In Praise of the Long Sentence.

From Gerald Murnane’s “In Praise of the Long Sentence” (Meanjin, Autumn 2016), a crotchety but interesting essay:

In 1986 I was invited, along with several other writers, to give a short talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival on the subject ‘Why I write what I write’. I was not surprised when the other writers talked about childhood experiences, subjects that inspired them, or concerns that drove them to write. I chose to talk about none of these, and my short speech must have impressed at least one member of the audience, the then editor of Meanjin, Judith Brett, who published the speech a few months later. My speech began ‘I write sentences. I write first one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence…’ I made no mention of grammar in my speech. I spoke more about such matters as the shape of meaning, the sound of sense, the contour of thought. These were all expressions I had learned from other writers’ efforts to explain why some writing, to put it simply, is better than other writing. I quoted a remarkable passage by Virginia Woolf in which she claimed: ‘A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it … and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.’ I wrote my speech 30 years ago, and I’m as pleased with it today as I was then, but I acknowledge that my essay, so to call it, is no sort of compelling argument for grammatically sound sentences. Rather, it seems to suggest that I trusted for most of my life in a sort of instinct. I trusted in a sort of instinct and looked only for apt or suggestive forms of words, and yet I never needed to violate the principles of traditional grammar. […]

Several times during the writing of this piece, I may have seemed to be trying to justify my use of long sentences. Certainly, I left off writing this piece now and then and pondered on my liking for such sentences and my interest in punctuation and traditional grammar. These preferences of mine may have a simpler explanation than I sometimes try to find. During the first ten years of my life, I was closer in time to the nineteenth century than to the present century. For most of my childhood I read books written long before my birth, books by R.L. Stevenson, Charles Kingsley, Charles Reade, William Henry Hudson. Even our English textbooks at secondary school recommended the prose of Charles Lamb, Thomas Hardy, George Borrow. I long ago gave up reading contemporary writers, but I still look often into Hardy’s novels or Lavengro or The Romany Rye. Perhaps I learned the subtle rhythms of left-branching nineteenth-century prose in the same way that the authors of that prose learned the rhythms of their Cicero or their Livy. I would be far from disappointed to learn that this is so.

Anyone who refuses to like or understand contemporary art is self-doomed to irrelevance (which is not the same as inferiority), and anyone who claims “to know more about sentences than Thomas Pynchon or Frank Kermode” is in some sense a blithering idiot, but I like his statement “that meaning for me was connection; that a thing had meaning for me if it was connected with another thing.” Via wood s lot.

Comments

  1. And anyone who utters the phrase “traditional grammar” is a blithering idiot in more ways than one. I bet he doesn’t know what ‘left-branching’ means.

  2. Doesn’t it mean thick wordy underbrush on the left side of a sentence, that you have to cut through in order to get to the verb or even the subject ?

  3. I bet he doesn’t know what ‘left-branching’ means

    Go to the essay itself and you’ll find he has a couple paragraphs on the subject.

  4. The phrase “in some sense a blithering idiot” is in bad faith — if you’re going to insult someone, have the courage of your convictions, choosing if necessary a more nuanced line of attack…

  5. I beg to differ.

  6. Never mind “blithering idiot”, I’d like to question “self-doomed to irrelevance”. For starters, it’s a mistake to take Murnane at his word (you got “crochety” right) when he claims that he long ago gave up reading contemporary writers. After all, he cites Raymond Carver and Mavis Gallant in addition to figures from the antique past such as Proust and Flannery O’Connor. But even if his claim was true, it would be mediocrity rather than a rejection of the contemporary that would doom him to irrelevance, and Murnane is not mediocre. If, say, a Japanese writer knows nothing of American literature, is that writer by definition irrelevant to American readers?

  7. Kermode is about literature: who knows what he knows about sentence structure?

    And by the way, can you really use irrelevance in an absolute construction like that? I can use relevance that way (per the OED, ‘pertinence to current or important issues, interests, needs’, social, political, or what have you), but not its antonym. Gale says irrelevancy can be absolute for her at least marginally, but not irrelevance nor irrelevant.

  8. The day when “crotchety” was a laudatory adjective and not a throwaway, kneejerk, ignorant invective are long past and unknowingly regretted (think Mencken/Muggeridge/Mailer). The continuum of writer as bumptious iconoclast is lost to today’s generations of Namby Pambies

  9. The OED1 (1883) defines crotchet in this sense, from which crotchety is derived, as ‘a whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion’. Not very positive. It’s one of those things you may apply to yourself if you choose, but if someone else says it, it’s meant to be offensive.

    Crotchet has many more senses, of course.

  10. jamessal says:

    If, say, a Japanese writer knows nothing of American literature, is that writer by definition irrelevant to American readers?

    Not by definition, no, I suppose not, but the odds really wouldn’t be with him. Regardless of whatever genius he might possess, books don’t exist in a vacuum. Wittgenstein is the famous exception in philosophy — the last member of the canon not to have studied the canon — but are there any literary exceptions: any first-rate writers who didn’t read a great many books of the sort they hoped to indite themselves?

  11. jamessal says:

    And yeah, to call Kermode a “pretender” because he doesn’t stick to the definition of sentence you prefer is indeed fatuous. Sentence isn’t a technical term, really. And although I agree that the comma Murnane is so sure marks the end of the “real sentence” doesn’t make for a very good comma splice, great books teach you how to read them: it’s entirely possible Pynchon’s idiosyncratic punctuation works to great effect as a whole.

  12. Jamessal: off the top of my head, Lampedusa, Ivy Compton-Burnett… there’ll be others. I can’t claim these rejected contemporary writing entirely – maybe they read as much of it as Murnane has – but they preferred to immerse themselves in the past. But whether there are a few, or many, similar cases is of secondary importance. Murnane’s project of using a mix of the demotic and the solipsistic to define himself through memory stands on its own terms, like any first-rate writing. And I can’t agree with you that “the odds wouldn’t be with” a writer firewalled inside a very different tradition – that would exempt us from interest in the greater part of literature. Perhaps I should have framed my hypothetical in temporal rather than geographical terms.

  13. jamessal says:

    Perhaps I should have framed my hypothetical in temporal rather than geographical terms.

    Then I do think we would disagree less, and I never disagreed all that strongly: my question about literary exceptions was less rhetorical than sincere (given this crowd, you never know what you’ll learn about literary authors). And though you’re clearly a fan of Murnane’s and I disliked the opening of the essay to which Hat linked, that openinng is all the Murnane I’ve read, and with such little familiarity, I’d be a fool to take a position broader than the one in my last comment. It did also rankle see a writer using phrases as intuitive, if not to say vague or even meaningless, as the shape of meaning, the sound of sense, the contour of thought — phrases that demand generous, openminded reading — also pass peremptory judgment on writers of greater status over nothing more than their seeming acceptance of a definition of sentence, a notoriously slippery term, that he apparently dislikes; that acceptance having been evinced in a book review, to boot, not a linguistic essay about what does or doesn’t constitute a sentence. Finally, though I’ve come to mostly use the traditional sentences he seems to insist are the only kind, I’ve also read enough recent American literature, enough prose written or influenced by DeLillo, Pynchon, et al., to appreciate what can be accomplished by using less traditional, if not quite idiosyncratic, syntax between a capital letter and a period. “He didn’t hesitate, he rushed into the unlit room, floorboards sagging, cobwebs inspissating his very self — no longer pure threadbare urgency nearly snapped by each booming heartbeat — thought returned even as he willed it away, disgustedly he kicked a rat but didn’t even hear it squeal, the chest was right there . . ..” Comma splices can be especially effective when the writing before the punctuation raises a question the writing after it answers (he didn’t hesitate in doing what?), or when a modifier seems at first to refer to the first part but in fact introduces a new clause altogether, your eyes almost forced further down the page in both instances. Deployed skillfully, they can build to great effect, just like the phrases and clauses before the main verb in a long left-branching sentence. With less skill they just make sentences muddled and pretentious, like delaying the main verb can make a sentence needlessly difficult. Tired as I am, I’m not sure which of these statements my own little example illustrates. I’d meant to go on; but sleep may be returning, and true insomnia is never a useful friend but a bully whose absence you pray for, so I settled on the teaser. Anyway, the point — the fucking point! — is just that Murnane’s definition of sentence seems stodgily restrictive. However, I hope these initial impressions prove worthless upon further reading. What would you suggest beyond the essay, Ian?

  14. For starters, it’s a mistake to take Murnane at his word (you got “crochety” right) when he claims that he long ago gave up reading contemporary writers.

    Well, my statement wasn’t about Murnane directly — as you say, I have no way of knowing whether his self-report is true or blague. But I’ve known people who reject out of hand anything done since WWII/1900/the Middle Ages/the fall of Alexandria (take your pick), and though it can be a sort-of-charming personal quirk, I think it’s a bad sign for an artist. You may not like “modern art” (whatever that means to you), but to try to create as if it had never existed is just silly.

  15. any first-rate writers who didn’t read a great many books of the sort they hoped to indite themselves?

    Tolkien and Lewis had a conversation where they agreed that because there weren’t enough books of the kind they liked, they would have to write the books themselves. Tolkien was immensely well-read, but not in the works of his contemporaries or predecessors. He made, you might say, his own relevance, and though he certainly had no intention of founding a tradition, it has happened anyway. Nevertheless, he was very much a man of his time: Shippey says that The Lord of the Rings is the last World War I novel: he explicitly compares it to Vonnegut’s World War II novels and Donaldson’s anti-Vietnam-War novels, none of which are openly about these wars.

  16. Not even Slaughterhouse Five?

  17. Point.

  18. Ramses von Bladet says:

    Civilisation, and especially art, has never really recovered from the catastrophic end of the Bronze Age.

  19. Jamessal: While I’m a (slightly qualified) admirer of Murnane, I’ve only finished four of his ten-going-on-eleven books, so any recommendation from me is interim. You might be interested in the more recent work such as A History of Books and A Million Windows, which have even less “traditional” narrative than the novels from the 1970s and 1980s and even more of the obsessive exploration and exposition of the actual writing process as it takes place before the reader’s eyes, paragraph by paragraph. The later work may also give a more immediate context for Murnane’s almost religious dogmatism about sentence structure, however wrong-headed some of his dogmas may be. (I hope you’ll relish the information that for many years Murnane earned his living as a university creative writing teacher.) And I agree that Murnane’s view of the sentence is restrictive. There are many ways to compose music and many kinds of music to be composed. However, who’s to say that in fifty years’ time the consensus won’t be that a crank like Murnane was ahead of his time, and that Pynchon et al were slack and self-indulgent?

    There are introductions to Murnane by JM Coetzee in the NYRB (Dec 20 2012) and by Shannon Burns in the Australian Book Review (Aug 2015). The latter is as it were a distillation of a biography in progress, and is fascinating on Murnane’s personality and eccentricities. Unfortunately neither is on line except by subscription; and the same applies to the very good Murnane issue of Music & Literature, which includes Murnane’s exchange of letters with Teju Cole. Apologies if these recommendations only frustrate you. There’s a part re-working of Burns’ piece in the Sydney Review of Books, Gerald Murnane: An Idiot in the Greek Sense, which could be helpful.

  20. LH: I think it’s a bad sign for an artist.

    In many cases, sure. There must be numerous forgotten poetasters who doomed themselves by doing that. (Occasionally someone re-lights a torch for CM Doughty.) But if a whole school of writers does it, talent will still out – eg, the insular-reactionary British writers of the post-WWII generation, who wanted to pretend that all that nasty Modernism stuff never happened. Larkin and K Amis may be over-rated by conservative journalists, but they’re not negligible.

    But I guess you’re thinking of isolates? Murnane has something of that extreme marginalisation in his make-up and in his personal history. He’s a genuinely strange man. In his case the strangeness has enabled him to break through to a way of seeing that was unrecorded until he created it, but which we can immediately recognise as fitting. It’s a long way from “irrelevant”. If I can get you to take that back, I’ll win the internet!

  21. : Anyone who refuses to like or understand contemporary art is self-doomed to irrelevance

    But how relevant is “contemporary” art to begin with? Even linguistics seems like quite a mainstream interest by comparison.

    Some art forms are deeply embedded in a culture: practically anyone can remember examples they appreciated, and a good many can improvise within the genre. I suppose there are probably some social groups for whom that is true of contemporary art, but if so, I certainly haven’t run into many members.

    (I’m assuming that you’re referring to his comments on the visual arts here; obviously contemporary writing, for a writer, is quite a different kettle of fish.)

  22. In his case the strangeness has enabled him to break through to a way of seeing that was unrecorded until he created it

    That’s great, and maybe it works for him; to be honest, I probably won’t put in the work and time to read him in extenso, but I’ll take your word for it. I’ll agree that he may be the exception to the rule if you’ll agree that my rule is in general valid.

    But how relevant is “contemporary” art to begin with? Even linguistics seems like quite a mainstream interest by comparison.

    Come, come, we’re not talking about the general public; I’m surprised at you for putting up such a flimsy straw man. We’re talking about the relevant creative community. Hardly anybody in Russia cared about French decadent poets in the 1890s, but those who did created Russian Symbolism, and anybody who didn’t ride that wave became ipso facto irrelevant to the story of Russian poetry — which does not, of course, mean they were necessarily bad poets, but good artists have a way of finding the stimulus required to jump-start their art, and of course they all steal from each other.

  23. It is a common delusion that artists just huddle in their lonely garrets and create their art out of their own tortured souls, appropriately steeped in tobacco and stimulants. If that were the case, of course, the very idea of a movement would be irrelevant, and different artists would draw on different periods of history or none at all. In fact, things don’t work that way.

  24. Sure, the creative minority’s obsessions are unlikely to be widely shared, at least not to start with, and their productivity has little to do with how widely shared they are. If you’re talking strictly about contemporary _writing_, my point is moot anyway: contemporary writing clearly is relevant well beyond the relevant creative community. If we’re talking about contemporary visual arts, though, that seems less obvious: no doubt some contemporary writers would have more to say about those “abstract sculptures” than Murnane, but how many of them would regard developments in that domain as inspirations for their own work?

  25. Alas, I know little or nothing about contemporary visual arts, so I must recuse myself from that battlefield!

  26. irrelevant to the story of Russian poetry

    The (hi)story as written by the winners, that is to say. But the winners in a one-generation backward look may not be the winners in a multi-generation backward look, either for reasons of mere data loss (Stoicism and Epicureanism were way more popular in Hellenistic and Roman times than what we know about them today would suggest) or because the standard narrative gets definitively subverted at some point. People who wrote fantasy (however labeled) looked irrelevant to the novel throughout much of the 20C: now, not so much.

  27. Right, but the (hi)story as it exists now is the only (hi)story there is, until it changes. I myself have discovered a number of authors and works that have been unjustly excluded from the (hi)story of Russian literature and am doing my feeble best to spread the word, but until I succeed it would be ludicrous for me to claim that (say) Elena Veltman’s Viktor is part of that (hi)story when as far as I know only one person besides me has read it in well over a century.

  28. jamessal says:

    Thanks, Ian. My interest is certainly piqued! And, as a relevant side note, though DeLillo has certainly written some astonishing prose (I actually haven’t read all that much Pynchon), this sort of almost common apotheosizing is just nauseating. I think it was John Leonard who, after almost criticizing DeLillo’s The Body Artist, immediately pulled back, essentially saying that we should trust him because he’s smarter than any of us; and now a writer who used the opening clause of DeLillo’s first novel as the title for his own first hit book just declared his hero beyond criticism in what was supposed to be a piece of criticism!

  29. jamessal says:

    Thanks, John C, too. I do wish I could have tagged along with Tolkien and Lewis on those famous walks, if those discussions did indeed take place during walks, as I have the impression they did. Obviously Tolkien had a point in criticizing Lewis for letting the religion that they of course shared so thoroughly influence his novels, but I do wonder if Tolkien really thought he had truly and thoroughly separated his from TLOR. I don’t think it much hurts the book, but I can’t imagine anyone would think for a second that its author was agnostic or even Jewish.

    Tolkien and Lewis had a conversation where they agreed that because there weren’t enough books of the kind they liked, they would have to write the books themselves.

    Ironically, their current preeminent disciple (arguably), George R. R. Martin, for all his imaginative brilliance, isn’t much of a prose stylist — one of the many reasons the HBO show doesn’t merely do justice its source material but far surpasses it artistically. He’s like the Dreiser of fantasy. Is there a Nabokov? A Bellow?

  30. I just thought of an even better example of the importance of the artistic zeitgeist: jazz. Jazz has gone through centuries’ worth of speeded-up artistic development in its century of existence, and every evolution has left behind it resentful devotees of the older form they had come to know and love, both players and listeners. Louis Armstrong was notoriously intolerant of bebop, and the beboppers returned the favor by calling everyone who didn’t accept the new form “moldy figs.” And of course plenty of fine jazz was created by people who never advanced beyond the original New Orleans/Chicago phase… but it was relevant only to its acolytes, having no effect on younger musicians who were eager to take the music forward. The most prominent recent would-be exception is Wynton Marsalis, who has been trying for a couple of decades now to promote a view of the music that rejects everything after the hard-bop 1950s; he went so far as to diss Cecil Taylor and otherwise pretty much ignore all “modern” developments in the multipart TV history of the music he was put in charge of. He was rightly mocked for this by everyone who knew and cared about the ongoing development of jazz. It’s like Stalin trying to impose prerevolutionary norms of prose on Russian literature in the 1930s and ’40s; all he accomplished was to kill off (official published) literature until his death, with all the good writing going on abroad or surreptitiously. You really can’t stop or ignore progress.

  31. Tolkien knew very well, though he was not intentionally writing a Catholic work. In a letter to a Jesuit friend, he wrote:

    The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. However, that is very clumsily put, and sounds more self-important than I feel. For as a matter of fact, I have consciously planned very little; and should chiefly be grateful for having been brought up (since I was eight) in a Faith that has nourished me and taught me all the little that I know; and that I owe to my mother, who clung to her conversion and died young, largely through the hardships of poverty resulting from it.

    Certainly I have not been nourished by English Literature, in which I do not suppose I am better read than you; for the simple reason that I have never found much there in which to rest my heart (or heart and head together). I was brought up in the Classics, and first discovered the sensation of literary pleasure in Homer. Also being a philologist, getting a large part of any aesthetic pleasure that I am capable of from the form of words (and especially from the fresh association of word-form with word-sense), I have always best enjoyed things in a foreign language, or one so remote as to feel like it (such as Anglo-Saxon).

    Many have compared Galadriel to Mary, and she is an antitype (typological predecessor) in some ways, but Galadriel, far from being stainless, was in fact a penitent sinner whose return to Elvenhome at the end of the book represents her earthly redemption, a very different matter from the Assumption.

    Tolkien’s main objections to Lewis’s work was its sloppiness and inconsistency in detail, which he thought bad as a matter of art, and its allegorical nature (though Lewis retorted that it was merely analogical).

  32. Galadriel is actually in a strange situation. She is essentially a Lord or the Rings character, and she does arguable display the greatest wisdom of any character who confronts the ring. She is not immune to its temptation, but she manages to laugh off Frodo’s offer to give it to her (something even Gandalf is not able to do). Having created this remarkable character in the Third Age, Tolkien felt obligated to write her into the stories of the First Age, but the results are (in my opinion) unsatisfactory. Part of the problem is that her backstory ends up being constrained by the crimes of the Noldor in the First Age (something Tolkien said that he decided not to make into a theme in The Lord of the Rings). The other problem, is that, as a latecomer to the First Age mythology, she just is not very developed. In one of his drafts, the author described her as second only to Feanor in greatness among the elves, but she never is shown doing anything of note. It’s hard to see how she could have been a more important figure than Elwe, Fingolfin, Turgon, or Earendil (or Luthien, but she may not count).

  33. Tolkien made several different attempts to retcon Galadriel into the First Age stories, and I agree that they aren’t very satisfactory. (He had similar problems accounting for the Orcs: if they are just corrupted Elves, why aren’t their children born as Elves?) But even in the L.R. she is a figure of vast native power (“I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew / Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew”) who loses most of it when she is exiled or exiles herself (under whatever circumstances) to Middle-earth. Even the Ring of Adamant only gives her back part of her abilities: when the One Ring is destroyed and the other Rings stop working, she will “diminish” further, “and go into the West”. Nevertheless, it is also already clear in the L.R. that she can’t return until the other Exiles do: “What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a sea?” as she says, also sarcastically quoted back to her by Saruman after his fall.

  34. LH: I’ll agree that he may be the exception to the rule if you’ll agree that my rule is in general valid.

    Agreed. I wasn’t contesting your rule as a generalisation, only the use of “irrelevant” applied to an exception to the rule. The parallel you draw with Marsalis is a fair one, and Marsalis isn’t irrelevant to jazz.

    How much Murnane really is an exception to the rule I’m not sure – in describing him as an isolate I was thinking of his unique methods and literary worldview as well as his curmudgeonly persona, but by his biographer’s account he’s a very sociable if eccentric individual. As far as I can see he wasn’t cut off from the zeitgeist when he was a city-dweller, even if he isn’t by temperament inclined to dance with literary establishments. And the fact that he propounds some bizarre and discardable notions puts him in good company from the past century’s canon. So I suggest he broadens the zeitgeist rather than stands Canute-like in opposition to it (whatever he might choose to claim).

  35. Marsalis isn’t irrelevant to jazz.

    Not as a performer — his stint with the Jazz Messengers produced thrilling music — and not as an impresario, since he wields tremendous power over funding and attention. But I would say his ideas about jazz are irrelevant to jazz.

  36. J.W. Brewer says:

    At what point does the canon close and the age of prophecy cease? The last 40+ years of jazz history are close to irrelevant, however enjoyable they may have been to listen to at the time. You can go out in New York any night of the week in 2016 and find fine young musicians playing perfectly fine jazz in a wide range of styles but it’s very hard to say “ah, you can hear the influence of such-and-such great innovative jazz stylist who didn’t start recording until after (let’s say) 1975, without exposure to whom these guys wouldn’t be able to do what they do.” Presumably these players don’t have record collections completely devoid of anything post-’75, but you can’t really tell that by listening. Marsalis placed the end date too early (and Philip Larkin qua jazz buff even earlier), but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t an end date. (You could push the end date a little later for loud electric jazz, but any non-electric combo can play as if entirely ignorant of the work of e.g. James Blood Ulmer or Jamaaladeen Tacuma and be none the worse for it.)

  37. Tolkien and Lewis had a conversation where they agreed that because there weren’t enough books of the kind they liked, they would have to write the books themselves.

    On the Russian side, A. & B. Strugatsky began their SF writing career with the same motive. Maybe it generally one of the powerful motivation for an artist — to fill in the void.

  38. The last 40+ years of jazz history are close to irrelevant

    I heard some creaky old (lovable!) musicians saying the same thing last time I was in NYC. They, and presumably you, simply haven’t been paying attention to the new stuff (which is natural — most people stop keeping an ear out for new music after, say, their 30s). Anthony Braxton is still out there pushing the limits, and he’s influenced Susie Ibarra, Marilyn Crispell, and others. Myra Melford is doing her own thing, which always sounds fresh to me. There’s a whole new wave of jazz with subcontinental influences; check out Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahantappa. There’s European jazz, with people like Franz Koglmann and Georg Gräwe that most Americans don’t know about (and plenty of others, of course, that I don’t know about). Just because an art form is no longer widely popular doesn’t mean it stops developing. And if I ever decide that my own personal horizon is the same as the horizon of the world, that if I don’t know about something it doesn’t exist, just shoot me.

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    Anthony Braxton is 70 years old. He’s been making records since 1968. I was sufficiently familiar with his work to find it more boring than not by, let’s say, 1984.

    There’s a separate question as to whether the existence of some rather than no formal/stylistic innovation obligates anyone else to pay attention or else be hopelessly uncool. Ooh, some French dude wrote a novel without using the letter e! Are other novelists obligated to pay attention and consider whether they should revise their own style? Why?

  40. Anthony Braxton is 70 years old. He’s been making records since 1968.

    Yup, that’s why I brought him up primarily as an influence (and I’ve got over two dozen of those records, many of them with multiple discs, so we clearly have different opinions on the boredom issue). As for the “pay attention or else be hopelessly uncool,” that’s a standard straw man, handy if one doesn’t want to feel obliged to pay attention. But nobody’s forcing you to! Listen or don’t, just don’t claim what you find boring or uninteresting is ipso facto of no importance.

  41. J.W. Brewer says:

    Maybe jazz is a bad analogy. Murnane’s claim I take it is *not* that contemporary novels are doing pretty much the same thing as Victorian novels so he’s not missing much by ignoring them, rather that they’re doing something different that he doesn’t particularly care for and thus doesn’t bother to follow.

  42. Well, that makes it an excellent analogy in my terms, since that’s the attitude the “moldy figs” have always taken toward newer developments. But the visual arts work too (though I don’t know as much about them); I have a brother who can’t understand why artists don’t keep producing the figurative art he loves — he can’t quite come to terms with the forces that drove artists toward abstraction. Similarly of course with modern “classical” music (“It’s all noise!” say the devotees of Beethoven & Co.).

  43. J.W. Brewer says:

    To put it differently, if I go to a jazz club in NYC on a whim to see some young no-name musicians I’m not familiar with, the odds (I have found experimentally) are pretty good I’ll like them and they’ll be playing in a style roughly consonant with what I’ve been listening to for decades, but without the self-consciously nostalgic vibe of e.g. a Dixieland band.

  44. Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “the self-consciously nostalgic vibe of e.g. a Dixieland band.” When I heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play, they didn’t sound “self-consciously nostalgic,” they sounded like people playing the music they loved, just like those young no-name musicians you enjoy.

  45. I have a brother who can’t understand why artists don’t keep producing the figurative art he loves — he can’t quite come to terms with the forces that drove artists toward abstraction.

    I am sure there is a lot of modern artists doing figurative art and if they are not most celebrated today, who cares. Same for people performing Beethoven, jazz from various eras, classical ballet and opera, and endless renditions of Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan. You can buy and read novels no more formally complicated then Anna Karenina and in uncountable varieties of genres. This is not considered the High Art, but who cares if that’s what you like. It might be hard for ambitious artist to ignore the latest fad/recent progress in her field, but for art consumer it’s all irrelevant. Unless, of course, you don’t care about art, but want to be counted as high-brow.

  46. I am sure there is a lot of modern artists doing figurative art and if they are not most celebrated today, who cares.

    Artists care, which is my point.

  47. Today, though, the narrative is fragmented. It’s always been fragmented in the sense that there can’t be an International Style in literature (I forget who said this), but now it’s more fragmented than that. There simply is no Great Tradition any more (and indeed one of the post-modern realizations is that there never was); there are innumerable distinct traditions.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Figurative art: check out paleoart.

  49. gaianautes says:

    Hi there,

    having read all of the above comments, and as a self-confessed and big Gerald Murnane-fan (Ian is straight on point in his comments), and a fan of both classic and contemporary jazz I’d just like to say this:

    stay open, friends, you may find diamonds you were not even looking for.

    I sure wasn’t looking for Gerald Murnane and his highly original fiction turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, both for pleasure and for restoring my faith in contemporary writing. But he is not for everyone.

  50. jamessal says:

    I don’t think there’s a commenter here who would close his or her mind to Murnane’s fictions based on one essay, no matter how strongly we might disagree with its contents. I say that to praise for the forum, not to imply that your comment was unnecessary, of course.

  51. Yeah, I’d be perfectly willing to give Murnane a try; some of my favorite writers have been blithering idiots in one way or another. (As are we all, really.)

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