The rise of Literature?

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For a few weeks I’ve been mulling over a “theory” about the nature of contemporary fiction. The quotes are because this is a theory in the way that normal people have theories; they don’t know much and just make up plausible (to their mind) models that are ultimately grounded in a whole lot of ignorance. I really don’t know much here, and I strongly suspect I’m wrong, but I can’t help but express an opinion in public though I feel I shouldn’t because of my admitted ignorance. To some extent I’m putting this post up to be enlightened by readers who do know a great deal more about letters (e.g., The Man Who is Thursday, who should also resize the little dog so his front page load doesn’t go well north of 300 K).

Here’s the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I’ve read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven’t (though I don’t read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren’t dumb, and not all of us have Asperger’s. We just aren’t interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.

But ancient fiction; epics, myths, etc., do fulfill these requirements. I didn’t seek out fiction in any form before I was 13 or so (I was assigned books in school of course); but I had read Bullfinch’s Mythology as well as translations of the Iliad and Gilgamesh. In hindsight I suspect that my interest in these works is due to the fact that they are recognizably High Fantasy. Either they are explicit myths, or, they refer to peoples and places whose lack of banality is due to their distance in time & space (obviously I have never been to the Zagros mountains!). I also have read historical fiction which is sufficiently distant in time, e.g., the whole of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series.

To some extent if you know me in person you can see that I’m not interested in the details of the characters of other human beings. I’m somewhat along the autism spectrum toward Asperger’s. I’m not the type to lose myself in a story, and I’m not really interested in most horror films because I have a hard time getting scared or identifying with the characters (I can’t forget it’s just a movie and the people aren’t real). It seems clear to me why I have a hard time being interested in mainstream fiction; not only am I not interested in the characters, but I’m just not like most of the people depicted in terms of their values or personality. I can’t “relate,” and I’m not interested in “relating.”

If you read Isaac Asimov’s biography, In Memory Yet Green, I think you get a sense of why his novels depict flat characters. Though Asimov seems to be a gregarious individual, he was very narcissistic and self-involved. I don’t get a sense that he was a socially sensitive soul (though he did resent the anti-Semitism he had experienced or slights from strangers). Asimov wrote something of an apologia for science fiction as a genre of ideas, but I think it reflects the set of values which I’ve expressed above and which many science fiction oriented individuals embody; plots, not people. (if you want every stereotype of science fiction readers confirmed, check out William Sims Bainbridge’s Dimensions of Science Fiction, which is based on surveys at science fiction conventions)

For whatever reason Our Kind of People don’t become literary critics or arbiters of taste & sophistication. Science fiction & fantasy can never be Great Fiction. If a work of science fiction & fantasy is Great Fiction then by definition it is not science fiction & fantasy. Slaughterhouse-Five, Brave New World and 1984 are not science fiction. Within the science fiction ghetto authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, who admit or manifest little interest in science as such and emphasize literary values and social messages (especially Le Guin for the latter), are held up as the great authors who are acceptable. In other words, authors for whom psychological exploration just happens to involve a spaceship in the background.

Why does any of this matter? For one, I think that it is somewhat peculiar that many of us find fiction from the past more engaging than popular contemporary works. Aupelius’ Golden Ass gets my attention; most contemporary fiction does not. I am arguing here that this is partly due to the fact that in the past those who read copiously were, on average, much more like me than they were like the typical human. Not only were readers by and large men (usually of some means and comfort), but they were often also disproportionately eggheads who were eccentric by their nature. How many elite scholars were there such as Claudius who were not attracted to the public life of politics and do not appear in the annals of history? With the printing press, cheaper paper, and the rise of mass literacy,1 things changed, the distribution of taste shifted. And so did the distribution of genres.

So am I full of crap?

Addendum: I also think there is a supply-side issue; female authors tend to produce a particular type of work. This is evident within science fiction; female authors are underrepresented in hard science fiction. Here is something from the Wikipedia entry for the Tales of Genji:

The Tale of Genji…is a classic work of Japanese literature attributed to the Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early eleventh century, around the peak of the Heian Period. It is sometimes called the world’s first novel, the first modern novel, or the first novel to still be considered a classic. This issue is a matter of debate. See Stature below.

The Genji is also often referred to as “the first novel”, though there is considerable debate over this – some of the debate involving whether Genji can even be considered a “novel”. Some consider the psychological insight, complexity, and unity of the work to qualify it for “novel” status while simultaneously disqualifying earlier works. Others see these arguments as subjective and unconvincing. Related claims, perhaps in an attempt to sidestep these debates, are that Genji is the “first psychological novel”, “the first novel still considered to be a classic”, or other more qualified terms. It is, however, difficult to claim that it is the world’s first novel without denying the claims of Daphnis and Chloe and Aethiopica in Greek, which author Longus and an unknown sophist respectively wrote, both around the third century, and in Latin, Petronius’s Satyricon in the first century and Apuleius’s Golden Ass in the second, as well as Kadambari in Sanskrit which author Banabhatta wrote in the seventh century. (The debate exists in Japanese as well, with comparison between the terms monogatari — “tale” — and shosetsu — “novel”.)

The first psychological novel? Sounds really boring (though it seems like she makes an attempt at plot, so perhaps I should check this out. I enjoyed Musashi, whose author was influenced by the Tales of Genji).

1 – I am not convinced that even the Athenian democracy was characterized by mass literary. See Ancient Literacy.



  1. One aspect of contemporary fiction and modern capital-L Literature which you’ve missed (but which might feed into your hypothesis) is that the emphasis in a lot of contemporary Literature is on the use of language, on the poetry of the prose.  
    An enormous part of the appreciation of the likes of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” or Nabokov’s “Lolita” is bound up in appreciation of the way they put words together. To use your examples, Bradbury and Le Guin are also noted for their poetic language.  
    In contrast, a lot of Asimov’s books – which I loved when I was 13 – are painful for me to read now because his prose styling is so atrociously bad (though latter-day stuff like “The Gods Themselves” do hold up better). 
    Interestingly, an ex-housemate of mine, who is much further along the autism spectrum than I, devours literary fiction, and seems to appreciate it most for the use of language.

  2. is that the emphasis in a lot of contemporary Literature is on the use of language, on the poetry of the prose. 
    i don’t really mind poetic language as such. e.g., the iliad even in translation, right? or do you class that as just bombastic?

  3. I also saw the lack of well-crafted prose being the primary reason that SF carries the stigma that it does as.  
    A problem for your hypothesis would seem to be the success of novelists who write in a magical realist style and have had their works considered serious literature, writers like Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The characters in their works are definitely less wooden and more complex than you would find in typical SF fare but a good amount of their stories goes into exploring the fantastical worlds they’ve created and the implications of them. The fantastical/imaginative elements in these works do differ from SF in that they generally have some symbolic or metaphoric import but that same motif is present in mythic stories. Does anyone else have the sense that I do that men tend to gravitate toward these magical realist type works more so than women?  
    Looking over the wikipedia entry on magical realism just now it seems there is a lot of literary criticism baggage to this term. Just to clarify I only mean in the broad sense which I’m familiar with, an artistic genre in which magical elements or illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even “normal” setting.

  4. The fantastical/imaginative elements in these works do differ from SF in that they generally have some symbolic or metaphoric import but that same motif is present in mythic stories. 
    magical realism seems to verge into ‘science fantasy.’ one of the things about science fiction, and yes fantasy, is a set of alternative coherency. magical realism seems to lack it, and almost celebrate disorientation and confusion.

  5. oh, and re: asimov, his prose is as lush as a graham cracker.

  6. The heart of the science fiction genre is at the short story segment. This is where you will find the greatest talent and best writing. If you consider “sci-fi” to be nothing more than Battle Star Galactica and Star Wars novelizations, then strength of prose is probably not your concern. I recommend browsing Gardner Dozois’ anthologies which carry a broad range of writers. I personally am a fan of Terry Bisson and Robert Reed.

  7. Speaking about science fiction, what do you guys think about Jack Vance? His science fiction work (Alastor, The Dragon Masters, The Planet of Aventure…) is very much concerned with human plasticity, cultural as well as physical. He is a tolerably good stylist too, although at times his characters suffer from some of the flatness typical to sf that was mentioned in the post . 
    By the way, here is a nice article about autism and science fiction, written by a critic and aficionado of the genre who suffers from Asperger’s.

  8. That’s one of those qeustions that become are very hard until you hit on the answer, but once you know the answer. 
    Old stories, or works of literature, like the Iliad or the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, or the Gospels, are generally told from the ‘a fly on the wall point of view’. Sometimes they might momentarily collapse into the ‘psychological’, but only rarely, and never more so than what ‘a fly on the wall’ might have no problem inferring. 
    Novels are generally told from the ’3rd person omniscent’ point of view. In such a novel, who is the narrator? 
    Apart from a work of fiction here and there and who might read such stuff, until the narrator of such a story becomes something an author can wrap his mind around, no stories from such a point of view will be written, at least more than a haphazard one here and there. 
    Per fantasy writing, to use a famous author as a recurring example, makes a lot of stuff clear. Can Tolkien create a mountain on page 10 that he cannot knock down on page 11? What time was it in Middle Earth when he first set pen to paper? Just who is the narrator, Tolkein, vis a vis Middle Earth? 
    It seems that people aren’t really cognizant of all this now, it’s so ingrained, but if you’ve read Paradise Lost, Milton doesn’t use the 3rd person omniscient when God or Jesus makes an appearance, though he does occasionly concerning Lucifer. If he did, he’d have probably gotten into trouble, as in legal trouble, given the time he wrote.

  9. Just to be orthogonal to the plot-versus-character contest, how do you feel about comedy? 
    George Meredith thought that civilization could only advance with the help of comedy, which depended on having Society to subject to “thoughtful laughter.” And Society, with the capital S, depended on the ability of men and women to meet as social equals.  
    Meredith was a confirmed Darwinian and believed evolution had produced the individual brawn and brains of his rather advanced Victorian world, but that to get much further, this world would have to take charge of its own development. Ergo, Female Equality -> Society -> Comedy -> Higher Civilization. 
    Meredith believed that Victorian England had a better chance at keeping this progression going than some other cultures of his time: 
    “Eastward you have the total silence of comedy among a people intensely susceptible to laughter, as the ‘Arabian Nights’ will testify. Where the veil is over women’s faces, you cannot have society, without which the senses are barbarous and the Comic Spirit is driven to the gutters of grossness to slake its thirst. Arabs in this respect are worse than Italians – much worse than Germans – just in the degree that their system of treating women is worse. 
    – Meredith, “Comedy and the Comic Spirit”

  10. Women consume most fiction today 
    And watch much more television (excluding sports programming) than men.

  11. Perhaps the most interesting critical writer I have encountered on this issue is Orson Scott Card (who also writes sci fi). He traces the schism between genre-fiction and high-art fiction back to the modernist movement of the early 20th century – in particular the rise of symbolism as a way of writing, and a way of reading.

  12. I think your analysis is basically correct. The newly literate female audience greatly changed the fiction market, and skewed it away from fantasy. 
    A few thoughts: 
    1. I think mythological stuff definitely has more appeal to men, but if you are implying that myths had their primary audience in nerdy guys I’m not sure that is true. Myths have been popular long before nerds, um, clerks, have been in charge of literature. I remember from reading Chagnon that the not very nerdy Yanomami loved mythological storytelling. Wild adventures tend to appeal to big men just as much as nerds, but big men tend to prefer not to read, so now that they have a choice, instead of reading, say, Lord of the Rings they just watch the movies. 
    (I don’t think there is an ancient equivalent of hard science fiction, mainly because there wasn’t any science. And that would seem to be the genre that most purely appeals to nerds.)  
    2. I’d have to agree with a lot of the others here that a big part of sci fi’s downscale rep has to do with the writing. If you are particularly sensitive to bad writing, like a lot of the literati are, reading some of this stuff can be pretty painful. I’m enough of a nerd to like a lot of sci fi, but, for this reason, I personally prefer watching it on television to reading it. 
    3. A good writing style lets you memorably express insight and wisdom that are useful for living your own life, which are ultimately what makes literature last, not plot or character per se. However, character driven literature seems more amenable to providing this kind of analysis. 
    4. Most “womens books” are crappy in their own wonderful way. Women tend to invest some not particularly well drawn characters with psychological complexities they don’t actually have on the page, and they often tend not to like the characters to be analyzed in too rigourous a way. I remember blogger Alias Clio remarking that a lot of women find Jane Austen just too cold and analytical. Though Austen is pretty girly in a lot of ways, at bottom she does have a pretty unforgiving eye for what is going on in the marriage market. Male authors of classic realistic novels, like Tolstoy or Flaubert, often have a feminine streak, but they retain a male side that strives for very objective analysis. 
    5. Women will often violate good artistic form to express their feeling. Ever notice how the lyrics to a lot of girly rock artists, even very good girly rock artists, like, say, the Cranberries or Gwen Stefani can be pretty prosy, and have to be sung in a kind of recitive style. They gush. 
    6. Non sci fi novelists of ideas, such as Dostoevesky, aren’t really popular with women either (unless their father happens to be an engineer). 
    7. The Tale of Genji drives even arty me around the bend. Despite some interesting moments, it’s basically 1500 pages of gossip. A book like Pride and Prejudice frequently threatens to decend into mere gossip about its characters, but Genji is ridiculous. Japanese art in general seems to me overly feminine. 
    You’d probably enjoy the following more realistic fiction works: 
    Hadji Murad – a great historical war story about the Chechen warrior 
    War and Peace – Tolstoy has some interesting thoughts on history, Napoleon etc. 
    The Red and the Black – About an irreligious would be Napoleon who winds up training to be a priest. Some boring parts, so I’d feel free to skip around a bit, but there is some very interesting sociological analysis of what goes on in theological schools. 
    The Charterhouse of Parma – A rousing adventure story with some cynical observations about religion and love thrown in. 
    (I’d go with Scott Montcrieff’s translations) 
    You’d probably also like some of the more sociological novels by Frenchies like Balzac and Zola.

  13. Some works of literary criticism you might find worthwhile: 
    Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism 
    C.S. Lewis: An Experiment in Criticism. 
    Probably best of all though is C.S. Lewis’ essay on the great fantasy writer George MacDonald:

  14. Some earlier thoughts: 
    I should warn you that my (rather uncharitable) view in these posts is that reading for the plot is for the plebs. I don’t think I’d hold to that anymore. Some pretty smart guys read for the plot etc. They just have different interests.

  15. It may that “Our Kind of People” are not arbiters of taste, but re-reading White Teeth last week, I had forgotten that the British-Bangladeshi Magid (Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim) Iqbal’s obsession was genetics. Combined with your cameo appearance(s) in Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane”, it appears that you are either an amalgalm of a bunch of really common Bangladeshi traits, or that despite your disinterest in literature, authors really like writing about Your Kind of People.

  16. It should also be noted that women have a taste for their own kind of fantasy novel. The gothic novel had a huge female audience and the major author in the genre was Ann Radcliffe. Today a lot of women love vampire novels and the top author in the genre is Ann Rice. Genre fictions like The Celestine Prophecy and The Da Vinci Code have huge female audiences and are as badly written as any sci fi pulp.

  17. I saw an hot young woman looking up a book at a computer terminal at the local Chapters [i.e. the big chain of bookstores in Canada] and was going to chat her up and ask for her number. However, as I approached I saw that the book she was looking up was The Celestine Prophecy. I just couldn’t do it. Apparently, there are some depths I will not sink to. ;)

  18. On the other hand I had a great time with one girlfriend who introduced me to Buffy.

  19. Sorry to interject here Thursday, but unless your opportunity cost is zilch, I would strongly advise against reading War and Peace. If a reader must, just skip to the war scenes.  
    Gothic Edgar Allan Poe was one of the foundlings of mystery, sci fi etc, although the latter is debateable, and his stuff had serious psychological depth, but related in a manner of almost stilted objectivity. The writing was great, but so intricate as to perhaps be unsustainable beyond the short story medium, which might explain why Jing finds short story sci-fi writing best – it’s a lot easier to write well for a couple of pages than a hundred. I’ve experienced this first when I tried to batter out some tales myself – I’d begin all complex and psychological, explaining what all the characters thought and felt etc, like the literati brainwashed me to do, but as the story progressed it would increasingly focus on externals, more and more, in a downward spiral where eventually the characters had become mere ciphers for the onward march of plot twists and turns. The closest I’d get to ‘feeling’ after that was a poetic description of a landscape, or the clash of bullet and bone. Razib has finally enlightened me – my male brain was simply reasserting itself!

  20. Huh? All this does not compute. I’m female and read a lot of SF (fen [fans] call it sf rather than sci-fi, which sounds horribly wrong). I also love Jane Austen and the Genji Monogatari. I must have read the Genji Monogatari five times.  
    A lot of genre prose is plot-driven rather than character-driven. That’s just as true of bodice-rippers as it is of sf. It’s HARD to write believable characters. Most authors just manage to put cardboard cutouts in motion.  
    I find a great deal of so-called modern “literary” fiction boring, but that may just be Sturgeon’s Law in action (90% of everything is crap).  
    Go hang out at Making Light for a while, Razib, and many of your gender stereotypes about sf readers will crumble. Making Light is a blog hosted by Patrick and Theresa Neilsen-Hayden, of Tor Books.

  21. Huh? All this does not compute. I’m female and read a lot of SF (fen [fans] call it sf rather than sci-fi, which sounds horribly wrong). I also love Jane Austen and the Genji Monogatari. I must have read the Genji Monogatari five times.  
    were you an english major? seriously. not to be flip, but my parents are muslim and i’m an atheist. even a 60:40 ratio would probably make a difference. 
    (and fantasy has more female readers from what i can tell than hard sf, for example)

  22. Razib–yours is an accurate take, in my opinion, on the current literary scene and what drives it, with one exception–the academization of writing is also responsible for much of the modern wasteland.  
    I rarely read any fiction written after 1950–the contemporary literary field has been usurped by people trained in writing workshops. The only current stuff I enjoy is genre fiction–mysteries, SF, and military fiction.  
    I’m nowhere near Asperger’s, and my favorite “serious” author is Jane Austen. Style and writing skill matter a lot to me, so I find much genre fiction simply unreadable–even when there’s a good plot or interesting ideas. 
    For a really tasty take on what’s wrong with modern fiction–especially its fixation on language at the expense of both plot and character, see the classic essay A Reader’s Manifesto.

  23. Fred, a lot of the problems you cite go back earlier than academic writing programs. Modernists like Joyce and Woolf decided that playing games with the reader was what novel writing was really about rather than straightforward storytelling. Joyce and Woolf were brilliant enough to mostly get away with it, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea in the first place.

  24. Thursday–I agree that Joyce, Woolf, and later, Nabakov and others presaged the current situation. But, as you note, they were great writers (though I sometimes have doubts about Woolf). Geniuses can pull these things off without the arid, disconnected quality that seems to characterize most current literary works. 
    Nonetheless, to me the distinguishing feature of the current literary ecosystem is the utter dominance of writers loved by academic critics and unread by the intelligent reading public. That wasn’t true in the past, even the fairly recent past of the mid-twentieth century, when the best writers were also widely read and enjoyed by serious readers. 
    Having said this, there’s obviously still some very good, even critically-acclaimed, stuff being written today. But you have to work hard to find it, and there’s so much good older stuff and great current nonfiction that I seldom have the energy or interest to look deeply at contemporary authors.  
    I’m waiting for Michael Blowhard to chime in. :)

  25. No, Razib, I wasn’t an English major. Two anthropology degrees and one computer degree. I refused to take further English classes after a clash, my sophomore year, with an English professor who was shocked, SHOCKED, that I would not admire Wordsworth.  
    I don’t enjoy much contemporary “literary” fiction. To me, lit fic reeks of the attempt to impress. I prefer authors who try to amuse. 
    I do, however, have one lit fic favorite: Vikram Seth.

  26. For the Big Five personality trait Openness to Experience, men and women differ on the sub-factors. Here is a basic description of what the factors measure: 
    From Costa, McCrae, & Terraciano’s 2001 meta-analysis of sex diffs in personality, females across all cultures score higher than males on Aesthetics, Feelings, and Actions (i.e., “openness to new experiences on a practical level” — so, more like visiting a new shoe boutique or making a new friend than hearing about new worlds in a myth or fantasy story), while males score higher on Ideas. 
    Turning these four sub-factors into a factor that measures sex diffs in Openness, they find that the African and East Asian countries show less pronounced diffs, while the Western ones show larger diffs (effect sizes ranging from 0.12 to 0.43 across the world). 
    So, females are more likely to be interested in exploring feelings, males in exploring ideas.

  27. I should add that Openness has a sub-factor specifically called Fantasy, which measures how receptive you are to imagining things. In the US, males score 0.16 SD higher, in the rest of the world, there is no significant difference. The sub-factor Fantasy is therefore not included in the composite that measures sex diffs. 
    So males and females are just as pleased (or displeased) to use their imagination; they just direct their imagination in different directions.

  28. No, Razib, I wasn’t an English major. Two anthropology degrees and one computer degree. I refused to take further English classes after a clash, my sophomore year, with an English professor who was shocked, SHOCKED, that I would not admire Wordsworth.  
    zora, let me be clear. you stated, “I’m female and read a lot of SF.” that’s totally irrelevant. if i say “most women are heterosexuals,” and a lesbian objects that they’re a woman but they’re a lesbian, that doesn’t negate the generalization. i could be wrong about my generalization that sf fans lean toward the sausage, but your own preferences aren’t relevant except as an example or illustration of part of the distribution.

  29. It’s not clear to me why you’re focusing on modern fiction (by which I presume you mean fiction of the 20th century). Even ignoring Genji and other outliers, an emphasis on characterization, psychological complexity, and other “feminine” aspects in fiction date back to the very beginning of the modern English novel in the 18th century; see for example Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa. The former of these is the ancestor of every Harlequin romance ever written. The latter is hailed as a literary classic, and having read a good bit of it I agree, but at times it’s also like reading hundreds of email messages written by teenage girls and their sleazy twenty-something boyfriends (or, to be precise, would-be boyfriends). 
    In fact, the 18th century featured prototypes of nearly every modern genre of novel, a lot of them classics of their type and still quite readable today: You’ve got chick-lit (Pamela), adventure stories (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe), bawdy comedies (Fielding’s Tom Jones), horror and mystery novels (Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho), cynical satires (Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses), coming of age novels (Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther), and even post-modern metafiction (Sterne’s Tristram Shandy). (And a bit of science fiction as well, although that mostly had to wait until 1818 and Shelley’s Frankenstein.) 
    So the divisions among genres and their respective audiences (including the male/female split) are not recent but date back a long way; I doubt the young women who devoured Clarissa could be counted among the fans of Robinson Crusoe, and vice versa.

  30. “It’s not clear to me why you’re focusing on modern fiction (by which I presume you mean fiction of the 20th century).” Ah, I think I do yo a disservice. While some of the other commenters seem to be simply decrying the state of affairs post-1900 (or post-December 1910, if we follow Virginia Woolf), upon re-reading your original post you really seem to be contrasting fiction in the post-Gutenberg era of mass literacy with literature of the classical period and before. 
    Given that, I’d agreed that the differing character of “contemporary” fiction (where we consider “contemporary” to encompass anything from the 18th century on) is due primarily to the presence of a critical mass of female readers with both the education and leisure time to appreciate fiction. Such a critical mass did not exist earlier, except in isolated cases like Heian Japan (which is why that era saw the creation of Genji and other works of feminine appeal, e.g., the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon).

  31. upon re-reading your original post you really seem to be contrasting fiction in the post-Gutenberg era of mass literacy with literature of the classical period and before. 

  32. I agree that sex has something to do with the rejection of story in modern literature, but I also think academization plays a significant role – the notion of serious authors having turned their back on the populace striving to please a select set fellow libro-mandarins.  
    They disdain writing for mass appeal. Instead they seem to strive for status within their select group, resulting in the navel-gazing, non-linear “Art” that despises story.

  33. If the feminization goes back to the early modern period in England, maybe it’s part of the larger feminization of industrial cultures. Greg Clark shows that the middle or merchant classes outreproduced the other classes, and this genetic and cultural change resulted in a much less bloodthirsty and cruel culture. 
    So maybe there’s a supply-side argument as well. People, both male and female, became wimpier personality-wise after industrialization. We sure know that contemporary Europeans are *physically* more wimpy / less robust than their counterparts 2000 years ago when the great epics were written. This depletes the author pool of some of its more old school masculine writers. 
    It speaks to the demand-side argument as well: even the guys are more into psychological complexity than they were before industrialization. 
    but at times it’s also like reading hundreds of email messages written by teenage girls and their sleazy twenty-something boyfriends (or, to be precise, would-be boyfriends). 
    Haha, don’t hate. And teenage girls send text messages, not emails!

  34. i don’t really mind poetic language as such. e.g., the iliad even in translation, right? or do you class that as just bombastic? 
    Where you and I don’t mind poetic language when we’re reading for the plot, my girlfriend doesn’t mind the plot when she’s reading for poetic language. That’s the difference I was trying to express. 
    The use of rhyming verse isn’t quite what I mean by poetic language (the Iliad was originally meant to be sung – imagine an unusually long Bob Dylan song); it’s a hard thing to describe, but it has to do with the rhythm of words and with the way words sound when they’re put together, and with the relationship they have to the content of the words.

  35. If the feminization goes back to the early modern period in England, maybe it’s part of the larger feminization of industrial cultures. 
    I think this is a reasonable supposition. An interesting book on this trend in England is G.J. Barker-Benfield’s “The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain”. It appproaches the question from the cultural side of things, but is pretty wide-ranging in its discussion, going well beyond literature to address scientific and economic trends. 
    Greg Clark shows that the middle or merchant classes outreproduced the other classes, and this genetic and cultural change resulted in a much less bloodthirsty and cruel culture. 
    It’s interesting to note in this regard that genetic flow between classes is *the* key theme of Richardson’s “Pamela”, whose eponymous heroine is a servant girl who manages to win the heart and (more important) the hand of the local squire. “Pamela” originated in Richardson’s commercial project to write a book of sample letters for use by the newly literate in various life situations. So in a sense “Pamela” can be viewed as an advice manual for lower-class women who want to get some of those higher-class genes, not through rape/seduction followed by abandonment, but through legitimate social arrangements that maximize reproductive fitness.  
    This was apparently a major preoccupation in 18th century England, because “Pamela” was a cultural sensation on the order of “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter”.

  36. Your hypothesis may hold with works that are easy to classify, razib, but what about authors such as Lois McMaster Bujold, who write books with both adventure-filled plots and psychological exploration? (One usually causes the other, and vice versa.) 
    Even authors that you consider ‘feminine’ often explore ideas through their writing. Look at the best of Ursula K. LeGuin – the story is told through thoughts and feelings, but the story is often about abstract concepts and philosophical premises.

  37. If the proposition is that fiction has shifted from being about epic events and exotic personages to the close-up examination of the more familiar, one factor might be the changing economics of storytelling, on all sides (production, distribution, consumption). When all those things are expensive, you’re going to prefer a reliably big and instant payoff.

  38. I can’t recommend enough the Aubrey-Maturin series of books written by Patrick O’Brian. There is adventure and plot enough there for those looking for it, but a closing reading also reveals a subtle wit (often ribald) and a deep understanding of the average persons personal failings, often succumbing to the base emotions at their own expense. Some of it is quite touching, most of it is rip-roaring. 
    Listening to the series (particularly the books narrated by Patrick Tull) really adds to the sense of being there, though be warned. I’ve found it has affected my speech patterns slightly.

  39. When you shift from “contemporary fiction” to “modern literary fiction”, I think you’re making a sort of category error. Literary fiction is a very small subset of all fiction, especially when weighted for readership. 
    Thrillers, mysteries, romances, sci fi, heroic fantasy, superheroes – add up all of the plot-driven books and we’ve covered a vast majority of all readers, male or female.

  40. Great posting, great comments. Here’s a comment I dropped on Tyler Cowen’s posting linking to you: 
    A couple of additional things y’all may get a kick out of chewing on: 
    When you’re talking about contempo fiction, most of you seem to be thinking about contempo “literary fiction.” Literary fiction generally sucks. It’s wimpy, depressive, and fussy. It’s also an artificial construct. Literary fiction as we currently know it is an invention of the ’60s and ’70s, something in arts terms akin to the Great Society programs of the era. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Hara … There were higher and lower forms of fiction being written in those days, but it was all part of a continuum. They wrote for popular magazines, after all; they had bestsellers. More about this here
    One of the reasons contempo fiction seems weak to many people is that … well, to be frank, book publishing is one of the most feminized industry around. Back in, say, 1970, the editorial side of book publishing was probably 80% male, and many of them were hetero. These days, the editorial side of book publishing is probably 75% female, and many of the guys are gay. Good for them, of course, and they bring many virtues. Unfortunately, the ol’ rampaging-male-stallion energy is not one of them. Book publishing is a bit like Vassar or Smith these days. Guys sense this, and they avoid the field — red-blooded yet arty types tend to go into music, or TV, or movies instead. Same holds for creative types. The more outgoing, dynamic creative guys are writing TV these days, or creating webseries, not trying to put their thing across in book publishing. 
    Despite all this, there’s some awfully good new and newish fiction out there, even for the tastes of people who prefer action to contemplation. The reason you may not know this is that you’re being ill-served by the reviewers and the press. They’re anxious, striving, Ivy wimps, generally, eager to impress each other with their fussy taste. A couple of suggestions: try more crime and western fiction — Westlake, Richard S. Wheeler, Leonard, Gorman, Hillerman, Crais and many more in America … Ruth Rendell, Peter Dickinson in England … And have any of you read Steven Pressman’s “Gates of Fire,” about the Spartans’ defence at Thermopylae? That’s a really amazing, stirring novel. This is high-quality fiction. But a lot of it is flying under the radar.

  41. As a former book editor for Houghton Mifflin, I can support your basic theory. 
    One of the reasons book publishing loves a new book by authors like Tom Clancy is that releases of those books actually bring men into bookstores.

  42. This brings to mind a college seminar class I took 3 years ago. It was a small class of about 12, with a roughly 50/50 sex ratio.  
    After reading Virgil’s Aeneid, the class discussions consisted primarily of the girls (and a few effeminate, sensitive-type guys) complaining that Aeneas is a flat, one-dimensional character, and saying that they couldn’t comprehend how the Aeneid is considered a classic of Western literature. 
    Of course all of this easily segued into claims that the Aeneid’s inclusion in the Western canon was yet another manifestation of white male dominance and oppression.  
    How else could you explain such a work to be considered serious and genuine “literature” (i.e. extensive psychological and character development with little or no action or plot) 
    The guys on the other hand focused on the crazy shiznit that Aeneas encountered during his travels. They didn’t need to know why Aeneas deep down on a psychological level was sailing westward to Italy, or how he “felt” about founding the Romans. 
    The guys didn’t seem to need any justification for why Aeneas was doing what he was doing….I mean which guy doesn’t want to be a badas* like Aeneas and becoming the founding father of a powerful and glorious empire??

  43. Couple of things I’d point out: 
    Your theory would have to account for pretty much the entire history of printed fiction–women have pretty much always been heavier readers of fiction than men. Some of the earliest sub-genres to develop were pretty obviously aimed at women (though men no doubt did partake in numbers that would surprise us–as with soap operas–the core audience was probably female). 
    Also: I think character and plot may be a bit more interpenetrated categories than your initial formulation of the hypothesis would acknowledge. You might end up reformulating the basic idea here using slightly different categories. 
    And, I immediately think of some counterexamples: the characters in female genre literature have the same tendency toward thin-ness as those in male-oriented genre literature. If something distinguishes the typical churned out romance from the typical churned out space opera, it isn’t depth of character development. 
    Or Hemingway, who seems like a guy’s kind of writer, and yet not much happens in some of his best-loved pieces (like Big Two-Hearted River, for instance). 
    Lastly, I see Jonah Lehrer has somewhat misteken you point a bit over at scienceblogs, taking your “modern” (as opposed to ancient or traditional) phenomenon to be a “modernist” (as opposed to classic 19th-century realism) phenomenon.

  44. After reading Virgil’s Aeneid, the class discussions consisted primarily of the girls (and a few effeminate, sensitive-type guys) complaining that Aeneas is a flat, one-dimensional character, and saying that they couldn’t comprehend how the Aeneid is considered a classic of Western literature. 
    One counterproposal I could offer is that it may be that, in oral literary traditions, the teller was looked on to fill in the blanks as far characterization goes. The “text” was an established series of incidents that could be memorized, the characterization was left more to the improvisation. (BUT: How much of the Aeneas story WAS actually oral before Virgil put it down on paper, we don’t really know, I don’t think)

  45. Oh, two quick things: I love “Tale of Genji” myself, but Thursday’s characterization of it as a lot of gossip is pretty accurate. Beautiful gossip, dreamily presented maybe — for me, reading it was like spending days in the Japanese Wing at the local museum. But gossip nonetheless. If you’re a plot, ideas, and action guy, skip it.  
    Other thing: Tom Disch is an interesting guy you might enjoy getting to know: critic, novelist, playwright. Very smart, very literary, very pop, very mischievous … Wrote sci-fi novels during an era when counterculture people were doing innovative sci-fi. I read a couple myself, but since I basically don’t respond to sci-fi I couldn’t tell if they were good. Some love ‘em, though. He writes hyper-perverse literary stuff, which I love. And he wrote a great, great critical book about sci-fi. Lots of history, context-setting, insight … He’s someone who has all the brain and credentials who argues that sci-fi is a great and legit form.  
    A little GNXP-style data-point from my own life … My wife and I co-write fiction. And it’s hilarious the way our strengths and contributions break down along GNXP lines. I do action, energy, and story-engineering. Male-stuff, in other wrods. She does hooks and characters. I’m weak at what she’s good at, and vice-versa. And we didn’t set out to do things this way — it just evolved as we continued working. It’s like being attuned to different frequencies. Funny thing is that once she’s got the characters up and alive, I often find that I can pitch in with the character stuff. Once I’ve got the story moving along, she often comes up with great story ideas. But I need her help to tune into the “character” frequency, and she needs mine to find the “story” frequency.

  46. It’s actually kind of a standard literary historical move to talk about female audiences shaping the development of the novel. 
    However, there’s also a history of highbrow authors taking great pains to distance themselves from the “feminization” of the novel. If anything, I’d say adventure/sci-fi/fantasy carries more prestige than sentimental/chick-lit novels. And the quite prestigious postmodern lit is a typically “masculine” genre (obviously, there are some pomo female writers and critics), and focuses neither on character depth/exploration nor on action/science/other worlds.  
    I’d argue that there are benefits to reading more psychologically complex novels, just as there are benefits to appreciating more action-based narratives. Personally, I had to do the latter to learn to enjoy going to movies with my husband–I really had no idea what I was supposed to be paying attention to, but once I “got it,” a whole new world of entertainment/ideas opened up for me. I suspect that the right teacher could do the same for the average boy–give them the “hook” that leads to at least some enjoyment of psychological realism and related literary styles. While at the same time showing respect for the kinds of narratives that boys on average find more immediately gripping.

  47. I think Laura’s points are good ones.  
    I’d add one thing: the books that are thrown at boys in most schools (and by the press generally) these days couldn’t be better-designed to put boys off reading. They get Toni Morrison in school and from the critics. But they don’t get — and the critics don’t make much of — Joseph Wambaugh, who is (IMHO of course) not only a much greater writer, but also action-oriented, profane, funny — and deep, too, if in a totally guy way.

  48. I read a couple myself, but since I basically don’t respond to sci-fi I couldn’t tell if they were good. To me, that’s like saying “Oh, I ate the meal… but I can’t tell you if it was tasty, or satisfying.” 
    What more than your own reaction do you need?

  49. Caledonian — My reaction when I read sci-fi is “This isn’t for me.” Doesn’t go much further than that. But I’m not about to conclude that sci-fi is bad, just because it doesn’t work for me. That’d be either dumb or fantastically egocentric. So basically I shut up about it.

  50. Again: what are the requirements for you to identify something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

  51. One factor I think you’re ignoring is the drastically changed medium of story-telling from ancient times to the post-modern era. Ancient story-telling was oral, rather than written, and the ancient tales of even Homer and other epics were originally oral traditions that were finally written down by someone.  
    The style of story-telling of these epics was suited to an oral tradition of gathering around the fire at night and reciting these old tales, over and over again, because there just wasn’t much else to do. So the stories had to be exciting, suspenseful, action-packed, and adventurous, just to keep people awake and interested.  
    The introspective style of the modern novel is a creature of writing, of a voice inside one’s head rather than outside of it. That is where the psychological element comes in. This would never go over sitting around a fire at night with one’s clan, but it does go over sitting at home alone reading in private.  
    There’s certainly something to the notion that there’s a “feminization” of literature going on here, but it’s more a reflection of the general feminization and introversion of society itself, in which people separate themselves from the culture at large, and rather than living as part of a small clan, they live alone, with only their own family, and like to have a private world to themselves, which modern literature provides.  
    It’s certainly true that in the last few hundred years women have actually learned to read and are now dominating the market in fiction. But this doesn’t explain why even the traditional literature written by and for men, even before the present domination of educated women, was already leaning heavily towards the stylistic, the poetic, the introverted, etc. Look at Shakespeare. Yes, plenty of action, but a marked preference for the beautifully crafted phrase, the introspective monologue, and endless romantic dialog.  
    And I’ll save the Red Queen argument for later. You probably already know of it.

  52. Caledonian — Sorry, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. 
    Conradg — Women have been the primary consumers of fiction for the last few centuries, at least in the west. What’s new in the last couple of decades is that women are now predominant in the editorial side of the book-publishing business. That’s never been seen before, and along with some other developments (conglomerization, the influence of the chain stores, the advent of big-box stores, and Amazon), it’s been one the major factors in the way book publishing (and the products the business produces) has evolved recently.

  53. Michael, 
    I was aware that women currently are the prime consumers of fiction, but thought that was a relatively recent development. Maybe you are talking about genre fiction, romance, etc., whereas I thought we were talking about literary fiction. What are the stats on the consumption of literary fiction then and now? I was aware that in the 18th and 19th centuries women read a lot of the trashy stuff out there, as is the case now as well. But I had thought that serious, literary fiction was mostly a male-dominated category – certainly in the production and reputation end of the business, but also in the reading of literature. Perhaps not. I had thought that women were often not permitted to read such things. Do you know more about these matters?

  54. ConradG — The “serious, literary fiction” thing has its own interesting history. If we’re mainly talking about novels … Then novels themselves were quite disreputable at the outset — the reality TV and tabloid-TV of their day. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that some novelists started putting on airs — started self-consciously composing novels that had “art” qualities: unity, design, fussiness, etc. Modernism (early 20th century) kicked that up a few notches, partly in response to movies, which seemed to have taken over the popular storytelling side of things. Then, in the ’60s, our current genre of “literary fiction” was invented — and I mean that literally. It was quite a conscious creation, rather like LBJ’s welfare programs. Its claim is that it’s the inheritor of the “serious fiction” tradition, haha. Meanwhile and all along many many writers wrote novels more in the spirit of novels as they originally were — lotsa story, loose and free-wheeling, irreverent, often somewhat messy … “Popular fiction,” basically. This is only my opinion but I certainly think that the popular-fiction thing is quite the equal of the “literary fiction” thing — actually I think it outshines literary fiction by several zillion lightyears, but I try not to make too much of that.  
    As for the gals … As far as I know, women have always read novels in greater numbers than men have. I’m pretty sure they’ve written them in greater numbers than men have too, but I’m less certain of that. I think your idea of connecting “serious literary fiction” with men is pretty shrewd — I think there’s often something of a macho attitude informing debates about “greatness” and “seriousness.” Men often show off a lot of ego, while women often gnaw away at feelings.

  55. Michael, 
    Thanks. What I’m tryng to do is make a comparison between the ancient epics Razib is talking about and the general tradition of “serious literature” that continues to this day. The problem with the popularity of novels among women prior to 19th century is that, as you say, it wasn’t considered “serious literature” back then. It became “serious literature” when the men began using the novel as the medium of serious literary art.  
    I know this is the subject of deep resentment among feminists, but that seems to be the general truth about literature through the ages until quite recently. Men dominated “serious” literature, whatever the medium in vogue might have been, and unserious literary “entertainment” was thought of as feminine, not always unfairly. In ancient Greece, only men could write for the theater, and women were relegated to private poetry, etc. I’d guess that the current trend towards the “feminization” of serious literature is simply a reflection of the general advancement of women in all areas of society.

  56. The problem with the popularity of novels among women prior to 19th century is that, as you say, it wasn’t considered “serious literature” back then. It became “serious literature” when the men began using the novel as the medium of serious literary art. 
    The situations is rather complicated. 
    Novels had the reputation of being women’s reading right from the outset. 
    But men and women began using the novel as a medium for “serious literary art” fairly early on, as well. For example, Jane Austin. Or later, you’ve got George Sand & George Elliot. A lot of this writing I don’t care very much for myself, but I don’t think we can maintain other than that it was intended and consumed as art. (We might question this because so much of the concern of these novelists is manners and morals, but that was considered to be the primary concern of non-abstract art in those days.) 
    Going farther forward, we might point to Henry James, writing in the same tradition, whose artistry is unquestionable, and whose audience, I’d wager, consisted largely of women. 
    I just don’t think there is a point that we can point to and say, “this is where men made the novel into art.” This is both because women were crucial to the evolution of novel from mere entertainment to art and also because the transition was so gradual.

  57. Then, in the ’60s, our current genre of “literary fiction” was invented — and I mean that literally. It was quite a conscious creation, rather like LBJ’s welfare programs. Its claim is that it’s the inheritor of the “serious fiction” tradition, haha. Meanwhile and all along many many writers wrote novels more in the spirit of novels as they originally were — lotsa story, loose and free-wheeling, irreverent, often somewhat messy … “Popular fiction,” basically. This is only my opinion but I certainly think that the popular-fiction thing is quite the equal of the “literary fiction” thing — actually I think it outshines literary fiction by several zillion lightyears, but I try not to make too much of that. 
    Michael, I think, applies this “BAD 1960s” metanarrative a bit too freely. 
    “Literary Fiction” as we know it today has little to do with LBJ or the war on Poverty (except, perhaps, for some streams of the “ethnic experience” subgenre). 
    For on thing “literary fiction” isn’t all bad by a long stretch. There’s plenty out there that’s NOT genre fiction that is plenty good–I think of Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy right off the top of my head. It’s “literary fiction” but also quite good. 
    The the thing that more than anything has determined the shape of literary fiction imo has been the MFA. This has been for good and ill. Formal writing programs make for a lot more competently done fiction, but it also makes for a lot of stuff written to impress academics and other writers. (like music for musicians, this sort of thing rarely holds interest for the general consumer) 
    Another thing that’s driven literary fiction has been the “death of the novel.” in the 1960s it looked as if the novel was played out. The lack of an obvious direction or movement in the literary world in the 1960s and 1970s caused a bit of an identity crisis for some writers, and helped lead to the “cult of craft” (more accurately the cult of the overwrought and insensible) we see out there (complained about quite well by BR Myers here). 
    But my main point wold be that the “literary novel” isn’t really a definable term anymore. There are genre novels out there that are insufferably pretentious and academic. And there are modern domestic novels where barely anything happens that are wonderful. 
    I suppose you can look at prize nominees–like the Booker lists–but these are by no means all bad. And I really think the critieria they use to distinguish the serious from the not serious have eroded considerably.

  58. ConradG — I’m happy to mock and taunt feminists myself, but where writing, literature and such goes I think they have some points. What’s “serious” has generally been defined by men, and in their own terms. So, no surprise that the work for fairly few women measures up. Besides, why does serious-as-defined-by-men automatically mean “worthy of consideration”? Many rowdy early novels are still in print; many “minor” novels of no “serious” intent at all continue to live and be loved … The “greatness” game is something some people find rewarding to play, but (FWIW) it strikes me as fairly funny. Why not read for pleasure and out of curiosity instead? 
    Oran — Contemporary “literary fiction” as we now know it was very literally an invention of the ’60s and ’70s. Read more here. And yes, of course, you’re right: colleges and writing schools had a lot to do with this. But not everything. The NEA and various fouindations played big roles; so did the post-war art appreciation racket; so did the eagerness of Boomers to think of themselves as artists. 
    There was a general feeling at the time that “if we could win WWII and put a man on the moon we can do anything” — including deciding ahead of time what pieces of written fiction qualify as “literary.” I was there at the time, btw, and I remember being completely amazed that some people would say, “Oh, I write literary fiction.” I’d ask, Well, don’t you think it might behoove you to let history decide whether you’ve made it into the ‘literary’ category or not?” But no: over the course of about a decade, “literary fiction” became a kind of genre unto itself. 
    It might help to think of it as a species of top-down aesthetic social engineering, akin to urban renewal. We thought we knew how to make cities better; we slapped these gigantic plans down on ‘em; and the result was that cities crumbled and people fled ‘em. As the lit-fict crowd has more and more taken on the role of arbiters of what qualifies as “serious” and what doesn’t, regular people have lost all interest in their products.

  59. I’m realizing that I’ve been pretty confusing in what I’m getting at, and I don’t seem to be helping by using the phrase “serious literature”. I think that the co-opting of this term by the academic folk since the 70′s has turned the phrase into something esoteric, whereas if we are to look to comparisons of the ancient epics, we are not looking for esoteric art at all, but popular literature that has a meaning to the culture at large. Not long ago – I’m thinking Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Dickens and Tolstoy – “serious” literature meant something that had a serious impact on the culture at large. It didn’t means something that only the intelligentsia cared about. This is what the epics were. 
    I guess I’m thinking this way because I recently saw the semi-animated movie version of Beowulf, which was surprisingly good. Anyway, it seems that movies are probably the medium for the modern equivalent of “serious literature” that actually has an impact on the culture. I think that’s where the macho men have gone – the Godfathers, the Citizen Kanes, the macho directors, the male dominated star system, the teenage male audience (probably the same audience that used to sit around the fire listening to the recitations of the Iliad and Odyessey). So I’m thinking the medium may change but the audience remains the same. Not that there isn’t a serious female audience for movies, but it’s not quite the same as the male-driven popular desire for stories that “mean” something. It’s just not what “serious literature” understands itself to be about anymore.

  60. Yeah, I think that’s a really smart series of thoughts and reflections. My own hunch is that movies have become a little passe, that they’ve had their moment (the 20th century, roughly), and that videogames and such are the popular media of the moment. But I could be jumping the gun on that.

  61. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that some novelists started putting on airs — started self-consciously composing novels that had “art” qualities: unity, design, fussiness, etc. 
    Bullshit. No less a “serious” personage than Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a novel and a very good one too. Novelists like Richardson, Fielding, and Burney were considered serious writers right from the beginning. Haven’t you read Boswell’s life of Johnson. I have a hard time believing Jane Austen didn’t take her meticulously planned and written books as high art. Tom Jones is planned to classical perfection. Critics like Hazlitt and Coleridge took the novelists like Richardson, Smollett, Sterne and Fielding seriously right from the start. Stop trying to rewrite literary history as if no-one had any clue what was high art and what wasn’t.

  62. Thursday — You’re making a basic mistake. You’re projecting current-day critical rankings back onto past eras. You’re assuming that what we now consider great was self-evidently Great at the time. No. 
    Look, what a work’s reputation is today often has zip to do with how it was taken (and what it represented) when it was produced. What we now consider great was often taken for granted at the time, or looked-down-on. Defoe’s novels are just one example. At the time they were published they weren’t taken to be novels in our current sense. They were made-up fantasies that pretended to be works of reportage — in other words, they were aesthetically and morally dubious productions akin to today’s scandal sheets and reality TV, or maybe even to those books that turn up every few years about alien encounters in Australia. It took more than a century before many people started wondering if maybe “Robinson Crusoe” wasn’t a pretty good novel. Works often become “literature” in hindsight, not at the time of their production. 
    No matter how great we recognize “Tom Jones” to be today — and I’m a big fan myself — the early British novel was a scrappy and aesthetically scorned form, far more akin in its time to what journalism and TV are these days than to today’s “literary fiction.” The early English novel was a middle-class market phenomenon, not a serious or intellectual or literary one. We’ve learned to seee structure, complexity, grandeur, and depth in these books only in retrospect. 
    From Wikipedia’s “literature” entry: “Early novels in Europe did not, at the time, count as significant literature, perhaps because ‘mere’ prose writing seemed easy and unimportant.” 
    From an online resource about Jane Austen: “In Jane Austen’s era, novels were often depreciated as trash … In Jane Austen’s day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today.” 
    No matter what your opinion of Austen’s books these days, and no matter how seriously Austen took herself, in other words, novels at the time were taken to be a lowclass medium. 
    More from that same page: “Though she always had her admirers, Jane Austen was not the most popular or most highly-praised novelist of her era (none of her novels were reprinted in English between 1818 and 1831), and she was not generally considered a great novelist until the late nineteenth century.” 
    None of this is a big secret, btw. Here’s a passage from the NYTimes critic A.O. Scott: 
    “Since its beginnings in the 18th century, the Western novel was a bastard form, the chaotic hybrid of art and commerce as likely to offend norms of high literature as to uphold them. The ‘high-art literary tradition’ was, in Augustan England, the preserve of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton and the great figures of antiquity, in contrast to whom the popular novelists of the day — a redundancy, since no other kind existed — were hawkers of morally dubious entertainment.” 
    A few other facts to take into account: 
    * “Art history” in our modern “critical” sense didn’t begin until the mid 1700s, with Winckelmann.  
    * Public museums and concert halls didn’t arise in numbers until the 19th century.  
    * The term “high culture” didn’t come into use until the mid-late 1800s — around the same time that some Anglo-Brit authors, like Henry James and George Eliot, started making more serious and elevated aesthetic-moral claims for their work than had generally been made for novels before.  
    * The terms “aesthetics” in the modern sense was invented in the 18th century. 
    In other words, the whole sifting-and- sorting-and-canon-making thing that you seem to take for granted didn’t in fact begin as a semi-organized, respectable cultural activity until the mid-1700s, and didn’t hit its stride until well into the 1800s. People just weren’t thinking that way until fairly recently. 
    This doesn’t mean that people didn’t read or revere works from the past. But it does mean that the particular story that profs and critics tell us today about the history of something called “literature” and “serious writing” is one that we’ve made up fairly recently.  
    Look, we have plenty of examples of this kind of process going on right around us. Think of the Italian “giallo” thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance. At the time they were made, they were considered crap, or at best stylish crap. Serious critics sneered at ‘em, and the audiences for ‘em weren’t art-house sophisticates. The real film art was Antonioni, Bellochio, etc. Yet today the giallo movies are thriving on DVD, and are probably more influential than “La Notte” is. It could well be that in 20 years Antonioni will be a footnote, and Dario Argento will be recognized as a giant.

  63. Michael, 
    Indisputable fact #1: Rousseau, Johnson, Hazlitt were prominent public intellectuals and recognized as such. 
    Indisputable fact #2: They took novels, or at least certain novels, very seriously. 
    You can’t dismiss that. That _most_ novels were taken to be trash is neither here nor there. Its analagous to films now. Its widely acknowledged that most movies are just trashy entertainment. That doesn’t mean that Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg aren’t recognized as great artists in their own lifetimes. There isn’t any contradiction here. Both can be true at the same time. 
    BTW have you actually read Johnson, Hazlitt etc? How come the only novelists discussed by Johnson in Boswell’s life are Richardson, Fielding, Burney and Sterne? Geez, those are exactly the same novelists from that era with the highest reputations now. Ever wonder why? Have you actually read Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Comic Writers? The novels he picks to discuss there are all the exact same ones from his era we think of as important now. Geez, coincidence again. Why _do_ these great critics _only_ choose to discuss the same novelists, contemporary with them, that anyone still cares about today? How come they have such an uncanny ability to only discuss winners? Why not just take the next step and acknowledge that Johnson and Hazlitt, great critics that they were, could recognize that these were the only novelists worth discussing? 
    Remember, just because _you_, Michael Blowhard, cannot recognize what will and will not last does not mean that people of the intelligence and sensitivity of Hazlitt and Johnson cannot. Great artists and critics can pick each other out, because geniuses see the patterns before everybody else. Just because you and most other people cannot is irrelevant.

  64. Thursday, 
    You make some good points about the existence of “artistic” novels in the early years of the form, and the fact that some critics agreed even then about their worth, but I’m not sure whether they had the overall impact on the culture at large that the ancient epics did on their culture. What kind of impact did these works really have in their own time? Whether or not they were regarded as “high” are doesn’t much matter in this respect – did they have a serious impact on the general culture of society. In some respects, it many not matter much when this impact occurred, whether it was at the time they came out, or much later. What matters is whether they had culture-shaping influence, rather than merely an influence among the small cloisters of intellectuals and academic who care for and even love these things.

  65. good conversation so far guys. just chill a bit, won’t you, with the vulgarity? (don’t mind vulgarity, but don’t want this to degeneration into personal attacks)

  66. Sorry about any grouchiness. Me and Michael have had this conversation before. Apologies for dragging everyone else in.

  67. How come they have such an uncanny ability to only discuss winners? Why not just take the next step and acknowledge that Johnson and Hazlitt, great critics that they were, could recognize that these were the only novelists worth discussing? That’s a reasonable interpretation, but have you considered that they might have endured because they were given so much critical attention? Once you’re past a certain threshold in popularity, people begin talking about you simply because you’re famous and they want to be able to participate when you’re brought up in conservation. 
    You may agree that the works they focused on are excellent, so by your standards the critics would have a low false positive rate. But what is their false negative rate? What excellent works didn’t they appreciate?

  68. iz all good dawg.

  69. But what is their false negative rate? What excellent works didn’t they appreciate? 
    I think you could say that Johnson had a fairly high false negative rate. Hazlitt though covered the waterfront. He seems to have read and commented on everybody. There isn’t much he missed. The only significant contemporary authors in English he doesn’t talk about are William Blake, whom Hazlitt doesn’t seem to have had heard of (Blake, like Emily Dickenson, seems to have almost revelled in his obscurity), and Jane Austen, who only started publishing in Hazlitt’s very last years when he was starting to get sick. 
    Steve has some interesting thoughts on canon formation:

  70. Hazlitt actually does mention Blake somewhere – maybe in an essay on Hogarth? – but only seems to have known him as an engraver.

  71. Michael: 
    I think you tend to seriously oversimplify the reception of early novels. Certainly there was a considerable portion of the audience who thought either a) that novels were untrue and therefore immoral or b) novels were just trash. 
    But that’s not all there was, and, as Thursday points out, many of the same folks we look to today as great literary critic of that era took some novels seriously, and took the novel as a format through which serious matters could be talked about and serious implications played out. 
    On the other end of your timeline, I will acknowledge that the term “literary fiction” and perhaps even the marketing category “literary fiction” dates from the 1960s. I don’t think, though, that the thing putatively identified by that term dates from the 1960s. 
    Like everything else, fiction was significantly affected by things that happened in the 1960s. But I think if we took a look at publishers in the 1940s, we’d find that they had the whole “literary fiction” thing down pretty pat–the types of authors to pitch, the sort of topics they should write about, the types and forms of experimentation they should engage in, the type of reader they were aiming at, the newspapers and magazines that they read, etc. etc.–just they didn’t say “literary fiction.” They said, maybe, “serious fiction” or something like that. 
    Conrad: what do you think the social impact of Hemingway was, as opposed to the social impact of Jane Austen? 
    Caledonian: It’s actually pretty remarkable how literary stock can decline over time. There are plenty of authors who were famous and well-regarded in their day who are forgotten to all but period specialists now. Sometimes folks like Hazlitt anticipated the judgment of history and neglected these authors; sometimes they did write on them and we just don’t bother reading review essays on books no one reads anymore.  
    Famous for being famous tends to lose its power over time, which is pretty understandable since that sort of fame has more to do with touchstones of sociality (being familiar with potential conversation topics–the next thing to talk about after the weather) than the object of fame itself. 
    There are certainly authors and texts who have lived more on reputation rather than new/renewed positive reader experience (Joyce might be an example) but without SOME of that new positive experience, authors and works tend to disappear from sight.

  72. Oran: 
    “what do you think the social impact of Hemingway was, as opposed to the social impact of Jane Austen?” 
    That was kind of my question. I’m probably not the best person to evaluate Austen. I don’t really know what her social impact was. In her time, I’m guessing pretty small. Over time, decent, but not terribly earth-shaking. I could be quite wrong, however. 
    As for Hemingway, my feeling is that he had a rather huge impact on our culture. There’s the personality, the literary celebrity issue, the almost God-like status that he attained in his lifetime, and then there’s the literature itself, which helped promote a macho-existentialist-stoicism which has proved immensely influential. Even more important than that is how his literary style was the embodiment of these values, and how that style has almost completely taken over not just the literary world, but the everyday world itself. Prior to Hemingway, people not only wrote in a rather elaborate, confusing and opaque style, they actually talked that way, and even tended to think that way. Hemingway created a new way of thinking and talking – or at least made it popular and acceptable. That’s a huge accomplishment, and a remarkable influence on the culture at large. People simply don’t write the way they used to before Hemingway, and they don’t even talk the way they used to, and they don’t even think the way they used to. It’s so pervasive now as to seem utterly natural, but for some reason before Hemingway popularized this, it didn’t seem that way. So my guess is that Hemingway had a lot more of a social impact on the culture than Austen.

  73. Thursday — You’re living in a fantasy world, one where responsible serious people — whose seriousness and eminence are recognizable at the very instant they’re working, by, presumably, other trustworthy and serious people (hahahahaha) — make trustworthy judgments that endure for centuries.  
    I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that isn’t the way the actual cultural world works. Reputations come and go. Periods (and individuals, and schools) interpret the past to suit themselves. Ensuing periods then reinterpret the past to suit them. Talented work and artists get overlooked and forgotten. Everyone has a career they’re looking out for.  
    Work that no respectable person championed (giallo films, or Gold Medal Books, for instance) turns out to have more of a lifespan than the work that all the serious, responsible people thought would be enduring.  
    It looks like some people’s judgments were freakily prescient (aka “wise”) only because we’re looking back at them.  
    Out of this free-for-all, something called “an artistic tradition” has emerged. But no one has control of it. It’s an emergent phenomenon in the evo-bio sense — no one’s in charge, and we’re all part of the bewildering churning process. Perhaps we have a few microseconds now and then when we seem to have a bit of perspective on it all — but then we’re submerged in the tumult once again. 
    There are probably some general rules to be deduced from the meta-ebby-flowiness — but what are they? And do they function as any kind of guide to the future? Because there’s always the possibility, after all, that the things we think of as trustworthy general rules have embedded in them a kind of telomere-like sell-by date. We may think we understand the game, we may feel certain that we’ve gotten to the very heart of it — and then the game itself may evolve. Can you trustworthily predict in what way it’s likely to evolve? Can anyone? 
    Besides, since “art history” and “literary history” as we know them didn’t really get started until the 18th century, they may well come to an end. They had a birth, after all — why shouldn’t they also die? It isn’t entirely unlikely that in 350 years, art history and literary history will expire. No one will care about the art of the past. The reason this isn’t a totally unlikely scenario is that that’s pretty much how people lived for most of human history. Our little stretch may prove to be a little blip of an exception to some far more major and fundamental General Rule. 
    Incidentally, yes of course I’ve read Johnson, Hazlitt, etc. The 18th century was my academic specialty. Once I left school, though, and got a look at the way the real cultural world works, I had to go back, dig in, take a fresh look at it, and finally revise nearly everything my teachers taught me. Have you read “New Grub Street,” or the first half of “Lost Illusions”? If you want accurate representations of how the writing-and-publishing worlds work, you could do worse. 
    A small correction to one of your points: Early novels weren’t like movies today. Today nobody disputes that movies are (or at least can be) an art form. There are cinema-studies departments in most colleges; professional academics and critics; festivals and grant-making institutions …  
    The world of early novels wasn’t like that. No writing schools, no PhDs, no well-trod career tracks, no established business procedures … Copyright wasn’t even well-established at the time. Have you read much about the history of copyright? It’s one of those things (like the history of publishing) that English majors really ought to be exposed to.  
    The world of early novels was like the world of early movies. And almost no one, at the dawn of movies, saw what was coming.  
    Please, please point out the wise, objective person who looked at early movies and predicted that they would be one of the premier art forms of the 20th century, let alone that (for example) Buster Keaton would be widely recognized as a towering genius. To my knowledge, the observer who came closest to this was Vachel Lindsay. (Whose writing I like a lot, btw.) But at the time Vachel Lindsay was just one person among millions of people watching movies and gabbing about them. Would you have known — at the time — that he was right? Would you even have known of his existence? Vachel Lindsay is known these days as a prescient person (and he has a place on the essential cinema studies reading list) because we can look back and see that he proved to be prescient. But no one at the time knew that he was on his way into the cinema-history Permanent Collection. How could they have? No one at the time had a clue that such a thing as Cinema Studies — let alone a Permanent Collection — would ever exist. 
    Anyway, early novels were roughly like early movies: commercial, looked-down-on, scrappy, and nothing that 99.9% of people thought of as “art.”  
    Oran — Of course I’m simplifying, and of course you can poke around and find exceptions. But there’s some virtue in blocking in the big picture and getting it straight, no?  
    The “literary fiction” thing … Well, it’s one of those questions that confuses a lot of people simply because of the word, or the name, or whatever you want to call it.  
    It’s like “art” in that way. Is “art” simply something some people do? Or is it a quality judgment? Is a given painting “art” simply because it got made? Or does it not qualify as “art” until a bunch of trustworthy eminences whose jugements will hold for all eternity (hahahahahaha) have proclaimed it art? 
    People wind up having fistfights because they don’t pause to straighten out what they mean by “art.” So it’s worth straightening out definitions and meanings. 
    Contempo “literary fiction” is simply a category of fiction. It’s the category of fiction that considers itself to be serious; that claims that it is the true literature of today; and that would be offended it you referred to it as a genre. But practically speaking, there you have it — it’s just one genre of fiction among many. You might pick up a romance, or a space opera, or a manga, or a crime novel, or a lit-fict title. 
    “Literature” on the other hand is, I guess, “writing that has lasted,” or something like that.  
    The key thing to grasp: Despite the similarity in the names, there is no necessary connection between today’s “literary fiction” and “literature.” After all, the writing of today that will still be alive in 200 years — if any of it does — may or may not come from the shelves of titles that are published as today’s “literary fiction.” Do you feel certain that the contempo lit-fict writer David Foster Wallace will be revered in the year 2208, while the crime writer Joseph Wambaugh won’t?  
    Anyway, the separating-off of contempo lit-fict from the rest of contempo fiction is something that has occurred partly because of writing schools, the ’60s, etc. It’s also partly because of the computerizing of inventories. Books are now all entered into computers, and each title has to be entered into the database. So in many ways the database rules. These aren’t really organic categories, like poetic forms. They’re categories that sorta seem to suit what people are looking for, and that suit the way the database works. It’s all chopped-up.  
    There used to be a continuum from grotty fiction through middlebrow to lofty. In a bookstore in 1940, new fiction was generally shelved all together (with some underground stuff — violent, porno — kept under the counter). These days that isn’t the case. Fiction is split up (database-wise as well as physically) into numerous different categories. You’re either one thing (sci-fi, say) or you’re another (lit-fict, for instance).