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June 06, 2011


Nice follow-up, doc.

My own relationship with fiction has gone thru what I think are some idiosyncratic turns, but I'd be interested what other people feel about their relationship.

As a kid, a lot of science fiction, but it was all second hand, so I'd find an author I liked and then tried to pick up everything else. Didn't have any real concept of fandom, or the idea that one could interact in some way with authors, so was oblivious to the whole fandom scene. A lot of comic books too, Marvel, not DC, though often read off the stand because money was tight. Had a glimpse of fandom and all that entailed, but seemed impossible to access.

Read some classics in high school and through a kind of difficult time with my mom, the books she suggested that I read became sort of a communication back channel, though I never really understood what those books meant to her until much later.

Went thru an honors college scheme where we were in small colloquium, so was given a lot of reading, but again, the reading was haphazard. It was before the codification and reaction to the notion of a canon (There was, I suppose, an underlying notion of a canon that folks had to read, but as the honors college was bringing in all the folks from around the university who had various majors, enforcing some sort of canon would have been problematic) That relationship with used book stores continued, so I'd get some author and read whatever I could find of theirs, but didn't really get to know the author in any real sense. (I'd also note that the biographical information one could get back then was much more respectful. Now, I drop into Wikipedia to find out about an author and discover that he was under a restraining order from wife after he behaved badly with someone else's wife or some such story. Of course, you knew about titillating details of authors who were dead, but those tell-all bios were not readily available at the used book stores and people didn't really seem to point me to them)

Was really attracted to the 'real' classics, so a lot of what I chased after was all the traces of those classics thru Western literature. Went overseas for the first time, to France, and read a lot of French fiction, but given the hurdle of getting over the language, it is hard for me to say whether I was reading something because I wanted to read it or if I was reading something because I knew all French people had read it, or if I was reading it because I could read it.

Ended up going to Japan, where that problem is multiplied, so, in the TNC thread, someone brings up the point that they can't read Mishima because of his romantic fascism, I thought, well, that's true, but if I didn't read Mishima, I would essentially be skipping over a chunk of Japanese history that I can't really afford to ignore, so my fiction reading is more like reading something for its historical value rather than because I want to get to the end of the story. Various colleagues are interested in various authors, so I have filled in some holes in my own canon when I read something they wrote or have talked about, but it ends up being a very goal driven reading.

Now, my reading is probably 90% non-fiction and 10% fiction, though much of that fiction will be because I'm interested in a particular period or event There was also a large whack of graphic novel reading as I was trying to determine things to order for our library in order to give students something interesting to read. I occasionally catch a bug (the last one was Iain M Banks) but it always seems like getting a food you absolutely love and eventually getting tired of it.

Another source of reading choice is from Japanese colleagues here. In Japan, an academic will often have a laser like focus on one particular author, so to figure out what they are on about, I generally have to read most of an author's work and then, to make informed suggestions about what they are arguing, I need to read some of the authors around them.

Now, my daughter is starting to read all the time, and she hit the Harry Potter sweet spot, which seems to a combination of having the final films come out, being able to immediately go from one volume to the next, having a finite goal and a story that describes teenage angst to boot. She wanted to move onto to something with magic, so I put her on Tolkien (ironically, a book I was never able to get into and only with the movies was able to return to and see what I missed) and she just started the Hobbit so I'll be reading that while she is reading it.

I get the impression that this is similar to the way that Hilzoy and Count-me-In read, and it might account for why what they said seemed sensible to me.

On a slightly different point, your invocation of math is interesting, but the maths and science teachers who most resonated with me were ones who taught the subjects as history. Rather than zero in on the most efficient proof and have us learn that, they would go thru the steps that led to it, the particular problem that they were facing, the tools they had at hand and the assumptions that they brought. This was on a level that was past Pythagoras, but for calculus, it was invaluable.

I would say that, for any piece of good fiction*, the author allows and requires the reader to bring something to the experience. As a result, everyone will have a different experience, depending on what they bring to it.

I suspect that, in most cases, it will be their own past experiences (your item 2). In some of those, it will be past experiences of reading something which the current piece reminds them of.

An interesting question: does the same apply to music, art, etc.?

* Whether this is true of non-fiction writing is a whole different discussion.

Like LJ, I started out on Science Fiction. Helped by the fact that the local librarian was a fan. (She assured my mother that it was OK if I seemed to read nothing else. I'd expand my horizons eventually. And I did.)

Went thru pretty much everything int he local library. And a lot of stuff from around the county, via inter-library loans. You know you are hooked when you read everything that Isaac Asimov has written . . . including the biochemistry textbook, while still in high school!

Some of it is still a joy to go back and read. But at least one book (Starship through Space by Lee Correy (aka G. Harry Stine) is really terrible. However, I have a copy of my own because it hit me at a critical time -- it was very much the reason I ended up as an engineering major in college.

As an aside, some years later I was at an event where Mr. Stine was speaking. He mentioned that many of us had doubtless been inspired to go into engineering by reading Robert Heinlein. Afterwards, I told him about my case and his book. He winced, and said "that thing?!?" -- no doubt much as Heinlein did in some cases. It can be really amazing what little thing can change lives.

Does this mean I can watch Polanksi films without guilt? Doc, has anybody gone all Godwin on this one yet?

If you need a volunteer, let me know.

Much of early Gangsta Rap and Heavy Metal, Heidegger and much of Western art is populated by misogynistic racist and reactionary nationalists,…and yet, a pluralistic leftists like me still find value in their work.

I think our “crono-centric” (?) excuse that “Well, those views were popular at the time” is a cop-out. Many disgusting and degenerate acts are popular with certain communities for a long time, that’s not a very healthy way to “excuse” or ignore certain practices.

I think it’s a bit naive to think there is a moral time-clock.

I think it’s silly too say lynching was OK for 19th century American artists and thinkers, but lynching cannot be tolerated by 20th Century American artists and thinkers.


I think it’s silly too say misogyny was OK for 19th century American artists and thinkers, but misogyny cannot be tolerated by 120th Century American artists and thinkers.

A racist or misogynist can still produce interesting culture.

Does this mean I can watch Polanksi films without guilt? Doc, has anybody gone all Godwin on this one yet?

I think there is some very basic confusion going on here. A bunch of commenters seem to believe this discussion is about how people should treat art created by 'bad people' (for lack of a better term). But I don't think that was Dr Science's point at all. I think she was focused on a much smaller topic: art created by bad people whose badness bleeds into their art so that you can't enjoy it without having to repeatedly confront their pathology. At least, that was my reading.

If that's correct, then Polanski has nothing to do with the discussion; neither does Shakespeare.

interesting point, but my notion of "crono-centric" is more along the lines of applying the judgements of our particular time to periods in the past, which is kind of the opposite of what you suggest.

Your comment reminded of the opening of this piece that I've liked and sent to friends for its Japan content, but I think if you take his notions of disruption and change to the questions of morality, things get very interesting.

It was a sloppy use of a term I just created.

I think it’s a bit of a cop-out to excuse the sexism/racism/homophobia or whatever of those artists or thinkers (cultural producers) of the past, but then act as if the cultural producers of today should “know better.”

I think most of the Right (and some of the Left) are still helping to produce racist and sexist and homophobic conditions today! But it’s no excuse to ignore everything those people produce. Or act as if poetry and eloquence are only the domains of the morally astute.

And I was seduced by the romantic fascism of Mishima,...I was so young, I didn't realize it!

Most of the Futurists were committed fascist, but I still love their work.

They were political I won't vote for them. Same with Mishima...and I think I won't be asking Naipaul advice on interpersonal relationships with female colleagues, but I am now interested in his work.

Yay, Hilzoy. It's like a cameo!

Gotcha sod, sorry I misunderstood.

I find it mildly amazing that people condemn Naipaul so quickly while elevating Walcott to the status of saint. It's not so long ago that Walcott was booted from Harvard for abusing a women egregiously after all.

It's perfect to bring up C.S.Lewis in this context.
He is one of the few authors I know that made not fleshing out all the details a stated principle (at least for books directed at children). One might not like the specific purpose of the Narnia books but the idea that the best way to get children to 'get' the message is by forcing them to use their imagination to fill the gaps has in my opinion a lot speaking for it. Lewis (like Carroll btw) also specifically rejected some proposed illustrations because they ran against this principle.
There is of course the opposite approach to write not the book but only the interpretation of it. Lem did a series of those (driving some booksellers mad because people tried to buy the ficticious books). In some cases he stated that he actually tried to write the book in question but failed. The 'reviews' were then the attempt to rescue/save at least the ideas he found himself unable to express as originally intended.

You know you are hooked when you read everything that Isaac Asimov has written . . . including the biochemistry textbook, while still in high school!

Wow...everything? Impressive.

I find it mildly amazing that people condemn Naipaul so quickly while elevating Walcott to the status of saint.

Wow, people was doing that? I can't believe people is that much of a hypocrite. Geez, I guess people is really just an awful person.

Is it just me or is this topic inspiring commenters to snark more at each other than usual?

If so, it wouldn't be entirely off topic to explore why.

Laura Miller over at Salon weighs in--


I'm on both sides of this debate, I think, Sometimes it's fun being on the sidelines rather than snarking in the trenches. But if anyone goes after a writer I like--well, I think I'll still stay on the sidelines. As JanieM points out, people seem to be a bit angrier than usual on this topic.

I think we place way too much emphasis on middle-class/ Bourgeois sensibilities as the definitive arbiter of proper behavior in polite society. Not that that is always a bad thing, but it seems to have defined so many other aspects of our lives. That is, as long as one knows how to hide their racist/misogynistic/homophobic within the “proper” language, it’s OK.

I find the folks in the Neocon camp, who are well adept at using middle-class/ Bourgeois sensibilities, to advance racist views on foreign policy have free reign, while those on the Old Right are “just flat out anti-Semites/racist”

If you don't like what I like, you're a bad person. And the more trivial the preference, the more violent the reaction.

[...] And the more trivial the preference, the more violent the reaction.
As we know, Bob, that's known as the Narcissism of small differences.

But Lord have mercy....VS Naipaul is a total @$$-Hole...Jeezus! (I am scouring the net for stuff about him)

I have an extreme dislike for Richard Wagner as a person but cannot deny that he is among the most important composers there is. Talk about insufferable genius. I still wonder how the Buddha opera he planned would have turned out.

I still wonder how the Buddha opera he planned would have turned out.


I want to know more!

I've just read the previous thread and this one, and all I can say is Naipaul will never hold a candle to Louise Erdrich or any number of women writers.

As a lifelong constant reader, I never got around to reading any of his books, and now I'm glad I didn't because I'm sure I'd have felt like I wasted my time. I can tolerate these kind of views if the author's from a previous century when that kind of thinking was widespread. But to think as Naipaul thinks has no place in this world.

If I want gorgeous prose, I'll read William Trevor or Michael Ondaatje. They're better human beings. Let Naipaul sink into obscurity as quickly as possible.

concerning Richard Wagner and Buddha. Most of what I can google is in German but>here is a bit in English too.

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