January 3, 2008

What Do You Mean?

In a recent review of the film adapted from it, the Toronto film critic Rick Groen referred to The Kite Runner as "the kind of book that is read even by people who don't read books." This is the most recent citation I'm aware of, but as anyone who reads reviews will tell you, there are many books like this. So here's what I'm wondering: how many books can a nonbook reader read before ceasing to be a person who doesn't read books?

Form over content. A writer I quite like has a habit of marring three to five passages in each of his books because of his fetish for this phrase. Every time it comes up it sucks meaning out of the sentence and sometimes the whole paragraph it pops up in, because it's a phrase empty of any coherent meaning. Form can be deceptive if insufficiently studied, from too narrow a range of perspectives, but the idea that form and content are separable is a trick of oversphistication played by the mind on its very own self. Thoughts and feelings, as much as any physical entity, have detectable existence insofar, and only insofar, as you can discern in them a shape. Form isn't a transparency laid over content which can be stripped away to reveal content more fully, as a snake sheds its skin to reveal--well, another skin underneath, so it seems even a snake can't exist independent of the form its skinsack supplies. But if we're looking for analogies, form is at least as much the breath of content as its skin, and content is discoverable without form to the same degree life is discoverable without breath.

A film critic in our local alternative weekly writes of a colleague who recently died: "he wrote with absolute honesty." Maybe this is partly excused by deadline pressures, but how `can someone write nonsense like that and expect to be believed? Any of us might aim to write with absolute honesty, but if we're honest with ourselves we know that the best aim in the world isn't always true. Mailer may have been exaggerating in the opposite direction when he said "all writers are dishonest except when, bless us, we're honest for a minute or two--which are the moments that inspire us to go on writing," but it shows a far more nuanced understanding of what a difficult negotiation honesty actually is. Anybody who has the nerve to accuse me of absolute honesty after I'm gone had better hope I have no way of getting back from the beyond; it's not an insult I'd take lying down.

A blurb taken from a review by Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to The Great Debate as "an intelligent masterpiece that must be seen". It might be worth hunting up the piece that quote comes from, since it sets up a distinction that hadn't occurred to me, and I'm curious whether he names any of the "unintelligent masterpieces" he's implicitly comparing this to, or just leaves us to presume there are a great many out there, and make our own lists.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides

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