19 August 2011

Perennial Problems in Shelving Books

G.K. Chesterton and T.H. White shared a birthday, so it seems somehow apt that the author of The Once and Future King had been an ardent admirer of the author of The Man Who Was Thursday. White was an English teacher in 1936, when Chesterton died, and the story goes that the day after Gilbert's death, White addressed his students. 'Boys,' he said, 'G.K. Chesterton died yesterday. P.G. Wodehouse is now the greatest living master of the English language.'

I'm not wholly convinced that Wodehouse was a greater wordsmith than James Joyce, who was still alive at the time White decreed Wodehouse to be Chesterton's successor, but I take his point. I hardly think it possible to overstate Wodehouse's brilliance, and I think Douglas Adams got it spot on in introducing Sunset at Blandings when he said:
'Master? Great genius? Oh yes. One of the most blissful joys of the English language is the fact that one of its greatest practitioners ever, one of the guys on the very top table of all, was a jokesmith. Though maybe it shouldn’t be that big a surprise. Who else would be up there? Austen, of course, Dickens and Chaucer. The only one who couldn’t make a joke to save his life would be Shakespeare.'
If anything, Adams understates Wodehouse's brilliance, perverse though that seems given the company with whom he ranks him:
'He doesn’t need to be serious. He’s better than that. He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.'
Adams focuses on Wodehouse's magical mastery of style, recognising him as a true musician, but -- and in this respect he is surely channelling his own strengths and weaknesses -- he pays no heed to Wodehouse's superlative command of structure. It's notoriously difficult to summarise a Wodehouse plot.

Anyway, this sprang to mind the other day, when I was browsing through the hillock of Spectators that adorns our bathroom floor, and came across an article about Kim Philby and his reading habits, as revealed in recently-discovered letters he'd written between 1984 and 1987 to Bowes & Bowes, a Cambridge bookshop. The article divides the books into nine categories, these being 'Modern Fiction', 'Memoirs', 'Travel', 'Literary Criticism', 'Popular Novels', 'Thrillers and Spy Fiction', 'History', 'Espionage', and 'Fitness'. In most categories each book is named, but 'Popular Novels' and 'Thrillers and Spy Fiction' are merely listed by author, with the number of book by each author in parentheses.

The result is that whereas the text elsewhere suggests that the one John le Carré book Philby bought was The Honourable Schoolboy, we're left guessing at which of Dashiell Hammett and P.G. Wodehouse's works he'd ordered.

I'm not sure whence this taxonomy derived. Why rank Wodehouse as a mere 'popular novelist'? Was it the journalist who wrote the piece who made that decision? After all, in any English bookshop nowadays, Wodehouse is securely fastened amidst amongst all the other canonical works of modern fiction, rather than being pigeonholed in 'Humour'; Hammett usually bilocates between 'Modern Fiction' and 'Crime'.

Truth be told, I hate the whole idea of genre fiction; or, rather, I hate the snobbish tendency to treat some books as though they're genre fiction and to treat others as though they're better than that, and are free of any genre constraints. Jane Austen wrote nineteenth-century chick-lit, Alexander Dumas wrote airport novels before there were airports, Kim is spy fiction, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a fantasy, The Name of the Rose is a detective novel, and who's to say that stories about frustrated academics or embittered milkmaids or youths on the threshold of manhood aren't genres in their own right?

Some months back I met some friends at home in Dublin, and a mutual acquaintance came up in conversation. 'Am I imagining things,' said one friend, 'or did you have a huge argument with him in my house once, with him trying to say that The Lord of the Rings wasn't a fantasy novel?' Indeed I did, I said. You're not imagining it. He seemed to think that because it was good, then it couldn't have been a fantasy.

There seems to be a mentality in play whereby works in commonly-recognised genres can be anointed as 'serious fiction' and treated as though they're distinct from their genres. Sometimes, and especially nowadays, this is simply down to marketing, of course, but more broadly, it seems to be something that we do. Rather than recognising the truth of Sturgeon's Law -- that 90 per cent of everything is crud -- we decide that such genres as horror and fantasy are intrinsically and completely worthless, such that any work done in those genres must be rescued from the pit as soon as they're recognised.

Most people will freely recognise that The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth are all science-fiction novels, but if anything they tend to see them as a kind of proto-science-fiction, foundational works that were later corrupted by the pulps. Much the same will be admitted, after some thought, about Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

But what of such dystopian classics as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451? What of Cold Comfort Farm, Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse 5, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid's Tale, The Children of Men, Cryptonomicon, The Time-Traveller's Wife, Never Let Me Go, or The Road?

I really don't think this is a case of Science-Fiction people claiming classics as part of their field to give themselves credibility. In my experience, real science-fiction people are happy enough to brandish their acknowledged classics: Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Foundation, The Stars My Destination, The Left Hand of Darkness, Stand on Zanzibar, Rendezvous with Rama, The Drowned World, Lord of Light, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Flowers for Algernon, The Man in the High Castle, and so forth. If anything, I don't think science-fiction fans should be so shy. 

If bookshops are going to insist on treating science-fiction as literature's embarrassing cousin, then those who love the genre should do their damnedest to have some of the genre's pinnacles restored to their rightful place. And that's nothing compared to what the fantasy aficionados could do.

Me? I don't really care. When the day comes for me to be able to put all my books into one place, all fiction will be together, alphabetically shelved, with no quarter given to genre. It's hard enough classifying non-fiction.


Anonymous said...

Yes but if one were sent to the proverbial desert island and allowed only to take the fiction of any one writer, I doubt if anyone would seriously take Wodehouse over Waugh. Wodehouse’s work is perfect, but in a closed, fully developed way. A closed finitude; not open to, or leading beyond itself. Waugh, on the other hand, perhaps lacks the same degree of internal balance and harmony and self-referential sufficiency, but his work resonates towards, and sets up resonance with, a world transcendent to itself and potentially opens this world up to the reader too. An open finitude. It’s like the difference between forming a close relationship with a smart, loyal and cute dog and with a person. The former friendship can delight you, but only the latter has the possibility of showing you what you might choose to become to be. The dystopian classics you list, although fine for what they are, are closed finitudes. They all impose a leading idea on their work rather than trying to open their work up to one. They are typically modernist in that they try to eliminate mystery by trying to impose a view of reality rather than allowing reality through their work to present a view where mystery lies at its core. And to this extent they are limited. While individual works within a genre may vary wildly in quality, all genres suffer this limitation of closed finitude. It would be interesting to classify writers along this closed/ open finitude divide. Along with Waugh, and among English language writers, I would include Paul Scott, Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Powell (perhaps), and David Foster Wallace. Of course these writers too have their limitations, but these are not ultimate ones.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

There seems a certain irony in picking Waugh as an author with whom one would happily spend one's time on a desert island, given the scenario he paints in A Handful of Dust, where a lifetime trapped with Dickens is presented as a truly infernal fate. I'm not sure that a lifetime with any one writer would be fun!

It may be significant that the classic question of which book or author one would take with oneself to a desert island traditionally excludes both Shakespeare and the Bible, these being assumed to be in one's bag anyway. Given them, do you need your personal choice to point beyond itself? Chesterton, for what it's worth, confidently claimed the ability to construct a case from the infinite from a fire's sparks. If we're of an enquiring and determined enough mind, there are ways out of Wodehouse.

That aside, I've no doubt that there are plenty of people who'd happily take Wodehouse over Waugh; I know people who simply can't get on with Waugh at all, just as I know ones who can't get on with Austen or Dickens.

I'm deeply uneasy with the claim that 'While individual works within a genre may vary wildly in quality, all genres suffer this limitation of closed finitude.' I see what you're saying but one of the reasons why I dislike things being pigeonholed into genres is that I suspect all stories fall within genres: Hamlet, The Count of Monte Cristo, Moby Dick, and The Stars My Destination are all revenge stories; the Iliad, War and Peace, The Naked and the Dead, and Slaughterhouse Five are all war stories; The Moonstone, A Study in Scarlet, The Big Sleep, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and The Name of the Rose are all detective stories; Dracula, The Turn of the Screw, Our Lady of Darkness, Carrie, and The Darkest Part of the Woods are all horrors; Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Bridget Jones's Diary, and PS, I Love You are all romances; Kim, The Secret Agent, Casino Royale, and The Looking Glass War are all spy novels; Gulliver's Travels, The Metamorphosis, Orlando, Gormenghast, and American Gods are all fantasies...

Things can say more than they appear to; fiction tends to have layers, whether its author wants it to or not.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. Still, I'm curious. If you were exiled and allowed the works of Waugh only or Wodehouse only, which would you choose? And why?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Hmmm. Well, am I allowed to have the Bible and Shakespeare too? Assuming I'm not, and that I'm to be struck like that fellow with the works of Dickens, in truth, I'm not sure.

I've not read a lot of Waugh -- Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Helena, and his biography of Ronald Knox. I have seven other books by him scattered about, but I've a job to do. Scoop is on the shelf behind my armchair. What I've read, I've liked, but there's a smugness there, an air of superiority that I find slightly off-putting. Waugh was clearly capable of both love and wit, but just to judge by my small sample, he rarely seems to have managed both simultaneously.

Wodehouse, on the other hand? I've read all the Jeeves and Wooster stuff, and a couple of Psmith books, an anthology or three, and one or two other books. I was sure I had some of the Blandings books here, awaiting my attention, but they may be at home.

It strikes me that Wodehouse might prove a more congenial companion than Waugh for years of isolation; with nothing but Waugh to immerse myself in, I fear I'd either grow offended by his air of snobbery or else would come to share it. I might, quite simply, enjoy Wodehouse more, and for that reason alone he might have an edge.

I'm a pensive sort, and lean naturally towards the dark and introspective; Wodehouse always points towards the light. Like Mozart, he brushes the cobwebs away.

For deeper matters, well, I have my memories, and my thoughts and prayers, and so many books I've already read. Have you read An Evil Cradling?

Anonymous said...

But what light does Wodehouse point to? A prelapsarian illumination established by banishing darkness from the outset? The illumination of prelest? The Bible and Shakespeare offer unlimited food for thought, you can strike up a conversation with them, enter into an ongoing dialogue that might lead to somewhere completely new. One can admire Wodehouse and Mozart, but their companionship is non-dialogic and static. Having said their piece they are not open to further questions.

Waugh as smug and a snob? Well yes, but this is the judgment of a mere surface phenomenon. His was the reactionary’s display of contempt for the modern age and its idolatrous spirit of the autonomous self. The triumphalist dominance of the age, liberalism’s smugness, was particularly loathsome to Waugh because it insists one takes it on its own terms and one has no choice but to join in. The very entrenchment of the age does not allow itself to see itself in any other terms. That’s why one of the few forms of resistance to it is satire. The satirist spotlights the logic of the age’s presumptions and exposes its cruel consequences. The satirist is always a reactionary and necessarily comes across as contemptuous and rarely as a lover.
Waugh’s early work was pure satire. He then tried to incorporate a more conventional, realistic form. In my view the Guy Crouchback novels, the Sword of Honour “war” trilogy, is the best thing he did. He successfully combines love and wit. Denying and affirming. I can’t think of any other work that so well manages to combine burlesque and moral seriousness. Waugh points to the light by way of a descent into hell accompanied by the Marx brothers.

I haven’t heard of An Evil Cradling let alone read it. But if you recommend it I will certainly check it out.