The Habit of Tlon Lee Konstantinou

1Oct/090

Listmania vs. Lake Woebegone

X-posted at Plasma Pool.



There is an interesting emerging conversation about The Millions' recently published "Best [Books] of the Millennium" list on a number of blogs I follow. First, Edmond Caldwell over at Contra James Wood questions the whole premise of list-making, associating such lists with the predominantly corporate character of the imprints represented on the list: "the listing and ranking game goes on--and on and on--as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism. "If ordered lists like this must exist," stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they? Why should we submit to such fatalism? Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve?"


Andrew Seal, responding to Caldwell on his blog, (fatalistically?) argues that "I don't really see how I'm going to stop them [literary lists]. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they've read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don't function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another."


An interesting debate. My eyes sort of glazed over when I read The Millions list.


picture-millions.jpg

I bear none of these authors any animosity as individuals -- though I am frankly not always fans of their books (except for those books I am a fan of!) -- but The Millions list seems to me tediously predictable on a number of levels and in ways that I find it hard to articulate. I am left with a number of questions: What's the matter with lists? If lists can be used as a bludgeon in a game of status-conscious warfare, aren't lists also a convenient time-saving device, a way of getting started exploring some intellectual or cultural domain for non-initiates? If I wanted to learn more (to pick in an innocent example) about the history of Marxism, wouldn't a list of the "best" books on the history of Marxism -- organized by a trusted expert on the subject -- be an excellent and useful thing? Indeed, isn't a good list a way of getting started in a cultural domain, not the final word on that domain? Is there no practice of list-making which is ideologically neutral? John Guillory has a lot to say about the ideological function of the list in the canon debate in Cultural Capital, but Helen DeWitt gives what seems to me the most lucid answer I've found to some of my questions; explaining why she refused to submit her judgments to the listmakers, she writes that "[t]he only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of."



Aggregation around socially interesting "nodes" is perhaps an inevitable part of social life, but -- as I've discussed elsewhere -- such nodes are also deeply self-reinforcing. In artificial music markets where "consumers" can see the preferences of other "consumers," initial consumer clustering (almost at random) around certain "seeds" has a powerful effect on subsequent consumer choice. That is, if you happen by chance to take an early lead in a competitive race in an open market, social clustering around apparent "winners" will create feedback loops. The popular become more popular, and the unpopular become less popular. (Moreover, this difference in popularity isn't just a cynical consumerist copying of the tastes of the Joneses -- it's not all about status anxiety -- but is arguably experienced sincerely as pleasure or disgust, though this is a secondary point.) In this context, if the form of the list has an ideological function, it is to reduce thought to a sort of cant, to give an illusion of superiority of one item in a field of more or less equally good (middling) products. Genuine superiority or inferiority is exceedingly rare. Experiments that construct artificial music markets in which consumer choices are genuinely independent -- where you make your own choice and issue a rating independently of others -- demonstrate in general that consumers have no particular preference for one artist or another, except at the tail ends of the distribution. If you stink, you won't get very far; if you're great, you'll always do modestly better in your ratings. If you're in the middle of the stack, your fate is a crap shoot.


If we accept this admittedly speculative analysis, and are willing to apply it to our conversation about books, what do these results portend for literary lists? It seems to me that all we can say about lists is that their popularity and consistency is a symptom of a highly stratified, hierarchical culture in which truly independent thought is incredibly hard to find. Eliminating lists will not eliminate this stratification or the social forces that drive us toward some canonized set of authors. To make an unjustly bold claim, given the sketchiness of my evidence: a just distribution of attention -- attention allocated in a society where highly educated individuals made genuinely autonomous value assessments, independent of marketing and spin, under conditions free of coercion -- would reveal the (arguably) fundamental sameness of most literary and artistic products or at least make constructing literary lists impossible, since the autonomous judgments of a hundred judges like DeWitt would not cluster around any nodes whatsoever. These lists would look like statistical noise to us. Some small set of artists might garner slightly more attention under such conditions, others a bit less, but most would -- like the children of Lake Woebegone -- be equally regarded as (slightly) above average, and we would be forced at last to love all our above-average children equally.

27Dec/080

A New Car!

if:book, a blog associated with The Institute for the Future of the Book, has published a lengthy and fascinating interview with Helen DeWitt.


I found this suggestion by DeWitt somewhat amusing:



I once knew a senior partner in a Wall Street firm who loved Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover. He talked at length about the wonderfulness of this book, the character of the Collector, the general brilliance. He was making $1 million or so a year. Of which Andrew Wylie, Sontag's agent, had cleverly managed to garner a couple of bucks for Sontag. There was no structure in place to encourage this ardent fan to, say, sponsor Sontag's travel expenses, offer Sontag six months' writing time at his vacation home in Maine, buy Sontag a new car, who knows.


If after reading Pop Apocalypse you are so moved by my dystopian near-future satire that you feel inclined to give me a free car or six months rent-free stay in your second or third home, I will be more than happy to accept your generous offer. In thanks, I could even add you as a character in my next book!


Anyway, the rest of the interview covers a wide range of topics, from working with editors (DeWitt seems to have had some bad experiences) to how the Internet might change the eating/surviving situation of novelists to the perils of copy-editing.

The interview has gotten me thinking about possible second or third critical/scholarly books -- or maybe just articles -- that would be fun to do post-postirony. Like, something about novelists who blog. Or something on reading off screens. Or novels that attempt to incorporate/cannibalize Web-based literary forms. The possibilities abound.

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21Dec/070

Knowing Children

In the recent issue of n+1, Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff have published an excerpt of their new collaborative novel, Your Name Here, a book that unfortunately still hasn't found a publisher. The Last Samurai has been calling to me from my bookshelf for years now, one of those books I buy earnestly aspiring someday to read, so I read the n+1 excerpt with interest.

And was not disappointed. The excerpt is totally brilliant and packs more layers of cleverness and disorientation into one chapter than many wanna-be postmodernist epics do in seven-hundred pages. I could summarize these layers here, but such a summary would not begin to give a full sense of the total effect of weirdness the excerpt achieves (especially for those who know about DeWitt's much-publicized suicide attempt). My one concern about Your Name Here is that the multiple parallel realities and agendas the novel kicks off may become tedious after several hundred pages, especially if they do not build to something that resembles a narrative (or at least intellectual) climax. To be completely successful, the inventiveness of the novel's opening chapter needs to build to something larger than invention for its own sake.

Inspired by Your Name Here, I decided to make The Last Samurai my Christmas reading, pulling it off my shelf before I flew to New York. (Again, I'll forgo any attempt at plot summary and write a longer post about the novel after I've finished it.) I'm 150-pages in and pretty thrilled with what I've found. The Last Samurai is very specifically a book about the aspiration to read--the aspiration that has filled my bookshelf with a hodgepodge of books-to-read, books like The Last Samurai--the conviction that, somehow, books or even knowledge itself might save you. I understand this impulse intimately; it's the feeling I get before I buy histories of analytic philosophy or political-economy textbooks or Japanese for Beginners, books that I know I won't have time to read in the near future, books I sometimes don't read for years. When you see yourself buying books faster than you can read them, you begin to wonder about what's gone wrong. But even the secret fantasy of becoming a perfect speed-reader is not satisfying; if you could somehow read everything, and access everything you've read with perfect recall, problems would persist.

A desire for all-knowingness is part of what draws me to encyclopedic fiction of the Pynchon-DeLillo-Wallace variety. My earliest dissertation idea was an exploration of that genre (JR, Gravity's Rainbow, Underworld, Almanac of the Dead, Infinite Jest, etc.). I ultimately abandoned this dissertation idea because I found it difficult to convincingly frame such a large project; my readings of individual encyclopedic novels would have to be conducted from the literary-critical equivalent of 30,000 feet up; this hypothetical project, which I may still someday return to, might consequently read more like (bad) philosophy than literary criticism. None of which would be a huge issue if the project worked out, and if the philosophy had turned out to be good after all, but I actually find hitting the smaller target of postirony to be a more satisfying exercise, more grounded in the contingencies of '90s magazine culture and academic orthodoxy, a project that forces me to flex finer-grained mental muscles, more history than philosophy. As an added bonus, I also get to talk about many of the same authors I would otherwise have written about, writers I love, but in narrower--and more controlled--terms.

I have also turned away from the encyclopedic impulse for personal reasons: I increasingly see problems in it. Knowing everything is lovely (no irony here!); reading obscure books and becoming an expert in dead languages are genuinely wonderful things to do with one's time. But when knowledge becomes an object in itself apart from specific personal, social, political, or intellectual goals, things can go terribly wrong. Reading The Last Samurai, I feel as if DeWitt is making pretty much the same point, and that The Last Samurai is less of an encyclopedic novel than a critique of the encyclopedic impulse, the lust to know for its own sake. DeWitt's critique is, moreover, built on top of a compelling human story, the relationship between a mother and son. The desire to know is, after all, a human impulse, like any other, which has too rarely been taken seriously as human, more often depicted as the province of abstractions than people. All of which is to say that I'm really glad to be reading this book.

It may also find its way into the dissertation, paired with Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in a chapter or concluding section that studies the figure of the "knowing child."

21Dec/070

Knowing Children

In the recent issue of n+1, Helen DeWitt and Ilya Gridneff have published an excerpt of their new collaborative novel, Your Name Here, a book that unfortunately still hasn't found a publisher. The Last Samurai has been calling to me from my bookshelf for years now, one of those books I buy earnestly aspiring someday to read, so I read the n+1 excerpt with interest.

And was not disappointed. The excerpt is totally brilliant and packs more layers of cleverness and disorientation into one chapter than many wanna-be postmodernist epics do in seven-hundred pages. I could summarize these layers here, but such a summary would not begin to give a full sense of the total effect of weirdness the excerpt achieves (especially for those who know about DeWitt's much-publicized suicide attempt). My one concern about Your Name Here is that the multiple parallel realities and agendas the novel kicks off may become tedious after several hundred pages, especially if they do not build to something that resembles a narrative (or at least intellectual) climax. To be completely successful, the inventiveness of the novel's opening chapter needs to build to something larger than invention for its own sake.

Inspired by Your Name Here, I decided to make The Last Samurai my Christmas reading, pulling it off my shelf before I flew to New York. (Again, I'll forgo any attempt at plot summary and write a longer post about the novel after I've finished it.) I'm 150-pages in and pretty thrilled with what I've found. The Last Samurai is very specifically a book about the aspiration to read--the aspiration that has filled my bookshelf with a hodgepodge of books-to-read, books like The Last Samurai--the conviction that, somehow, books or even knowledge itself might save you. I understand this impulse intimately; it's the feeling I get before I buy histories of analytic philosophy or political-economy textbooks or Japanese for Beginners, books that I know I won't have time to read in the near future, books I sometimes don't read for years. When you see yourself buying books faster than you can read them, you begin to wonder about what's gone wrong. But even the secret fantasy of becoming a perfect speed-reader is not satisfying; if you could somehow read everything, and access everything you've read with perfect recall, problems would persist.

A desire for all-knowingness is part of what draws me to encyclopedic fiction of the Pynchon-DeLillo-Wallace variety. My earliest dissertation idea was an exploration of that genre (JR, Gravity's Rainbow, Underworld, Almanac of the Dead, Infinite Jest, etc.). I ultimately abandoned this dissertation idea because I found it difficult to convincingly frame such a large project; my readings of individual encyclopedic novels would have to be conducted from the literary-critical equivalent of 30,000 feet up; this hypothetical project, which I may still someday return to, might consequently read more like (bad) philosophy than literary criticism. None of which would be a huge issue if the project worked out, and if the philosophy had turned out to be good after all, but I actually find hitting the smaller target of postirony to be a more satisfying exercise, more grounded in the contingencies of '90s magazine culture and academic orthodoxy, a project that forces me to flex finer-grained mental muscles, more history than philosophy. As an added bonus, I also get to talk about many of the same authors I would otherwise have written about, writers I love, but in narrower--and more controlled--terms.

I have also turned away from the encyclopedic impulse for personal reasons: I increasingly see problems in it. Knowing everything is lovely (no irony here!); reading obscure books and becoming an expert in dead languages are genuinely wonderful things to do with one's time. But when knowledge becomes an object in itself apart from specific personal, social, political, or intellectual goals, things can go terribly wrong. Reading The Last Samurai, I feel as if DeWitt is making pretty much the same point, and that The Last Samurai is less of an encyclopedic novel than a critique of the encyclopedic impulse, the lust to know for its own sake. DeWitt's critique is, moreover, built on top of a compelling human story, the relationship between a mother and son. The desire to know is, after all, a human impulse, like any other, which has too rarely been taken seriously as human, more often depicted as the province of abstractions than people. All of which is to say that I'm really glad to be reading this book.

It may also find its way into the dissertation, paired with Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in a chapter or concluding section that studies the figure of the "knowing child."