Monday, April 28, 2014

Making Modernism Work

How many writers have read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald? Many thousands. Maybe millions. Yet not one of these writers knows artistically what’s going on in it. They don’t understand what Fitzgerald as an artist is doing with the tale.

Oh, there have been professors who’ve broken down Fitzgerald’s use of time in the novel, showing its complexity. (Fitzgerald carefully studied Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”) The profs discovered Fitzgerald’s use of modernist technique. They had part of the picture, but not all of it.

As I’ve explained previously on my “Pop” blog, in The Great Gatsby Scott Fitzgerald became a pop writer—or at least half a pop writer. The elements of a genre tale are there. A gangster. A mysterious past. Money. Murder. Speeding cars. Quick violence. The protagonist possesses a dual identity: Jay Gatsby and James Gatz. Self-creation—which Fitzgerald took from the greatest and most influential pop novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

I advocate for the fusion of pop and literary writing. It’s been done. F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved it in his greatest work. Modernism fused with pop.

Curiously enough, his buddy Ernest Hemingway at times seemed to be on the same path. “The Killers” is close to pop. His in our time (the primitive version) with its fragments of experience is very modernist, yet Hemingway’s genre sensibility of action and violence is present at the same time.

Both writers were able to write basic prose of simple sentences to keep the narrative moving. For a modernist this is essential. It’s the only way literary modernism can work without losing its audience.

What happened to American literature? Why were these trails not followed?

Instead of combining its strands, American writing divided—until today we have opposite poles. The literary and popular inhabit different worlds.

There’s no incentive from either big publishing or academia to bridge the gap. The genre novel is expected to be as simple and formulaic as possible. The same thin product stamped out over and over with minute variations.

With the literary, we see the ideology of the well-written sentence, as perpetuated by presumed authorities like Heidi Pitlor or The New Yorker editors. Writers who follow this path create Xerox art—copies of copies of copies, no one trying to find a way out.

Meanwhile, modernism morphed into postmodernism. Extreme solipsism as practiced by the form’s presumed god, David Foster Wallace. In his fiction, Wallace escaped into his head and wouldn’t come out, describing experience in an acutely self-conscious manner. Describing his feelings instead of objectively examining the world. Self-consciousness and self-indulgence; run-on sentences representing run-on thought.

The trick for the writer, the artist, is to reverse the process. Instead of bringing the world into the mind, project the mind onto the world. Make plot and settings representations of the subconscious. This was done with the novel She by H. Rider Haggard a couple centuries ago. It’s what “Batman” in its various forms is about. It’s the essence of “pop.”


In my coming ebooks I plan to leap ahead to where American literature should be artistically if it hadn’t been sidetracked by mediocrity and nonsense. The question is whether or not the literary world is too culturally regressed to recognize what I’m doing. We’ll see, I guess.


In my spare time I’ve also been examining movies for clues about the nature of art. My latest study is “Body and Soul,” a 1947 boxing movie starring John Garfield, which is formulaic and fast moving, gritty and tough, yet at the same time amazingly complex. Clues, tricks, techniques, layers: meaning everyplace. Stay tuned for my thoughts.

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