Literary confinement: Part III – On rock’n writing and the three-minute song

Part I of literary confinement dealt with the conformist aspect of needing to put translated literature into “the conversation” and what is lost when everyone reads virtually the same books. In Part II a couple critical takes on these issues from the world of theater were added to the mix, along with similarly conformist impulse of focusing so exclusively on contemporary works.

In Part III literary conformism is exhibited in connection with music, pitting Benny Goodman and his clarinet against the conservative forces of rock’n roll.

Fountain of youth

In a 2003 interview with online journal Failbetter*, writer T.C. Boyle is asked about the selection of writers chosen for an anthology of stories he’d assigned his writing students titled Doubletakes.

Failbetter: You have quite an array of authors here, with a significant emphasis on the contemporaries, such as Saunders, Moore, Bender, and Beattie. What lessons are to be learned by such contemporaries, that can not be taught by the more modern classics like Cheever or Carver*?

For me, Boyle’s response is such a rich source of bad assumptions that almost a decade after I read the interview it remains strongly embedded in my memory.

Boyle: “[I chose] stories that have had a wide and stirring appeal to my students over the years, so that the book is geared toward people of college age and thereabout—what am I trying to say here? Young people. That’s who it’s for. We all remember young people, don’t we? But these young people need young writers to study, both for inspiration and horror (my God, how did she pull THAT off?). As I often say to my students, you probably wouldn’t really tear the world up with your rock and roll band if the last music you heard was by Benny Goodman. You live now, you need to know what artists are doing now?”

Where to start? First of all, did he really annunciate the “and” in rock’n roll? And the plea to remember young people – considering how much more likely it is today to see an adult reading Harry Potter than to see a young person reading Joyce or Musil, I’m not sure why he finds it necessary to mention the group that has the most tyrannical grip on what fills the shelves of bookstores and movie theaters the world over.

Looking at the type of stories that are published in American journals, online and not, I would argue that the vast majority of stories resemble precisely those stories Boyle feels compelled to promote, representing what in Part II of Literary Confinement was referred to as the “cramped curriculum” of MFA programs (in theater, though I think it holds true for fiction writers) and the “simple equation of contemporary subject matter with relevance,” expanded to include contemporary style.

In short, the idea that today’s young people, or young writers, are neglecting contemporary writing at the expense of the classics has no basis in reality.

Facing the music

The point that provoked me the most in Boyle’s statement is his musical comparison, when he tells his students – “ … you probably wouldn’t really tear the world up with your rock and roll band if the last music you heard was by Benny Goodman.”

If you look back through literary history there are some compelling literary-musical parallels. Modernism, in particular, saw the orbits of the two art forms in virtual alignment with Joyce’s plundering and reusing of centuries of literary styles and sensibilities at the same moment that his fellow exile, Stravinsky, makes use of the musical past to reshape modern music. Then there was the adaptation of literary works such as Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead and Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Frank Wedekind’s Lulu-dramas into modern operas that are every bit as compelling as the major novels being written at the time. Even Beat Generation writers were associated with the improv-heavy Jazz of the era much more than to rock.

So when did the largely unquestioned notion emerge that the musical equivalent of contemporary American writing is rock n’ roll?

Boyle’s rock’n writing parallel actually says a lot about contemporary American writing. Think of the differences between rock and classical music (calling it classical, of course, makes even contemporary work sound old-fashioned. In Czech, for example, it’s called serious music, which puts a comparison of the two forms on a different footing).

Rock is typically contained in short songs of a few minutes while classical music comes in a much wider variety of lengths, including long and complexly structured works that are much closer parallels of the modern, not to mention post-modern novel. That these musical structures derive from longstanding traditional forms, and even at their most innovative stand in reference to them, also serves as a strike against them for the creators of contemporary American fiction. Rock is so firmly fixed in a verse, verse, chorus structure that most listeners don’t think of it as a structure at all, making it as much of a default mode as your average realist short story.

This takes us back to Boyle’s likely off-the-top-of-his-head example of Benny Goodman. Imagine, for a second, a rock band who hadn’t heard anything beyond Benny Goodman. Wouldn’t they be far less likely to sound like every other band. Just the idea of including a clarinet would set them apart from the now 60 year-old formula of guitar, bass and drums (Off the top of my head the best example I can think of is The Birthday Party).

At this point in time rock is very far from being at the forefront of rebellion. I’d be willing to bet that the parents of most, if not all, of these mythical young people are rock fans, which would make the act of tearing the world up a rebellion against their grandparents. Sounds exciting.

As I wrote previously, contemporary English-language fiction is also characterized by an almost willful ignorance of writing in other languages. In this respect Boyle’s anthology fits the bill as well, with only three translated writers out of a total of 32.

Parallel living

Luckily, there are exceptions to these forms of literary confinement, and a perfect example is the magazine Music & Literature, which reestablishes the critical relations between music and writing on a by focusing on the work of a few literary and musical figures in each issue. The first issue features work on and by writers Hubert Selby Jr. and Micheline Aharonian Marcom together with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The second issue will feature László Krasznahorkai, his cinematic collaborator Béla Tarr and his artistic collaborator on Animalinside, German painter Max Neumann.

Music & Literature founder and editor Taylor Davis-Van Atta addressed essentially all the topics presented in these “Literary Confinement” essays in an interview he did with Audun Lindholm, chief editor of the Norwegian critical magazine Vagant:

“It’s true that there is some chatter in US literary circles about ‘translated literature,’ almost as if it were a different form of art altogether, segregated from all other types of writing. This is, of course, ridiculous. I don’t think there’s any doubt that literature is an international art form and that the discussion of literature and art ought to be an international activity,” he said.

To illustrate his point he then turned to the example of none other than Samuel Beckett: “One only has to read something like Watt by Beckett and wonder what Beckett was reading at the time to be introduced to the whole of great comic world literature. And reading this literature will inform and heighten one’s appreciation of Beckett’s novel.”


Photos – 1) Guitar by Flavia/wikimedia, 2) Benny Goodman, 3) Arvo Pärt by Woesinger/wikimedia, 4) Hubert Selby Jr. by James Fee

*Another cue towards Beckett, Failbetter’s name is derived from an oft-quoted line in Beckett’s Worstward Ho: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

**A couple of remarks on that list of writers: Considering that Beattie is only nine years younger than Carver – though with the distinct and happy advantage of being alive – while Saunders and Moore are 20 and 21 years younger respectively, isn’t the distinction between contemporary and modern classic a bit forced? All the more so considering that, as Boyle says, Carver and Cheever are both included in the anthology.

And secondly, have these writers really entered the rarefied air of one-named mentions? This isn’t an objection to the quality of their work so much as the fact that their names aren’t all that distinct.  If someone told me out of the blue that they loved Moore’s work I would wonder if they meant the sculptures of Henry, the novels of George or the comics of Alan.

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Categories: Essays


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  1. Literary confinement: Part II – canon fodder and writing in the default mode | literalab - 19/06/2012

    […] For Part III click here […]

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