“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
This is of course from the “Pig and Pepper” chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the high point of – of – let’s say – English literature – too weak, too weak – so – Western civilization.
Alice has a point, doesn’t she? Many fine readers agree with her, and try to minimize their time among the lunatics. We could come up with a long list of outstanding works of literature for those readers to avoid. Other readers sympathize more with the Cheshire Cat and find more truth in the fiction of Franz Kafka or the poetry of William Blake. Or perhaps just a rarer truth.
Sane and insane, sense and nonsense. I fear these are the categories of someone with a strong taste for nonsense. What are some alternatives?
“Explain all that,” said the Mock Turtle.
“No, no! The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.” (Ch. X, “The Lobster Quadrille”)
The Gryphon is the ideal reader for Stevenson and Conrad, while the Mock Turtle is likely a fan of Trollope and Eliot. The adventure novel versus the domestic novel, both terms broadly defined. The gender difference I noticed yesterday may now be explained a bit. Is anyone surprised that more of the great women writers of the time wrote about settings (public or private) and problems involving women? Some of the great writers I have dropped into the adventure category were able to ingeniously contrive novels with no women characters at all.
A related category might be fluid versus static, novels with more scenes of movement versus those with more conversation or thought. Trollope’s most common strategy is to write scenes with varying combinations of characters. They are rarely required to do much, and the story advances through their conversation and reflection. Victor Hugo’s novels are always in motion. The precise details of space and position are essential – where is Jean Valjean in relation to the pickpocket? Pride and Prejudice is static, Mansfield Park is fluid, relative to each other. Both are domestic novels.
The grand old split is between the picturesque and the sublime. My thoughts on the sublime can be found in the usual place, in a piece on Little House on the Prairie. Novels in the nonsense category like the Alice books try to reach the sublime by means of the ridiculous, which tames the sense of fear inherent in the sublime. Sensible books like Adam Bede or Dubliners move gradually towards surprising and sublime moments; crazy novels like Salammbô or The Toilers of the Sea sometimes attempt to maintain a sense of the sublime over the course of an entire book, which is impossible but thrilling to try.
What do I have, four binary categories? Now I can construct a four-dimensional grid and map every book onto it, like Kellogg’s does with the sweetness and crunchiness and mouthfeel of breakfast cereals. Readers can then match themselves to books in their quadrant. A fair amount of book blogging is not much more than this, honestly. I do it a lot, although unconsciously or automatically, not like here – I hope not like here – although in another sense my case is not so useful, since I like everything, although I do lean sublime-wards.
Anyway, none of this has anything to do with why or how or whether a book is any good.