I’m coming at this lil’ piece of writing after having spent an inordinate amount of my morning reading book reviews on Amazon.com, surely the worst way to kick off a day. Why would I—a reasonably sane adult—spend my morning this way? I lack a sufficient answer. I can detail the process that brought me from a quick glimpse at the behemoth’s user reviews to a deep immersion: I wanted to get some specific details on Caitriona Lally’s novel Eggshells.
After obtaining that info, I spied a one star review and clicked to read the insightful criticism of Lili W., a reviewer who seemed especially angry at the book. Lili’s review in full:
This book goes nowhere. Maybd author should take a riding course, How did this even get published?
While obviously not the stuff of R.P. Blackmur, Lili may have a point. Perhaps Eggshells would have benefited from its author having some experience riding, be it sidesaddle or bareback. Maybd.
Here are a few excerpts from other reviews:
I skipped to the end to find that nothing really had happened.
There is no story and the pages are littered with lists of words. Truly a waste of time.
I tried to persevere with this book and actually read half of it but could not go on wasting my precious time on something so disjointed, nonsensicle and depressing which appeared to have no real story to it.
Congratulations to the last reviewer for having read half a book!
A theme emerges: time is precious and time spent on a book without a significant event is time wasted.
While I understand this perspective, I don’t share these reviewers’ sentiments. I loved Eggshells. Lally’s narrator, Vivian, possesses a very singular vision of the world and her quest, while seemingly mundane, is soon revealed to be as important as any of the great sagas. The book is quite funny, though ultimately very sad. But it's not my intention to criticize, analyze, or even defend Lally’s novel. (Read it yourself and make up your own mind.) Rather, I want to address the manner in which books (and art in general) are discussed, or dismissed, and what that may signify, suggest, imply, state, mean, connote, denote, demonstrate, and here I am listing words like an asshole.
The above review snippet that bemoans Eggshells for containing “pages. . . littered with lists of words” is a good place to start. Having read the book, I catch the reader’s complaint—there are spaces in Eggshells where Vivian writes down words she finds interesting. This can grate a bit on the reader who may be inclined to vent their annoyance on public spaces such as Amazon (itself a spot for people to place words in annoying order). I’m sure venting made the above reviewer feel better. After all, how dare Lally subject innocent readers with scant precious time to her unorthodox approach? Doesn’t she understand that readers should only be exposed to easily digestible prose? Effort? Effort? Who has time? Netflix beckons, after all.
All joking aside, what happens when readers get to the point where they can only accept traditional linear stories, when anything slightly different than they’re (okay, we’re) used to merits dismissal or condemnation, not curiosity. What is lost when we reach this point?
Might I postulate—based solely on speculations and anecdotal observation and with no empirical evidence—that the costs are great. Major leaps in the ways we tell and absorb stories are tied to major leaps in culture. Trends, attitudes, technology, and current events mark our eras and our literature. Is it possible that culture and art are always intertwined? Could Modernist works like The Waste Land or To the Lighthouse have been possible before World War I? Was the isolation and horror of mechanized warfare what fed these writers’ works, not to mention drove them to simultaneously break and engage with form and tradition? While I’m willing to answer that, indeed, social and political realities informed the art of that era, I could suggest a chicken-egg thing. Maybe the era was as informed by the art? If that’s the case, then my question above about the ramifications of rejecting weird or seemingly “pointless” books could be dire. We’re setting ourselves up for a culture that only knows what to do with shopworn techniques and conventional narratives. This then influences our thinking, even at a subconscious level. We reject the abstract. And when we do that, we find it perfectly valid to deny that which should be (at the very least) acknowledged—like, you know, climate change.
Let’s talk about that for a bit.
Assume I’m right. Assume we’ve been reared on traditional black/white narratives with rising action and ideas lacking ambiguity or nuance. Confronted by a more elliptical, obscure, or just plain different narrative, the average reader will react with either indifference or—as in the case of the above Amazon reviewers—hostility. Why? Because something seems off. Too abstract. In a world where the concrete is privileged, where do difficult ideas that require a level of faith, trust, or acceptance fit? Climate change exists along those lines. The average person without a degree in climatology has to take it largely on faith that climate change is real and deadly serious. So how is it that so many have for so long denied the existence of climate change, not to mention its threat? Sure, the numbers of deniers are shrinking, but their mere existence is troubling. While I can’t cleanly argue that the fault lies with the rejection of abstract art in favor of cookie-cutter narratives, I don’t know that this rejection is not partially to blame. Recycled tropes and low-bar aiming stories don’t ask much of the reader. Neither do the drones on cable news stations who sell easy answers to complex questions.
My point is not to place so much importance on literature alone, but to argue that literature—and all art—has a vital role in contributing to the culture, and that the contribution is greater when the literature is allowed to be strange, different, and challenging.
Of course, literature is allowed to be weird. There are groundbreaking books and poems and plays in every era, though I might be forgiven for suggesting that the audience and impact of what is often reductively called “experimental” literature is currently small.
I’m tempted to get all grumpy-old-man-like and blame the advance of streaming services and ubiquity of screens. Screens are meant for television and film, art forms that—god bless them—are more passive than active. Yes, navigating the plot of Breaking Bad or The Wire requires attention, but the story is still happening at the viewer. The reader of a story with as many characters and narrative arcs as The Wire needs to be considerably more active than the viewer of the acclaimed series (which may be the best TV show ever made).
With the dominance of screen-based stories, we have embraced complex narratives in easier to absorb packages. Reading a book as labyrinthine and polyphonic as those penned by Dostoevsky may require balancing a lot of ideas, stories, and characters, just like watching The Wire, but the reader is also tasked with imagining the scene, picturing the faces of the characters—in short, co-creating the story. The reader is an active participant. This is reason enough to advocate for spending as much time reading as watching things on a screen, but I want to take this point further and suggest that the decline in literacy—not to mention reading difficult or weird books—has a doubling effect on culture. We see reading as burdensome rather than essential. And we champion screen-based stories over print. In doing so, we make the erroneous claim that the best television out there—and there is some amazing TV being made—is on par with the best literature being published. Balderdash. And dangerous balderdash at that. The feeling that we have properly flexed cognitive and intellectual muscles with a diet of only TV, however great it is, allows us to believe we no longer need print. And when we do condescend to read a book, it better have a conventional plot with likable characters. After all, my time is precious.
To be sure, not every “experimental” or what I’m calling weird book is worth reading. Ultimately, this is dependent on one’s taste. I’ve tried and failed to read and comprehend a lot of books. Some are considered to be great by the literati, though I failed to engage with them. The significance of the works of Thomas Pynchon, for example, continues to elude me. It took me many years to realize that James Joyce’s books are as amazing as I’d always heard. My response to these books was dismissive, but the older I get the more I’m humbled. If the 20 year old Vince wasn’t ready for Ulysses, why should that stop the 40 year old? That it took 20 years for me to appreciate Ulysses and Finnegans Wake suggests that sometimes we have to be in the right place to be ready for a challenging work of art, and that it’s silly to dismiss what we don’t understand. To be curious about, and humbled by, intellectual or cultural challenges is a sign of maturity. The angry, useless pan on Amazon is callow.
Eggshells is not a challenging book. Though it might qualify as weird, nothing in it is difficult or cumbersome. While this half-thought-out-think-piece is quickly becoming a long defense of Lally’s novel, I risk that in order to further make a point: in an era where a slightly off, not very challenging novel raises the ire of the average reader, what chance does a truly original, unconventional book have?
Clearly there have always been people who’ve reacted negatively to the so-called avant-garde. Waiting for Godot—a more or less canonized work—was initially met with condemnation. Ditto the first screening of Jodorowsky’s Fando y Lis. People are still pissed at John Cage for writing a piece of music with no notes. I’ve exhausted myself defending John Zorn’s saxophone blasts, Yamantaka Eye’s screaming, and Merzbow’s black noise recordings. I showed a class a sonnet by Donald Justice that ends on the thirteenth line instead of a fourteenth and got the response, “This is not a sonnet!” Any deviation from the norm is likely to raise a bit of ire. I get that, and while I’m tempted to endorse the quote by Craig Raine (that fat hairy bastard), “the stupid are always with us,” I don’t want to dismiss anyone whose aesthetic sensibilities differ from mine. That would be as foolish as a knee-jerk rejection against art that asks for deeper contemplation.
Here may be the best way of thinking about all this: some works of art ask for more than surface readings or immediate assessment. This requirement doesn’t make these works superior. To be sure, there’s a lot to be said for a perfect three-minute pop song, a linear narrative, and a lovely oil painting that flawlessly reproduces the human form. Those works require skill and discipline. That they seem easy is evidence of their creators’ mastery of craft. But there are also works of art that try for something else, something more conceptual and displacing. And while I could argue for the level of artistry and skill that goes into a seemingly chaotic work, I’m less interested in that than in a work’s overall effect.
Let’s look at two examples from the world of music.
Exhibit 1: “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.
Exhibit 2: “Osaka Bondage” by Naked City
If you know both of these songs, you’re ready for me to make my case. If you need a little time to find these tunes on Spotify, go right ahead.
Okay, ready? Good.
Ex. 1 is, in my estimation, a perfect pop song. Sure, it’ll likely sound dated to young listeners, but examining the hook, the chorus, the production, the layers... it’s all cohering into something grand. Nothing seems terribly ambitious to contemporary ears, and I’m guessing nothing about it seemed strange when it was released in 1963. A good, engaging song. Well done, Smokey.
Ex. 2 seems chaotic inasmuch as there are abrupt changes in style—we go from punishing screams and guitar/drum driven thrash to electric piano jazz with barely a second between movements. But it is organized—Naked City was a band predicated on deliberate composition. Still, the unusual nature of the song alienates as many listeners—if not more—as it engages.
It's not my intention to argue that Ex. 2 is as good as Ex. 1, though to me they are both equally great. I compare them only to demonstrate that both are carefully composed songs driven by the composers' need to share something, to evoke, and to please. I truly believe that Zorn did not write “Osaka Bondage” to piss off listeners; he wanted to give them something pleasurable. Smokey Robinson also wanted to express something in his composition, a song about the frustration of being in a difficult relationship. The mood of the music perfectly accompanies the lyrics. It’s a work with intentionality behind it. Ditto Zorn’s composition. They’re doing different things with different sounds but are both pieces of music with specific goals. Both of them are great. Only one of them was a hit song you’ve likely heard before.
What might the listener gain from exposure to Ex. 2? Or, in anticipation of the average listener’s reaction: why the hell should I listen to this mayhem? What’s the point of a thrash/jazz collage with “vocals” by a screaming Japanese man? Is this not just some avant-garde bullshit masquerading as art? At least Ex. 1 has a clear story about the ambivalence of difficult romance.
I can only answer these questions about Ex. 2 the way I might respond to those who dismiss Jackson Pollack’s work as rubbish any 5-year old could paint. The point of Naked City, or Jackson Pollack or James Joyce, is to push the limits a bit, to find new ways of conveying old ideas. And sometimes to express new ideas through old mediums. And sometimes to do both at once. Naked City rethinks genre. Jackson Pollack breaks through the limitations of painting. James Joyce throws everything possible into Finnegans Wake and remakes language. All of these artists are reaching as high as they can. We should applaud this ambition, even if it sometimes falls short of its mark or strains our need to “get” what's going on. To borrow a quote from Big Trouble in Little China, I was not put on this earth to “get” things. If I do, wonderful. If I don’t, well, is the thing I don’t get interesting? Am I intrigued? Am I excited? Am I confused? Maybe, but is my confusion just curiosity stimulated? Am I willing to give these difficult works a little consideration? Have the artists done something worthy of deeper thought and reflection? What does my response say about me as a consumer of art and ideas? Do I only want easy experiences? Am I not willing to do some work?
I want to give a work of art its due attention. I hate outright dismissal. Of course, I’m willing to abandon a book or stop a film before its conclusion, but I always want to have a reason for doing so beyond, I don’t get it. Grappling with unconventional work is necessary for our intellectual development. The weight of a barbell does us a favor when taxing our muscles. It's strengthening us. Difficult works of art do the same. Here’s hoping we’re up to the challenge.