Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thinking badly

Business first.  My vacation starts tomorrow; back a week from Monday.  Then the nightmare that will be Ubu Week begins.  I think bibliographing nicole is joining in around the same time, although she has recently had better things to do.  I remind any readalongers that there are no schedules and rules.  King Ubu, he’s the one who demands rules and disembrainings, not me.  Vacation to do list: 1. Write this post, 2. Go on vacation, 3. Ubu Week.  Got it.

I have had all sorts of bad ideas that have not made it onto Wuthering Expectations.  Also, bad ideas that have, a separate subject.  It is possible that some of those bad ideas are actually good ideas, that it is only my thinking that is bad.  Here are some nuts I have not yet cracked, or that I do not realize were cracked long ago, by a squirrel, perhaps, with the nut extracted and eaten, while I keep gnawing on the empty shell.

1.  Complexity.  Why do some good books keep their readers for hundreds of years, and other similarly good books do not?  I have this idea that the complexity of the book is crucial.  Not difficulty, which may well be a form of complexity.  The less complex books are replaced by new versions of the same idea.  The more complex books are irreplaceable.

I want to push past the idea that innovation is important.  We’re living in a period when the taste or preference for innovation is extraordinarily high.  I’m looking for something more universal.  The more universal the idea, the more reductive, simple, and banal.  The more boring.

2.  So another idea, a self-serving one, is to defend boring writing.  My recent reading of the Javier Marías novel Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear has inspired some (bad) thought on the subject, although I have written about it before.  Nothing special about Marías here – he is borrowing from the maniacally precise descriptive writing of Alain Robbe-Grillet and the maddeningly spiralling monologues of Thomas Bernhard.  The boredom is conceptually purposeful, a perverse form of tension-building.

The challenge here would be to define and defend artful boredom.  A recent sparkling and witty Joseph Epstein piece on boredom suggests some helpful books and directions.  Epstein notes that Isaac Bashevis Singer argued that boredom is “the natural human condition of men and women,” and that “the purpose of art was to eliminate boredom.”  My goal would be to defend art whose purpose is to induce boredom.

The problem, obviously, is that my week-long defense of boring literature would almost certainly be crushingly boring.

3.  Canon-formation.  Another topic I have perhaps thought about too much, but because I mostly read canonical books, books from lists, books written about in other books, it may be worth some time thinking about how they got there.

I have a social scientist’s view of the canon.  It is an existing thing, or maybe many things, that is or are the outcome of a social process, analogous to how policies are the outcome of a political process or prices of a market economy.  Millions of individuals influence the process, some with more heft than others, but no individual or committee or council of clerics determines the outcome.  My idea is actually very similar to the argument by D. G. Myers that there is no such thing as the canon (this post is not the one I am thinking of).

I assume that this is obvious, but then I see bloggers get tripped up by the word "canon."  Blogging is a canon-forming activity.

4.  I have a million ideas about how other people are reading and writing incorrectly, and how they should fix their errors and infelicities by doing whatever it is that I do.  Somehow, I have been able to keep most of this to myself.  Let me continue to do so.

If any of these ideas are not as bad as I fear, or if they somehow inspire good thinking, please steal them.  I would love to find out why I am wrong.  Or right, sure, but I’m not counting on that.

Back on June 26th or so.  Ubu, etc.  Ubu.  Ubu.


  1. Why are you telling people to steal perfectly usable ideas? I'm sure another writer would be glad to take them off your hands/mind for a reasonable price. And then you'd have a little spending money on vacation. Ok folks, pick an idea and make your best offer...Take them all and he'll make a special price, just for you.

  2. Not so sure about complexity. Only a limited number of plots, surely it's how well (style) the story is told so involving the reader in empathy with characters' dilemma's rather than a convoluted complexity of plot.

  3. Good, yes. Not plot at all, I would suggest, but the complex interaction of style and meaning. Plot is the least important contributor to a book's survival, less important that the durability of the papyrus. Plot can always be retold and replaced by a later book.

    As a reader of Sir Thomas Browne, Hydro., you're not going to tell me that style isn't complex, endlessly complex?

  4. Possibly subtlety or openness to many and changing interpretations rather than complexity? Or possibly it's the depth of understanding that the author brings to humanity that gives a book lasting value? The plots of Shakespeare are pretty much ridiculous hashes, but Shakespeare's way of looking at people is multilayered and endlessly provoking. Yes, provoking. That's it. It's not so much that we won't leave Shakespeare alone as that he won't leave us alone. Or something.

    Infernal blogger refuses to let me log on. Blast you, blogger!

    ~Scott Bailey

  5. Yes, complexity of execution, not plot. And as I am currently in the middle of having my mind blown by Vanity Fair, I am personally more convinced than ever that empathy with characters matters not at all!

  6. I'm not sure complexity is the right word but I think I understand what you are getting at. I like Scott's suggestion of provoking, it has possibilities.

    As for the canon, I think a lot of people get touchy about it because it is used in educational circles as a seal of approval and tends to include, as they say, mostly dead white men. This is not to say that literature by dead white men is no good, only that the canon as such has a distinct western male bias that tends to refuse to acknowledge the validity of other voices and points of view.

    I'd be curious for you to expand on point number 4. Maybe not in a specific naming of names kind of, but in a general sort of way if that is possible.

  7. I just re-read Pride and Prejudice (again) and at the moment it is feeling very very simple (perhaps because I know it nearly by heart) and so very very good and I am completely failing at figuring out why-- but I'm not sure that "provoking" or "complex" is it.
    Let me know when you figure it out for me.

  8. I'm interested in the complexity idea as well. It seems likely to me that a book is more likely to live on if there are multiple ways of looking at it, if different readers can come up with completely different (and even contradictory) takes on it. Such books would certainly be harder to replace than more simplistic ones.

    I imagine that a lot of angst surrounding the canon has to do with the notion that it's fixed. But it isn't fixed. Reading, blogging, discussing, and so on all make the potential to shape the canon.

    And I'm intensely curious to know how you think people are reading incorrectly, except that I fear I'd learn that I'm reading incorrectly! Sometimes I know I probably am, in fact, but there are limits to my ability, time, intellectual energy, and interest. I operate as well as I feel I can within those limits. (Thus, I am avoiding Ubu week with its potential disembrainings--I need what brains I have! I did give some thought to trying Lord of the Ubus, but I couldn't remember if it was by William Golding or JRR Tolkien.)

  9. Oh, I'm totally in for Ubu, 100%. If only that meant I knew how to do it justice. At least it hasn't totally disembrained me.

    1. I think I might say "sophisticated" is a better word than "complex," but I haven't thought about it enough to be sure. E.g., what is something simple, but sophisticated in its simplicity? Or, so sophisticatedly complex that it seems simple? Straight complexity will probably not work out well, at least in terms of having many people at all keep reading something.

    2. Yes, do this, define and defend artful boredom.

    4. You probably shouldn't actually do this, but it's a public service, really. There should be a hotline for such things. "Safely and anonymously report unsanitary conditions in the litblogging world." Maybe that old "have at me" button was a step in this direction.

    Have fun on vacation!

  10. Now I feel bad leaving this as a vacation post. Too many good ideas here, good thinking thrown after bad. E.g., as Hydrotaphia, Scott Bailey, and others point out in different ways: Define Your Terms, followed by useful clarifications.

    Anyone pursuing the boredom idea will want to work out from music and film, I think. The passage of time is crucial. Meine Frau suggests that Heidegger will also be useful. Ha ha ha! So that's pretty much a no-go.

    I like Stefanie's comment on why the word "canon" causes anxiety. It is reassuring. My thinking may be bad, but the thinking of others, people in "educational circles" is terrible.

    SpSq - "simple" is actually kind of a swear word at Wuthering Expectations. It would take a long and involved (complex) argument to convince me that Austen's art is simple.

  11. "My thinking may be bad, but the thinking of others, people in 'educational circles' is terrible."

    Richard Mitchell? Is that you?

    I don't take simple as a swear word. I can think of several contexts in which simplicity in art or literature can offer much to consider.

  12. You stumped me! Is Richard Mitchell the Ungrammatical Grammarian? I know nothing at all about him.

    I'm actually not so sure about who those people in "educational circles" are - I'm just taking Stefanie's characterization at face value.

    Are you setting up a paradox with your use of "simple"? Once a simple object or concept gives me much to consider does it remain simple, or has it become complex?

  13. Well, I was thinking of a narrow enough definition of "simple" that it would work. For instance, simple means not-layered, which is bad. But a single sheet of paper, cleverly folded, offers origami of complexity and grace. So perhaps a simple concept or story or plot can be a wellspring.

    Richard Mitchell is, or was, the Underground Grammarian, and, with his thoughts on edu-speak, changed the way I wrote my dissertation. Which was inconvenient, since I read his work halfway through writing my dissertation.

    Thinking about this post over doing the dishes resulted in the following (quite simple) notion: it's not thinking badly that we have to avoid so much as being content with thinking badly, and not being bored with literature so much as avoiding or dismissing literature as boring. Many of my students know they will never read certain works because they are boring. Further investigation might prove them boring, but still fruitful.

  14. Hey, now, that's a little too much good thinking for a blog comment, especially for this post.

    If I'm not careful, I'll define the word "simple" away completely, and what's the point of that?

    I entirely agree about how we should respond to bad thinking. Use it as a goad. Bad thinking is a reason to live!

    Are you sure Mitchell is not the Ungrammatical Grammarian? Cuz that's funnier. Stupid, but funny. I should read something of his, clearly.

  15. Simple is certainly not derogatory to me. Perhaps I don't mean it as the opposite of complex, but perhaps the opposite of deliberately convoluted.
    A fresh peach for dessert is simple. Perfect tomatoes adorned with near nothingness are simple. They can both be fantastic.
    In many ways, P+P is simple. The plot is straightforward, the structure is linear and easy to follow, the good girls win, the language does not require me to grab a dictionary. Of course P+P also contains side plots and sarcasm and social commentary and literary commentary and I'm sure you could argue it's complexity, but it feels far more like a perfectly ripened peach than it does like a peach pecan cake with an amaretti crumble and a side of ginger-caramel ice cream.
    I could love both, by the way, but I would return to the perfect fresh peach more often.

  16. Is the flavor of a peach or tomato simple or complex? The preparation is simple, yes. Simple, in a recipe, can mean "has few steps."

    I'm not sure what many of the items in the Pride and Prejudice list have to do with complexity. The best of Grimms' fairy tales are linear, etc. but highly complex.

    The notion of "simplicity" deserves its own definition, doesn't it, its own train of thought. What would literary criticism of a "simple" text look like? I have direct evidence that "Snow White and Rose Red" and Pride and Prejudice are complex - I can read what people have written about them, an enormous amount of interpretation. The texts are rich.

    Perhaps simplicity defeats criticism.