Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Where BS Ends and Brilliance Begins

Yesterday's review of Beatrice and Virgil threw me into at least 15 minutes of serious reflection on Postmodernism and the "pretention" in some novels that can bug so many of us. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite since I've actually liked quite a few novels that, by my definition in Beatrice and Virgilshould be considered pretentious. Namely, there are several novels I count among my favorites that are highly self-referential, intertextual, employ techniques of metafiction, or are otherwise experimental. So what's the difference between the novels I love and the novels that make me want to toss them in front of a moving garbage truck? I'm certainly not anti-intellectual and I don't want to bag on novels that are smart, but there comes a point when a novel can move from smart to intellectual self-gratification (aka, intellectual masturbation).

On of my very favorite books (actually three novellas) is Paul Auster's New York Trilogy: City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room. They were originally published independently and later collected into one volume.

I found these novellas innovative, beautifully written, and supremely interesting and intellectually stimulating. Auster is self-referential as a character named Paul Auster appears in each of the novellas. However, as I see it, Martel was essentially writing a thinly veiled autobiography of his writing experiences after Life of Pi. While Auster casts himself as a character, it's in short spurts as opposed to making himself the star of the show. His appearances often draw attention to the act of writing instead of expressing his own overt life experience to the audience.

The New York Trilogy also uses metafictional techniques, or draws attention to the "fictional" quality of the writing. When I was in school we often referred to metafiction as "breaking the fourth wall." Instead of allowing us to purely sink into the story, we're made aware of the story in some overt way. Beatrice and Virgil did this, too, so what's the difference? Why did I want to toss B&V at a wall while I ate up The New York Trilogy like nougat? In this case, I think it's all about subtlety. I can see that Auster is drawing my attention to his fictional techniques and his sly writerly tricks, but it seems to work within the context of the story. Basically, I always felt as if Martel was hitting me over the head with a big writer's mallet with I'M SMART engraved on the side. There was a smugness about his writing and his techniques that annoyed me.

When it comes to intertextuality--references to outside texts in the story--Siri Hustvedt is one of my favorites. Her novel, What I Loved, is another of my all-time favorites. She also just-so-happens to be married to Paul Auster. Do they sit around and talk about this stuff at dinner? That's what I want to know.

What I Loved makes innumerable references to outside texts: art, artists, fairy tales and their interpreters, psychology and psychologists, philosophers. What makes it OK for me is the main character. Leo Hertzberg is an art historian and critic. His best friend is an artist. It never seems weird that he should analyze his friend's work or make the observations that he makes because that's his job, and essentially that's his life. The references to art and artists seem effortlessly woven into the text and aren't jarring, whereas Martel's often seemed too overt (that mallet again). Thrown into the mix to make an overarching, very obvious, very "look at me!" kind of observation. In short, he just tried too hard.

I don't want to be too hard on Martel or alienate the readers who loved his book, but these are some of the reasons why his book didn't work for me while so many others that were similar made me beam. I also wonder if the brevity of Martel's work contributed to the problems. In What I Loved and The New York Trilogy, both of the authors were allowed a little more real estate over which to stretch their writing muscles. Points and references and smart writer stuff could develop more naturally without such a whack to the head.\

So I'm wondering whose writing you find pretentious. When is pretention or high-flown, writerly 'stuff' permissable and when does it make you want to scream? What's the difference between writerly novels you love and the ones you want to put down the garbage disposal?


  1. I found "The Poisonwood Bible" so pretentious I couldn't finish it. For me, it's less about writerly-ness and more about an author shoving a "message" down the reader's throat without any grace or faith in the intelligence of the reader. I had the same issue with "Blindness"- it was a "wow, you think you're a super genius and the rest of us are idiots" sort of feeling. Down the disposal they went.

  2. Jane Doe, I think that's a perfect way to put it: "shoving a 'message' down the reader's throat without any grace or faith in the intelligence of the reader." Right on!

  3. Uh oh - I just hope no one bags on David Foster Wallace here. ;)

  4. I run hot and cold with Paul Auster. I either love him or can't finish him. I loved In the Country of Lost Things and The Book of Illusion. Read them each many times, and have not been able to finish most of his other books.

    I think the key difference for me is that while the two I love are full of writerly games, they are at heart stories about people. That makes all the difference to me.

  5. Michael Chabon's writing voice is very pretentious to me.

    And Paul Auster... The New York Trilogy is the only book I ever purposefully did not finish. The first story I enjoyed, but the second with Detective Brown, Detective Black, Lady White, etc. Uh uh, no go. I was not a fan. I have a friend, though, who is a huge fan, so I may give him another go.

    Beatrice and Virgil just doesn't sound like my type of book. I love the analysis.

  6. Intellectual masturbation? hahahaha I seriously can't stop laughing; it's been so long since I've heard that, and I am definitely going to try to work it into my classes at some point this semester. Great post!

  7. This may not be what I always mean when I call a book pretentious, but I think one thing that really, really bugs me in a book is when the characters are baselessly arrogant about themselves, and there's no indication the author knows the characters are being pretentious. A tiny bit of self-awareness, some humor that pokes fun at the pretentious stuff, can go a long way for me in stopping me from getting a generally pretentious feeling about a book.

  8. Greg, I've never read David Foster Wallace, so he's safe from my venom.

    C.B., Great point. I also enjoy books, no matter what the tricks, that are really about people. Such was the case with What I Loved.

    Picky, I've read all of Auster's memoirs and I think those are a great place to start for an author whose prose you may or may not like. I also enjoyed Man in the Dark.

    Trisha, definitely work it into those classes. There's no matter way to get students to pay attention than saying the "m word."

    Jenny, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I actually dislike Jonathan Safran Foer for that reason (plus I think his writing is just downright pretentious). OHHH, and there was one Updike essay, "The Disposable Rocket" I read as an undergrad that turned me off of him completely. While he was writing about himself I also wonder if he wasn't just creating a character. Either way, it turned me off of him and his characters.

  9. Interesting question. I can't remember the last time I read a pretentious book, to be honest. I think when the author sacrifices the story or the art for the message, the book winds up being preachy or fakey, and no one likes that. But, as you said, sometimes even a pretentious novel can have redeeming qualities like a great character.

  10. Yes, prentension is a false front: there's no heart or soul behind it. The most pretentious novel I've read is The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; wanted to scream through most of it. Except for the parts about the father. They rang true. Why? Because you could tell that the author felt them.
    Does that make sense?

  11. I think the most pretentious book I've ever read is Ada by Nabokov. After the success of Lolita I think he became an extremely pretentious writer because he realized how amazing of a writer he was and instead of focusing on telling good stories he focused on his flowing writing style, which while beautiful, doesn't have the same force as his earlier stuff which was more focused. There are sentences in that book that will just start with the letter B and things like that.

    Compare him to a writer like Tolstoy who only worked to make his work more poignant as he got older and you start realize how much of his own talent Nabokov wasted. So that's my answer for the day... Pretentious writer is when a writer gets too caught up in showing how good of a writer he/she is that he/she ends up wasting their very real talent by being unfocused on what novel writing actually is.

  12. I think you hit it on the head there – it's about subtlety. I first started paying attention to this a few years ago when I took a fairy tales course and found myself exceedingly annoyed by a version of pretentious writing I dubbed "name dropping." The crappy retellings and revisionings were almost always chock full of references that served only to show off the author's brilliance. Shortly after taking the course I read a few of The Sisters Grimm books (because they were everywhere and I thought they sounded interesting and I'm a sucker for a cleverly written fairy tale – hello, Stinky Cheese Man!) and I wanted to STAB MYSELF IN THE EYE. They were wretched. Absolutely wretched. (Don't ask me why I read more than one. I don't know why. This was right after I broke down and read Twilight, too, so apparently I was going through a masochistic phase.) They were a constant string of "Look at me! Look how smart and well-read I am! Look how original my plot is!" I had someone on Goodreads ask me why I gave the books one star and I couldn't answer because I knew I would explode into a million pieces.

    I like what you said, heidenkind, about sacrificing the story/art for the message. You see this ALL THE TIME in children's literature and I have absolutely no patience for it. In those cases, too, it's nearly always accompanied by a patronizing tone, which infuriates me. It makes me want to snap at the author, "Don't you dare use that tone with my students, young lady/man!" I don't, though. I just don't let that crap into my classroom :)

  13. Heideinkind, amen! You said it. I hate the fake message much as I hate the fake smile.

    DS, that's why I haven't read The Corrections! I could smell the BS coming off of it.

    Christopher, sadly I'm underread in Nabokov and Tolstoy. I've only read Lolita and Pnin and absolutely nothing of Tolstoy's. However, I find your example intriguing and I need to look up a bibliography of Nabokov's to see what's going to make me want to die and what I'll love. I do intend to read more of his work as I enjoyed both of the ones I've read.

    Emily, I haven't read The Sisters Grimm, and I probably won't now since it sounds like I'd want to pluck my toenails out one by one. I am a huuuuge fairy tale and retelling lover, so it's hard to screw those up for me, but that would probably do it.

  14. I can really love writerly stuff. But I can also really hate it. And I think that you really did a good job of pointing out an important factor: subtlety. When a writer is subtle about a message, even tries to make the reader work for it a little, I tend to like the work so much more. But when the message is in neon letters repeated on every page, I get a little tired and annoyed. I think that reading is all about give and take and I'm in no way a passive reader. I want to interpret and figure things out for myself.

  15. I think the mallet your write about is what I refer to as sledgehammer name dropping. Some writers flawlessly and seamlessly weave in any number of references to works or art, music, books, etc. And other writers can't seem to mention anything without it sounding phony and over rehearsed. I find this especially true of novels that try to integrate elements from the classical music world. Some pull it off brilliantly but most make the musical bits stick out like a big pretentious sore thumb.

  16. The New York Trilogy and What I Loved are two of my favouritest books!


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