Monday, November 20, 2006


Thinking more on my remarks, from yesterday, about Cranks and Hacks as the predominant terms descriptive of American authors . . . and in part responding to Andrew Shields' comment about "mellowing" cranks becoming hacks...

I think my idea goes back in part to my blog on Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return and his sense of "bohemia" as, in some sense, composed of cranks -- which translated in his terms into the distinction between those who eschewed the mainstream in favor of their idiosyncratic aesthetic avenues -- as against the mainstream of "hacks," which is to say those who made their living through the accepted organs of discourse. This seems to me to not have changed much, except, as I mentioned in my blog, that the academy also became a site of "hackwork," but that it also is a forum for cranky self-fashionings that provoke response.

My point about the handful of "greats" I mentioned is that they seemed to me, by and large, to maintain their crankdom, though of course that can be gainsaid by Faulkner's later novels, by Fitzgerald in Hollywood, by Hemingway's desperate effort to repeat early Hemingway, and certainly by whatever relation post-80s Pynchon bears to pre-80s Pynchon, etc. So is it simply a truism that even our best, most gifted cranks end up by becoming mainstream hacks? This could be, except that it's never so easy to write-off the work of a thorough-going crank (which is why I don't write-off post-80s Pynchon).

And indeed there are those who see the career as a learning curve: from a position on the outside (as a crank) to a position where that very idiosyncrasy inspires its readers and followers to adopt the crank as a new ideal or wonder, to the point where the crank him or herself, now lionized and praised, has a hard time determining where the work should go next. Preaching always to the converted doesn't exactly keep one sharp.

En academe, it's even easier to fall into a mainstream acceptance of what everyone agrees upon, because, in a sense, the point of view of the classroom is based on consensus, on the state of affairs as determined by the best commentators or scholars. If to uphold "the crank's outlook" isn't easy, neither is it easy to accommodate the crank's creations. Sometimes it works (the way so many modernists have become the basis of their own academic industries), but sometimes it's best "to keep the dog far hence," so to speak. One of the reasons for the "avant-garde" argument is that it justifies including certain outsiders as ahead of the mainstream, rather than as failing to achieve the mainstream.

In the end, what are the criteria for these different levels? mainstream: having major resources of promotion and distribution at one's disposal, as well as the good will, more or less, of major reviewers and commentators, who pick the winners of major prizes; avant-garde: having a dedicated coterie following of those who eschew the mainstream in favor of "innovation" (generally in its aesthetic form); alternative: having a dedicated subcultural following who have strong identifications with the content of the work (generally depicts a "marginalized" group or region); hacks: those driven by, and succeeding in terms of, what the mainstream permits and provides, usually with no particular allegiance to any cause, group, aesthetic, except "what sells"; cranks: those who couldn't be mainstream if they tried, and who also, for their own idiosyncratic reasons, find it hard to adjust to coterie logics of "l'art pour l'art" or "Us against Them," or "the personal is political," etc, in other words, those whom it is hard for a coterie or subculture to rally 'round, though that's not to say it won't happen.

As usual with such categories: no one's work really falls only or always into one. Well, maybe there are "pure hacks," but everyone else flounders around in the playing field, now hot, now not, now a complete unknown, now a cause célèbre, now trying to do what's already been done, now trying to do something that can't be done.


Andrew Shields said...

This is a subtler set of categories, very useful in tracing how someone might move through a literary career.

It's also worth considering how, occasionally, a crank comes along who might appear to have turned into a member of the mainstream (though not a hack) but who, in fact, has changed ideas about what the conventions of the mainstream are. Bloom's "strong poets," in a sense, but with the extra spin that the best of these cranks does not succumb to the problems you describe.

The classic way to avoid succumbing to such problems would be Dickinson--although even she has been accused of becoming mannered in her later poems (an interpretation I did not find confirmed when I read all of her poems in a few weeks earlier this year).

Another way to avoid such problems is to be Hölderlin and live in a tower in Tübingen, but that's not a lifestyle choice one would want to make, is it?


mrjumbo said...

"Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?"

--Snail #1, in "Why Man Creates"

If Bob Dylan (or anyone else) were to release any of his early incendiary albums today, they'd be considered hopeless retreads, and not terribly well produced either. Rare is the crank whose innovative spunk can outpace his own revolution. "The Rite of Spring" isn't exciting crowds to riot now that Madonna's hung herself on a cross.

Then you get the problem of the punk band that learns to play: Do you deliver a more polished sound that maybe lets you share your art with a wider audience, or do you stick with your old amps and your fifteen fans, so nobody accuses you of selling out? The really good players know how to sound raw and still sound good, but how many garage bands sounded great when they were raw and then sounded like any other pop group when they learned to play?

Someone interesting once defined a crank for me as someone self-taught. When you're taught within the institution, you respect (or at least understand) the institutions prejudices and restrictions. Cranks are cranky because they figured it out their own way; they don't have patience for the convention.

I'd say Tom Waits keeps cranking; Thomas Pynchon keeps spinning 'em out, but I'm not sure I'm as convinced that he's breaking new ground each time. We'll see how the new tome reads. Both Toms, it turns out, hit stores on the 21st. With any luck, I'll get the musical one digitized in time for my long trip north.

ZB DB, Cleo

Donald Brown said...

Actually, Andrew, I'd be very happy in a tower in Tubingen, thank you...

I think your example of Dickinson does point out something: that even when one has no public persona, no readers, one can still become more "mainstream," which is to say, in some cases, that one simply becomes a less challenging, more predicatable version of oneself. Something that the early reviews of TP's new novel seem to be saying, and I fear it may be so. Even without "going mainstream" (much less becoming a hack), it's not easy to relive that early glory.

Wordsworth is the best example of the early great who became a hack, by which I mean, churning out poems because of his name and stature, not because he had anything to say or any poetic necessity. But then I'm not sure if he was ever a crank (he had Coleridge for that).

So when you point to the poet who begins a crank, then becomes mainstream, I think of Ashbery's cranky 2nd book (which Bloom hates) trying, perhaps, to stave off the inevitable mainstream acceptance he enjoys, but which he helped to establish the terms of.


And to Mr. Jumbo, your opening quotation reminds me of a line I deleted from the end of my blog:

"The question usually becomes: when does 'a cult' become 'the culture'? The point at which, in the Roman Empire, Christians are no longer hunted, persecuted outlaws, but are instead hunting down heretics."

I agree with the definition of crank as self-taught; which certainly applies to my crankiness and those of some others I know. What this is really about, probably, is how one makes one's peace with the institution. And in turn what the institution makes of one's piece.

Both Waits and Pynchon have been accused of repeating a kind of formula, living up to a generic idea of what a Pynchon novel or a Waits album should be. Though in the case of each, they haven't yet produced something that was merely a retread.

Zigjyp, the dancing pony

mrjumbo said...

Another, gentler Pynchon review, this from the L.A. Times:,0,3649673.htmlstory?coll=la-home-headlines

(Can't promise that link will last.)

The cult becoming the culture is part of the problem. A low-visibility innovator doesn't change his own context. Townes Van Zandt wrote for years outside the borders, and although his influence was felt in his circle of songwriters, you wouldn't say he changed the face of music. Tom Waits gets the benefit of about half that much obscurity. Dylan, or the Beatles, or U2, gets none of it. They change the landscape in which they innovate. They can choose to go on innovating and expanding the map, or they can choose to retread the ground they've already walked. (What if Michael Jackson had followed "Thriller" with an intimate acoustic set, instead of trying to re-vault the same bar he'd just raised?)

Interesting to see that even the L.A. Times remarks on Pynchon's encyclopedic style, which says something about the new book, though nothing new when you look at the canon.

In the end, for me, what undermines Pynchon's stories is that his characters seem cut out to give him room to show off his accumulation of minutiae and make pointy little observations about it all. You don't get that feeling from Tolstoy's characters; they feel more organic. It's a little like going to a Bond film: You expect a lot of gadgets, and every excuse to use them, but none of the feeling you'd get from, say, Pulp Fiction.

That's a personal observation, though, and as Variety will report, plenty of people don't mind the Bond approach. Was it Rubens who was called a great painter but a lousy drawer? Pynchon clearly owns a labyrinthine intellect, and deciphering and reconnecting his sly references can be as fun as a good crossword puzzle.

Donald Brown said...

The complaint you give about TP's characters is the same one I hear ad nauseam; it's the tact taken by MK in the NYTimes:

"Whereas Mr. Pynchon’s last novel, the stunning 'Mason & Dixon,' demonstrated a new psychological depth, depicting its two heroes as full-fledged human beings, not merely as pawns in the author’s philosophical chess game, the people in 'Against the Day' are little more than stick figure cartoons."

I'm all for cartoons, frankly. "Psychological depth" is over-rated -- especially as I don't find much depth in the novelists who, apparently, are trying to provide it. TP's not trying to and failing, he isn't aimed at doing a Tolstoy for our day (that was that other Tom who thought we needed new Tolstoys and Balzacs).

I can appreciate that you or anyone may not be amused or may not like these kinds of characters, but that's what he does. It's like the complaint (I do hear): I wish Ashbery would write about a topic, a subject, an event. Plenty of poets do that, just as the bulk of our novelists don't do, couldn't do what it is TP does.

The Bond/Pulp Fiction comparison is interesting because I think both of them provide "pulp" characters. But PF has cool, hip dialogue and whacky but dangerous adventures; Bond IS the institution of adventure conventions, all anyone cares about is the latest gizmo, the latest hair-breadth escape. I think TP is "pulpy" (or, I prefer, cartoonish), but because of his narrative intricacy and his druggie characters he's much closer to PF. Like Eric Stoltz could play Saure Bummer... Uma could be Oedipa (Uma -- Oedipa, Oedipa -- Uma) ... Sam Jackson as McClintic Sphere...

Why PF gets away with it (as movies do) is that real people enact those cartoons, give them "depth." TP's books, I'm convinced, could only be animations -- no live actors!! Just cartoon voices.

Th-th-th-that's all folks!

mrjumbo said...

In the end, I think comparing Pynchon and Tolstoy is like comparing Bosch and Van Gogh: They're different, but that doesn't make one better or worse. Just different. Clearly they're both monumental talents. To say one didn't paint like the other is not to subtract from either.

But it does mean that some will like one or another better. Taste is a personal thing. You wouldn't want everyone to think like Harold Bloom.

Good travels to you. Tubskoay.

Donald Brown said...

from Philly, Calvin Romano (by the way I was unable to use the link to the LA Times, but I'm glad CA is not as retrograde as NY).

"Against the Day raises more
questions about the American novel in 2006 than any recent entry in
the genre.

For instance: Does a great novel still require a shape that makes
total sense? Or are its beginning and ending arbitrary, like the times we live in?

We say "no" to the first and "yes" to the second - it's what's in
between that counts."