Monday, September 9, 2013

Patronizing authors

Maybe patronizing isn't quite the right word (any more than coddling was).  Perhaps flattering the reader is slightly more apt.  Coddling the reader is something we expect from writers with a younger audience, i.e. they are trying to bring their readers to the river (of even greater art) and have them drink deeply.  Indeed, there are a number of authors who consider their work a bit of a gateway drug to the classics.  For the most part, I also fall in the camp that any reading is better than no reading.  I can vaguely remember that some of the Heinleins and other similar novels I read as I was just getting started discussed specific philosophers -- or more often scientists -- and I sometimes would follow up out of interest.  Certainly I read some of Einstein's work (for general readers) at a very early age -- possibly as early as 12 (and indeed recently picked up some of those same books for my son to explore in a few more years).  Oprah's book club certainly got into this whole issue of whether she was pandering to her readers or whether she was actually going to succeed in occasionally bringing them to great works of literature.  I've looked at the last incarnation of the official list, and there are certainly some softball books on there not to my taste, but there are some very solid books in there, especially from her Summer of Faulkner pitch.  On the whole, I think it was admirable what she did -- no coddling or flattered of those who stuck with it.

Flattering the reader is a bit harder to pin down.  It is when the author waters down certain ideas and then more or less presents them as "the real thing."  I personally do find this patronizing, but admit that the line can be a bit of a grey one, since popularizing important ideas surely can't be all bad.  Yet this can be quite insidious, as the reader (or viewer) might not be aware of what they are missing -- and may feel that they have gotten enough from this Cliff Notes' version.  Almost any book that talks about philosophy more or less goes down this path when they discuss Plato's Parable of the Cave or stoicism or what have you.  The good novels leave you wanting to learn more; the bad ones may leave you thinking you know enough or you aren't interested in learning more.  I have to admit I can't really recall which philosophers Tibor Fischer name-checked in The Thought Gang, and I certainly didn't seek any of them out after reading it (as funny and sometimes provocative as that novel was).

But the absolutely most insidious is the author that presents fairly common ideas/authors/artists and then passes them off as something that only the elite would know.  So the audience, catching these references, feels smarter about itself.  Is this a real problem or just a First World Problem?  I don't know.  I generally don't like artists that pass middlebrow art off as high art.  Yasmina Reza's Art does seem to be a pretty bad offender, in my view.

John Logan's play Red, about the artist Mark Rothko, is a little bit closer to the high art end of the spectrum.  Still there are passages that are in there that if the audience follows them, they'll feel better about themselves.  That said, it was still one of the more intelligent plays on Broadway in years.  It is a hard line -- many people can't follow arcane arguments and then feel stupid.  Tom Stoppard's Arcadia is probably the play that really walks the highwire the most successfully, but still manages to alienate some audiences by aiming slightly higher than some people's heads.

So this brings me around to the unlikely best-seller The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  Curiously, she is actually a philosophy professor in her real-life.  I think it is true that the French have a better grounding in philosophy among college graduates (compared to Americans) and they still value deep-thinkers.  Nonetheless, this still largely comes across as a popularization of various philosophers, such as Hegel or Wittgenstein.  Whether it was specifically the driving force in writing this novel, Barbery illustrated how elitism still keeps the upper classes from imagining that the working class have much of an inner life or would be moved by "art."  So she comes up with the character of the concierge, Renée, who is quite the secret reader.

I wouldn't have as much of a problem with this, if she didn't seem to stop short.  So Renée's favourite author is Tolstoy and her favourite novel apparently -- Anna Karenina. Their shared interest in Tolstoy leads her to bond a bit with M. Ozu (the new tenant in the apartment building proves to be quite a disruptive influence).  Again, fine as far as it goes.  It probably didn't hurt that I read Anna Karenina so recently that I could recall the plot.  It also was a nice touch that she (Renée) focuses on the Kitty-Levin love story, which is generally not as well known as the "main" love triangle.

However, why not go whole hog and have Renée claim that a slightly more obscure novel, like Goncharov's Oblomov or Turgenev's Fathers and Sons or, better yet, On the Eve was her favourite. Would this actually upset her (Barbery's) readers by having a concierge who actually was better read than them?  After all, Barbery's readers are surely aware of Tolstoy (and the film-maker Yasujirō Ozu), even if they have not indulged yet.  So it is only a relatively slight prod (from Barbery) to read Anna Karenina, but it might be a step too far to get them to sample something really quite obscure (and perhaps even more refined).  Perhaps I am being too harsh, but there were definitely moments that had me feel that the readers were being spoon-fed.  And I was quite ambivalent as I went through the novel, leaning first one way then the other.  The ending decided it for me, however...

Now I am going to take a slight detour, which will make more sense when I get to discussing the conclusion of Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

But first, for those delicate readers, plenty of SPOILERS AHEAD.

This is definitely a generational thing, but in the very early 80s, Newsweek (and perhaps Time) carried these double-page spreads by a variety of writers.  Almost no one with whom I ever discussed this remembers anything about it.  But it was so clear in my mind.  And low and behold, the internet has archived it (surprisingly, quite a bit of early 80s stuff is not on the internet, so obviously it never happened).  Perhaps the best ad was actually Kurt Vonnegut's How to Write with Style (which he sort of gleefully admits is poached from Strunk and White).  I have no idea if it has been collected with Vonnegut's other essays -- or if it will be in the final Library of America volume (though that seems a bit unlikely).  The core of the essay seems to be fairly available on the web. Boingboing has actually resurrected the ad in all its glory here.  As an added bonus, if you scroll down a bit (there), you can find a link to the entire series of 12 ads.*  I certainly remembered the Bill Cosby one on speed-reading (though I didn't think it was one of the better ones) and seeing all the ads triggered me into remembering that I had indeed read the Tony Randall and Steve Allen entries as a kid, though I had completely forgotten them.  (Not sure why the Cosby stuck with me the most, other than I largely disagreed with it even as a kid; I do tend to remember things with which I disagree better than things that simply confirm my beliefs -- because I remember arguing and wrestling with something, even if the specifics get a bit blurry.)  What I certainly did not remember was that this wasn't some high-faluting ad for the U.S Literacy Council or what have you, but an ad from the International Paper Company promoting the printed word.

But I had remembered so clearly one by a humorist that had talked about plot and specifically plot endings.  Basically, every time you wrote yourself into a corner, you could just have everyone run over by a truck (or a bus in urban settings).  I wondered if perhaps this was Dave Barry or Calvin Trillin (a little less likely).  Was this a follow-up to the first set of ads?  Perhaps the internet held the answer.

After several false starts, I found it!  "How to Write Good" by Michael O'Donoghue.  It was originally from National Lampoon (1971), but I suspect it was one of those classics that was reprinted elsewhere, since I only skimmed National Lampoon a bit during breaks from my job at the UM library in the early 90s.  I am pretty sure I had come across it before then.

Well, if you have read to the end of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you know exactly why this crossed my mind.  I had been generally leaning a bit in favour of the book until that point when suddenly the author by-passes all the interesting questions of whether a hermetic (and penniless) French concierge and a rich Japanese businessman can actually fall in love and make a go of it (in a Parisian setting that appears to be particularly class-bound).  No, our narrator gets run over by a delivery van (and Barberry makes such a production over the fact that this ties perfectly together with the concierge's misappropriation of a dead woman's dress from the same dry cleaning service).  And then this terrible, sudden loss shocks some sense into the suicidal 12-year old, who decides she will henceforth live to look for beauty in unexpected places.  It is a complete (plot) cheat and grotesquely sentimental besides. (While I will go ahead and read Gourmet Rhapsody, it also seems unduly sentimental, with the food critic M. Arthens on his deathbed, longing to recapture some flavour that will recall his childhood.  It just strikes me as Pixar's Ratatouille did the same thing (sans the deathbed conversion) with a lot more flair.)  It actually upset me to the point where I may donate Hedgehog (and more than likely Gourmet Rhapsody) rather than hang onto it.

* They have also been collected in a book called How to use the power of the printed word.  What is completely baffling is that this is somehow stretched to 110 pages, when the ads themselves are more like 24 (granted printed magazine style with 3 columns).  Still, it seems like there might be some filler in there. However, I am no longer feeling compelled to find out by ordering the book.


  1. My wife and I made the same connection you did. We were reading the book for a book group and when we reached the ending, while everyone else was in tears we were in hysterics, having read How to Write Good years ago. And as it took the character forever to die, we also thought about a cartoon where Bugs Bunny as a ham actor milked a death science, exclaiming "agony, agony . . .!' We weren't thrown out of the book club but it was a close call.

    1. Good story. I'm glad others remember How to Write Good. It was a classic!

  2. It came out my freshman year of college and everyone in my dorm read it. One of us couldn't finish an answer on a tough problem on a Chemistry final so he just wrote "Suddenly I was run over by a truck".
    And of course there's the instructions for telling a joke. Theirs started "Casimir, you've got a banana in your ear!''