Works of English Literature We Can Do Without, or Where Did All the Snark Go?

Every day, I end up with a little time to kill while at a computer. I tend to avoid the news sites because I don’t really care what’s going on with the world. There was a short time when current events obsessed me, but in that short time mankind showed no progress towards enlightenment so I lost interest. Instead I go to comic book websites and watch fanboys freak the fuck out over trivialities. After a while other people’s hysterics becomes tiring.

Far more entertaining are the literary blogs. Tone of voice runs the gamut in these, from supremely condescending (“Denis Johnson needs to learn a little something about having a style“) to the self-helpish (“This year I resolve to reread the Modernists and the Greeks”) — integrating reading into their exercise routine. After she won the Nobel Prize, a few feminist bloggers decided to give Doris Lessing a chance even though they must have been spared of her by merciful college professors. Masochists, they didn’t despise her. This is not due to some critical revolution in the way in which Lessing is evaluated. Rather, the power of the Nobel has delivered them a Great Feminist Writer from on high, and there will be no question of her talent (also, she’s cute, old and sassy, like Granny Goodness). There’s a trio of blogs that gush over anything related to the Holocaust Fetishist, Maurice Blanchot. I’m not really sure about these guys’ literary preference. I sense it’s modernist, but if you gave them a blank page I bet they’d ejaculate over the all “absence.” These are the fanboys (and girls) of Literature, and they’re really just as amazing as comic geeks. Right now, on some blog, Joshua Ferris is “re-reading” Don Delilo’s White Noise. I expected some delicious snark there, but apparently because Delilo is alive, still important, and well-entrenched, the re-reading is pure sycophancy. It doesn’t help that the famously despised Michiko Kakutani contributes to the dumbing down of American literary tastes, but the rest of the New York Times review staff as well as the publication selection of The New Yorker, hold back the evolution of American literary discourse by about 25 years.

We no longer even discuss or debate non-fiction books publicly. Yesterday, I saw some cute gay kid on the bus reading some book about “commitment” by Dan Savage. I leaned over and said, “wotta reactionary he’s become…” The kid asked me, “what’s a reactionary?” Good for fucking at least? – asked a friend when I told him about the incident. Nah. The kid would probably try to slip his sphincter on my ring finger. What’s a reactionary…

I’ve run across a couple of people who clearly have their own standard and voice in which they evaluate what they read, regardless of received opinion. Do you think I’m going to go all Alan Bloom and praise the classics while lamenting the death of American literary public culture? Nah. I’m lamenting the death of snark. If this country had a home-grown intelligentsia capable of discussing anything beyond video game designers and celebrity gossip, we would not be suffering a dearth of literary snark. In this void, I have to seek inspiration from Brigid Brophy, under-appreciated British writer of the 60s, who, who with her husband Michael Levey and the critic Charles Osborne, published Fifty Works of English* Literature We Could Do Without.

I love this trio’s irreverence in the face of received opinion. Lately, instead of iconoclasm what we get is insecurity along the lines of “I need to read more classics,” and the even sadder praise of the Modernists as the end all and be all of literary evolution. Which isn’t to say that I agree with Brophy et. al. in their evaluation of classics. I think, for example, they miss out on some really pervy/entertaining goings-on in Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. Their attack on Defoe is really just nasty and unnecessary. Still, I appreciate the off-handed over-familiarity which characterizes a lot of their complaints. They don’t put writers up on a pedestal and don’t critique from a position of sanctioned (snobby) ignorance.

The book concentrates on works in the English language that received opinion gives us to think we ought to like out of duty. “English Literature, as it is presented by pundits to enquiring persons, is choked with the implied obligation to like dull books.” No works in translation are reviewed, otherwise the Bible would have been included. Obviously, they have no beef with historicists who read a text because it’s important for a period of study, but they do shy from the currently fashionable concept of influence, which is fair since the canon is, after all, a nineteenth century invention. To this end they start off with Beowulf, which isn’t exactly in English nor is it quite Literature.

Beowulf: “Beowulf is a fine example of primitive non-art. Admiring comment on its fine poetry is about as relevant as praise for the architecture of Stonehenge… it should be handed over to he historians or left to be picked apart by linguistic scholars. Amid all its failures should be noted its complete inability to make one feel anything except repulsion for Beowulf, its hero, and considerable sympathy for his enemies…”

Tom Jones: “… you might suppose, Tom’s personality is intended for a bare thread stringing together picaresque adventures — were it not that the adventures range so unadventurously in both place and theme. They are not much more than an alternation of beddings and thumpings, without much of the sensuous feel of either; the suspicion that Tom may have committed incest goes unexploited for horror, comedy, irony, or melodrama even before it turns out to be misunderstanding of the facts anyway. … the vigour must lie in the supporting cast, the genre characters? But they turn out to be characters only on the sandwich flag system. Each gets either a single speech characteristic … or an allegorical name… The secret is that the vigour is all in the narrative, or, rather, in the monologue…”

The Bride of Lammermoor: “What can be made of a writer who at the most poignant and harrowing climax of his novel describes events only with the desperate phrase that they ‘surpass description’? It is immediately obvious that we are dealing not with an artist but with Sir Walter Scott.”

The Scarlet Letter: “Are passion and affection not essential to keep men as men? No. In Hawthorne’s world they are too busy cutting up scarlet cloth so as to have plenty of letters ready to stick on the bosoms of the women they meet. And, every likely, that duty is the explanation which in America they give their wives for their habit of staring at other women’s bosoms.”

Moby Dick: “Distended with hot air himself, Melville’s whale can beget no progeny except wind eggs…. Otherwise, the whale is father to nothing but the dozens of novels which, with only the proper name altered, have repeated his burly opening sentence, ‘Call me Ishmael’, and the misconceptions that (a) the Great American Novel can be written by thinking about writing it instead of thinking about whatever it is about, (b) that it must be about brutality to animals, and (c) that brutality to animals, if pursued by men whose tears are the glue which fasten their eyes to their fellow men, is manly and portentous. (Where did all the great white whales go? They went Hemmingway.)”

To the Lighthouse: “What is the artistic achievement of reducing human experience to the gossipy level of the shallowest consciousness? We are all conducting Virginia Woolf novels inside ourselves all day long, thinking how the sunset clouds look like crumbling cheese, wondering why the dinner party guests don’t go, puzzling about children growing up, noticing for the first time the colour of a bus ticket. This famed sensitivity is everybody’s birthright; and probably Virginia Woolf was applauded first by those who were delighted to find literary expression of their own commonplace sensations. To have those put in a book and called a novel … Only dots can do justice to their delight.”

So, it’s been a while since Brophy and her boys compiled their list. What book will we assign to take the 51st spot?

*(and American)

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9 Responses to “Works of English Literature We Can Do Without, or Where Did All the Snark Go?”

  1. Patrick O'Connor Says:

    Alas, it could be argued that Americans are trying to do without all literature altogether. Like you said, it’s all video game designers and celebrity gossip. The only equivalent to la Brophy nowadays would be to compile a list of fifty films that we could do without, because people no longer live by the Leavis-Eliot updating of the Victorian novelistic/lyric canon but by the film/pop-song canon. You didn’t catch anyone during 9/11 saying that it was like being in the middle of an apocalyptic novel. Even cultured people of my generation find themselves quoting Dylan and Beatles tunes in moments of revelation, not Yeats or (heavens!) Jorie Graham.I’m a believer in the Believer, or in Julavits’s manifesto in the first issue at any rate, attacking snarkiness. I understand that it’s fine to have a certain amount of attitude when you visit a patient in the cancer ward (“Literature, honey, you look like shit today –you’ve looked like shit ever since Citizen Kane and Woodstock”), but snarking is a bit more like pulling the IV tubes out of the arm of Literature and then being angry when the patient starts flatlining.After all, the reason people get worked up over bad novels in a canon is because they’re in the canon. I don’t read over-rated books any more: I stopped in the Harry Potter series in Book 2, and only read the first of the Lemony Snicket books. But people can make you feel not part of the water-cooler conversation if you refuse to watch No Country For Old Men, whether it’s good or not (I haven’t seen it yet). And isn’t it sweet when you do sit down and finally read Toni Morrison’s Beloved out of a sense of duty and find out that it’s a terrific, terrific book?That’s why I’m not surprised that this conversation comes out of the Nobel Prize discussion, the only way the world has of canonizing literature even for us U.S. yobbos. I did mean to read Jose Saramago, okay okay?

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    I completely disagree with the take on snark in The Believer, Patrick. It’s not about open contempt. It’s about honesty. There’s no such thing as post-irony. There’s just not “getting irony” and sincerity fetishism.

  3. Skyresh Bolgolam Says:

    fabulous post, batard. I like tuning in to your station.

  4. darknessatnoon Says:

    Dear Ms. Mind-Blindness,”No, I’ve got my eye on you!”

  5. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    Ah, la boulangerie française! Batard? Mais oui!Is that a batard in your hand or are you giving someone we both know and love to loathe the–how you say in anglais–bird?

  6. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    But seriously now . . . .I would venture that Fifty Works of English* Literature We Could Do Without is best understood and comprehended in its original context, viz. Britain in the 1960s. Angela Carter has likened to this period to the 18th century, and the valorizing of wit and irreverence during that decade has not been equaled since. Hypersensitivity and the school of “self-esteem” (in which many of the illiterate children of suburbia I currently teach seem to have been educated) have contributed to this nation’s massive case of irony failure. (If the US weren’t suffering from irony failure, how did the current administration get elected?)Perhaps this explains my life-long attraction to the British 60s–as opposed, of course, to the American version thereof, the difference being one nation relinquishing its remaining world dominance and the other going into overdrive to get there. And no, the Brit 60s weren’t all “fluff” pop culture. I daresay the average Brit pop star back then was more culturally astute than the average US undergraduate today. (Honestly. I have a clear memory of Paul McCartney, whom I don’t regard as the sharpest tool in the shed, alluding intelligently to Thomas Hardy in a television interview with Dick Cavett.)So of course people like Brodie et al. could come up with something like this back then. To “trash” the canon, you have to know the canon. Yet I never really thought that they were actually trashing the canon in the frightfully sincere way many did during the so-called Culture Wars of the late 80s and early 90s, wherein, I suspect, many called for the the obliteration of works they’d never read. Rather, I think Fifty Works is comparable to Jane Austen’s deconstruction of the gothic novel in Northanger Abbey. You can’t do such a witty take-down of something you actually hate,As to Angela Carter, she was asked some time in the 80s about what book would she choose for a revised version of Fifty Works. She nominated the Bible.

  7. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    51. John Milton, Paradise Lost52. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby53. Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”

  8. darknessatnoon Says:

    Ha! I love that “Daddy” poem. Everyone should be forced to memorize it at an early age as an example of completely over the top, maudlin, poetry.

  9. Victoria J. van Dijk Says:

    54. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam, A.H.H. Really should be much higher on the list. Only a Victorian would spend 20+ writing a poem about the death of his [boy]friend and cover up the queerness of it all by nattering on about how the discovery of fossils is destroying religious faith so how can he be sure the dear departed actually got to heaven.One wishes that Xanax had been around for Tenny Babe.

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