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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


At the end of this essay I said:

I think [the reader's existence in an imperfect world]'s the real reason "fans love crap." It's not that they love the flaws and mistakes that prove intolerable for nonfans. *If* they are experienced enough to be aware of the flaws, then they ignore the flaws in an *intentional* manner because they seek something in the reading-experience that transcends the flaws.

That "something" I've frequently called "myth" or "mythopoesis." More on that later, though first I may give Curt Purcell a chance to tell me if he thinks I've misinterpreted his essay.

I did not come back to the specific idea of mythopoesis in my next essay on this subject. Instead I concentrated on the proposition that the literary experience of works possessed of formal excellence might be "homologous" with that of "crap" works:

I merely pointed out that a reader's narrarive "immersion" in "crap" is essentially homologous with that of a reader's narrative "immersion" in "good stuff."

Curt Purcell then responded to my example in the comments-thread.

One problem with your Henry James example, by the way, is that anyone who appreciates James very likely sees the "nothing happens" part as feature rather than bug. It's not a flaw to be screened (no matter how it may seem to other readers), but part of the point. For that very reason, I have my doubts, too, that anyone really gets immersed in James the way we're discussing. There's a great deal of literary fiction (and its antecedents) that seems premised on the notion that immersion is suspect, if not outright pernicious. Formal difficulty and a sneering eschewal of conventionally rewarding elements (i.e. those that directly stimulate strong primary affective responses) work in tandem to withhold from the reader an experience that's immersive to almost any degree.

The first definition I accessed for "homologous" comes from American Heritage online, and reads:

"Corresponding or similar in position, value, structure, or function."

Putting "position" aside as irrelevant, let's look at how literary fiction and popular fiction compare in respect to the other three.

It's true that a text written in the canonical literary tradition *dominantly* approaches the concept of narrative in a different manner than that of much if not all things written in the tradition(s) of popular fiction. (And yes, I'm aware that the two categories can spawn some interesting crossbreeds, but that's why I have the little stars around the word "dominantly," dontcha know.) As Curt says, canonical lit-fic often the "eschews conventionally rewarding elements" that underlie popular fiction's strongest appeal, so on that aspect alone they don't function identically as to how their narrative worlds function. Mickey Spillane wants his readers to enjoy said "rewarding elements." Henry James may have his own set of "rewarding elements" but he does communicate them to the reader more by suggestion and innuendo than by outright depiction. So the two aren't homologous by function.

In terms of cultural validation, it's obvious that the two aren't valued identically, though one may be validated with higher sales while the other may be validated with Pushcart Prizes. Further, it would be a betrayal of pluralism for me to value them identically, however much I thought the culture at large failed to give Mickey Spillane his proper due, as against the more validated Henry James. Pluralism requires that Spillane be valued on the terms appropriate to pop-fiction, not because someone thinks there are hidden "existentialist" currents in his work, while James is valued in terms of canon-fiction.

That leaves structure-- and yes, it's at this point that I will say that this is where all literary experience is indeed homologous, in terms of that basic structure I term the *dynamization.*

It's noteworthy that Curt Purcell should use the term "rewarding," for when I proposed the term "dynamization" in place of gratification in this essay, I also conceived the motivation for seeking this experience in art/literature came down to a perception of rewards:

I do believe that no one reads/views any work of art without some notion of a rewarding experience down the road...

Underlying this common quest for a reward of some sort, however visceral or intellectual the reward may be, is a structural movement from one state to another (what Todorov called two "equilibriums)."

I realize, as Curt points out, that the enthusiastic proponent/reader of Henry James does not consider the criterion of "nothing happens" to be a flaw. But in bringing up James I was responding to Purcell's assertion about how the "smart filter" would work in order to screen out any narrative phenomena that might disrupt the reader's quest for the reward:

a poor writing style goes unnoticed, technical mistakes are ignored, awkward plot developments are accepted, embarrassment and self-consciousness aren't provoked by one's enjoyment of story elements that might otherwise seem silly or childish, etc.

Many if not all of these examples arise in the reader's mind due to social constructions about what is or isn't a poor writing style, about what is or isn't a silly story-element. Building on this example, Curt's "smart filter" works to screen out elements of pop-fiction that the reader knows to be deficient by SOMEONE's criterion-- say, for our Mickey Spillane reader who doesn't want the action spoiled by worrying too much about Spillane's style. This reader may even have some acquaintance with "good" writing-- as against my earlier example of the juvenile TWILIGHT-reader-- but it may be that when the Spillane-reader gets a thriller, he wants thrills, quick and dirty, and the rough Spillane style is good at delivering that, as the James style would not be.

By extension, then, I'm saying that the James reader is no less aware that many SOMEONEs don't like reading fiction made up lots of pregnant pauses. I see this reader making more of a conscious, as opposed to subconscious, choice as to what standards of the "rewarding experience" he will advocate. I fully agree with Curt that for the reader of canon-fiction "immersion is suspect," but I think it's only the immersion of those who disagree with that reader's tastes. The canon-reader is just as interested in being immersed in an experience as the pop-reader, but the former is concerned with getting an experience that he considers *unique* (or relatively so) while the latter is concerned with getting an experience he considers somewhat *typical,* but presented in an *atypical* manner.

I confess I can't prove that other readers of canon-fiction get immersed in that fiction, either by pure logic or by citation of my own experiences in that bailiwick. But when I read any book by a critic who has devoted his life to the study of art and literature, even one I disagree with-- say, Theodor Adorno-- I usually get the sense that they *are* immersed, if not in the immediate experience of what they read, then in its place in their conceptual universes.

In a Northrop Frye essay entitled "Mouldy Tales," which I covered in greater depth here, Frye suggests that certain genres invite the reader to simply throw himself into the narrative, while other genres invite what might be called a "proto-critical" attitude, in which the reader is more or less "reviewing" the author's accomplishments even as he experiences the story. But even this "proto-critical" reader is getting some personal validation as he reads. "Aren't I smart to understand what Conrad meant by this?" Or, alternately: "Aren't I clever to figure out that the Hernandez Brothers are really not all they're cracked up to be?"

As I wend toward this conclusion I still didn't manage to work in the relationship of mythopoesis and dynamization, but by and large it may not bear on Curt's specific arguments anyway.

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