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Bad Horse


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Mar
28th
2017

White Teeth: Anatomy of a 'quality' bestseller · 3:36am Mar 28th, 2017

I'm reading Marie-Pierre Pouly's (MPP's) "Anatomy of a 'quality' bestseller", Poetics 59 (2016): 20-34, and I'm too angry to finish it before I start writing this blog.

White Teeth was a novel by Zadie Smith (ZS) published in 2000. It was her first book. She wrote it at age 22, allegedly while studying for her finals in English at Cambridge, and got a 250,000-pound advance for it on the basis of the first 80 pages. It won the 2000 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, the 2000 Whitbread Book Award for best first novel, the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize, and the Betty Trask Award. Time magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. I have not read it.

It also sold a shit-ton of copies.

The article asks: How was it possible for a critically-acclaimed book to also be popular? No, seriously; that's the mystery Marie-Pierre set out to solve.

And I wish this were going to be a story about how this novel were just so good, so original, so thoughtful, that it wowed Oxbridge critics and Oprah Winfrey alike.

But this is not that story. No, this is the kind of story which makes my friend Michael Vassar say, "It's easy to be cynical. But it's hard to be cynical enough."

First, why was it so surprising that a book that won a ton of awards also sold a lot of copies? MPP says:

According to the autonomous criteria of valuation crystallised within literary institutions, literary artists and literary works are those: (a) which are known and recognised by literary peers; and, (b) whose prestige is defined by their not pandering to the tastes of a ‘mass audience’ [emphasis mine].
...
The sheer volume of the audience (and hence its social quality) may be regarded as a relatively reliable indicator of the position occupied within the field because this provides a clear idea of the degree of independence (‘pure art’) or the degree of subordination to heterodox principles (‘commercial art’, political or religious ends, etc.) of the work or author (Bourdieu, 1996). A ‘literary bestseller’ thus seems to be a contradiction in terms.

Translation:  Literary works are those which the masses don't like.  They only like books free from heterodox (heretical) artistic or political opinions.  A bestseller therefore can't be literary, because literary works have heterodox (socially unacceptable) artistic or political opinions.

Remember that bit about heterodox opinions.

My analysis involves detailing the generic traits of works of fiction whose success depends on their ability to have it ‘both ways’ by combining entertaining reading with aesthetic value.

Notice: Being entertaining is not an aesthetic value. What are aesthetic values? According to Pouly:

reflexivity upon the history of literature
mixing of high- and low-brow cultural references
exhibiting the fictional dimension of the text (the book tells you that you're reading a book, a la Brechtian alienation)
metafiction
magic realism
[emotionally] distanced literary reading (Brechtian alienation again)
historiographic reflexivity
deconstruction of myths
international hybridity [multi-racial author and characters]

The funny thing about this list of aesthetic values is that most of them are not aesthetic values, but cognitive processes or claims: themes, genres, purposes, or ideologies. MPP lists things that are aesthetic values, like quality writing, originality, wit, humor, and being entertaining, not as aesthetic values, but as "the style adjusted to a cultivated yet artistically unrevolutionary audience."

Unrevolutionary. Remember that bit, too. The literary audience, of course, is revolutionary.

Why are aesthetic values everything except aesthetic values? Well, you see...

According to a sociological perspective, the value or quality of cultural products is not intrinsic and art objects are created through a collective process that unfolds before the audience encounters such products. Most of the focus of a sociological analysis is thus not so much on the intrinsic properties of the work as on the series of social actions that create the (belief in the) work of art.
...
Literary writing is labelled as such if its generic, technical, stylistic, thematic or even ethical characteristics dominate at a specific moment in a field... because they are recognized... by the legitimating agents (editors, writers, journals, critics, academies, prizes, schools, etc.) and therefore form a distinctive aesthetic position (Thumerel, 2002).

In other words, "good aesthetics" means conforming to the current ideology of the elite.

MPP read 693 articles about the book in the British press, and read all the academic reviews. She also interviewed the book's editor, an intern from the publisher (Penguin), two reading groups, Amazon reviewers, professors who included it in their curriculum, and the people who wrote the entries for the book in the recent Cambridge and Oxford literary histories of the 20th century.

"Humour" and "narrative drive" come up frequently in the article, but only either as things that "non-expert readers" liked, or things that publishers liked because they thought they would appeal to non-expert readers:

Professional readers often privately wondered what the real contribution of the novel was to the renewal of fiction (‘I wouldn’t call it an important novel as it doesn’t seem likely to contribute to any new direction in literary fiction’). On the other hand, non-expert readers mostly valued the narrative dynamism of the novel and its humour...

MPP's summary of why the book was popular and literary is:

White Teeth has a complex, dynamic plot that borrows from the ‘multigenerational saga’ and ensures extensive reading through character identification and a gripping narrative... Yet the paratext (elements of the book surrounding the novel itself, such as blurbs), the intertextuality [in this case this mostly means pointless pop-culture references] and the narrative voice posit constant reflexivity on the generic status of the work [the book keeps reminding you that it's just another book] and play with literary codes and past literary works, thus facilitating a distanced literary reading. [Literary readers are supposed to remain distant and aloof rather than being immersed.] Critics have also stated that the narrative structure can satisfy the extensive reader who will become immersed in the eventful story brought to a symphonic denouement but also the interests of a literary reader interested in the internal structuring of the novel. Thematically, the story refers to imperial history with didactic recapitulations for readers with cultural goodwill [I think that means it condemns colonialism, for readers who are leftists], while other more veiled intertextual references may satisfy the adept literary reader [easter eggs referring to other "literary" works]. The work’s borrowing from popular genres ensures readability while also authorising a postmodern, postcolonial reading that plays with the generic conventions of literary history, according to valued literary theories of the period. Furthermore, the anticipated annexion of the novel into a mass circulation market – which would threaten its literary value and expose it to more heterodox readings – is commented upon in the novel itself via a parallel, pre-emptive storyline concerning the ‘Future Mouse project’ (a scientific project launched like a commercial product; some critics have interpreted this as a metaphor for resisting the literary devaluation brought about by aggressive marketing).
...
The capacity to play both sides of the field and the existence of contemporary literary bestsellers thus rely on the existence of an institutionalised literary code. It is this code – in the case of White Teeth postcolonialism and postmodernism – which explicitly values the union of popular culture and its genres with highbrow, literary culture and its genres; this provides legitimacy for works that encode both non-expert and literary readings. These codes have international currency and can be recognised in literary criticism in many countries (Janssen, 2009) which reinforces their value and strengthens the speculations of editors who must be certain of the translatability of the works they invest in to ensure their symbolic fate and the return on investment through translation rights.

I love that last bit: "ensure their symbolic fate and the return on investment." The article is full of references to highbrow people contrasting proper literary aesthetics with the commercial, yet what that phrase means that it was White Teeth's strict adherence to post-modern and post-colonial dogma that guaranteed it would make money.

She's making a more interesting point, too: that postmodernism is amenable to popularity because it is okay to make pop culture references, as long as they have hidden highbrow references on top of them so that the snobs can still feel superior. As an example, she says that one scene in WT was stolen from the French film La Haine, but La Haine was stealing from Taxi Driver--so the ignorant masses recognize the scene from Taxi Driver, and the snobs recognize it, too, but they can still feel superior for also recognizing it as from La Haine.

Personally, I don't like scenes in novels stolen from anywhere. It makes the story feel fake. But that's the point in post-modern narrative--to remind the reader that this is just a story, so the reader can maintain a proper distance from the story, rather than becoming immersed in it. IWhite Teeth does this perfectly by including highbrow references that can jerk literary readers out of suspension of disbelief--which is what they want--while leaving "non-expert" readers oblivious and immersed--which is what they want.

MPP keeps talking about the importance of its wit, humor, and strong narrative drive, but as far as I can tell, only "non-expert" readers appreciated those things as qualities, while publishers appreciated them as things that meant it might sell a lot of books.

So that's MPP's summary. But what specific reasons did the publishers, critics, professors, etc., give as reasons for publishing, reviewing, canonizing, and assigning this book?

"uses many stylistic traits consecrated by [post-modern] literary theory"

"[had] postmodern and postcolonial aesthetics"

"White Teeth possesses almost all of the stylistic aspects listed in literary theory textbooks or essays of the time to qualify the postmodern and postcolonial aesthetics"

"generosity and inclusiveness and literariness"

"[an] author should be young, good-looking and charming"

[Zadie Smith] "knew the rules of the game"

[the novel exists] "within a valued conception of literature demonstrating approved political intent (the denunciation of essentialism and colonialism promoted in school and academic contexts or in left-wing newspapers)"

"a relatively safe investment"

"soundbite quality" [of Zadie Smith's interviews]

the book "corresponded to the dominant paradigm of postcolonialism and postmodernism"

"a young voice"

"it shared in and illustrated quite a number of patterns--in women's writing, in immigrant fiction, in historical fiction"

"the marketability of the author (young, attractive woman from a mixed-race background)"

"provide[d] a fairly accessible textual portrayal of recent postmodern and postcolonial literary theories"

Also, she had connections through Cambridge with the literary elite, like Salman Rushdie, who wrote a blurb for her.

Remember I told you to remember that bit about heterodox opinions?

Funny thing is, if you look back at that list of reasons people gave for publishing, promoting, and canonizing it, the most-frequent reason was that it was completely orthodox. It may be a great novel--like I said, I haven't read it--but according to the people who canonized it, it wasn't "original" or "heterodox". It was safe. This 22-year-old spit everything they'd stuffed her with in Cambridge up onto paper.

One of the things they liked about it was that it was a novel about colonialism and discrimination written by a woman of mixed race. Who was attending Cambridge. This novel was praised for giving the oppressed a voice--but the voice was that of one of the most-privileged elite, the top 1% of the 1%, the rulers of the world.

If you check recent famous literary books, you'll find the same pattern--book after book by someone who's supposed to represent the downtrodden because they have a different skin color, but they got an MFA at Berkeley. Or Cornell. Or Wellesley. Or Oxford.

Her book hit all of the notes, exhaustively, that the upper-middle-class of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale wanted to hear. It wasn't groundbreaking--the people who canonized it gave as their reasons that it was representative of all the things upper-middle-class intellectuals wanted to hear right then.

You know what's another word for the tastes of the upper middle class? Bourgeois. White Teeth was canonized, and made its 22-year-old author rich(er) and famous, because it is bourgeois. Safe.

Cowardice is the defining characteristic of post-modernism. Afraid to be emotional. Afraid to stand on its own instead of giving us cheap pop and literary references. Afraid to tackle art that can be better or worse, instead of "conceptual art" that you either "get" or "don't get". Afraid to step out of line with leftist orthodoxy. Afraid to say yes or no about anything else. Afraid to face readers without a defensive shield of irony and self-referential winking at the reader, saying, "Oh, well, I wasn't really trying, you know."

You know what would be "heterodox" or "revolutionary" now? To write a book about colonialism that said, "Hey, India was kind of a shithole before the British unified it, kicked out the tyrants, stopped the Thuggees from freely exercising their religious practice of murdering random strangers, insisted women should be allowed to leave their houses, began attacking the caste system, and outlawed child marriage, the killing of infant girls, and the burning alive of widows." That might be biased--I don't know; I haven't studied Indian history--but it would be daring.

I have a feeling you wouldn't win many awards that way, though.

White Teeth, $5 & up on Amazon. If you read it and review it, I'll post a link to your review, 'coz I'm curious.

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Comments ( 48 )

Cowardice is the defining characteristic of post-modernism. Afraid to be emotional. Afraid to stand on its own instead of giving us cheap pop and literary references. Afraid to walk the highwire of art that can be better or worse, instead of "conceptual art" that you either "get" or "don't get".

Savage.

Also, as a writer of postmodern stories, I can attest that this is true.

Was there any more detail on

"the weighting of the story lines, how they worked together"

"the narrative and the tying up of the plot lines and the development of character"

or why these were the case? Because while I would consider properly assigning weight to component storylines, and ensuring that they inform each other in meaningful or satisfying ways, or at the very least gel in terms of tone and pacing to be a good characteristic of a story, that's not unique to literary fiction. It's a feature of good fiction. And narrative nonfiction--engaging documentaries, say. Likewise, having a narrative is closer to a basic hurdle of being a story than a differentiating factor--unless there's more detail about what made this narrative different; and tying up plot lines (though perhaps leaving them open in a thematically/dramatically/character appropriate way could count as something differentiating); and character development.

"It has the qualities of a basically competent story" is not, I would suggest, an acceptable (or particularly responsive) answer to the question posed.

"Translation: Literary works are those which the masses don't like."

Hm. This does explain why the Oscars tend to be won by a bunch of movies I would not go see if I were paid for the trip.

When we delve into the question "Why do certain postmodernist books sell when nobody knows what they are trying to say?" there are two answers.

One is "Because nobody can tell what they are trying to say" thus allowing a 'reader' (in scare quotes because a very high percentage of these books are purchased just to be carried, leafed through, and be seen with, hence the distinctive covers with large words) to say whatever they want about the book and be just as right as somebody who says the exact opposite. (See, I'm smart! I haz this book!)

The second is 'being famous for being famous' which curiously seems to happen most to a book put out by a publishing company who has managed to write the book contract so that they make more money than the average if the book sells. So they plug some reviewers, which generates buzz, which makes more people hustle to review it, and more buzz, and more reviews with scholarly papers and required reading, and more buzz...

In both cases, stacks of the books may be found at your next Friends of the Library book sale, in perfect condition, only attempted to be read once, for fifty cents each.

You know what would be "heterodox" or "revolutionary" now? To write a book about colonialism that said, "Hey, India was kind of a shithole before the British unified it, kicked out the tyrants, stopped the Thuggees from freely exercising their religious practice of murdering random strangers, insisted women should be allowed to leave their houses, began attacking the caste system, and outlawed child marriage, the killing of infant girls, and the burning alive of widows." That might be biased--I don't know; I haven't studied Indian history--but it would be daring.

I have a feeling you wouldn't win many awards that way, though.

No awards, but an entertaining read. It's not India, but instead a fictionalized Pacific island, with a three-way pileup of native culture vs colonial culture vs post-colonial culture.

And my friends wonder why I reflexively vomit at the word 'postmodernism'.

Excellent blog as usual.

4474501

"It has the qualities of a basically competent story" is not, I would suggest, an acceptable answer to the question posed.

I dunno. I have a strongly learned aversion to LitFic, going all the way back to the one creative writing class I took as an undergrad[1]. "It has the qualities of a basically competent story" is something I can honestly believe might be a mark of special distinction for stories in the literary fiction genre.


[1] That class was the first time I was exposed to the idea that all stories should restrict themselves to topics that were fully accessible to all people, and that any sort of conflict beyond what you could find in your day-to-day life was wholly unworthy of being written about.

I was curious, so I looked up White Teeth's customer ratings on Amazon. the reviews are all over the place. it's overall positive, but not amazing. only 38% gave it a 5-star review. not bad, I guess.

then I looked up various classic literary novels from the past, the established ones. every single one of them had over 50% in the 5-stars. all books have their naysayers, getting some 1 or 2 star reviews, but there's a clear majority of 5-star reviewers who feel that these books deserve their reputation. the bar graphs are much more convincing than White Teeth's lukewarm reaction.

well... what if it's still literary, just controversial? I thought about Ulysses or Sound and the Fury, which are famous for being very love-it/hate-it. slightly more 1-star ratings than usual, but SURPRISE: still an above-50% majority will defend these!

this is silly data gathering, but it does make me very skeptical about the hype. how can White Teeth be on the same level as classic literature, when average Amazon readers aren't even that passionate about it? :trixieshiftright:

4474543
Selection (or more technically purchasing) bias. Also, psychology.

As for selection bias, remember that the established classics are sold as classics, to audiences who are looking to read a classic. Amazon isn't giving you a representative sampling of what all readers might think of a book, just what readers who cared enough to buy and comment thought about it. White Teeth and any modern literary work is going to draw a fairly different audience than an established classic, and that's going to heavily influence the ratings. If Anna Karenenenena came out on in 5 anno Bezosi, it'd probably have a very different ratings profile.

As for psychology, there's an effect where the more you invest in something without receiving a reward, the more you convince yourself that your investment must have been worthwhile. If you power through a book that you know is a classic, even if you don't particularly enjoy it, you may convince yourself that you did in fact enjoy it, just to justify to yourself all the time you wasted on it.

If you check recent famous literary books, you'll find the same pattern--book after book by someone who's supposed to represent the downtrodden because they have a different skin color, but they got an MFA at Berkeley. Or Cornell. Or Wellesley. Or Oxford.

Her book hit all of the notes, exhaustively, that those upper-middle-class twits at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and Yale wanted to hear. It wasn't groundbreaking--the people who canonized it gave as their reasons that it was representative of all the things upper-middle-class intellectuals wanted to hear right then.

...I mean, isn't this entirely the point? The Powers that Be (or the people who want to think of themselves that way) can look at her skin color and say 'Hey, this person is representative! And she agrees with us! You know what that means? We're RIGHT!'

So they give her a bunch of money, because she's confirmed their preconceived notions and flattered their egos.

No-one at the top really wants revolutionary, because if revolutionary really happens, they stop being at the top - unless they can adapt. And adapting is hard. In the end, it's a lot easier to pretend that the mediocre is good than to produce things that are consistently good.

At least it isn't some amateur fan story about children's cartoon magic ponies in some kind of gore-fest video game crossover! I mean, the correct well-educated reader has enough stylistic taste to avoid that sort of trivial common people reinforcing blandness. I mean, who would enjoy that sort of thing? White Teeth is obviously literature of the highest pedigree.

4474554
sure, these ratings are crazy biased. but then how come White Teeth isn't getting the same benefit of bias? after all, it's got widespread critical acclaim! whoever's buying it on that basis should love it. :raritywink: and Oprah too! if it's as popular as Bad Horse says it is, there should be hordes of biased fans giving it a good rating.

but maybe time plays too much of a factor? so I checked last year's Hugo and Nebula top nominees for best novel. huh, they all show the same pattern as the classics (I did find two exceptions that were at around 40%, but they were still top-heavy). I don't know if they're actually good books or not, but they tend to have both critical + popular appeal. (not like Harry Potter levels of popularity, with 14k reviews of extreme bias, but at least as popular as White Teeth I'm sure)

maybe modern literary readers are just better at critical thinking than those conformists who purchase classic literature or award-winning Science Fiction for fun. maybe they're immune to such petty bias. in which case I wonder why the literary critics are all biased, but those who listen to them aren't. :rainbowhuh:

4474530

As someone doing the homework reading response for a writing minor for their degree right now, and was checking FimFic to take a break;

"Boy. Why does all this critical reading stuff I gotta do fucking hate the idea of simply telling an interesting story?"

Honestly, it seems the way to become a literary author is to treat your audience as if they were your enemy.

There are a lot of exceptions, of course, because I have the benefit that my lecturer was a popular novelist in a previous life rather than a literary one. But he seems to be rebelling against the ideal curriculum every time those get slipped in.

4474600

Honestly, it seems the way to become a literary author is to treat your audience as if they were your enemy.

Oooohh, writing prompt!

Am I the only one here who has read White Teeth? It's a cute little comedy with some great historic and cultural bits, especially about intergenerational conflict between first-generation immigrants and their idiot children. And it makes fun of the lovies.

I didn't finish her second book with all of the pot and kabbalah, but that could be me, I dunno.

According to the autonomous criteria of valuation crystallised within literary institutions, literary artists and literary works are those: (a) which are known and recognised by literary peers; and, (b) whose prestige is defined by their not pandering to the tastes of a ‘mass audience’

I would be very interested to see MPPs justification for this rubric, as it seems to run directly counter to both common sense and actual reality. (Those two things aren't the same.) The literary canon is largely filled with... popular literature. I wasn't aware that that term had started being considered a contradiction in itself.

I suppose there's a possibility she's trying to make a prescriptive judgment on literary institutions? I've seen that criticism levied against them myself, often. It's almost a cliche, the art snob who sneers "nothing popular can possibly be art." See also: "that band was great before they signed with a label and sold out" and "sure, that film was okay, but the directors indie work was so much better. But I guess you wouldn't have seen that." I feel like there's probably a TV Trope for this but I don't really want to wade in there right now.

But most people don't actually try and embrace this attitude as a useful rubric themselves; they either argue it exists and is a problem, or argue it doesn't actually exist at all. From your quoted excerpts, it doesn't appear MPP is doing either; rather, she's actually trying to use this standpoint as a functioning analytical tool.

And that just seems insane, unless she's going to spend the last third of her own book demonstrating why the previous two-thirds are in fact batshit. (I've seen people do this. It's sometimes very effective!) Or maybe I'm misinterpreting her own standpoint? Some of the quotes you provide use very charged language that seems to indicate she's standing in judgment of the phenomenons she's trying to describe.

One of the things they liked about it was that it was a novel about colonialism and discrimination written by a woman of mixed race. Who was attending Cambridge. This novel was praised for giving the oppressed a voice--but the voice was that of one of the most-privileged elite, the top 1% of the 1%, the rulers of the world.

Well that's a mighty fine catch-22 you've set up there, Bad Horse. Mighty fine, that catch-22.

Cowardice is the defining characteristic of post-modernism.

This is either self-evident hogwash, or something that's generically true about all literary traditions that have enough traction somewhere to make writing in them a possible career path.

You know what would be "heterodox" or "revolutionary" now? To write a book about colonialism that said, "Hey, India was kind of a shithole before the British unified it, kicked out the tyrants, stopped the Thuggees from freely exercising their religious practice of murdering random strangers, insisted women should be allowed to leave their houses, began attacking the caste system, and outlawed child marriage, the killing of infant girls, and the burning alive of widows." That might be biased--I don't know; I haven't studied Indian history--but it would be daring.

I have a feeling you wouldn't win many awards that way, though.

Maybe not, but you could make a shitload of money, gain an enormously wide audience, and wield a non-trivial amount of political by taking the above position. Indeed, taking the position you just outlined is the entire basis of the political career of Nigel Farage and the academic career of Niall Ferguson. Within extraordinary wide swathes of society, the position that British colonialism was a good thing for the colonized people isn't at all heterodox; it is cheer-inducingly orthodox.

You seem to be using Orwell's definition of heterodoxy, where the only thing that actually matters in evaluating whether a position is heterodox is if it's heterodox to the opinions and sensibilities of people who the person espousing it actually care about. (I think. I seem to recall that Orwell had a dim view of his fellow socialists describing work as "risky" or "provocative" when he knew that the people producing that work didn't give a fuck about wider society and either its approval or opprobrium; his position was that if you knew what you were writing would be lapped up like milk by its intended audience, you couldn't be described as daring, provocative, risk-taking, etc. regardless of how other audiences might receive it. But I'm having trouble digging that up and it could be I'm misremembering.)

I'm not entirely sure I agree with that. Or at least, I'm not sure I recognize it as actually useful. If in order to be heterodox, you have to be deliberately producing work that will be rejected, or at least regarded as controversial, by its intended audience, that's going to apply to almost nobody but actual trolls. I'm not sure the term is that useful at all without modifiers; heterodoxy is a relational term that can only define itself with regard to other things. Something that's utterly orthodox in one context can be deeply heterodox in another.

That sounds insufferable, and the huge advance raises a big red flag. It sounds like the type of book Rory Gilmore would write.

You should read it so we don't have to.

4474610

You seem to be using Orwell's definition of heterodoxy, where the only thing that actually matters in evaluating whether a position is heterodox is if it's heterodox to the opinions and sensibilities of people who the person espousing it actually care about. (I think. I seem to recall that Orwell had a dim view of his fellow socialists describing work as "risky" or "provocative" when he knew that the people producing that work didn't give a fuck about wider society and either its approval or opprobrium; his position was that if you knew what you were writing would be lapped up like milk by its intended audience, you couldn't be described as daring, provocative, risk-taking, etc. regardless of how other audiences might receive it. But I'm having trouble digging that up and it could be I'm misremembering.)

I'm not entirely sure I agree with that. Or at least, I'm not sure I recognize it as actually useful. If in order to be heterodox, you have to be deliberately producing work that will be rejected, or at least regarded as controversial, by its intended audience, that's going to apply to almost nobody but actual trolls. I'm not sure the term is that useful at all without modifiers; heterodoxy is a relational term that can only define itself with regard to other things. Something that's utterly orthodox in one context can be deeply heterodox in another.

I actually like that definition. A group can be as heterodox as it wants, but if you're making something for the sole consumption of that group, why would outside conventions matter? There's probably something that can be said about how that applies to same-sex shipfics here, as opposed to general romance writing. Or, as illustrated just a few comments above yours, FoE fics even within the MLP fandom -- Heroes is probably the quintessential example of being perfectly stereotypical (though still enjoyable) within its target audience while still being almost completely unappealing to anyone outside it.

I think the key is that "heterodox" doesn't mean "controversial or made to be rejected", and rather just "rejecting (itself) the common conventions of its target audience". As an example (equal chances of proving my point and proving that I'm completely missing the point): Somewhere Only We Know remains pretty unique in its depiction of the Mane Six, even if its themes are more or less standard for sadfics (and, apparently, derivative of Black Beauty). My impression of it is that Patchwork just wanted to create a beautiful, original interpretation of those standard themes, rather than getting readers up in arms. The key there is "original"; I don't think anyone's going to try to argue it's orthodox, even if they say its core conflict isn't anything out of the ordinary. It's heterodox not because they wanted it to be controversial (and the thumbs ratio shows it's not), but because very few other stories commit as fully as it does to making the Six realistic Earth horses. Admittedly, that's still on the near side of heterodoxy, but unless I'm missing something crucial, my point holds.

And I'm really sorry for any points where that got rambly or unclear. I really shouldn't be writing anything this late at night.

4474543

I was curious, so I looked up White Teeth's customer ratings on Amazon. the reviews are all over the place. it's overall positive, but not amazing. only 38% gave it a 5-star review. not bad, I guess.
then I looked up various classic literary novels from the past, the established ones. every single one of them had over 50% in the 5-stars. all books have their naysayers, getting some 1 or 2 star reviews, but there's a clear majority of 5-star reviewers who feel that these books deserve their reputation. the bar graphs are much more convincing than White Teeth's lukewarm reaction

I think all that means is that if you set out to read War and Peace or David Copperfield, generations of cultural references would have already given you a good idea of what to expect. So you wouldn't even attempt them if you weren't predisposed to what they had to offer. Their reviews reflect this predisposition.

Buzz aside, White Teeth is comparatively unknown. So you don't know as well what to expect going in, and what you find you either like or you don't. Its reviews reflect this.

4474650
maybe.

wait, is that true? in one night I've casually learned more about White Teeth than I've ever learned about War & Peace or David Copperfield. hold on!

*goes to wikipedia and amazon*

OK, now I know what they're about too. thanks, internet. :pinkiehappy:

do people really buy books blindly today? it seems like the people who bought White Teeth were already predisposed to like it. and they either loved it or.... didn't dislike it, but thought it was flawed -- average to above-average. There's nothing wrong with writing an above-average book, but it doesn't sound like it lives up to the list of "100 Best English-language Novels" of the century.

people buy recent Hugo/Nebula award nominees equally blindly, but were more consistent in highly recommending them.

Hap

And that's why a PhD in Literature qualifies you teach 3rd grade reading, and not much else.

Oh, yeah, and write circle-jerking papers for other people with Literature doctorates.

It's funny, after the first part where they were complaining about how bucking social norms was more important than being a good book, I didn't think anything you said could make me agree with the writers of the article on any level. And then you listed the actual reasons they gave that book an award, and MY GOD are those bad reasons. The article actually had it close to right; the only catch is that they're probably operating on the same definition of "daring" and "important" that the award-givers are, which is actually the most tired, unoriginal, safe thing you could write in this day and age.

It's one thing if you assign a book for your class to read because it's "typical" of the genre you want to expose them to. But you should never be giving an award for that. And you should never be giving an award to a book about racism by a mixed-race person BECAUSE it's by a mixed-race person and giving them the award is the PC thing to do. That's the fastest way to make yourself appear completely bankrupt of integrity and detatched from reality, and make your award into a joke.

As always, far over my head 6^9

4474673

do people really buy books blindly today?

I don't know about today, but back in 2001, if Oprah said to buy it? Yes. Yes they did. I was working at a bookstore at the time. (To be fair, this was the point of Oprah's Book Club: She would announce the next book with little context, and then a month later after her viewers had read it she would dedicate an episode of her show to it. It rocketed books onto the NY Times Bestsellers.)

Funny thing is, if you look back at that list of reasons people gave for publishing, promoting, and canonizing it, the most-frequent reason was that it was completely orthodox. It may be a great novel--like I said, I haven't read it--but according to the people who canonized it, it wasn't "original" or "heterodox". It was safe. This 22-year-old spit everything they'd stuffed her with in Cambridge up onto paper.

One of the things they liked about it was that it was a novel about colonialism and discrimination written by a woman of mixed race. Who was attending Cambridge. This novel was praised for giving the oppressed a voice--but the voice was that of one of the most-privileged elite, the top 1% of the 1%, the rulers of the world.

This is why, if I absolutely have to read cultural criticism, I read it in Jacobin. And even then, it's face-palmingly bad.

I have a lot to say about this, but lack the time.

I'll try to tackle it during labs today.

4474610

Some of the quotes you provide use very charged language that seems to indicate she's standing in judgment of the phenomenons she's trying to describe.

I would have separated quotes of the article from quotes of other people inside the article, but most are her summaries of what other people told her. I suspected now and then while reading that she was criticizing the establishment. But if so, she's very subtle about it. I get more of an impression that she's numb to what she's writing.

You seem to be using Orwell's definition of heterodoxy, where the only thing that actually matters in evaluating whether a position is heterodox is if it's heterodox to the opinions and sensibilities of people who the person espousing it actually care about.

You seem to be imagining that the opinions and sensibilities of the literary elite are contrary to those of people who buy literary novels, or of society at large. But leftist views are more mainstream than right-wing views today.

(Although the term "mainstream" is probably more problematic today than it has ever been. Does mainstream mean what gets printed in the papers most, what people believe most, what views get implemented the most? Asking what's mainstream today is like asking if Pravda's views were "mainstream" during the Cold War. But by any measure, the left is as numerous as the right.)

MPP may take Orwell's view. On page 24 she says that "quality bestsellers" "[encode] a double reading that allows for extensive identification and a more orthodox, ‘deep’ literary reading according to the dominant aesthetic literary reading procedures." She refers to post-modern aesthetics as orthodox, but describes the people who enforce those aesthetics as thinking of them as heterodox.

Maybe not, but you could make a shitload of money, gain an enormously wide audience, and wield a non-trivial amount of political by taking the above position.

This is technically true, but if I listed fiction bestsellers with progressive views, and you listed fiction bestsellers with conservative views (not counting Christian publishing), I think we'd find more of the former. If I listed Harvard humanities professors with progressive views, and you listed Harvard humanities professors with conservative views, my list would be much longer. Leftist views are the orthodox ones among the audience for non-genre books, and among the humanities departments of elite universities.

Well that's a mighty fine catch-22 you've set up there, Bad Horse. Mighty fine, that catch-22.

I don't see how it's a catch-22, unless you believe that people of color who didn't go to an ivy-league school can't write. Publishing houses have readers who read everything submitted to them, and agents scouting for talent.

This is either self-evident hogwash, or something that's generically true about all literary traditions that have enough traction somewhere to make writing in them a possible career path.

Um... no. I'm talking specifically about post-modernism, with its use of intertextuality and pop references rather than original content, with its irony and its self-reflexivity, its emphasis on deconstruction (which is easy) rather than construction (which is hard), etc.--the things I wrote. You're not addressing what I wrote.

In any case, the evidence is already in. Novels before about 1960 often created controversy about things the public was not even thinking about, like Voltaire's Candide, Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Joyce's Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover, or Richard Wright’s Native Son. Novels since 1960 don't do that--or if they do, the literati ignore them. Usually, like this one, they're attacking targets that have been safe targets for decades, often set in the past (like this one at least party is) so their readers can pretend they, too, would have been progressive radicals back then. It's not radical; it's nostalgia about radicalism.

4474790

You seem to be imagining that the opinions and sensibilities of the literary elite are contrary to those of people who buy literary novels, or of society at large. But leftist views are more mainstream than right-wing views today.

This contention seems highly dubious at best when applied to society at large, especially given that "leftist" covers a multitude of sins.

She refers to post-modern aesthetics as orthodox, but describes the people who enforce those aesthetics as thinking of them as heterodox.

Well, again, whether or not they're heterodox is going to be entirely context-dependent, isn't it? People who enforce and promulgate post-modern aesthetics are going to be orthodox within the community of people who like post-modern aesthetics, but that doesn't speak to other circumstances in which they might be heterodox.

This is technically true, but if I listed fiction bestsellers with progressive views, and you listed fiction bestsellers with conservative views (not counting Christian publishing), I think we'd find more of the former.

I don't know that you can just hand-wave away Christian publishing like that. I also don't know that you can hand-wave away genre fiction, which is, I believe, the biggest beast in the jungle when it comes to engagement by society as a whole; genre fiction outsells literary fiction. By a lot.

Leftist views are the orthodox ones among the audience for non-genre books, and among the humanities departments of elite universities.

This is true, yeah, but that's a rather narrow audience.

I don't see how it's a catch-22, unless you believe that people of color who didn't go to an ivy-league school can't write.

It's a catch-22 because you implicitly declare that a person of color who gains access to a source of privilege is somehow rendered unqualified to write about issues of oppression from a standpoint of personal experience or position in society, because they've managed to insulate themselves from it to a greater or lesser extent. The logical extension of that standpoint is that anyone who achieves success is disqualified from the conversation by dint of that very success.

Um... no. I'm talking specifically about post-modernism, with its use of intertextuality and pop references rather than original content, with its irony and its self-reflexivity, its emphasis on deconstruction (which is easy) rather than construction (which is hard), etc.--the things I wrote.

None of which have anything to do at all with any sort of "cowardice" even if I actually accepted this framing as wholly accurate.

Novels since 1960 don't do that. Usually, like this one, they're attacking targets that have been safe targets for decades,

None of the authors you listed with the exception of Voltaire and maybe Lawrence were attacking unsafe targets, tho. (It is debatable how much the British authorities harassment of Lawrence was due to his published works as opposed to his political views; they're hard to separate, tho.) At least if we're defining "unsafe target" as "publishing this will expose you to more serious consequences then 'people decide they don't like you and don't want to have anything to do with you.'" Just because a target is "safe" to attack doesn't mean doing so isn't a worthwhile endeavor. It was perfectly safe for Upton Sinclair to go after the meat-packing and yellow journalism industries in print; indeed, it made his career.

Well said. Sorry, my comment is abbreviated I've much to say below and little time to do it in.

4474964

It's a catch-22 because you implicitly declare that a person of color who gains access to a source of privilege is somehow rendered unqualified to write about issues of oppression from a standpoint of personal experience or position in society, because they've managed to insulate themselves from it to a greater or lesser extent. The logical extension of that standpoint is that anyone who achieves success is disqualified from the conversation by dint of that very success.

No. That's not what he meant at all. As far as I know Bad Horse, I am reasonably sure that he thinks nothing disqualifies you from writing about whatever you damn well please provided you can back what you say up.

What he meant—indeed, what he wrote—is that these authors are seen as diversity while showing virtually no intellectual diversity by all being the graduates of the same programs of the same elite universities. Their skin color and the various irrelevancies of human appearance are different but their experiences are largely the same being of the same class and education as their peers of whichever color, ethnicity, &c.

A personal note:

Redactedstan is a small country, d'you see, and quite a poor one. And sure we have fancy Cambridge educated people that were born here or to parents that are from here and who take it upon themselves to write learned treatises on what being from Redactedstan is like. I've read some. They have infinitely more to do with Cambridge than with Redactedstan. I imagine it is thus for other countries.

(I've also read stuff by people who are entirely American and who utterly get Redactedstan and all about it and who I'd trust a thousand times better than those I described above. Blood does not carry wisdom.)

4474964

At least if we're defining "unsafe target" as "publishing this will expose you to more serious consequences then 'people decide they don't like you and don't want to have anything to do with you.'"

I took the definition of "unsafe target" to be "this runs counter to the culturally accepted norms whether by arguing against them or exposing unconsidered aspects, thus publishing this has the potential to mark you as unsupportably or unemployably radical, immoral, controversial, or generally insane." For a writer, people deciding they don't like you and don't want anything to do with you is kind of not good for your livelihood and ability to put food on your table.[1]

The lack of safety is in the potential for harm to a career given society at the time. It should come as no surprise that the people we celebrate for taking these risks were people who largely weren't destroyed for their work; that doesn't mean there was no risk that they would be.

[1] Not that being a writer in the first place is good for your livlihood and ability to put food on your table...

Comment posted by TheJediMasterEd deleted Mar 28th, 2017

4474982

What he meant—indeed, what he wrote—is that these authors are seen as diversity while showing virtually no intellectual diversity

No, that is not in fact what he wrote. What he wrote was an indictment of praise against a person who was being praised for giving a voice to the oppressed, and the sole counterpoint, backed up by nothing else, that he trotted out was "went to Cambridge."

That's an insufficient argument to make his case at best. His case might very well be true, but it is completely unsupported.

Their skin color and the various irrelevancies of human appearance

We do not and never have lived in a society where your skin color is an irrelevancy.

are different but their experiences are largely the same being of the same class and education as their peers of whichever color, ethnicity, &c.

A mixed-race person who gets into Cambridge is likely to have had a much, much different set of life experiences than a white person who does the same.

4475011

I took the definition of "unsafe target" to be "this runs counter to the culturally accepted norms whether by arguing against them or exposing unconsidered aspects, thus publishing this has the potential to mark you as unsupportably or unemployably radical, immoral, controversial, or generally insane."

Even if I accept this rubric, again, the only people on Bad Horse's list who qualify are Voltaire and maybe Lawrence.

And, again, even if I'm wrong, I fail to see how going after safe targets is a sign of cowardice. By itself that means nothing; you also need to establish that there are unsafe targets that someone logically should be going after under their own philosophical logic but for some reason aren't.

4475026

By itself that means nothing; you also need to establish that there are unsafe targets that someone logically should be going after under their own philosophical logic but for some reason aren't.

I'm not sure about Bad Horse, but I wouldn't argue that any individual author or scholar was a coward unless they met the terms you establish there. But I would argue that if the literary community as a whole is avoiding engaging with unsafe targets that might seem illogical or immoral under the current culture, then we're dealing with institutionalized cowardice.

4474501

Was there any more detail on

"the weighting of the story lines, how they worked together"
"the narrative and the tying up of the plot lines and the development of character"

or why these were the case?

That was my mistake. I was copy-pasting phrases from the article too quickly. Those lines were actually spoken by her editor, and they were the things he said he had to work with Zadie Smith on. The full context was,

The editor describes his job as an exchange with the author to make the story work, to tighten the narrative grip. ‘A lot of it had to do with the weighting of the story lines, how they worked together. [ . . . ] It was really much around the narrative actually and the tying up of the plot lines and the development of character.’

4474964

It's a catch-22 because you implicitly declare that a person of color who gains access to a source of privilege is somehow rendered unqualified to write about issues of oppression from a standpoint of personal experience or position in society, because they've managed to insulate themselves from it to a greater or lesser extent. The logical extension of that standpoint is that anyone who achieves success is disqualified from the conversation by dint of that very success.

Ah, I can see how you'd see that in what Bad Horse wrote. But I don't think that was the intent.

When Bad Horse says this:

This novel was praised for giving the oppressed a voice--but the voice was that of one of the most-privileged elite, the top 1% of the 1%, the rulers of the world.

I figured he was talking about this:

if you look back at that list of reasons people gave for publishing, promoting, and canonizing it, the most-frequent reason was that it was completely orthodox.

If I understand the analysis correctly, it says that the ideas this book contains, which supposedly represent a minority, agree with the ideas of the top 1%. That means either the top 1% is already representing this minority, or this person who supposedly represents a minority is actually representing the top 1%. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your disagreement, or perhaps it's possible to represent both things simultaneously, but that's what I got out of it.

No, that is not in fact what he wrote. What he wrote was an indictment of praise against a person who was being praised for giving a voice to the oppressed, and the sole counterpoint, backed up by nothing else, that he trotted out was "went to Cambridge."

By and large, the oppressed don't go to Cambridge and get an English degree. This may be an exception, of course, I don't know the details and it might be that Smith's experience is that of cruel oppression which somehow abated enough for the oppressed to go and get a very exclusive education at one of the finest universities in the world. Good on her if it did. But largely the people who go to Cambridge are privileged. Indeed, merely attending such a school is an indelible sign of privilege. Assuming that a Cambridge grad isn't oppressed is a pretty good prior, all told.

We do not and never have lived in a society where your skin color is an irrelevancy.

It was always and irrelevancy. That foolish people care to give weight to irrelevancies is, however, relevant.

And, again, even if I'm wrong, I fail to see how going after safe targets is a sign of cowardice. By itself that means nothing; you also need to establish that there are unsafe targets that someone logically should be going after under their own philosophical logic but for some reason aren't.

Burden of proof. You assume as the null hypothesis that we live in a society where the opprobrium of the mainstream (esp. in literary circles) is so well-balanced that all just targets are safe and all unjust targets are unsafe.

That's one hell of a null hypothesis.

4474964

It's a catch-22 because you implicitly declare that a person of color who gains access to a source of privilege is somehow rendered unqualified to write about issues of oppression from a standpoint of personal experience or position in society, because they've managed to insulate themselves from it to a greater or lesser extent. The logical extension of that standpoint is that anyone who achieves success is disqualified from the conversation by dint of that very success.

No one is disqualified from the conversation, but, yes, anyone who achieves success is disqualified for being given special advantages over other people in order to speak for people who have no success. What is happening in publishing is that leftists have created a large number of "reserved places" for the voices of the oppressed, and they stuff them with ivy-league leftists by pretending that skin color and gender are the only important components of diversity.

I'm using the term "leftist" only because I don't have a better term for the concerns and ideology found in Western humanities departments, which adds stuff of no interest to most leftists (like its elitist attitude) and is not interested in some things most leftists ought to be interested in (like workers' unions). A good Marxist would disdain diversity of ideas, but would at least care about diversity of socioeconomic status.

There are plenty of authors of all genders and colors and past and present experiences. If the point is to hear the perspective of someone downtrodden, why not publish someone who's downtrodden? Or at least somebody who went to an ordinary state university, or didn't go to college at all. Or somebody who isn't a 22 year old who has no adult life experience outside of that world of privilege.

It would be a catch-22 if I'd said that her success with the book disqualified her from being taken seriously, but I didn't say that.

4474964

None of the authors you listed with the exception of Voltaire and maybe Lawrence were attacking unsafe targets, tho.

That's an odd thing to say. Ulysses was banned for over 10 years in the US and Britain; its publishers were taken to court. People (including Ernest Hemingway) smuggled copies into America, risking prison. Do you think Zadie Smith risked going to prison?

Addison Gayle's biography of Richard Wright showed that the FBI, CIA, and State Department were monitoring him and scheming against him. Do you think the FBI taps Zadie Smith's phone?

Hollywood and network TV are not big risk-takers. If Hollywood or TV does something, it's safe to do. We can judge the riskiness of a controversial book by how long it was before movies and TV shows took the same approach. Native Son was published in 1940--when was the first comparable Hollywood film? 1962? The City of Ladies was published around 1400, The Awakening in 1899, and Darkness at Noon in 1940. When was the first Hollywood film about feminism or Stalinism?

Now think of popular "controversial" novels on new topics since 1970. What are they? When did the first Hollywood films or TV shows aligned with them appear? At about the same time, I think. Lesbians became prominent in TV shows before they started appearing in literary novels, IIRC. Unless, that is, you go back to the first half of the 20th century.

We can check Google n-grams to see when topics began trending vs. when acclaimed novels about them were published.
- A Passage to India was published in 1924; "colonialism" began trending in 1942 and peaked in 1964.
- Native Son was published in 1940. "Civil rights" was not a trending topic until 1946, and peaked in 1964. "Racism" appeared in 1939, began trending upwards in 1961, and peaked in 1996.
- Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957. The American libertarian party was formed in 1971. (You can't check this with n-grams because "libertarian" meant "anarchist" or "libertine" before the 1970s.)
- "Environmentalism" was advocated by Thoreau in 1854 and Rachel Carson in 1962 (both non-fiction, though), became a trending topic about 1966, and peaked in 1995.
- "feminism" began trending around 1969, the year The Left Hand of Darkness was published, and peaked in 1995 (though I find no feminist mainstream novels between 1940 and Fear of Flying in 1973). AFAIK 1969 was thus the last year a novel was published about a topic that became controversial afterwards, and that's only if we associate Left Hand of Darkness with feminism.

Compare that to the timeline of recent "controversial" novels. Parrotfish is perhaps the earliest acclaimed transgender novel, from 2007. Was transgender a new topic in 2007? No; according to Google n-grams it was a new topic in 1992, and peaked in 2004-2007. (It's probably trending higher now, but their data only goes through 2008.) The novel followed the trend instead of leading it. "Gay rights" appeared in 1970 and began a sharp climb around 1975--when was the first literary acclaimed novel about gay lovers or gay rights? There were novels about gay lovers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, yet the timeline of serious gay literature seems vacant between 1950 and 1990. Probably fan-fiction is the main source of provocative fiction today.

The tendency since 1960 or so is for controversial subjects to be broached in non-fiction long before they are allowed in a novel that a publisher will invest much money in.

4475079

(though I find no feminist mainstream novels between 1940 and Fear of Flying in 1973)

"Feminist novel" is kind of a weird descriptor, since a lot of novels about women can be described or viewed as feminist. That said, The Bell Jar (1963) is usually considered a feminist novel, and I've seen arguments for Valley of the Dolls (1966) (Wikipedia includes it as well...). And The Stepford Wives was published in 1972.

4475255 Thanks! I need those datapoints.

Want to see something funny? Check the google n-grams result for 'atheism'. It peaked from 1670-1750. According to the word count, interest in atheism died out shortly after 1900. :applejackconfused:

4475409

Want to see something funny? Check the google n-grams result for 'atheism'. It peaked from 1670-1750. According to the word count, interest in atheism died out shortly after 1900.

...So, what you're saying is we need to figure out when Richard Dawkins is going to find a time machine?

Also, jumping back a sec to 4475079:

when was the first literary acclaimed novel about gay lovers or gay rights? There were novels about gay lovers in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century, yet the timeline of serious gay literature seems vacant between 1950 and 1990.

So, I got a moment to look up Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. It was published in 1987, and was very popular commercially, but I'm not sure of the literary reception, and I'm not sure how it fits into your point.

One of the two interwoven plots is about two women in the 1930s who set up housekeeping together and raise a kid (the son of one of them from an abusive marriage she left behind.) Their relationship is romantic, but it's never stated or addressed whether it's sexual or whether they're technically lesbians. The most popular read on it is that they are; in fact, the movie a few year later downplayed some of the romance between them and still won a GLADD award for depicting the relationship.

On the other hand, the "are they or aren't they?" obviously allowed the book and movie escape a lot of controversy, and (combined with the historical setting) kept the book from specifically addressing gay rights or homophobia. It's hard to burn a book for a positive depiction of very close friends who might be sleeping together, or not, we don't really know.

(Also, I think Rita Mae Brown was writing some lesbian novels in the 70s and 80s. Rubyfruit Jungle at least, and that was 1973. Once again, not sure of the literary reception.)

(And along the similar "How gay is gay?" lines, Interview with the Vampire was 1976, with The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned in 1985 and 1988. Do abusive homoerotic relationships between sexless but blood-drinking men count? Of course, I'm totally aware of the literary reception of Anne Rice, and let's just say she is not received in polite society.)

Remember: Andrew Bulhak's Postmodernism Generator is over twenty years old. You don't have to torture the metaphors yourself any more. Now a PERL script can do it for you. The cynical among you may already be wondering how much of its output has been copied and pasted into doctoral theses that got approved by the committee.

Oh, and litcritspeak hasn't really changed much in over a century. It's as deliberately opaque and arrogant in tone as ever. The author gives the impression that she would have written further, but sprained her arm patting herself on the back for her own cleverness. That, too, is pretty common.

4475409

Well, yeah. Back in the times all you had to say about somebody was that they didn't believe in God and it was instantly understood that they were monsters in human shape who would burn down your baby and eat your house.

These days you need to say they worship Satan.

4474697
I wish, I truly wish, that this was true.
Unfortunately, if you defy the popular thought, you are branded an 'ist', which immediately renders all your opinions invalid and unworthy of consideration. Moreover, it significantly affects the quality of your work, such that previously award-winning creations will be looked on with scorn (see; Orson Scott Card. He sure won't be getting any more movies).
So no one can challenge the mediocre mixed-race award winner for fear of being branded racist. And should they not win the award, well then, they can merely intimate that the awards ceremony is racially biased, and by pure happenstance, the next year will have a significantly increased proportion of suitably ethnic winners.
Anyone brave enough to make these statements publically will immediately be declared a pariah, not to be discussed positively. They had best have already made their fortune, for they will find work lacking, and even if they should persist past the memory of the current, any new claim to fame will see a revivification of the old grudge.

4476532 Re. a century--well, the most-important literary critics of the 1920s were Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, and they both wrote very clearly--Eliot a little less clearly, and often with no support for his claims, but still, an easy read. The jargon-laden nature comes from Marxism and from continental philosophy, both descending from Hegel, and entered litcrit in the 1960s. But they add new terms to the jargon frequently, and the terms to emphasize change rapidly, so that someone in the know can glance at a paper and quickly determine how "with it" a writer is from the words they use. For instance, in the 1950s you were supposed to say "canonization"; in the 1980s, "legitimization"; and now, "consecration"; all of which mean exactly the same thing.

Bad Horse you went from no blogs to too many! I can't keep up!
But I can catch up.

This blog reminds me of a passage in Answered Prayers by Truman Capote, which is a collection of (mostly insulting) anecdotes of everyone he knew in real life (mostly the cultural elite), thinly veiled as fiction. The passage is from when the narrator P.B. Jones meets a darling of the literary crowd.

Miss Langman’s exquisite renown, while justified, was founded on one novel and three short-story collections, none of them much bought or read outside academia and the pastures of the cognoscenti. Like the value of diamonds, her prestige depended upon a controlled and limited output; and, in those terms, she was a royal success, the queen of the writer-in-residence swindle, the prizes racket, the high-honorarium con, the grants-in-aid-to-struggling-artists shit. Everybody, the Ford Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Council on the Arts, the Library of Congress, et al., was hell-bound to gorge her with tax-free greenery, and Miss Langman, like those circus midgets who lose their living if they grow an inch or two, was ever aware her prestige would collapse if the ordinary public began to read and reward her.

The book was originally written in the sixties, but takes place earlier, if I recall correctly.

You know the more of those praises for White Teeth that I read, the more I begin to suspect its literary success mirrors that of the selected SAT essay they would pass around to highschool students as an example of how the test graders wanted an essay composed and written. It ticked off all the bullet points in perfect order without complaint, and was thus awarded the highest score and given to the rest of us to copy--to copy a copy. I suspect the same motivation behind praising White Teeth. You can just hear the checklist being scratched off.

it wasn't "original" or "heterodox". It was safe. This 22-year-old spit everything they'd stuffed her with in Cambridge up onto paper.

Oh, you already said as much. Well, I agree wholeheartedly.

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