Notes from New Sodom

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Snark of Our Elders

By way of The Speculative Scotsman, I came across this most enjoyable collection of the 50 best putdowns of one author by another, collected in two parts here and here. Some are just plain fun, like Nabokov on Hemingway: "As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early 'forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it." Some are kinda shooting fish in a barrel, like Bloom on Rowling: "How to read 'Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone'? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do." Some just make the snarker look like an arse to me, like Shaw on Joyce: "I have read several fragments of 'Ulysses' in its serial form. It is a revolting record of a disgusting phase of civilisation; but it is a truthful one; and I should like to put a cordon around Dublin; round up every male person in it between the ages of 15 and 30; force them to read it; and ask them whether on reflection they could see anything amusing in all that foul mouthed, foul minded derision and obscenity."

One I find particularly interesting for its use of "un-literary" is Bennett on Dickens: "About a year ago, from idle curiosity, I picked up 'The Old Curiosity Shop', and of all the rotten vulgar un-literary writing...! Worse than George Eliot's. If a novelist can't write where is the beggar." Where Bennett's book Literary Taste: How to Form It seems terribly concerned with standards in literature, as the title would suggest, in a quick glance through, I can't see him using the term "literary" anywhere in other than its literal sense -- of or pertaining to the domain of written works. In his snark though, "literary" has become a qualifier signifying propriety in contrast to vulgarity; only the properly written work is truly "literary."

Think about this for a second. Surely it's as strange to talk of "un-literary writing" as it is to talk of "un-culinary cooking" or "un-agricultural farming." The use of the term in this way indicates, I think, a shift in meaning.

It's as if food critics started dismissing badly-cooked food as "un-culinary," dig? Such that properly-cooked food becomes "culinary" in contrast. Only, of course, it's not just about competence versus incompetence, not just about a perfectly-cooked burger versus an inedible duck a l'orange. Because greasy spoon café fare and good old-fashioned pub grub, even soul food from a simple bistro -- these cheap and populist dishes aren't the haute cuisine that really qualifies as "culinary" to the critic. This is the food of fry-cooks rather than master chefs. It's rotten vulgar un-culinary cooking. Unless of course it aspires to satisfy someone applying the culinary aesthetic, to become "culinary soul food" much as a work might be described as "literary SF" or "literary fantasy" -- terms which I increasingly abhor.

I'm really curious to know the roots of this usage, at what point the word becomes a marker of a particular aesthetic, paving the way to the present-day opposition of "literary fiction" and "genre fiction." Is Bennett's use early or had critics been talking of the value of "literary" works over "un-literary" works for a while? My instinct is that it's a Victorian development, a response to the "sensationalist" approaches of Dickens, the popular "sensation novels," Gothic fiction, penny dreadfuls and dime novels. Sadly, I'm nowhere near well-read enough in the criticism of the day to be able to trace the historical emergence of the term in its discriminatory meaning.

Anyway, I can't resist adding my own snark to the linked article. For me, it would have to be on Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, which would be better titled A Mouthful of Shit, to my mind, given the taste left in my mouth by this technically accomplished but execrable work of self-righteous snipewankery in the name of satire. For what's supposed to be a caustic critique of society it strikes me more as the author hacking crudely at straw men of his own construction, with a scythe of pious spite. Petty agitprop.


Blogger Swanosaurus said...

I'd speculate that Matthew Arnold is to blame for this use of the word "literature". However, I'm probably wrong about this - I just like to blame Matthew Arnold for as many things as possible ...

9:10 pm  
Blogger ukjarry said...

My favourite is religious nutcase Christopher Smart on Thomas Gray:
"He walks as if he had fouled his small clothes and looks as if he smelt it."
An interesting description, and when you consider that Gray was quite possibly gay, conjures up a particularly queeny image. Of course there's also the fact that Smart is taking up the cudgel on behalf of Samuel Johnson’s hatred for Gray.

12:08 am  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

I just read Bleak House for the first time. I really can't get over how wrong Bennet is. I suspect he's using 'un-literary' in the usual sense to mean "someone who sold a shitload more books than I did".

I guess I'm alone in thinking Nabokov writes incredibly boring stories, and that Hemingway's work, whatever else you might say, is at least entertaining, if a little too butch.

Still, I think "standards" (whatever they may be) have dropped. If I was a teacher, I couldn't imagine giving Dickens to a school class to read. You'd have to stop and explain every second sentence.

Oh my God, I sound like an ageing Tory. Someone take me outside and shoot me.

10:51 am  

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