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Monday, May 21, 2007

good literature

I'm more than half way through Slaughterhouse Five. It's good. It's doing what good books do, which is bounce around in your head and everything reminds you of them. But what I hear, what I've heard for years, is that this book is great literature, that this novel (?!) is one of the best of our time. Now, I'm not going to argue whether that's true or not. I'm betting there's a body of literary criticism, on both sides, that does that far better than I could.

But I was left wondering today, how would you know? If somebody left a book on my desk tomorrow that would win the Pulitzer Prize next year, would I have any chance of knowing it while I was reading it? The obvious answer is "no" because lots of great books are written every year. It's only through word of mouth and a buzz that the actual prize winning books float to the surface. The other obvious answer is "yes" because there are some critical and specific hallmarks of good writing, or maybe more importantly to bad writing.

But put Naked Lunch or On The Road up against Moby Dick or Baudolino by Umberto Eco, all essentially road/buddy books, and you'll see the incoherent ramblings of beat authors encapsulated and enshrined in the same literary hall as the uber-literary technical marvels of Melville and Eco. But at least you feel that warm sense of self-satisfaction that comes with exclusivity because you know that science fiction will never join the ranks of great literature. But then along comes Slaughterhouse Five and 1984 and A Brave New World.

Where can we go for some exclusivity? Where, to be free of riff raff? Poetry? No, poetry too was lost to hippies, beats, technicians and slammers long ago. The answer, non-fiction.

Non-fiction seems to be the new black. I touched on non-fiction in a previous post. The idea of non-fiction seems pretty clear. And it seems almost to preclude ideas of greatness and literature. But then, until people like Truman Capote blew the lid off of non-fiction, making it into a continuum somewhere between fantasy, history, truth and reality, non-fiction was as dried up and prude as the archetypal librarian directing you to those Dewey decimal'ed stacks.

But these days Gore (Vidal and Al), Sachs, Jared M. Diamond, et al, bringing the "truth is stranger than fiction" effect to life, are being treated like (aging) rock stars. Talk shows, live chats, well attended "popular" lectures. This is the stuff of the turn of the century, and so it is. I always associate this sort of popularization of non-fiction with 1900, or 1800 even. But here we are, close in to 2000 in the scheme of things, again seeing scientists and pseudo-scientists extolling the power of knowledge (especially their own brand of it, meted out in wordy dollops costing only $19.95 and the likes).

(disclaimer, I have not read any of the books I'm about to mention)

I've been watching the evolution of the character that is Christopher Hitchens (because, I'm left wondering who the man Christopher Hitchens really is). This is a journalist cum author with impressive leftist credentials who has recently flipped hard to starboard and become a hawkish economic rationalist of the somewhat libertarian, almost neo-conservative bent. He's using his "brand" to great effect in left leaning circles of discourse and debate. Christopher Hitchens the lefty-gone-right is the one voice of conservatives playing in places like slate.com that doesn't sound shrill and/or part-line.

But he's recently weighed in on the atheism debate. And this is where I think he's starting to show his cards. He's a working author. He's a professional writer. One thing to remember about professional writers is that they need to make money. They need to write (about) things that make money in such a way that makes them money. Controversy is the name of the game.

About eight months ago Dawkins published his follow-on volley to the Selfish Gene, The God Delusion. The Selfish Gene is formative world changing scientific non-fiction right up there with Furture Shock and Silent Spring. Where the Selfish Gene constituted a mean upper-cut to the jaw of culture, The God Delusion is more of a left jab or a kidney punch. However that small rude gesture has been very effective at creating a lot of excitement in the crowd. It's generated a lot of buzz on the net, and I've got to believe a lot of income for Dawkins. Fair enough.

Currently displayed on slate.com is this byline: "Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"". Now call me cynical, but the title of that book is a goldmine. It's as if he held a focus group to determine what title would sell the most books in the current climate AND THEN wrote the book to the title. But it's not just Hitchens suspect flip-flop and fortuitous timing that turn me off. In reading a recent article he wrote for slate.com taking former US President Jimmy Carter to task for making lame statements about how bad a leader G W Bush has been he manages to yet again bring Carter's beer swilling brother in as a character reference. He also manages to take a swipe at Carter's wife for not being attractive enough (not sure how, but Carter's daughter avoided a mention). That's the level this guy plays at. He's clearly capable of great thinking, but not capable of great writing. Why? I believe because his motivation has been shifted over the years from something noble to something mercenary.

The deeper questions two I'll leave with you:
Why would someone shift? (or more to the point, how can one, or should one avoid that shift?)
What relationship does great art have with noble motivations? or for that matter mercenary motivations?

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