the US.