Friday, May 29, 2009

Sitting in another box

Tom McCarthy recently reviewed for The New York Times a novel by Clancy Martin called How to Sell. He says some good things about the book and tells us that, ultimately, he enjoyed it. But there is, he suggests, a problem. Not so much with the book itself as with what we're being asked to accept it as (via, for example, glowing blurbs from the likes of Benjamin Kunkel and Jonathan Franzen attesting to the novel's greatness and originality):
we’re being asked to buy into the notion that lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship constitute great, “classic” literature. I’m not so sure. To bastardize the Latin, emptors need to sober up and exercise a little caveating over that one. I suspect that real, high-karat literature, with its complexity and ambiguity, its general slipperiness, is sitting in another box, one opening to a dimension that “How to Sell” doesn’t breach (and, to both its and its author’s credit, doesn’t itself actually claim to) — or, to use a fittingly ur-geological metaphor, that it’s lying buried in a rock-seam that this book walks comfortably over the top of but leaves unmined.
McCarthy's being a little coy here with his "I'm not so sure"; in fact, he's pretty sure that "lively storytelling and more-than-adequate craftsmanship" are not what constitute great literature, as readers familiar with McCarthy will understand. He is of course right, but we're not supposed to think so, are we? A book like this is perfectly entertaining, but that's not enough, is it? It doesn't seem to be enough either for the book's proponents--they want to claim it as something more--or for those of us actually wanting something more. As Mark Thwaite says in his recent post on the topic, by all means, like what you like, no one's stopping you. (By the way, it's nice to see Mark back to blogging at strength, and with longer entries to boot!) The blurbs for this book and others, so often straining for comparison with established literary classics, along with the proliferation of literary prizes and much elses besides, reveal a pervasive anxiety about literature. We want to be entertained, at all times it seems, but we also want to be able to feel as though we're engaging with greatness. No, the things we like must also be recognized as canonical, or possibly counter-canonical, but as art.

But then there is also the pressure to feel that art, literature in this case, should be entertaining. So we have pressure from, say, genre partisans that literature be entertaining, broadly speaking, and an opposite pressure, that entertainment be defined as literature.

With several recent entries decrying entertainment, readers might be forgiven for thinking I don't like to have fun. After all, we need entertainment, do we not? Of course we do. But do we need so much of it? Does it need to constantly be available, constantly at our fingertips? Does it need to constantly be produced at such an alarming rate? And is it too much to maintain that art and entertainment, both necessary, are not the same? Do I go too far if I suggest that our culture of entertainment makes it harder and harder for us to recognize, let alone fruitfully engage with, the real thing? I don't think so. And the hectic, tiring lives we lead--do they not also make it increasingly likely that we'll opt for entertainment? And that we'll be less and less receptive to art?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How to Sell is also reviewed (mostly) positively in the lastest NYRB:

Sub rqrd to get beyond the first two graphs.