Thursday, May 03, 2007

In which several pertinent issues are touched upon

Winning a Pulitzer is not a sure-shot guarantee of your literary worth. So would seem from Frank Wilson's damning column against Cormac McCarthy. Frank, never given to apocalyptic visions himself, lashes out at McCarthy for The Road's "pornography of despair". (*This phrase seems to be catching on with litbloggers, not just because it is catchy but because it has been coined by the Father of litblogging himself, and when the history of the blogosphere will be written, historians will comment on how the spread of this catchphrase like wild fire through the diffuse tangles of the Web led to greater appreciation of litblogging and also, greater admiration for it.)

More to the point, it suits the current fashion for the apocalyptic. Hardly a day goes by that some headline doesn't warn us about impending environmental disaster. Remember The Day After Tomorrow? Forget terrorists. Don'tcha know the real threat is people living in the suburbs driving around in SUVs? It was bad old humans just like you and me - not fanatics with bombs strapped to their bodies - who brought about the ruin described in The Road. You can't mistake the message of the book's last paragraph: It wouldn't have happened if those people had been ecologically righteous.

Of course, as D.H. Lawrence pointed out in the last book he wrote, Apocalypse, those who warn of apocalypse secretly crave it, the way puritans tend to be turned on by the very vices they so loudly denounce.

The Road is just the latest installment in the pornography of despair.

I am not sure I agree with Frank's argument. Certainly, common people are not a spot on terrorists when it comes to threatening civilization, but to make a comparison itself is facile. The point here is not terrorism at all, a wholly different phenomenon, but ecological stability. The choices that we make today will have a bearing on how future generations survive on the planet. Climate change is a reality in today's world and columnists from the FT's Martin Wolf to Time's Alex Perry have been drawing attention to the ways in which it is changing our present and future. Perry has gone on to say that conflicts like Darfur and Rwanda could be the result of "a contest between too many people on too little land".

It's nobody's case to justify apocalyptic predictions, but look at it as a literary technique that a writer employs to drive his point home. When we speak of Animal Farm, we don't actually think a Stalinist republic of the animals is possible, but the technique works nevertheless. Is it because we are able to anthropomorphize the context? Similarly, a movie such as The Day After Tomorrow or a book like The Road, while being exaggerative, may have helped in rousing a few indifferent souls to the tangible reality of climate change.


Art Durkee said...

Yeah, but such arguments always feel like those same arguments people use to justify "gateway poetry," on the grounds that exposure to mediocre writing will entice people to read better writing. (On the evidence, exposure to medicore writing does no such thing.) You know, "too bad the artwork sucks, but it might bring home the message." It's the excuse that polemicists use to absolve themselves for not writing better. It's the reason pedantic and didactic writers use to justify their work, on the grounds that the message is so much more important than the medium of delivery. (Which is an argument that one imagines by now that McLuhan had definitely disproved.) I've never been wholly convinced by such arguments, primarily because they forget that the quality of the delivery of the message goes a great deal towards enhancing, even carrying, the message. (As McLuhan argued, and I agree.)

I think Frank's point, or anyway it's my point insofar as I agree with it, is that you can bring home the message and still write great literature. Lack of quality in both areas is the problem, and lack of quality in either message or delivery doesn't absolve the work from criticism. There have been plenty of other apocalyptic novels that are so much better written, as writing, but are also fresher takes on the concept of the End of the World (by whatever means), too.

Books such as "Riddley Walker," "The Canticle of Leibowitz," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" all come to mind.

Vikram Johri said...

Hi Art,

Thanks for your response. I see reason in Frank's argument that Animal Farm appeals because it warns of something preventable. I am currently reading Jim Crace's Pesthouse which is developing as a less bleak work in comparison to The Road. But I'd not go so far as to say that McCarthy's work fails to deliver in the writing department. It could be a matter of taste, but I found Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let me go far less captivating. I am not saying that writing which is understated fails to engage me, but there is something about literary flourish—call it "in you face", if you will—which seems to make sense for some books. Ishiguro's, which was lauded universally (and which had a great message to boot) read more like a documentary.