Archive for September, 2009

Grossman Wants Lower Standards

Lev Grossman, the book critic at that bastion of culture, Time Magazine, and author of two novels, has written an article in the Wall Street Journal, ostensibly defending a return to ‘plot-driven’ novels as opposed to elitist, Modernist work which, he seems to claim, has dominated the publishing world, to the dismay of regular folks who “crave such entertainments”, being plot-based stories, but also “despise them” because of some internalized high- low- cultural debate.

Grossman essentially accuses the Modernists of being barely readable, “rhetorically obscure” and ultimately “difficult”, builds up a false dynasty of these hard-to-read authors as if they have taken over every library, bookshop, and printing house, and chased off with hoses anyone who dares put pen to paper to write a ‘story’ without big words and unusual literary techniques.

Briefly leaving aside the idea that regular folks can’t read difficult books with pleasure, which is pretty damn condescending, this is patently nonsense. A quick look at bestsellers over the 20th century reveals that most book buyers have, as they do today, bought reams of plot-driven popular or genre fiction. Sure, Hemingway appears, but so do Daphne du Maurier, Edna Ferber, and James A. Michner. Literary books, ‘art books’, as John Banville might call them, have rarely been the runaway hits to the scale of the (incomprehensible) success of Dan Brown.



The idea that there is some kind of “conspiracy (…) —the plot against plot” perpetrated by Modernists responding to the industrial age by writing in non-simplistic, one might venture to say, more realistic, ways about various life experiences, is virtually incomprehensible. Picking apart this idea for a moment – Grossman doesn’t really mean plot. What he means is a tidy, happy ending. Everyone knows the plot of Ulysses: a day in the life of Leopold Bloom. How is that not a plot? Stuff happens. And as for his mention of T.S. Eliot – the man was a poet and playwright. Surely comparing him to modern novelists is disingenuous at best.

Here’s the thing. Grossman really wants an excuse for not writing difficult books. He wants to believe that he can be considered with the same seriousness as John Banville or James Joyce, because, hey, people like plot-based books that tie up neatly in a bow and have a happy ending. The thing is, I don’t think most of the readers of, say, the Twilight series feel apologetic or embarrassed about it. Nor does the author seem bothered about having failed to write the Great American novel. And there are authors, taken seriously, who do write happy ending (Jane Austen, for an obvious example, though she is obviously pre- Modernist, though still hugely popular despite the supposed Modernist takeover).

Grossman closes by claiming “Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century” and that there will be a revival, from the supermarket racks, with which the Modernist-brainwashed critics will need to keep pace. Suspense, humor, and pacing have never been without popularity, nor particularly stigmatized in the critical realm. What is stigmatized is lazy, shoddy prose, unearned implausible plots, or silliness.

The Magicians
Grossman has written a book called ‘The Magicians”, a book about wizards written, one assumes, in a mid-list lit-fiction style, rather than outright fantasy. He wants to convince himself, and any unusually insecure critics reading his article, that his book should be taken as seriously as Literature. The thing is, that can only happen if he’s written something deserving of the title – and that doesn’t mean it has to be full of five dollar words or bizarre literary devices, it means it has to be well written, and say or do something more than tell a story. It has to tell a truth.