Literary Humility

Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish, Atlantic Monthly, 18 Dec. 2010) re-quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism, quoted in turn by Laura Miller in an article defending “genre fiction” like Dan Brown and Louis L’Amour and so on. C.S. Lewis wrote that people like “bad writing” because it

… is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.

Miller also discusses a new term of literary criticism, “one that literary critics have never used,” called “flow.” I get this from students, too. “This poem has great flow.” It’s always puzzled me. I don’t think it should. I think they’re probably saying it goes down easy.

Miller’s article, like Lewis’s book, confronts an interesting conflict: literary snobbery versus literary humility. If you define “good writing” as the apt, fresh phrasing of ideas and images, skillful plotting, the invention of lifelike and interesting characters, and the narrative embodiment of profound truths about the human condition, then I guess “bad writing” is something like verbal cliché, plot cliché, shallow or stock main characters, and sentimentality.

Miller’s right: if “bad” means not being difficult enough, almost everyone likes bad literature some time or another. I’ve enjoyed a lot of James Michener; no heavy lifting there. The Harry Potter series is not verbally challenging. Stephen King and John Grisham don’t challenge me on any level, but I’ve enjoyed them. Maybe we need different term from “bad.”

How many writings can you think of that have no intellectually ennobling qualities but that you liked?

Taste, as Miller says elsewhere in her article, “can be highly idiosyncratic.” Most of the time I prefer more challenging literature, but a lot of it is challenging only because it’s old or from an antique culture. I suspect I prefer it for reasons having more to do with my own quirks and how I like to spend my time than with the inherent “goodness” of the literature itself:

  • Accident: I am slightly crosseyed, therefore I can’t read fast, therefore easy prose doesn’t fill the time it takes me to read it and I get bored. I can read Hemingway and Vonnegut only because there is enough subtlety (Papa) or humor and style (Kurt) to keep me entertained.
  • Accident: I have spent (wasted?) a lot of time building the vocabulary, syntactical familiarity, and ideological-cultural-historical background to appreciate early British poetry and prose, so I can read Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, Milton, Johnson, and other writers with enjoyment. This is nothing to be snobbish about. I am hopelessly behind on contemporary literature, and by “contemporary” I mean since the turn of the century, and I don’t mean the twenty-first century.
  • Accident: I don’t like football, so I don’t have to spend weekends at tailgate parties. But what’s wrong with tailgate parties? They sound like fun to me. I understand there is beer, music, and laughter.
  • Accident: Although I’m extroverted, I married an introvert and I’ve absorbed and learned to appreciate some of her pastimes, many of which are solitary and peaceful, like reading. The last time I took the Myers-Briggs personality inventory I scored as a “mildly expressed introvert.”

One advantage of preferring easier literature is that you can do a lot of it really fast, and go to tailgate parties and discuss your reading with your friends without ruining the party. As far as I can tell, there are no long-range disadvantages. The unliterary reader has as many friends, enjoys life just as much, and — let’s face it — gets to wherever they belong in the afterlife at the same speed and with the same spiritual portfolio as Shakespeare or Milton. Ye must become as little children.

Another advantage is that while the unliterary are swirling down the same inevitable drain of mortality, climate change, and tyranny as the superliterary, they probably either don’t know it or don’t believe it, and in either case they don’t worry about it too much.

But if you’re already superliterary, you’re out of luck. You can’t go home again.


© 2010 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
This entry was posted in essays, literary criticism. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Literary Humility

  1. G. Hayduke says:

    Greg, that is a spot-on analysis of “good/bad” literature and you give it fair treatment.

  2. G. Hayduke says:

    Have you ever read John D. MacDonald? To me he has his feet planted in both camps.

  3. Greg says:

    John D. MacDonald included a color in every title, right? A friend recommended him once. I’ve never read any.

  4. bryon says:

    Interesting piece, Greg. I fear I land firmly in the unliterary camp, despite my concern about global warming. I’ve never read any “great” book that wasn’t in some way forced on me (unless we count The Once and Future King).

    But “flow” I understand quite well. This was a term we used almost daily in my journalism career to describe a story that did or didn’t keep one’s interest. My favorite authors have excellent flow. Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth is one of the most lyrical books I’ve read; it has wonderful flow. The plot is thinner than the paper it’s printed on (it’s about an interstellar pit stop to pick up some ice), and Clarke wrote in simple, basic English that glides from the page to the mind. He does the thing solely on prose that shines in its simplicity and on characters you are interested in immediately. I submit it is good writing.

    Sharon Kay Penman is the most literary author I’ve enjoyed. Her historical fiction was meticulously researched, her characters nuanced, and her style is of a more literary tone than Clarke’s (in Songs, at least). Her stories, too, have good flow.

    The Harry Potter stories may not be Jane Eyre, but I suspect they’ll last as long. And for sheer, heart-pounding suspense, I have little to recommend but the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. And a generation of readers will tell you Rowling’s novels have great flow.

    • Greg says:

      I wish we could count on readers meaning this (“glides from the page to the mind”) when they say “flow.” Some of my students, however, clearly don’t. I may have oversimplified in my essay. I believe some of them use it when they want to say something that sounds like literary criticism but haven’t the vocabulary for it. They use “tone” this way, too, when it has a very specific meaning in literary criticism (implications of the writer’s attitude toward the characters or events, or the attitude the work itself seems to take).

      Students have used “flow” to mean gentle or mellifluous language, like:

      Ah sleep! It is a gentle thing beloved from pole to pole.
      To Mary Queen the praise be given.
      She sent the gentle sleep from heav’n
      That slid into my soul.
           –Coleridge, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

      But I’ve also had students tell me lines like these “give great flow,” whatever that syntax means:

      Not marble nor the gilded monuments
      Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
      But you shall shine more bright in these contents
      Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
           –Shakespeare, Sonnet #55

      So usually I think sometimes they’re using it with the same analytic incisiveness of “awesome.”

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