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.