Literature as a Mirror

July 14, 2012

By Kyle Gann

I've been devouring novels all my life. I discovered Louisa May Alcott in third or fourth grade, and, having inhaled Little Women and Little Men, would quietly slip library copies of her lesser-known books into my backback, knowing that the Texas bullies who kept an eye on me would declare open season if they caught me carrying femmy-looking titles like Rose in Bloom or Jack and Jill. I remember that I was reading The House of the Seven Gables in July, 1969, because my mother dragged me away from it to come watch the moon landing. It's kind of a victory for literature, I think, that all I remember about the moon landing was what book I was reading at the time. In the last few months, though, I think I've read more novels than in any other recent five-year period. It's partly because I'm not pushing myself to work so much, but also because I discovered a wonderful little book store in my area: The Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY (pictured). There are other independent bookstores in the Hudson Valley, but their selections seem superficial and predictable, whereas The Spotty Dog's are interestingly curated and not at all obvious. I stand there in the stacks reading the beginnings of novels to plan out my purchases for the coming months, and I've discovered a whole raft of recent or at least modern great novelists I didn't know existed: Italo Svevo, Knut Hamsun, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Markson, Dave Eggars, plus authors I knew about but had never read like Doris Lessing, Charles Bukowski (knew his poems, didn't know he wrote novels), Christopher Isherwood. Svevo, in particular, is so delightful that I'm resentful toward the world for never having brought him to my attention; I picked up his Zeno's Conscience just because the pre-Socratic Zeno has always intrigued me. I feel like almost every book on The Spotty Dog's shelves is worth my attention, just because it's there. It's as though, in mid-life, I stepped through a door to an alternate universe with its own parallel literary canon.

It makes me feel better to be more in touch with the recent art of the novel, because when it comes to literature, I have always felt like a Philistine. The core of my reading has always been Victorian English lit, and I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more lately Francine Prose, but I couldn't begin to count the post-WWII novels I've started and stopped reading. I am as cynically dubious about the modern novel, especially those by particularly celebrated novelists, as most non-composers are about modern music, and for parallel reasons. I won't list here the novels I've slammed shut in disgust, because I don't want their fans writing in to defend them, but I will offer as Exhibit A one novel that I remember perfectly well why I quit reading: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. Most of the recent novels I have given up on, Vineland exemplary among them, I have disliked for one and the same reason: the author put all his or her energy into writing beautiful, interesting, circuitous, surprising sentences, and never bothered to make me give a damn what would happen next.

There's a really simple formula to make a person want to read a novel to the end: have the main character want something and have trouble getting it. I can get absorbed in the most mediocre Trollope novel (and I've read three dozen of his) just because a young girl wants to marry some guy, and she can't because of financial problems, or because she's been misinformed as to his character. Trollope can spend 300 pages edging closer in tiny increments to sorting out the happy ending, and I'm right there hanging on every word. But I remember, with Vineland, being constantly amazed at how beautiful the writing was, how much imagination had gone into every sentence, how surprising the word choices kept being, and then reflecting on page 50 that if I turned the page and the entire dramatis personnae were blown up in an atomic blast, I would have considered that an acceptable turn of plot. I wanted to care about the characters, to yearn for what they were yearning for, and Pynchon just wanted me to marvel at his dexterity with a thesaurus. Having paid due obeisance to Pynchon's magisterial genius for wordplay, I considered page 50 just as good a place to stop as page 450 would have been.

I don't think it's because I have no patience for "difficult" novels, either. I just read Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, which is a really peculiar novel with little space-time consistency and the most unreliable narrator imaginable. But Ishiguro sets up an expectation in the opening pages (it concerns a classical concert, and having started out as a musician Ishiguro is really good at writing realistically about musicians), and after a difficult stretch in the middle I got more and more eager to know what would happen and couldn't put it down. (Every musician, especially studio giggers, should read Ishiguro's lovely book of short stories called Nocturnes.) And I relished Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, a long, ambiguous, repetitive monologue that I ate up like ice cream. I can have a blast with fiction a lot more experimental than Trollope.

I get the impression, though, that a lot of recent novelists - and especially those who get championed by our literary intelligentsia - are treasured for, to put it in sparest terms, the sophistication of their language and not their ability or desire to tell a story. And, sure enough, in the New Yorker this week, novelist Michael Cunningham wrote about the experience of being on the most recent Pulitzer committee, and explained his criteria thusly:

I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I'd heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was--and am--a bit fanatical on the subject.

I thank the defense for so expertly framing the prosecution's argument. Every sentence should be a good one: that's how you get boring crap like Vineland. Excuse me: beautiful, arresting, technically distinguished boring crap. And to illustrate his thesis, Cunningham quotes the opening sentence of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, which he claims was, by itself, better than all the other Pulitzer-submitted books put together:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb's-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother's soft hand on your cheek.

That is a sentence which, had I read it in a bookstore, would have made me drop the book like a flaming marshmellow. I defy anyone to read it the first time without their eyes starting to skim across it. I've actually read a lot of Wallace, though only about 50 pages of Infinite Jest, and I find him sometimes an amazing ton of fun, though even at his best he can be so self-conscious about trying to be the world's most original writer that I want to hand him a valium and beg him to calm down. I've been wanting to get The Pale King, and still might, because I know that Wallace warms up wonderfully when he can make himself quit trying so hard. But the intent of the above sentence is clearly not to pull you into the book, but to show off.

Now, I've quoted Cunningham approvingly in this blog before, to the effect that the writer's responsibility to to make the reader want to keep reading, and I have trouble squaring the opinions I quoted of his earlier with this fetishization of the sentence, which, for me, is probably the most devastating disease of modern fiction. (Personally, I think my sentences are pretty good, but I put far more thought into the flow and variety of sentences than into any individual one.) Imagine, dismissing a novel because it contains sentences as undistinguished as: "Yes, it was settled; his career was determined. He would run away from home and enter upon it. He would start the very next morning. Therefore he must now begin to get ready." I took those from Tom Sawyer. They're wonderful because they do not impede the flow of the story; one need not pause to admire them. They get swept up into what Tom wants, because, by this time, it's what we want as well.

Why am I launching into amateur literary criticism like this? Because I have no authority in that world at all - and thus am the perfect audience member. I love novels, want to read them, and especially would love to discover modern novels I like. But my reaction to novels is absolutely functionally objective, because I have no literary pretensions at all, hardly know any novelists, don't teach fiction, and I don't care who gets famous, or what style gains ascendency - I just want a book that, when I have to put it down, I can't wait to get back to reading. Therefore, my relation to novels reminds me what non-musicians' relation to new music is like. It reminds me that, as a composer, my responsibility to the listener is precisely analogous to the novelist's responsibility to me.

And I sense a collective blindness among our literary elites that exactly matches the collective deafness I find among our composing elites. I think the fawning sentimentality over perfect sentences must mirror the "professional" composer's love of ornate notation. Putting a sforzando, a fluttertongue, a couple of harmonics, and a descrescendo "al niente" within just two or three beats must be the composer's version of trying to name twenty types of weed in a single sentence. I hear a lot of music by celebrated composers whose music is played by first-rate orchestras, in which I can't help but be dazzled by the variety of timbral and textural detail - but that I have no desire to continue listening to. In both fiction and music our elites have fetishized the idea of surface sophistication, raising it up pre-eminent above all other possible virtues, and forgotten completely, at times, why people read books and listen to music. Spoiler alert: It's NOT in order to be impressed with the artist's sophistication. I've seen a lot of people on their way to new-music concerts, and I have yet to hear one say, "Oooh, I hope it'll be sophisticated!"

I have had several experiences, lately, of watching career-successful, high-profile composers proudly play recordings of what they think are their best works, and just feeling tremendously sad that anyone could be so deluded as to think anyone would ever want to listen to that. That, meaning beautiful, arresting, technically distinguished boring crap. And I am following with much interest a meme that seems to be running through the culture lately that we have reached some sort of crisis because our elites have misled us, and what was presented as a meritocracy turned out to be no such thing. (In fact, I'm thrilled that we're talking about the elites rather than the concept of elitism, because elitism arguments inevitably run aground on the word's ambiguous conflation of "the best," "appealing to the upper classes," and "deliberately obscure." The elites, by comparison, are a fairly easily specified group of people.) The elites of our composing culture, as far as I'm concerned, are living in a fantasy world circumscribed by groupthink.

At The Spotty Dog I have found an alternate canon of thoroughly engaging modern novels. Likewise, I know of a canon of engaging recent music, but you needn't look for it among the prize-winners and on the orchestra programs. In retrospect I consider David Foster Wallace's essay on growing up as a tennis star phenomenal because I enjoyed reading it so much. Reading Infinite Jest, I consciously recognized that it was phenomenal, and got bored with it. Our elites so often seem to think that only the latter experience indicates the kind of art worthy of support.

Beyond that, I try to imagine, for myself, what the musical analogue of a novel's character wanting something is. Fiction and music do not work the same way. I don't think I can say that I love listening to Bruckner or Feldman because they introduce some desire or tendency at the beginning that doesn't get fulfilled until the end - although there is something like that in there, some tension that keeps one's interest in the music going. But where is that tension in Einstein on the Beach? Or Monteverdi's Vespers? There is no one-to-one correspondence between novels and pieces of music, and one can love listening to music because it continues being fulfilling, not simply because it puts off some implied fulfillment into the future. "Finding out how it ends" is not the same pull in music that it is in fiction. But I do know, at least, that I owe it to the listener to keep the entire overall thread of the music in mind, that he or she will not be impressed that I can throw a lot of details into every phrase and every moment, and that any such details need to be swept up, liquidated, into the large-scale flow, not distract from it. And I try very hard to make music that will give pleasure and interest to people who have the same involved but disinterested relation to music as I do to literature. Presumably that's why Cunningham's on the Pulitzer committee, while I will never be one of the elites.


Charlie Mann: Too bad you don't do Facebook; I would've clicked the "like" button on that one.

Charlie Mann: Kyle, I'm constantly amazed at how much people seem to love disagreeing with you.
KG replies: Damn, Charlie, help me think of some way to capitalize on it. Like, you'd have to pay five dollars on PayPal to dispute something I've said.

Nac: I've been having the same sort of thoughts lately about the film world.
If you're interested, here's a short essay on a Chinese/Japanese alternative to "conflict"-motivated plots:

Doug Skinner: Huh. I read a lot, but not many novels (mostly poetry, philosophy, and biography). I often get bored following imaginary people through a narrative. I guess the engine that drives me onward is literary: not what the character will do next, but what the author will. Imagination, vitality, and discipline are what engage me. (Also, plots about marriage and family bore me, since I'm not married, and have no family: I've had little luck with Trollope.)
I haven't read Wallace or Pynchon; but my, that's some flowery, smartypants verbiage. I suppose there's been a reaction to former ideals of precise, economical prose.
Well, here are a few post-war writers I've enjoyed. I'd be curious what you thought, given all the preceding: Flann O'Brien, Boris Vian, Harry Mathews, Georges Perec. Cheers!
KG replies: Wow, don't know those authors at all. I don't think being married is enough to make Victorian lit make sense. There are all these absurd conventions that you just get used to, as in video games. First of all, the stories are mostly about people descended from nobility who no longer have enough money to keep up the lifestyle. They're constantly in search of unearned money. The worst calamity that can possibly happen to anyone is that they have to get a job, the ultimate disgrace. Suicide would be a better end. Second, everybody just knows how many pounds everybody else "is worth" a year, as though they were all walking around with signs around their necks listing their net annual income from inheritances and investments. I've read enough novels to know that a woman will go nuts over a landed gentry who "has" 4000 pounds a year, but if she can only find a nice minister who has 400, she'll settle and do fine. You have to transfer all the natural forces of life into this strange universe.

Doug Skinner: You know, I've never played a video game, but I know what you mean. One of the open secrets of literature is that it's not what you tell that matters, but how. I've enjoyed the Trollope I've read, because of the ways he tweaks the reader, and the fun he has with his daily word count; but found the marriage and money plots a hindrance, not a hook.
I suppose I ingest novels the way I do music, and view them as compositions of words. I'm devoted to the work of Raymond Roussel, for example, whose novels don't behave like normal narratives, but are remarkable compositions. I'm curious that you enjoy the music of Cage, who rang changes on non-semantic organization, but that you prefer plot-driven fiction. I'm thinking a lot about language and music these days, so do forgive my curiosity, which is not purely idle...
As for the writers I mentioned, well, look them up, and see if they interest you. One caveat: Vian's slangy and idiomatic French is hard to translate. He's best read in the original, or with sympathy for the translator.
KG replies: I'm sorry I gave the impression that I only like plot-driven novels, because I'm a huge fan of Beckett and some other people who don't do plots. I said plot was a simple formula, not the only one. What I really like is novels about people who want something, which Beckett's characters do even when immobilized. I'm also a little sorry I've become so Cage-identified, for although he was a dear man, he's really not one of my top-ten favorite recent composers. I'll look up Raymond Roussel.
But since I never get to talk about Trollope, I'll tell you the great thing about Trollope. Now that I'm in academia, he's an incredible treasure trove for me in this respect: he completely understands what motivates petty bureaucrats. His mean, vain, envious little bishops and prelates and clerks and managers and their vicious, ambitious little wives map on exactly to the kind of people I have to work for. None of them are really bad people, for there are no real bad guys in Trollope novels, but he totally intuited why they act like such pigs, and he can duplicate their thought processes. It's incredibly satisfying.

Doug Skinner: Ah, thanks for the distinction about plot; yes, not the same thing. And I hope you don't regret writing about Cage; he is, after all, good copy. I was intrigued that you seemed to want something crucially different from music's use of time, and fiction's use of time, but I misunderstood. I'll go back to puzzling over the way those two linguistic systems intertwine...
I have more Trollope on the shelves. I'll have to get back to him, and imagine you stuck in the middle. Cheers!

AJ Sabatini: Kyle,
Damn it. You keep kicking cans my way and I have things to do.
Long before I even heard 4′ 33″ of new music I read novels and literature (was an English major with an M.A.) and when I first began listening to new music, it made sense to me because of the modern novel, which, after Flaubert & Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov and Cortazar is a bunch of things: crazy stoires, language gone wild, games, boxes within christmas trees, noise, exquisite sentences, scores, cartoons, mind and murder. It is because the novel can be about anything (since "Don Quixote" and Laurence Sternes' "Tristram Shandy") that it is the art form that is as much about its extrinsic elements (politics, real history, psychology, philosophy, authorship) as well as its intrinsic dimensions (imagery, syntax, narrative structure, metaphor, spatiality, typography, voices, language and linguistics). Since the novel is an open ended form - and was well before new music - it is about much more than its aesthetic. It represents and is meant to - in a very different way than music - the subjectivity of the writer, readers and culture. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for one, had a price on his head for writing exotic tales and using language as it had rarely been used in Spanish. Music has to be public, but it is the essence of the freedom of writing and the novel to play with and challenge the individual through language and its related qualities (don't want to get too specialized here). When you say, "as a composer, my responsibility to the listener is precisely analogous to the novelist's responsibility to me," I can feel novelists, if not other artists, objecting to anyone proscribing responsibility in relation to an art form. In fact, I can imagine many novelists saying, 'no, it is the novel that is supposed to say the unsayable, to find forms for telling stories and using language in ways that can represent worlds and language itself.' In others words, narrative - and plot, character, organization - are all up for grabs, especially these days. Marquez's "The Autumn of the Patriarch" has about six sentences, Burrough's books (like Cage's "Williams Mix" are composed of cut up texts), and George Perec wrote a novel without the letter "e." Imagine John Zorn (who has a lot of music referencing literature) writing a novel. Or Bob Ashley - and you can look up in the article where I talk about Ashley's work as "performance novels."
Another thing about novels: Henry James called them 'baggy monsters' and, in some ways, the inchoate, extended, formless form of some of them is precisely the point. Unlike listening to a performance of a six hour string quartet or days of a modulating drone, the novel is portable and it is up to the reader to learn how to read it and have fun with it, establish a relationship with it temporally and visually - or put it down, pick it up, throw it around, use a Sharpie on onerous prose. You might want to check out Roland Barthes on the difference between readerly and writerly texts.
Two other quick points: I don't get this carping you do about the "intelligencia" and "elitism." We live in multiple simultaneous worlds of production, consumption, marketing and evaluation and - most of all - training and knowledge. I mean, if i want to know something about Nancarrow, who am I going to trust, you or my dentist? Some of us learn how to read, listen, see - and, like drinking wine or single malts - with particular attention. You don't need a score to read novels, but you do need to learn the implicit 'score' and use of languages, structures in novels (like myth in Joyce, et. al.). In most cases, if, say, you read you read a few of Toby Olson's books (I second Paul on this) you learn the music of his language and sense of narration.
Lastly, regarding the arts, I do not think there is such a things as 'one" novel or, for than matter, a single work of art or music. It is about life's work. Composers, authors, painters spend there life making work - some good, some bad, some as experiments, some from the core of their being. I do not think we can know anything about an artists without knowing about their entire oeuvre. As for living artists, that means up to the moment of their most recent work. It is arguable that what separates "popular" culture from "art" is that artists do not stop making work that adds to and changes their previous work. That is not a tactic for market defined material...
Enough. I am going to the beach and am reading David Mitchell these days - his sentences are astonishing.
KG replies: Well said, of course. But first, I'm specifically *not* carping about elitism - the word just carries too many conflicting connotations, and seems to bog down every conversation that includes it. When I refer to the elites (in the arts), I intend to include the specialists in each field who influence what work gets distributed and taken seriously. And secondly (though I may need a whole new blog entry), I realize that my view expressed here is a little more radical than I perhaps acknowledged. An an elite myself (insofar as I am thoroughly trained in modern music, though I'm rarely in any position of power) I appreciate (on whatever level or levels) a lot of music that I would not really expect non-composers to "get." I've been listening lately to Stefan Wolpe's Enactments, which I love, but which is really, really abstract, and my appreciation for it is partly informed by what I *know* about Wolpe: that he didn't use systems, that he wrote intuitively and playfully, and, knowing that, I listen to the music in a certain way. As an artist, though, I don't want to make, and would not feel happy making, music that listeners would need some kind of specialized knowledge to grasp. There's a line there that I'm happy to cross as a critic, but don't want to cross as an artist - or rather, if I'm going to cross it creatively, I'm going to use all possible resources to pull the listener in, seductively, so that whatever weirdness I want to get into (like my tunings) is *communicated* and more than meets the listener halfway. If I'm making sense, here. And one of my models for where that line is, is literature, insofar as I perceive it. I love reading novels, and I'm willing to put a lot of energy into them, and put up with a lot of weirdness. But I'm not willing, at my age (I was much more so when the world seemed more infinite), to follow an author through some sterile experiment whose payoff seems not to come from experiencing the work, but only through some sort of left-brain analysis and a list of rational justifications. When I was young, I could read some difficult novel and think it was my problem that I didn't get it, and try to expand my means of apprehension to appreciate what was there. As I get older, I read for pleasure, and I need the novelist to make the payoff a little more continuous - or I'll just toss it aside and read another book, because there is no end of great novels. And I impose, as part of my own sense of artistic ethics (Golden Rule), that same requirement on myself as composer, even though I know a lot of music I love lies on the other side of that line. So with all due respect to all that great literature you're talking about (all of which would be my professional concern if I were a literary critic), I am happy to leave some of it outside my sphere of interest.

AJ Sabatini: Well said, in every which way. There is no arguing with the pursuit of pleasure. Still authors, who, like all artists, are intent on making every work work and building a body of work that works on its own terms, which may sometimes be difficult. And sometimes fails. In any case, these days, the very act of reading seems to have become a specialization.

Lyle Sanford: This is an amazing post and discussion, full of idea boxes to unpack. I am as in agreement with your basic argument as my general unfamiliarity with new music and fiction allow. I've been happy to leave *most* of it outside my sphere of interest ever since majoring in English back in '71 and getting a whiff of what was coming down the line. What you're calling sophistication has always come across to me more as pretentiousness, and in-crowd validation, once I left academia.
But what's driving this comment is your phrase, "try to expand my means of apprehension to appreciate what was there". That's what your language on this blog, and your music, particularly The Planets, has done for me. It's a very handy phrase for talking about a dimension of art/music/literature that's not neccessarily present in entertainment.
It also seems a good phrase for talking about the purpose of Buddhist mind training (and a lot of other spiritual endeavors), which is not meant to be mere routine, but a catalyst.
Really glad you've kept on blogging for a while!
KG replies: Thanks, Lyle. Nicely said, as always.

N8Ma: Holy moly, are we not allowed to dislike anything anymore? Especially if we've been told it's very, very good? You make excellent points about what you like, what you don't like, and why. There's something curious about the internet, in that some people feel that an opinion expressed on a blog somehow can't just stand as a thing of its own; if you don't agree, you must Stand Up and let it be known! Clearly, your brief referencing elites & their influence on taste seem to be on point. You like what you like, and your reasoning requires no additional justification or clarification. I'm saying this because I, too, have a wide variety of tastes, and haven't felt entirely comfortable or at "home" saying yes to everything highbrow, no to everything lowbrow. I guess I'm a middlebrow guy trying to make it in a high-felutant profession...
KG replies: I'm catching on that DFW is an icon for the young that we uncomprehending oldsters aren't allowed to denigrate in the slightest, even enough to say he was brilliant but uneven....

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