Monday, January 24, 2005

Updated: Well I'm glad it isn't Maud after all. Thanks for the correction, Barb (and link fix, Chance, and yes A.S. and I are tight enough to not let differences get in the way of our relationship, Anonymous. Isn't love great?)

Just some random thoughts, since I've been concentrating on other people lately, one person in particular, and not on a whole lot else.

First, Matt Cheney is writing some wonderful thoughts on fiction and reality and language at his blog, The Mumpsimus. The last two entries are rich, and the comments on the entry about psychological realism are great too. Matt's impetus for the entry on psychological realism in fiction and the predictability of character originated with an entry about this subject at a blog kept by Trent Walters. So go take a look.

As for me, I don't know if we can ever really know the essence of a person or a character. I don't think we can. I think we can approach a person or a character, but that your approach must always be in motion as that person's essence will be too. I don't believe in fixed personalities, I don't believe in a person being only one person and predictable beyond certain attributes and tastes and dislikes that in the end tell you nothing about them really. Instead I believe in a self that is fluid and always in motion. The action taken by that self are fixed, after they occur. The self takes actions one day and then take other actions that are contradictory the next, and sometimes this occurs without any causality. I don't believe in knowing, I suppose, but in being.

Next, usually I agree with almost everything on Maud Newton'sblog, but in an entry on the Booker Prize by her friend Andy, when he admits he thinks Arundahti Roy's The God of Small Things was a self-indulgent vanity piece, I am left slack-jawed. I loved The God of Small Things. I recommend it to people I love who I think should read that book. Those characters, the world Roy creates in that book, are still close to my heart several years after first reading it. I think the language is gorgeous. I love the splicing of words to create new words, I love the way the text is drenched in metaphor and simile. A.S. Byatt, who I also love, felt the book was over the top when it won the Booker, but I disagreed with my girl A.S. back then, even if I do respect the lady. And I'll disagree with Maud's friend now. First of all, I'm suspicious of the term "self-indulgent" when applied to a great many things, especially literature. I mean, really, what does a person mean when they apply that term to a book? Self-indulgent. It sounds to me as if they are saying, This writer wrote this book only for themselves and no one else. It's written in such a way that no audience was considered as the author wrote it. And if that's what a critic means when they apply that term, I think that's crap. Obviously I (and great many other people) loved The God of Small Things, so don't discount me and those other people as a valid audience. If Roy was being self-indulgent, then she also indulged me and a great many others, which means you have to take away the "selfish" connotation of that label. And if this isn't the definition of "self-indulgent" people mean when they use that word to describe a book, then I'm not sure what they mean. And vanity piece? Vanity? Again it has implications that the critic is describing the author to be only concerned with him or herself. Again I don't find this a correct term for The God of Small Things. I feel Roy opened up a wide vista for many readers to inhabit while reading her book.

I think a lot of critics, when using the terms "self-indulgent" and "vanity", really mean that this books uses poetic language, it makes up words that don't even exist maybe, it creates forms that we've never seen before and why do we need to do that? What's wrong with good old fashioned fiction? I hate how poetic literary creations get shafted simply because they use language at a heightened level, or invent narrative structures that a reader must become acquainted with, and learn new strategies for reading as they go. I think those books are important, and shouldn't be bashed simply because they don't fall in line with a preconceived notion of the sort of language an author should use, or a certain kind of pattern of telling, or anything that premeditates the act of reading a book for the first time at all. I think those are good rules for living in a social world too. Too often we make judgments on people for the same reasons that we do upon these books. Who cares if someone doesn't talk, dress, behave, etc in the way that the majority of others do? Take them in and let them be. They might (and most likely do) have something to add to the spectrum of humanity.


Blogger Barb said...

Maud's on vacation and is employing guest bloggers this week, so it was her friend Andy who used the offending phrase. It always brings me up short when one of them says "Maud this" and I look at the name at the bottom of the post and realize it hasn't been her for a half a page or so.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't realize you and A.S. were an item! Glad you have the kind of relationship where you can disagree about things the way you obviously do.

11:10 AM  
Blogger chance said...

*cough* what barb said - and spell maud's name right. your link doesn't work.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Yeah, yeah, I loved The God of Small Things, too and this post was very literary and smart and all that, but the important thing question--is your ear still unclogged?

6:38 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

hahaha, sorry Maureen. My ear is generally unclogged now, though often in the mornings the left one is clogged a little bit. I can managed to pop it with the pinched nose trick, like swimmers do to get water out of their ears, and if for some reason it begins to clog up again during the day, I'll do the same thing. Usually throughout the day, I have no problems, though, when I'm active. It's at night while I sleep that it begins to clog. I'm sure it may be because of how I breathe in my sleep and also because of having to heat my apartment with a kerosene heater, which is always emitting a small amount of fumes. I've got a rattle deep in my lungs that I keep having to cough out, which I'm sure is one of the sources of my clogged ears, all this mucous production going on. But I'm dealing with it at this point as the clogging isn't much any longer, and it's only in the morning.

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds to me as if they are saying, This writer wrote this book only for themselves and no one else. It's written in such a way that no audience was considered as the author wrote it...Obviously I (and great many other people) loved The God of Small Things, so don't discount me and those other people as a valid audience.I'm not so sure that the last part of this necessarily invalidates the first part. I mean, a book can have an audience without having been written for that audience, or for any audience at all (Anne Frank's diary, frex).

The real problem, I think, is that people use words like that one as if being self-indulgent is always and self-evidently a bad thing.'s not. At least, I don't believe it is. I don't believe it's always and self-evidently a good thing, either. Just: further evidence is required.

(And "written _only_ for oneself" isn't really built into the definition of 'self-indulgent.' So if that isss what's meant, it's a sloppy use of the term.)

(Er. Sorry. Got carried away!)

- Hannah

12:13 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

No, Hannah, you didn't get carried away at all. I feel exactly how you do about the term (I just didn't go into my feelings about how I'm not sure self-indulgent is an implicitly bad thing to be. What I mean by my statement of "don't invalidate me and those other people as an audience" though, well it gets complicated the more I have to talk about it. See, the way I figure it is this, I don't really believe in literary artifacts that are written for someone (whether the author intended that audience or not). Even a diary is meant to be read, even if it's only for yourself. And then also think about how I write. I don't write for any specific audience. I write stories and I wrote a book that I wanted to read. I guess I am of the belief that there are others out there who would want to read the same kind of book I would like, and in the making of it, I'm making a book or story for an unseen audience that has some similar tastes to mine. You can't write for them purposefully. Okay, well you can, but I find that a bit impersonal, like advertisers looking at demographic charts and throwing various things into commercials to grab the attention of old people/women/men/kids/various ethnicities/you fill in the blank. I guess I am self-indulgent, if that's what self-indulgent is, to think I can write a book for myself, the sort of book I want to read, and assume there will be others who want to read it too. This can be viewed as either highly egotistical or, on a more positive note (which is the side of the negative/positive spectrum I hang out in these days), it's just that I have this sense that we aren't so unique as individuals that there are not other people out there like us, and probably plenty of them.

3:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not online much this week, but a friend emailed to tell me that you'd attributed the opinions expressed in my friend Andy's post (on The God of Small Things) to me.

As I've mentioned on my site, I'm away until February 2 or 3, and I've lined up a series of guest bloggers to post in my absence. The introduction to Andy appears a few posts below the one you mentioned, and his name appears at the bottom of it.

While I admire Andy's opinion and had many reservations about the Roy book myself, I would not express them that way.


1:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm sorry. I see that you've added a note to the top of your post although you haven't changed the text.


1:52 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Hi Maud,

Yes, I missed that intro to Andy before I read the entry. Sorry about that. I added the note to the top of my post, but I'll go back in and change the text so that it doesn't confuse anyone. By the way, I love your site. It's my favorite link center for literary happenings. And you should really write a book about your family. ;-)

10:34 PM  

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