BookSnob over at According to a BookSnob writes
I often find that the first book that I read by an author is my favorite. Which leads me to wonder if I am really so good at choosing books that I always choose their best work first, or if, upon really liking a novel, I create expectations for the author's next work that can't possibly be achieved.
It immediately reminded me how different the literary criticism used to be in Europe (at least in Central-Europe where I am from) from its American counterpart.
There are unbelievable amounts of books published each day. Considering their literary value, 99% of it is just plain garbage. The book-publishing industry follows the same pattern as the American way of life in general: I want the most and I want it easily, quickly and very cheap. Indeed. "There is no free meal!" - they say, but I should add, yes, there is, you can have a free meal, all you need to do is to decrease the quality
(in literature as well as anywhere else) until it is beneath the frog's ass (as the Hungarian saying goes).
In Europe we used to talk about authors'
career, in the US they talk about books
' career. Very often the writer's name is secondary
now, people do not make any effort to remember them, book lists (and movie lists or/and any kind of art lists) are almost always set up according to titles
not their authors. (Or think of the end of a movie: credits are shown in a speed or in so small letters that no one can read them; it is not important to anyone
, who cares about a fantastic photographer or one of the best editors in the world?? Give me the meat
! Let me tell you something then: in the Hungarian movies not just they used to show each credit
for a very respectful - i.e. readable
- time, but - horribile dictu!
- put all the credits in the beginning
, recognizing this way each and every person who contributed to a work of art...)
Horrible, horrible, horrible.
In the past a writer (of any nation) used to write and publish, let's say, 25 books in his life; that was their oeuvre. And the whole oeuvre
was read and re-read to be able to decide
whether they were good authors
(all those whose work was mostly
good) or bad writers
(all those whose work was mostly
shit). Nowadays (mainly on this side of the Atlantic, let's face it) if a writer (or any artist as a matter of fact) gets the spotlight once
in their lifetime (meaning: not just manages to publish a book but this book gets some kind of a feedback
from either its readers or/and the literary critics), they should consider themselves extremely lucky. In this case there might be some possessed person (even among the critics!) who happens to read the author's second
book as well, but mostly, they are strictly judged by their very first child
. And if the second installment of the oeuvre is not similar
to the first (successful) one the author might as well can bury himself deeply as he is forgotten for ever. (The tragic thing is that similarity is expected not just in its - good - quality
- that would be totally correct and acceptable - but also, in topic, writing technique, style, etc, etc.) The situation is the same if the first book is not the best - and our writer sill engages himself in a future writing career. Although even the worst first book of an outstanding author is usually much better than a new and newer and newest so-called "sensational" one-day-wonder, it does not mean that great writers' careers show a permanent level of quality. (Péter Esterházy
, who is one of the best authors in the world nowadays, could never have achieved anything in this way: even if we don't consider the fact that it takes a lot of creative mental effort to read his postmodern texts, his first two collections of novellas and short stories - although quite interesting and very hopeful - were quite behind his third volume, literary critically speaking, and this certain third book practically changed the Hungarian literary scene for ever
. But then came a long (21 years!) series
of shorter books of different kind (with varying level - mostly pretty high though) until we got to another giant achievement, the fantastic Celestial Harmonies
, etc, etc - there, you've got it: the ups and not-so-much-downs of a genius' output. But I could have mentioned lots of others, even the Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész
as well as American giants, like the movie maker Woody Allen - who is more popular and respected in Europe than in the US, which is not a coincidence of course.
In spite of the first impressions, this post is not necessarily
an outburst against the American mass culture and its consumers (much less of course BookSnob's very thought provoking writing). Can't be anyhow - the same signs of superficiality and decreasing quality can be noticed in Europe (sadly, my home country, Hungary is definitely not an exception either) as well as all over the world. (True enough, and to be fair, it can mostly be thanked to the American hegemonial ambitions.)
Instead, this post is about the sad fact that nowadays - starting from the US - nobody gives a shit (pardon my French) as for the long-term, real
individual achievements (or lack of it) in the Arts. Individuality
is the official national slogan here (and gradually all over the world where the American type capitalism shows up) but in reality
just the opposite happens: no one cares
individual efforts. If the reasons for this ignorance were purely aesthetic
(meaning: ignoring the aesthetically bad pieces), I could accept the situation more or less.1
But alas, for a long while it has been totally different: "for my money I want the goodies that I can consume very fast, very easily, without any cognitive effort, and I want a lot of it, regardless its origin or source".
So the reply to BookSnob's question ("would we be better readers if authors were anonymous?")
can be nothing else but a horrified, protesting, and (yes, let's be European snobs) nostalgic European scream.
You might ask what this "aesthetic" mean and mainly, who am I to tell anyone what is good and what is bad. Well, now. While I might not be sure of giving you a good, practical definition of this branch of philosophy (much more knowledgeable philosophers haven't been able to do this very easily either), I can tell you, whole heartingly agree with the abovementioned Esterházy, that there is no "bad" literature:
a piece is either good and then it is
Literature, or bad, and then it is not
Literature (let's call it garbage instead). In other words, aesthetics have pretty good guidelines
that can be studied, looked up
, etc (warning: takes cognitive effort to do so), and it should never, ever be mistaken for someone's personal taste
. I have not been able to sit through a Tarkovsky-movie since I immersed myself in the world of Art (about, oh, 30 years ago, give or take a few), but it has never
occured to me, under no circumstances, to declare Tarkovsky a bad director. Because he is a genius - and my movie preferences do not change this fact.
(Of course it would be well worth writing a separate post about what
has been involved into the Canon and when and how
. But it is a totally different story.)