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by David Pullar

13 Nov 2008

Thanks to my fiancée working in a bookshop, I have been fortunate to discover a bizarre sub-genre of book that I would never have heard of otherwise: the cosy murder mystery.

The proliferation of hard-nosed TV cop shows of the CSI ilk has given me the impression that murder is a pretty grisly business.  Yet apparently there is a section of the populace that like their murders with a side of handicrafts and a dressing of soothing familiarity.

My first experience with this style of book was with the inimitable Laura Childs and her scrapbooking murder mystery Photo Finished.  Not only has Childs produced six murder mysteries set in a New Orleans scrapbooking shop (all loaded with helpful exposition on decorative edging), she is also responsible for a series of teashop mysteries.  Photo Finished is appallingly written and the plot is nothing short of absurd, but that all seems irrelevant when you discover that Childs is far from the only writer working in the genre.

The concept behind these books is not so strange.  After all, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books featured a cosy English village that was unusually prone to homicide.  Last century, butlers were notorious for bumping off houseguests in novels—possibly lashing out at their declining employment prospects.  Why should scrapbooking shops be any less popular locales for murders?

Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing combination.  Could there be anything less comforting than the prospect of being sent packing from this life while enjoying the simple pleasures of flower shopping (Shoots To Kill), drinking coffee (On What Grounds) or…gasp…teddy-bear collecting (The Clockwork Teddy)?  In fact, the thriller genre has been most effective when it has shown crime intruding into the safest places.

The trick with the cosy murder mystery seems to be to keep the murder part to a minimum.  Killings are brief, absent grisly detail and usually of incidental characters we have not had time to get used to.  I suppose this is one way to maintain the “cosy” vibe, but it does seem to defeat the purpose of a murder mystery.

I’m trying to work out what the existence of this genre says about humanity.  If we sidestep the question of why some people are so keen on scrapbooking that they want their murder mysteries to involve it, we’re still left with this: why people simultaneously crave the excitement of bloodshed and the comforting knowledge that it won’t happen to them and they can go back to their quilting afterwards.

Maybe decades of crime fiction has reduced murder to a simple plot trick.  We’re no longer interested in the procedure of detection or the psychology of crime.  We’re really just looking for an excuse for our characters to momentarily escape their lives and have an “adventure”.

That would at least explain why so many of these books are about really boring hobbies.  If you’re writing about skydiving or spear-fishing in the Marianas Trench, then you hardly need to bump off one of your characters with a pair of craft scissors—the thing is exciting enough as it is.  On the other hand, writing 200-odd pages about a group of cat-sitters would drive anyone to murder.

by Sean Murphy

12 Nov 2008

I. Personal

Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.

I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m on Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.

(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, the Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)

Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.

II. Polemical

Check it out:

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up

Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.

Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man

(chorus)

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go

This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.

On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.

Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver

III. Political

Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.

And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame, we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. This is reason enough to be grateful for an Obama administration (the irony that a genuine war hero, had he managed to win, would have necessarily been obliged to overlook those in need of help to pacify the string-pullers in his party, was, thankfully, too outrageous even for America to make possible). The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least.

Remember this, when the ankle-biters and small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag;  these same armchair generals prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.

by Bill Gibron

12 Nov 2008

He’s that old friend we hardly recognize anymore, that middle aged idol that’s, apparently, going through a bit of a creative and cultural crisis. Granted, the secret agent is substantially less sexy in 2008, especially when you consider the War on Terror implications of such stealth. And let’s not forget the endless recycling and regurgitation. Over the course of 22 films, he’s gone from suave and dangerously debonair to a pitbull on ADD. He’s been resourceful, laxidasical, and constantly reconfigured to fit contemporary parameters. But the question remains - is James Bond still James Bond? - and better yet, has the latest incarnation put the final stake in the character’s heroic heart once and for all.

When Daniel Craig was announced as the latest incarnation of Her Majesty’s licensed to kill-bot, there was the typical unbridled backlash. Most of the complaints centered on the unknown UK actor’s age (Sean Connery was 32 when he starred in Dr. No - Craig was 28 at the time of Casino Royale), his blond hair, his lack of experience, and the general kvetching that comes with any change in the 007 mantle. While he may have faced more scrutiny than Pierce Brosnan or Timothy Dalton, no new Bond gets off easy. Then again, the Connery vs. Roger Moore/George Lazenby/you name it argument is so old it beats the original spy thriller to the retirement home.

So what’s there left to talk about if we don’t dish on whether actor X can carry legend Y’s Walter PPK? How about the equally erratic aspect of the men behind the lens? In the franchise’s 46 year history, there have only been 10 directors involved in the James Bond films - Terence Young (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Thunderball), Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun), Lewis Gilbert (You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker) Peter R. Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, License to Kill), Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, Casino Royale), Roger Spottiswoode (Tomorrow Never Dies), Michael Apted (The World Is Not Enough), Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and now, Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace).

For many the same old sentiment applies - the older films were far better and truer to the character than the newer, more modern action efforts. Others point to Young and Hamilton as forming the Bond mythos, and the latter lackluster work of Glen for almost destroying it. The decision over the last decade to offer an Alien like approach to the series (a new filmmaking face guided the material each time out) has met with some hesitation, and a lot of head scratching. Was Tamahori really the right person to put in charge of Brosnon’s final fling with the character? Indeed, the same could be said for Apted, a man mostly known for the triumphant documentary anthology The Up Series.

With Quantum of Solace, one assumes that Forster will face the same cinematic struggles. In an era where stuntwork has to be spectacular, massive in scope, driven directly by the narrative, and captured with a frantic ‘you are there’ urgency, the reigning king is Paul Greengrass and the amnesiac black ops icon, Jason Bourne. There is no denying that the two films helmed by this gifted director (Supremacy and Ultimatum) are contemporary action done with a determined artistic merit. Sure, you sometimes get queasy as the camera careens endlessly around the actors, but Greengrass understands the volatility of such sequences, and the violence that typically results.

Forster obviously feels a kinship to this kind of chaos. From the very opening of Solace, he strives to keep the viewer directly in the line of car chase/fisticuffs fire. Of course, it seems odd that the man responsible for Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction, and The Kite Runner is putting on his shaky-cam POV. He’s the last wannabe auteur you’d envision taking over the Bond beatitudes. When the characters interact in the latest installment, Forster is right at home. These moments remind us of why the spy thriller remains a potent genre. But as a creator of convincing spectacle, Forster fails. He’s no John Woo, or for that matter, Michael Davis.

Indeed, by taking this strategy in bringing the character into the 21st century, Quantum stumbles. Indeed, what Davis did with his rollicking Shoot ‘Em Up, or Tarantino does with his typical homage heavy approach is bring the mannerism to the material, not visa versa. In essence, when QT takes on a bit of vehicular mayhem, he draws from the endless canon of same, picking and choosing the best bits to drive his camera/crash choreography. Similarly, someone like Woo works out placement and particulars so that his sequences become dramatic statements on the storyline’s themes and subtext. But in Forster’s case, it’s just copying for the sake of commerciality. There’s even a bit of balcony jumping ala Bourne.

Going back to the old Bond films, one is instantly aware of how clearly defined they were/are. Our hero faces an evil enemy hellbent on taking over the world. He gets help from a hot lady, an entire Aston Martin full of gadgets, and enough mental ingenuity and physical acumen to guarantee at least a chance at success. In the post-millennial 007 universe, the superspy is now a superhero, almost impervious to pain, injury, or unlucky rolls of the plotpoint dice. Taking away the debonair dandy’s vulnerability may be in line with today’s power hungry demographic, but it robs Bond of one of his most important aspects - his humanness. Spies are not gods. They are people playing policy against each other to root out terror and keep the bad guys at bay.

Quantum of Solace forgets all that, and it’s not all Forster’s fault. Indeed, he’s just guilty of giving the camera a bit of an unnecessary nudge every now and again. There will be those who sing the praises of this 22nd excursion into the life of a masterful MI6 mole, and the way the narrative is set up, Quantum plays like the middle act of a much larger cinematic statement (it picks up directly after, and incorporates a lot of storyline, from Casino Royale). Making Bond aggressively badass last time around was a necessary need of a floundering franchise. Making him into the Terminator in a tux just doesn’t seem right. No wonder it’s getting harder and harder to recognize him.

by Chris Catania

12 Nov 2008

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.
—Aldous Huxley

There’s a reason why they have that quote posted on their website. New York rock trio Secret Machines are apt guides for those wishing to seek and find the truth expressed by Huxley who was challenging readers and music fans to ponder the inherent power of music.

Before their Chicago show, I had a backstage talk with Brandon Curtis (vocals/bass/keys) and Josh Garza (drummer). Even though first formed in 2000 and are seasoned indie-rock warriors, I was still wondering how they’ve managed to soldiered on when so much has happened since 2006’s Ten Silver Drops. In roughly two years, they’ve left Warner Bros., weathered the departure of original guitarist Ben Curtis (Brandon’s brother), added guitarist Phil Karnats to the mix, and self-released The Secret Machines in October.

During our chat, both Brandon and Josh explained how they’ve continued to make the music they’ve always wanted to, while adjusting to the creative challenges of being independent and making music on their terms.

They sat on the couch across from me. Curtis calmly sipped a beer while Garza warmed up his drumsticks, tapping them on this shoes and the floor, wrapping them with grip tape as if preparing for war.

The Secret Machines have appeared to come full circle. And our conversation confirmed that they’re ready for the next wave of challenges.

Can you explain the new rhombus stage set up and tell me how the visual effect is working with the tour so far?

Brandon: During this tour we’re figuring out how our playing works with this new stage set up. We’re exploring the nuances and subtleties of different lighting schemes, figuring out how the songs fit together. We’re really enjoying the process.

What type of impact do the new songs have on figuring out that process?

The visual presentation of our music has always been something Josh and I have enjoyed doing. We love putting the energy into figuring out how our music can be represented visually. It’s something we’ve always be enthusiastic about; just as much as the playing and writing music. We also like the challenge of finding out how to experiment visually with the means we have right now. Our design on this tour is very stripped down; but it still has a lot of character for what it is.

To create the rhombus structure you called on the award-winning set designer Es Devlin who’s also done work for Kanye West. Was there any inspiration from other live shows you’ve been to that made you want to create a particular atmosphere during a Secret Machines show?

Brandon: I don’t ever want to duplicate an experience. We both have had some significant [concert] experiences as fans that made an impact on us and made us want to do our own version.

Josh: It’s one thing if you’re Def Leppard and can afford to do production, or if you’re Radiohead and have the towers of blinking LED lights. But when you’re at our level it’s more like something we want to do. It’s also our way of fighting laziness. It helps us to expect something from each show. We could just set up and play and that would be great. We saw spiritualized play in Dallas. The show wasn’t even sold out but they did a very simple light show that was mind-blowing.  It was so simple but so effective. It inspired us to try and say something because for us it’s more than just being a band; it’s about saying something.

How has it been going since you left Warner Bros. and put the new album out on TSM label?

Brandon: It’s been a learning experience. We chose to put this record out ourselves. We’re still discovering what that means, figuring out the benefits and limitations. It’s a challenge this day and age to figure out how to make things work. It’s a different matter when you’re counting every penny. Nobody at Warner Bros was a completely different situation when it came to budget affecting everyone.  TSM recording is a closed, close-knit system. We’re working with what we have and it’s exciting. It’s also very grounding.

Josh: It’s also a Catch-22. When you have an endless budget you can be as creative as you want. But when you have a limited budget you can’t be willy-nilly about spending money. Having a limited budget also forces us to be creative. And that’s a challenge we’ve sort of been used to. On this tour that creative challenge is showing, which I think it’s a good place for us to be.  I want to inspire the other [bands] out there trying to do what we’re doing. I don’t want a medal for trying but at least we’re trying.

Has this budget challenge revealed anything new to you about making music or changed your creative process?

Brandon: Not directly, no. This new challenge hasn’t impacted how we make music because our music has always been about and stemmed from dealing with what’s right in front of us. I’ve never felt any limitation that changed my perspective on music. My music is the filter through which I view the world, and that filter changes as the world around me changes. The only limitation that I have to deal with are more practical; like how do you deal with the fact that you want street advertisement in New York City but at the same time you want listening stations in city? It’s all a part of the record business.  It’s not that we didn’t care about [these decisions] before; it’s just that no one asked us about them before. We’re very enthusiastic students about whatever world we’re thrown into.  We’re up for challenges that force us to prioritize choosing between a sold out show or a high-guaranteed show. I’m glad, though, that all this ‘business of music’ hasn’t seeped its way into the pleasure of making music. We love adapting to whatever situation is presented to us on stage and we take that same approach as we navigate this tour and being independent. Playing, writing, thinking about music, our goal is to have more time to do all of those things as we go along.

On past albums, you’ve used a mix of strong, swift and somber psychedelic blues-rock to tell stories and communicate feelings. Any changes this time around?

We aren’t doing anything that we haven’t done before. We’re just trying to do it better. I approach songwriting on a very personal level. I try to tell a story through my own eyes and use the lyrics and music to explain how I feel about whatever is going on in each song.

Sounds like you guys are still having fun and taking each day as it comes.

Brandon: [laughs] Somewhat…

Josh: [Laughs] We’re working on it!

Brandon: [chuckles]  It’s a work in progress.

Josh: When it comes to the arts, nothing’s a given. I’m not going to take anything personally. It’s about the arts. And the reality is that nobody gives a shit most of the time. Everybody just wants to be entertained. Whether it’s a movie, a book, photography, or whatever.  Most people just want to be seduced by entertainment. Most people don’t understand that it’s hard to be writer, a photographer or in a band. It’s not like going to college and you’re guaranteed a job or a certain amount of money a year doing whatever you do. It’s an uphill battle and you can’t bitch too much about because everything I just mentioned is part of the gig.

Yeah, we’re having fun but that’s because you have to look for the fun and remember the fun. The funniest thing about being in a band is that that fun time is the music, but that’s not the only thing that goes with [being in a band]; there’s business side, touring, and the business side of touring. When push comes to shove, we just want to be playing music and writing songs… but they don’t make it easy.

No they don’t.

Josh: They never have and never will. But this is our dance and it’s what we do.  It’s not the best dance but if you look close there’s a lot of subtlety to my dance. We’re ready to go a kick ass and take names tonight!

 

As the band hustled away to set up, I headed towards the main stage area thinking about Josh’s last two “subtlety and kick ass” comments, wondering what exactly they had planned for tonight.

I hadn’t seen a stage set-up quite like this before. Just watching them set up this strange rhombus structure was nothing short of mesmerizing. The crowd watched in anticipation, getting a visual feast of curious stimulation before the music even started. The band positioned their instruments inside the rhombus structure, working with and around the stage crew who wrapped thin plastic straps around the rectangular pipe structure and connecting multi-colored light fixtures to the side of the structure.

The house lights went down.

A thunderous tidal wave of crashing cymbals, snarling guitars and psychedelic fuzz erupted surging back and forth between the stacks of stage-side speakers.

Curtis and Garza weren’t kidding. They did what they’ve always done. With great force and intricate intensity, weaving in old and new tracks, they descended to the fiery depths of Dante’s inferno and ascended upwards to dreamy psychedelic heights.

Emotion was there on every note, wrapping around your heart and ears at every melodic turn. “Sad and Lonely” dripped metallic blue tears over Garza’s liquid rhythmic thunder. Fear and pain poured from “The Walls Are Starting to Crack”, a new mini-opus filled with growling guitars and machine-gun tom blasts. As if in the center of a glowing red-hot furnace, the trio reflected the scorching sonics of “The Fire Is Waiting”.

The show was building to its final moments, reaching cathartic crescendo on the last number, “First Wave Intact”, a vintage Secret Machines nine-minute anthem from the debut Now Here Is Nowhere. Like an army seconds away from battle, the crowd pumped their fists in unison and roared the three-word chorus “First. Wave. Down!”

It was a sensational resonation that flowed through the Metro, out on to the streets of Chicago’s north side and hopefully rages on to the next city as the tour continues.

by Rob Horning

12 Nov 2008

In my former life in academia, the topic debated in these two posts at the Valve would exercise me greatly: Is artistic merit a matter for literary study? As someone who aspired to make unreadable books—late 18th century commercial fiction—relevant again, I certainly didn’t think aesthetic quality was a prerequisite for what I study as a degree-seeker in literature, and I came to think that setting literature on a pedestal for special attention did a disservice to the more important task of understanding social history. The preachers of artistic merit, besides being paternalistic (urging unsuspecting students to “improve” themselves by teaching them literary appreciation and fostering their exposure to Great Art, the right art), tended to mistake their tastes for universal truths, which had the subtle and troubling effect of making contemporary academic tastes trans-normative while obliterating our ability to perceive the norms of earlier eras. Preserving those norms and getting inside them seemed the most important thing about studying literature to me; it gives us a palpable sense of how what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling”—can change over time. That gives hope that the current consumerist era we are mired in is not permanent. So I agree with Rohan Maitzen’s pedagogical approach:

One of the key features of this approach is working with a text on its own terms—trying to understand how to read it so that it best fulfills its own potential. This means not holding it up to a particular, preconceived standard of excellence (“good novels do this“), whether that standard is formal or ideological. Now, depending on the occasion, there may be a second phase in which you move back from internally-generated norms and question them against external ideas; often, in teaching, this kind of questioning arises just from moving to the next book on the syllabus and discovering that its norms differ widely from—and thus, implicitly or explicitly, challenge—the ones we’ve just left behind (reading North and South right after Hard Times, or Jane Eyre soon after Pride and Prejudice, for instance, will certainly have this effect). But it’s difficult to see either a method or a reason for evaluating, say, Pride and Prejudice, as better or worse than Jane Eyre. It’s only if you have a set notion of what makes good fiction in general that you could fault either one for not measuring up.

In moving from book to book, and in noticing the shifting norms, one ideally draws in work in other disciplines that can help articulate that shift and allow one to theorize its causes. A certain amount of the shift has to do with the writers themselves, but to me, that’s the ineffable, ultimately inexplicable and irrelevant aspect we should strive to strain out. Those concerned with artistic merit (and who are not teaching creative writing as opposed to literature) seem to want to focus only on that individual “genius,” with the effect of ultimately invalidating truly critical insight—namely insight into what shifts social norms with regard to how readers take their entertainment, and what those modes of entertainment say about the society those readers lived in and that we have in part inherited. My suspicion is that reified entertainment—books being one of the first instances of this—is a crucial component of capitalist society and the nature of our enjoyment of such things has changed as capitalism has entrenched itself more deeply, in the material structure of our society and in the inner workings of our psyche as well, shaping how we discover pleasure and from what, shaping the methods by which we internalize mores and develop ambitions and aspirations. These are the inner, individual mental structures that ultimately sustain socioeconomic formations.

Dan Green’s retort to Maitzen seems unduly preoccupied with a literary work’s value in and of itself - - an irreducible matter of personal taste :

While it is true that a literary criticism not bound to academe might still give attention to “philosophizing,” et.al., it is hard to imagine that such criticism would so willingly apologize for aesthetically inferior work as academic criticism in its current guise is forced to do. It’s possible that literary criticism might one day free itself from the pedagogical imperatives with which the academy has burdened it. When that happens, “artistic merit” might not be as dispensable as many academic critics want to find it.

This statement immediately makes me wonder who gets to decide what is “aesthetically inferior” and on what grounds. Also, I wonder whether literary criticism even exists outside of academia. Literature, as a concept, is an academic construction. Criticism that hones that definition is an academic exercise. Outside of the academy, people who write about books are reviewers, not critics.

In short, whether or not a novel is “good” shouldn’t matter to people who study them; that only matters to people who want to read them for pleasure. What would make a typical reader of a particular time choose a certain novel for pleasure, however, may be the most important question of all. To answer that, we have to disregard what we think that reader should prefer.

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