Daniel Green is -- quite correctly it seems to me -- cross about the Middlebrow Mediocrity of many contemporary novels:

Everything that keeps our current literary culture mired in midddlebrow mediocrity is exemplified in Amy Bloom's novel, Away, and its reception by mainstream book reviewers when it was published last fall. The novel itself is not per se a "bad" novel -- many worse ones are published and reviewed every season -- but it is entirely undistinguished, to the point that my most immediate reaction to it was to wonder why it needed to exist in the first place. Moreover, that book reviewers would so exorbitantly praise such a novel, as in fact most of them did, strongly calls into question the standards being applied by those working in that branch of "literary journalism" represented by newspaper book sections. If Away is considered by "professional" book reviewers to be an exemplary work of serious literary fiction, which my reading of the reviews leads me to think is the case, then as a culture attuned to the possibilities of fiction as literary art, we in a sad state indeed (my italics).

Dan then takes Lionel Shriver to task:

Shriver's review [of Away in the LA Times] reeks of the kind of rationalization book reviewers constantly offer when recommending "formulaic" fiction written "comfortably within a conventional form." Such fiction may otherwise seem "standard" in its use of all of the hand-me-down practices of traditional narrative, but it's still full of "finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details," as Shriver puts it a few paragraph later. It may be utterly predictable, reinforcing safe and complacent reading habits by going no farther than to pour some "new wine into old skins," but if its "execution is exquisite," then no more should be asked of it. Who needs fiction that challenges formal expectations, offers an alternative to our hackneyed notions of "finely wrought prose"? Writers who pursue such challenges and alternatives are just "game-playing," anyway, so why not just settle for another feel-good novel and its "soft-smile, along-the-way humor."

Readers Comments

  1. Tom Cunliffe Tuesday 13 May 2008

    Well, the world is full of people who deride the tastes of others. Reading is a hugely subjective thing and presses many different buttons in different people. I greatly admire Anne Tyler for example, who's humanistic approach to the characters in her simple stories reminds me that it is usually better to be kind rather than judgemental. What about Tim Pears (Blenheim Orchard) or Gerald Woodruff (I Go to Bed at Noon etc): in many ways simple books, family sagas perhaps, quite possible to be read on a superficial level, but also quite profound in their own way. Isn't reading meant to be pleasurable?

    Forgive me, I am starting to rant!


  2. Taking the liberty of posting a piece which would have caused worldwide uproar were it read worldwide, Mark, regarding the obliquely related phenomenon of Stephen Hawking. The ethos of our age specifically doesn't want genius to exist, it giving the lie to said ethos.

    Stephen Hawking- Modern Intellectual Symbol

    The intellect is not the friend of the modern culture of mass-produced inanity. However, it would be nice to have the illusion of giving the intellect its fair due-we are an enlightened age after all. And so, enter Stephen Hawking. People get to feel a kind of awe for Hawking's pure mind, immersed as he is in matters that are for the overwhelming majority of us purely esoteric & of no personal consequence. Crucially, along with this reverential awe, lies the pleasures of condescension at Hawking's physical condition. The intellect may be all well and good but would one really want to be Hawking? He is the perfect symbol of a neutered intellect that one has the generosity to patronise. DH Lawrence echoes here somewhere.
    So Hawking a kind of Elvis figure for the age; were he not born he would have had to have been created. To add: his merits as a thinker are relatively irrelevant- it's the image that counts.

    As an aside, isn't it interesting that in a time of such unprecedented human numbers there isn't one great genius striding the public landsacape. Not a Picasso, Dostoevsky, Beethoven, these terms- nothing. Probably just as well; one wouldn't want someone contradicting the defiled equation of the spirit of democracy. Everyone is equal.
    If everyone is equal, what is it they are equal to?
    The lowest common denominator.

  3. "Who needs fiction that challenges formal expectations, offers an alternative to our hackneyed notions of "finely wrought prose"?"

    The answer is, I'm afraid, hardly anyone. The vast majority of readers, like it or not, do want books that are on some level "utterly predictable, reinforcing safe and complacent reading habits," and I for one have difficulty in saying that they're fundamentally wrong rather than simply possessed of different tastes than me. (Though in fact a lot of what I like might count to Green as middlebrow mediocrity anyway, though I hope that wouldn't extend to I'll Go to Bed at Noon as cited by Tom - it's Gerard Woodward by the way! - which is a magnificent novel, worthy of anyone's time.)

    Let's take an easy whipping boy as an example. If someone says they enjoy the books of Dan Brown, I'm inclined to be appalled. Don't they know what else is available out there? They could have intellectual delight in all manner of ways! But if they're not sufficiently interested in books to want to make the effort to investigate better stuff, then why deny them the pleasure they do get? I've never found the answer to that, which suggests to me there might not be one.

  4. John, who is trying to deny people their simple pleasure? The object of Dan's post is quite clear - it has nothing to do with deriding the taste of most people but the judgement of supposedly literary reviewers. Dan says the book under review isn't bad - and would presumably give the kind of pleasure Tom thinks is enough - but when, like Dan, you see no point in lowering your standards to appeal to people who have no interest in literature, it's deeply frustrating to see big name literary figures lower theirs (though the reason why they're big names might have something to do with their low standards).

    PS: I'd really like to know why those novels are "profound in their own way" according to Tom. Reading might be "hugely subjective" but evidence isn't.

  5. Adding to Steve's post, & touching again on my earlier tangential musings. Within the ethos of the age, we are not entitled to say one work of art is better than another; that being 'just' a matter of opinion. But it is obvious to anyone poseesd of what we might call intelligence that certain artists and artworks are certainly greater than others. They are possessed of an intrinsic significance, which the dumbing down drive clearly in operation within society, wishes to deny; this significance giving the lie to itself. Thus profundity is the enemy, & so exalting profundity's very existence is turned around to accusations of intellectual snobbery, elitism & the like.
    To give an idea of the depth of this degradation of truth, one merely has to look at The Times piece here by their fillm critics offering their Top 100 Films of All Time. If we pretended to accept the hypothesis that such critics are the guardians or representatives of cultural standards, then we can but deduce that modern Britain is a shamefully ignorant cultural wasteland. These film critics almost completely omit all non-English films, & so Tarkovsky fails to feature at all- this the man Ingmar Bergman described as much the greatest of all directors- while Jurassic Park, Point Break make the grade, & the greatest 3 of all are apparently 1. Casablanca, 2. There Will Be Blood, & 3. ET.
    That anyone could seriously come up with the above, & still have the right to be taken seriously as possessing a deep knowledge of art & the human condition is a notion too degrading to countenance. And these supposedly the critics- the artistic connoisseurs- of the best known British paper. And the results of this overall cultural degradation are from from neutral or benign.


  7. Oops..."adding to Stephen's post". Sorry Stephen.

  8. You're quite right Stephen; I inferred what Green didn't imply. Apologies.

    Andrew, I agree. The difficulty arises I think not when saying one work is better than another, but when someone says they prefer Jurassic Park to Solaris. "But you can't!" we might say. "Tarkovsky is better than Spielberg!" But they do, and what can you say? There's no accounting for taste.

  9. Stupidity is its own self-defence, so one is obviously wasting one's time arguing about Jurassic Park & ET or Andrei Rublev or Stalker, and if someone does enjoy the Spielberg stuff more, then fair enough. But for the film critics of The TImes to declare their abysmal ignorance with that list is very telling about modern Britain.
    Also, everything within a culture is interlinked, & the infantilism at a cultural level is reproduced at the political/ current affairs level. Like the Pop Idol US Presidential candidacy masquerade. The idea that people go from the Strictly Come Lobotomising entertainments, & then with the news one is suddenly being presented with an accurate unprejudiced portrayal of the world...
    It's all essentially the one propaganda.

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