Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More Pretentiousness

Just after the post on pretentiousness the other day, funny enough, a perfect example (in terms of usage) popped up, in the form of a review by Abigail Nussbaum in the latest issue of Strange Horizons. To be clear, this is far from being the most heinous example. I certainly wouldn't put it in the same class as the sort of philistine anti-intellectualism we find all too often in genre, the populism that celebrates the most hackeneyed and formulaic while decrying any hint of ambition as pretension. In fact, I want to explore it precisely because it comes from a sector of the field that seems about as far away from that viewpoint as it's possible to get in genre terms. The point is that this charge is not confined to the populists, but rather pervasive throughout the discourse.

So, here's where the charge surfaces in one paragraph of that review:

"This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that The Raw Shark Texts has pretensions of cleverness. Hall uses typographic games, illustrations, multiple fonts and letter sizes, and, at the novel's climax, a 50-page flipbook drawing of a shark swimming closer made entirely out of letters. One gets the impression that these devices all struck him as terribly inventive and playful, and that The Raw Shark Texts is bucking for a spot on the experimental section of the bookshelf, alongside Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves or even Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Sadly, in terms of its execution and the actual level of intelligence in evidence in the novel, a more useful comparison would be to the novels of Jasper Fforde."

This seems fair enough at first glance, right? But let's work through it, bit by bit.

"This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that The Raw Shark Texts has pretensions of cleverness."

There's a subtle conflation of the work and the writer here. If the work is an inanimate object, is it actually capable of having pretensions of cleverness, of deluding itself and/or intending to delude the reader into ascribing an intellectual agility that is not actually there? Or should we really be reading this charge as a meta-criticism of the writer projected onto the work -- i.e. an assertion that the work is evidence that Hall has pretensions of cleverness? To be fair, it's not entirely unconventional to describe works as pretentious (when they manifest the pretentiousness of the writer) or clever (in the sense of skillfully and intricately wrought) but both terms are far more conventionally applied as assessments of intellectual agencies rather than their non-sentient products. The result of this conflict of conventions? The sentence gains a subtext: that the writer is deluding himself and seeking to delude the reader into an erroneous belief in his cleverness.

"Hall uses typographic games, illustrations, multiple fonts and letter sizes, and, at the novel's climax, a 50-page flipbook drawing of a shark swimming closer made entirely out of letters."

The markers of this pretentiousness are, of course, deviations from convention. There's no aversion to syntactic or semantic unconventionality here, but structural experimentation, techniques that breach the consistency of the prose form itself, are read as indices of these pretensions of cleverness. Which is to say, this tricksiness is taken as evidence of trickery, a performative artifice aimed at an illusion of significance, an inflated sense of import. These techniques are offered not as illustrations of cleverness, remember, but as illustrations of pretensions of cleverness.

"One gets the impression that these devices all struck him as terribly inventive and playful..."

To all intents and purposes, this confirms that the core charge is being levelled at the writer rather than the work. I'm not entirely behind the idea of the Intentional Fallacy (the author may be dead, but their work stands as a monument to those intentions, their aesthetic stance outlined in the books-long epitaph under their name), but this is, when it comes down to it, projection as criticism, a meta-argument based on a spurious imagining of the writer at work, sitting down at the word processor, fiddling with this approach or that, and ultimately being overwhelmed by the sense of their own wondrous cleverness. With the arch and dismissive tone added by the "all" and the "terribly", it is clear that this is being viewed as prideful folly -- though not so much the posturing conceit encoded in other accusations of pretentiousness, more the sort of self-infatuated quality-blindness of the amateur trying to run before he can walk. The tone might be read as condescending but it's not contemptuous.

"... and that The Raw Shark Texts is bucking for a spot on the experimental section of the bookshelf, alongside Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves or even Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man."

Of course, the ultimate aim, according to this projection of authorial folly, is an elevated status. To be sure, the sense here is ambiguous, deeply so. We could read the above as simply saying that the book is aimed at a particular sector of the market ("the experimental section of the bookshelf"), intended to be read as in the tradition of these other two works, sitting "alongside" them in terms of aesthetic approach. But that "alongside" can equally be read as signifying ranking, suggesting that the book (and by extension the writer) seeks to be considered as on a par with rather than simply in the same form as the works of Danielewski and Bester. And the phrase "bucking for a spot" pushes us toward that latter interpretation rather forcefully, the idiom overwhelmingly suggestive of a status claim, an attempt to gain a position of relative advantage, of prestige.

"Sadly, in terms of its execution and the actual level of intelligence in evidence in the novel, a more useful comparison would be to the novels of Jasper Fforde."

All I'll note here is the contrast set up between the "actual level of intelligence" and the "pretensions of cleverness" . It seems clear to me that this is the core criticism being articulated here -- of artifice and (if not arrogance then at least) affectation. A false presentation of dubious motivation, seeking to generate an inflated sense of relative value.

At this point, to give due credit, the review moves swiftly on to the actual faults of the work as evidenced in the text, with a perfectly valid example of some appallingly clunky prose. Without having read the book myself, from this and other responses I've read or heard, I don't see any reason to challenge the assessment of the book as flawed, overly concerned with typographical tricksiness to the detriment of other literary qualities, and to the detriment of the book as a whole. And in so far as the paragraph quoted above is only a small part of an otherwise grounded evaluation of the book in terms of those qualities -- theme, plot, prose, etc. -- this is by no means the sort of glib condemnation we often find encoded in a phrase like "pretensions of cleverness". But I do think that if we unpack it what we find is a somewhat dubious projection of little real value in critique.

In fact, to go back to the first line of that paragraph, the whole charge strikes me as at odds with the rest of the review. An initial lukewarm appraisal of the book in the preceding text touches on real issues; thematically the book is not "really about anything", just "an entertaining adventure yarn", and one with a fairly familiar plot at that. Following this with the assertion that, were it not for the pretentiousness, "[t]his would not be a problem" simply derogates these concerns and highlights the unconventional techniques in order to craft a story we might title How the Writer Went Wrong. The story goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a writer. One day he discovered a golden technique and he thought to himself, Why, I could write a book using this! But the golden technique had been enchanted with a wicked glamour, so when the writer used it he'd look back at what he'd written and all he would see was the golden technique. Why, this is wonderful! he'd think, not realising that everything around the golden technique was grey and dull. He couldn't see that for the glint of the gold! And the more he wrote, the more wonderful it seemed. How clever of me, he'd say, to have discovered this golden technique. Won't everyone be so impressed with me when I show them my book!

Finally the day came when the book was finished, and he looked at it and thought to himself, Why, this is the most wondrous book that was ever written, and all thanks to the golden technique. So he took it round to a friend's house to show him. Look! he said. Look at the wondrous book I've written. Look at how clever it is with all the golden technique in it. Aren't I clever for discovering it? But his friend looked at the book, and saw only a patchwork of dull grey bits and bobs all jumbled higgledy-piggledy, and held together -- but only just -- by slender threads of golden technique that snapped if you as much as touched them. And his friend shook his head sadly. No, he said. Not really.

End of story.

This is, however, only a story, a fiction of how the writer went wrong rather than an analysis of how the work goes wrong. There is no assessment made of whether and how these tricks succeed or fail on their own terms, what direct effects the reading of them has on the book as a whole, only a vague supposition that it was the writer's focus on this aspect that led to his neglect in other areas. That Danielewski and Bester did not fall victim to the same "pretensions of cleverness" in adopting similar techniques indicates that this is not an inevitable result. That the review's reasoned critique of "poor writing, indifferent characterization, and predictable plotting" situates the main faults of the book in other areas entirely, in fact, begs the question of why we should lay the blame here at all. Why should we even suppose that there is some reason for these flaws other than a lack of skill in precisely those areas?

As I say, I don't have any great beef with the review as a whole; I don't see that How the Writer Went Wrong narrative, in this instance, as much more than... a bum note. I don't think a little meta-textual impressionism in a review is entirely a bad thing even. My reasons for picking this out as an example are because it came along fortuitously, because there's the meat of critique in there to contrast with that narrative, and because using this sort of review surely cuts across the us-and-them rhetoric of "elitists" and "populists". Where I think it becomes a problem is where that How the Writer Went Wrong narrative is presented less as an "impression" and more as a fundamental assumption, where it becomes an axiomatic parable about the perils of ambition.

5 Comments:

Blogger meika said...

Hal, you are spot on.

11:22 pm  
Anonymous Gabrielle Faust said...

I just wanted to say just how much I enjoy reading your blog and have found your posts about pretension quite amusing. It is definitely a topic of interpretation.

3:30 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, exactly. the reviewer should have been asking herself why she has these impressions, why aren't the devices working, why the devices used by Danielewski seem such an integral part of the narrative. That is, as a reader, what I would like to know.

4:39 pm  
Anonymous Brendan Connell said...

Good post. It definitely seems that the reviewer is basically putting down the writer for attempting to do something different. Also, in the year 2008, I would hardly call the things the author was doing "experimental" since pretty much every one of these moves was done by Russian and Italian Futurists.

I would actually like to see the term "experimental" banned in reference to contemporary literature, since it brings with it unsavoury connotations.

8:08 am  
Blogger meika said...

"experimental" seems to refer to a boxed set of woolf, becket and joyce put on the shelf and never to be read, safely categorised in time and space, safely stored.

for it seems we've grown out of being experimental, so no wonder that writing appears more dead to me than it ever has before

death before pretentiousness, death before trying, death before life...

thought of course its really a reflection of how little time we have for anything outside our comfort zones, and no time at all for things with a high cognitive load.

10:22 am  

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