Source of book: Kindle
I don’t read many books on electronic media, I will admit. I like the feel, smell, and general sensation of a book in my hands. However, there are some cases when electronic media works well. For obscure books that are in the public domain, this is often the only realistic way of reading them. I also find that if I have to wait in court, I already have my tablet with me, and can sneak a read. So I read a few of these that way.
In this case, my brother-in-law (who has supplied me with several intriguing books in the past) got this for me - in Kindle format. So I went with it.
This Thing We Call Literature is a collection of essays by Arthur Krystal, a critic and screenwriter best known for his work in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. About the only other factoid I found quickly was that his grandparents died in the Holocaust. (This is relevant in connection with one of the essays - on Erich Auerbach.)
This collection of essays come from a variety of sources - these were mostly for various magazines over the last couple decades. The author apologizes at the outset for the fact that there is some overlap between each, which makes for a certain degree of repetition in themes. This isn’t particularly problematic in light of the fact that the collection is short, and Kristal isn’t given to wordiness. Each essay is tight and self-contained. I think I had run across at least one of his articles in The New Yorker at some point or another - probably the one on Fitzgerald from 2009.
The theme that ties the collection together is the question of what exactly makes a work “literature.” To a degree, Justice Potter Stewart’s line about obscenity, usually shortened to “I know it when I see it,” is the applicable test. But there is more to it than that. Throughout the course of the book, Krystal takes on a few modern trends in literary criticism, specifically Literary Theory, and the trend toward “democratization” - that is, that all works are “literature.” (Regarding the former, the two best things on Literary Theory that I have read have been David Foster Wallace’s essay and Ron Rosenbaum’s The Shakespeare Wars.) Krystal is a conservative (some might say reactionary), so his position on both of these trends is “I’m agin’ ‘em.” Well, more or less. His position is perhaps a bit more nuanced than that, but the bottom line is that Krystal believes that literature is a higher form of art, that there is a true canon of literature, and that the idea of both of those is worth defending vigorously.
In general, I tend to agree with Krystal on this. I think he makes many good points. I did, however, find some of his rhetoric (and particularly tone) to be a bit off-putting. He does sound from time to time like a cantankerous old man, and his acknowledgement of the whiteness and maleness of the Western canon isn’t followed up by any ideas on how to take a more globalist and egalitarian approach to the canon.
That quibble aside, let me hit on some of the key ideas.
First, I do absolutely agree in a distinction between literature and genre fiction. Krystal has no problem per se with genre - a point he makes clear - but he objects to including true genre fiction in the category of literature. Genre is written with its own rules (often specific to the genre), and to fulfil specific expectations. Literature is written with different - and higher expectations. It has the goal of telling us the truth about the human condition in some way. And, as the author puts it, “[A]uthors rely more on accuracy of characterization than on the events that their characters react to. It’s what separates great novels from merely good or pleasurable ones. It’s the difference between Anna Karenina and Bridget Jones.”
I must agree with this part wholeheartedly. My very favorite novelists are fantastic because they are so very good at characterization. (In case you wondered: Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James come to mind immediately when I think of outstanding characterization.)
When it comes to the authors at each end of the spectrum, Krystal is obviously correct. Nobody should confuse Clive Cussler with Nathaniel Hawthorne. I do take issue with some of his other choices, however. He lumps Pearl Buck and Ursula Le Guin with genre, which I think is a bit unfair. By his own litmus test, they at least aim for writing literature, and I have found their works to indeed tell the truth about the human condition using compelling characterization. Perhaps I would modify his claim by noting that it is not only possible to write literature when writing genre, but that many have done it since the first novel was written.
Again, I grant Krystal’s fundamental point, that most genre novels are not literature. And this includes the good (but not great) ones. There are indeed well written, thoroughly enjoyable genre works that are also clearly not literature. But I think there is some overlap at the very top of some genres - and that Krystal’s own test explains why.
One of the best essays in this collection is “A Sad Road to Everything.” Krystal expands on his theme that literature is, above all, about ideas and truth. One of his laments about the modern state of literature and literary ideas is that we have little in the way of vibrant ideas to discuss anymore. In the aftermath of postmodernism, which certainly had its place, but didn’t give way to a subsequent movement - at least that is readily apparent at this moment - literature itself seems to have lost its way as well. In a later chapter, Krystal looks at the decline of philosophy and its connection to a decline in literature. At the beginning of the essay, Krystal notes the tension that exists in human civilization between freedom and order. You need the order to protect freedom, but the order interferes with that freedom, and so on. Literature has always explored this greater tension, whether in the Greek Tragedies or in the Novel of Manners. On a national scale or the personal one, this tension continues to define our experiences.
Krystal also notes that, to anyone who thinks, there is something both very right and very wrong about life. Literature helps us make sense of that paradox.
I absolutely must mention a Tom Waits quote from this chapter, which made me laugh.
“The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering.”
Also fascinating was the chapter on Erich Auerbach, who may be the best known writer on comparative literature. Auerbach was essentially exiled from Nazi Germany as a Jew, and wrote his masterpiece, Mimesis, while in Istanbul. I confess I wasn’t that familiar with Mimesis, but am tempted to give it a try, even though it is quite the heavy tome. As Krystal says about it, “For many critics, Auerbach, in recapitulating Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf, wasn’t just shaking his fist at the forces that drove him into exile; he was, in effect, building the very thing the Nazis wished to tear down. In light of the modern nexus between a revitalized ethno-nationalism and the celebration of ignorance, this seems more important than ever.
There are a few more quotes that were quite good. The first is a set, from a chapter on lists in literature:
“What list, after all, is complete or completely true? You’d need to have access to the mind of God to answer that question, and God, I’m afraid, is not on everyone’s list of things that are complete or completely true.”
“That said, there is something reassuring about a list, a precision and formality that makes us think we’ve got a handle on things. Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?”
I also have to mention this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside of you - like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist - or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore, around which pedants can easily drone their notes and explanations.”
I am clearly in the first camp.
There is quite a lot to think about in this collection of essays, at least if you love and care about literature. I am perhaps unusual in that I read more of the Western canon than genre over the years. I also have been making a concerted attempt in the last several to read more modern works - and more outside of the white, male, Western box. Ultimately, what makes literature what it is is that something that is truly timeless. Sure, every work is a product of its time and place, and understanding those factors can aid in understanding the work and its meaning. But the very best works will always resonate with those who think and feel and care.
This book is definitely worth reading. Alternately, you can find the individual essays in their original context with a web search.
Obviously, we need some Tom Waits.