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Experiments and Other Notes

I had intended—expected—to have a post, somewhere along the lines of “yay, I’m done with the tests,” up well before now, but post-test fatigue + a small but time-involved project for my mom + a temperamental computer that thought spending a day not starting was amusing (after a full day of scans there is nothing wrong with it!) + the simple fact of time getting away from me precluded it  before now. And now it seems much too long since I took the darn thing, that I’m not really going to mention it beyond I really hope I passed, as I can’t bear the thought of studying. Ever again.

Instead, I’m now faced with the fact that it’s now the second week of October and I’ve a pile of reading commitments/plans staring me down. The first two are library books, out of renewals (of course) and less than a week left on them before they are due. Late this summer I over-optimistically estimated my ability to read for fun and study at the same time, so they’ve sat mostly unread until this week. Nipping at their heels, my commitments to Allie’s Dracula RAL and a Classics Circuit read. It’s a good thing I don’t have any solid plans for the next little while, as I have a feeling I’m going to be a bit preoccupied. (And I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough to fill my time…) It’s also a good thing I’m planning on participating in the 24-hour readathon on the 22nd.

Despite my misgivings over How to Read Literature Like a Professor from earlier this year, one of the library books I’m currently working through is How to Read Novels Like a Professor. (My optimism, it seems, extends to the contents of books as well as the amount of reading I can accomplish.) I don’t know yet if I’ll actually even bother with attempting to finish this, but after some comments Jillian made, I wanted to at least complete the Introduction with its brief—very brief—history of the novel. Although I am interested in a more academic discussion (which would necessarily occupy more space than an introduction) than was presented here, there was one thing that stood out to me as I read. It was actually one of those light-bulb moments of the type “Duh. I can’t believe this never occurred to me before, it’s so obvious”—the history of the novel is one of reaction to the history of mankind. As the world changes, so has literature. So have all arts. This is one of the few things I remember distinctly from Architectural Theory: the Modernist architects were responding to a changing, increasingly industrialized and mechanized world. So were the Modernist authors (and undoubtedly the visual artists and composers). And the same theme (responsiveness) holds true for every other “-ism” of the history of literature and the other arts. Why I never connected the dots before now…

When I think about all the literary examples of direct responses to the surrounding world—The Grapes of Wrath and The Crucible to name two—it seems so blazingly obvious that if the contents were a reaction, so must have been the style. The whole 20th century in some ways was a big experiment (although, it should be noted, the pre-1900 form of the novel still thrives), and with the continuing rapidity of changing technology, no doubt novel experiments will continue. (If the Twitter novel doesn’t yet exist, I’m sure it will.) I suppose my questions are two: 1) can the most extravagant experimentations endure as anything more than a curiosity? and 2) will anyone outside of academia (or list completists) actually continue to read the more “out-there” forms? My questions are biased by my views of architecture: the Modernists strove to revolutionize not just the built form but humanity itself, but despite their efforts, most new houses still greatly resemble the forms used well before the rectilinear boxes of modernism. Commercial and other non-residential architecture has moved further from the pre-20th century traditional forms than housing (how many of us have driven by a new church that in almost no visible way resembles the traditional forms for religious architecture?), perhaps suggesting that in our most personal lives, we prefer the comfort of tradition, but allow experimentation in our working environments? (Most of us. There are also those who prefer other styles, but this does not seem to predominate housing stock.)

I have nothing against literary (or architectural) experimentation, which I will readily acknowledge has brought forth incredible gems, and which is vital to the continuing relevance of the novel as an art form; my curiosity deals with longevity. It is akin to the “classics” question: what makes a book a classic? Usually when when this question is addressed, the respondent touches on the idea of endurance—what will people be reading one hundred years from now? Of course, this could have nothing to do with our comfort level with the literature before us. Reading lists (best of the 20th century, 1001 great books, etc., etc.) abound, and how many of us have opted to read a book we otherwise find difficult, intimidating, or just plain weird, because it is on such a list? But I sometimes wonder if continuing evolution of the novel away from the more “traditional” plot-driven format takes it so far away that only the academically minded can understand it, and thus these experiments fade from the public awareness for lack of comprehension, not value. I think of it in terms of contemporary visual art. Although some is perfectly comprehensible by the layman, other art has been derived by a series of steps from its predecessors to the point that most average viewers cannot understand it perhaps even as art, although those “in the know” have no difficulty. Of course, the counterargument here could be Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his life but whose work sells for incredible sums at auction today. Time provides the answers, not our contemporaneous musings.

I have no answers, and not even really any opinions on the matter. (Well, I have some very strong opinions on some examples of, ahem, “interesting” architecture, but that doesn’t really apply here.) Curiosity drives me. It compels me to wonder what the form of the next “new” novel might be, to wonder where we can go from here. And thus the reading list grows…

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12 thoughts on “Experiments and Other Notes

  1. I don’t really have any answers to your questions, Amanda, other than that I think yesterday’s “extravagant experimentations” often become tomorrow’s mainstream. Ok, maybe not “mainstream” in all cases, but you get the idea. Recent examples from music: punk rock, rap. Fairly recent examples from literature: Proust, Virginia Woolf. One of the things I’d like to get a better handle on in terms of the novel is why its earliest European practictioners–let’s say Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne–were so wild and “postmodern” and yet we then had to wait until early in the 20th century to see things go crazy again in the novel; most of what I know of the 18th and 19th century novelists, with a very few exceptions, seem like a regression rather than a progression to me in terms of extravagant experimentation. Anyway, congrats on finishing your exam and good luck catching up on your fun reading again!

    1. Thanks, Richard–it’s nice to have time for fun reading–and for thinking about these literary topics!

      I agree that “experiments” often become mainstream, but I am curious if there is a point at which the experiment goes so far that it becomes too inaccessible to go mainstream. Or is it always just a matter of time? For that matter, I wonder if some literary experiments have vanished into the midst of time because no one understood what they were about? I realized while writing this post that I know far more about art and music history (specifically western art and western classical music) than I do literary history, so this is a topic I would like to investigate further. (I have some vague ideas for a project looking at 20th century literature as compared to contemporaneous art, architecture, and music. Are the concerns of Modernist writers, for example, the same as the concerns of Modernist architect or composers?)

  2. Many of the great 18th and 19th century innovations were attempts to capture reality in some new way, no different than Woolf and Proust. Not extravagant, necessarily, but Richardson, Fielding, Scott, Balzac, etc. were the source of enormously important innovations, many of them the results of something very much like an experiment – what if I try this, what will happen?

    And then there are the Germans – Richard, you need to spend some time with 18th & 19th century Germans! They were wild men!

    And, come to think of it, I know the answer to the “why its earliest practitioners etc” question. The early European fiction writers seem wild and postmodern because we no longer read the non-wild non-postmodern early European fiction writers, not because the non-wild, non-postmodern fiction writers did not exist.

    Anyway, Amanda, you are getting at why I spend so much time writing and thinking about literary history. It’s very rewarding. Writers are themselves always responding to other writers.

    1. Some really interesting things to think about here, Tom. It is so easy to forget that what is so commonplace now was once new and innovative. I’m most familiar with 19th century classics, so the innovations or experiments preceding and following are both somewhat unfamiliar and fascinating to me. Given that “writers are themselves always responding to other writers,” I sometimes feel as if I need to start at the beginning and work my way forward, following the strands of experiment and technique, although I’m afraid I lack the discipline for such a project. But certainly, there is so much reward to be found in the investigation of literature and the connections between works, that I imagine even an undisciplined approach is not without its merits.

      1. I had initially hoped to do a chronological reading of my “Reading through the Centuries” list (1700 – 1999) in hopes of more easily drawing conclusions and making connections / understanding precursors and influences. But I too found that I lack the discipline. I’m too easily distracted and pulled in various directions and I get impatient and feel like I’m going to explode if I have to see the 18th century all the way through from beginning to end. So I too hope that perhaps a bit more chaotic approach is better than nothing at all.

        1. I agree, Nicki, that the idea of understanding influences is very appealing. Sometimes, I think though, it’s more important to follow where the books naturally lead rather than a predetermined list. And always more important to continue to take pleasure out of our reading, and not feel as if it is some drudgery forced upon us!

      2. The undisciplined, chaotic approach is not only better than nothing, but you’ll find connections and suggestions that no one else has seen, just because you happened to read one book after another. The chronological part will take care of itself – over time, the pieces, the books, will fall into place.

    2. Writers are themselves always responding to other writers.

      I love this quote. And I so agree: that the connections can be made without reading chronologically.

      (Goodness, I could never disipline myself to do that!) 🙂

      1. That really is something important to remember. There is no such thing as an influence-free piece of literature. Nor for that matter, is there an influence-free reader…

  3. I’m new to your blog and so don’t know how you feel about audiobooks, but I just listened to Robert Whitfield read Dracula for the readalong and it was fantastic! Sometimes when I have too many books to read, I go the audio route.

    I’ve heard mixed reviews of the How to Read ___ Like a Professor and would like to try them for myself.

    Excellent post! You’ve given me a lot to think about — thanks!

    1. Well, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned audiobooks, so your newness doesn’t disadvantage you here! I haven’t really found audiobooks to work for me as I lose focus much to easily and have to rewind (or whatever the digital equal for “rewind’ is!) way to often. Maybe if I had a long commute, it would be something to consider, but since I don’t, I’ll stick with the paper version for now.

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