Friday, April 24, 2009

Good, better, best

Art Durkee deserves credit for rising to my challenge to show just how my five definitive propositions about literature are conservative or essentialist.

The common error, if I may be permitted use of such a phrase, is memorably described by Philip Roth in American Pastoral:

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar threads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank.The classic example of having the brain of a tank showed up on an anonymous student evaluation one semester when I taught Bible as literature. “This course is an introduction to problems of the biblical text, canon, and interpretation,” I had written on the syllabus. On his evaluation the student wrote: “Dr. Myers needs to understand that the Bible has no problems.”

One of the easier ways to get people wrong is to assume that they mean the same thing you would when they use a specific word. Thus, as R.T. observes, the “fly in the ointment” is the word best in Patrick Kurp’s and my clearly labeled “selected bibliography” of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998. The unthinking assumption, exemplified most openly by Andrew Seal’s complaint that there are “more Philip Roth books . . . on there than books by men of color,” is that selections of best books are made on the basis of some illegitimate and carefully concealed criterion like race. How does Seal know this? Because that is how he would use the word best, as he immediately demonstrated by resolving, in response to Kurp’s and my list, “to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year.”

Similarly, Durkee assumes that just any selection of the best is an attempt to establish a fixed and restrictive canon. “The word [best] carries implied value judgments, obviously,” he says. “The presumption is that, as you write, and R.T. amends, ‘There are some works of literature that every civilized American [or educated person] should be familiar with.’ ”

But this is mistaken on several scores.

(1) “Best” is simply the superlative form of the adjective good, and I have said again and again that the use of the word good yields no fixed definition.

(2) The best ballplayers, the best restaurants, the best cars under $40,000—nor is any should implied. Deontological advice is distinct in kind and effect from value judgments. Here, for comparison, is a list of What Books Every High School Student Should Have Read. On the list are the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I might agree that every American high-school graduate should have read these, but that does not mean they are particularly good.

(3) R.T.’s amendment, changing “every civilized American” to “every educated person,” is R.T.’s, not mine. As an Orthodox Jew, in fact, I most emphatically do not accept it. For centuries, the Jews have resisted the pseudo-universalism which takes for granted that the dominant culture is a universal culture, the culture of true civilization, against which everything else is barbarism. There are, as I have dogmatically asserted, “some works of literature every civilized American should be familiar with. . . .” And there are some works that every educated Jew should be familiar with. But these are different works. A civilized American need not be familiar with the Talmud; an educated Jew who lives in France need not be familiar with, say, the essays and poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And the American who knows not the Talmud, or the French Jew who is ignorant of Emerson, is not a barbarian as a consequence.

(4) It does not follow that the best works of a thirty-year period are among the works that every American should be familiar with. I could offer you a list of the best American poetry prior to 1850 without believing that you or anyone else should be familiar with it.

(5) Besides, I added the qualifying phrase “there will be much disagreement about what [those works every civilized American should be familiar with] will be.” This qualifier puts disagreement on at least an equal footing with the duties of civilization.

So much for Durkee’s accusation of conservatism. There is a way in which my thinking—and Kurp’s too—is conservative, although Durkee did not point it out. Namely: Kurp and I believe in value. And I cannot speak for Kurp, but I even plump for objective values. Shocking, I know.

Durkee’s accusation of essentialism does not fare much better. Any value judgment is essentialist, he argues, because it implies the objects of value (in this case, books) have “an underlying and unchanging essence.” Here is how he identifies the essence: “That we would all agree that a list of which books are the best books relies upon a presumed agreement to a value judgment.”

But here again he commits a fundamental mistake. A selection of best books does not imply that agreement, because someone might agree with the judgment while founding it upon any entirely different value. Kurp and I might select a book because we are impressed by the precision of its grammar, the exactness of its phrasing, while you might enjoy it because you identify with the main character. Kurp and I might even believe that such a value (“identification”) is naïve and destructive of the otherness upon which good writing depends. But we and you still agree that the writing is good.

The technical term essence needs to be used with exactness, or not at all. In philosophy it refers to the foundation of being, which in Christian theology is God. Thus Hooker:God hath his influence into the very essence of all things, without which influence of Deity supporting them their utter annihilation could not choose but follow. Of him all things have both received their first being and their continuance to be that which they are.1But good writing is not founded upon its value without which it could not exist. This is a significant point upon which I differ heatedly with Daniel Green, who holds that literature is fiction (in the old sense) which “seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria” or that “the primary goal” in writing fiction is “to produce a work that succeeds most immediately as art.” On the contrary, value judgments are secondary and subsequent. Even when the quality to be valued is objectively there—coherence, clarity, accuracy or lifelikeness, what have you—its achievement is distinguished from the recognition of it, and from the even later claim that the quality is valuable.

The essence of a thing is what makes it what it is. Literature is indeed constituted by its value, but—to paraphrase E. D. Hirsch Jr. once again—its value is stipulated, and no one must agree to the stipulation. Or, in other words, literary value has no fixed definition. No fixity means, well, nothing unchanging. Doesn’t it? Therefore, no essence.

This has already grown long, but I need to dispense with one more objection to my five-fold definition of literature. Litlove finds it of “uncertain value.” She asks:[W]hat does the definition of the category of “literature” provide for us? Why do you think it is essential that we have one? I wonder whether considering this question is a route towards finding the definition that is most useful, as opposed to (although it may prove to be the same as) the one that has the fewest exceptions.Again with essence! Seriously, though, I am trying to identify what makes literature literature, but not by identifying it with any fixed and universal quality or value. Nor was my definition composed in an arm chair. It is historical and descriptive rather than ideal and prescriptive. But I am fully prepared to acknowledge that it is not very useful, perhaps not even very meaningful. The reason is that, in offering it, I am not hoping to influence literary practice. I am doing literary theory. Such reflection is not what the phrase literary theory refers to in most English departments these days, but I can’t help that. I am simply following my thoughts wherever they lead, even if they end up getting me tarred and feathered as a conservative and essentialist.

Update: Upon reflection it dawns upon me that there is a practical effect after all that I should like to see my redefinition of literature achieve, although I am not so unrealistic or preening as to expect it would ever come about. Namely: it would be well if critics stopped using the word literature as an term of praise, as if there were an upper class of works, an aristocracy of books. As my redefinition should establish, to use the word in such a manner is to speak tautologically. For a critic to describe a book as literature is to testify to nothing more than his describing the book as literature.

Update, II: To distinguish further between “best books” and “books every civilized American should be familiar with.” If it were stipulated that only American fiction from the period 1968 to 1998 could be considered, I would have no problem agreeing that, say, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved should be known by any civilized American. But if I am asked whether Beloved is any good, I have to answer, reluctantly, “No.”
____________________

1. Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Policy (5.56.5), quoted in J. V. Cunningham, “Idea as Structure: The Phoenix and the Turtle,” in The Collected Essays (Chicago: Swallow, 1976), p. 199.

29 comments:

R. T. said...

Well, I do not wish to add further to the ongoing conflagration, and I apologize for whatever complications arose because of my previous comments (which were not written particularly well). In any event, to change the subject, but only slightly, I am particularly intrigued by your comment:

The classic example of having the brain of a tank showed up on an anonymous student evaluation one semester when I taught Bible as literature. “This course is an introduction to problems of the biblical text, canon, and interpretation,” I had written on the syllabus. On his evaluation the student wrote: “Dr. Myers needs to understand that the Bible has no problems.”

As a teacher at a southern (deep-in-the-Bible-belt) university, I have also run into that kind of "no problems" in the Bible assessment whenever I suggest that there are useful literary approaches to the Bible, both in its own right as Divine text and when it appears as allusion in other, more secular texts (e.g., Shakespeare, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and more).

I wonder how you dealt with that student's tank-like close-mindedness.

R. T. said...

Postscript to 1st Comment:
My interest in your handling of the "tank" versus Bible issue grows out of my intent to write a more detailed article (and perhaps a shortened version in a blog posting) about the difficulties of presenting religious texts as literature.

D. G. Myers said...

R.T.,

You must understand that I have an advantage that you may not. For Evangelical Christians, studying the Bible with an Orthodox Jews is like studying it with Abraham.

But here is what I say.

If the Bible really is the word of God then (1) nothing we can say or do will damage it, because we cannot damage God; and (2) the more we understand of it the more we understand of how God’s mind works. If we resist such understanding we resist God. If we substitute our own understanding, because we are afraid of the blasphemy or heresy that might result from a new reading, then we are usurping him.

D. G. Myers said...

P.S. What conflagration? This is not a flame war. It is a debate, I hope.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Can anyone KNOW or agree upon anything, even with all this meticulous precision and clarification of ideas and opinions, when none of the words/concepts on which these debates are based seem to have fixed definitions?

Any settling of these debates would probably signal the coming Apocalypse, so I'll stay tuned.

and I just the other day wrote about the "Bible as Literature" phase I went through in high school... which is probably why I found your student's comment so funny - and so sad. I had several classmates like that - all of whom seemed to find it personally offensive that I could read the Bible objectively apart from its larger religious implications.

It's a shame because there are just as many literary illuminations to be found in the Bible as there are in (less polemic?) Greek and Roman texts, yet it's more acceptable to defer to the latter - for whatever reason.

R. T. said...

Okay, poor choice of words (though the some of the contributors to the debate have been rather heated, I thought, in their tone), so let's agree to substitute whatever less inflammatory word better suits the context of the discussion.

I appreciate your comments and the reference to Abraham. However, my experience with some students suggests that I may still run into obstacles even if I borrow (and use) your approach. Nevertheless, I look forward to giving it a try. Thanks.

courtneyvz said...

I am a new reader of this blog, and not a literary critic, but I do have a couple of observations.

To the question of what use Dr. Myers' definitions have, I'd say the answer lies in the discussion about argument. It's like hypothesis testing. We put the definitions out there, argue about how accurate they are, and refine them over time. The argument itself is how we learn about literature. We get at the truth by inches by arguing the points over which we disagree.

Take for example Myers' argument that Lolita is the best English language novel. When I first read that statement, my immediate response was "No way. The Great Gatsby is better." I held off on giving it much more thought until I read his argument. At that point, I was forced to go back and examine why I thought The Great Gatsby was better. I settled on the conclusion that I prefer Fitzgerald's writing style and find it less emotionally draining to read. It's a "prettier" book. Not very good as far as reasons go and I was forced to concede - without ever taking the argument outside my own head - that Lolita is likely better or more important. I also figured out that lately I rely on books more to take me out of my head than to get me into it. I spend my workday dealing with very emotionally draining subject matter and am often looking for a break from it when I read. I realized that I miss this kind of literary discussion, though, and resolved to start reading more carefully again. All this from the statement that Lolita is the best English language novel.

I don't think (and I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong) that Dr. Myers intended to convince everyone that Lolita was the best English language novel. I think he intended to discuss it, argue about it, and help people refine their understanding of it. It seems that the problem comes in when people assume that argument itself is offensive - that putting a statement out about what constitutes literature or a good book is, in itself, an offensive thing to do. Like I said, I'm not a literary critic, but I'm not sure how we discuss literature if we don't put some kind of argument out there to begin with.

I do have a question about the literature definition - I may have missed where you talked about this before. What do you mean when you say that if everything that is written is literature, it must be arbitrarily restricted by a scholarly category? For what purpose? In order to study it? In order to teach it? And why is it necessary to distinguish between scholarship and criticism? I guess that's two questions.

Lee said...

Philip Roth writes wonderful (and lucid) prose. However, I'm a bit uncertain who you're suggesting has the brain of a tank - your commenters, some of your students, you yourself, or the entire human race.

D. G. Myers said...

What do you mean when you say that if everything that is written is literature, it must be arbitrarily restricted by a scholarly category? For what purpose? In order to study it? In order to teach it? And why is it necessary to distinguish between scholarship and criticism? I guess that's two questions.

Good questions. To answer the first first.

There must be some arbitrary restriction of “everything written” given the limits of human energy, attention, and time. The scholar really must try to read everything in her arbitrarily restricted field.

For a wonderful example of a literary scholar at work, I highly recommend Miriam Burstein’s Little Professor. Burstein squeals with delight when she finds a copy of Geraldine of Desmond. She is disappointed to find little criticism on Newman’s Loss and Gain. She worries about being put to sleep by Alice Sherwin, a “mid-Victorian Catholic historical novel by the otherwise unknown ‘C.J.M.’ ” Burstein’s sense of scholarly responsibility is rare but exemplary.

In “The Idea of an ‘English School,’ ” C. S. Lewis advances a similar distinction to the one I am making between scholarship and criticism. The first takes a “given area of reality” and chooses, “so fara as possible, to explore it thoroughly, following the natural structure of that area, and neglecting all the interesting and delightful things over the frontier.” The alternative, he says plainly, is “based on a different principle—the principle of selection.”

Then comes one of the analogies Lewis is famous for. The one explores a “single, untidy country”; the other visits “the five or six most interesting places in a whole continent. It is the difference between knowing, say, Worcestershire inside out, while remaining ignorant of the rest of the world, and knowing four orr five European capitals while striking no roots in any single European soil.”

It dawns upon me that I have answered your final two questions now too.

D. G. Myers said...

I'm a bit uncertain who you’re suggesting has the brain of a tank. . . .We all have the brain of a tank. Every single one of us. We get one another wrong and wrong and wrong again.

All I meant to suggest is that a special genre of getting one another wrong is to assume that the other is using a specific word in the same way that I would use it.

Andrew Seal said...

Thanks for bringing me up again, and so flatteringly.

You can insist all you want that "good" "yields no fixed definition," but that certainly doesn't mean that it draws in its wake a vague but not ineffable sense of what you mean.

Furthermore, you're being a little disingenuous by making a case for the vagueness of the positive form and then jumping to the superlative form, as if it were equally vague. But "best" is not just definitional, as "good" is--it doesn't just define a quality--it is relational, holding that there is a definable relationship between the element(s) under consideration and all other elements. "Best" does have a fixed relational meaning--that is the point of the superlative. And that is not just me assuming that you use the word like I would use the word; that's assuming that you use the word logically.

But let's talk about this business of me assuming that you use the word like I would use the word. Your assertion that I made this assumption is a little problematic since I never said I was reading books by non-white men because I think they're "better" or because I think they are the "best" literature. In fact, I never use the word "best" except in quotation of you or Kurp. You keep trying to shove me into this role where I think being black means being a good writer, but that's not what I'm saying at all. I don't think that race produces literary talent, nor does sex, nor class nor religion. What I am saying is that I don't want to go through my life either ignorant of, hostile to, or uninterested in literature that is written by non-white males simply because I assume that there is nothing in it. This resolution was about finding out just how much is in it, and if I had a notion that I would find something there, it's because a lot of people I respect already have. But I've put myself under no obligation to find this literature to be "the best" or to find it uniformly excellent. The end goal was not a revision of your canon, although I'm not opposed to doing that, but rather, as I actually said, "I see a fairly large gap in my reading, and I want to make reading choices that address it."

Talk about tank mentality--you just keep firing away at those straw men, Doctor.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Maybe it's because I yesterday read the entire business of hedgehogs and foxes - but it seems that, by your and C.S. Lewis' definition, foxes would tend toward criticism while hedgehogs toward scholarship.

I'm not fond of such distinctions (I find them more divisive than useful), but if I were, I'd consider myself, though it may be a premature assessment - as I've not yet developed any discernible (or permanent) reading or writing style, a fox - or a person with fox-like tendencies.

...now to change my major.=)

D. G. Myers said...

[K]eep firing away at those straw men, Doctor.

Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

Good to hear from you again, Mr Seal. Yours are not the views of a straw man, but of someone who completed his literary education under a regimen of cultural marxism.

You can insist all you want that “good” “yields no fixed definition,” but that certainly doesn‘t mean that it draws in its wake a vague but not ineffable sense of what you mean.

But the “vague and ineffable sense” is yours, Mr Seal. For you the word good has such a sense, because you were taught in fine Foucauldian fashion that all value judgments are assertions of power, but it follows neither that I share the same ineffable sense—my goal is to make the ineffable effable—nor that your Foucauldianism is correct about value judgments (without further argument). You assume that it is correct, because you are captive to your slogans.

Thus you say that “ ‘Best’ does have a fixed relational meaning” as if this were some kind of gotcha. What exactly have you got, Mr Seal? Patrick Kurp and I offered a list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998. Or, in other words, the works on our list were, in our opinion, the best in relation to other works of American fiction from the same period. It does not follow, as you seem to assume, that we were selecting the “best” in relation to our (suppositional) white maleness.

I never use the word “best” except in quotation of you or Kurp.True. Nor did I say that you did. Read again what I wrote, Mr Seal. You assumed that, in using the word best, Kurp and I were making a selection that was founded upon the carefully concealed criterion of race. You objected that we had not included more “books by men of color.” Any list of the best, then, if you were to use the word, if you were to draw up such a list, would simply have to include the proper quota of “books by men of color.” And so, as I wrote, you “immediately demonstrated” as much “by resolving, in response to Kurp’s and my list, ‘to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year.’ ”

You keep trying to shove me into this role where I think being black means being a good writer, but that’s not what I'm saying at all.Nor am I. What I am saying is that you are automatically suspicious of any selection of the best which does not include the proper quota of “books by men of color,” and you leap to the conclusion—because this is what you were taught, and you have learned your lessons well—that, in any such selection, the word best serves to conceal the listmakers’ real motives.

I don't want to go through my life either ignorant of, hostile to, or uninterested in literature that is written by non-white males simply because I assume that there is nothing in it.

You see? You assume that, if Kurp and I do not include the proper quota of “books by men of color” then we must be ignorant of them, or hostile to them, or uninterested in them.

We covered this ground in our first go ’round, Mr Seal. And even your allies reminded you at the time that you had no warrant for assuming that Kurp and I were ignorant of “books by men of color.” That leaves hostility or lack of interest. Since lack of interest is merely a passive expression of our (suppositional) white maleness, though, that leaves only hostility.

Or, in short, we are racists. Anyone who fails to include the proper quota of “books by men of color” in any selection of the best is probably a racist. (You will recall that one commentator to our original back-and-forth came right out and said what you were too kind and fair-minded to say.) That is the inevitable and correct conclusion to your thinking, Mr Seal.

Value judgments are inseparable from a person’s particular location in society, and thus the word good has a fixed relational meaning. It means good in relation to the judge’s class, race, and gender.

But if that is true of me it is no less true of you, Mr Seal. And why then should I bother to listen to you? All you are expressing is your own position in society—your own class, race, and gender. You are merely describing your circumstances. You are composing your memoirs.

D. G. Myers said...

Not sure that’s true, Becca. There are scholarly hedgehogs, for whom each new piece of scholarship is an addition to a lifelong project, and there are scholarly foxes, who scuttle from project to project over a confined terrain.

And then there are critical hedgehogs, who return everything to the same concepts and categories, no matter who the author or what his actual subject, and critical foxes, who are forever on the hunt for the next good thing.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

hmmmm... good stuff!

I think I comprehend both distinctions (scholarship vs. criticism AND hedgehogs vs. foxes) more fully after your explanation of their intersections. There's something to this refining and clarification of definitions!

Andrew Seal said...

A) I have not "completed" my literary education, thanks very much. As much as you'd love to make me into a finished product of your completely delusional idea of higher education, I'm actually still very much in formation.

B) I don't think you understand what I meant by saying that "good" has a "vague but not ineffable sense of what you mean," nor do you understand what I was getting at with "relational."
Your assertion that "good" has no "fixed definition" does not mean that you can shrug off the implications of your aesthetic judgments. Even if you don't use "good" to mean the same thing every time out, meanings do come to adhere to the word by its use.

When you say that Lolita is good and later you say that Sammler is good, we know that you are not saying that they are identical in their goodness, but we do get an idea by these two judgments that there are qualities shared by the two works which are related to one or another of your ideas about "goodness." When whiteness becomes an overwhelming similarity among the novels you deem "good," it is completely valid to ask whether whiteness doesn't have something to do with your process of aesthetic evaluation.

The "gotcha" was that your argument "'Best' is simply the superlative form of the adjective good, and I have said again and again that the use of the word good yields no fixed definition," is completely sophistic. Restated, your assertion is that
A. 'Good' has no fixed definition.
B. 'Best' is the superlative form of 'good.'
C. Ergo, 'best' has no fixed definition.

This is completely invalid--the relationship of the positive to the superlative is not such that you can just apply predicates pertaining to the positive form without alteration to the superlative form. The superlative form carries a fixed relational definition--if A is "the best," then it is better than all things that are not A. Books on your "best" list are definitionally better than all books not on the list--and, regardless of whether your criteria for "goodness" are fixed or floating, the assertion of that relation (that all books on the list are better than all books not on the list) can be attacked, as I have done.

C) I pointed out that I didn't use the term "best" myself because you do make an assertion as to how I "would" use the word. I am questioning your ability to make this assertion, seeing as you actually have no data. How do you know how I "would" use the term "best" in the absence of an actual use?

D) Your argument for what I "demonstrated" doesn't even begin to make sense: "You assumed that, in using the word best, Kurp and I were making a selection that was founded upon the carefully concealed criterion of race." So you're saying that when I saw the word "best," I immediately read "whitest"--that because I allegedly believe "all value judgments are assertions of power" (an allegation you haven't exactly proven btw), I must mechanically have read the word "best" as participating in a racist logic of suppression and denigration. In fact, that wasn't even close to what happened, as I think I described pretty well in my post--I was intrigued by what books were on the list, and when I saw it was almost entirely composed of white men, I started thinking about what kind of reader could produce such a list. And I started reading more of your posts and Kurp's posts, and I realized that Kurp at least has a generalized antipathy toward literature by women (as do you apparently: http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2009/03/orange-prize-long-list.html). So my initial reaction wasn't suspicion--it was interest. It was only after I read your and Kurp's more expansive comments that I began to draw conclusions about any biases in play.

E) There you go with your quota baloney again. I have never endorsed quotas, and yet you keep trying to pin this small-mindedness on me.

F) Did I actually accuse you and Kurp of racism? Nope, and there is nothing inevitable about drawing that conclusion from anything I've said. The strongest assertion I have ever made against you, if you will recall, is that I don't think you can enjoy books by non-white men other than under extraordinary circumstances. And I retracted that as a groundless inference.

What I do think is that you have no sense that you might have overlooked something, that you might not have fully "gotten" Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich or Maxine Hong Kingston or Ishmael Reed. There are lots of writers—Flannery O'Connor is one recent example—who I can't begin to understand why people like them. De gustibus non est disputandum, etc. But when this not being able to understand other people's tastes is repeated over and over again about authors who happen to share a common characteristic--I hope I will always re-examine my tastes in that situation. I don't see any indication that you feel the slightest wavering of certainty in your tastes. And that kind of assumed infallibility is something I want to avoid. That's what I meant by the statement you cite, and while I'll admit it is phrased ambiguously, I didn't intend it for it to be read as an accusation of racism. Arrogance--hell yeah. Racism--no, and I'm truly sorry if that's how it comes off.

D. G. Myers said...

Andrew,

Point by point.

(A) I am delighted to learn that you have not completed your education. Once you have you will be in a position to acknowledge that my idea of higher education in this country is not completely delusional.

(B) You are right that I initially misunderstood what you meant by saying that the word good “draws in its wake a vague but not ineffable sense. . . .” Clearly, you mean that the word has “implications” (your new substitute) of power and privilege, but you can neither supply any evidence of these (they are “vague”) nor can you say exactly what they are (they are “ineffable”). But you know for sure that I mean more than I am saying when I say that something is good. How do you know? Ah, that is vague and ineffable.

Thank you for faithfully reconstructing my logic:

A. “Good” has no fixed definition.
B. “Best” is the superlative form of “good.”
C. Ergo, “best” has no fixed definition.
You don’t really mean that “[t]his is completely invalid. . . .” Since the conclusion follows from the premises, it is indeed valid. What you want to say, I believe, is that one of the premises must be untrue. Which one, however? Not the minor premises, surely. Isn’t “best” the superlative form of “good”?

It all comes down to the word good. It is indeed the “fly in the ointment.” Thus:

(C) When I assert that you are interpreting my use of the word good in light of how you would use the word, it is significant that, as you continue to point out, you used neither it nor its superlative form in attacking Patrick Kurp and me. You would never ever use the word, because for you it “draws in its wake a vague but not ineffable sense” that cannot be shrugged off.

You now wish to pretend that you were attacking Kurp’s and my implicit claim that all the fiction on our list was better than all the other American fiction published during the years 1968 to 1998. (Do you really need all this apparatus to arrive at that implication? Kurp and I would gladly have stipulated as much from the beginning.)

You are being disingenuous. Go back and reread your post of January 3rd slugged “New Year’s Resolution.” Kurp and I, you wrote, “never bother themselves with questions about what kinds of books they’re not reading [your emphasis]. Instead, they obsess over the ‘quality’ or ‘worth’ of the books they've already read. . . .” There in your own words you insist that there are other considerations than “quality” or “worth” (or “good” or “best”) in reflecting upon literature.

Whatever you now say, you were not attacking Kurp and me for holding that “all books on the list are better than all books not on the list.”

How do I know how you would use the term best in the absence of an actual use? Because you reject it so adamantly. Because for you it implies—well, I am not exactly sure what, but it is pretty damn bad, even though it remains “vague and ineffable.”

(D) Do you really think that this post reveals my “antipathy toward literature by women”? You could not possibly be that stupid, Mr Seal. In announcing the release of the long list for the 2009 Orange Prize, Margaret Howie at Blog of a Bookslut had asked, “[W]hich literary notable will sputter with outrage?” Obligingly, I pretended to sputter with outrage. Just to make sure that anyone who inserted political considerations ahead of everything else did not misread me, I added: “I’d organize a boycott if the long list did not include so many good novelists (with the notable exceptions of Toni Morrison and Curtis Sittenfeld).”

As Jerry Jeff Walker once said, the trouble with commies is they ain’t got no sense of humor.

(E) The “reality” is that any list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, would necessarily have to include “more fantastic literature produced by minorities.” How much more? Kurp and I did not reach the minimum (apparently, more than three, to outnumber the Philip Roth books on the list), which suggests there is a quota.

(F) You did not intend to accuse Kurp and me of racism. No, but you did not complain that our list contained more Philip Roth books than books by Baptists, or writers for whom English is a second language, or first novelists, or New Englanders, or writers from creative writing programs, or the physically disabled, or Italian Americans, or antisemites, or registered Republicans, or Western writers, or mystery writers, or romance writers, or writers of fiction in verse, or ex-drug addicts, or American émigrés, or former professional athletes, or celebrities, or existentialists, or journalists, or Beats.

No, we are not racists. We are arrogant. What exactly, pray tell, are we arrogating to ourselves? God forbid, the right to claim that the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, did not include “more fantastic literature produced by minorities.” We must obviously be stopped.

Andrew Seal said...

A) Characterizing liberal arts instruction at a place like my alma mater as "cultural marxism" is exceptionally delusional. I assure you, there isn't enough marxism, even of a lower-case variety, there to stuff a hat.

B) No, I mean that the premises don't grant the conclusion--putting it in the form of a syllogism was a way of demonstrating the lack of connection between the premises and the conclusion--I thought the syllogism was self-evidently faulty, but I guess I'll have to explain. "Good" names something; "better" and "best" make comparisons. So when you add a predicate to this act of naming--a lack of a fixed definition--you can't just import this predicate intact to a wholly different operation--comparing. Comparing establishes a definitionally fixed relation, regardless of whether the quality being compared has a fixed definition or not. Let's say "greb" has a variable and unfixed definition. "Grebbest" does have a fixed definition, though, because it always means "more greb than anything else." It doesn't matter what "greb" means, or even if it can't mean any one thing--there is always a fixed meaning for "grebbest."

C) "When I assert that you are interpreting my use of the word good in light of how you would use the word, it is significant that, as you continue to point out, you used neither it nor its superlative form in attacking Patrick Kurp and me. You would never ever use the word, because for you it 'draws in its wake a vague but not ineffable sense' that cannot be shrugged off."Wow, dude, you're awfully sure of what I "would" and "would never" do--I mean, the fact that I actually have used the word "good" in criticizing you really doesn't make a damn bit of difference for your certainty, does it? And the fact that I have called D. A. Powell "absolutely one of the best American poets writing today" as recently as the beginning of this month definitely doesn't shake your infallible sense that I "would never use" the superlative form of "good." But I won't confuse you with the facts. I'm too busy adamantly rejecting the terms anyway.

But to the meat of this point--you say that my own words commit me to some belief that something other than worth or quality should be considered in an aesthetic value judgment. But the quote that you pulled is not about contrasting "quality" with some other criterion as the proper grounds for constructing a "best" list. It's about contrasting the habits you engage in--playing with your lists like baseball cards, I think I said--and the habits you don't engage in--thinking about what you don't know, or don't know well, or what you maybe haven't gotten completely. And your habits are limiting and exclusionary, and they do set up a hierarchy, and I did attack you for those limitations and for those "rankings."

D) See, that post on "womyn" may have been humor, but I don't believe that it was reverse psychology. Are you trying to suggest that what you really meant by "Whatever happened to gender-blind, objective considerations of rose-gray pure literary merit?" was that "women deserve a completely separate award, and I'm glad they've got one." Because that would be completely antithetical to everything you've said in our prior arguments. I didn't take that post at face value, but I did take it to mean that you have a problem with the idea of a prize open only to women. I think that is antipathetic--what skin off your back is it if such a prize exists?

E) "More" doesn't establish a set of satisfying conditions. The point is not that your list falls short of some threshold, but that it is improbable that someone who read with an open mind would produce such a homogeneous list. It's a question of probability, not counting. I added the figures comparing Roth books to other books just as a yardstick. It didn't mean I was establishing a minimum to be counted to or beyond.

F) Look, we can carry this on for another few rounds if you really wish. Or you can have the last word. You know I'm not trying to "stop" you. I am trying to represent an alternative position, and trying to demonstrate that not all the erudition is on your side. I think there is a great deal of valuable literature which your worldview makes inaccessible, and I would like to offer a worldview that does, in fact, try to make that literature accessible, vital, and worthwhile. Maybe I'll get lucky, and people will even think it's the "best."

Andrew Seal said...

A quick addendum--I noticed above a kind of crucial typo in my first comment--when I said "I never said I was reading books by non-white men because I think they're "better" or because I think they are the "best" literature. In fact, I never use the word 'best' except in quotation of you or Kurp," I meant to say "I never used the word 'best'..." I meant that in that post I didn't use the word 'best'--I realize that this may have led you to believe that I was claiming that I have excised it from my vocabulary, which may explain your certainty about how I "would never use" the word and "adamantly reject" it. My apologies for the typo and any resulting confusion.

Amateur Reader said...

Andrew, I don't think probability theory helps you much here. For example, that silly New York Times list of the 25 Best Works of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years contained two novels by African Americans, and six novels by Philip Roth.

Since in that case a "couple hundred" people were asked to name a "single best" book, it is not quite the same exercise as a bunch of individual 30-best lists. But it at least suggests the possibility that the probability that a list has more novels by Roth than by African Americans is high, not low.

My guess is that Pr(# of novels by African Americans > # of novels by Philip Roth) - or whatever other yardstick you want - depends very much on who you include in your sample.

I forgot, there's the "open mind" caveat, which probably disqualifies a big chunk of those NYT voters. But not me - I've only read four of the books from the Kurp \ Myers list, and only three from the NYT list. So I'm open-minded, but ignorant.

D. G. Myers said...

Andrew,

I surrender the field. If you are capable of such a passage as D, there is really no point in arguing with you. You are projecting some sinister image onto me that exists only in your mental cartoons. Let me gloss it for your benefit.

See, that post on “womyn” may have been humor, but I don’t believe that it was reverse psychology.

The reason you don’t believe that my jeu d’esprit was an exercise in reverse psychology is that it wasn’t.

Are you trying to suggest that what you really meant by “Whatever happened to gender-blind, objective considerations of rose-gray pure literary merit?” was that “women deserve a completely separate award, and I’m glad they've got one.”

I am trying to suggest that only cartoon versions of stodgy old male conservatives—something like those old Communist cartoons of obese plutocrats—would use a phrase like “rose-gray pure literary merit.” I am perfectly willing to admit that my jeu may have been unfunny. But it is pretty damn silly for anyone to speak in the same sentence of objectivity. I am not aware that “rose-gray pure literary merit” has any objective correlative.

Because that would be completely antithetical to everything you've said in our prior arguments.

Right you are. I have argued, oh, once or twice, that “literature is good writing, where ‘good’ yields no fixed definition.” No rose-gray pure literary merit, then.

I didn’t take that post at face value

Good thing. It was a joke.

. . . but I did take it to mean that you have a problem with the idea of a prize open only to women.

I am reduced to speechlessness. I poke fun at having a problem with a prize open only to women, and you interpret the joke as—having a problem with a prize open only to women. You probably interpret The Producers as endorsing the idea of a musical comedy about Hitler.

I think that is antipathetic—what skin off your back is it if such a prize exists?

Since the prize reduces me to sputtering only when I am pretending to be someone who I am not—someone who satisfies the sinister cartoon image of what a dastardly white male conservative must really be like—I have no clue why the Orange Prize should peel skin off my back.

Let me see. Where else on this Commonplace Blog have I mentioned the Orange Prize? Oh, yes: in recommending Linda Grant’s Orange Prize-winning When I Lived in Modern Times (2001) for Passover reading. And in placing the book third on my list of Top 10 Forgotten Prize Winners.

The truth is that I am grateful to the Orange Prize. Without it I would never have heard of Grant’s novel, which I value highly.

The truth about your almost comically pathetic misreading of my little joke is something only you can admit.

Andrew Seal said...

Dr. Myers, I know I said I'd let you have the last word, but I'm genuinely confused, and want to clear this up before I exit: I understand that you are grateful to the Orange Prize for drawing your attention to that book, but are you or are you not opposed in principle to the idea of a prize open only to women, of adding in a second, non-aesthetic criterion for the evaluation of literary merit--not "rose-gray pure literary merit," but certainly not "gender-specific literary merit" either?

Because at one point, you respond to my assertion that being in favor of such a prize "would be completely antithetical to everything you've said in our prior arguments" with a "Right you are." But then later you tell me that I'm dense for interpreting your post as if it meant that you were opposed to the existence of the Orange Prize. Now I think we're having a disconnect here regarding the abstract and concrete, but I want to make sure I've nailed this down so I can improve my caricatures.

In principle, you are still opposed to the addition of non-aesthetic criteria to the process of forming value judgments, right? But you are nevertheless grateful to the Orange Prize anyway, despite its gender-specific nature, because it has been useful to you.

So you don't believe that "rose-gray pure literary merit" exists objectively--i.e. fixedly, but you do think that a standard of sex (or race) is inappropriate to apply to the aesthetic judgment of literature. You're parodying excessive, pseudo-objective aesthetic conservatism, but you're not arguing for more prizes like the Orange, and you think that the grounds for awarding such identity-based prizes are wrong.

Am I missing something here? because I want to be comprehensive and not miss any of your limber wit.

Andrew Seal said...

Amateur Reader, of course it depends on who you count in your sample. But I think you're under-selling the different probabilities between forming a list like Myers/Kurp and forming a list like the NYT. When everyone is making a single choice, obviously choices can be repeated (that's why Beloved came out at the top). Secondly, most people, or at least a significant proportion of people, when asked this kind of question tend to think of an author first or to start organizing their possible choices by author--who was the best author working in this period? In which case, a large number of Philip Roth books is not at all surprising--most people whom the NYT would reach out to probably do think Roth is the best author of the past 25 year--maybe most people in general think that. But there is not complete consensus on which work of his is the greatest--there is a very loose consensus around American Pastoral, but nothing like the consensus around Beloved as Morrison's maximum opus.

But the point wasn't that Roth is overrepresented, or that a couple of hundred would each make one choice that was white. It was that the probability of making 30-40 separate choices from this period would produce a homogeneous set. Those are very different probabilities.

D. G. Myers said...

Blub blub blub

Butch Decossas said...

I've always liked Art Durkee.

D. G. Myers said...

Me too.

Where are you, Art? Did I anger you? That wasn’t my intent.

courtneyvz said...

Is it not possible to believe that everything that is written is literature, but to hop from topic to topic anyway?

And is all writing that is not literature bad writing? If I am a good grant writer, and if literary critics declared one of my grants to be well written, would it be literature?

D. G. Myers said...

Why couldn’t a grant be a work of literature—something that a critic wanted to preserve for future generations to read, not as an appeal for funds, but because it speaks to other human concerns, is beautifully written, or what have you? The outcome is unlikely, given the ad hoc character of a grant proposal. But not impossible. This Jew boy treasures Donne’s sermons, but not because they convince him to come to Christ.

courtneyvz said...

Fair enough. And one more: why don't you think Beloved is good?