From Contemplation to Emotion: The Decline of the Novel

Let me preface this post by referring you to this outstanding essay by Mike Flynn. It covers the transitions in thought, art, culture, politics, and more that occurred between the Ancient, Medieval, Modern, and Post-Modern ages. All six parts are worth your time, but Part 5, dealing with the rise and fall of representational art--especially the novel--is the most pertinent to the following article.

As recently as the years immediately following WWII, Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper diagnosed the cultural ills afflicting the West as stemming from the absence of leisure. Pieper argued that not only do we in the West suffer from a lack of leisure time, we've lost touch with what the concept really means. The near certainty that everyone reading this paragraph has so far interpreted "leisure" as "idleness" supports Pieper's contention.

If leisure isn't the same as slacking off, what is it, and why does it matter? Both Pieper and Aquinas held Aristotle's account of leisure as definitive. Aristotle's concept of leisure agrees with the current notion in that both see leisure time as a state of freedom form external coercion and demands (specifically, those related to work).

Where the classical and contemporary views diverge is on the purpose of leisure. Contra Peter Gibbons, freedom from servile work isn't best spent doing nothing. Aristotle identified the ultimate purpose of human life as happiness, and he equated happiness with the intellectual act of contemplation.

So we work in order to buy ourselves leisure time, and the best possible use of this freedom from work isn't idleness, but contemplative intellectual activity. Pieper makes a strong argument that strenuous labor is important, but mostly to the degree that it affords people leisure time, since leisure facilitates the intellectual activities that produce culture.

Perhaps you can see how the philosophy of leisure relates to literature. Every midlist author aspires to quit the daily 9-5 grind in order to write full-time. Authors who write for a living don't actually work in the classical sense. They are people of leisure--and we should be thankful, since they are the makers of culture.

Book sales are in decline, especially in the West. That's unsurprising considering the loss of esteem for, and understanding of, leisure. Flynn points to the novel's origin as an effort to reproduce the early Modern resurgence of representational art in literature.

St. Benedict's Triumphal Ascent into Heaven, Melk Abbey
Early Modern representational paintings, with their near-photorealism, attempts to engage all five senses, and plethora of characters were meant as subjects of meditation intended to raise the intellect toward objective truth. For the same reason, most novels written before the late 19th century tended to feature lush description, voluminous exposition, and large casts of characters--all told by objective, omniscient narrators. Novels, as originally conceived, were objects to be contemplated.

The twilight of the Modern Age has seen a near-total revolt against logic, objectivity, and contemplation in favor of sentiment, subjectivity, and emotion. Novelists have been obliged to modify their craft to keep up with public tastes, and the inherent difficulties of bending the medium so far out of its original shape is compounded by the shortening of the Post-Modern attention span.

It's now vital to hook readers within a book's first page. Description must be short and sweet, and exposition light. Readers can't be bothered to remember more than a handful of named characters, and the presence of a single protagonist whose tale is told in the first or close third person voice is the boilerplate standard.

These innovations are touted as proof that storytelling has improved over earlier forms. Novels are now more capable of holding readers' attention by depicting characters they can identify with, thus forming deep emotional attachments.

It's true that contemporary readers find books written according to present storytelling doctrine more appealing than novels written in older styles. That doesn't mean the new way is better; just that audience tastes have shifted. Contemporary readers prefer emotional stimulation to intellectual stimulation, and they themselves lack the leisure time needed to fully engage with a book like War and Peace.

The constantly declining sales of books may signal that the Post-Modern rejection of representational art has exceeded the novel's ability to accommodate it. We may, as Flynn predicts, be occupying a transitional period between the death of the book and the advent of a new mode of immersive, interactive storytelling.

On a personal note, Pieper and Flynn have helped me come to a self-realization that explains my general disinterest in most fiction published since the mid-60s. Unlike most readers, who now complain of books being too baroque and populous, I chafe at current novels' concessions to Post-Modernity. Grand, sweeping epics like Dune, The Lord of the Rings (better yet, The Silmarillion), and John C. Wright's Count to Eschaton series hold my interest far better than today's taut, claustrophobic, and brazenly emotionally manipulative fare.

My greatest pleasure in reading comes from meditating over a book. I'll habitually read the same passage over and over till I'm satisfied that I've extracted all of its implications. The Church has long practiced the devotion of lectio divina, in which reading progresses through four stages: lectio, meditatio, oratio, and finally, (with divine aid), contemplatio. Any text can be approached in this way, and doing so greatly enhances the effect that is the true aim of speculative fiction: to kindle the human longing for Eden and for distant stars.

Whether future narrative forms will provide equally apt subject matter for contemplation remains to be seen.


Frank Discussion

I recently had the pleasure of watching Frank by quirky comedy director Lenny Abrahamson. The film follows an aspiring young musician named John whose yearning to escape his dreary workaday life is fulfilled when he's unexpectedly offered a keyboardist gig with avant-garde jam band Soronprfbs (no definitive pronunciation is every established).

John is quickly spellbound by the musical genius of Frank, the band's enigmatic lead singer, and launches a social media campaign to realize Soronprfbs' star potential (ignoring Frank's pathological shyness, which is so severe that he wears a fiberglass mask at all times).

Analysis: I highly recommend seeing this movie while it's still in theaters. Failing that, it will make a worthy addition to anyone's home film library. Populated with engaging, sympathetic characters, and exploring universal themes via comedy based on the aforesaid characters; not mindless slapstick or vulgarity, Frank is best described as "refreshing".

My only caveat to recommending Frank concerns a preconception underlying its central theme--the conflict between artistic integrity and marketability. Though I hold to the observation that being good at art is of little avail if you're bad at the business, Abrahamson (and writers Ronson and Straughan) seem to argue that an audience can only be found at the cost of artistic freedom.

Having only seen Frank once, its contention that artistic legitimacy and popularity are mutually exclusive could be my own misperception. However, one troubling assumption that drives the conflict is the notion that some people have talent, some don't, and that innate difference is what separates "real" artists from posers. The film demonstrates this false dichotomy by contrasting John's industrious yet futile songwriting efforts against Frank's near-effortless compositions. Dismissing John as a parasite rings somewhat false when his efforts to build an audience garner modest success, especially considering Frank's vocal desire for people to love his music (instead, John's fatal error comes when he insists that the band change their sound).

As Tom Simon brilliantly wrote, "Talent is the Snark; but the Snark is actually a Boojum, and the name of the Boojum is Luck. People do not want to believe in Boojums, so they try very hard to hunt for Snarks."


Songs of Relevance

Like five hundred million other iTunes subscribers, I was recently issued U2's latest studio album Songs of Innocence. Which is why you're reading this, since I probably wouldn't have bought the record on my own.

It bears noting that I've been an avid fan of U2 since I was seven. They've long epitomized the best tradition of Christian rock, viz. a band that pursues artistic excellence while letting their faith influence their work, instead of building makeshift songs around sentimental religious cliches.

That said, the latest album, like its two immediate predecessors, is OK ("Every Breaking Wave" qualifies as a minor classic, but it's the only one of the new songs to reach that level). Any other contemporary band would be pleased to have produced so workmanlike a record.

But U2 is not any other band. They've won more Grammys than any other rock & roll artists. Their ambitious and long-running live tours have been attended by more people than any other musical act. They've written multiple songs that have perfectly reflected, and in turn shaped, culture. They are the last in a noble line that descends directly from The Police, The Who, The Beatles.

An OK album from U2 is equivalent to a failure from any other band.

Why has the Biggest Band in the World fallen into artistic stagnation? The current album's troubled production may give us a clue. Tentatively titled Songs of Ascent, the record was originally slated for a 2010 release. Conscious efforts aimed at exceeding the disappointing sales of their previous album eventually split recording sessions between three separate productions and four different producers. The travails surrounding Bono and Edge's involvement in the Spider-Man: Turn out the Dark musical, and the sudden departure of U2's original manager Paul McGuinness likely presented severe distractions.

The band reportedly voiced concerns while recording Songs of Innocence about their ability to stay relevant. They cited the lack of enthusiasm that greeted No Line on the Horizon as a sign that U2's music was losing touch with its audience. I posit that the first warning signs came earlier--ten years ago, with the release of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

My argument requires a brief historical recap. U2 gained a reputation for constantly reinventing themselves throughout the 80s and 90s. During this period (which, not coincidentally, overlapped with the peak of their growth and creativity), the band managed the nigh-miraculous feat of conducting bold technical and stylistic experiments while retaining thematic integrity and brand recognition.

And then they faltered, unnecessarily, over the stumbling block that is 1997's Pop.

Many fans and critics misidentify Pop as a bad album when it's actually an unfinished album. Prematurely scheduling tour dates led to a rushed production, which made itself heard at release and during the first leg of the tour. U2 was pilloried, quite unjustly, for delivering a substandard product. (My response: check out live versions of the songs from Pop as performed during the latter stages of PopMart to witness the material's strength, untapped on the album, that was finally realized after the band had time to hone the songs onstage.)

Unfortunately, U2 took the unjust criticism of their third experimental album to heart. I like All That You Can't Leave Behind as much as anybody--more than some, in fact--but I don't buy the common wisdom that the album succeeded because it disowned Pop and hearkened back to the band's Joshua Tree glory days.

First All That You Can't Leave Behind doesn't owe as much to The Joshua Tree as most people say. To me, its greater lyrical maturity and production style sound more like Achtung Baby. Second, Pop's successor won over the public less by renouncing its predecessor than by happening to resonate with the popular zeitgeist in the wake of 9/11.

Which bring us back to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb--the album that does overtly copy The Joshua Tree. It proves that U2 learned the wrong lesson from their two prior albums. They misinterpreted the backlash against Pop and the artificially exaggerated enthusiasm for All That You Can't Leave Behind as cues to stop experimenting, stop taking risks, and retreat into a "Classic U2 Sound" that they perceived as safe territory.

If U2 seeks a remedy for their declining relevance, they could do worse than ending their self- imposed exile to a musical fortress built on well-tread ground. Right now, the greatest risk is to avoid taking risks.


Sandman Overture #3

I recently finished the third and most recent volume of Neil Gaiman's triumphant return to The Sandman. (For the sake of the sole reader who doesn't know what The Sandman is, it's the horror/fantasy comic book series that established Gaiman's place among the greatest storytellers currently working in any medium.)

[Spoiler Alert]

Issue 1 sets quite an intriguing plot hook with Dream discussing his own murder with several other versions of himself. Issue 2 ends on a cliffhanger when Dream--accompanied by his feline counterpart--sets out to confront the culprit and perhaps avert the end of the universe.

The story promises an escalation from "intriguing" to "bombshell-dropping" in the last panel of Issue 2, when Cat-Dream mentions the possibility that he and regular Dream will meet their father.

Issue 3 lets the suspense deepen by opening with a sequence that shows various cosmic-level players--some of Gaiman's own invention and some recognizable to those familiar with DC continuity--who've gathered in anticipation of the eschaton. (Reading of an expansionist culture that seeks to protect all life by spreading an immortal, sentient cancer served as an apt reminder of Gaiman's top-tier authorial prowess.)

The story does return to Dream (which, despite his status as the eponymous hero, has never been a guarantee), who is travelling alongside...Dream...across a planet-sized "bridge" reminiscent of the Old West. After an obligatory meeting with the triple goddess, Dream dispenses some of his patented cruel and unusual punishment to a band of cannibals and gains his second (first?) companion in the form of an orphaned girl called Hope.

Gaiman promised that Sandman Overture would tie up some of the myriad loose ends that were left dangling when the original series ended its run in 1996. So far, the new miniseries has made good on that promise in some pretty major ways--but none so major as the twofold revelation we get in Issue 3 when Hope asks the Sandman to tell her a bedtime story--his best one. The proffered tale worthily justifies Dream's title as Prince of Stories.

On the whole, Sandman Overture #3 continues the superb storytelling of the previous two issues and their legendary predecessor. Only one flaw mars this otherwise flawless gem--the omission of a payoff to the implied promise that Dream would visit his father. Fortunately, it seems likely that this oversight will be resolved in the next issue. Delaying fulfillment of the promise any longer would risk turning suspense into frustration, and Gaiman's much too clever for that.