Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Snobbery 4

I call this post Snobbery 4 because the other night I was slumped in front of the TV and half-watching Aliens 4. Actually I gather that the movie is properly called Aliens: Resurrection. Anyway, it's the fourth Sigourney Weaver movie about those really nasty and apparently indestructible alien life forms; and it struck me, when I came to read the piece that I am going to refer to in a minute, that good old-fashioned literary snobbery is just as tough and indestructible as them nasty ole aliens. There is absolutely nothing that you can do to get rid of it. Think you've wiped it out in one place, and bugger me but it pops up again somewhere else.

These thoughts were prompted by reading an article by Michael Faber. (Faber was born in Holland, and sometimes appears as Michel Faber.) The article ain't brand new and was sent to me by Viktor Janis. It appeared originally in the Scotsman, but is now available at their web site to subscribers only. For the next few days (I gather), it may be available on a file-sharing service. But in any case, even if you can't find the article or don't want to bother reading it, the content is the same old rubbish.

Mr Faber is undoubtedly a much-honoured writer; see his entry on Fantasticfiction for details. He also mixes in some very high-powered company: in 2006 he was one of the contributors to Not One More Death, getting equal billing with Richard Dawkins, John Le Carre, and Harold Pinter, among others.

The title of Faber's Scotsman article is 'Dumb and Dumber?' In brief, Faber argues that literary fiction is infinitely superior to commercial stuff and is aimed at 'intelligent grown-ups' -- everything else, he implies, is bought and read by teenage morons. The rubbish, he argues, is crowding out the worthwhile stuff.

The fact is that every crappy book you see reviewed in a newspaper or stacked on a table at Waterstone’s is there in place of a better one....

Trivial books fail to touch us deeply, leaving us in exactly the same state as before... We need literature that inspires and changes us.

And so on. As an example of arrogant, snobbish, fuzzy thinking you would be hard pressed to find its equal.

However... My purpose today is not to go through Faber's argument step by step, because I've done that kind of thing before, several times. What is pertinent, however, is to ask the following question: Do you think it is possible -- just conceivably, perhaps, maybe -- that Mr Faber has now changed his tune? His tune being, if Imay paraphrase, to the effect that everything in a prominent place in a bookshop is crap.

In the Scotsman article, Faber tells us that he has just returned from Slovakia, where he was celebrating the publication of a collection of short stories, Raz Urcite Zaprsi -- or Some Rain Must Fall, in the English version. And that book was published in Slovakia in 2001.

But in 2002 Mr Faber had a considerable hit. His novel The Crimson Petal and the White was a New York Times bestseller, and had sales, I understand, of almost a million copies. So -- in the light of that experience, does Faber still, I wonder, take the view that 'the crassest, most aggressively marketed books take up the most shelf space, column inches in the media -- and everything else gets pushed to the peripheries'?

The Crimson Petal and the White can't have been pushed to the peripheries. Its publisher must have paid for it to be displayed up front. So what gives? Did Faber suddenly decide to join the ranks of Jeffrey Archer and Kathy Lette (writers whom in the Scotsman he clearly despised)? Have publishers suddenly seen the light and abandoned crap? Or is Mr Faber's whacking big opus (894 pages) an exception to the rule? I.e. is it a literary masterpiece which somehow was such a work of genius that it contrived to win some newspaper space and some shelf space, despite his claim that 'everything else [my italics] gets pushed to the peripheries'?

The questions are rhetorical. Mr Faber, I suspect, finds himself in the same position as those authors who despise all literary prizes on principle. Until they win one.

And consider the fate of poor Mr Franzen. Nominated as one of Oprah's choices, the poor fellow wriggled and squirmed and wondered what the hell he should do. Could he (a frightf'ly sensitive artist, my dears, a man devoted to literature rather than commerce) accept such a vulgar commendation? Or should he make an excuse and leave? I haven't had such a good laugh for ages.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Franzen debacle. I especially liked this: "The Corrections has now racked up huge sales, but whether people are actually reading it and responding to it remains an open question."

The article really takes Franzen to task. He'd like his book to sell; something the article tells us disqualifies him from wishing that could happen without being on Oprah.

I understand there are writers who want to make more and more money but I'd bet my soul that 99% of writers would be happy to make a living from writing. Franzen appears to be in that position and therefore decides that he doesn't want Oprah's 'logo' on the book.

The article finds him disingenuous for didn't he agree to other things being on the cover?

I'd give my left gonad for a spot on Oprah and they could publish her in the skinny and leave out my name for all I cared.

But if I were earning a decent living from fiction (for I already earn a decent living from writing coma-inducing tripe) I'd be tempted to do the same.

Surely a writer can dream that one day their work gets to matter?

If one has readers and a bank account enough to survive why not give Oprah a body-swerve?

Good for Franzen; he's my hero today.

Anonymous said...

Franzen took a lot of heat for refusing to bow at Oprahhh's altar, and I can't help but applaud him, whatever his motives. The Saloon article fawns over Oprahhh's endorsement as "the single most anticipated event in American publishing."

True or not, I've seen some of Her picks and find that frightening.

Lee said...

Thank you for posting the link to Faber's piece, since I enjoy and admire his fiction, which BTW includes many elements of genre.

Gonzalo B said...

Faber’s debut novel “Under the Skin” owes a lot to genre literature. His collection of short stories also includes material that could easily be labeled as genre and not because it “transcends” or “subverts” the conventions of said literature (which is the typical argument used by critics whenever one of their favored authors decides to engage in utterly vulgar behavior such as writing stories with an actual plot). It’s too bad that Faber of all people harbors this resentment since he is a very talented writer.

Gonzalo B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lyn LeJeune said...

I've got snobbery in reverse. It seems everytime I read about a million dollar plus deal I don't know who the person is! Case in point; this morning seven million to Keith Richards. Who the hell is Keith Richards? So I suppose I'm an old grumpy lady- The Rolling Stones guy. I see. Had to look it up. Who will really write that book?
Lyn LeJeune
The Beatitudes Network
Rebuilding the public libraries of New Orleans at www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com

SQT said...

I've had this debate endlessly on my blog in regard to books and movies-- especially now with the release of the newest Harry Potter book.

I have often argued on the side of giving all forms of entertainment their due. It doesn't all have to be profound to have value. In fact, if all we were offered at the bookstore was high-brow, over-intellectualized writing, I think I'd go nuts. Sometimes I just want something that entertains without trying too hard.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Thanks for highlighting this. Saw a lit critic contorting himself into knots the other night on the Beeb, trying to defend his completely indefensible position that 'grownups' shouldn't be reading Harry Potter, because they couldn't possibly get anything useful from it. How about pleasure? The older I get, the more I subscribe to the late great George Melly's dictum that (with the proviso that you aren't actually wounding anyone else) you should be able to 'do as you damn well please.'

Pacze Moj said...

I think that the debate over whether high-brow is more valuable than low-brow tends to overshadow a more important distinction: good quality over bad quality, regardless of where the brow is.

Anonymous said...

re Jonathan Franzen.

If he'd only put his book through his typewriter/keyboard one more time, he wouldn't have needed Oprah or anybody. He would have had an American masterpiece.

Take out the stupid lists and all those references to "breasts" (no I'm not a prude--the references just don't fit!) and any editor could see how good The CORRECTIONS really was.
Betch Michael Moore read it.
Wonderful reference material.


Anonymous said...

Well, you can't have enough breasts, I always say.