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Mar 09 2007

A low-brow view of books

In yesterday’s post, I classified the appreciation of films according to four levels. At the lowest level is just the story or narrative. The next level above that is some message that the director is trying to convey and which is usually fairly obvious. The third level is that of technique, such as the quality of dialogue and acting and directing and cinematography and sound and lighting. And then there is the fourth and highest level, which I call deep meaning or significance, where there is a hidden message which, unlike the message at the second level, is not at all obvious but which has to be unearthed (or even invented) by scholars in the field or people who have a keen sensitivity to such things. I classified people whose appreciation does not get beyond the first two levels as low-brow.

The same classification scheme can be applied to books, especially fiction. In recent years I have started reading mostly non-fiction, but when it comes to fiction, I am definitely low-brow. To give an example of what I mean, take the novels of Charles Dickens. I like them because the stories he weaves are fascinating. One can enjoy them just for that reason alone. The second level meanings of his books are also not hard to discern. Many of his books were attempting to highlight the appalling conditions of poor children at that time or the struggles of the petite bourgeoisie of England. That much I can understand and appreciate.

What about his technique, the third level that I spoke of? The fact that I (and so many others over so many years) enjoy his books means that his technique must be good but I could not tell you exactly what his technique is. It is not that I am totally oblivious to technique. His habit of tying up every single loose end at the conclusion of his books, even if he has to insert extraordinary coincidences involving even minor characters, is a flaw that even I can discern, but this flaw of structure is not something fatal enough to destroy my enjoyment of his the work.

There is probably the fourth level to Dickens that scholars have noticed but which I will never discover by myself. Here we get into the writer’s psyche such as whether certain characters reflect Dickens’s own issues with his family’s poverty and his father’s time in a debtor’s prison and his relationship to his mother and so on. This is where really serious scholars of Dickens come into their own, mining what is known of his life to discover the hidden subtext of his novels.

My inability to scale these heights on my own is the reason why there are some writers who are stated to be geniuses whom I simply cannot appreciate. Take William Faulkner. I have read his novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and his short stories A Rose for Miss Emily and Barn Burning but I just don’t get his appeal.

In fact, I find his writing sometimes downright annoying. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the many zealous Faulkner fans out there, I think that Faulkner does not play fair with his readers, deliberately misleading them seemingly for no discernible reason. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, he abruptly keeps switching narrators on you without warning, each with their own stream of consciousness, but you soon get the hang of that and can deal with it. But what really annoyed me was that he has two characters have the same name but be of different genders and of different generations but this fact is not revealed until the very end. Since this character is central to the story and is referred to constantly by the different narrators, I was confused pretty much all the way through as to what was going on, since I had naively assumed that the references were to the same person, and the allusions to that person did not fit any coherent pattern. As a result, I found it hard to make sense of the story and that ruined it for me. I could not see any deep reason for this plot device other than to completely confuse the reader. I felt tricked at the end and I had no desire to re-read the book with this fresh understanding in mind.

This is not to say that writers should never misdirect their readers but there should be good reasons for doing so. I grew up devouring mystery fiction and those novels also hide some facts from their readers and drop red herrings in order to provide the dramatic denouement at the end. But that genre has fairly strict rules about what is ‘fair’ when doing this and what Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury would be considered out of bounds.

More sophisticated readers insist to me that Faulkner is a genius for the way he recreates the world of rural Mississippi, the people and places and language of that time. That may well be true but that is not enough for me to like an author. When my low-level needs of story and basic message are not met, I simply cannot appreciate the higher levels of technique and deep meaning. Furthermore, there is rarely a sympathetic character in his stories. They all tend to be pathological and weird, which makes it even harder to relate to them.

I had similar problems with Melville’s Moby Dick. For example, right at the beginning there are mysterious shadowy figures that board the ship and enter Captain Ahab’s cabin but they never appear afterwards although it does not appear that they left the ship prior to its departure. What happened to them? What was their purpose? And what do all the details about whaling (that make the book seem like a textbook on the whaling industry) add to the story? Again, the main characters were kind of weird and unsympathetic and I finished the book feeling very dissatisfied.

James Joyce’s Ulysses seems to me to be a pure exercise in technique and deep meaning that is probably a delight for scholars to pick through and interpret and search for hidden meanings, but that kind of thing leaves me cold. I simply could not get through it, and also failed miserably with The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his book Love in the Time of Cholera pulls a stunt similar to Melville. His opening chapter introduces some intriguing and mysterious characters who then disappear, never to appear again or be connected with the narrative in even the most oblique way. I kept expecting them to become relevant to the story, to tie some strands together, but they never did and I was left at the end feeling high and dry. Why were they introduced? What purpose were they meant to serve? Again, people tell me that Marquez is great at evoking a particular time and place, and I can see that. But what about the basic storytelling nature of fiction? When that does not make sense, I end up feeling dissatisfied.

I also have difficulty with the technique of ‘magic realism’ as practiced by Marquez in his A Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. In this genre you have supernatural events, like ghosts appearing and talking to people, or people turning into animals and back again, and other weird and miraculous things, and the characters in the books treat these events as fairly routine and humdrum. I find that difficult to accept. I realize that these things are meant to be metaphors and deeply symbolic in some way, but I just don’t get it. These kinds of literary devices simply don’t appeal to me.

This is different from (say) Shakespeare’s plays, which I do enjoy. He too often invokes ghosts and spirits in some of his plays but these things are easily seen as driving the story forward so it is easy to assimilate their presence. Even though I don’t believe in the existence of the supernatural, the people of his time actually believed in those things and the reactions of the characters in his plays to the appearance of these ghosts and fairies seem consistent with their beliefs. But in a novel like The Satanic Verses that takes place in modern times, to have a character turn into a man-goat hybrid and back to fully man again with the other characters responding with only mild incredulity and not contacting the medical authorities, seems a little bizarre.

I would hasten to add that I am not questioning the judgment of experts that Faulkner and Melville and Joyce and Marquez and Rushdie are all excellent writers. One of the things about working at a university is that you realize that the people who study subjects in depth usually have good reasons for their judgments and that they are not mere opinions to be swept aside just because you happen to not agree with them. One does not go against an academic consensus without marshalling good reasons for doing so and my critiques of these writers are at a fairly low level and come nowhere close to being a serious argument against them. What I am saying is that for me personally, a creative work has to be accessible at the two lowest levels for me to enjoy it.

I think that there are two kinds of books and films. One the one hand there are those that can be enjoyed and appreciated by low-brow people like me on our own, and others that are best appreciated when accompanied by discussions led by people who have studied those books and authors and films and directors and know how to deal with them on a high level.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Ben

    Mano,

    I think it’s interesting that you broached this topic, because I too have a very superficial view of films and books. I decided to take Prof. Spadoni’s “Introduction to Film” in order to achieve a deeper understanding of film and appreciate its subtleties (books are a lost cause), and one thing has been very valuable. The first day of class, we were told to throw both evaluation (this film was good/bad for x,y,z) and directorial or authorial intent (maybe Hitchcock was gay, so he explored homosexuality in film) out the window.
    The argument was this: each person has a unique perspective on the film being shown, and will attend to seperate details, and project onto the film their analysis of those elements. So if you see an actor’s facial expression, and then a loaf of bread, you might think he looked hungry. If you saw the same expression on his face, but instead it was a picture of a woman, you might think he looked taken with her. The association of otherwise random elements joined together makes humans (who excel at finding order in chaos) impart significance to the combination of those elements that they may not necessarily have. That doesn’t mean that that the pattern found is wrong though…it’s an interpretation.
    Just because you or I watch Star Wars and see a great action movie with the occasional nugget of morality, and not a critique on British Colonialism in Southeast Asia doesn’t mean that the film can’t be that as well. Even George Lucas’ intent that the movie just be a modern mythology or fairy tale is irrelevant: the film may suggest a critique of Colonialism. So in your previous post where you talked about your complex rationalization of the use of black and white film instead of color for certain scenes, the fact that the director just ran low on cash is irrelevant. The scenes filmed took on a meaning and suggested a pattern that, intentional or not, was present and that you found important. If it’s significant to you, then who cares what the director did?
    There’s a famous story that floats around about Isaac Asimov. Apparently Asimov (a science fiction writer) walked in on an academic who was presenting his interpretation of one of Asimov’s books. At the end of the presentation, Asimov stood up and told the man that his reading of the work was totally wrong, and entirely counter to what he had intended in writing it. The academic calmly replied “Well, what could you know? You’re just the author.” I always try to think of that when watching a film or reading a book.
    I think it has significance, therefore it does!

  2. 2
    Novel

    Mano,

    While your opinions are certainly fair, I disagree with the notion the unused characters in some books detract from it. You also dig a bit on Dickens tying off each loose end, the complete opposite. Obviously, you want a balance.

    In life, there is often no balance. Many days and even years there will be a preponderence of people you meet or observe who end up being inconsequential to your life. While I’d hardly suggest that media be so realistic as to fully simulate this, it seems perfectly fair to me that characters appear, disappear, and catch attention without adding to the (main) plot.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Ben,

    Your position that it is our own construction of meaning that is important is appealing and I cannot deny its validity. But it can co-exist with the idea that there are some author/director intentions that are not obvious and must be discovered by analysis. While it may not be necessary to discover them in order to enjoy the experience, I am not sure that I would like to discard them altogether.

    Novel,

    I agree that real life is not neat and tidy and that books and films may simply be reflecting that. But when I was writing about Melville and Marquez, I was not referring to characters who weave in and out of stories. These authors seemed to deliberately draw the reader’s attention to these particular characters and then abandoned them.

    The principle of Chekhov’s gun seems to apply. The playwright Anton Chekhov said that when it comes to writing plays, if you draw attention to a gun in the first act, you’d better make sure that the gun gets used in the third act. He was highlighting a basic story telling technique.

    Writers are creative people and it is good that there are those who break all the rules and create new forms. I guess my point (which seems kind of trivial, I know) is that for low-brow people like me, a fairly well-defined narrative arc is necessary for enjoyment.

  4. 4
    Bruce

    I appreciate where you are coming from in your last two posts, but it ultimately reflects what frustrates me about the art world.

    To explain my perspective, let me draw an analogy to the world of politics. After the 2004 election, I was especially frustrated by Bush voters who did not know who Karl Rove, John Ashcroft, or Alberto Gonzales was. These people voted without any interest in anything but a surface level understanding of why they were voting for Bush. This is obviously true for both Kerry and Bush voters – my point is not to deride Bush voters, but rather, as someone who seeks a deeper understanding of for whom I should vote, complain that I wish people made a greater effort.

    Now, this past year, I found a dearth of movies worthwhile until Oscar time. Movies like Little Miss Sunshine which are low level fun romps, look positively pretentious next to the low-brow movies released to make a profit. I enjoy movies and books, but producers and publishers appropriately look for profit. Profit motive doesn’t work when the consumer is not only uninformed or unadventurous, but does not seek to become so. It creates a bad product.

    On a personal note, your comments on books and movies do not suggest you are as low brow as you claim. I respect that you have attempted Faulkner, Joyce, and Melville. Most people I know sing the praises of John Grisham and Adam Sandler comedies – that is lowbrow – not trying Moby Dick and not liking it.

    However, your theory lends our culture down the road of mediocrity. I’m not sure if it is simply a function of capitalism or just the population’s laziness.

    Nevertheless, I appreciate your points. They certainly make me think.

  5. 5
    shiva

    Mano,

    I find much of the informed reviews of literature and music utterly over the top if not pretentious. But that is not to say I don’t enjoy them. Only I find torturing them for deep meanings is little more than a way to hold a job. A lot of tosh gets written about classical music – and that tiresome cliche “it can be understood at many levels is troted out”. Now you take a person like Mozart who went out of his way to make popular music and played to raucous audiences in beer halls and taverns; so where is all that deep meaning you are talking about? That isn’t to say that life is simple or issues are simple. But considering someone like Rushdie hasn’t made any profound contribution to political debate – he’s no deep thinker – I think he was simply pulling a fast one with all that overblown metaphor in his “Midnight’s…”

  6. 6
    Mano Singham

    Bruce,

    Actually, I am glad that we have “difficult” writers and film makers, even if I don’t enjoy them. They are the ones who stretch the boundaries using ideas which others later make mainstream. It is just that I don’t think that I have the sophistication personally to appreciate such avante garde efforts.

    Shiva,

    That’s a good point. I think that may explain why I like Dickens and Shakespeare and Mozart even though nowadays they are not considered “popular”. They were creating for a mass audience and even though I am separated from that audience by many years in time, I feel a kinship to that audience in spirit.

  7. 7
    Heidi Cool

    I wonder if our choices in “pleasure reading” (as opposed to close analytic reading) are more akin to our choices in food. I don’t like vanilla ice cream, while most people seem to prefer it. This wasn’t a decision I purposely made, it is just the way my taste buds feel.

    My reading “buds,” as it were, are rather omnivorous. I’m just as happy to read a mainstream thriller as I am Hermann Hesse or Jorges Luis Borges, but I don’t think my literary diet would be complete if I stayed with but one genre. I read according to mood just as one sometimes eats according to a certain craving.

    I agree with you on Melville, though I quite enjoy Marquez. (I wonder is you might prefer Isabel Allende, I think she wanders a bit less.) Two writers that I think do quite well with the supernatural (or just plain bizarre) are Haruki Murakami and Chuck Palahniuk. Both have uncanny imaginations and a gift for description, yet when they speak of the supernatural it is quite clear that is part of the nature of the universe in their book—even if the story takes place in the modern day. Because of that such themes don’t seem dissonant.

    In a lighter vein, as a Douglas Adams fan, you might enjoy Christopher Moore” who approaches the supernatural from a more absurd perspective.

    Last week I listened to a podcast from Stanford’s Aurora Forum called “Why Books” which you might enjoy. It was a discussion by literature professors on the nature of reading, in which they approached the topic with a fairly light hearted attitude.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    Heidi,

    Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed reading Marquez. He tells interesting stories with colorful characters. It is just that there are elements of his story-telling technique that I find off-putting.

    Thanks for the links. I’ll try and check them out.

  9. 9
    Adam

    Mano,

    I really enjoy your blog, particularly how you deal at length with a wide variety of topics.

    I never read Moby Dick until I was in my early 30s, and I absolutely loved it, mostly on what you would call a low-brow level. I thought the technical details of operating the whaling ship were fascinating. They might not have advanced the plot, but I do think they advanced the story.

    I also remember reading 100 Years of Solitude when I was about 19 and thinking how creative it was for Garcia-Marquez to have it start raining flowers. But I think if I read it now, it would just irritate me. The novelty of dropping fantastical happenings into otherwise realistic fiction was short-lived for me.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    Adam,

    What did you figure was going on with thoese mysterious characters in the beginning of Moby Dick? I have always been curious as to what that was all about.

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