Once More With Feeling

I read part of Finnegan’s Wake on a dare and you guys, literary fiction is such an execrable waste of paper and ink. I don’t know anything about that James Joyce guy, but he was obviously a pervert and he lacks a basic command of English conventions and grammar–indeed some of it wasn’t even in English. The part I read was simultaneously puerile and pretentious. There didn’t seem to be a story or narrative at all. It was a collection of words and sounds–crappy ones at that. An infinite number of monkeys working on an infinite number of typewriters could have produced Finnegan’s Wake. In fact, I’m pretty sure they did. That anyone reads it at all is Joyce’s cosmic joke on English departments.

I’m guessing if I sent an essay with that thesis to William Giraldi, whose meditation on 50 Shades of Grey graces The New Republic today, he’d object. He’d probably say something like, “You’re missing the point of Finnegan’s Wake. Finnegan’s Wake is absurd and avante-garde; it is the leading edge of experimental Modernism. It must be read in the context of Joyce’s other works, as the final flowering of the stylistic innovations started in The Dubliners and Ulysses. It’s probably best not to start with Finnegan’s, or to read short bits in a group setting where you could debate its meaning. And even if it’s not your cup of tea, it still has artistic and cultural significance.”

All of which I’d agree with. (Though I don’t really like Finnegan’s Wake. But Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist have lovely, lovely bits. But I digress.) But all of this also applies to genre romance.

I don’t have a lot to say about the genre that I didn’t say to Talking Points Memo yesterday. Giraldi has read part of one romance novel and from this he feels confident speaking about (and dismissing) the entire enormous genre. He didn’t talk to any readers about what they liked or didn’t like about 50 Shades, but hey, that’s okay because he refers to what he thinks he knows about them based on heavily edited footage and interviews from the Summer of 50 Shades. He also thinks Katie Roiphe offers trenchant analysis–which might be the most damning piece of the entire thing. (I’ll leave Roiphe for another time.)

I have a master’s degree. At some point soon, I hope to have a PhD. In a given month, I read like goats eat: I wander from literary fiction to non-fiction to current events essays to popular fiction published in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of what I read is middle brow. Some is high and much is low. I know enough about history to know that these distinctions are fleeting and culturally and historically bound.

To these texts, I bring many lenses. At times, I read intertextually and closely. I skim. I consider form and theme. I put some things down. I write and talk about some of my reading. Some I keep close for fear of appearing stupid or because I cannot bear to share it. I know that it is possible to read low brow texts deeply and well and to read high brow texts shallowly and badly. At times I have done both. But I know more than anything that I respect readers and trust that they do as much and in as complicated a way as I do.

In terms of 50 Shades, some readers may have read it because everyone else was, some may never have read sex represented graphically and found that liberating, some may never have had any language to express or insist on their pleasure (never mind that Giraldi thinks the language in 50 Shades isn’t the right language), some may have found it silly or stupid, some may have hated it, some may have compared it to literary erotica by Anais Nin, and many saw it in contradictory and multiple ways.

Literary criticism has at its heart a triangle with three points: writer, text, audience. At times, critics have been more interested in one point or pole at the expense of the others. Giraldi thinks text is most important. But without audience, text is nothing. At the very least, he’d do well to admit the kind of criticism he’s writing–but why would I expect a man who didn’t finish the book in question to meet the standards imposed on schoolchildren writing book reports?

ETA: Erm, I fixed a couple of typos. Also, I wrote more about my reading here.

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