Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Tolstoy, Entertainment, and Stuff Books Do

Oh man. Is it ever good to be back.

Several days ago -- while I was still very ill -- I found a message from an esteemed colleague addressed to me on Twitter, referring to the "Tolstoy" post that went up the week before:

you know, you can write a novel to entertain as well :L

I could think of a few things to say to this, but every time I tried typing them the effort of sitting upright made me lightheaded and I had to spend a couple hours sleeping it off. The flu has a way of stemming all debate.

Not long afterwards (an hour? a day? my perception of the last week is so distorted), I sat down and discovered my esteemed colleague had left me a pair of messages via Instant Messenger:

(3:15:51 PM) you can write a novel to entertain people, too
(3:16:03 PM) they're not all 100% explore the human condition

At the time, I could only repay his tenacity with a glib little Twitter message. But now that I'm beginning to feel a little better (I only vomited once today, and I've traded the fever for a shattered sense of equilibrium), let's see if I can't offer my esteemed colleague a more substantial response.


1.) Re: The tacit presumption that War and Peace is not entertaining

War and Peace is a classic. It is a very good book, and a very long book. But it is not a boring book. Just because literary snots like me call this or that novel "a timeless classic that illustrates the the human etc. etc. etc. etc.," you shouldn't assume it's a soporific drag that only someone with an English degree can appreciate.

As the first word of the title might suggest, this is a book about a war. Tolstoy comes to the writing desk with a period of service as a lieutenant in the Crimean War under his belt, meaning he's got more firsthand experience with the smoky pandaemonium of the 19th Century battlefield than every working writer on the planet who didn't serve in the military. War and Peace's battle scenes are intense, very often reading a little like a scene from a Hollywood-approved war flick. You've got people on horseback riding alone into sprays of bullets, cannonballs taking off peoples' limbs, grenades going off in the middle of crowds, motherfuckers getting run through with bayonets, adrenaline-crazed heroes performing apparently superhuman acts in the heat of the moment, etc. One would almost suspect Tolstoy wrote these scenes for the intended purpose of exciting people, but we both know such a notion is crazy. Literary merit and fun are mutually exclusive, after all!

What the dust jackets and armchair reviewers often neglect to mention is that War and Peace is also a very funny book. Tolstoy couldn't stand aristocratic twits and rich jackasses; War and Peace aggressively mocks the snooty men and women of high society. Tolstoy thought of the Germans as eggheads with funny accents, so he wrote a book full of German people with absurd ideas that they take very seriously and shout at each other in silly phonetic renderings of German-inflected speech. You like French-bashing? Tolstoy loves French-bashing, and nobody in the novel gets slammed worse than Napoleon himself. Andrey (one of the main characters), after vocally espousing his admiration for the visionary genius Bonaparte every five minutes for the first several chapters, gets wounded in battle, taken prisoner, and finds himself face to face with his hero -- whereupon he discovers Napoleon to be a fat, narcissistic little pissypants. It's really some entertaining stuff.

2.) Re: Books don't HAVE to be about "the human condition" -- they're allowed to just be entertaining.

Sure. I guess. But that whole "teaching us about ourselves, pulling back the curtain from our perception of the world, and remapping our boundaries" thing is what makes a book good. It's what separates the art from the distractions and toys.

You can certainly read books that "only entertain" if you'd like. Sure. But in the words of Mr. Kundera, life is short and books are long. If you're going to read books at all, why squander your time and effort reading ones less than great?

(Disclaimer/confession: superhero comics are a vice of mine. In my defense -- and lest I be accused of a double standard -- I am rather choosy about which ones I read, a trade paperback is less time-consuming than a cheap sci-fi pulp, and the pencil and ink work in an issue of Batman has far more artistic merit than Dan Brown's prose. I hold the act of reading a novel and the act of reading a comic to totally different standards, in any event.)

But what about the writers themselves? Why should a writer be expected to write about lofty subjects like the human condition? Why can't a good writer just write about things that entertain people?

Because that generally isn't what good writers do. They don't think that way.

Let's suppose an author decides to write a novel about a teenage wizard who falls in love with a green-haired tree elf and helps her fight the evil incubus king. Such an author will be one of two things: an amateur or a hack.

The only hopeful possibility is in the first case. There's a slim chance that our amateur author is an untried genius with an a precision of language equal to the richness of his boundless imagination. His efforts are guided by a keen intellect and strong aesthetic convictions. Such a writer can take whatever plot that strikes his fancy, no matter how trite or inane at face value, and make it part of something beautiful. He is also an exceedingly uncommon specimen.

More likely than not, our amateur's story about the teenage wizard who falls in love with green-haired tree elf will come out as unreadable schlock. Generally, unless you really know what you're doing or are a naturally gifted writer, you don't produce something brilliant by sitting down and thinking STORY ABOUT A WIZARD AND AN ELF, GO! That's not how writing works -- not unless we're talking about the second case.

What if the writer is a hack? Well, we can bank on the story being somewhat competently written. After all, it's being assembled by a professional. Our author goes by a formula, consults a list of character/plot bullets, bangs out the thing in a couple of weeks, collects his check, and drinks a few tequilas to get the juices flowing on his next idea. HEY! How about a story about a pair of dwarf brothers who accidentally dig a mine into a haunted city and have to lift a curse before it's too late? Easy as hell!

For the most part, the authors who write these "fun" books -- novels devised to be easy, entertaining reads that don't challenge anyone or anything -- are either not very good at what they do or cynical sellouts crapping out chapters in exchange for checks. I wouldn't give either a place on my shelf.

The really good authors tend to address lofty subjects because they are good authors. Their artistic and intellectual compasses point toward that which is beautiful, symmetrical, and true. Such writers usually tend to have more on their creative agendas then "WEREWOLF DETECTIVE IN TOKYO!"

3.) It's not as though you're not sufficiently entertained

The "why aren't books allowed to just be fun?" and "it's okay for books to only be entertaining, they don't have to make statements all the time!" objections might ring less hollow if today's multimedia landscape weren't so tremendously dominated by shallow, instantaneous amusements. Stop trying to shove your boring, stuffy "classics" down my throat! I just want to read something fun! I mean, the only other diversions my life affords me are television, Facebook, YouTube, Xbox Live, Minecraft, IRC, Wikipedia, Twitter, Gawker, Hulu, Team Fortress, Tumblr, iPhone apps, Cracked, the Wii, Newgrounds, Netflix, 4chan, World of Warcraft, and free streaming pornography! I'm dying of boredom here! Why won't you just allow me some levity in my life?

This is an entirely separate kettle of potatoes, but it worries me that we appear to be creeping toward a cultural point in which the worthiness of an activity is directly tied to how immediately fun it is. If something isn't instantly gratifying and doesn't aggressively commandeer my attention, I'm just going to go find something that is.

But anyway -- the printed word of the novel is one of the few extant media that can offer people something more conducive to useful intellectual stimulation than the noise, frantic speed, and commercial distractions of television, video games, and the Internet. I think it's important that publishers and authors take advantage of this. I want them to write books that challenge people. I want authors to place more importance on creating something true and beautiful than on writing something "fun" to read. The rest of our media asks so little of us, after all -- I fear that we're going to become less ourselves as a result. Ever read Brave New World? It will tell you all you need to know about what happens when "fun" becomes a cultural prerogative -- and is a supremely entertaining read, to boot.

It has been nine days since my last cigarette. This blog is just going to get bitchier and angrier and bitchier.


  1. Do you read many modern books? How do you feel about hacks like James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks owning the market?

  2. It makes me want to smoke many cigarettes. (Granted, EVERYTHING makes me want to smoke many cigarettes right now, but today's literary market is especially hard to cope with otherwise.)

  3. "This blog is just going to get bitchier and angrier and bitchier"

    Really? I hadn't noticed.

    I kid. I kid.

    Anyways on topic there's nothing here I can really disagree with. While I indulge in not particularly challenging material from time to time (ok more than I probably should) I don't think there's anything wrong with doing so on occasion. But a society that doesn't challenge itself won't be much of a society after too long.

    But there is hope, even in the examples you mentioned. Take the Wii for the example. Yes, most of the games are shallow gimicky bargain bin rejects, but it also has been home to some of the most interesting games I've played this gen. For examples see No More Heroes and Okami (yes, it was originally for PS2 but who cares). Those were both incredibly interesting games for me that were beautiful in their own ways, and were still really fun as well.

  4. War and Peace was the first book I ever read voluntarily. I needed something to read while I sat at coffee shops and tried to pick up women (before I was old enough to drink). I wasn't trying to impress them with it (coffee shop or not, girls in south jersey aren't gonna be impressed by War & Peace), I was actually trying to see if I could read "War & Peace" before getting any action. That way if I came up empty handed, I could at least say I wasn't wasting my time. I didn't dare divert my attention away from the book for even a moment, let alone to start a conversation with some girl (whom I believe are referred to as "trivial" near the beginning). The drawing room scenes were just as thrilling as the battle scenes. I've been obsessed with Russian literature (and literature in general) ever since.

    Whenever I see fun but empty entertainment, I can't think of anything other than the human condition. I think once somebody glances firmly at the human condition, it is hard for people to fully take their eyes off of it. Whether we're pressured into caring by the many available sources of guilt, coerced into caring by the sexiness of caring about the human condition, or we're pulled into it by exposure to the problems that you suddenly realize you're not the only one who must deal with, I can't imagine being able to let go of such a concern, regardless of what I'm reading/watching/etc. Well, at least right now I can't imagine it. Let me go watch E! and get back to you...

    That being said, I'd never waste my time reading hundreds of pages of guilty pleasure. I'll just watch the movie, though I probably wouldn't do that, either. I keep falling asleep on "The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo" movie, which has more Apple product placement than any ten cafes in Bushwick.

    Did you plan to quit smoking, or are you using the momentum of a flu that already makes you feel like shit as an opportunity to drop the habit? That worked for me. Good luck!

  5. Great job with the quitting smoking business!

    This seems to tie in nicely with your discussion of "art" a few weeks back. A novel that explores the human experience and forces to reader to consider new ideas or ways to look at the world is truly considered "art," over the latest teen-vampire book.

    Can a novel be considered "art?" I think so. Can a novel that exists merely to entertain be considered "art?" I wouldn't. There's nothing wrong with merely entertaining. I listen to the "Bedroom Intruder Remix" on youtube more often than I'd like to admit, but I don't consider it more than a diversion. It isn't even considered in a conversation about "art" and "artists." It's something less, like a novel meant to purely to entertain.

  6. You seem to equate 'entertaining' with 'distracting' or 'time-consuming for the sake time-consuming.' I don't think entertainment for the sake of entertainment is bad; people deserve a chance to unwind or relax after work or whatever.

    That certainly doesn't excuse the 99.99999999 percent of pure fecal matter out there, but it does make that rare work that seeks to simply entertain but still strives for originality and artistic effort that much more special.

  7. Reminds me of my comments to the Answerman on ANN...

    He was saying "You should be able to create an interesting story with just two characters at a table for ten pages just as easily as you can create an interesting ten volume fantasy series about dragons."

    I was saying I think you should try to write about things you care about/think are important, and that you should try to make them as good as possible. Basically style>substance and quality>quantity. Perhaps ideal vs. reality?

    If anyone wants links: Mine is the first question and I wrote responses in the forum (linked at the bottom).

    It seems in practice I may be wrong anyway:

    Hope you feel better soon.

  8. I've never encountered pure crap that's entertaining. You need some human element for it to be readable.

    Sure, Dragonlance Legends is about an evil twin who takes over the world by time traveling into the past to strike the gods at the 1 point in history when they're weak and succeeds and then the good twin undoes it with time travel, but it's also about a man who poisons every life he touches in his quest for power, yet is more sympathetic than most pulp heroes, and a trilogy: Gods knock down man's civilization for hubris, man abandons the Gods in return and rebuild, and hubris unopposed.

    J.K. Rowling wrote a book where Harry saves his friend's lil' sis from an evil diary, also a giant snake; I'm not there for the snake but to recapture the feelings of middle school. To her credit, the giant snake makes more sense than in most pulps.

    I'm pretty sure Jim Butcher writes Dresden files with a database of all the plot threads and will pick up each one systematically for a whodunnit that will add more to his list. He also delves deeply into themes that are pretty fresh pickings because they don't really exist: mind control, geases, supernatural transformations (not as a metaphor for drug use, temptation, or growing up; just vampires or ghosts), dealing with sentients that truly are not human, dealing with remains of humans that have lost sentience, and the possibility of losing your own freedom and sentience as you get locked into habits/your nature crystallizes.

    Anne Rice's vampires are explore how being forced to take the role of a villain sucks, and is a dialogue of unreliable narrators. Then they all moved to an island and were awesome.

    Anne McCaffery's dragons of Pern may be about a bitch on wheels who rides dragons and kicks butt, but at its core is a fantasy medieval world with casts and rules that defy the expectations for what classist sexist medieval worlds are. Families get drafted into crafts because the woman of the family shows promise, and Dragonlord thinks that's weird but figures it's the Master Craftsman's call. Fostering foreigners' children is common as much to share cultures as to prevent inbreeding. The first few books actually have decent telepathic aliens.

    Fortress in the Eye of Time is poorly paced monomyth crap. The friendship between loyal innocent Tristen and his friend and opposite, conniving cynical Cefwyn, who feeds on loyalty like a starving man, is honest. Also, even though it is yet another medieval fantasy, it has multiple distinct cultures, interesting people of all classes and 2 genders, and magic that can't fit into D&D or WoW.

    It's not like I'm not filtering; I heard Twilight was poorly written around a sparkly wet dream and decided not to waste my time. I guess I can't imagine anyone so jaded writing books that they don't put a bit of themselves in there. Maybe Hollywood, maybe anything with 5+ editors I guess. Quick cash-ins in novels tend to be either romances written for the steamy scenes, or based on a Hollywood production that probably had less than 1 or more than 5 editors.

    I have been reading the classics, as I have no money for books but plenty of public domain stuff is awesome. There is a lot to be said for learning the brutality the past does not even think to censor, and the strange choices on what they do. Victor Hugo has his poet nearly die of exposure and hanging in a kangaroo court of thieves, and it's funny? It's also foreshadowing.

    The past is another planet in a way Anne McCaffery isn't, even though she tries. Actually, you might find a 60s pulp writer that alien.

    I guess you struck a nerve. Thanks for making me think/write a bit.

    Thesis: Some fluff is good just because it is exploring the writer's issues, using the writer's tools, if not the best issues, nor in the best way.

  9. Adam: I'm not sure there will ever be a video game that can compare to a War and Peace-caliber novel, but that's an entirely different discussion in itself. Video games are designed to be immediately fun and gratifying. There's always going to be a certain constituent of showiness and shallowness to them. But this is another discussion altogether...

    Colonel Sanders: I experienced something similar for the first time only a few years ago, but the book was Moby Dick. Once a powerful idea seizes you, it never really lets go.

    Jeff: Yeah. Having been a participant on more than one video game message board, I've found that the "what is art" discussion is a bottomless pit. There's a very nice letter that HP Lovecraft wrote to a friend that puts forth a very reasonable and eloquent (if not somewhat elitist) suggestion for an "art" litmus test. I'll flip through my copy of The Selected Letters of HP Lovecraft later and see if I can find it.

    Dunesen: Oh, definitely. Without its stress valves, society would rip itself to pieces. And it's fantastic that artful and intelligent entertainment not only exists, but is often popular. It's hard to spell out my concern in a comment box blurb, but I feel some anxiety about new media, literacy, and the human attention span. I guess I'll have to leave it at that for now.

    Zade: I hate to begin a reply with a nitpick, but the plural of "medium" is "media."

    The people who call themselves artists have a very difficult line to walk. Their financial/popular success depends on their audience appeal, which often means capitulating to a studio/publisher or doing stuff they don't necessarily want to be doing in order to meet popular demand.

    Take Herman Melville. He got popular by writing fun and scandalous adventure novels bases on his experiences in the South Pacific. When he started writing more meditative, artsy novels, the critics began pecking at him for it, so he often forced himself to write the stuff that was expected from him.

    Then Moby Dick happened. It was an unparalleled masterpiece and it ruined his career. He was pretty much only remembered as "that guy who wrote island adventure novels and then fell into obscurity" until the advent of Modernism, when he was rediscovered and applauded.

    If we're talking about "ideal vs. reality," Melville went with "ideal." He paid for it with his reputation and livelihood, but was lucky enough to be posthumously vindicated. (Luck did have a part in it. I wonder how many masterpieces have never been discovered or acknowledged?)

    Maybe the good artist can only do his work the best he can and leave the rest to luck and circumstance.

    Spriteless: Of course. Again: I read comic books for fun. I'm guilty of indulging in fluff myself. But I generally try to avoid the fluff whose writers are just crapping out drama and fistfights (with varying success).