So as predicted, life is just as busy now as it was pre2lim. But I’ve been doing some fun stuff: more soccer, and hopefully ultimate this weekend; seeing the Waybacks, Super Furry Animals, and Grandaddy; making crazy corndogs to celebrate Jenny’s birthday; getting into my research project; updating bits and pieces of NewsDog and participating in some good discussions on it; using many semicolons.
One of the coolest things about Radiohead is that their B-sides are as good as their album tracks. Unfortunately I haven’t really warmed up to the new album very much yet (it’s still only “good”, not “great”) so I’m listening to old stuff in preparation for the concert. Must… stop… living… in… past.
The concert last night was at the Fillmore, so I had about an hour getting there and back in need of something with which to occupy myself. So I grabbed a book on my bookshelf that a) I hadn’t read yet and b) I could fit into my pocket during the show. That turned out to by Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, graciously gifted to me by Marianne before she left. I read most of it last night and finished it up just now. The book is exquisitely written; despite its hyperbolic excesses, it always managed to veer away from the maudlin and into the profound in a very charming way. A sample quote:
[Virginia’s niece has laid a dead thrush to rest earlier in the day.] The body of the thrush is still there (odd, how the neighborhood cats and dogs are not interested), tiny even for a bird, so utterly unalive, here in the dark, like a lost glove, this little empty handful of death. Virginia stands over it. It’s rubbish now; it has shed the beauty of the afternoon just as Virginia has shed her tea-table wonder over cups and coats; just as the day is shedding its warmth. In the morning Leonard will scoop bird and grass and roses up with a shovel, and throw them all out. She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest.
(Interestingly, no doubt intentionally, the style of writing seems to be very similar to Virginia Woolf’s.) Turns out the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999.
… That got me thinking. It seems to me that there are two basic components to fiction: the telling of the tale, and the tale itself. In The Hours, the telling is wondrous and enchanting; it’s like you’re enraptured by the virtuosity of the musician rather than the piece he’s playing. The tale, though, is predictable and, let’s face it, not nearly as moving as Cunningham might have liked.
And critics love this stuff. Critics of art in its various incarnations (literature, music, etc.) have always been obsessed with style, with virtuosity. (Argh, I was going to start babbling about this topic but I realized that I really need to get back to work. Doh.) Briefly: I think the tale is undervalued and underappreciated by critics. This is why Schoenberg is held in high esteem (neat tricks, terrible content) while Andrew Lloyd Webber is pretty universally disdained (no tricks, great songs). This is why The Hours is treasured, Faulkner is treasured, but when Stephen King is given the National Book Award, Yale scholar and all-around jackass Harold Bloom cries out to the New York Times, “[King] is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That [the committee] could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.” (No doubt Bloom is very bitter that, although he’s been nominated for the Award several times, he’s never won, I don’t think.)
Stephen King, it turns out, writes incredible stories. His writing is rarely exquisite or profound by itself, but his tales are haunting and terrifically memorable.
[In fact, his fantasy series, The Dark Tower is already one of my top four best fantasy series, even though he’s only written four of the seven books. (The other three series are Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams, The Lord of the Rings, and The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.) And he’s up against some pretty stiff competition: I’ve read hundreds of fantasy books in my day (any suggestion though, btw?).]
I wonder why critics hate a good tale. There’s as much of an art to constructing a story as there is to telling it. Hmm, my views on this subject parallel those I have for music: I think a good song must generally have good music, and lyrics are secondary; many critics feel the opposite. (Read any serious music review; lyrics are quoted and analyzed but the music itself hardly gets a mention!)