Thursday, August 9, 2012

In which I divide books into binary categories

“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 pickpocketPride 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.


  1. I'm sure there's a nugget of genius in here somewhere - I'm still looking :) One thing's for sure though, it's much more fun to be amongst the crazies than to avoid their literature. If the devil has the best tunes, the best books definitely belong to the ever-so-slightly unhinged...

  2. There is definitely a nugget of genius here, two in fact, both written by Charles Dodgson. As for what I wrote - well, luckily blogs are a forgiving format. Perhaps my kindly commenters will fix things ups with their good ideas.

    I also find the crazies and slightly crazies to often be enormous fun. But I have come across plenty of readers who are clearly made uncomfortable by Too Much Crazy - no fun anymore.

    When I wrote the little series on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I read many adult blogger responses to the books. It was fascinating to see how many recoiled from Little House on the Prairie in particular as too crazy, too scary. They were responding to something that really was in the book - the most interesting thing in it, I thought.

  3. One thing I did not expect to be doing today was to be heading to the library to pick up a copy of Little House on the Prairie.

  4. I enjoyed this post very much. You even had me laughing.

    Were the Little House books crazy? scary? I read them all when I was a child and don't remember anything scary or crazy. That may be the perspective of a child. You'll notice that Alice is often impatient with the creatures she meets in Wonderland, but she is never frightened.

    I think you're right about blogging being about finding books that fit your quadrant, too. It's unfortunate. I think reading is much more fun when you're wondering through all quadrants.

  5. Oh good, thanks. I'm really glad you got a laugh out of it. It is not meant seriously. Not too seriously.

    The Little House books in general are not scary, but Little House on the Prairie sometimes is. The entire family nearly dies four times, for example. But most of what I mean is tied up in the aesthetic response the characters have to the prairie. Pa and Laura love it - they crave the sublime (wind, space, wolves, stars) - while Ma and Mary find it terrifying - they want the picturesque.

    I never wrote about it, but you can trace the idea through Wilder's artful use of the family dog. The prairie wants to destroy the dog.

    The typical anti-Prairie pro-picturesque blogger response was that the reader no longer "liked" Pa. Once the reader moved to the next novel she "liked" him again.

    One of the beauties of Alice - common to much children's fantasy - is that it is packed full of signifiers of the Sublime, scary stuff like Alice's changing size, or the threatening animals, or "Off with their heads" but it is all tamed by some combination of Carroll's nonsense and Alice's sense. The Sublime is made gleefully Ridiculous.

    Finding books in the right quadrant, that's part of it, and also measuring my own position against that of the book. How far is the book from me? The closer it is, the more likely I am to "love" it, the farther away the less likely. The risk - or maybe the benefit? - of this kind of criticism is that it is really mostly about the critic. Not "what is the book like" but "what am I like"?

    1. The prairie wants to destroy the dog.

      This by itself is an amazing, hilarious sentence!

    2. Wilder is often treated like a naive realist, but there is an authentic strain of Nathaniel Hawthorne in her books.

  6. Quadrants! Quadrants! You have breathed new life into the semiannual bibliographing charting challenge! I am way. Too. Excited.

    Some of the great writers I have dropped into the adventure category were able to ingeniously contrive novels with no women characters at all.

    This is, of course, where I got my laugh. A "great" writer with no women? Has the internet taught you nothing? Unpossible!

    Oh, but how many binaries there could be. Not enough dimensions to map these things in! And funny that it so happens I just read one that marries—or at least mashes, rather violently—the adventure with the domestic. How grand.

  7. "Quadrant" is of course just a metaphor unless we reduce the dimensionality.

    It is a legitimate question - how great can Stevenson be when he had so much trouble with female characters? I can do nothing but offer Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island as counter-arguments.

    Stevenson is narrow, no question about that.

    Nicole's review of Treasure Island!!! - note the exclamation points - is something else. That book sounds like a hoot, or perhaps even a scream.

  8. Well, you know me, I think Falesá puts that complaint to shame...

  9. Falesá is so good. You haven't read The Wrecker, have you, another Stevenson & Osborne book? One of its characters leads the Borges & Casares "lifelike characters" list. Which is intriguing, isn't it?

    1. No, I haven't. I was so skeptical in principle of the co-authorship thing that it took me ages to give The Ebb-Tide a try, and boy was I wrong. I think I have an e-edition of like everything they did together; I'll have to give that one priority.

  10. Other categories might be the solitary and social. The solitary works are more idiosyncratic, often visionary, and concerned with the individual. Roussel, for example, and maybe Lowry and Melville. Dickens and Trollope are, of course, intensely social. Many gradations, of course...

    I probably don't connect much with Trollope (although I do like him) because he's so focused on marriage and family, and I'm not married and have no family. I relate more to other anti-social types.

    It's a delight to see you enjoying "Alice" so much. Good, isn't it? Carroll is probably a unique mix of social and solitary: a retiring mathematician entertaining little girls is not the usual narrator or audience.

  11. Solitary and social is a great pair. It matches with the other categories. The novels of Charlotte Brontë are solitary and domestic, Gaskell's are social and domestic, etc. Approximately, at least.

    The Alice books are amazing. They have been companions since I was quite young. I still find passages that surprise me.

    1. I'm about to make a bunch of guesses that will only embarrass me, but here goes. Your "The Sublime is made gleefully Ridiculous" is part of what I mean when I suggest that "Alice" is a parody of Victorian novels, or at least of a stereotype of Victorian novels I apparently believe in. There's a child whose behavior is constantly being "corrected" by authority figures, but those authorities are all foolish, but even Alice's sense can't sensify them. The authorities remain foolish, the reader and the protagonist recognizing the foolishness. Which is, I think, a sort of inversion of what happens in the stereotypical Victorian moralizing novel, isn't it? The child character learns the value systems of the adult world? But maybe I'm not recognizing who or what Carroll is making fun of. It's been some years since I read them, though ma femme can recite "The Walrus and the Carpenter" off from heart. Which I claim as a second-hand sort of credentialing for myself.

      Anyway, all of the above was just a throat-clearing that now allows me to say that I don't remember Prairie but I read The Long Winter not long ago and Pa is a right bastard in that one. Mother Nature tries hard to kill the family, who are twisting hay into firelogs by hand, while Pa skips out on all the work to go eat breakfast with the Wilder boys down the street.

    2. Plausible! Highly plausible. The problem is mine - I have not read or to my memory read about any of those moralizing Victorian novels. Not exactly canonical. But I also do not recognize most of the poems Carroll parodies (Martin Gardner is filling me in there), so my lack of knowledge is evidence of nothing.

      It has been too long - many decades - since I read The Long Winter. I defer to you and nicole.

      The re has to be a big difference from Prairie, though, along the lines Doug suggests - the social dimension must be much stronger in the "town" novel. Although the social side of Prairie is more complex than you might think, given the population density. I don't know. I should revisit it and see how the theme has evolved.

    3. Oh, scott, I must disagree! Look what Pa manages to get out of that breakfast--much more than just food for himself!

    4. I think he could've gotten his hands on that grain without first stuffing himself on flapjacks! Pa really seems self-absorbed in that book, at least to this modern reader. Wilder of course imagines Pa as a hero, which was how I read him as a kid.

      My first exposure to the Little House books was as a kid, at maybe 6 or 7 years old, when a teacher read these books aloud to the class after lunch. I can't tell you how fond I am of that memory.

  12. I'm currently waiting for the arrival of Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, then we'll see what all this stuff about the Sublime is about.

  13. You may agree, you may disagree, but you will find that a number of later aesthetic ideas are built on Burke's book, not always consciously or deliberately.

    In general, more book blogger should spend more time reading about 18th century aesthetics. Also 17th, 19th, etc.

  14. At the risk of being a one trick pony, maybe I can point out that Borges' two favorite novelists were Conrad and Stevenson? And that he managed to write many great short stories with no women in them? Then again, many of those stories were pseudo Fantasy and ersatz SF, so that is par for the course...
    I was very disappointed by The Wrecker (which is kind of a reverse Whodunnit, more like a WhatTheyDun, and that IS very original). In my defense, I worship Thrawn Janet, Markheim and The bottle imp, but somehow the magic of The Wrecker does not speak to me.

  15. Oh, I am with you - great literature can come with no men, no women, even with no people. I am merely - what was I doing? - allowing the possibility of the contrary view.

    You get at why I skipped The Wrecker a couple of years ago when I read a pile of Stevenson. Borges does not exactly single the book as a whole out for praise, but really just one of its characters.

    I did not write about any of the stories you mention - please, no one take that as a vote against! They're excellent, definitive Stevenson.