January 3, 2009

"The real problem with literary types is..."

"... that the painstakingly detailed analysis of relationships required to understand or even to produce top notch novels can't be turned off when applied to one's spouse, or one's children. Even though you have to tell yourself they are not the same thing. One is an abstract, parallel world, where the rules are similar, but not the same. If a human being has a port wine stain on his forehead, it is a random accident of birth, but if you put one on a character in a novel, either you are a rank amateur, or the stain means something like 'mark of Cain,' etc. Or, to use Chekov's example, if you walk into somebody's house in real life, and they have a gun displayed on the wall, there is no guarantee that it is going to go off an kill somebody you know in the course of your relationship with the person, but in a novel, if there is a gun on the wall, it is going to go off and is going to affect somebody somehow."

Said Barlycorn, John, commenting on a post written by my son John and hitting me — the ex-wife of a novelist — way too close to home.

Scroll up to the post for a great Bertrand Russell quote about the happiness of the man of science.

46 comments:

Oligonicella said...

Bertrand Russell --

"The man of science has no need of a coterie, since he is thought well of by everybody except his colleagues."

That was then. This is now.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I'm going to be on the lookout for a comment about how the problem with legal types is that the painstakingly detailed analysis of language required can't be turned off when applied to one's family, so I can write a blog post saying: "This hit me, the son of a law professor, way too close to home."

Original George said...

Golden was that first age, which, with no one to compel, without a law, of its own will, kept faith and did the right. There was no fear of punishment, no threatening words were to be read on brazen tablets; no suppliant throng gazed fearfully upon its judge’s face; but without judges lived secure. Not yet had the pine tree, felled on its native mountains, descended thence into the watery plain to visit other lands; men knew no shores except their own. Not yet were cities begirt with steep moats; there were no trumpets of straight, no horns of curving brass, no swords or helmets. There was no need at all of armed men or for a loaded gun on the wall, for nations, secure from war’s alarums, passed the years in gentle ease. The earth herself, without compulsion, untouched by hoe or plowshare of herself gave all things needful. And men, content with food which came with no one’s seeking, gathered the arbute fruit, strawberries from the mountainsides, cornel-cherries, berries hanging thick upon the prickly bramble, and acorns falling from the spreading tree of Jove. Then spring was everlasting, and gentle zephyrs with warm breath played with the flowers that sprang unplanted. Anon the earth, untilled brought froth her stores of grain, and the fields, though unfallowed, grew white with the heavy, bearded wheat. Hey, hey, wha-. Put that, that loaded gu-. Streams of milk and streams of sweet nectar flowed, and yellow honey was distilled from the verdant oak.

-Ovid, The Metamorphoses

dbp said...

"When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient."

There is always the possibility, when one views a picture or reads a poem, that it is actually crap. With science, findings are published in peer reviewed journals and include methods, data and calculations to justify the conclusions. You can review their logic or even repeat their experiments. It makes sense to trust science more than art.

Henry Buck said...

JAC -

I refrained from making that exact comment when this post first went up.

dbp said...

Also, even though the rules of the fictional worlds and the real one are not the same, there are other differences too. A literary dialog is all thought out and each phrase freighted with significance, while a real conversation is spontaneous. A person could say something which, when taken to a logical conclusion, is really awful, but was really just a poor word choice and means nothing.

Ron said...

[T]he most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents.

Imagine my delight in discovering that I'm amongst the "most intelligent" people and young to boot! But since delight is such a simple emotion, well, I guess I must also be a scientist, and not just a garden variety bum!

Trooper York said...

Don Vito Corleone [to Sonny who showed interest in Sollozzo's deal] Santino, come're. What's-a matter with you? I think your brain is going soft from all that comedy your playing with that young girl. Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again!
(The Godfather, 1972)

Synova said...

Heh.

I think it probably has more to do with what is considered "literary" and perhaps the sort of novel that says the sort of things that impress certain sorts of people as "literary."

Thus... "top notch" novels.

And yet, and yet...

Should a novelist who compulsively delves into the intricacies of relationship have an excuse to hyper-analyze his or her loved ones and children? What of the novelist who delves into the blackness of the potential of human evil?

True enough, I write science fiction which to a whole lot of people means I write fluff. Not serious. Not literary. But mystery writers think deeply about how and why to kill people and the writers I associate with have been known to ask about the taste of human flesh... among other things.

But I just wonder about this relationship problem of "literary types" -- because I can't read a book or watch a movie or television show without analyzing it for character and story, pace, rhythm and timing. This is something that has happened *after* I started to pursue writing, and I can't turn it off. Sometimes it is a real pain in the *ss, too.

OTOH, my compulsion, however slight or severe, to observe the human condition has *nothing* to do with writing. It hasn't changed between before or after, or even between childhood and adulthood.

Correlation is not causation, either one way or the other unless it's that the "problem" with literary types is that they are inflexible narcissists... and that's why they are convinced that anyone will care what they write.

Synova said...

...the most intelligent young people in Western countries tend to have that kind of unhappiness that comes of finding no adequate employment for their best talents.

*snort*

The world is filled with wonder and joy and if other people don't favor gazing at your navel as much as you do, good for them.

Expat(ish) said...

Well, perhaps with the faux literary types we have today. I do not recall that Churchill, Tuchman, Trollop, Dickens, Franklin, et. al. had problems related to their inability to "turn off" their literary talent.

Yes, that is what happens to be on the edge of my desk right now, so maybe I am simply biased towards a more integrated writer. Perhaps even one who can put a port wine mark on a forehead because those occur on people who are not, actually, Cain.

-XC

Lem said...

I'm going to be on the lookout for a comment about how the problem with legal types is that the painstakingly detailed analysis of language required can't be turned off when applied to one's family...

I'm just glad that a legal type could not turn off the painstakingly detailed analysis of language required to come up with this Aside.

Paul Zrimsek said...

See, this is a good reason to be a philosopher instead. The only real problem you've got is that you're out of work.

rhhardin said...

happiness of the man of science

There are 463150704646224649764463441631672026117820 ways to place 1's in a 23x23x23 triangular grid so that no 1 is next to another 1.

The hours flew by today.

ricpic said...

Okay, I'll admit to being thrown by rh's post, but to get back on track, isn't Chekov, cited in the passage under discussion, a prime example of a writer who does not place a gun on the wall and then have it fired by one of his charaters? And isn't that the reason Chekovian writing, meandering and pointless, like life, is a model many if not most modern writers follow?

It happens to be a 24X24X24 grid, by the way.

rhhardin said...

Will we hear a novelist point of view on the Althouse marriage failure, is the question.

rhhardin said...

24x24x24 is 1629220855732511492546360589163007528597792818, if anybody asks.

David said...

Eeek. My son-in-law just published his first novel. (Plug: "Going to See the Elephant" by Rodes Fishburne) Is their marriage doomed?

I doubt it. He knows how lucky he is.

David said...

RH Hardin: "Will we hear a novelist point of view on the Althouse marriage failure, is the question."

Why is it the "failure" or a marriage rather than the end of a marriage? Sounds like the Althouse marriage had a bunch of successes before it ended.

Synova said...

And isn't that the reason Chekovian writing, meandering and pointless, like life, is a model many if not most modern writers follow?

Ugh.

And accurately recreated life is somehow artistically superior to someone simply living it? Because it's been recreated by a writer, and the person who is living it is one of those not intellectual enough? But isn't the meandering lack of focus and purpose as much of a lie as the story and character arc that leads to a predictable end?

Chet said...

Bertrand Russell was an serial adulterer who preached free-love, treason, and violence against the government.

Trooper York said...

Rh you freak me out man.

ricpic said...

Point taken, but did you have to ugh me, Synova?

That's not nice.

Lem said...

The real problem with literary types is their political views?

Jorge Luis Borges said upon turning blind..

Let neither tear nor reproach besmirch
this declaration of the mastery
of God who, with magnificent irony,
granted me both the gift of books and the night.


Although a perennial contender for the Novel Prize in Literature it was never granted him on account of his political views.

It's nearly impossible to deny a man/woman of science his day in the sun.

Synova said...

Point taken, but did you have to ugh me, Synova?

Not you!

The whole business is just one of my buttons.

Lem said...

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Al Gore has a Prize and Jorge Luis Borges does not.

Borges's change in style from criollismo to a more cosmopolitan style brought him much criticism from journals such as Contorno, a left of center, Sartre-influenced publication founded by the Viñas brothers (Ismael & David), Noé Jitrik, Adolfo Prieto, and other intellectuals. Contorno "met with wide approval among the youth [...] for taking the older writers of the country to task on account of [their] presumed inauthenticity and their legacy of formal experimentation at the expense of responsibility and seriousness in the face of society's problems" (Katra:1988:56).[14]

Borges and Eduardo Mallea were criticized for being "doctors of technique"; their writing presumably "lacked substance due to their lack of interaction with the reality [...] that they inhabited", an existential critique of their refusal to embrace existence and reality in their artwork


Al Gore jumps on the global warming bandwagon and not only gets the Novel Prize he gets the much coveted American counterpart - an Oscar.

Lem said...

Will we hear a novelist point of view on the Althouse marriage failure, is the question.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Lem said...

23x23x23 - 24x24x24

What is so dificult that we cant say 23 or 24 to the 3rd power?

Lem said...

Detroit could use a doctor right about now.

Michael_H said...

Hey! All you Althouse/Cohens - take it outside, will ya? We've all just spent part of the holidays with relatives we don't like very much, and need a break.

Lem said...

Hey Michael_H

Is this you?

http://www.youtube.com/user/Mmisiex

Lem said...

The real problem with literary types is kissing and telling no longer considered de rigeur.

Ann Althouse said...

rhhardin said..."Will we hear a novelist point of view on the Althouse marriage failure, is the question."

Find the novels!

Now, I have a question for you: What is your job?

Michael_H said...

Lem- Nope. I'm a 60ish Amurrican; the other guy(?) is a 30 year old Pole. The dog photo must be in the public domain.

Thanks for asking.

MH

Michael_H said...

Find the novels!

I dunno. I read this Richard L Cohen novel three times and didn't find a character at all suggestive of you, Ann.

Unless you were 'quark' or 'photon', which I guess could be possible if I deconstructed the work a bit.

Give me some help - could you ever pass through lead without colliding with any atoms? Maybe at an earlier age when you were more agile?

commenter said...

whoever asked why consider divorce a marriage failure thinks along my liines. like i said , it could be a marriage that has served its purpose. i think the win/loss or success/failure thing comes from the the legal aspect, where marriage becomes a pitiful public showcase at that point where it ends.

love doesn't fail. it dies.

until death do us part. who knew they weren't speaking about the physical?

well,idid.

knox said...

great thread.

rhhardin said...

What is your job?

Computer programmer.

rhhardin said...

Country song-writer Harlan Howard : Everytime I get married, I get three songs out of it. Every time I get divorced, I get three more.

Celia Hayes said...

Cart before horse, if you ask me - regarding being unable to turn off the tendency to mentally dissect and analyze the people around you, after doing so as part of writing.

I always did this kind of analysis of people. Eventually using it in the service of the stories I wrote was a refreshing outlet, and use for that mental trait.

I don't think of what I write as anything so high-falooting as 'litrachure' ... I just tell stories about adventures on the American frontier.

Carefully research, of course - but not high-end literature.

onparkstreet said...

Funny, I was just reading A View Of The Harbour (Elizabeth Taylor, no not that one, the other one) and ran across this passage:

"Writers are ruined people. As a person, you're done for. Everywhere you go, all you see and do, you are working up into something unreal, something to go on paper...you've done it since you were a little girl...I've watched you for years and I've seen you gradually becoming inhuman, outside life, a machine. When anything important happens you're stunned and thrown out for a while, and then you recover....God, how novelists recover!"

Synova said...

Oh the romance, the angst, the pain of the artist, the creator. Pity the poor wrecked soul who must suffer to create greatness.

onparkstreet said...

Oh, I forgot to add context to the above quote: one character was making fun of another character, making fun of the writer, because the writer is so obsessed with her imaginary world she misses things in her real-life world. Also, she, irritatingly, uses personal details in her novels which, well, irritate people who know her.

Celia Hayes said...

Geeze, good thing I am not one of those angsty, self-absorbed literary types, then. I write historical novels of the American frontier, mostly. If you bend down and squint at them sideways, you could call them Westerns, I guess.

I just like to tell stories. And that people would listen, enjoy the heck out of them, buy my books and allow me to collect royalties - well, that is just jake. Especially the royalty part.

Simon Kenton said...

"Said Barlycorn, John, commenting on a post written by my son John and hitting me — the ex-wife of a novelist — way too close to home."

A friend who was married to one (for a while) grew exasperated one night and told him, "There's a time when the psychologist stops and the husband starts."

Perhaps what she said should have been true, but it wasn't.

rhhardin said...

There's a Thurber cartoon, probably in _Let Your Mind Alone!_, of a harmless looking man pausing before picking up the phone, ``Psychologist about to call his wife.''

The implication in those days was the opposite.