READING IN A DIGITAL AGE.

Sven Birkerts has an article in The American Scholar that’s long but well worth reading. It starts off as if it’s going to be a typical kids-today rant (“In class they sit with their laptops open on the table in front of them….”), but once he gets onto the idea of narrative it picks up steam:

The idea of “narrative creation” carries a great deal in its train. For narrative—story—is not the same thing as simple sequentiality. To say “I went here and then here and then did this and then did that” is not narrative, at least not in the sense that I’m sure [David] Linden intends. No, narration is sequence that claims significance. Animals, for example, do not narrate, even though they are well aware of sequence and of the consequences of actions. “My master has picked up my bowl and has gone with it into that room; he will return with my food.” This is a chain of events linked by a causal expectation, but it stops there. Human narratives are events and descriptions selected and arranged for meaning.
The question, as always, is one of origins. Did man invent narrative or, owing to whatever predispositions in his makeup, inherit it? Is coming into human consciousness also a coming into narrative—is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative, which is to say meaning? What would it mean then that chemicals in combination created meaning, or the idea of meaning, or the tools with which meaning is sought—created that by which their own structure and operation was theorized and questioned? If that were true, then “mere matter” would have to be defined as having as one of its possibilities that of regarding itself.
We assume that logical thought, syllogistic analytical reason, is the necessary, right thought—and we do so because this same thought leads us to think this way. No exit, it seems. Except that logical thought will allow that there may be other logics, though it cannot explicate them. Another quote from the Harper’s article, this from Greenberg: “As a neuroscientist will no doubt someday discover, metaphor is something that the brain does when complexity renders it incapable of thinking straight.”

He goes on to “the idea that contemplative thought is endangered” and the thought that “the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes” and discusses Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, proceeding to a meditation on “aesthetic bliss”:

What thou lovest well remains—and for me it is language in this condition of alert, sensuous precision, language that does not forget the world of nouns. I’m thinking that one part of this project will need to be a close reading of and reflection upon certain passages that are for me certifiably great. I have to find occasion to ask—and examine closely—what happens when a string of words gets something exactly right.

I’m sure everyone who reads it will find things to disagree with, but I found it stimulating and I wanted to share it.

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    The message that remained after I read the passage was:
    The Internet generation, bombarded by all kinds of fragmentary information, will not have the time or patience to sit down and read novels, which I think is a Great Loss (although I can’t actually prove it).

  2. How exactly would you “prove” that it was a loss?

  3. Is coming into human consciousness also a coming into narrative—is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative, which is to say meaning?
    John Gray takes this train of thought in another direction in his review of A.C. Graylings latest:

    When Grayling condemns religion on the grounds that “a theory that explains everything, and can be falsified by nothing, is empty,” he takes for granted that religions are primitive theories, now rendered obsolete by science. Such was the position of J. G. Frazer, the Victorian evangelist for positivism and author of the once-celebrated survey of myth, The Golden Bough (1890). In this view, religion is chiefly a product of intellectual error, and will fade away along with continuing scientific advance. But what if science were to show that religion serves needs that do not change with the growth of knowledge—the need for meaning, for example? In that case, it would not be religion and science that were at odds, but science and atheism. The upshot of scientific inquiry would be that religion is an ineradicable part of human life. Atheism—at least of the evangelical variety that Grayling promotes, which aims to convert humankind from religion—would be a supremely pointless exercise.

    Personally, I think we literary types overreact to the perceived encroachment of the sciences. The only metaphors science can spoil for us are the ones we shouldn’t have been using in the first place (see Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor). Nothing wrong with having a couple nerds out there to check our thinking!

  4. jamessal says:

    The Internet generation, bombarded by all kinds of fragmentary information, will not have the time or patience to sit down and read novels
    Unfortunately, this always rings true to me. If I didn’t set very strict limits for myself, I would never read books. That’s why I haven’t been commenting as much I’d like.

  5. jamessal says:

    Then again, I’m not sure my relationship with the internet is typical. I’ve been known to have addictive tendencies. Robin, my fiancee, can tweet for hours before settling down with a book for the rest of the afternoon. I’d be checking for responses. Or for new news on Lebron’s elbow.

  6. I presume you intended a link there; slip me the URL and I’ll add it. Also, nice to see you around these parts, compadre!

  7. Zythophile says:

    I note with curling lip that in Grayling’s response to Gray’s kicking, he talks about having “stirred him to revenge for having his knuckles publicly wrapped”. Unless he was talking about the kind of taping-up of the hands boxers undergo before having their gloves fitted for a bout, Grayling or his copy editor needs their knuckles rapped.

  8. jamessal says:

    Thanks, Hat! Don’t bother with the link — it’s just a Google search for “Lebron’s elbow” (Lebron being Lebron James, of course, and his elbow being injured — and the reason I may be cursing at the TV on Friday night).
    Unless he was talking about the kind of taping-up of the hands boxers undergo before having their gloves fitted for a bout, Grayling or his copy editor needs their knuckles rapped.
    Nice catch! I enjoyed that!

  9. 10:44 AM …
    12:12 PM …
    … So much for him checking for responses.

  10. Ah, there he is! Now I’m guessing it’s basketball … Yes. I should have just googled Lebron earlier.

  11. No doubt you all already figured this out yourselves, but I’d say Grayling’s eggcorn about rapping was meant as a witty response to this bit of Gray’s review:

    All of these volumes preach the same sermon: history is a record of crime, oppression and superstition; but salvation is at hand through rational inquiry, the gift of the Greeks that was lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Enlightenment. Repeating this as Grayling does, over and over again, suggests that he believes the lesson has still not been understood, and throughout his extensive corpus of polemical writings he has the manner of a querulous teacher hammering rudimentary lessons into the heads of refractory schoolchildren.

    I don’t see why these two don’t pick on someone more deserving of contempt. There isn’t any lack of candidates, god knows.

  12. jamessal says:

    Yeah, basketball. He turned me into a fan a few years ago when I saw him score twenty-five points in a row against the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs. Video here.

  13. jamessal says:

    I’d say Grayling’s eggcorn about rapping was meant as a witty response to this bit of Gray’s review
    I’m sorry, I’m not getting it.

  14. It’s very British and silly. Gray said Grayling “has the manner of a querulous teacher hammering rudimentary lessons into the heads of refractory schoolchildren” and so then Grayling says he had (w)rapped Gray’s knuckles, which is what schoolmasters used to do to small children in the days when they (& I) were young.

  15. jamessal says:

    Oh, I thought you meant the typo was intentional and something in the paragraph you quoted showed why. I get what you’re saying now.

  16. The article reminds me of Coupland’s Generation A. In that book, researchers notice how our new environment is making it harder and harder to get that timeless feeling that reading a good novel gives, and come up with a somewhat undesirable solution…

  17. Sorry about that; I phrased it badly.
    The great John Lanchester had an eggcorn in the LRB blog today or yesterday: “shoe-in” for shoo-in. When I googled it, it turns out that “shoe-in” gets by far the most hits (9 million vs 234,000). If I were to use the phrase I’d still use “shoo”, but it’s not a question of right or wrong anymore, is it?
    “Rap” on the knuckles gets way more than “wrap”, though.

  18. jamessal says:

    When I googled it, it turns out that “shoe-in” gets by far the most hits (9 million vs 234,000).
    A lot of those Google hits don’t have anything to do with the phrase. Click on page 16 and you start getting sentences like “It is unlike any other shoe in the world, even the one on your other foot.”

  19. I find myself especially fixated on the idea that contemplative thought is endangered. This starts me wondering about the difference between contemplative and analytic thought. The former is intransitive and experiential in its nature, is for itself; the latter is transitive, is goal directed. According to the logic of transitive thought, information is a means, its increments mainly building blocks toward some synthesis or explanation.
    I rather like that. So much of what I run into on the internet is goal directed–political, talking points stuff–not to mention the hate speech meant to dehumanize another group. Truth becomes less important than manipulation–pushing a set of memes that advance some group’s agenda or digging a hole under someone else in order to look taller. I’m not sure propaganda is what the author had in mind, but it does fit.
    But as far as reading novels for “acquired psychological insight”, the self-help genre would be a faster route. Is there any reason not to admit to reading for escapism?

  20. But as far as reading novels for “acquired psychological insight”, the self-help genre would be a faster route…..
    ….if it weren’t mostly all crap.

  21. Bathrobe says:

    Hat, my comment was made in the spirit of his observation that not a lot remains with you after you’ve finished a novel.
    Of course you can’t “prove” that it is a Great Loss. The problem for me was that he was writing from a very subjective point of view. He seemed to be complaining that it would be a great loss if people stopped reading novels, but he failed to present convincing arguments. One could as easily sympathise with a bunch of cannibals complaining that a ban on the consumption of human flesh was a Great Loss. From their point of view it might be, but unless you’re a cannibal yourself, you won’t necessarily agree.
    As for intransitive (experiential) thought and transitive (goal-directed) thought, sorry to say I feel less and less like immersing myself in someone’s fictional world than I do in understanding the real world. The world-creating activities of a novelist just don’t seem as interesting as the world itself.

  22. One could as easily sympathise with a bunch of cannibals complaining that a ban on the consumption of human flesh was a Great Loss.
    Only from a philosophical remove where, thankfully, no one spends much time.

  23. The problem for me was that he was writing from a very subjective point of view.
    Ah, well, for me that’s a feature, not a bug.
    I feel less and less like immersing myself in someone’s fictional world than I do in understanding the real world. The world-creating activities of a novelist just don’t seem as interesting as the world itself.
    Once again we differ. But I will defend to the death your right not to be interested in fiction!

  24. the real world
    That expression again ! Does anybody know what it means ? Is this site part of the real world ?
    No, no, I’m not suggesting that “there is no such thing as reality”. Such a response to my question would be a tired old rhetorical gambit, similar in spirit to the Christian’s “you say that God doesn’t exist – but in making this claim you have to assume that ‘God’ means something” .
    There’s a simple experiment that can help to understand what is going on here. It is often the case that a stock word or expression, for instance “real world” or “nature”, can be seen to play a dominant role in your discussions, and yet you and your interlocutors are forever disagreeing about what it is, how one should deal with it, and what its importance is. The experiment consists in trying to do without the expression for a while. Forbid yourself to use it and related lexical items, and observe what you think and say then. You may find that you don’t have much use for them any longer, since different and rather astonishing thoughts have now been able to enter your mind. Previously, they had been blocked out by the stock phrases.
    In the present case, I would suggest setting aside the expressions “fictional world” and “real world”. I myself have no use for them, except when forced by faute de mieux. I suppose the way I think is a cognitive equivalent to synesthesia. The things I think and experience in everyday dealings with people, the things I think and experience in reading novels, philosophy and billboards, are inextricably linked with each other. I hardly think of the one thing without thinking of the other. This is not a precious philosophico-aesthetic pose. After all, I regard myself as fairly stroppy and hard-nosed – an assessment with which I daresay few would disagree.
    All I’m trying to say here is that there are alternatives to the same old eternal churning of the same old eternal ideas and expressions, even when they seem to be as unavoidably meaningful as “real world”. I just found here an excerpt from Whorf’s essay on The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language. It discusses a simple issue regarding the role of the word “empty” in connection with the causes of industrial fires. This is much more interesting than the “words for snow and time” stuff that I had heard about.

  25. Bathrobe says:

    Actually, I wasn’t thinking in terms of “fictional worlds” and “real worlds”, despite my use of that hackneyed term. I think my problem is that most fiction is just a reflection of the mind of the author. And unless that author is someone special indeed, the fictional world he/she creates will never rise above what one can actually meet in life.
    I’m sure that this is a bad example, but The Naked Name of Love by Sanjida O’Connell is about a young Jesuit priest who is taught how to love by a gifted shaman woman on the eastern steppes of Mongolia. Perhaps I’m unfair for judging it without reading it, but I just can’t see how some modern English writer about science and green issues’ idea of what an encounter between a Jesuit and a Mongolian shaman would have been like is going to enrich my life. There is no way the book can be anything other than 95% Sanjida O’Connell, 2% Mongolia and 3% Jesuit.
    That said, I’m not as hostile to fiction as Hat might imagine. For instance, I read The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro and found it moving — mostly because of the way it depicted the sad fate of decent people who sympathised with the Germans after WWI. It’s just that, given a choice, I would probably go for a factual treatment. I don’t need Sanjida O’Connell to tell me about Mongolian shamans or Jesuit priests. I’d rather read books that deal directly with those topics. And if I want to read about people teaching others how to “love”, there are plenty of life confessions and musings on the Internet 🙂

  26. Nothing to do with this discussion, it’s got nothing to do with what DG was saying, but I too don’t like “the real world” argument. It’s used a lot by so-called (usually self-styled) “practical” people to argue against doing something interesting in architecture. It’s annoying, because it always implies that they have a better understanding than I do about what’s real, which (in my opinion) is the opposite of what’s going on.

  27. Well, if no one’s going to argue with me, I’ll give the opposite opinion:
    In the words of The Talking Heads, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. It is so removed from the reality of real life that it is of no consequence to human beings.

  28. No more arguments today, Mr. Crown. Heaven was the name of a fashionable disco/club in the 70s – in England somewhere, maybe ? That’s what I read once. I know the lyrics from Simply Red, but their melody was quite different from that of the Talking Heads. I’ve always thought the lyrics are some of the best I’ve ever heard.

  29. The 80s, I should have said.

  30. There are several rhetorician’s descriptions of terms like “the real world”. The one I remember is “essentially contested ideas”. For example, everyone is in favor of justice, but no one agrees as to what it is. (For shock value someone might come out against justice, but there are no serious anti-justice philosophies AFAIK). Arguments over these contested ideas (freedom, equality, normality, progress, etc. etc.) are particularly frustrating and fruitless.
    “Real world” is parasitic on “unreal world”, I think. If you talk about the real world, you’re implicitly comparing it to something that you believe is unreal (i.e., and imaginary or misunderstood world.)

  31. misunderstood world
    This is what people usually mean. As in “When you get out in the real world, young man, you’ll find that a chocolate library simply isn’t practical”.

  32. Yet Museums of Chocolate History are common.

  33. There’s also a Schokoladenmuseum in Cologne.
    descriptions of terms like “the real world”. The one I remember is “essentially contested ideas”.
    That’s pretty neat, John. Reality is what we can’t always agree on, but feel we should be able to (or should try to). Imaginary stuff, in contrast, is what we feel is not worth arguing about. Putting it another way, “reality” is sometimes a discourse of reassurance – as when a mother comforts her child, who has just had a nightmare, by telling him “it was just a dream”. She offers him something that he and she can agree upon, so that he doesn’t feel alone and frightened. This is early training in the arts of rhetoric and reality – and if the kid has any rhetorical talent, he won’t agree with his mother immediately.
    This reminds me of Sloterdijk’s definition of collaboration as “mutual obstruction” (gegenseitige Behinderung).

  34. Nijma: Escapism it is. But let us not confound, as Tolkien put it , the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter.
    Grumbly, I stand shoulder to shoulder with you: the real world and the imagined world, like the way up and the way down, are one and the same.
    Bathrobe: If the story (which I haven’t read either) were just about Jesuits and Mongolian shamans, you’d be right. But if it’s any good at all, it’s about individuals, an individual who is a Jesuit and another who’s a Mongolian shaman. By entering into the imagination of these persons, the writer’s own imagination is set free, and so though the book may be 95% the author, that is the whole personality of the author, a far vaster thing than the conscious ego alone.

  35. My story set in Mongolia starts “Sukhbataar, Baron Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, and Jaroslav Hasek walk into a bar…..”

  36. Bathrobe says:

    By entering into the imagination of these persons, the writer’s own imagination is set free
    Sanjida O’Connell can’t be “entering into the imagination” of Jesuit priests or Mongolian shamans, she can only be imagining how she thinks they might be. Rousseau’s noble savage (ok, it’s not from a novel, but anyway) might have been a fine liberator for Rousseau’s imagination, but it had more to do with Rousseau and his background than it did with primitive peoples.
    Of course it’s more interesting reading James Clavell than it is reading the writings of the Japanese samurai class. And Clavell might have something to tell you, too, because he’s an interesting writer who can make things come alive. But unless you have access to what the samurai class thought in their own words, then in the end you are just revelling in a kind of exoticism or escapism. Imaginative exoticism or escapism, maybe, but still the product of some writer’s fevered imagination.
    Clavell and even Sanjida O’Connell obviously have their place in the world (people pay money to buy their books, so at least they have an economic place in the world), but I still find myself growing impatient when I read fabricated conversations between “Mariko” and “Richard”, or “Xavier” and “Sarantsetseg” written by people who have spent most of their lives in suburban New York or London.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    I should hasten to add that I’m not dissing Clavell. Compared with Sanjida O’Connell he is a person who has a lot of experience with intercultural encounters, which form the theme of his novels, and has done a lot of research. But I’m still inclined to steer away from “psychological novels” and read histories, even if they are thinly disguised histories.

  38. If you just want to enter into the psychological realm of some writer, I don’t really find that very interesting. For instance you can enter into a world where torturing terrorists yields information that prevents the the East Coast from getting blown up, usually ten minutes before the bomb blows, along with some psychological profiles of some fairly cardboard characters. If that’s the world you want to visit. I’m not interested in that kind of created reality.
    What I do like is historical fiction where someone knows enough about the social institutions, trade routes, etc, of an era to create what can be more interesting than a straight history. In that case the characters are only important for having typical occupations and activities of people in that era and not because some author thinks they can channel their innermost thoughts. One of those that comes to mind is the Brother Cadfael series about the medieval monk–reading those is like eating popcorn.

  39. Nijma,
    I don’t think anybody “just want[s] to enter into the psychological realm of some writer”. But I guess some people more than others wish the author, any author, would get out of the damn way.
    Warning: Some people don’t like popcorn. And even for those who do, what tastes like popcorn to one reader may taste like buttered salted cardboard to another.

  40. Bathrobe says:

    Actually, I don’t mind escapist stuff — “romances” (in the traditional meaning) as opposed to “novels”. Romances are just romances, and I think that a lot of potboilers are also just romances in the traditional sense. Fun to read if well constructed. Perhaps I’m contradicting myself here….

  41. Novels and romances didn’t use to be so distinguishable. Balzac wrote both. I think that as serious fiction became heavier, more serious, more difficult, and more academic, it lost other values. There are a lot of pretty good authors that get defined as genre writers. It really pisses them off, and rightly so.

  42. Serious, I don’t know, but there are lots and lots and lots of novels being published all the time that aren’t difficult or academic, John. What about Iain Banks, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, William Boyd, Richard Ford, Dave Eggers, Nick Hornby, David Lodge, Hilary Mantel etc.? And then there’s the one everybody hates …
    And that’s just a few of the English speakers. And don’t say you don’t read or like them, that doesn’t count.

  43. Well, I’m in the non-novel-reading population by now so I don’t know about the last 20-30 years. But there are quite a few authors before then who got stuck in the genre-literature classification (Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, and most SF writers come immediately to mind) and there’s another group which has had to fight against having that happen (Vonnegut was very prickly about the subject, and Ursula LeGuin has had to deal with it too. And sadly, when people like that defend themselves, sometimes they say “I’m not like those others“.) I do remember that when Atwood went pulp fiction that was An Event. I know nothing much about the others you named.

  44. I didn’t know Vonnegut had to worry about that. But there were certainly lots of novelists thirty years ago as well who were not too difficult or academic; Mailer, Updike, Cheever, Bellow, Jong, Pynchon, Salinger, Roth, Heller, Richler — and that’s just on your side of the pond.

  45. Yeah, JE, what about Updike? You can’t possible have anything against Updike.
    your side of the pond.
    Our side of the pond is where it’s at, Crown. You can keep Ian McEwan. Solar sucked.

  46. Michael Chabon likes to be unbound by any distinction between ‘genre’ writing and ‘serious’ writing. I guess he can get away with it.

  47. Vonnegut started of in SF and never got very far from it. As far as I know he’s not critically admired even now.
    AJP’s list: except for Heller and Pynchon they seem mired in realism. (I don’t know much about Jong or Cheever.) Updike, Bellow, and Mailer seem stuffy and pretentious to me. I like Richler because the one thing of his I’ve read was very grumpy-old-mannish, but I doubt I’d like much of the rest of his oeuvre.
    Goats, novelists….. to what depths will Crong descend next?

  48. “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

    Pretentious? Maybe; that depends on how much you like it. But certainly not stuffy.

  49. marie-lucie says:

    For the other side of the pond, among English writers I nominate Ruth Rendell, author of nominally detective novels. I don’t much care for other types of novels.

  50. Perhaps I merged pretentious and stuffy.

  51. Haven’t read the article yet, and not sure I will, from what I’ve read in your quote. This bothered me:
    is it part of the nature of human consciousness to seek and create narrative, which is to say meaning?
    Narrative is not the same as meaning. But to answer the question – yes, humans are cognitively primed to shape experience into narratives. For example, look up Young and Saver’s article, Neurology of Narrative. There’s a lot of fresh research in this area.
    At this point we really have no idea whether animals construct narratives. They might. We don’t know. Michael Tomasello at Max Planck, Leipzig has done some wonderful work with chimpanzees which, though not specifically on narrative, is very illuminating. There are differences in the acquisition of theories of mind, which, imho, is crucial for constructing complex narratives, but not all narratives.
    As for sequence of actions not being a narrative, let me just say that Labov and Waletzky define a narrative as “two or more temporally conjoined clauses that represent a sequence of temporally ordered events.” Read: a sequence of actions IS narrative. What the author of your article is talking about is a complex narrative, or two-plane narrative. On this issue, it is quite illuminating to read the work of Jerome Bruner. There is an excellent theoretical overview in Ochs and Capps’ article, Narrating the Self.
    Hope I didn’t bore you to tears.

  52. THE QUESTION comes up for me insistently: Where am I when I am reading a novel? I am “in” the novel, of course, to the degree that it involves me. I may be absorbed, but I am never without some awareness of the world around me—where I am sitting, what else might be going on in the house.
    Yes, that’s what a good book does, except that I’m *totally* oblivious to my surroundings, whether I’m reading a novel or surfing the net. I suspect he may have been one of those kids who read under the covers at night with a flashlight.
    READING A NOVEL involves a double transposition—a major cognitive switch and then a more specific adaptation. The first is the inward plunge, giving in to the “Let there be another kind of world” premise. No novel can be entered without taking this step. The second involves agreeing to the givens of the work, accepting that this is New York circa 2004 as seen through the eyes of a first-person “I” or a presiding narrator.
    So far, so good. When you pick up Sherlock Holmes or V. I. Warshowski, you expect to be transported to a familiar world where certain things happen and certain things don’t. Holmes does not jump in bed with anyone or get beat up by the bad guys. Warshawski does not jump in cabs propelled by horses or have a sidekick. But they both always get to the bottom of who done it. Oh, and Mickey Spillane’s latest romantic interest will die. That’s the product, the package you’re buying.
    THE VITAL THING is this shift, which cannot take place, really, without the willingness or intent on the reader’s part to experience a change of mental state. We all know the sensation of duress that comes when we try to read or immerse ourselves in anything when there is no desire. At these times the only thing possible is to proceed mechanically with taking in the words, hoping that they will somehow effect the magic, jump-start the imagination. This is the power of words. They are part of our own sense-making process, and when their designations and connotations are intensified by rhythmic musicality, a receptivity can be created.
    The problem we face in a culture saturated with vivid competing stimuli is that the first part of the transaction will be foreclosed by an inability to focus—the first step requires at least that the language be able to reach the reader, that the word sounds and rhythms come alive in the auditory imagination.
    Huh?
    He has totally lost me there.
    Interesting, some of the whodunits are fun for me–Arthur Conan Doyle, Sara Paretsky, Sax Rohmer, Dorothy Sayers, and I would put Helen MacInnes and P.G. Wodehouse in there somewhere, but others, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie, not so much. So it’s not the genre itself that makes it interesting.
    And what would realistic romance (or romance worth reading) be these days? Paretsky’s characters have relationships that change over several books. MacInnes’s earlier books had delightful interplay between couples worked in between the chase scenes and shootemup scenes, but after her husband died, the tone of all that changed. Maybe when it comes to romance, either writers don’t have love lives worth writing about any more, or courtship has changed so fast we don’t know what the new rules are, and something more along the lines of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, that includes a non-western view of marriage, is more intriguing.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, you should read Ruth Rendell. Agatha Christie I found boring after a while, because while the plots are ingenious, with a few exceptions the characters tend to be made of cardboard.

  54. Bathrobe says:

    Christie is too ingenious by far. In fact, in one of her stories the culprit turns out to be the narrator, which is cheating, really.
    Nobody seems to have mentioned Simenon. I read a lot of his books at one time, and they were very good.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    Christie is too ingenious by far. In fact, in one of her stories the culprit turns out to be the narrator, which is cheating, really.
    That is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – the first one, I think, and one of the best. Here the narrator is not a cardboard character, although some of the others are.

  56. Bathrobe says:

    I thought it was Endless Night.

  57. bathrobe says:

    Objections like Renee’s are precisely what I had against the article. Renee’s brief discussion on “narrative” was interesting and would beat Birkerts’ ramblings any day.

  58. Labov and Waletzky define a narrative as “two or more temporally conjoined clauses that represent a sequence of temporally ordered events.” Read: a sequence of actions IS narrative.
    Just because scientists define the word “narrative” in a certain way, to suit their purposes, doesn’t mean Birkerts is wrong for using it in a way familiar to himself and his readers. I don’t doubt that the research is illuminating or even that Birkerts’s speculations would be more interesting if he were more familiar with it, but to dismiss out of hand someone’s reflections on a lifetime of reading and writing in favor of a “discussion” that really comprises nothing more than a few allusions to scientific research (no disrespect to Renee — he didn’t claim it to be anything more) displays, I think, an overestimation of science’s ability to carve nature at its joints. But I’m probably out my depth.

  59. There are a lot of novelists on the eastern side of the pond who I don’t like: I don’t rate Ian McEwan very highly, or Julian Barnes or Martin Amis or Andrew O’Hagan or Salman Rushdie (who moved to NYC anyway). But how about William Boyd & John Banville? Don’t know where all the women are, I happen to know Jamessal likes Hilary Mantel, though.
    I forgot Don diLillo, he’s very popular and not academic or difficult. He’s just very long.
    I didn’t mean my lists to be of my own personal favorites; however, I’d say Saul Bellow is way above all the others.
    And I don’t see how you can be mired in realism, John, unless it’s magic realism.
    I agree that Georges Simenon was good — streets ahead of Agatha Christie — and what about Patricia Highsmith?

  60. You know I was totally joking, Crown.

  61. About the pond thing.

  62. You’re probably thinking that it’s ludicrous to generalize about the quality of novelists by their nationality, and perhaps I’m just more aware of the bad ones on the east side, but I can see a seed of truth in it even if you were joking.

  63. Britain has world-class mechanical engineers, though. I draw the line there.

  64. “Two or more temporally conjoined clauses that represent a sequence of temporally ordered events.” Read: a sequence of actions IS narrative.
    Basically I think that Birkert was right. Mere temporal sequence doesn’t make a narrative. Narrative defined that way is some kind of analytic abstraction which doesn’t occur in nature.
    For example, take one of those “What happened on this day” piece used as filler in newspapers and magazines. Suppose the sequence was “On this day in 1900, King Zog was crowned. On this day in 1901, gold was discovered in Brazil”. Joining those two statements syntactically the way the definition prescribes would not produce a narrative because of the lack of meaning. You can imagine soeone starting a novel with those two statements in some form, but doing so would be a “revolver on the mantelpiece”. Somewhere in the novel the two statements would have to be connected in meaning or else that would be an entirely stupid way of starting a novel. (Or of course, the novelist could just say “Just kidding about King Zog”, but that joke would be pretty tedious.)

  65. About the pond thing
    Krunu doesn’t joke about his Inner Pond Narrative. If you don’t take that Pond Nonsense as an Article of Faith, he’s likely to freak out and delete Muntz from his blog.

  66. m-l: Nijma, you should read Ruth Rendell.
    Thanks, I’ll look for her. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of her–she’s all over the internet.
    A plot that is merely well-executed technically doesn’t do it for me. I look for something that is either popcorn–I can munch it down quickly because I know the formula–or it transports me to an unusual world, preferably both. When I was younger, Vonnegut’s cynicism appealed, but no more. Now that I have traveled more, Graham Greene is probably my favorite. I have yet to start any of the Salman Rushdie on my shelf, but Rushdie is a very interesting speaker.

  67. marie-lucie says:

    The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – I thought it was Endless Night.
    I have not read Endless Night, but apparently she used the same plot formula in both novels.

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