March 2, 2021

"A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways."

"Specifically, literary fiction was associated with increased attributional complexity and accuracy in predicting social attitudes, while popular fiction was linked to increased egocentric bias.... 'We distinguished between literary (e.g. Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins), and showed that it is by reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities — you are better at inferring and representing what other people think, feel, their intentions, etc.'... [E]ngaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters.... 'The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals, to withhold judgment, to think deeply. It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. The popular type reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas; a mode of thinking that roughly corresponds to what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1: fast, automatic, well-practiced... I submit that for a well functioning society a continuous tension between these two types of thinking styles – and thus both types of cultural products that, among other factors, promote them. Too much literary, and we disintegrate as a society. Too much popular, and we ossify. Neither scenario is auspicable.'"

 From "Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests" (PsyPost).

I'm totally distracted by the question whether "auspicable" is a word. I can see that "auspicabile" is an Italian word, and the quote is from the author of the study, Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy. There must be a word for a word that is newly slipping from one language into another. I accept it. I understand it. He could have said "auspicious," but it's charming that he didn't. These are the kind of thoughts I have, and they demonstrate that I'm the sort of person who, when reading fiction, pretty much only reads literary fiction. 

Before you gear up to call me a snob — I say, with my enhanced mindreading ability — I assure you that I just don't like popular fiction. I bought a novel the other day because I wanted to quote a particular passage — here — and I decided to try to read it. Here's how it began:

After Slitscan, Laney heard about another job from Rydell, the night security man at the Chateau. Rydell was a big quiet Tennessean with a sad shy grin, cheap sunglasses, and a walkie-talkie screwed permanently into one ear. 
“Paragon-Asia Dataflow,” Rydell said, around four in the morning, the two of them seated in a pair of huge old armchairs. Concrete beams overhead had been hand-painted to vaguely resemble blond oak. The chairs, like the rest of the furniture in the Chateau’s lobby, were oversized to the extent that whoever sat in them seemed built to a smaller scale.

Ugh! I hate writing like that. I instinctively loathe it. I could analyze why, but I didn't analyze it before shutting the book down and shuddering in horror. 

What exactly is my problem? It's not that it's too easy. It's what it's demanding that I do: 1. Remember the names of 2 guys I have no reason to care about and to remember numerous external details about them, 2. Remember some dull technological sounding name that has no meaning or promise of meaning, 3. Picture a shitload of interior decoration, 4. Expect insights on the level of large chairs make people look smaller than they otherwise would, 5. Steel myself for an onslaught of adjectives, especially in boring pairs like "big quiet," "sad shy," and "huge old." I get weary!

I am rereading a work of literary fiction that is, in fact, much easier to begin to read: 

Kumiko never came back that night. I stayed up until midnight, reading, listening to music, and waiting for her, but finally I gave up and went to bed. I fell asleep with the light on. It was six in the morning when I woke. The full light of day shone outside the window. Beyond the thin curtain, birds were chirping. There was no sign of my wife beside me in bed. The white pillow lay there, high and fluffy. As far as I could see, no head had rested on it during the night. Her freshly washed, neatly folded summer pajamas lay atop the night table. I had washed them. I had folded them. I turned off the lamp beside my pillow and took a deep breath, as if to regulate the flow of time.

Only one name to remember, and I'm eased into reasons to care about her and the unnamed narrator, her husband. My sensitivity is cared for. This author isn't yelling at me to get to work. 

197 comments:

Joe Smith said...

Sounds to me like the difference between smart and dumb.

But this type of 'study' is all mumbo jumbo and anything but scientific.

Kevin said...

I'm the sort of person who, when reading fiction, pretty much only reads literary fiction.

Hence your fixation on the WAPO and Times.

Their lies are cloaked in style guides and proven typefaces to make the fiction digestible for the most highly educated.

rcocean said...

I'm sensitive to literary style and I'm willing to put up with novels with very little story (like Tender is the Night or James Joyce) because of that. Most people, however, want a plot, story, and action. Listening to a book enhances the impact of the prose style for good or ill.

I've never been able to get through Catch-22 on audiotape because its so repetitive. OTOH, the only way I could've gotten through Joyce's Ulysses is on audiotape. That, and reading it in snatches while driving to work. I was amused to learn that G.B. Shaw and Yeats praised Joyce's book but never finished it.

rcocean said...

Some popular fiction is well written. Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, etc. Enough action for the masses and high enough prose style for the snobs.

Nonapod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin said...

I like this post of Ann’s because it truly distinguishes between the between the two Americas.

One is fixated on the underlying story, no matter how difficult to follow.

The other goes anywhere the beautiful writing takes them.

Nonapod said...

As they say, correlation is not always causation. Perhaps people who choose to read one type of fiction rather than the other may be better at inferrence than those others. So it's not the type of fiction itself that causes people to be better at mind reading.

h said...

I'm about half way through Lord Jim, and it has a lot of overlapping and swapping of narratives and narrators. When I was young (and precocious) I tried reading one of the famous Russian novels, and gave up because I was so confused about the names (Alexander, Alexander Ivanovich, Pritkov, Sasha all the same person). So I'm not totally sold on the idea that literary fiction is "much easier to read".

Tim said...

Sounds like hokum to me. And I do not care for literary fiction. I find it to be pretentious and boring. Popular fiction, as characterized by Shakespeare and his modern day successors, I find to be much more engaging.

Joe Smith said...

"Some popular fiction is well written. Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, etc."

Reading Chandler now...the man was a genius.

Normal for the time ('30s) but racist as hell now.

He'll probably be cancelled soon...

MadisonMan said...

I'm laughing envisioning a walkie talkie -- the battery-powered things my friends and I used as kids -- screwed into someone's ear!

Nonapod said...

At any rate, if you see two people sitting next to you on a bench and one is reading a Tolstoy doorstopper and the other is reading a Barbara Cartland bodice ripper, which one would you assume is better at mind reading? And which one would you want to talk to?

Splanky said...

What, desirable was unavailable ?
If neither form is auspicable then what should one read ?
Seuss was my go to guy, until yesterday.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

rcocean said...

Some popular fiction is well written. Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, etc.

Heh! She's quoting William Gibson from his novel Idoru. He's notoriously Chandleresque. So no Phillip Marlowe for Althouse.

tcrosse said...

We have been reminded that even childrens' books can be (and should be!) read through a critical lens.

Freeman Hunt said...

"Ugh! I hate writing like that. I instinctively loathe it. I could analyze why, but I didn't analyze it before shutting the book down and shuddering in horror."

Ha ha! I have the same reaction to that kind of writing. In fact, I didn't make it through the second paragraph you quoted.

Michael K said...

What drivel ! I've been reading a series of historical novels about the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England. The author taught economic history for years and the books are very well researched. I've learned quite a bit about the period and have no interest in "mind reading." Tom Clancy also wrote novels that were full of information. He was too fond of the CIA but wrote well. My nEnglish professor once told us that the only way he could get through Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" was to take a sea voyage and bring that as the only reading material.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm skeptical of the popular/literary distinction. It might have more to do with the publishing business and how things are marketed. Obviously, there can be very good or very bad writing writing of either type. But that sci-fi genre prose I quoted really is something that I instinctively hate. I just won't read writing like that. It doesn't seem like any fun and it doesn't seem to offer anything deep either. It's just a pain in the ass. I hate most fiction, even the stuff that's literary.

I think it's important to be aware of what you like and don't like. Don't read it because you feel you should like it. You only have a little time to spend with things. I wouldn't read something just so others will admire me and think I'm smart or deep and I wouldn't refrain from reading something because it's lowly. I just have my preferences. I feel the same way about writing.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

Well, ashcan that popular trash by Dickens, Dumas and that Avon lowlife then!

Churchy LaFemme: said...

My nEnglish professor once told us that the only way he could get through Spenser's "The Faerie Queen" was to take a sea voyage and bring that as the only reading material.

My father wrote a book on The Faerie Queen -- I need to read it, and the source someday..

Temujin said...

'auspicabile', meaning desirable. I suspect the writer did not know she was quoting a non-word. ?

I love reading writers who make me stop and reread their sentences or paragraphs, not because I don't understand them, but because it's such beautiful prose, I want to read it again. But that's a very subjective thing. I find that many of the authors deemed great ones, like Don Delillo, are sometimes so incoherent in their writing, I have to put it down and walk away. Still...I'll end up buying and reading Delillo's latest because, once complete, his stories are strong. I just don't like his writing style. Franzen as well. Loved his books once complete, but found them work to get through, not because they were too much for my intellect, but because the writing was just not pleasant to read. I've long thought Franzen needed an editor with a black marker. Authors who I love, maybe lesser known, like Leif Enger or Amor Towles, write so beautifully, I'll go back and reread down the line. I cannot see me ever rereading any Franzen or Delillo book.

That said, I get why people read lighter fare. It's entertainment. Life is hard enough. Some don't want to have to work at their 'off time'. For those people, reading should not be work, it should be a get away, fun, entertaining. Like 'stupid' TV. And all of us have some stupid TV we can own up to.

I also read too much non-fiction. And that is never fun. Interesting, yes. Fun? No. I always have to run back to fiction for entertainment. But my fiction is usually high quality. I cannot read the book equivalent to The Walking Dead (my stupid TV).

By the way RCOCEAN's comment on Catch-22 was spot on. It was a laugh-out-loud book. But I cannot imagine listening to it.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'm laughing envisioning a walkie talkie -- the battery-powered things my friends and I used as kids -- screwed into someone's ear!"

That is typical of that kind of writing — straining for more powerful verbs — action!!!! verbs. They're also always telling you about people walking across rooms and through doorways and downstairs and across the sidewalk. It's so tedious and they spice it up with alternatives to "walk." Indoors, people are forever "padding." Outdoors, they are "stomping" and "striding" and "barging" past other people. And pile on the adjectives and adverbs. They're not just "striding" they are taking long purposeful strides. There's all this detail you're supposed to use your brain to transform into pictures... for very little reason. I'm not going to care *how* everybody walks or even want to picture them going from one place to the other.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Have the got the cart mixed up with the horse?
Also they chose only recent authors, who will share an enormous amount of worldview regardless of what audience the write for. Where do the Janeites fit in? Melville or Tolkien fans?
It looks like people are trying hard to show what fine, deep people they are - not like those others.

Mr Wibble said...

What I find funny is that the left will now doubt wave this about, while at the same time based on their social media and dating profiles, will continue to read nothing but Harry Potter.

madAsHell said...

A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways.

I think the statement is backwards. The type of person affects their social cognition.

Have you ever read the tripe in a lesbian bookstore??

New profile who dis? said...

Nonapod said...
At any rate, if you see two people sitting next to you on a bench and one is reading a Tolstoy doorstopper and the other is reading a Barbara Cartland bodice ripper ... which one would you want to talk to?

Depends. Is the broad reading the bodice-ripper hot?

Jim Gust said...

Here's the first paragraph of a popular work of science fiction I enjoyed thoroughly:

"I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army."

I was immediately hooked. The book is Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. I picked it up at the library because the Instapundit had recommended it. So long ago. Back when libraries were open. Scalzi wrote three sequels, all very good.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways.

I think the statement is backwards. The type of person affects their social cognition.


Ah yes, Critchon's "Wet streets cause rain".

Nonapod said...

I wouldn't read something just so others will admire me and think I'm smart or deep and I wouldn't refrain from reading something because it's lowly.

I found it amusing seeing the books TV commentators choose to put behind them as a backdrop when they Zoomed from home during the Covid era, wondering how many of those books they had actually read, given how bad most of them seemed to be at mind reading Trump supporters.

GMay said...

*Looks at the study*

Yep, another tendentious "study" designed to massage the sensibilities of the bien pensants, conducted by pseudo-scientists who are little more than glorified statisticians who couldn't get a useful stats job. "See? The science says I'm a better person than you!"

The "Methods" section is an absolute joke, that is, if you can get past the unserious premise.

Fernandinande said...

Where on the literary-popular spectrum does Dr. Seuss fall?

Sounds to me like the difference between smart and dumb.

The study doesn't mention causation, just association.

Mikey NTH said...

Read what you want and tell the critics to take a hike.

Bob Boyd said...

Oh, she may be weary
Professors they do get wearied
Reading those all paired up adjectives, yeah, yeah
But when she gets weary
Try a little tenderness, yeah yeah

gilbar said...

now do Science Fiction!

what sort of social cognition do you get, from reading Robert Heinlein?
how does it differ from the social cognition you get from reading say: Anson MacDonald or Lyle Monroe?

Bilwick said...

I read both types, so where am I?

Rick.T. said...

Very little fiction for me except historical where I can still learn something. If I want entertaining fiction I’ll watch it instead.

Mr Wibble said...

I found it amusing seeing the books TV commentators choose to put behind them as a backdrop when they Zoomed from home during the Covid era, wondering how many of those books they had actually read, given how bad most of them seemed to be at mind reading Trump supporters.



There are companies which sell books by the yard to fill shelves. You can even order them with specific genres.

Carol said...

Everything has to be quirky now. Lots of quirky details. A radio permanently screwed into one ear. Sure...

I hate quirky.

Darcy said...

I've mostly been a voracious popular fiction reader, though I'd like to think I'd also steer clear of the awful writing Althouse provided. I decided during the pandemic, with a lot more time on my hands, to delve more into classic literary fiction. Oh my. It's never too late. In fact, one may feel an urgency. You never know when some of this priceless writing will be banned by the woke Left.

That said, my brain was reared on pop fiction, so if an author goes on and on for pages describing something I really (really!) got a good vision of in the first two paragraphs, I find that I tend to get bored. I'm looking at you, Flaubert.

Mr Wibble said...

I was immediately hooked. The book is Old Man's War, by John Scalzi. I picked it up at the library because the Instapundit had recommended it. So long ago. Back when libraries were open. Scalzi wrote three sequels, all very good.

I thought it was ok, but couldn't really buy the notion that Earth is somehow a technologically ignorant backwater AND the most important source of recruits and colonists.

Mr. Forward said...

Wrong beach.

wendybar said...

Mr Wibble said...
What I find funny is that the left will now doubt wave this about, while at the same time based on their social media and dating profiles, will continue to read nothing but Harry Potter.

3/2/21, 10:08 AM

At the same time, trying to cancel the author because she CORRECTLY commented on a headline from a news article referring to "people who menstruate," which she suggested should have been shortened to just "women."

"I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"

JK Brown said...

Are you sure your example of popular fiction was actually "popular" or is that just something the New York Times told you? Granted, I haven't read a lot of popular fiction recently, but in my youth and that drivel would not have been read even when poverty pushed me to read a book after it was bought regardless of its ability to maintain my interest.

Sounds to me the author of the article that is the subject of this post is trying to justify the self-indulgent "literary" fiction. Not to mention the English classes that for decades have turned students off from reading by presuming high schoolers and college freshmen could pretend to do literary criticism. This was known before the English department was formed, but once created and in full bloom by the 1920s, the professors had to teach something to justify their sinecures. Paul Graham has a great essay, 'The Age of the Essay' the summarizes how the English department came about and how it generally degraded the instruction in writing.


"Nothing can be more hypocritical than for young
people who are still in the rudiments of literature to be forced
into pronouncing objective judgments as to the worth of
literature. Students instinctively feel this, and resent all
attempts to get them to pretend a knowledge which they do
not possess. On the other hand, they are beginning to be
dissatisfied with judging books and other works of art on the
ground of mere impulsive like or dislike. It is time, then, for
something less ambitious than criticism, and more thoughtful
than caprice.

"Interpretation rather than criticism."

--Freshman Rhetoric, John Rothwell Slater, Ph.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Rochester, (1913)

GMay said...

I'm reminded of that study a few years back that concluded that liberals were neurotic and conservatives were psychopathic. It got published in a prestigious journal, and of course all the "best" outlets sprinted with the story.

Turns out, the "researchers" got their coding exactly backwards and had to publish a rather significant correction that, in a totally unsurprising turn of non-events, didn't receive nearly the fanfare the original paper received.

Browndog said...

If you recall, and I'm sure you do, when the first guidelines of Common Core were published, they called for banning all fiction books for English/Lit classes.

Maoism.

rhhardin said...

Tom Clancey

"Every day the tapes the cameras made were uploaded to the Russian communications satellite that spent most of its time hanging over the North Pole -- much of the country is too far north to make proper use of the geosynchronous birds used by the rest of the world."

Unusual orbit.

stevew said...

This study is a Swimmers Body Illusion situation, confusing cause and effect.

Personally I very much like fiction, dramatic, science, all of it. Not a fan of whatever it is they call the Danielle Steel sort. But I tire of it eventually and go back to non-fiction. Erik Larson and Nathaniel Philbrick have been high on my reading list.

Still enjoy Vonnegut. Dennis Lehane's writing is simple yet expressive.

Ken B said...

I am a little torn by the popular/literary distinction. I don’t deny it exists, but it’s hard to define and it misses the most important distinction: contemporary vs older. I read little contemporary fiction of any sort. Anthony Horowitz's mysteries. When I was young I read mostly pre 1900 or mysteries from the first half of the 20th century.
I'll put my literary snob credentials up against Althouse’s.

iqvoice said...

I read Anna Karenina and War & Peace before I graduated high school. War & Peace was the more difficult by far, and ultimately left me as nonplussed as the protagonist. But I really enjoyed Anna Karenina and would recommend it to anyone: it's themes, prose, pacing, etc. were not difficult, and I imagine even a bodice-ripper fan could appreciate it.

Ken B said...

What was that dreadful book you quoted from?

Joe Smith said...

"I think the statement is backwards. The type of person affects their social cognition."

'Ah yes, Critchon's "Wet streets cause rain".'

See first comment.

Tom T. said...

I think this study is intended to reinforce the egocentric bias of certain people.

Biff said...

"A study published in PLOS One suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways."

That sounds like the sort of "study" that is very unlikely to be reliably reproducible. Color me skeptical.

GMay said...

"That said, my brain was reared on pop fiction, so if an author goes on and on for pages describing something I really (really!) got a good vision of in the first two paragraphs, I find that I tend to get bored."


LitFic is stuffed with that sort of padded prose.

Patrick Rothfuss has an excellent take on Literary vs. "Genre" fic:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFI30pcv4sM

Only 2 mins

Amexpat said...

Looks like you're rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I had reread it and it was my favorite Murakami novel until your blog inspired me to reread Kafka on the Shore, which I enjoyed even more the second time and is now my Murakami GOAT.

I was into William Gibson's Nueromancer big time in the late 80's. I read 3-4 of his subsequent books. I stopped after that as I felt that I was just rereading his first book.

BudBrown said...

Who's the cartoon character says despicable? Now it's auspicable. With Red underlining.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

gilbar said...

now do Science Fiction!

what sort of social cognition do you get, from reading Robert Heinlein?
how does it differ from the social cognition you get from reading say: Anson MacDonald or Lyle Monroe?


I see what you did there!

Ann Althouse said...

"Are you sure your example of popular fiction was actually "popular" or is that just something the New York Times told you?"

It's sci-fi, and the category "literary" doesn't include sci-fi. Sci-fi is a "genre." Perhaps that's an injustice of some kind, but that's the standard distinction. There must be some sci-fi that gets to be considered literary though — Doris Lessing?

Marcus Bressler said...

You're entitled to read what you like and have an opinion on what you don't like. Everyone's mileage varies. I would never criticize someone for reading a specific author or genre. Reading is perhaps the best thing you can do for your brain and the best autodidactic method IMO.

I wish I could still read without my mind wandering.

THEOLDMAN

Ann Althouse said...

The sci-fi quote in my post is from William Gibson. Here's a Reddit discussion of whether Gibson is considered "literature."

Mike Sylwester said...

I am reading Nikolai Gogol's story The Nose, which begins thus:

On the 25th March, 18—, a very strange occurrence took place in St Petersburg. On Ascension Avenue lived a barber named Ivan Yakovlevitch (his family name is forgotten). His sign-board depicted the head of a gentleman with one cheek soaped. The sign's inscription was, “Blood-letting also done here.”

On this particular morning he woke early. Becoming aware of the smell of fresh-baked bread, he sat up a little in bed and saw his wife, who had a special liking for coffee, in the act of taking some fresh-baked bread out of the oven.

“Today, Prasskovna Ossipovna,” he said, “I do not want any coffee; I should like a fresh bun with onions.”

“The blockhead may eat only bread, as far as I am concerned,” said his wife to herself; “Then I will be able to drink all the coffee.” She threw a bun on the table.

Properly, Ivan Yakovlevitch drew a coat over his nightshirt, sat down at the table, shook out some salt, prepared two onions, assumed a serious expression, and began to cut the bun. After he had cut the bun into halves, he looked inside, and was astonished to see something whitish inside. He carefully poked it with his knife and felt it with his finger.

“It's stuck tight in there,” he murmured into his beard. “What can it be?”

He put in his finger, and drew out a nose!

Ivan Yakovlevitch at first let his hands fall from sheer astonishment; then he rubbed his eyes and began to feel it. A nose, an actual nose; and, moreover, it seemed to be the nose of an acquaintance! Alarm and terror were seen on Ivan's face; but these feelings were slight in comparison with his wife's disgust .

“Whose nose have you cut off, you monster?” she screamed, her face red with anger. “You scoundrel! You drunk! I myself will report you to the police! You are such a rascal! Many customers have told me that while you were shaving them, you held them so tight by the nose that they could hardly sit still.”

Ivan Yakovlevitch felt more dead than alive; he saw at once that this nose could belong to no other than to Kovaloff, a member of the Municipal Committee whom he shaved every Sunday and Wednesday. ....

Clyde said...

I wasn't that big a fan of William Gibson's Idoru. I really enjoyed Neuromancer when it came out back in 1984. It really kicked off the whole futuristic cyberpunk genre that Gibson started with his 1981 short story "Johnny Mnemonic." If you didn't like that excerpt, then you probably wouldn't have liked Neuromancer or any of his other work, though. Interestingly, the 1995 movie version of Johnny Mnemonic was set in 2021.

Ann Althouse said...

"Looks like you're rereading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I had reread it and it was my favorite Murakami novel until your blog inspired me to reread Kafka on the Shore, which I enjoyed even more the second time and is now my Murakami GOAT."

I've read "Kafka on the Shore" twice. I got to the end and almost immediately started the reread. I think it's my favorite. I'm rereading "Wind-up Bird" because I remember there was so much to it and I see more value in taking a second run through it than opening up something new. It does have a scene that I consider one of the most disturbing things I have ever read.

Michael said...

Are you not simply defining good writing as literary? Where would you place Terry Pratchett or Patrick O'Brien? Tolkien? Rowling? Agatha Christie? Science fiction is not literary? (Surely news to H.G. Wells.)

Eleanor said...

When some people read fiction, the book is playing like a movie in their heads. The descriptive words about how a person is walking across the room or what everyone is wearing add to the richness of the "movie". These people are highly visual learners, and the richer the descriptions, the more enjoyable the experience. Someone wanting less description is either someone who wants to control how she imagines the story herself or doesn't convert words to pictures in her head. Preferring fewer characters to track could be the sign someone wants a simpler storyline or someone might have a hard time paying attention to more than one task at a time. "Anna Karenina" had enough going on and enough characters to be a couple of books. I don't think it tracks as much to which reader is smarter, more sophisticated, or can read people better. Lots of literary fiction is richly descriptive. Lots of classical literature was once pop culture reading. It's not only liking "literary fiction" that's snobby. It's sticking one's nose up at popular fiction that is. Both can be very good fiction, and some of each is really, really bad. In response to the two people sitting on the bench- the one reading the bodice ripper is not afraid of being judged by people and is more likely not to be pretentious. That may or may not make her more fun in bed, but you are more likely to have fun finding out.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

It's sci-fi, and the category "literary" doesn't include sci-fi. Sci-fi is a "genre." Perhaps that's an injustice of some kind, but that's the standard distinction. There must be some sci-fi that gets to be considered literary though — Doris Lessing?

Orwell, Leguin, Huxley, Bradbury & Butler all come to mind.

Clyde said...

To get an idea of what Neuromancer is like, here is a link to a page with the first chapter.

Neuromancer - (Chapter 1) - William Gibson

The first line is a classic.

wholelottasplainin' said...

I wonder what the author of the "study" thinks about JFK's love of James Bond books.

GMay said...

"Lots of classical literature was once pop culture reading."

This observation should feature prominently in these discussions. After all, Dickens was considered fairly low brow in his day. The vast majority of the LitFic of the past 50 years will be forgotten, while the more popular "genre" works will survive.

RNB said...

"[B]y reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities..." No, godamnit, you cannot read minds. No one can. But half the liberals / progressives I know seem to think they can. They discern the flaws in the souls and the 'real' motivations of people they have never met. Sometimes,s the flaws and motivations of entire populations.

Yancey Ward said...

This paper must be a bunch of horseshit. Have these people ever tried to figure out cause and effect.....for any event? Perhaps particular people prefer a particular kind of fiction. Also, how, exactly, do you separate "literary fiction" from other fiction? What are the scientific rules for doing so?

Amexpat said...

I'm rereading "Wind-up Bird" because I remember there was so much to it and I see more value in taking a second run through it than opening up something new. It does have a scene that I consider one of the most disturbing things I have ever read.

Yes, there are some disturbing things in "Wind-up". The war scenes in Manchuria come to mind. In retrospect, it would be more accurate to say that I thought it was Murakami's strongest or best book rather than a favorite in the sense of most pleasure to read. There's a lot of humor and warmth in "Kafka". It was mostly a great joy to read. A lot of "Wind-up" was profoundly sad or disturbing.

Kate said...

The second paragraph, the literary one, is not something I would read based on that excerpt. Every sentence except the second is rhythmically the same. Boom-boom-boom. Period. Boom-boom-boom.

I guess I prefer syncopation in my fiction.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

Yancey Ward said...

This paper must be a bunch of horseshit.

Lately I'm seeing a lot of academic stuff that appears to be horseshit. But that's what you get when you have a glut of PhDs.

Fernandinande said...

The war scenes in Manchuria come to mind.

That was the only good part of the book.

Fernandinande said...

That was the only good part of the book.

Well, that was the best part, there was still that "atmosphere", but one of his books provides a lifetime's worth of that.

tim maguire said...

After Slitscan, Laney heard about another job from Rydell, the night security man at the Chateau.

Reminds me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Or most of Neal Stephenson. Brilliant guy, fantastic with ideas, a tech visionary. Now if only he could team up with a competent writer...

William said...

Somewhere along the way I lost my taste for fiction. I read mostly history, bios, and memoirs now....I read a few books by Tom Clancy. He didn't have any deep insights into the human condition, but he could write about complicated technical matters with striking lucidity. It's quite an accomplishment to be able to describe the varieties of submarine propulsion systems in such a way as to be comprehensible and interesting to the reader and still memorable twenty years later.....I've read a lot of books. I wonder if I've learnt anything from all the stuff I've read. I can use a lot of words and I have a fund of knowledge. I suppose that's worth something. In my case, it hasn't produced any mind reading abilities or wisdom.

Unknown said...

I assume the Murakami passage is a translation. It reads like Hemingway. A good thing in my book.

gilbar said...

north of the 101 said ...
I see what you did there!

i hoped Someone would!

Edmund said...

There must be some sci-fi that gets to be considered literary though — Doris Lessing?

She is. Except critics slammed her for writing sf late in her career.

The big difference between popular vs. literary fiction is plot driven vs. character driven. And for literary, it helps if the characters are in/around NYC, since that's where the publishers of it are located. Or set on/around a college campus. It can be in a suburb is the characters are longing to get out or are terrible people.

Wilbur said...

RNB said...
"[B]y reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities..." No, godamnit, you cannot read minds. No one can. But half the liberals / progressives I know seem to think they can. They discern the flaws in the souls and the 'real' motivations of people they have never met. Sometimes,s the flaws and motivations of entire populations.


++

Lawrence Person said...

"New study shows that the fiction Our Elite Betters read is simply superior for developing our Promethean intellectuals than the crass, popular fiction favored by our knuckle-dragging social inferiors!"

How convenient!

Mary Beth said...

Where would you place Terry Pratchett?

In the category that gets you strange looks in airports because one minute you're sitting quietly, reading, and the next you're laughing out loud like a crazy person.

Sir Terry is in a world to himself. A flat world. On the backs of elephants, carried by a giant space turtle.

Greg The Class Traitor said...

Ann Althouse said...
Obviously, there can be very good or very bad writing writing of either type. But that sci-fi genre prose I quoted really is something that I instinctively hate. I just won't read writing like that. It doesn't seem like any fun and it doesn't seem to offer anything deep either. It's just a pain in the ass. I hate most fiction, even the stuff that's literary.

A lot of modern "science fiction" is desperate to be "literary", which is where I expect you got that pile of dreck from.

Try something from Baen Books. David Weber or John Ringo. I'm a big science fiction fan, and I found that writing as repulsive as you do. Free books here: https://www.baen.com/allbooks/category/index/id/2012

I do wonder what are the political biases of the "researchers". Leftists suck at understanding conservatives, so I'm doubtful that their "mind reading test" is actually valid

Sebastian said...

"enhanced mindreading ability"

But enhanced from what level?

As I read Althouse's mind, I think she thinks she understands herself.

I think she even thinks she can read other people's minds pretty well, except on occasion, when others are just not reading her carefully and fail to grasp her meaning, a state of mind that is hard to understand, since Althouse is always clear. But that opacity of the mind of the dense Other, so puzzling in his incomprehensible incomprehension, signals moral failure on the part of the Other rather than any flaws in mindreading ability. In fact, on this blog, what could possibly count as such a flaw?

William said...

Life with all its intricacies is even more confusing than the workings of a nuclear submarine propulsion system. It is pleasant to be in the company of an author who can tell you how life works and its ultimate significance in a clear, comprehensible manner. The problem is that the world they have found the handle on is their world and not yours.

daskol said...

I'm about half way through Lord Jim

Stick with it. Conrad's style may be hard at first, but he's just so damned stylish that you get used to it, and then the reading is transformed from an exercise in subjecting one's self to literary fiction for the betterment of one's self and all mankind, and gets fun.

daskol said...

If you pay close enough attention to the pronouns people use when they're speaking--just the pronouns and maybe the verbs, blot out all the other stuff--it's like you can read their minds.

daskol said...

A "you" where a "we" might go, a "them" where an "us" could go, a passive rather than active verb clause--all else is ornament.

Narayanan said...

since all written fiction is literary (using words) -
what is the distinction to be made between literary v popular?
other than in-crowd-academic-promoted v out-crowd-self-chosen-for-enjoyment

Bob Smith said...

Adopts fake uppercrust mid Atlantic accent. “The sort of books my friends and I read make us better than you plebeians. Better, I tell you.”

Kay said...

Amazing post. All I can say is that I’m trying to write more like the latter than the former, and it’s a distinction I’ve only recently discovered, but this post really helps me define what that distinction is.

ALP said...

I will admit I did not read the article at the link. But the binary way this is presented bugs me. I suspect the literary-popular thing is more of a continuum. It is being presented this way so "popular" = "bad". Implies that a book well written can't be popular. Wasn't Thomas Hardy a popular writer? Arthur Conan Doyle?

I suggest "artistic/creative" vs. "formulaic"

Don't tell me: the article somehow links Republicans with popular books and thus blames the problems of the US on shitty reading habits of Trumpsters.

Joe Smith said...

"To get an idea of what Neuromancer is like, here is a link to a page with the first chapter."

Thanks for the link...really interesting.

I will look to read the rest.

Greg The Class Traitor said...

"The predicted negative association between literary fiction and egocentric bias emerged only when education and gender were controlled for–a covariance analysis that was not pre-registered. "

IOW, the "negative association" is garbage.

Thanks to GMay, I'm trying to wade through the "study"

"This distinction between popular and literary fiction is recognized by publishers, who list literary fiction as a separate publishing category, as well as by critics who award different prizes for popular (e.g., Prix Paul-Féval, IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award) versus literary fiction (e.g., Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française; Premio Strega, National Book Award). Popular and literary fiction are also thought to attract readers for different reasons—entertainment and escape for popular fiction, understanding and engagement for literary fiction"

Bzzt. "Literary fiction" is for when you want to shove a stick up your backside and pretend your'e special. It's for when you want to have a mental masturbation session NTTAWWT in "language", rather than read a good story.

"In readerly (popular) fiction, readers have a more passive role; they accept meanings that are provided to them “prêt-à-porter.” Characters are “types”: consistent, predictable, and rather unidimensional."

Only if you're reading a crappy writer.

"Readerly fiction does not obey by the 'show don’t tell' rule"

Bzzt. Opera does not obey the “show don’t tell” rule. all good story telling obeys that rule.

A similar point is made by Bakhtin [17] according to whom literary fiction lacks the unique authorial voice usually found in popular fiction and thus a unique truth about the story and its characters. Instead, literary fiction invites the readers to contribute their own perspectives.

IOW, "literary fiction" is for the worthless liars who babble about a "personal truth" (see Smith College), and popular fiction is for people who understand that reality matters.

"The final sample comprised 493 participants (63% female; 0.4% undeclared; age M = 34.8, SD = 11.56). Participants also indicated their level of education on a scale 1–5 corresponding to “some high school” (.61%), “high school” (10.55%), “some college” (36.11%), “college graduate” (35.29%), and “postgraduate” (17.44%)"

The study was of female college graduates. Anyone want to guess what % were "White"? :-)

"Women who read bodice rippers aren't very perceptive", story at 11?

Oh, wait, their test is the "Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test", which was developed to identify people with Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning autism. The vast majority of whom are male.

So they took a test designed to find men who suck at social interaction, and gave it to a bunch of women. Of, and from what I can tell, its a test with a lot more discrimination on the low end than the high (normal) end.

This is one garbage study

Narayanan said...

Michael K said...
… I've been reading a series of historical novels about the Industrial Revolution in 19th century England. The author taught economic history for years and the books are very well researched.
---------============
you are not serving this author or this blog readers :: name please

Greg The Class Traitor said...

GMay said it first, but Lawrence Person said it best.

Narr said...

My profile lists the authors who have most influenced me, but doesn't reflect the whole of my interests and appreciations.

Updike was literary as hell, but also one of those writers who gets into the nuts and bolts of different ways of existing in modern America--and he wrote excellent art criticism for the NYRB. But John Barth and Thomas Berger have given me equal pleasure in their fictions.

Nabokov wrote, as only he could, a sprawling alt-universe novel; Amis wrote an alt-hist titled The Alteration.

Philip Kerr crossed genres with ease, and was very prolific, but he was starting to phone it in in his last few; Alan Furst's espionage novels set in the 1030s and 40s are very good; De Mille and Son's The Deserter has the usual strengths and weaknesses--strong plot and currency but way too much prose-padding for verisimilitude.

Non-fiction gives me just as much pleasure to read as the best fiction. Postrel's Fabric book is eye-opening, and Pye's on the North Sea too--both broad-scale looks at the past that are well written and based on the kind of real scholarship that still goes on--and can only go on--in our over-reviled universities.

My list includes the Catholics John Lukacs and Anthony Burgess--they both wrote well and thought deeply about important issues; I list Nietzsche and Dawkins too, and could throw in Dennett, and for the same reasons.

Forester and O'Brien! Steven Johnson (but never Stephen King).

I lost the taste for Pynchonesque would-be historical epics -- Stephenson, Eugenides, Volkmann and the like -- after finding too much bad history. At least with Kerr's mistakes I got some good mysteries out of the time invested.

Narr
Elitist about the things that matter to me

ALP said...

While we are ranting on books we hate...

I used to read mystery novels. There is a British author, a woman, who is very popular. Dammed if I can remember her fucking name (the middle-age can't remember shit thing is really annoying). But to my point: this author was also a big fan of architecture. She would spew words words blah blah blah blah describing every damn architectural feature in a character's view. Nothing whatsoever to do with the actual mystery, just a neurotic catalog of every building's feature. I stopped reading her books when I found myself skipping over pages and pages.

Narayanan said...

Greg The Class Traitor said...
… Try something from Baen Books.
------------===============
you only named male authors ??

Lois McMasters Bujold (whose science is biology and psychology) is my fave
and a useful contrast / enhancement to
Ayn Rand (whom I consider /science fiction/ - since she calls philosophy a science )

… Popular literature is fiction that does not deal with abstract problems; it takes moral principles as the given, accepting certain generalized, common-sense ideas and values as its base. (Common-sense values and conventional values are not the same thing; the first can be justified rationally, the second cannot. Even though the second may include some of the first, they are justified, not on the ground of reason, but on the ground of social conformity.)
Popular fiction does not raise or answer abstract questions; it assumes that man knows what he needs to know in order to live, and it proceeds to show his adventures in living (which is one of the reasons for its popularity among all types of readers, including the problem-laden intellectuals). The distinctive characteristic of popular fiction is the absence of an explicitly ideational element, of the intent to convey intellectual information (or misinformation).

Narayanan said...

“Art and Cognition,”
The Romantic Manifesto, 45

The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.”
This applies to all forms of literature and most particularly to a form that did not come into existence until twenty-three centuries later: the novel.
A novel is a long, fictional story about human beings and the events of their lives. The four essential attributes of a novel are: Theme—Plot—Characterization—Style.
These are attributes, not separable parts. They can be isolated conceptually for purposes of study, but one must always remember that they are interrelated and that a novel is their sum. (If it is a good novel, it is an indivisible sum.)
These four attributes pertain to all forms of literature, i.e., of fiction, with one exception. They pertain to novels, plays, scenarios, librettos, short stories. The single exception is poems. A poem does not have to tell a story; its basic attributes are theme and style.
A novel is the major literary form—in respect to its scope, its inexhaustible potentiality, its almost unlimited freedom (including the freedom from physical limitations of the kind that restrict a stage play) and, most importantly, in respect to the fact that a novel is a purely literary form of art which does not require the intermediary of the performing arts to achieve its ultimate effect.

Narayanan said...

RNB said...
"[B]y reading literary fiction that you enhance your mindreading abilities..." No, godamnit, you cannot read minds.
---------===========
is true about reading other minds >>> what about improving own introspecting abilities?

ALP said...

Let's talk Dick. As in Philip K. Dick. Sort of a special case. You cannot deny his influence on sci-fi. His writing is - an acquired taste? But worth it for some of the humor and his odd view of reality. I have a love/hate relationship with this Dick.

Josephbleau said...

"It's sci-fi, and the category "literary" doesn't include sci-fi. Sci-fi is a "genre." Perhaps that's an injustice of some kind, but that's the standard distinction. There must be some sci-fi that gets to be considered literary though — Doris Lessing?"

I consider Ian Banks the most articulate and intelligent SF writer I have read. "Consider Phlebius" is without equal. He was an anti-Israel Scottish socialist, but who among the Scots is not?

Josephbleau said...

"The second paragraph, the literary one, is not something I would read based on that excerpt. Every sentence except the second is rhythmically the same. Boom-boom-boom. Period. Boom-boom-boom.

I guess I prefer syncopation in my fiction."

Like Vachel Lindsay reciting "The Congo." Boom le Boom le Boom le Boom.

Kai Akker said...

Reading a lot of junk fiction is like eating a lot of junk food. It can make you sick.

The difference is, the latter you know, or figure out. The former seems to elude most people. But formulaic trash can be as disgusting to the mind and the emotions as junk food.

boatbuilder said...

I remember reading Grisham's "The Firm" and thinking that this was simultaneously the worst writing and the best plot development I had ever come across. I couldn't put the damn thing down, but every few lines there was something cringeworthy.

I enjoyed it but have never read another Grisham book.
I'm sure Grisham is the best of a bad lot--I am not a popular fiction fan.

TickTock said...

Willing to bet this study is not reproducible.

hombre said...

So literary fiction is less fictional than popular fiction? Who knew?

Most of us thought fiction was fiction. Do enhanced mindreading abilities read fictional thoughts or real thoughts?

Sort of on point from Chesterton: “Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

daskol said...

Reading a lot of junk fiction is like eating a lot of junk food. It can make you sick.

This sentiment has always bugged me. In part it's probably because I enjoy many supposedly trashy things, like genre fiction and tv. But take genre fiction: it's interesting to see the way a writer plays with the constraints of the genre, breaking some rules, holding fast to others, working in ideas from history/philosophy and/or inverting them, showing homage to touchstone authors/concepts/characters/events. This happens in so much genre fiction, from hard boiled detective/crime to speculative fiction.

For me it's always been more about the nature of engagement with the material, rather than the material itself: if you are using both loops, that is your are in the story but also outside the story and seeing it in some greater context, you are working your brain (or your brain is working you, whatever). I have derived as much pleasure and insight from trashy/popular entertainments as I have from the more refined stuff. It's what you're doing when you read the book, watch the show, more than the content of the show/book that drives your own (and, I guess, mankind's) enrichment.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

What if you read both? And what counts as literary vs popular? I've read Clive Cussler and Kurt Vonnegut. I've read The Inferno and Stephen King, Homer and James Grissom. Anyway, as noted above, such "studies" are nonsense.

Kay said...

ALP said...
Let's talk Dick. As in Philip K. Dick. Sort of a special case. You cannot deny his influence on sci-fi. His writing is - an acquired taste? But worth it for some of the humor and his odd view of reality. I have a love/hate relationship with this Dick.
3/2/21, 12:47 PM


He’s one of my favorite writers. The ideas and concepts he works with are rich, but the writing style for most of his books is pretty bad.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

A lot of modern "science fiction" is desperate to be "literary", which is where I expect you got that pile of dreck from.

I have, on occasion, come across old science fiction novels and short story collections from the 40s, 50, and 60s in used book stores and a lot of that stuff really is dreadful. A lot of horribly written wish fulfillment fantasies. then their are the really weird experimental stuff from the 60s like Phillip Jose Farmers' "Secrets of the Nine" trilogy. Since this is a family type blog I won't even suggest some of the things depicted in it. But then I first came upon Dune and Kurt Vonnegut in used book stores too.

Quaestor said...

PLOS -- the Public Library of Science, the last haven of "studies" so egregiously uncontrolled, so risibly argued their submissions would be dumped automatically into the junk mail folder of an editor worthy of his salary along with the Kolkata phishing scams and "one weird trick" diet plans.

Althouse has too much time on her hands, obviously.

Kai Akker said...

---I have derived as much pleasure and insight from trashy/popular entertainments as I have from the more refined stuff. It's what you're doing when you read the book, watch the show, more than the content of the show/book that drives your own (and, I guess, mankind's) enrichment. [daskol]

Really? As much insight from trashy entertainment as from great or classic works?

Yes, I can believe that a certain kind of inquisitive reader could keep the brain occupied in genre fiction. But I cannot believe that your best experiences have been equally distributed.

What happens when I read The Brothers Karamazov is different in kind, depth, entertainment, and stimulation than what happens when I read Dashiell Hammett. Who is entertaining! But not of equal depth.

Joe Smith said...

"He’s one of my favorite writers. The ideas and concepts he works with are rich, but the writing style for most of his books is pretty bad."

I put Dick in the class of King or Crichton...great concepts (especially Crichton) but poor execution.

Some of Dick's prose is unreadable.

Joe Smith said...

"I have, on occasion, come across old science fiction novels and short story collections from the 40s, 50, and 60s in used book stores and a lot of that stuff really is dreadful."

Those short stories, especially those found in anthologies, are pure pulp.

They were written in weeks to fill space.

No more than the verbal sci-fi comics of the day.

Joe Smith said...

"But worth it for some of the humor and his odd view of reality. I have a love/hate relationship with this Dick."

So you're saying that Dick is an acquired taste?

Sorry...couldn't help it : )

Howard said...

Literature hues to reality while popular non-faction are cliches of cliches all the way down. Therefore, true to actual life stories sharpen real-world skills while soap opera pop tart airport novels dullifies life's radar.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Popular fiction is like the meatloaf and jalapeno pimento cheese sandwich I'm planning to have for dinner. Don't judge me!

Howard said...

That's right Joe. Just keep at it.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

By the way, I know we are supposed to pretend Vonnegut isn't a science fiction writer, but that's where you found his novels in used book stores.

Kurt Vonnegut in _Back to School_

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDLzLUmtU3w

Mrs. X said...

Too much literary, and we disintegrate as a society. Too much popular, and we ossify. Neither scenario is auspicable.

How auspicable is it to have people who don't read at all, like my college Gen Ed students, who, because they don't read, are incapable of distinguishing fiction from nonfiction? Who, when assigned a literary (and fictional) short story in which an abduction is hinted at, told me that they were harmed by the story and that I was obligated to give them a trigger warning. Because they have PTSD. And emotional trauma. And are suffering. (Oates, "Where are you going?" etc if you were wondering.)

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Ina Garten's meatloaf:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebUYxwd3x1A

and another kind of meatloaf:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C11MzbEcHlw

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@Mrs X

You should assign them _The Road_

Amexpat said...

Some of Dick's prose is unreadable.

I think Philp K is hard to place in a category. Some of his stuff is too far out there for me. Other books, like "The Man in the High Castle", have interesting ideas and clunky execution (sort of like a lot of SF books).

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is a book that I found very readable and full of interesting ideas. I'd put it in the literature category.

The Crack Emcee said...

Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins,...I haven't gotten close to anything like that since "Charlotte's Web".

Kai Akker said...

Some of this is semantics, I suspect. "Literary fiction" in today's publishing categories is just another genre. Iowa Writers workshop stuff, for the most part. It doesn't make it richer or better or anything else. In fact, that stuff is often the most deadly of all. Pretentious without any there there.

Rabel said...

"Exposure to literary fiction, therefore, should lead to a reduction of ego-centric biases, such as the false-consensus effect: the tendency to overestimate the extent to which others think the same way we do, and hold the same beliefs, attitudes, etc."

Interesting point but if I know my literary fiction readers I'd guess that the opposite is more often true.

Here's an example from a brilliant, well-read and occasionally insightful literary fiction enthusiast:

"So they had us, and we, who knew nothing but that pleasant life, found it insipid and turned on them, mocked them, and rebelled."

But what do I know. I prefer books with pictures.

tcrosse said...

So there is a difference btween those who read for entertainment and those who read for enlightenment. Do tell.

traditionalguy said...

Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead greatly impressed me at age 10. I blame Mailer for my mental approach to what is and is not good writing.

Joe Smith said...

"Ina Garten's meatloaf:"

If you're a fan of the meatloaf, then you should try Ina Garten's Da-Vida.

Rabel said...

"Literary fiction is more concerned with the inner life of the characters; it is concerned with the idiosyncrasy and uniqueness and, possibly the ultimate inaccessibility of human consciousness."

I've got it now:

DC Comics = Popular Fiction.

Marvel Comics = Literary Fiction.

William said...

The difference between those who read for entertainment and those who read for enlightenment varies not according to person but according to time of the day or day of the week.....I used to read John O'Hara, not particularly because I enjoyed him but because I though he would give me a heads up on how the adults in the world behaved. My bad. By the time I reached adulthood, all the John O'Hara characters had died off. Ditto with Trollope, but they've been long dead. There's a kind of P.G. Wodehouse quality to Trollope's world......Does anyone still read Eric Ambler? His thrillers were exquisitely plotted and, as I remember, he had some literary flair. His world is also gone. When you reach a certain age, you're more familiar with vanished worlds than the one you currently occupy.

Michael K said...

you are not serving this author or this blog readers :: name please

Andrew Wareham. He has a number of long series. One is about the Royal Navy and is similar to CS Forrester. The series about the Industrial Revolution is called "Poor Man at the Gate" series. That is excellent.

He has a great series about WWI and the RFC which begins with "When Empires Collide"

He goes into enormous detail about the planes used in WWI, if you like that.

They are all Kindle books.

Kai Akker said...

--- 'We distinguished between literary (e.g. Don Delillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins), [E]ngaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters....

I think there is something to their point. But right away there's a giveaway error. No one writes more for the passive reader than Franzen, whom they characterize as literary. He is all performance. He asks nothing from the reader. Reading him is like eating potato chips. But I enjoyed both the big ones I read, The Corrections and Freedom. (Despite his goofy politics.) He is damn good at what he likes to do, satire. The characters are often creepy narcissists, but both books were entertaining to me.

jg said...

I liked his more-famous Neuromancer, and remember Idoru being a huge bore.

Paul said...

I almost read NO fiction. 99 percent of the books I have, and have quite a few, are first hand accounts of real events. Mostly wars and explorers.

Ficta said...

"There must be some sci-fi that gets to be considered literary though — Doris Lessing?"

How about Haruki Murakami? He writes Science Fiction. At the very least, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and 1Q84 are explicitly SF, and I would classify several of his other books that way, too, including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There's a fair amount of No True Scotsman in some definitions of Science Fiction if you ask me.

"The same authorities who insist upon beginnings, middles, and ends, declare that Great Literature (by which they mean the stories they have been taught to admire) is about love and death, while mere popular fiction like this is about sex and violence. One reader's sex, alas, is another's love; and one's violence, another's death." -- Gene Wolfe

Everybody should read Lois McMaster Bujold. She's the best. Jane Austen writes military space opera, what's not to like?

tim in vermont said...

"birds were chirping.”

I hate this kind of shit. What kind of birds? House sparrows? Grackles? A pair of cardinals? Robins? Starlings?

You know who was a literary genius who would never leave you a little dead zone in the imagery like that? Washington Irving.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

@Ficta

I was going through some sci fi paper backs yesterday deciding what I should keep and what should be donated, _Shadow of the Torturer_ was, of course, a keeper.

rsbsail said...

What about War and Peace? There are a helluva lot of names to keep up with!

Ficta said...

@Ron Winkleheimer Have you tried the ReReading Wolfe podcast? These two madmen are devoting a 1-2 hour podcast to each chapter of The Book of the New Sun. It's great fun.

ColoComment said...

Someone above mentioned that fiction lies along a spectrum (or should be considered so. Perhaps with "literary" or classic on one wing, and popular or modern or some such on the other?)

Where might one put C.S. Forester's "The Good Shepherd"? Monsarrat's "The Cruel Sea"? Stephen Crane? William Wister Haines? Zane Grey? Larry McMurtry? Jack Schaefer (author of "Shane").

Where Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and "Death Comes For The Archbishop," or Stegner's "Angle of Repose" and "Crossing To Safety"? ... or even Louis L'Amour's novels chronicling the Western frontier?

Where Jane Austen? Where Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini" and "The Price of Tides"? Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn" and "Deep River"? Or the meticulously-researched Plantagenet et al. historical novels of Sharon Kay Penman? Where do you put "Fate is the Hunter," by Gann? Leon Uris? Lew Wallace? Pearl Buck? James Clavell? Anton Myrer? James Michener?

I could go on, but why bother?

What else does it say about my reading patterns that one of my all-time favorite first lines is:
"Five days after Owen Zastava Pitt pushed his insufferable boss out of a fourteenth story window, he woke up in the hospital with a scarred face, an unbelievable memory, and a job offer."

tim in vermont said...

I joined a meetup book club as a a way of getting out of my isolation here and agreed to read “Starless Sea” as part of it. O.M.G. It’s one thing to not dish out page after page of description, remember that Flaubert was writing before TV and movies had shrunk the world, but a little concreteness of expression would be nice. The whole first chapter is narrative summary. It’s entirely plot. I am going to stick with it because I committed to it, but yeesh! BTW, nobody even has a name yet. I fell asleep after three pages. Hopefully it picks up.

tim in vermont said...

But seriously, if you want to read some really good writing, and be done in an hour, you could do worse than to re-read Rip Van Winkle. Supposedly Lord Byron was a fan.

Joe Smith said...

"But seriously, if you want to read some really good writing, and be done in an hour, you could do worse than to re-read Rip Van Winkle."

I tried once...put me to sleep for a very long time.

KellyM said...

rcocean said...
"Some popular fiction is well written. Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, etc. Enough action for the masses and high enough prose style for the snobs."
3/2/21, 9:46 AM

Where does one draw the line between literary and popular fiction? Dickens and Balzac had their works published in serial form in the beginning before stand-alone books. Does that mean dismissing them for lacking legitimacy?

A lot of that which tries to label itself as literary fiction contains nothing but ponderous plots with angst-ridden characters who make themselves and everyone around them miserable. In fact, it’s almost a requirement in order to be considered for Oprah’s book club. That was a thing, at one time, right?

tim in vermont said...

"A lot of that which tries to label itself as literary fiction contains nothing but ponderous plots with angst-ridden characters who make themselves and everyone around them miserable.”

Most ‘literary' writers are writing about themselves on some level, so yeah.

Lurker21 said...


Picture a shitload of interior decoration

And after we helped you move your table and then talked about it all afternoon ... Thanks, mom.

*

Color me skeptical about all this stuff. Sure serious readers think they're expanding their minds, but when one remembers all the Nazis who loved music and poetry, one has to wonder if culture will save us or novels will make us more empathetic. Obviously readers of literary fiction move up from the dead-level consciousness found in shoot 'em up fiction while they are reading, but does the effect continue after reading and extend to other areas of their life?

If you like reading about people in one group or another, you will enjoy novels about people in those groups. Your empathy with them may be solidified by your reading, but weren't you already predisposed in that direction? The test of your sympathies would be how you feel about people you aren't already predisposed to sympathize with. One may like sensitive coming of age stories set in far-off lands, but does that necessarily make one more sympathetic to people in other situations?

That we need the phrase "literary fiction" indicates that "serious fiction" is in trouble. Did we need that phrase in Dickens's day? Non-literary genre fiction is often stuff that works better in the movies. All of that annoying descriptive matter is material that would better be left to set designers. In genre fiction, though, you aren't following someone's consciousness and emotions through all their changes. The emotional point or pay-off comes later (if at all) and all of the description wins over readers whose main interest is in futurism or mysteries or fantastic worlds.

gilbar said...

Dr K said...
which begins with "When Empires Collide"
He goes into enormous detail about the planes used in WWI, if you like that.


Who Wouldn't? or did you mean it as a rhetorical question?

Jamie said...

Leftists suck at understanding conservatives, so I'm doubtful that their "mind reading test" is actually valid

My very first thought. The minds they believe they're reading are their own. It's a frequent occurrence for me to read a lit-fic book and be utterly baffled by a character - not because I don't understand the character's motivation, but because I have never encountered a real person with that motivation. It takes me right out of the story and makes me wonder, "What the hell kind of person is this writer?!"

And story, thank you, ought still to be a central element.

Worse is when I read a piece of lit-fic and hate every character because they're all terrible people. "Reprehensible" is a form of "one-note" and does not constitute good characterization.

daskol said...

Really? As much insight from trashy entertainment as from great or classic works?

Exception: old books > new books. Rather than classics, I had in mind more the contemporary literary fiction, the stuff that used to come out in trade paperbacks, focused on the interior world and characterization vs. plot-driven/genre entertainments.

Ron Winkleheimer said...

Have you tried the ReReading Wolfe podcast?

I didn't know that existed, I will be checking it out now.

@ColoComment

I too love me some MHI. Which reminds me, Larry Correia had some thoughts on "literature" that he shared on his blog.

https://monsterhunternation.com/2011/01/12/correia-on-the-classics/

Ken B said...

“There are three rules for writing a novel,” Somerset Maugham said. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Ken B said...

Joseph Conrad is wonderful, but I gotta say Lord Jim was a bit of a struggle. Try the (verboten) of the Narcissus or some of the shorter things.
I keep meaning to read Nostromo ...

Ken B said...

KellyM
“ A lot of that which tries to label itself as literary fiction contains nothing but ponderous plots with angst-ridden characters who make themselves and everyone around them miserable. In fact, it’s almost a requirement in order to be considered for Oprah’s book club. ”

Some years ago Len Deighton reviewed all six books short listed for the Booker Prize. Five of them where about novelists writing a novel.

Ficta said...

"I keep meaning to read Nostromo ..."

It's very good. It's got a really interesting structure, in addition to the Conrad prose.

tim in vermont said...

I was kind of embarrassed for the “Lord Jim” character. He sort of reminds me of Johnny Depp’s character in Ed Wood.

Narr said...

You don't know litfict until you read William Gass or the like. NTTAWWT.

Ambler? Oh my word, yes. Gene Wolfe? Cheever? Nah. Vonnegut? A very mixed bag, but got his digs in against the "talented sparrowfarts" that infested American literature.

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had some to see me."

Narr
One of the first lines

tim in vermont said...

Writing can become literary fiction when it transcends the form. Dickens did this. Many people have done it. Look at Deliverance and how it transcended the “What I did on my summer vacation” form. Guardians of the Galaxy was a movie which transcended its form. The sequels not so much, as they fell right back into genre mode and their appeal fell back to the genre fanbase.

Paul Mac said...

Anything distracting you from the actual study is likely more valuable thinking than any attention to the study itself.

Feynman - https://youtu.be/zkFPCTwPlkU

See also his remarks on Cargo Cult Science.

Robert Cook said...

"I've never been able to get through Catch-22 on audiotape because its so repetitive."

The repetition is intentional on Heller's part. I read it nearly 40 years ago. It took some effort at times, but not too much, and it it carried me along. By the end, I had to agree it was a masterpiece. The penultimate (or near-penultimate) chapter in which Yossarian wanders the city, observing barbarism and horror throughout the night, is breathtaking, a sharp change in tone from the irony and absurdism of what preceded it. That chapter is what the book was headed for all along, and it brings about the denouement, in which Yossarian deserts. Like a latter day Huck Finn, he has been changed by his experiences, and he resolves to "light out for the territory."

Narr said...

Yes to Conrad; finish Nostromo.

Here's one Doc K (thanks for the reference!) and Gilbar will appreciate.

A couple of years ago I'm watching CSPan, a presentation by a young professor at the Air University. He's talking about the development of aircraft and airpower before and into WWI, and is showing photos . . . There's the Wrights, there's Zeppelin, the Italians vs Turks, 1911, OK, there's Pershing's air force in Mexico, good, ah the main event . . . some stats and photos, and then he starts in on fighter aircraft, all the early experiments.

Here's Antony Fokker, and his new invention, the Fokker Monoplane, with machine gun synched to fire through the propeller, and here's a photo of A FOKKER E V (a.k.a. D VIII)! A FOKKER D VIII from late 1918!

Not the Eindecker, the E.1. from 1914. It's like the difference between a lady's sun parasol and John Steed's umbrella, or an egg-whisker and a steak knife.

What do they learn in grad school nowadays?

Narr
It was triggering, and I had to turn it off

Robert Cook said...

"Sounds like hokum to me. And I do not care for literary fiction. I find it to be pretentious and boring.Popular fiction, as characterized by Shakespeare and his modern day successors, I find to be much more engaging."

Sarcasm or humble-bragging? Shakespeare may have been popular in his day--in the sense of being for everyman--but today and for some time he is entirely in the literary camp. Who do you consider to be Shakespeare's modern day successors? Does Shakespeare actually have any successors?

Lurker21 said...

Gibson may have been sending up the conventions of science fiction. You'd have to read a little more than that to be sure. I suspect some of Vonnegut is like that -- slyly parodying or satirizing the conventions of the genre.

As former science writer Donald McNeil Jr. might tell you, there is something a little Aspergery about science, and science writing, and science fiction. That's true of some literary fiction as well. Thomas Pynchon, maybe?

iowan2 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael K said...

Who Wouldn't? or did you mean it as a rhetorical question?

I doubt Ann would. More into mind reading.

wildswan said...

By the time I reached adulthood, all the John O'Hara characters had died off. Ditto with Trollope, but they've been long dead ... When you reach a certain age, you're more familiar with vanished worlds than the one you currently occupy.

Damn good point, William. Although I know I'm not the only one able to remember the Fifties as they were, it's very true that I'm remembering a lost world - and the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties - also gone under the wave. And the Nineties. Today in the grocery store I heard someone buying liquor and giving a late Nineties birthdate. Old enough to drink but with no actual memory of Kennedy or Reagan. The Clintons have been a a political force for his entire life. What is that like? I'm rereading the Cormoran Strike series by JK Rowling because I think she is trying to get that generation, which is this generation, down on paper. Are these serious novels in a mystery format or pop novels? I can't decide and no one else I know has read them. While I read about what strikes me as a bizarre hell world, i.e., England today, I feel I know why there are wokies but it slips away when I try to pin it down.

iowan2 said...

I'm not near as cultured as our esteemed host, but for me, this is the best opening I've ever read. From here the book just has to get even better.

Matilda Jane Roberts was naked as the air. Known throughout south Texas as the Great Western, she came walking up from the muddy Rio Grande holding a big snapping turtle by the tail. Matilda was almost as large as the skinny little Mexican mustang Gus McCrae and Woodrow call were trying to saddle break. Call had the mare by the ears, waiting for Gus to pitch the saddle on her narrow back, but the pitch was slow in coming. When Call glanced toward the river and saw the Great Western in all her plump nakedness, he know why: young Gus mcCrae was by nature distractible; the sight of the naked two hundred pound whore carrying a full grown snapping turtle had captured his complete attention...

~ Gordon Pasha said...

The collected books of Jerry Pournelle (and Larry Niven), popular literature? Yea, but enjoyable.

BTW, I got through med school reading Don Pendelton's, Mack Bolan series. The books are worth much more than similar paper back books of more "literary" focus.

Michael K said...

I got through med school reading Don Pendelton's, Mack Bolan series.

I read all of AJ Cronin's novels.

Richard Aubrey said...

Decades ago, I concluded that people show themselves as they would prefer to be seen or known. After not so much practice, say starting at age eight, it becomes automatic.
It's done under stress, in some cases terrible stress.
"not so deep as a well nor as wide as a church door...but t'will do."
Guy's bleeding out and knows it but he's bound to leave an image he wants.

Something about nothing becomes a man in this life more than his leaving of it.

Obviously, less interesting times are less likely to stress the image process. Does the image become the person?

Point of all this is the literary writing's conceit that a character and thus the reader can "understand" a person in what might be called the contemporary version of a Cartland drawing room is nonsense.

David Drake's sci fi and fantasy tell you how the characters got to be who they are--without lengthy explanation. Not the whole thing, but enough.

Rereading Sutcliffe's fictional treatment of Arthur, "Sword at Sunset". First person, lots of introspection and sensory descriptions--smell of upturned earth, etc.--and the whole built around war.

The same for Downie's "Medicus" series.

And O'Brian.

Talked to an amateur actor who specializes in Shakespeare. Said the original directions had lots of low, physical humor. Today, since it's done in British Received Conservative Pronunciation, which sounds even snootier than the posh upper class Britspeak, must be deep, man. And it is. But if it were performed in Cockney, the effect might be different. One would be "literary" and the other not.

Leora said...

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were both serialized in popular magazines. War & Peace and Crime and Punishment overlapped.

I remember puzzling when I was a teenager about whether people like Jacqueline Susan knew they were terrible writers and did it anyway or they really believed in their stories and their own style.

I am currently recovering from binge reading Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series (I did skip a lot of the bodice ripping.) I am now about halfway through re-reading Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again." I read a lot across most genres except horror.

So far my mind reading skills have not improved. Perhaps the genre books take the edge off.

Li-Fi is just a publisher's category and like most things about 90% of the new stuff is crap. I find a good test is if it's been in print for more than 30 years or someone has bothered to translate it there's something worth thinking about reading.

I agree that everyone should read Bujold and peruse the Baen.com site to see if there's anything that appeals.

tim in vermont said...

If you were, let’s say, sitting for a psychological examination for some job or something and you let on that you were “good at mind reading” you can bet that something is going to get jotted down in the examiner’s notebook. Same as reading a novel. You have to put yourself into the mind of a paranoid person, where everything that happens means something or it wouldn’t have been put in the novel. In real life meaningless stuff happens all the time and people who ascribe meaning to random events are viewed as crazy. So maybe novels teach you the skills you need to be crazy.

One thing I think that reading literary fiction does help you with is to see through propaganda. Bill Clinton used literary techniques in politics, at least he was the first one I noticed to do it. And it has only gotten worse since.

William said...

Random points: Airplane pilots in WWI died clean, brave deaths. They were about the only ones. Most of the casualties were from artillery shells. There were some who got machine gunned or gassed, but most of the deaths were by artillery. The casualties never got to strike heroic poses before they died.......I don't like historical fiction. There's always one character who has all the right insights and convictions which miraculously mirror our own insights and convictions about the era (error) they were living in.....Exception to the rule: Vanity Fair, War and Peace, and Gone With The Wind. I think the authors of those books presented characters who were people living in that moment and whose characters didn't know wtf it all meant.

Marcus Bressler said...

Some final, later in the evening thoughts:

Bradbury was in a league of his own with his literary science-fiction.

One of my many definitions of what makes a good book: You don't want to put it down. And while it satisfies you, you are "sad" you completed reading it.

THEOLDMAN

Retail Lawyer said...

Anna Karenina was a lot of work keeping the characters straight like "h" mentioned at 9:50 am. But not in the first paragraph. And it was worth it! It was serialized for a newspaper, so it was once popular. I'm working my way through the masterpieces.

Paddy O said...

"I remember reading Grisham's "The Firm" and thinking that this was simultaneously the worst writing and the best plot development I had ever come across."

This is close to my immediate reaction to Dan Brown. Everything about his writing is the epitome of hacky. I was studying writing a great deal back then and in a couple pages he broke every good writing rule there is. Not in a genius, surpassing the art way either. In a hacky, schlocky way of bad internet fan fiction. But he was a genius at pacing. He also was really good at what is really literary link bait, he has the worst stories and characters and overall writing but they're about topics people want to get mad at or see the worst in.

He just pulled the reader along and those who didn't have literary taste just had no hope in not devouring his books and even those that do find it strangely compelling. But I never read another book of his.

Do one or two things extremely well and that sometimes is more than enough to get a big audience.

Paddy O said...

I was a lot more, immensely more, literary when I was younger in high school and through my 20s. I'm not as patient now. I say I don't have as much time as I did, but I probably do, I just got pulled in by blogs and apps. Killed my reading endurance.

Narr said...

"Airplane pilots in WWI died clean, brave deaths."

Not really.

Narr
But isn't it pretty to think so?

Richard Aubrey said...

The WW I aviators fired rifle-sized cartridges. So a pilot could get hit and die an agonizing, bleeding out death. Or burn to death prior to crashing.
Point is, though, the guys on the ground didn't see it that way at first. Took a bit to imagine it.
In WW II with radios, a lot of guys died with their radios open. So you heard them screaming as the burned up, or crying for their mothers.

Known Unknown said...

I only read Sue Grafton novels.

Gospace said...

Lightning by Dean Koontz is the first book I read by him. If I had read any other book of his first, that would have been the end of my reading Koontz. Lightning was marketed as popular fiction, not science fiction. Lightning is science fiction through and through. Wasn't marketed as such because the major publishing houses refer the "science fiction ghetto" when they classify a book as scifi. Romance, scifi, westerns, possibly some other genres- they know exactly how many books they'll sell and to whom. A Tom Clancy or J.K. Rowling coming along and creating a best seller out of seemingly nowhere is rare. Most best sellers become such because the publisher PUSHES them, hard, and gets them them reviewed, often, by influential reviewers. Lois McMaster Bujold (one of my favorite), Spider Robinson, Sarah Hoyt, none of these are going to be pushed- they're just going to be published, a few more than they expect to sell, but no million copy runs.

I read more than just science fiction. I read fantasy every day. The NY Times, the Washington Post....

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Ann, I really can't stand the conflation of "popular fiction" with "genre fiction." It makes no sense either abstractly or in reality. People have mentioned Heinlein and Dick and Bradbury; I'd add Neal Stephenson and Orson Scott Card. (I'm rereading Speaker For the Dead right now.) Similarly mysteries: P. D. James and Elizabeth George and Catherine Aird and Ruth Rendell, and earlier authors like Edmund Crispin and Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, are writers who do indeed put life into their characters. Plot drives a mystery, sure, but it needn't be all there is, and in the writers I mentioned just now, it isn't.

What about humor? Where do you put Wodehouse, for example? You can say that his jokes are all old and his plots perfunctory, but I defy anyone to imitate him successfully.

If a work is to be "serious" or "literary," it need only be good. If it's good, it succeeds as literature whatever the nominal "genre." And if it's self-consciously "literary," more often than not it sucks. I know, I know, it's all about the subtle nuances of the life of a Nigerian girl transplanted to Tennessee, or whatever, but if there's no scaffolding at all, no plot to hang onto, no events to hang onto, it's very easy to lose concentration.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Gospace,

Someone left a big bag full of Koontz paperbacks at my workplace a few decades back and told us to help ourselves. I took a couple and really, really wish I had not. The man out-creeps Stephen King, which is saying a good deal, and there are things it's impossible to un-read.

That said, horror is another "genre." What there qualifies as "literary"? I wouldn't even exclude King; there are books that repay rereading, strange though it seem.

Scott M said...

"The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals"

In 2021??? LOL - now that they're done with Dr Seuss, I suppose this wrongthinker will be next, leading to an eventual ban on all literary thinking that encourages the reader to assess others as unique individuals.

I mean...the gall of someone to think that a person's identity isn't first and foremost a collection of genetic characteristics that nobody has any control over.

Good thing for this author, cancel culture doesn't exist, right? Right??

tim in vermont said...

“If a work is to be "serious" or "literary," it need only be good. If it's good, it succeeds as literature whatever the nominal "genre." And if it's self-consciously "literary," more often than not it sucks. “

Yep. Literary is kind of like jazz, jazz avoids the kinds of fixed rules that most genre music like rock, bluegrass, blues, etc, but jazz still has its rules and while some jazz is extraordinary, a lot of it is kind of unlistenable unless you are really tuned into it as a listener, and even then it sucks, since it can be about the musicians showing off their chops, pat them on the head and move on. It’s the same with writers who want to show off their chops, and think it’s beneath them to provide reasons for the reader to read them.

Infinite Jest is brilliant in places, but when you get to the end, it’s hard not to feel like the real “jest,” the joke, was on the reader.

tim in vermont said...

"I don't like historical fiction. There's always one character who has all the right insights and convictions which miraculously mirror our own insights and convictions about the era (error) they were living in...”

I am writing a historical novel right now. I should be working this minute, but that’s an interesting insight into a ready pitfall. I guess that the solution is to present the reality naturalistically and let the reader judge. There is no way a novel like Gone With the Wind could ever be anything but self published in today’s environment.

Lurker21 said...

Much science fiction is conceptual. It's like a fable or a philosophical tale. The point isn't the development of the characters' psyches, but rather the underlying idea or premise or the picture of a future world. In mystery and crime, the point is who did it or how we find out who did it. With horror, it's the chill or shudder. In fantasy, it's the creation of an alternative world or universe. That somebody is an ogre or a magician is enough; we don't need to understand their individual feelings. And yet, some authors in all of these genres have been very good and perceptive writers, just as most writers of literary fiction really aren't that good or perceptive.

Gibson's “Paragon-Asia Dataflow” is a straw in the wind. I doubt he means it seriously or that it means anything in itself. It's a signal. If you respond positively, this is the sort of detail that you like and that makes the story more real for you. If you hate it, you put the book down. But look back. Nineteenth century literary novels were fill of little details. Authors and readers often did want to know just exactly what characters looked like, what they wore, and what they filled their houses with. Thinking back again, it may not have been the best writers who were obsessed with such details, but that was definitely the convention in those days. And thinking back over my own life, when I was young, I sort of expected that from novels, and others may have too.

Modern literary writers also go into lifestyle detail. In describing surroundings and decor, nineteenth century writers may have been trying to classify characters by class, but often just couldn't help themselves. More recent writers go into "status detail" to pigeon-hole characters based on a political agenda.

Lurker21 said...

At any rate, if you see two people sitting next to you on a bench and one is reading a Tolstoy doorstopper and the other is reading a Barbara Cartland bodice ripper, which one would you assume is better at mind reading? And which one would you want to talk to?

I'd want to talk to the Tolstoy reader (if I feel up to it), but I wouldn't necessarily think that he or she was a good mind-reader. Sometimes the concepts and reading can get in the way of direct perception, and nobody can really read other people's minds.

But Cartland isn't the best choice for a comparison. Clearly, her readers probably have many misconceptions about life and probably would misjudge what was going on around them and what was likely to happen.

daskol said...

Who do you consider to be Shakespeare's modern day successors? Does Shakespeare actually have any successors?

I don't know if he's Shakepeare's successor, but I think David Milch achieved peak artistry in entertainment on television, touching glory with his Hill Street Blues episodes, most NYPD Blue, and hitting his peak with Deadwood season 1.

Lurker21 said...

Clearly, her readers probably have many misconceptions about life and probably would misjudge what was going on around them and what was likely to happen.

Probably, but maybe not. One of the problems with mid-20th century critiques of mass culture is that they didn't take into account the fact that many who enjoyed it didn't simply accept its assumptions at face value. They could read or watch conventional genre stories with distance or irony or just the knowledge that the world wasn't really like that. That so many academics loved mystery novels even when they were supposed to despise them ought to have given the cultural critics a clue. The cultured despisers of mass culture were stuffed shirts, but the rise of academics who know and love and study popular entertainment more than high culture artifacts wasn't an improvement.

Craig Howard said...

There must be a word for a word that is newly slipping from one language into another. I accept it. I understand it. He could have said "auspicious," but it's charming that he didn't.

I doubt that auspicable is slipping into English -- as you pointed out, we already have auspicious. The author simply anglicized the Italian word, but this time it didn't work.

It is perhaps charming, though.

Narr said...

"but the rise of academics who know and love and study popular entertainment more than high culture artifacts wasn't an improvement," says Lurker21, and he's right.

A major theme of De Lillo's "White Noise" illustrates: the protagonist is the head of a new 'Department of Hitler Studies" at a podunk college, despite not reading a word of German; his colleague wants to start a similar Department of Elvis Studies (boy does that one hit close to some people I knew on campus), and one character is developing a class to study movie- and TV-car-crashes.

A hundred years ago an American academic could reasonably be expected to pay at least lip service to the artistic achievements of Europe, and perhaps appreciate fine wine; nowadays many if not most American academics pride themselves on their ignorance of high culture--with the exception of the oenophilia, which is on constant display.

Narr
And don't get me started on the jock-sniffing

ColoComment said...

"I don't like historical fiction. There's always one character who has all the right insights and convictions which miraculously mirror our own insights and convictions about the era (error) they were living in...”

What authors have you read, to come to that conclusion?
Give a try to Sharon Kay Penman's "Here Be Dragons," or "When Christ and His Saints Slept." Have you read any Anya Seton, especially "Katherine," her novel about Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt? Or what about Hillary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy? Ken Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth"? Edward Rutherford or even the Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries by Pargeter/Peters? Or, two of my favorite trilogies: Moberg's "The Emigrants" and Celia Hayes's "Adelsverein" books.

I felt your kind of suspicion while reading books like Forrest Gump and Wouk's "The Winds of War" and its sequel, where the main character seems to find himself present at multiple major turning points of history.... But there's a lot of well-done, well-researched, historical fiction that manages to be both enlightening and entertaining.