WordsDay: Modernism, postmodernism, storytelling, and the struggle between writers and readers

Should writers care about readers?

Rudyard Kipling, old fashioned storyteller (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This starts with a conversation I had in graduate school. I was trying to decide which author I would focus on for my master’s thesis. I knew it wouldn’t be a poet (I adore poetry and have a large number of poets whose work I admire and love to read and discuss, but I’m a prose writer myself and I felt I’d be more simpatico working with someone who did what I do), and I knew I wanted to choose someone who hadn’t been, in the words of my adviser, “done to death.” This was the early 1980′s and my school’s English department was actively discouraging students from writing any more theses on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Kerouac, Ginsberg or any Beats – and you couldn’t even whisper that you wanted to write about a Romantic. We Boomers had worn out professors’ patience writing – and writing – and writing about these same authors.

Contrarian that I am and have ever been, I decided to try to reconsider the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. I liked much of his work; some, like Just So StoriesJungle BookCaptains Courageous, and Kim had enriched my childhood; others, like his novel The Light that Failed and stories like “Without Benefit of Clergy” I thought deserved more attention. Irving Howe, a highly respected scholar, had just brought out a new Kipling reader. Besides, how could a Nobel prize winner not deserve renewed attention? I also knew that writing about an author often (and not completely incorrectly) branded a racist, imperialist, jingoist super patriot would fly in the face of convention. But Kipling was a great storyteller – and I missed that. I was tired of sitting in classes hearing professors drone on about how it took classes full of grad students and their professor months (was it years?) to “decode” the”Benjy” section of The Sound and the Fury. Or that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was a triumph of stream-of-consciousness narration that represented a great advance in literature. Or that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was somehow superb because it was unreadable.

James Joyce, serious artist writer (image courtesy Wikimedia)

After a long talk with my adviser I gave up on Kipling. I could see that “old fashioned” storytelling, even done beautifully, thoughtfully, meaningfully wouldn’t be enough to satisfy literary critics and scholars. What I needed was to find someone else – anyone else – besides Kipling. And no, I couldn’t write about Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells or Daphne DuMaurier either. I needed to choose a serious artist writer – not someone who wrote stories that children could read and understand.

(I wanted to finish my thesis and get the hell on to my doctoral program [at another university], so I made a choice that made everyone happy – I wrote my thesis on Jane Austen, a most acceptable serious artist author. I’d just read Persuasion in a grad course on the history of the novel and loved it – it is, after all, arguably the first ‘modern” novel with its heroine who makes the best of her bad situation and as a result finds real happiness. And I managed to piss my committee off by choosing to examine Austen’s heroines’ behavior in light of Rogerian psychological theory. So eventually everybody ended up happy – well, as happy as could be expected in academia.)

This overlong introduction is by way of  trying to get at a problem that we face right now. The collapse of the canon, which I have bemoaned in my own way, may not be the tragedy that some old codgers – even me (aging Boomer alert!) – have occasionally described. One of the things that Boomers did was to “open” the canon to other possibilities – our insistence on including the study of narrative film, even TV programs, as part of English (and other) departments’ course offerings has had, in some ways, salutary effects. It has re-opened the discussion of what we mean when we say “literature” or “art.”

While I don’t dislike the authors I mentioned above – Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce – at all (indeed, I actually like them), they represent, indeed embody, the artistic/cultural movement we call Modernism. So let’s talk a few moments about what Modernism really is. Modernism was an artistic movement that reacted to the repression of the Victorian era. It was also affected by the chaos, terror, and incoherence of World War I (and, truth be told, WWII also). It is the movement that gave us the concept of “high” versus “low” art.

Marcel Duchamp pretending not to be Marcel Duchamp (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Perhaps no figure represents the Modernist revolt against its preceding age better than Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s concept of “art is in the mind, not the eye” would affect not just art but music and literature also. Duchamp, with his pieces like “Fountain” (a urinal signed by the artist and submitted as art work for an exhibition) challenged traditional concepts of art. In the same way his literary contemporaries – Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce – challenged traditional storytelling. Their achievement is obvious. The works mentioned above are great literature (at least according to my professorial training and experience). And they certainly changed the view our culture has of the possibilities of storytelling. Obviously, such challenges to storytelling also created challenges to readers, too. Through the 1970′s readers (if the sales success of literary “high” authors vs. popular “low” authors is a reasonable measure – and I think such a criterion has to be at least part of the measurement of an artist’s success) seemed willing to accept such challenges. Since then something has changed – and serious artist writers have lost favor with the reading public at an alarming rate.

Postmodernism, of course, sought to challenge the Modernist stance by shifting the grounds of the debate. Modernism was an argument about art and what artists can/should do; postmodernism was an argument about culture and about how artists relate to their culture. Yet in unfortunate ways postmodern literary artists have been the victims of their modernist predecessors, especially stylistically. So while postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo incorporated popular cultural elements into their work like their visual artist contemporaries Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, their storytelling was as complicated and challenging – and, to the reading public, perhaps, off putting – as that of their predecessors William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.

Neil Gaiman, highly respected author who chooses to write science fiction, fantasy, and other genre work

That desertion of writers by readers (or readers by writers, it might be argued) raises a question. Is the stance of challenging readers with difficult, sometimes (Joyce isn’t the only one) nearly/mostly/completely incomprehensible prose as an “artistic imperative” still supportable? As I noted in an earlier piece, readers have largely abandoned serious artist authors for writers who focus on “old fashioned” storytelling. Most of these masters of “old fashioned” storytelling write genre fiction: science fiction, detective fiction, fantasy, even romance. Many of them are highly respected authors.

Where, then, does this leave us and where will it lead us? That’s what a comments section is for.

And just for the hell of it, here’s Duchamp’s Fountain:

“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp, 1917 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

34 replies »

  1. I’m interested in your ideas, and I like your explanations of modernism and postmodernism; they are succinct without delving into too many attempts to identify characteristics of the movements, which is often what discussions of them devolve into. I wonder about your distinction in the last paragraph, though, between “serious artists” and “old fashioned storytelling.” I don’t find the two mutually exclusive. To say that they are privileges the version of the canon that appeared in the twentieth century and ignores the work that many, many people have done simply based on a subjective idea of what a “true” or “serious” artists produces.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Part Time Monster. My distinction in that last paragraph is simply a slight dig at the sort of thinking that dominated English departments at one point in our not too distant past. I certainly agree with you that the two are not mutually exclusive and that we have some wonderfully talented writers (not just Gaiman but Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, and others are wonderful storytellers and “canon worthy” authors.

      • Understandable. Unfortunately, many parts of academia seem to be still clinging to an Eliot-ian idea of what constitutes literature, despite the fact that the university abandoned new criticism because of the myriad problems stemming from Eliot’s ideas about the text and about the canon formation. So-called genre fiction is often discarded because it doesn’t conform to the standards.

        • It is; and my goodness, the things Neil Gaiman has accomplished would seem to make him worthy of study. We’re talking about someone who has written everything from TV shows to comics to novels and been successful. Seems like he’d be worth spending some energy on.

        • Yep. And it probably means something that AMERICAN GODS is now on just about every list of best sf in recent years, if not ever. That’s a genre that has morphed in some fascinating ways over the past generation. I love lit, but first and foremost I’m a culturalist, so I don’t care whether my deep insight emerges from serious lit fic, genre or pro wrestling.

          If I were in a lit doc program these days they’d play hell talking me out of doing my diss on Gibson or Stephenson or even Pratchett.

        • American Gods was the first of Gaiman’s work that I read, and it’s one of those rare books that I wish I could read for the first time again.

          I’m in a literature doc program; my focus is on children’s literature, and I’m working with girls’ studies, so I get to do many pop culture oriented and interdisciplinary projects that don’t fit the canonical cuff.

        • I loved that one! I’ve read most of Gaiman’s work, though I’ve woefully neglected the Sandman series. I’m studying for comprehensive exams right now, and of course that means I have all the reading I can handle plus about 50 more books, but when I get done, those are the first on my to-be-read-for-fun list.

  2. I think we’re about to enter a period of serious “revisiting and revising” that dear old canon. But really, it’s like Modernist sensibilities are not yet ousted from some of the academy. I think a major problem is that criticism went to the dogs because of theory – theorists don’t give a damn about literature. As a result, literature has stagnated – and lost its vibrancy, at least in academia – where it gets transmitted to students who form a population of readers for quality writers. That’s why so many of our most talented writers work in genre now – it’s in order to find an audience. CW programs don’t help the situation – I know, went through one (as well as a doctorate) – they perpetuate that old, Modernist “l’art pour l’art” mentality. That’s why they’re basically a separate lit culture unto themselves…and don’t have the reach that we’d like literature to have….Lots to be done, lots to be done….

  3. Wow, that is a lot to think about. My personal take is that it’s ok to present readers with challenging work, but what you are doing has to be comprehensible. Else you might as well just be using a machine to generate characters randomly. The problem with that, of course, is, who do we elect to judge the comprehensibility of a work? For the most part, I am on the side of the reader in this discussion.

    Art without an audience is really just expression to me. I am with PTM on your explanation of Modernism/Postmodernism. I wish you’d been around to explain it to me 20 years ago when I was convinced Postmodernism was just a practical joke professors played on undergraduates, kind of like sending the new guy after a paper-stretcher.

  4. Love that comment, Gene’O – “Art without an audience is really just expression to me.” I think that readers have “voted with their reading purchases” and are changing the direction of literature. But it can’t simply be a popularity contest – else “Fifty Shades of Gray” could be mistaken for art – instead of simply expression that readers find entertaining.
    . Whoever we “elect” – to use your interesting term – to be our “trusted guides” (to try to put a good face on those of us who are scholars/rogues) will have to understand that writing and reading are acts of communication – which, I believe, is your point. 🙂

    • This is true enough, I suppose, but it’s also true that there are things that need to be said that nobody is ever going to pay attention to. If we have to think about audience, then there will never be another poem written.

        • I’m trying to formulate a serious thought, Part Time Monster, but I can’t stop laughing – all those people who read it trying to get it out of the house so they can pretend they didn’t buy porn…well, he’s got their money…if I were the guy I’d find that mighty consoling….

        • I remembered reading this article a while ago and couldn’t resist posting it, because this is what pops into my head whenever a reference to the book is made.

          Oh, EL James is a “she.” The whole thing actually started as fanfic. Twilight fanfic at that. And as much fun as I make of the books, and though I’ll never read them, I’m rather impressed by the global phenomenon of the series.

          But it’s clearly not something people think they’ll want to re-read, which should be a signal to its author that fanfic-turned-soft porn-novel was only successful in a commercial sense.

        • You know, I don’t think I knew that James is female PTM – although, given how it spoke to a demographic, that makes sense, doesn’t it? I did know about the “Twilight” fanfic thingy- although “Twilight” itself, based on the few pages I read in a bookstore – reads like a fanfic for Anne Rice, doesn’t it? Hmm… Trickle down literature….

    • Thanks for this awesome discussion, I am working myself up to writing something about canonization, but it may be awhile. This is a very prickly issue.

      The thing that’s sort of bouncing around in the back of my mind, that i keep coming back to, is a conversation about canon I had six months ago with some very serious young writers, and they honestly see the way speculative fiction is treated and marketed as a sort of ghettoization on the part of the publishing industry. I can’t say they are wrong. When I go into my local bookstore and look at how it’s laid out, i see it.

      To answer the actual question, now that I have had time to think about it – I don’t think incomprehensibility has a place any more. I think it is a relic of the 20th Century.

      I will add: If we can’t have Neil Gaiman, Elmore Leonard, and Frank Miller in our canon, I am ok not having a canon at all. I am in my 40s. The GenY artists I know feel even even more strongly about it than I do.

      Anyway, thanks, because I know I am writing about this in the next month, and I wasn’t planning on doing that until we had this discussion.

      • Gene,

        Who are you thinking of when you say “speculative fiction.” When I hear that term I tend to think of artists who have emerged from sf and broadened their scope. I’m thinking people like Stephenson, Gibson, Moore, that crowd. Am I using the term differently?

  5. Will do, Jim.

    @ Samuel: “speculative fiction” is a catch-all term my friends and I use for fantasy and sci-fi. That’s the way I was using it in my last comment. You are using it more precisely (and probably more appropriately). Those are all good examples of the sort of writing I am referring to. I also put Phillip K. Dick in there, as well as some classic early sci-fi writers like Wells and Verne.

      • Nah, not really. If by “Treated well” you mean people read it, and use it for movie fodder sure. Not treated well by critics. Not studied in college courses, at least not where I live. Not considered something to write your thesis or dissertation about. The “Ghettoization” thing is not something i invented. Its something younger people told me.

        What I mean is that if your story doesnt conform to accepted ideas that privilege realism and finding dramatic tension in everyday life, the best you can ever do is get stuck on that one aisle of the bookstore where all the fantasy and sci-fi goes. Frank Herbert mixed in with Tor’s latest test-market project. Separated from the real literature by the romance section.

        This exchange is in danger of becoming tenditious, I am afraid, but I am quite happy to continue, tenditiously.

        • hehe, now we are getting somewhere.

          I was partly referring to the publishing world. They really do stuff all the “fantastical” stuff into one ailse, even though, i will allow, the pimp the heck out of things that are sure sellers (Like George R.R. Martin).

          But, yeah, I was also talking about the academic establishment. I have lots of friends who are younger, and graduate students in English, mostly writers. They want to write stories with spaceships and superheroes in them, but that is for the most part not allowed.

          Then they walk into the bookstore and see everything they like stuffed into that one little section of the store, and you know, they have an emotional reaction.

          I am sympathetic.

  6. Two things here, @Sam and @Gene’O – 1) mainstream pubbing loves Gaiman, et. al., because they sell product – and since publishing has been subsumed under conglomerates, that’s the measure – and the conglomerate mentality is very “anti-literary” writing (what used to be called “mid-list” in publishing circles) – so there’s an anger in the lit establishment against mainstream publishing that feeds that dismissal of “speculative fiction” as “beneath the dignity” of litcrit – though most litcrit isn’t even about friggin’ lit anymore, so there’s that. So even really talented (hell, brilliant) guys like Gaiman and Stephenson get lumped in with Meyer and Collins as “not worthy” of literary study (except in pop culture classes where they get read like crazy – in many schools in the same depts. that are disdaining them). It’s screwy as can be. 2) The “creative writing” system is also a culprit here, since it’s created its own “indie rock” kind of world where the rules are strict and where guys like me (and Sam, actually) who write stuff that bridges between “litfic” and “popular reading” live in a kind of purgatory.

    What I’m saying with all this is that things are a damned mess right now – but we may see light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s just another oncoming pomposity train I can’t say yet… 😉

  7. wow, that made sense, I was totally not expecting that.

    I came and looked in on this thread because I am including it in a linky post i am doing.

    Jim – I think you are making sense.