What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

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Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

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Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

Why did I have to read that book in high school?

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This month Lindsay Ellis discusses the Literary Cannon, or how books become “worthy“, in It’s Lit.

I swear that when I started posting these videos that I didn’t know the series would cover one of my pet topics. Worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures, are all things I love to bang on about. This video feels like a worthy addition to my posts on the topic.*

Let’s explore what makes a book “important.”

Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers–all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book is required reading in high school, why other books are lost to history.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favourite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE

*Pardon the pun, it was father’s day recently.

Loving reading and book wardens

When do people start to hate reading?

For us readers, the answer is “Never! How could you ask such a silly question? What’s wrong with you? Do you even book, bro?” But the reality is that a significant chunk of the population have not read a book in the last year, and/or aren’t regular readers. We have to admit: some people don’t like reading.*

I have a pet hypothesis** on this. During school, mainly high school, kids start to hate reading. This is because teachers, academics, literary people, policy makers, and general busybodies, start to decree what kids should and shouldn’t be reading. As a result, kids are “forced” to read books that they aren’t interested in or that have won an award or are a “classic” or that fill a certain level of appropriate snootiness that appeases book snobs.

Or as Blackadder put it:

In the academic text – From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers – Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward discuss this issue. They outline this problem and have summarised reluctant readers with a cartoon from Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame).

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Cartoon by Dav Pilkey in From Striving to Thriving by Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward

One of the authors, Annie Ward, presented at a readers summit recently and one of her slides has made it to social media. It covers some key points for how educators become “book wardens” who restrict reading and undermine reading ownership and choice. Book Wardens tend to:

Sound familiar?

While I have frequently focussed on the snobbery aspect to this problem, particularly from the reading/publishing industry itself, there is more to this. Take for example “just right” books and adults. What image do we conjure up when someone mentions comic book readers? Pimply teenage boy? An obese virgin loser who still lives with his parents? You know, this guy:

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The problem with that series of assumptions is that it is a form of reading snobbery. How could a comic be entertaining to anyone who isn’t a loser? Or similar statements that you’ll hear from people who have never read a comic book and battle to wrap their head around the art form.

In other words, even as adults, we are encouraging people not to read.

But don’t worry, as Dav’s second-page shows, we can all make a difference to people by encouraging them.***

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*A quarter of people (24-26%) haven’t read a book recently. I’ve previously discussed the reading figures for the USUK, and Australia and it is interesting how the figures come together. Suffice to say, reading is not a favourite hobby for most people.

**Hypothesis because a theory is something pretty solidly supported, whereas a hypothesis is a question you want to answer. Join me in my scheme to change the values that will stop the positive feedback of the colloquial usage of theory today!

***Although in fairness, the literary snobs are trying to encourage people to read. Their failing is that they think what they like should be what everyone reads. They have us talking about guilty pleasures and judging what we read by their standards rather than just letting us read stuff we enjoy.

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Are e-readers filled with garbage?

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Every now and then I like to look back through older posts on my blog. It’s a form of masochism built upon equal parts fascination with forgotten ideas and revulsion at missed typos and awkwardly phrased run on sentences that really don’t know when to end, that should have ended sooner, and aren’t something I do anymore. One snarky post caught my eye and I thought I should retread that ground.

The post was based upon an article in The Guardian, one of the last bastions of book snobbery that manages to not trip over its own superiority complex – sometimes. The article had decided that all of these new-fangled e-readers weren’t filled with the right kinds of books.

Kindle-owning bibliophiles are furtive beasts. Their shelves still boast classics and Booker winners. But inside that plastic case, other things lurk. Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls.

Ahh, good, they’ve figured out what people actually enjoy reading. Do go on.

The ebook world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliche is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.

“So-called” genre fiction categories of horror and romance… This article was published by a so-called newspaper.

At this point, you can see why I originally wrote about this article. Like many of these worthiness arguments, the article is quick to deride any genre book, particularly e-books in this case, as not having “classic” potential. You know, classics like The Godfather (crime), Lord of the Rings (fantasy), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (science fiction), Frankenstein (horror), or Pride and Prejudice (romance). Why would anyone ever read dreck like genre fiction?

As I’ve said before, I could easily write a post-a-week pulling apart one of these articles. They are very common and rely on the same handful of bad arguments. In my original response to the article, I wrote that literary fiction – the preferred genre of the authors of these sorts of articles – and biography markets have been kept afloat by this sort of snobbery. People like to be seen reading high-brow stuff, and people like to give worthy books to friends and family. Not one person has ever bought a political memoir to read, they are always a Father’s Day gift. And as the article states, e-book readers don’t have to let people see what they are reading, so they don’t have to pretend any longer.

The reading public in private is lazy and smuttyE-readers hide the material. Erotica sells well. My own downmarket literary fetish is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I’m happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.

Well, maybe people will pretend just a bit longer…

Since this was an article from 2012, the talk of e-books was as they were ascending in popularity. Growth in the e-book market has since slowed, with the market being 20% of the total sales for the major publishers, down from a high of 28% five years ago. Of course, in the fiction market e-books are more like 50% of sales for the Big 5 publishers. And those publishers are having trouble with new fiction titles, as they haven’t had any “big titles” selling well, instead relying on genre fiction backlists and the sudden interest in political books… Wait, what?

It puzzles me why the author of this article insisted that e-readers are filled with garbage, particularly since the arguments supporting the claim lack evidence. A large chunk of book sales from major publishers are e-books, so it can’t all be the dreck titles, can it? What proof do we have that e-readers only contain Twilight fan-fiction and Dan Brown* novels? The proof we are offered is that anything genre is garbage: checkmate person who reads books! So maybe these article writers at The Guardian are onto something, maybe e-readers like the Kindle are filled with garbage.

Guardian on Amazon

 

*Sorry Dan**, you and James Paterson are my go-to punching bags here. If I’ve offended you or James by suggesting your books aren’t high-quality writing, then I’m quite happy to edit out those comments from my blog for a small six or seven figure fee. Just post me one of the bags of money you use as a pillow, that should cover it.

**Language expert take on Dan Brown novels: “A renowned male expert at something dies a hideous death and straight away a renowned expert at something quite different gets a surprise call and has to take an unexpected plane flight and then face some 36 hours of astoundingly dangerous and exhausting adventures involving a good-looking (and of course expert) member of the opposite sex and when the two of them finally get access to a double bed she disrobes and tells him mischievously (almost minatorily) to prepare himself for strenuous sex. Where are we?” And another.

 

 

A Book a Day: Six health benefits of reading

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Penguin Australia recently published an article suggesting reading was awesome for your health. Previously I have posted science-backed articles on the benefits of reading (1, 2), so more science telling us that readers are awesome never goes astray. Although, as much as I love some good old confirmation bias, I can’t just share that article without some commentary from the further reading. I mean, the article title is a play on An apple a day keeps the doctor away… that can’t pass without some mockery.

Reading can provide hours of entertainment and pleasure, impart knowledge, expand vocabulary and give insight into unknown experiences. Additionally, research has shown that it has a variety of physical, mental and emotional health benefits. If you need another excuse to pick up a book, here are six ways reading can benefit your health.

And if those six reasons don’t encourage you to pick up a book, then think of them as six ways you’ll be superior to other people.

Improve brain function

Neuroscientists at Emory University in America conducted a study and discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The study showed that when we read and imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described on the page, the areas within the brain that process these experiences in real life are activated, creating new neural pathways.So next time you’re indulging in an armchair adventure with a great book, you could technically claim you’re working out – your brain, that is.

This study was rather small, consisting of 21 university aged participants who had 19 days of baseline brain scans before 9 days of scans as they read Robert Harris’ Pompeii novel. Warning: they had no null group in this study, only the baseline comparison, so any conclusions drawn should be done next to a salt shaker. It does, however, draw similar conclusions to previous research I’ve discussed.

Obviously, stimulating the brain by engaging with a story is going to light up parts of the brain, but there is the implication that using our brains in this way will strengthen pathways. Calling it a workout for the brain is probably a stretch because it isn’t like our brain sits around doing nothing the rest of the day. But for me, the more interesting thing is the shared response among participants. It proves Steven King’s adage true about writing being a form of telepathy.

The big unanswered questions here are how does this compare to any other shared activity, and how does it compare to other similar activities. I’d bet crypto money – always best to keep bets symbolic – that any other activities would see similar responses.

Increase longevity and brain health in old age

Researchers at Yale University School of Public Health found that, ‘reading books tends to involve two cognitive processes that could create a survival advantage.’ According to their results ‘a 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.’And the longer you live, the more time you have to get through your to-be-read pile.

This study nags at my skeptic-sense. Nothing immediately jumps out and screams “This study is nonsense, don’t believe it!” but I can’t help but feel like it is. They sampled 3,635 people in the USA and compared readers to non-readers for longevity. Don’t worry, they factored in stuff like age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression. But I’m still left with the nagging sound of my statistics lecturer telling the class that correlation doesn’t equal causation. See this example about storks and babies!

My suspicion is that there is something unmeasured that is confounded with reading that is the actual causal factor. This factor is probably also available from other activities, thus other activities will also increase your lifespan. Just my suspicion. Happy to be proven wrong.

Reduce tension levels

A 2009 study by the University of Sussex found that reading for just six minutes can reduce tension levels by up to 68 per cent.3 Researchers studied a group of volunteers – raising their tension levels and heart rate through a range of tests and exercises – before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading was the most effective method according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis. The volunteers only needed to read silently for six minutes to ease tension in the muscles and slow down their heart rate. If ongoing stress is an issue take a look at these simple stress management tips.

This claim is hard to pin down. It’s not like other studies haven’t shown reading (and yoga, humour, cognitive, behavioural, and mindfulness) have impacts upon stress levels. But unlike the linked studies, Lewis’ study hasn’t been published. The source in the Canadian National Reading Campaign links to The Reading Agency in the UK which cites an article in The Telegraph. Now, I suspect that this was probably one of those studies done for a report that no one has read because the only publicly available material on it is the press release. But it could also be rubbish research that didn’t get published because of claims like 300% and 700% better than other activities sound like made-up numbers.*

Increase emotional intelligence & empathy

Numerous studies have shown that reading books can promote social perception and emotional intelligence.2 Studies have also found that when a person is reading fiction, they showed greater ability to empathize. Similar to the visualization of muscle memory in sports, reading fiction helps the reader use their imagination to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.For books that’ll test your empathy, push your moral boundaries and ask ‘what would you do?’, take a look at this collection.

I don’t know why they referenced the same two studies again as they didn’t look directly at the issue of emotional intelligence and empathy. I’ve seen better studies, such as the one I mentioned in my piece on Literary Fiction In Crisis, and this one that literary people like to wave around because they can’t afford a Ferrari. So while this appears to be true enough, it is worth understanding why (read this one and see how lots of books have differing levels of literary merit).

Improve sleep

While some scientists believe reading before bed can inhibit sleep due to heightened brain activity, researchers at Mayo Clinic recommend reading as part of a relaxing bedtime ritual that can help promote sound sleep.4 This, coupled with the tension-relieving benefits of reading, can vastly improve both the quality and quantity of your sleep. You may want to stay away from page-turning crime and thriller novels though – you could be up all night…

Clearly these people don’t read thrillers. Am I right people? Huh?

Anyway, it is worth reading what the Mayo Clinic actually said:

Prevention
Good sleep habits can help prevent insomnia and promote sound sleep:
Create a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as taking a warm bath, reading or listening to soft music.

That’s right, it wasn’t that reading helped you sleep, it was that it could be part of a relaxing bedtime ritual. Could. They didn’t recommend it so much as used it as an example of a relaxing activity that wasn’t playing on the computer or watching TV (i.e. screen based). So this is overstating things a bit.

Improve overall wellbeing

Researchers at Italy’s University of Turin published an analysis of ten studies of bibliotherapy: the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders. Their findings showed that participants in six of the studies saw significant improvements in their overall wellbeing for up to three years after partaking in a course of reading therapy.5 With that in mind, here are some books to help you achieve mindfulness and find happiness in the everyday.

Worth reading the actual link on this one. In summarising they have made this sound like wellbeing benefits were being measured in most of the studies out to three years when only one of the ten studies did. This could just be me nitpicking, but it does overstate the results in my opinion.

As with many of my posts breaking down a sciency article, you can see that at best the claims are overstated, or as I’ve summed up previously I think you’ll find it is more complicated than that. And as much as I like reading – and I’m sure many of you reading this do as well – too often this sort of science isn’t actually helpful.

Sure, reading is awesome, but if you’re going to stick someone in an MRI to prove it, how about comparing it to other activities and including a nill treatment. That’s called good science! Readers don’t actually need some scientist to tell them their hobby is awesome (or maybe they do), and they especially don’t need overstated claims about that science in articles, it goes astray.

* Seriously, check out this “abstract” quote:

Abstract: Tested against other forms of relaxation, reading was proved 68% better at reducing stress levels than listening to music; 100% more effective than drinking a cup of tea, 300% better than going for a walk and 700% more than playing video games. Reading for as little as 6 minutes is sufficient to reduce stress levels by 60%, slowing heart beat, easing muscle tension and altering the state of mind. ‘Galaxy Commissioned Stress Research’, Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3868356/#s007title
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953616303689
3 Dr. David Lewis “Galaxy Stress Research,” Mindlab International, Sussex University (2009)
4 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355167
5 https://academic.oup.com/eurpub/article/27/suppl_3/ckx186.244/4555858

 

 

What Makes A Good Story?

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Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:

Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.

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Video removed, see why further down.

Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.

A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:

  • A central premise.
  • Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
  • A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
  • A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
  • An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
  • An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
  • And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)

I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….

Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.

As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.

I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?

Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.

Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.

This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.