Monday, April 30, 2007

Who Cares Who Is John Galt?

Amidst the National Book Critics Circle's campaign to save book reviewing, I can only express my envy of the U.K.'s Guardian book pages with such features as China Mieville's thoughts on propaganda and children's fiction: "Of course a lot of agitproppy art is crap, true, but then so's a lot of everything." It's certainly true that children's book critics eagerly leap upon "didacticism" like it's a bad thing, while pop pap like The Clique gets away with its rampant consumerism because it's "escapist." Good Lord, May Day certainly is in the air.


Andy Laties said...

Her idea that the reader (AKA propagandee) may interpret against the grain of the text is exactly the issue. It's a power struggle between author and reader. Ultra-opinionated author Leo Tolstoy went so far as to disavow "Anna Karenina" because he was disgusted that his massive, devoted readership had fallen in love with the title character. He'd intended to make an example of her: Adultery Leads To Destruction. (The epigraph to the book is in God's voice: "Vengeance Is Mine, I Shall Repay.") Instead, readers sympathized with Anna's plight as an outcast from society, post-affair.

Of course there may not be MANY authors who are so good at writing that when their intended messages are overwhelmed, it's by the power of their own mimetic skills. Rather, most frequently, the cause of the popularity of cross-grained analysis of a given book is the sheer astonishing mediocrity of the material, which thereby turns it into Real Trash: so awful you (and your friends) have simply GOT to read it, just for the fun of attacking it!

Kelly said...

Sorry if I go slightly OT here, but I have to address the AK comments.

Tolstoy did intend to make an example of his first drafts. But over time (and over several drafts), as he himself has famously said/written, he also fell in love with his character. (Okay, so that's what he said...I actually don't believe him. Tolstoy was a rationalist almost to the end.) He made her a complex character, that's all. In this way, AK is different from Madame Bovary. We never sympathize with Madame Bovary, but some readers, especially modern ones, do find AK compelling. And others, myself included, do not find AK to be particularly "loveable." She does commit the ultimate sin, after all. She abandons her son for what can only be called a vapid frat boy. (Making Vronsky so lame was another stroke of genius on Tolstoy's part. Why would a beautiful, intelligent woman with everything give it all up for absolutely nothing?) Tolstoy makes it perfectly clear she could have carried on her affair for years if she had chosen to act discretely.

Tolstoy said many things about abandoning literature after AK. But most important among them is the fact that he found the whole *topic* of AK--a domestic drama--to be trivial when there was actual work to be done. He thought, after AK, that literature should instruct and uplift and should be a tool to "educate the masses." This is when he turned to children's literature in earnest as well.

Sorry to hijack your comments to enter in a discussion with Andy, Roger, but this is a subject I love.

Andy Laties said...


Well you're definitely right that to say any one thing about Tolstoy is nuts. He was quite self-contradictory.

As to the issue of AK being a domestic drama: I think that's why there's the whole alternating chapter format, featuring Levin, whose interests much more closely mirror Tolstoys own vis-a-vis "The Land" and "Work" etc. However I gather most readers found/find all the Levin chapters rather boring, and this, too, irritated Tolstoy, since these are the chapters where he (to return to the original subject of the thread) was busy talking directly at the reader, spouting his opinions about Life and Meaning and What Should Be Done.