Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Literary Criticism--Collaborative Fiction

I came from the world of literary criticism.  Much of my original training was learning to read "texts" critically.  I studied the myriad schools and theories of criticism and, in that time, took them quite seriously.

With time, one gains perspective--being away from the fire of that intense intellectual crucible allows one the calm and cool use of reason in examining the claims of the various schools.  What I have come to conclude is that literary criticism is an elaborate and sometimes excruciating act of collaborative fiction.  Perhaps that isn't quite the right description--it is a fictional riff on an extant work--a reworking of the elements of the novel, poem, short story, or plan in the fashion of the critic rather than in the fashion of the artist.  It is both less and more than a secondary source.  At times it comes to resemble parody more than it does any analytic work.

Why do I refer to it as fiction?  A person (not the author) reads the work and creates from that work a mental image that is then recorded for others to read.  This mental image is an impression a kind of intaglio of the original work which is overlain with the ornamentation of the perceiving consciousness.  These fillips and filigrees may have nothing whatsoever to do with the original author's meaning, intent, or purpose.  In fact, reading much of modern criticism they, while entertaining and amusing in themselves, rarely have much to do with what they are supposedly analyzing.  Indeed, many would be the first to acknowledge that they are "deconstructing texts" and reconstructing them to make of them what they see in them.  This is rather like emptying a bottle of wine and filling it with vinegar and pretending like nothing has changed.

The art of literary criticism is the art of carefully arranged fiction--fiction that looks a lot like fact until you analyze the "facts" on which it is based.  The facts are, indeed, hints dropped here and there, the use of certain code words that indicate or are said to indicate meanings, shades of meaning, nuances, they are the use of symbols that, in fact, only become symbols if the reader understands them that way.

Indeed, literary criticism is a formidable exercise in intellectual fictions.  This is not to say that it is not worthwhile, because the constructs of criticism can be every bit as enjoyable as the fictions on which they are built.  Who after all can fail to be entertained by the extreme fiction of "the lesbian phallus," whatever that may be?  Who can fail to be regaled by the hidden sexual symbolism in the trappings of the city of Helium in Barsoom?

But to pretend that literary criticism has much in the way of validity is to open the door to absurdity.  Surely not all of those people writing about Jane Eyre can be correct at the same time.  Surely interpretations of Austen that see her at once as arch, feminist, eco-activist, Christian proselytizer, and marxist cannot be anything other than the fantasies of those who have encountered her worked, loved it and wanted to remake it in the image of whatever cause was near and dear at the moment.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Man from Primrose Lane--James Renner

James Renner has produced a couple of books of nonfiction before this, his first novel.  His skill is evident and the novel--a result, at least partially of his own wide reading and his own interest in crime writing is stunning.

For the first two thirds of the book we follow the story of David Neff, a writer for an indie newspaper, whose passion for the truth manifests in the investigation of a series of murders that had taken place several years previously in his native Northern Ohio.  (As a side note, it was a pleasure to read of towns and places that I know of but few have ever heard of--Ravenna, Canton, along with Akron, Kent, and Cleveland).  His researches lead directly to the trial of an additional perpetrator and may have indirectly precipitated his wife's death.

With the exception of two very odd interludes that presage the third section of the novel, all of this is told in a very straightforward, if fun, time hopping sort of way, with the recounting of a story propelling the reader back in time or forward or sidewise in time.

Ah, but that third section of the novel.  For awhile, as conventions of the genre (I won't say which) were not so carefully observed, the novel trembled on the edge of incoherence and collapse--but once we conquered the exposition, the novel switched into ultra high gear and ultra confusion--leading to what seemed like a really bad conclusion that is transformed itself.

It was very odd to read this book in conjunction with Palma's The Map of Time, with which it shares a worldview, or universe view and other interesting thematic elements.  It was also odd to read this book which constantly reminded me of the better works of Philip K. Dick.  Indeed, I would say that Renner has the right to claim the mantle for most reality-bending novel since Dick.

Remarkable novel, beautiful written, highly recommended.