I have been working on a book review to be published in an actual magazine and so have been distracted and unable to post much of substance. I did want to offer some disjointed thoughts on an earlier issue however. A few posts down I discussed a 2 Blowhards post on the question of “light entertainment.” Michael was wondering if we aren’t a bit too quick to write off light hearted fare as lacking higher merit while we reserve this merit for more “serious” works. My short answer was that the key is to value each for what it is, but that there is a difference.
Art in the big sense needs to rise above the here and now. There is something transcendent about art. It teaches us something about what it means to be human; it captures something bigger than the medium with which it communicates. Timelessness is certainly one category. If something can speak to people across generations and time periods then it obviously goes deeper. But something can also be art because it captures something perfectly or in a unique way. It doesn’t transcend time so much as capture it and so transmits meaning to us from the past. Such are my scattered thoughts.
A number of bloggers have noted this James Wood review of John Le Carre’s latest book. It is more than just a review, however, as Woods skillfully and at times rather brutally insists that the great spy master is over-valued. This ties in with this whole light entertainment business as Wood is castigating critics for trying to elevate LeCare from a great genre writer (at least his early works) to a legitimate literary figure. Woods is drawing a line that keeps LeCare out of literature and within genre:
A glance at the bald-faced illiteracies of a contemporary thriller writer such as David Baldacci suffices to explain why Le CarrÃ© is softly treated by literary readers. The “thin” terminus hotel and “softened” Beethoven are delicately done, and the whole passage is elegantly finished; it is the discourse of an educated man rather than the words-by-the-yard offered by contemporary sellers. But it is, all the same, genre-writing. The prose always observes its own conventions rather than revealing anything new, deep, or truthful. The details are merely the quorum necessary to keep the narrative process going; the specificity is essentially bogus (the lift licensed “for three persons,” the “small Opel,” the garage playing Beethoven)–not because it is false but because, in its very banality, it gestures not toward the unpredictable world but toward the conventions of a certain kind of efficient realism. The prose announces, in effect: “here is what the world generally looks like according to the conventions of realism.” It is a civilized style, but nonetheless a slickness unto death.
This is the type of line drawing Michael was talking about.
Personally I never saw Le Carre as anything more than light entertainment. I enjoyed his early works for their dark tone and plots. Although I saw the real Cold War in very different terms I always enjoyed my spy novels dark with a touch of tragedy. I think the fact that LeCare painted the Cold War in such terms accounts for his popularity. Perhaps this is my bias but it seems to me that his tone matched the zietigist for much of the late twentieth century. The liberal establishment far too often fell into the moral equivalency that is at the bottom of LeCare’s novels. The famous E.M. Foster quote seems is a good example:
If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
This is the attitude at the heart of many of LeCare’s characters and hence they appealed to those who shared the sentiment. When LeCare rants about the war in Iraq the same thing happens – those who agree nod approvingly those who don’t are turned off. If Wood’s review is on target, however, it seems that his obsession with the war in Iraq and literary ambition beyond his abilities have doomed his latest work. Oh well, I can always go back and re-read Len Deighton