Monday, November 28, 2011

Too simple for words?

Interesting juxtaposition in today's Guardian.

First, there's a very interesting four-page interview with Umberto Eco by Stephen Moss. The great semiotician opines that ' "you [ie the author] are not responsible for perverse readings of your book" ' which might seem like poststructuralist orthodoxy - a text is what the reader/cultural context makes of it, etc - but it's obvious that he thinks his books are misunderstood by what he calls "weak readers". He feels that books are best judged 10 years after publication after reading and re-reading [my italics], an interesting comment in the light of our current quick-fix literary culture, and the way that books drop right out of the public consciousness if they don't have an instant hit. He isn't precious about the film of The Name of the Rose; he is tickled by the fact that a girl went into a bookshop and saw it and said "Oh, they have already made a book out of it [ie the film]." He has a iPad for travelling, but he doesn't think that printed books will die, and puts it nicely: "Not just Peter Pan but my Peter Pan". Above all, he explains the huge success of the erudite The Name of the Rose, which just goes on and on selling, by the fact that "It's only publishers and journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

Then there's a piece by Laura Barnett on the fact that this year the Christmas literary market is awash with 'women's fiction' about Christmas. As Barnett points out, Dickens wrote Christmas books, but one has to doubt that these books will still be being read, like A Christmas Carol, 170 years after publication (leave alone in Eco's 10-year time frame), since the quote from Hodder and Stoughton editor Isobel Akenhead makes pretty clear that the thematic push is intended as ephemeral, and the books are being sold as ephemeral commodities: "It makes sense to publish for Christmas – that's the one time of year that doesn't seem to have been affected by the general drop-off in sales of women's fiction. In supermarkets, these books cost little more than a Paperchase Christmas card; people often seem to buy two of them, one for themselves and one for their mother, sister or friend. That doesn't happen at any other time of year." So they're bought like Christmas cards, for the rituals of Christmas (which we all know can be a chore, but hey, we've got to do it), and like Christmas cards, they are a cause of brief delight before being thrown away.

Of course, there's nothing wrong whatsoever with reading purely for entertainment. But it's interesting that Isobel Akenhead says that sales of 'women's fiction' have dropped off generally. Are we simply talking comparative numbers in a market that is nevertheless a major source of income for publishers, or can Eco be right about people wanting other kinds of literature, too?


Tim Love said...

I like Eco. I wonder though whether most people read "The Name of the Rose" as if it were a Medieval whodunnit (like Cadfael) with the bonus that it's a fat book (holiday reading) that's written by a Lit Prof (respectability).

I rather agree with his comment that "It's only publishers and journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged." But if novels are like a good many other topics, simplicity may be something that practitioners and theorists judge differently to readers. Things like the BBC's new Sherlock Holmes (or even "I'm a Celebrity ...") can be viewed as multilayered examples of postmodernism, but that's not how most people view them.

Yury Lotman wrote "Artistic simplicity is more complex than artistic complexity for it arises via the simplification of the latter and against its backdrop or system". I find various types of minimalism difficult. Is WC Williams' Red Wheelbarrow simple? Were Carl Andre's brick simple?

I'll end with 4 quotes (by poets, but I think the points apply more generally)

"One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most 'intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?", Geoffrey Hill

"The relationship between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not consciously oblique. If you respect the reality of the world, you know that you can only approach that reality by indirect means.", Richard Wilbur

"The general public ... has set up a criterion of its own, one by which every form of contemporary art is condemned. This criterion is, in the case of music, melody; in the case of painting, representation; in the case of poetry, clarity. In each case one simple aspect is made the test of a complicated whole, becomes a sort of loyalty oath for the work of art. ... instead of having to perceive, to enter, and to interpret those new worlds which new works of art are, the public can notice at a glance whether or not these pay lip-service to its own 'principles'", Randall Jarrell

"At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding ... are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart's rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment", Breton

Elizabeth Baines said...

Tim, thanks so much for these wonderful quotes! I especially love the Breton one.

You make an excellent point about interpretations of 'simplicity'.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of someone as widely - and well - read as Umberto Eco socking it to that 'death of the author' crap. I could never read any of that stuff as anything other than a provocation and it's good to see it may be one whose work has been done and from which we can now move on (it is a big leap from accepting that ambiguities are welcome, to filling these gaps in understanding with meanings that are not there...)

And I agree, Breton's points are exquisitely phrased. The first, about 'liking', echoes the relationship as expressed by Baudelaire writing to Wagner about Tannhauser: 'I set out to discover the why of it and to transform my pleasure into knowledge'.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Another interesting quote: thanks.

guest post blog said...

Interesting quote..thanks for sharing.