Monthly Archives: November 2013

Critical Assumptions

Mom,

We’ve talked before on this blog about what I might call “meta-criticism”, but a recent confluence in my reading has brought the question to my mind again. In brief, what I mean by meta-criticism is the examination of the tools we use to criticize art (in our case, mostly, books). As examples, we’ve talked in the past about the general ideas of people’s preferences for plot, character, setting, etc. And we’ve talked about the specific subjects of how to define the “rules” for nonfiction and for accuracy in fiction.

Today, I want to look at meta-criticism from the broadest perspective possible. This started for me (this time), over on Heavy Medal, where some folks were discussing the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) of Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk. It occurred to me as I was reading some comments that there was an underlying assumption on some people’s part that historical fiction must be historically accurate. Here’s what I wrote in response:

Claiming that Ghost Hawk has to be “as historically accurate as possible” is question-begging in the extreme. A major point of the critical inquiry is to try to determine by what critical methods we judge a particular book. To just claim, a priori that any book set in a particular historical period must meet certain levels of historical accuracy is absurd. Why should it? What does that add to the literary evaluation of it? Do the generally accepted great works of historical fiction follow this pattern? (answer to the last question: no, they don’t).

This was particularly on my mind because I happened to be reading a book called Shakespeare’s kings : the great plays and the history of England in the Middle Ages, 1337-1485 by John Julius Norwich. In it, Norwich goes through the actual history of England during the time period Shakespeare’s history plays cover, and he compares that history to how Shakespeare presents it. The book itself is riddled with problems, and I don’t recommend it, but to his great credit, even as invested as he is in historical accuracy, Norwich is clear throughout that Shakespeare’s play are not history, and that in most (if not all) cases in which Shakespeare departs from history, he does so for valid dramaturgical reasons.

All of which brings me back to the question I asked about Ghost Hawk: how do we determine what standards to hold historical fiction up to in the first place? Based on the comments in that Ghost Hawk thread, it seems like many people have a set of pre-formed assumptions, but it is not clear to me that they have examined these assumptions or tried to defend them on a wholesale basis. That last line of my comment is particularly important to me: if we are fine with dramatic telescoping of time and events, conflating of characters, changing motivations, etc. in (for example) Richard II, why should we hold a contemporary novel to a different standard? I’m not saying that it is impossible to find an answer to that question, but I think it is very important for us to find an answer to it before we begin to make critical judgments about those contemporary works.

The next piece in my confluence of reading was a review in the New York Review of Books of a book called The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl. The only reason I happened to read this review is that McGurl was one of my favorite professors at UCLA. McGurl’s book is about creative writing programs in America and the effect they have had on literary (and even popular) fiction. I’m not sure I’m going to read the book, but the review was enlightening, particularly for this quotation:

McGurl goes on to hold that our writing has come to have certain qualities in common because writers and readers and teachers will all have probably been promulgating three dicta familiar to us all, which he takes to be fundamental to creative writing programs, if not to literature itself:

  1. Find your voice
  2. Write what you know
  3. Show don’t tell

As Diane Johnson, the reviewer, says, these rules are “familiar to us all,” the last one being a particularly potent little phrase that has had far-reaching effects on criticism as well as writing.  You and I (and nearly every other reviewer I’ve read) have used this phrase to either praise or pan a piece of writing. But if the rise of “show don’t tell” corresponds closely to the rise of creative writing courses in post-war America, is it really an inviolable part of writing and criticism, or is it simply a fad?

Johnson’s review doesn’t probe that question terribly deeply, but by coincidence I happened across a different data point.  Spurred on by the Norwich book, I was reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. In the introduction to the Arden edition, I found a little tidbit about Ben Jonson attacking Shakespeare’s plays for having too much action:

He was likely holding the public theatre up to the same standard that Sir Philip Sidney had used in his Apology for Poetry . . . : the standard of Italian neo-classical drama. Decorum, as the Italians had learned from Horace, required that vigorous action be reported, not shown (p. 10)

So here we have a beautiful example of Ben Jonson using a critical construct from Italian neo-classical drama to criticize Shakespeare for doing too much showing not telling, whereas (I’d wager) just about any reader today would be more likely to criticize Shakespeare for too little, based on an entirely different critical construct. And of course, neither construct was necessarily relevant 16th Century English drama.

So, OK, it’s unfair of Jonson to use the Italians against Shakespeare and it’s unfair of us to use 20th Century American ideas against Shakespeare, but surely we can use 20th Century American ideas to criticize 20th Century (and maybe 21st Century) American texts? But that’s my question – can we? What if a writer has no truck with the post-war creative writing industrial complex and wants to write in the style of Shakespeare? One of McGurl’s points is that literary fiction during the period he examines became increasingly homogenized because everyone was using the same rules to create fiction. Is that really what we want? But if we want variety and rule-breaking, then we are going to need to apply different rules to different pieces of literature, and how are we going to decide when a text is intentionally and successfully telling-not-showing, and when a text is merely failing to show not tell?

As usual, I have far more questions than I have answers. Anyone have a stab at some answers?

– Mark

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Fangirl

Mark,

This has been quite a year for Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor and Park came out earlier in the year, to much acclaim, including 5 starred reviews. Fangirl came out a few months later, and now it has 4 starred reviews. As you know, I had some ambivalence about Eleanor and Park, although I do plan to re-read it, based on your much more positive take.

But Fangirl. Although I have one or two small quibbles (more on those later), I think Fangirl is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, I have Fangirlto admit from the start that I am probably the ideal reader for Fangirl. I particularly like contemporary, realistic fiction (as I noted a few weeks ago), I have a soft spot for books that focus on that difficult first year of college, and, like Rowell’s main character, Cath, I went to an agricultural college in a farm state, even though, like Cath, I grew up in my state’s “big city” (in my case, though, it was the suburbs).

So since I’ve brought that up, let me talk about that first. Cath is from Omaha–and I loved the fact that she lives in the “least-white neighborhood in Nebraska,” a Mexican neighborhood in South Omaha, where she grew up with taco trucks and tres leches cake. She is in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which has the Ag School. As her (eventual) boyfriend Levi says, it also has a tractor museum, a quilt education center, and a dairy. The dairy comes up a couple of times, which made me smile, because I went to Kansas State, which also had the state’s Ag School, and which also had a dairy, where you could get the best ice cream ever–and it was really cheap.

Cath is a great character, smart and funny, and, while independent and self-reliant in many ways, also uncertain and needy in others. So, while she–along with her twin sister–has been looking out for her father ever since their mother left (the father has some unspecified mental illness), she spends the first month of school subsisting on protein bars and peanut butter because she doesn’t want to face finding out about the dining hall on her own. That, actually, is one of my quibbles with the book. I liked it, and it said a lot about Cath–she prepared by bringing the protein bars and the peanut butter–but it also struck me as completely unrealistic. I think dorms do a pretty good job of orientation for new students, and while Cath could have missed that, it seems unlikely that no RA or anyone ever checked in with her or gave her basic information about meals.

There are several things going on in the story, and in general, they all fit together well. First, we have Cath’s adjustment to college life, and to being apart both from her father and her twin sister. Her sister, Wren, lives on the same campus, but in another dorm, and is determined to live the full college social experience, which includes–surprise, surprise–getting drunk and getting into various situations as a result. So that’s another story line–Cath and Wren’s relationship. They have been exceptionally close, and their separation is difficult for Cath, and, as it turns out, even for Wren, who is the more outgoing of the two. Another story line is Cath’s relationship with her father, who isn’t doing all that well on his own, and with her mother, who has suddenly popped back up into their lives. If you read the book, you’ll have to tell me what you think of the depiction of Cath’s dad’s mental illness. Then, there’s Cath’s growing friendship with Levi, who she at first thinks is her roommate’s boyfriend. And finally, tying everything together, is Cath’s writing.

The writing has several layers. The topmost layer is that Cath is heavily involved in fanfiction. She and Wren grew up with the “Simon Snow” (read “Harry Potter”) series, of which the eighth and final book is due to be published in May of their freshman year of college. Cath has been writing her own version of the final book, and wants to finish it before the actual book comes out. She is very popular on the fanfiction site, getting something like 35,000 hits on her updates and chapters. Excerpts from the “real” books and the fanfiction books are interspersed throughout the book, and contrary to my expectation, they were delightful. So much so, in fact, that I found myself noodling around on the internet looking at various Harry Potter fanfiction sites, to see if there were any good stories.

Just a side note here: based on that extremely limited experience of fanfiction, I can see why Cath’s stories got a lot of hits–she’s a way better writer than anyone I read. I’m perfectly willing to believe that there are excellent writers out there writing fanfiction, but even when I looked at titles with the most hits, and titles with “awards,” I didn’t read anything that wasn’t fairly painful to read, stylistically.

Unsurprisingly, that sense played into the story. When Cath takes a fiction writing class, and submits a story based on the Simon Snow characters, her teacher gives her an “F,” calling it plagiarism. I think that’s a bit harsh (and obviously, so does Cath), since, as we have frequently discussed, there is a long history in literature of writers using characters, settings, and even plots from other writers to create their own unique piece of literature. But it was an interesting way for Rowell to let Cath explore the question of who she is as a writer, and what her particular strengths are.

Another piece of that exploration takes place when Cath works with another student in her class to co-write a story. Cath feels that it is his story, although she is well aware of how much her own contributions improve the story–again, she is learning what her own strengths are as a writer.

So, obviously, there is a lot going on in this book. For me, that made it a rich and compelling read. However, having all those storylines going on made the ending feel very rushed. For almost four hundred pages, all these balls were in the air, creating a complex and fascinating coming-of-age story, and then all of a sudden, in the last thirty pages, we were done. The school year was over, Cath’s fanfiction novel was finsihed, her relationships were all resolved, the new Simon Snow novel was out, and Cath got an award for the short story she’d been putting off writing all year. Seriously. It was really somewhat jarring.

Whether the Printz committee is similarly jarred . . . well, I guess we’ll never know that! But I think it would keep it off the table for me, much as I loved it.

– Mom

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