Antioxidants and Great House

by Annie Murphy on August 3, 2011

“Great Grapes: Score another point for resveratrol, the antioxidant found in red grapes and red wine. Basque researchers have shown that, in mice and men, it blocks lipid accumulation …” (48 Psychology Today 7-8/11).

Is this literary ? Something about it struck me. I wondered why readers of Psychology Today would notice and/or find interesting an allusion to John Steinbeck. But mostly, I wondered, does this allusion add anything to a paragraph about the way that grapes affect fat in the human body ?

So to indulge in literariness, if I may … the (yes, they are alliterative) literary devices in the above passage include:

  • Alliteration of title (“Great Grapes”)
  • Appositive (“the antioxidant …”)
  • Alliterative Allusion (“in mice and men”)

Is this “true” liter ariness, if there exists such a thing? In one sense, yes, if I can characterize “literariness” as words that make the reader think about them as more than words. One caveat here: those trained in literary scholarship are trained to interpret  all words as—at once—being more than what they say and at the same time incomplete and insufficient to express “real” meaning. Another way we may think of literariness is “fancy writing,” writing that draws attention to itself as such, writing that is “flowery” (whatever that means), or writing that evokes rather than states, describes rather than tells.

[Spoiler Alert: The picture below shows a rudimentary plot diagram.]

This excerpt from Psychology Today caught my attention because I just finished Nicole Krauss’s Great House. I found it beautiful, but confusing. I would have paid more attention to all the clues early in the book had I known I would need those clues later. I made charts. I googled “Great House + plot.” I listened to Michael Silverblatt admit to Krauss herself that he sometimes didn’t know who was talking.

Then I read reviews. The New York Times, The Guardian, The Independent. Still nothing. I’m going to have to read it again. Then I read reader reviews of the book on amazon.com and goodreads.com. Some people felt the same way I did. One person said something to the effect of, “ Get it together, people. I’m not a rocket scientist and I figured it out.” A significant minority of reviewers said they didn’t like the book because it was too elusive, plot-wise, or too literary and pretentious, language-wise.

Where do we draw the arbitrary lin e between literariness and pretention? Is there such a line ? Is it different for each person ? How do you respond to the accusation that that which literary is necessarily pretentious? What, if anything, does literariness have to do with reader response? And, finally, what do you make of Great House?

 

Jeff McMahon August 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

“Where do we draw the arbitrary line between literariness and pretention?”

I don’t know, but what do you think about this: literariness works its magic without drawing attention to itself. Reader remains within the spell of narrative and meaning and beauty. When the words break you out of the spell of narrative and meaning to call attention to themselves, saying, look how clever and beautiful I am, maybe they’ve crossed the line?

It’s like dressing to attend the Academy Awards, perhaps.

What do you think, Annie?

Annie Murphy August 3, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Good point, Jeff. Thanks for saying that. It seems like a workable definition to me. But what about those of us (uh, me included) who are almost always thinking about the language and what the author’s trying to do? I guess my larger question would be, what influence (if any) does a given reader have in relation to literariness? Or, is literariness dependent on the words or on the reader? Or some combination of both? If so, if literariness is dependent on the reader, how are we ever to judge it? Would that render it unobjective?

Jeff McMahon August 3, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Maybe it’s a mistake to try to form distinct categories. Maybe literariness is just artfulness with a few extra letters. And artfulness occurs wherever someone puts it, like, for example, in that blurb from Psychology Today?

Annie Murphy August 4, 2011 at 9:41 am

Oh yes, I agree with that — no need to form distinct categories. I guess my questions would be 1) why is literariness associate with pretension? and 2) do you (or others) think that Great House was particularly literary and/or pretentious? My confusion arises from reading reader comments about the book; many thought Krauss was being intentionally aloof.

Cynthia Newberry Martin August 7, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Nice post, Annie, on an interesting subject.

I’ll say off the bat that I haven’t read Great House. And also that I agree with where Jeff draws the line above, which I don’t think precludes a literary piece from a focus language, which I think is perhaps the defining characteristic of literariness.

(Although I think that whether or not something is literary is subjective from an evaluative standpoint, I don’t think it has anything to do with the reader–in the sense that it varies from reader to reader.)

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