A LOVE SUPREME

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Monday, May 14, 2007

A good read

What is the role of good literature in a society and culture? And who determines what is "good literature"?

This query grows out of my recent experiences with friends, the primary of which is with a friend of mine who once confessed to me that when he reads a novel he skips "the detailed stuff" in order to keep the story moving along so that he can see what happens in the end. Now, there are a lot of reasons why this particular buddy of mine is a meatball, but his candid comment nonetheless give us a topic for discussion. What is the role of good literature?

By "good literature" I don't necessarily mean whether or not it expresses your particular ideology, I simply mean that it is well written. I am particularly thinking of the novel, but regardless of the genre some works of literature just have elements of beauty in them. There is creativity, insight, truth, and soul that breaks through the pages and moves us. However, it seems as though such literature requires a certain effort on the part of the reader to find the beauty - this is effort that the average Joe doesn't have the time for.....but now am I sounding like an elitist? Or a snob? Perhaps good literature shouldn't require our effort. Should good literature do all the work for us?

I recall watching the Ken Burns' 10 part Jazz documentary and I believe it was Cecil Taylor, one of the innovators of the highly controversial genre "free jazz", who stated that he expected his audience to prepare themselves for his concerts. For all of the time that he invests into a concert he expected the audience to likewise spend at least some time preparing themselves. Branford Marsalis called this "self-indulgent bullshit."

I was conversing at church yesterday with another believer and the topic of preparing for the worship service came up. Most American Christians roll out of bed, show up at church, and 2 hours later they are back at home grilling up some steaks and watching the game. In his book, Love your God with all your mind JP Moreland compares this approach to church with a sex partner who jumps in the sack, does the job, and then continues on with life. Doing the church thing without putting any effort into it or any pre-church preparation is like sex without foreplay or intercourse without intimacy.

So, who's right here? Who has to move? Must the reader become a "better" reader to appreciate "good literature"? Or is the best literature written to reach us where we are, with little or no effort required?

22 comments:

ktismatics said...

Randomly-selected paragraph:

She put on her sun-helmet and went out into the blazing ten-o'clock heat to find the cook -- she looked more fragile than ever and more indomitable. When she had given her orders she went to the warehouse to inspect the alligator skins tacked out on a wall, then to the stables to see that the mules were in good shape. She carried her responsibilities carefully like crockery across the hot yard: there was no question she wasn't prepared to answer; the vultures rose languidly at her approach.

Would you want to read more? Is it about this woman, or about the way the author puts the words together?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Wild Guess on the Fly: This is a tasty little morsel from the works of John Doyle.

Melody said...

The various works that make up the body of "good litature" are good themselves for different reasons.

Most people agree that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote good litature, but their books are vastly different. And though they were friends Tolkien thought Lewis' work (fiction-wise) to be silly fluff and Lewis believed Tolkien's stories too thick for common consumption (and I can absolutely see both viewpoints).

There is value in both of the author's approaches, I wouldn't want only one or the other.

I think the thing that is true about all the good litature that we read, is that is not easily forgotten. That'll be true whether you're reading Pride and Prejudice or Harry Potter (oh yes, Rowling is brilliant and much less frivelous than people think, don't even try to tell me otherwise).

ktismatics said...

Jonathan --

I wish. That was from The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, 1940. Last quote from JP Moreland he was leading the army of God into war against the pomo sissies. I get the sense that he has an active fantasy life. I wonder if this is what he's imagining on his way to church. He could write this story, about the famous theologian on his drive to church, his wife prattling on about whether Lois is going to bring that same green bean casserole to the potluck again, his kids poking each other in the back seat. What if church wasn't always like this, he thinks; what if it was more like that? He pushes the accelerator and jams the stick into fifth gear.

ktismatics said...

Oops, I got carried away there. That would not be good literature.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I don't know about good literature, but it was a humorous comment!

ktismatics said...

By the way, I highly recommend The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene which I excerpted briefly above. It's kind of a Christian book, Catholic, about a "whiskey priest" in civil war Mexico. Part of the literary canon of dead white males.

Jon said...

I think you must work at understanding good literature, just as you must work at understanding anything. The average Joe might "not have time" to read Hamlet, but he sure has time to read the sports page cover-to-cover. Ask him to give a summary of one book of the Bible, and you will probably receive a dumb look as a reply. Ask him what happened in last week's big game, and he'll give you a detailed play-by-play that would make the Rainman proud.
I think what you work on works on you. I like sports just fine, and there's nothing wrong with knowing a lot about them, but there are more important things out there--good literature being one of them.

That's kind of off-topic. Sorry. I think you have to work at it to appreciate good literature, which is what makes it good in the first place.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I'm adding it to the Amazon.com wishlist even as we speak.

Melody said...

You can read a sports page cover to cover? And how does the sports page compare to Hamlet? Two minutes compared to - well I don't know how long it takes to read Hamlet, I rather imagine it varies from person to person. The point is, they are two entirely different things. Don't compare graffiti to a motor bike, it just doesn't make sense.

And, some people (myself included) just adore litature naturally - other people adore other things and that's OK. My sister is not an avid reader, but if you want dessert or an in depth discussion of The Great Flu Pandemic, she's your girl and I will be of no use to you at all.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think what you work on works on you.

Nice. I think that's one of the keys to the discussion.

But what exactly does it mean that something "works on you"? Why is it that a particular piece of literature or a poem or a song writer or John Coltrane - why is it that these things can reach out and grab us? What is it that stirs something within us and wants us to explore and learn more?

One might argue that sports connects more universally with the masses than, say, John Coltrane or Hamlet. Is it because of the ability of sports to speak a language that more people understand? Or is it just that people are just too lazy for Coltrane and Hamlet? A little bit of both???

Jon said...

Melody,

I think you are misunderstanding me. I am not saying that literature is the apex of knowledge, or that sports or baking is stupid. What I am saying is that I don't buy the argument that certain things aren't worth the effort because they are hard or time-intensive. I'm thinking of the many times I have heard people say, "I don't have time to do x," but they sure find time to watch "Generic Reality Show". I am not "comparing graffiti to a motor bike", I am commenting that people generally find time to do what they love, in response to Jonathan's comment:

However, it seems as though such literature requires a certain effort on the part of the reader to find the beauty - this is effort that the average Joe doesn't have the time for.....but now am I sounding like an elitist?

Jon said...

Jonathan,

The obvious biblical answer that comes to my mind is Romans 12:2. What "works on" you transforms your mind--and thus your actions.

As for why something grabs us, that is a good question for which I have no good answer. I would love to be enlightened if someone has a good answer.

Maybe I was a little harsh on sports earlier. I like sports, myself (I was even a college athlete). When you started talking about average Joe, I got a mental picture of a semi-literate dumpy guy watching football on the sofa, armchair-coaching his favorite player: "They're in nickel coverage, Peyton. Blitz! WATCH THE BLITZ!!!" (As you can see, I retained my overactive imagination from my childhood.)

Is it because of the ability of sports to speak a language that more people understand? Or is it just that people are just too lazy for Coltrane and Hamlet? A little bit of both???

I have to go with the last answer.

ktismatics said...

I wonder whether it requires self-discipline to read literature, or if something gets in the way of our intrinsic interest (TV, shopping, work, etc.). Literature is slow -- some cultural commentator said that people don't even have the patience to watch a 7-minute YouTube clip. Though reading the sports page takes awhile too. You can make it through a lot of books if you read say 20 minutes a day.

In interviewing Toni Morrison, Oprah said that she had to keep a dictionary handy to look up words. "That, my dear, is called reading," was Toni Morrison's reply.

Melody said...

Jon, I would still say that you're comparing unlike things. If reading does not come easily or naturally to someone it is not going to be a leasure activity (and we all need leasure activities).

They don't have time to relax and to torment themselves by trying to read Moby Dick.

Incidentally, Erdman, I don't think more people understand sports, sports fans are just louder.

Jonathan Erdman said...

A side note:
Nobody reads the sports page, anymore! There's a company that goes by the name "ESPN" and this nutty thing called the internet that Al Gore invented.....

One of my hopes and dreams is that the internet cleans up the literature industry a bit. In other words, people read less and less but when they do read they are ready to commit to something and invest in a work that is well-written and more substantial. Less quantity of hard-copy literature but more quality.

As I think about what I want to accomplish through writing I think that I would like to paper-publish only a few things, but invest more time into the research and literary value. The majority of my publishing can be done through the internet, which is a superior media for publishing up-to-date material that addresses contemporary issues and ideas. Besides that, people can read your stuff for free, which is the way it should be.

Melody said...

Free? People only write because they don't know how to do anything else...you wouldn't want the authors of junk novels to starve would you?

ktismatics said...

Jonathan -

So writing should have no market value, whereas, say, accounting and lawyering should earn money for their practitioners? That's just sad.

Jon said...

Melody said...

Jon, I would still say that you're comparing unlike things. If reading does not come easily or naturally to someone it is not going to be a leasure activity (and we all need leasure activities).

They don't have time to relax and to torment themselves by trying to read Moby Dick.


The question is not whether a person enjoys reading as a leisure activity. The question is what does a person value? I contend that a person will make time and will sacrifice whatever is necessary for what she values. Some people value sports, some reading, etc. I happen to think that reading literature might be more valuable on the whole than watching football, although I like both activities, and both have their place.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ok, fine....I guess good writers must make a living. Giving everything away does make it difficult to earn grocery store money and buy gas for their big SUVs....But if you look at the traditional academic world you notice that many scholars publish a lot of good work through essays in journals, and even more of their good work goes completely unpublished and unnoticed. The web opens up an opportunity to clarify paper-publications, and allow easy and free access to readers who have interest in the author and/or the subject matter. A good internet presence allows a writer to expand his/her thoughts on issues and open up for criticisms and interaction with readers. I think the web compliments paper-publications.

ktismatics said...

Well, academics do indirectly get paid for their publications -- it's how they get tenure and promotions. I read somewhere that the average academic journal article gets something like 5 readers -- not even as good as your average blog post. But the journal is refereed by fellow academics, giving an officially published article higher status in the tenure game.

I think the best thing about internet writing is the possibility of interacting with the readers. I agree with you that the web complements paper publishing. As you've pointed out to me, longer online pieces just don't get read. So even if you publish a book online for free, I'm not sure anybody's going to read it unless they already know who you are.

Melody said...

Even then they won't. Reading things on computer is just too hard on the eyes, and leaning up to your computer screen is not as comfortable as holding a book in your hands...even if you've got a laptop.

Someone would have to care enough to print it out.