Reading what’s extraneous
Last week at Big Other, Paul Kincaid put up a brief but intriguing post in which he asks to what extent various factors surrounding a text influence the way we think about it or its author. He gives the following example:
The program I use for databasing my library pulls down information from a wide variety of sources ranging from the British Library and the Library of Congress to Amazon. More often than not, this can produce some very strange results. I have, for instance, seen novels by Iain Banks categorized as ‘Food and Health’, and novels by Ursula K. Le Guin categorized as ‘Business’. In all probability, these are just slips by somebody bored, though you do wonder what it was about the books per se that led to such curious mistakes.
Paul’s musings raise many interesting questions. For one thing, we might wonder whether the factors he’s describing are indeed extraneous or external to texts. Because I can imagine a good post-structuralist immediately objecting that texts more porous than that, and that it’s all just a sea of endless texts slipping fluidly into one another.
Me, I don’t have a problem with treating texts as discrete and coherent entities, but I admit the situation is complicated.
Paul’s post immediately reminded of arguments made by the French literary critic Pierre Bayard, who’s probably best known in the States for his 2007 book How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read (Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus?). There, Bayard teases apart the common activity we call reading, demonstrating how insufficient that single word is—how we cannot simply say, “I have read that book” or “I have not read that book.” Bayard proposes instead a spectrum bound between two polls:
- I have heard about that book ———————————— I have forgotten that book
At any given moment, regarding any given text, we are situated somewhere inside that range. What’s more, our position can change in regard to a text.
For example, back in high school, I had Hamlet memorized. But that is no longer the case, and I haven’t read it in some time. Hence I’ve forgotten a lot of what I once knew about the text (although I’ve no doubt learned other things). Saying simply that I have “read” Hamlet disguises much of my actual relationship with that text.
Meanwhile, even before I read Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel Big Fish, I knew a fair number of things about it, for various reasons. I had heard of Tim Burton’s 2003 film adaptation, and seen the posters and possibly a trailer for it. Some friends also saw it (I bowed out, having been put off by Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes), but they probably told me a thing or two about it. (Granted, the movie is a different text than the book, but they’re of course intimately related.)
Anyway, in 2010 or so, I ended up teaching Big Fish in a summer ESL reading class. There, I amazed (or at least amused) my students by writing an essay on the text before I sat down and read a single one of its pages. (Actually, that’s not true. I allowed myself to read all the jacket copy, the copyright page, the Amazon summary, and the first and last pages.) But without having actually read the pages of the book, I felt as though I had a pretty solid sense of what it was about, and how it functioned. I shared my impressions with the students. And at the end of the class, after we’d read all the individual pages, we revisited my essay, which turned out to be pretty spot-on. (I wrote something short about my experience teaching Big Fish via Bayard, here.)
So that’s one way in which Bayard complicates our sense of reading: we can forget what we’ve read, and we can know a great deal (as well as infer plenty) about books we haven’t actually “read.”
Bayard also argues that we each contain individual libraries—the unique set of books that we’ve read, including the order in which we read them—which further colors our impressions of texts. For instance, most people I know who’ve read Vonnegut did so before reading Céline (or have never read Céline). Thus, they might be inclined to think of Vonnegut’s heavy usage of ellipses as “his.” (I wrote about this some in an older Big Other post, “We Know Best What’s Nearest.”) But someone else may have read Céline first—
At the clinic where I work, the Linuty Foundation, I’ve had thousands of complaints about the stories I tell . . . My cousin Gustin Sabayot makes no bones about it, he says I should change my style. He’s a doctor too, but he works across the Seine, at La Chapelle-Jonction. I didn’t have time to go see him yesterday. The fact is I wanted to talk to him about Mme Bérenge. I got started too late. It’s a tough one our job, seeing patients. At the end of the day we’re both pooped. Most of the patients ask such tedious questions. It’s no use trying to hurry, you’ve got to explain everything in the prescription twenty times over. They get a kick out of making you talk, wearing you down . . . They’re not going to make any use of the wonderful advice you give them, none at all. But they’re afraid you won’t take trouble enough, and they keep at you to make sure; it’s suction cups, X-rays, blood tests . . . they want you to feel them from top to toe . . . to measure everything, to take their blood pressure, the whole damn works. Gustin, he’s been at it for thirty years at La Jonction. One of these days I think I’m going to send those pests of mine to the slaughterhouse at La Villette for a good drink of warm blood, first thing in the morning. That ought to knock them out for the day. I can’t think of any other way to discourage them . . . [trans. Ralph Manheim]
—and only then have encountered Vonnegut. To whom Vonnegut may seem a pale imitation of the Frenchman.
This hits at a point I’ve wanted to make for a while—why I think it is that we regard some things as homages and other things as rip-offs.
Imagine, for instance, that you were a teenager in the late 1970s, and really got into Joy Division. Ian Curtis was the greatest! Then one day, an older acquaintance pointed out that Curtis’s singing style bore a certain resemblance to Jim Morrison’s. Well, that’s all right, you think—Curtis was paying tribute to a musician he loved. (Vonnegut was similarly paying tribute to Céline.)
Now flash-forward twenty-plus years, and your kids want to listen to some new CD that Pitchfork’s been raving about. They put in Turn on the Bright Lights and—holy shit! What a total rip-off! The kids these days and the stuff they listen to—it’s just a watered-down version of the classics! They need to be brought closer to the unknown pleasures of the past. (Never mind the fact that Paul Banks et al were really ripping off The Chameleons.)
Another example (because it’s fun to think of examples): I don’t doubt that most of us can recognize Tom Waits’s voice a mile away. It’s distinct, uniquely his. But how many Waits fans—especially these days—spend much time listening to Captain Beefheart or Howlin’ Wolf? And yet if some growly-voiced young musician came along right now, and started singing about hookers and bourbon in a voice like Cookie Monster’s, wouldn’t critics and listeners fall all over themselves dismiss him as just a Tom Waits rip-off?
I think this happens because our own generation, and those things prevalent in it, form for us something of a baseline. They’re The Way Things Are. After a while, though, we realize that The Way Things Are was influenced by—and derived from—The Way Things Were, or the culture that preceded us (as must be the case). And that derivation becomes homage, tribute, being influenced.
Then, as we live, we watch the culture continue building itself out The Way Things Are—including those things near and dear to us—and become The Way Things Will Be. And thus we experience the urge to dismiss what’s new as theft, as a rip-off, as inferior to what came before. But nothing has really change; what’s happening now is what was happening before—we just regard it differently, from our vantage point. Artists are always influenced by preexisting artists, and always inhabit traditions. It’s turtles on top of turtles, all the way down.
We might see this principle at work in Adam Gopnik’s Golden Forty-Year Rule:
The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)
I’m not going to insist all that strongly that Gopnik is right about his numbers. But many artists idolize the culture that they’re born into. For instance, I adore much of the music made between 1976 and 1983.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were born in 1944 and 1946, respectively. They grew up watching WWII fighter pilot movies and Republic serials. And so in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when they gained unlimited power in Hollywood, they used it to try and recreate their childhoods, via Star Wars and Indiana Jones. … And how many of us are doing the same thing today with NES games, My Little Pony, X-Men comics, and DuckTales?
(I raise my hand fearlessly and without shame; I know I’m guilty.)
Bayard’s arguments—that we always come to texts through other texts, and usually know something about those things we haven’t yet read—also get at a complaint I have of many MFA writing workshops, which often adopt the principle that manuscripts should be read cold. Participants, such programs claim, should just pick up the pages and start reading at the first line, without knowing anything about what will happen later on, or even what the project in question is ostensibly about. But how closely does that mirror any real-life reading situations?
In my experience, I usually know a great deal about any book I pick up. There’s jacket copy and reviews. There are my expectations based on what that press usually publishes. A friend may have told me something about the book. I can peak at the last page (and I almost always read the last page before I read a book). There’s the cover art, which sometimes hints at what to expect. There are blurbs. Terry Gross’s dulcet and banal interview with the author. Even agents and journals read cover letters and synopses before they dive in. We don’t decide what we want to read in a vacuum.
Of course that knowledge might be wrong. Witness the recent film Only God Forgives. In my 25 Points review of that film, I spent some time identifying why I thought so many critics and viewers were unhappy with the film: they wanted Drive 2: Drive. But to be fair, the posters (see above) told them that’s what they’d be getting. So, too, did the trailers:
That trailer clearly implies that the Thai police officer, Chang, sliced up Ryan Gosling’s brother, and that Gosling must now kick all kinds of ass in order to take down Chang. And, yeah, that’s not at all what the film is about, or like. Most if not all of the footage is taken out of context, so much so that it strongly reminds me of the trailer for The Shining that one Robert Ryang made in 2005, Shining:
The second time I saw Only God Forgives, while exiting the theater, I got into a conversation with two young women about to see it for the first time. They asked me if it was very violent. I told them that it was. One of the women said, nodding, “Well, it has to be, right? I mean, Gosling has to get the guys who killed his brother.”
She’d seen the trailer, and had no idea what movie she was actually walking into. (Not that I did, either, my first time around.)
But how else were the people behind Only God Forgives supposed to promote the film? It’s the new movie by Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling, the guys who two years ago made Drive. How could Drive not be our baseline? Imagine if the posters and trailer had said instead: “This new movie is nothing like Drive!” Would anyone have then gone to see it? (Assuming they even believed this?) So perhaps it’s better to let people think it’s going to be like Drive, then confront them with something different—i.e., risk their not liking it. (I liked it a lot, even though it took me a little while to realize that I was seeing something very unlike Drive.)
Our sense of what is to be is rooted in what has been. Why will the sun rise tomorrow? Because it rose today, and every other day prior. What is music? It’s stuff that sounds like all the other music I’ve heard. Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised when What Has Been returns—the way Daisy Duke jean shorts currently have.
Some artists, it seems to me, are more interested in deforming what is, while others are more interested in conserving it. In other words, some want art that looks different from what art already exists, while others want art that looks fairly similar. (Although no one, I think, wants the exact same art served twice, and I doubt anyone really wants an art that’s wholly different—the dispute is over the degree of deformation considered desirable.)
Well, this has been a pretty freewheelin’ post; I hope you’ve found it interesting. I still have a lot more to say (I always do), but I’ll shut up here and look forward to reading your own thoughts.
Tags: Adam Gopnik, big other, captain beefheart, Céline, Drive, experimental art, Howlin' Wolf, Interpol, Jim Morrison, Joy Division, kenneth goldsmith, Kurt Vonnegut, MFA writing workshops, Nicolas Winding Refn, Only God Forgives, Paul Kincaid, Ralph Manheim, Robert Ryang, Ryan Gosling, Shining, The Chameleons, the shining, Tom Waits