11 October 2010


Yet another upper-middle-class literati longs for a return of the days of Empire and "beauty" in contemporary fiction... primarily because the Empire's horizon's have been set far too narrowly. First, and perhaps most obvious, there's the category problem: Both the review and the underlying book presume that only "serious literary fiction" has ever qualified as "beautiful," let alone does so now. How these idiots can say so in the face of Don Quixote, Paradise Lost (and Regained), One Hundred Years of Solitude, and The Left Hand of Darkness — among many, many others — consistent with the intellectual inquiry standards for a PhD escapes me.

What is simultaneously more amusing and more dangerous, though, is the utter ignorance of commercial reality inherent in the inquiry. Neither Mr McGurl (the author of the book being reviewed) nor Ms Batuman (the author of the book review) seem to acknowledge that what is on bookstore shelves is not there based primarily, or even tertiarily, upon its literary merit — even in the "contemporary literary fiction" category, not even from purportedly specialist publishers and imprints. There is, instead, a complex mixture of introductions and champions (even more so than in more "commercial" categories), judgments applied by people who have not read the books, editorial gatekeepers who do not share the same literary values, bookstore stock decisions, goofy feuds among the author/reviewer/book review editor clan, and so on. Ms Batuman, in her review (and, so far as I can tell, Mr McGurl in his book) essentially argues not just that Maxwell's Daemon exists, at least in literature, but that the unknown/unstated criteria used concerning one characteristic (gas-particle energy) by the Daemon are inherently and properly extended to all characteristics (combustibility)... assuming, of course, that the Deamon is doing his job accurately in the first place, given that for literature there is not an objective, verifiable, replicable definition of "beauty" (Exhibit A: Dickens). And when, as in reality, the Deamon is the collective mind of publishers, we're having even more fun denying reality.

The problem with both the book under review and the review itself is that they undermine the credibility of applying academic rigor in the humanities to reality. If there is one concept from the basic natural sciences that desperately calls for recognition in scholarship in the humanities (or, for that matter, law... but that's for another time), it is the explicit recognition of boundary conditions (or, as in math, the analogous — but not quite identical — concept of limits and asymptotes). Even more than the sample/population problem that is so obvious and that I just finished whomping on in the two preceding paragraphs, the humanities do an extraordinarily poor job of recognizing that one doesn't reach a Grand Theory of Everything through a detailed examination of, say, Planck-scale quantization without also verifying its applicability outside that examination... and there's no sign whatsoever of even any interest in doing so.

Remember, Galileo was wrong about a lot of things, and relied upon bullying and ridicule as his methods of argument nearly as much as he did on his (magnificently flawed) observations. On second thought, comparing the formal work in the humanities to the political bullshit of the Reformation and Counterreformation seems to cut a little bit too close to the truth for comfort...