As we ready ourselves for a week of new content — the aforementioned Beinart and Lakhous, along with a special guest review — I must admit that I’ve been enjoying the fake-summer heatwave, so my reading time has taken a hit. I have — like so many other like-minded folks — been absolutely engrossed in the Trayvon Martin tragedy. There is little more to say than this whole situation is very bad, in every imaginable way.
Many have recommended Teju Cole’s Atlantic piece, “The White Savor Industrial Complex,” a wonderfully measured, provocative-in-that-it’s-so-fucking-spot-on piece about not only the intrinsic wrongheadedness of Kony 2012 and the Invisible Children organization but also the attitude — or perhaps worldview — that enables such lily-white activism. It’s worth reading, not only because it’s a wonderful piece of writing, but because it links to the work of African scholars who take issue with the Kony 2012 movement.
But in the piece itself was a little nugget that served as some respite from the genuine human guilt one feels about the Kony 2012 movement, Invisible Children — hell, the entire continent — et cetera. When explaining a serious of tweets he authored — which are reproduced in the article — Cole talks about language, and the difference between his political discourse and what might be found in his smash-hit novel, Open City.
Those tweets, though unpremeditated, were intentional in their irony and seriousness. I did not write them to score cheap points, much less to hurt anyone’s feelings. I believed that a certain kind of language is too infrequently seen in our public discourse. I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point. [emphasis mine]
This is not a new argument, or a new thought, rather something people have said for a long time. And it’s not, for me at least, a very agreeable idea. Perhaps some novels can exist for the sole purpose of being really good; absent a point, they’re just enjoyable reads.
Today, in The Morning News Tournament of Books, Open City squared off against Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. In the match commentary, John Warner talks about Open City, and how it might be perceived.
Lots of people…noted that there’s not a whole lot of action in Open City, and there’s no doubt that this book is a tough sell. What’s the marketing hook other than it’s good? That it’ll remind you of W.G. Sebald? I see the copies flying off the shelves now. Even when I recommend it to people, I’m not sure what to tell them about why they might like it.
Of course, I haven’t read Open City, which is totally regrettable and something I hope to soon rectify. Still, I feel like Warner’s hit on a very real problem some might have with Open City, and major literature in general: what’s the point? (Or if my interpretation is failing, what’s the marketing hook?) Warner later makes the same charge against The Marriage Plot.
The Marriage Plot is an easier sell because it comes attached to a literary name-brand author, but again, the content outside of the love story sounds pretty esoteric. Brown University, semiotics, Foucault, cell research, Jane Austen? Okay, the Jane Austen part is a pretty easy pitch, but not only did FSG publish this book, they trumpeted it on a Times Square billboard, right next to one for Spike TV’s Deadliest Warrior.
I absolutely agree. The Marriage Plot is a very strange book, if only because it’s been billed — by FSG — as some mainstream read (not their fault everyone loved Middlesex, I suppose), picked up by suburban book clubs America-over, while it traffics in the content Warner lists above. Semiotics, for shit’s sake. As a college-educated kid who minored in creative writing, I’m more likely to be a target reader than the folks FSG marketed to.
Still, at book’s end, I found myself feeling some enjoyment, but not satisfaction. It was a fine read. In a previous match, Warner compares Eugenides to an athlete who never gets beyond “the stretching and calisthenics and into the game.” (Apt in that it so nails my problems withThe Marriage Plot, and that it shows why Warner comments on this stuff.)
So in some way, I found myself asking post-TMP, what was the point? It seems Cole might think that’s not the right question when evaluating a novel. But isn’t that a little depressing? Absent a Sinclarian/Conradian cause like the meat industry or imperial evil, are all works of fiction sheer vanity? Is the point of a novel nothing more than the reader’s enjoyment?
Maybe that’s OK, I guess. Perhaps fiction exists to take our minds somewhere else for awhile, away from Trayvon and Kony 2012 and Robert Bales. But is that distraction? Is that just giving Americans more time to feel enriched/smart for reading?
Why do we need our minds taken away from evils committed in our presence?
I think I’m going in circles now.
What’s important, then, must be the coexistence — with a clear dichotomy — of these two worlds. Reading good fiction can be an activity for those interested in societal ills — time divided but not taken away — in the same way that Teju Cole can write a super-thoughtful essay about Africa and a novel overflowing with intellectual flexing.