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13 questions about Literature

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Posted

My favorite speculative fiction author Scott Bakker posted the following questions for English professors so I thought I'd share them with u. Any feedback will be appreciated. 

13) Should we judge Literature by what it resembles or by what it accomplishes?

12) If we should judge Literature by what it accomplishes, who should the literary author write for? Audiences who already share their values and attitudes, or audiences who do not?

11) If conventions are nothing more than the expectations of real people, and if people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed, then doesn’t ‘violating conventions’ amount to turning your back on real people?

10) (If fundamentalism is raised as an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for fundamentalist Christians? (If right-wingers or ‘rednecks’ are made an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for rednecks?

9) Given that ‘groupishness’ is a universal human trait, and that groups invariably use their values to assert their social superiority, to police membership, and to secure their institutional privileges, which ofyour values do you think best serve these various roles?

8 ) What’s worse: the crap Hollywood produces, or convincing people who might change Hollywood to turn their back on it and only create for people who already share their attitudes and values?

7) What percentage of scholarly papers would you say are more motivated by the need to secure in–group prestige and/or discharge bureaucratic requirements as opposed to a genuine love of the subject matter?

6) Given that humans are hardwired to appreciate spectacle and convention (one need only look at myth), what are we to make of social groups that explicitly devalue spectacle and convention?

5) To the extent that you teach students what to take seriously, and what you take seriously tends to alienate consumers of popular culture, are you not teaching your students that turning their back on their cultural community is the only way for them to be taken seriously?

4) Given (5), would you say you are part of the cultural solution or part of the cultural problem?

3) What’s worse: selling out to strangers or writing exclusively to friends?

2) What should society make of authors who continually write about people they are too embarrassed to write for?

1) Have you ever admired yourself wearing a scarf in a mirror?

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Posted (edited)

To the extent that you teach students what to take seriously, and what you take seriously tends to alienate consumers of popular culture, are you not teaching your students that turning their back on their cultural community is the only way for them to be taken seriously?

When 'teaching' my students of a given age, when the situation arises, I try to point out that although many of our systems and institutions have given rise to the individual, of its fame and of considering intellectual and artistic life as a purely individual and private affair, it has also given rise to a form of collective representation which paradoxically reduces many individuals and some of their means of self-expression.

As the individual, for example, is granted a higher social status, it becomes ever more necessary to reduce that individual to the ditto of others. That is one of the reasons they're in school, I tell them. All taking the same exam, all having to learn by rote, all doing exactly the same thing, year after year after year. Gradually, the team succeeds the 'self', the village warrior becomes a drilled soldier, the academic essay becomes 'instant steals' of quotic devices and footnotes, the roaming and suffering field labourer becomes a factory unit, individual goals are gradually reduced to market roles, professionals are placed in totalising environments, and so on. Clearly, there are positive affects to all this and the students are bright enough to point them out.

From time to time, we look at the media, the sound-biites of politicians, peak oil, environmental issues, the way money and banks work, what is democracy and what does it mean, how the voting system works in Spain, and so on, and to be honest, most of the students know something isn't quite right.

But no one, not in my classes, is going to swallow the story that being taken seriously entails 'turning their back' on consummer culture, or their society or the 'system' etc. In fact, the story will be quite the opposite. Students realise that non-conformity appears useless, especially when it entails tangible economic and institutional disadvantages. It's written on every wall: shut up, obey or you shall be punished.

A critical attitude, then, I tell my older students, is probably useless in today's environment but isn't so for those folk who seek given freedoms from processes of mechanisation and standardisations which they feel are threatening their individuality. A critical attitude is only good for those who feel a need for it. But no one, not in my classes, is going to spoon feed them or force crap down their throats - even if the crap is something I happen to agree with. They will have to do the hardwork themselves, they can ask questions, we can have open debates, but they have to intiate them.

If I am asked directly what would I do, I tell them that my own life hasn't been to save the suspicion of individuality I might ever have had, but to celebrate and participate in my amateurism. To a given degree, I point out that for me alone, a professional is often that which is merged into a system of totalising control, whereas the amateur is that which is often left somewhere to its 'own' behaviour. In such an environment, the amateur may be granted a larger degree of autonomy from which independence and originality can grow, but there is an inevitable downside - one is generally punished economically. That has been my path, I tell my students, and is one that shouldn't be followed.

Within this form of amateurism, I tell my students that in class it involves the process of trying to lose fear of saying silly things, fear of wearing different clothes, having different opinions, lose the fear of speaking about what is eating their minds for fear of being critiqued and ridiculed, lose the fear of failing exams, lose their 'professionalism', try to forget their 'self' in order to save it.

All this has nothing to do with turning one's back on society, but trying to make it a better and more caring place, ultimately, within the classroom setting, trying to foster that environment in which each of us can move and can afford to lose and be in error.

Things are working alright. In the seven or so years I have been teaching, not one of my students have failed their state exams. Although I often get a finger-wagging from my boss, it is recognised that all of my students, 100% of them, have gone to university. Outside of class, if I ever bump into those who have moved on, the reaction of the grand majority of my ex-students' is not of avoidance or embarrassment but of sincere greeting, warmth and well-being.

I think at the end of the day, what we take seriously in our classes is simply ourselves and that respect and passion does wonders to the soul. If that self-respect means for a given student surrending up a middle-finger fuck off to the crap they've been forced to swallow over the years, then so be it. As a teacher that is employed to get them along, to get them through the exams, and to make them feel proud of themselves and confident, I'm on their side every step of the way.

Edited by soleo

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Posted

11) If conventions are nothing more than the expectations of real people, and if people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed, then doesn’t ‘violating conventions’ amount to turning your back on real people?

This is the most interesting one for me. Even the author who imagines he is writing something unconventional, or that deliberately eschews convention in favour of something he believes is better, deeper or more meaningful, is still engaged in a performance and on the face of it is essentially writing to confirm the expectations of a smaller group. I wonder if literature can actually change conventions or if it reacts to trends - however minor - and performs to those represented by them?

Btw, Bakker has put up a response to his blog and his comments on it.

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Posted

Concerning #12--

The idea of writing something specifically with an audience or demographic in mind seems strange to me. I would suppose that publishers and booksellers are the ones who should be thinking about audiences, not authors. It’s their job to find the most likely audience for a given work, their job to market, their job to take care of all that nasty practical stuff so authors can do their job-- writing.

(Not including children’s literature, where specific demographics-- age groups-- really do count for something. Although I take it we‘re talking about Literature with a capital ‘l’ here, so….)

But I guess it all comes down to why an author is writing in the first place. If they are trying to win an audience over to a certain viewpoint, there’s no use preaching to the choir. At the same time, if their agenda is so obtrusive as to actually make their work off-putting to people espousing the same viewpoint, I’d think something somewhere has gone seriously wrong. Again, it just seems irrelevant-- how could you have any but the most general idea of who’s going to be reading what you write? Shouldn’t that be, at most, a secondary concern?

Maybe I should have answered #13 first-- neither option seemed particularly appealing when I first read it, but it’s pretty obvious now I wouldn’t judge literature by what it accomplishes-- at least not in the sense #12 supposes.

And #11--

If violating someone’s expectations is tantamount to turning your back on them, you’re going to end up turning your back on some people no matter what you do. You can’t please everyone-- the best you can really do is make sure you‘re not among those you‘re turning your back on. At least with everybody else, nobody is going to make them read it. Probably.

And #1-- well, how else are you supposed to check to make sure it’s hanging right?

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11) If conventions are nothing more than the expectations of real people, and if people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed, then doesn’t ‘violating conventions’ amount to turning your back on real people?

With Hugo, I found this to be the most interesting question. "If people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed..." I think it reasonable to remove the 'if.' People are quite naturally, to paraphrase Kojeve, 'epistemic imperialists.' The desire to have one's "blik," i.e., the lens that filters their conception of the world, the background assumptions that color everything else, and those items that purportedly have their being within the bounds of said "blik" is, if we are to believe Hegel, Kojeve, and Leo Strauss, who all agree on this phenomenon, part and partial to the nature of man. This breaks through the limits placed on the understanding on man by historicism. That was part of Strauss's project, to point out that historicism, or a geographic and temporal contextualism, defeats itself as it purports to exclude itself from its own contention. Anyways, I digress.

Basically, the question reminds me of ole Socrates and his trial...were the Athenian authorities in the right for condemning Socrates for his questioning of Greek conventions? It bespeaks of the tension between philosophy and society.

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Posted (edited)

The following answers are by Frank Gallimore, a poet:

Good to hear from you. Hope all's well. Here's my stab at it..

13) Should we judge Literature by what it resembles or by what it accomplishes?

Vague question. Off the cuff, I'd say what it accomplishes. But this feels like a trick question, heh.

12) If we should judge Literature by what it accomplishes, who should the literary author write for? Audiences who already share their values and attitudes, or audiences who do not?

Aha, there's the trick. That's a false choice. Writing doesn't have to be a popularity contest in order to be valuable. The implication behind this question's sense of "accomplishment" is, ultimately, political. It is more accurate to think of good writing in philosophical or even spiritual terms. Think of Keats' negative capacity, the ability good writers have to explore uncertainty and to live comfortably in that state of not-knowing. The politician promulgates, reiterates, reinforces, and refines values and attitudes of a constituency. The writer is not bound by such things. That he may feel he is--or rather, that his wallet tells him he is--is immaterial. The writer simply writes. Think of the the adage. Art is useless? Art can be amoral so long as it isn't boring? There's some kernal of truth to his audacity. Audiences come and go. While it's true that the enterprise of writing involves a degree of entertainment, entertainment and enlightenment are not mutually exclusive. It's a typically American fallacy (a la Hollywood, I suppose) to segregate the two, rather than remembering what Horace pointed out and Shakespeare knew well: good art delights and instructs. This is accomplished by not prescribing hierarchies in art (high vs low, literary vs pulp, etc), and fooling oneself into believing that audience and such things as prevailing values and attitudes must be hammered out in order for good work to be generated. The good writer seeks to get past that, to start not with "I want to write a story that convinces people that communism is the best system of government," rather, he starts with "Once upon a time..." What follows must be human first and inevitably political second. In fact, most good writing does precisely that and, in turn, often redefines those values and attitudes as an after effect. Painters know this equally as well. The good ones (I'm being very selfishly subjective here) do not seek to depict moods and provoke thoughts, they simply try to see effectively and penetratingly. Truths, if we're lucky, arise as an effect of this inquiry.

11) If conventions are nothing than the expectations of real people, and if people generally prefer to have their expectations confirmed, then doesn’t ‘violating conventions’ amount to turning your back on real people?

Another inefficient question. Who are these "real people"? Have you met them? Where do they live? What's the litmus test to qualify as one? The question doesn't risk elitism, it simply is elitist. What people want and what they need are two different things. Granted, it's slippery and borderline presumptuous to state that one's work offers people something necessary. After all, remember Auden in this case. Poetry makes nothing happen. Still, I argue we are more complex than this question implies. At times, we want and expect certain things because they placate us, anesthetize us against the pain of living. That this sort of fodder exists is not evil. It is merely human. But we also want to be enlightened, to have our perceptions deepened, to feel something profound. This experience is not limited to what typically passes for "literary" art. It can happen in a comic book. The question is meaningless.

10) (If fundamentalism is raised as an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for fundamentalist Christians? (If right-wingers or ‘rednecks’ are made an object of ridicule). Which literary authors write for rednecks?

That's a can of worms. To begin with, "fundamentalist Christians" is somewhat of a misnomer. Even the most "fundamentalist" form of Christianity in our country is rather selective (some might say relativist or subjective) in its biblical interpretations and practices. That being said, the term "rednecks" is as much a judgment as it is a name. And judgment implies a finite projection of values, ie an idiosyncratic perspective. It follows that what a "redneck" might consider literary might not be so for the next guy. I've known some "rednecks" who love Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress." Perhaps the literati grant it literary status because it's old and therefore of historical value? That's arguable. I imagine certain snippets of Dante, or early Robert Lowell, or late T.S. Eliot would appeal greatly to the bible-thumper as well. But, again, you'd have to be very selective and ignore quite a bit. Take your pick. If what you're getting at is whether certain values are inherent in literary works that exclude lower classes, the uneducated, or the dogmatically inclined, my only answer is this: the only truly obstructive and divisive value in literary work is uncertainty and the elevated diction it requires. It is not the literary quality of a work that excludes, it's merely uncertainty itself.

9) Given that ‘groupishness’ is a universal human trait, and that groups invariably use their values to assert their social superiority, to police membership, and to secure their institutional privileges, which ofyour values do you think best serve these various roles?

I would have to say the value I place on inquiry, awareness, and expansion of the mind automatically separates and, whether I like it or not, elevates me above those who do not value these things. I don't have much use for a mind that staunchly refuses to learn anything.

8 ) What’s worse: the crap Hollywood produces, or convincing people who might change Hollywood to turn their back on it and only create for people who already share their attitudes and values?

The latter. Is this another trick question? It's at least a silly one. Again, the question reiterates a fallacy. It's not as if it's the audience that creates the art and that the artist stands as some kind of incidental reaction. And why is this an either-or proposition?

7) What percentage of scholarly papers would you say are more motivated by the need to secure in–group prestige and/or discharge bureaucratic requirements as opposed to a genuine love of the subject matter?

I have no idea. Sounds like a rhetorical question.

6) Given that humans are hardwired to appreciate spectacle and convention (one need only look at myth), what are we to make of social groups that explicitly devalue spectacle and convention?

Again, too simplistic. We're geared to notice patterns and modes of emphasis, yes. However, myth is so much more than that. I could hardly condense it in the body of this email so I won't try. Suffice it to say, reducing myth to "spectacle and convention" is like saying philosophy is the art of wearing a toga. As for the second half of the question, groups that devalue spectacle would be called minimalists. I enjoy minimalism but it's a limited endeavor and doesn't bear a great deal of intellectual scrutiny. That's fine by me because it's a matter of style, of aesthetics, and not morality. Style is itself a variety of spectacle. As for convention, that is a natural fact. A phenomena, I should say. That you eat and sleep are kinds of conventions. Or I should say they are patterns upon which conventions are based. By extension, that you wear clothes is a kind of convention. You may want to dress differently but, ultimately, human attire hasn't changed all that much over the last several hundred years. We just like to think it does because of this ingrained need for a sense of progress, a lessening of monotony. It is the very nature of the term "convention" that it be perpetually engaged in a cycle of newness and oldness. Our appreciation of convention has embedded within it an appreciation for change. In other words, when one diverges from tradition one is still fulfilling the convention of succession. In addition to that, we do not live in this hypothetical realm of absolute convention and absolute revolution. As human beings, it is impossible. We are always uncertain, in motion, approaching knowledge. We look for mainstays just as we look for variety. We remain sensitive to when one harms the other to a fault. In that way, it is inevitable that we both cling to and are repulsed by convention. That some are nearer to clinging and some are nearer to repulsion is nothing miraculous.

5) To the extent that you teach students what to take seriously, and what you take seriously tends to alienate consumers of popular culture, are you not teaching your students that turning their back on their cultural community is the only way for them to be taken seriously?

The implication at the end of this question, I suppose, is that one would be taken seriously by some cultural elite? Academia, the affluent, and so on. For starters, you don't teach students what to take seriously, not if you're a teacher worth the name. You get them to observe more carefully and thoughtfully the things they already take seriously to begin with. This tends to open the door to taking other things seriously. But this should be self-directed. When it is not it is a flaw in the education itself, which is a matter separate from the production of good literary work. When something is thoughtfully produced, it can be taken seriously, whether it happens to be in the form of a superhero comic book or a Homeric epic (two works that are much more similar than some are comfortable admitting.) Also, "popular culture" is not so uniform as some would have it. Nor is "literary culture." Both sides of this debate are tilting at windmills as often as not.

4) Given (5), would you say you are part of the cultural solution or part of the cultural problem?

I do not take #5 as a given, therefore this question is invalid.

3) What’s worse: selling out to strangers or writing exclusively to friends?

Both are not very enticing but, again, this is a false choice.

2) What should society make of authors who continually write about people they are too embarrassed to write for?

Too vague. Who are these authors? And who's to say what their intentions are? Can we be so presumptuous? Are we not underestimating the readers' range of interests? I, for example, love a good piece of pulp fiction. I also enjoy Fitzgerald. What's the big deal?

1) Have you ever admired yourself wearing a scarf in a mirror?

Yes. It was a really nice scarf.

Edited by The Heretic
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