Dan Green engages a post by Obooki (?)

Since I, too, cannot think of any particular novel that “has changed my thinking about life,” and since I also don’t read novels “for philosophy, for meaning” and am antipathetic to “philosophizing” in novels (as well to the underlying notion that fiction is a medium for “saying something” in the first place), I want to agree with the further claim that no novelist has ever “contributed anything important to human understanding,” but finally I really can’t.

In the narrow sense of the term “understanding” that Obooki seems to be invoking here–“understanding” as philosophically established knowledge–it is certainly true that fiction has contributed almost nothing to the store of human knowledge.

The engagement has generated interesting comments. But I’m wondering at the suggested framework: it’s one thing to claim that fiction may produce human understanding, another thing to say that fiction may generate knowledge (something unknown or unconsidered as related, for example). The distinction matters. Formative knowledge, such as an historical fact, can be conveyed through a fiction, and some fictions may discover a new aesthetic.

But the question of knowledge may lead to an expectation of it. We could ask a different question: a reader may discover an interesting relationship in a fiction or poem. A fiction may uncover something hidden. “Life-changing” is a pretty high and complicated standard. Isn’t the judge in McCarthy’s novel somewhat of a contribution? I admit that the kind of contribution can be an interesting question to pursue.

6 thoughts on “Understanding

  1. Josh

    Dan and I are of a mind.

    Notice that so many professional critics and aficionados of film and literature are cynical about anything remotely fun or entertaining. It’s little wonder that they don’t find “understanding” within the confines of Speed Racer or a Star Wars novel. Thus it’s also of little wonder that the works chosen for recognition through the Oscars, for example, are hardly recognised by the average viewer, who thought that the message conveyed through Pirates of the Caribbean 2 was the same as the one in Crash–except that POTC2 was far more entetaining.

    Those critics and and intelligentsia are reading and watching “for meaning”.

    I asked you for your thoughts about a recent comment made by the head of the Nobel committee for lit. I may not agree with the motives for his comment–which pretty much said that American lit is far inferior to European lit–but I do agree that American lit has been pretty terrible since the early 20th century.

    American authours are so introverted in their fiction. And this introversion is largely why I tried to get through high school via Cliff Notes. Catch-22, The Grapes of Wrath, The Colour Purple–all of them are tanks of the authour’s ideology and they are PAINFULLY boring.

    This is nothing to do with my conservatism and their (the authours’) liberalism. Dickens, Dumas, and Kipling were all politically liberal in some form, and yet A Tale of Two Cities, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Man Who Would be King are all among my very favourite reads–Faulkner’s The Pearl too.

    The vast majority of “accepted” modern American authours approach(ed) novel-writing as a pastor approaches preparation for a sermon. (I used to formulate my writing the same way and one just collapses either under the massive writer’s block or the massive weight of the doorstop tome that results.)

    European writers understand that there needs to be a sense of adventure–of a story that needs to be told on a canvas larger than itself. Euro authours are much more aware that their message will have no chance if the reader is not also entertained. And they seem content with even allowing the reader to have a different application of the work’s parable to their lives. (*gasp*)

    Until American authours change and schools put together less preachy reading lists, American literature will continue to be discounted and students will continue to hate their lit courses.

  2. Steve Post author


    You appear to have a taste difference. You like adventure novels. That’s fine. Susan Gibb and Dan Green would have a much better grasp of the breadth of American novels than I. Susan has a long reading list, and she’d be able to give a better general answer as to content.

    The last novel I read was Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown, which I enjoyed immensely, but I have a particular fondness for Kundera, Garcia-Marquez, E Proulx, Shelley Jackson, and McCarthy. I’d suggest trivially that audience is a key point to make about novels in general. If 30% of readers like Catch-22 and 70% don’t, then the particular novel does not appeal to the 70%, but kicks for the 30%. Indeed, an entire class of novels might do this–modernist fiction, for example, what ever that may mean. It’s fine to ask why 70% don’t like it. That’s the realm of literary disagreement, though there will be divergence within the 30% too. I’m currently slogging through Stephenson’s The Diamond Age on the Kindle and find his style somewhat bland, but he does know how to put together a tale, though why it’s so long is beyond me. I want more rhetorical flare, though, and compressing. When you say “accepted” I’m assuming you’re taking a stab at school literature. My posts on hypertext cover some of this ground too.

    As you know, I’m a great fan of games and their power to generate concentration and interest; we should study them more.

  3. gibb

    There are several things going on here: the question of dramatic arc, the notion of knowledge and/or philosophy in fiction, the direction of current fiction trends, and the American versus European, et al writers.

    Steve is right on the first point; it becomes a question of the definition of literary and genre. While I don’t necessarily define literary as character-driven or provoking of self-awareness, I find that I’m more apt to enjoy reading (and writing) this type of fiction versus action adventure or those heavy on plot and intrigue.

    As for the main point in Dan Green’s post concerning philosophy and knowledge and life changing fiction, I might point out Kerouac’s On The Road as certainly the impetus for changing many lives at the time it came out and a whole new generation of thinking. Personally, I have been affected by writers such as Marquez, Faulkner, McCarthy, and others, but I can’t really say they’ve been life-changing as individual pieces of work though as a body of work they’ve left a mark.

    As for historical fiction and knowledge, and going back to philosophy too, I suppose, I feel that fiction gives an indication of times and society by offering an example. Maybe nothing new is learned, but then it serves as reinforcement; though if one has not studied the textbooks, one can indeed “learn” through this initial discovery of example in fiction.

    I don’t, as a rule, read much currently published fiction–it’ll take me a while to get through the past several decades’ (and in some cases, centuries’) worth of good writing before I’m up to date–so I’m not a good barometer of current literary styles. I would say that while much of what is touted as bestsellers are fluff in my opinion, books that cater to a fast-paced society that really doesn’t want to take a couple weeks to get through a book. As for the American/Other authors, that again is likely driven by reader demand rather than by good writing.

  4. Josh

    It is very possible that my detest for the modern American novel is a result of my education. I would be interested if Dan or Susan would write some essays about American lit–perhaps some authours have gone undiscovered to me that I would find interesting. I do have interest in McCarthy’s The Road thanks to your discussion of it sometime ago.

    “If 30% of readers like Catch-22 and 70% don’t, then the particular novel does not appeal to the 70%, but kicks for the 30%.”

    This is fine… but I just feel that there is a disconnect between academia and the general readership. These days, the word “literature” is almost always met with a groan as people remember their public school lives.

    There needs to be a broader definition of “literature” in education and in general. If school boards want kids to read the boring tomes I listed, then let Tom Clancy be part of the high school mix, or Bernard Cornwell, or Crichton? Why isn’t Quo Vadis or Ben-Hur considered in lit planning? (They don’t have any problem with The Crucible or The Scarlet Letter after all.)

    I know there is a Brit and Polish authour in the above when we’re talking about American lit here (and I also wanted to mention Tolkien and CS Lewis)–but my point is that public schools are exclusively forcing the “30%” on students.

    (And it doesn’t ALL have to be adventure. I very much enjoyed 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, and Great Expectations from my school days.)

    “As you know, I’m a great fan of games and their power to generate concentration and interest; we should study them more.”

    I do know this… You are the first (and only) educator I know that embraces gaming as something to understand (and promote?) as a kind of interactive book. Sadly, you are a minority–or at least back in my days as a student you were. Maybe this has changed since?

  5. Steve Post author


    The games issue is certainly on the rise. I think you’d get a kick out of this weblog: Roger Travis.

    I would agree that the definition of “literature” has been subverted by a canon that needs rethinking (I myself would not agree with some of your choices, but only on the lit argument grounds, as I don’t enjoy Clancy, but would respect that you do). Tolkien? One of my favorites. As a kid, I got into wanting to write because of him (and games because of DnD). Hell, just think how those of us into hypertext feel at the definitions.

  6. Mary Ellen

    Late to the party, but Steve, if that’s your first Stephenson, put it down and grab Snow Crash. The Diamond Age is correctly a slogger; so’s the Baroque Cycle. Cryptonomicon was a rip.

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