DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover. Biblioasis, 224pp., $17.95.
Though all self-improvement does not stem from education, all education is necessarily corrective. A person tests their beliefs against the rigor of reason and fact, actively bares their own ignorance, masters a skill through failure and repetition. Thus if there were a systemic failure in American society, be it economic or social, the sensible way to address it would be through an improved method of instruction.
Douglas Glover believes that there is a major failure in literary culture, and his new volume of essays, Attack of the Copula Spiders, attempts to re-teach the skills of reading and writing. Glover assumes that most readers and amateur authors began their literary education with interpretation. In middle and high school English classes, students learn to look for symbols, values, and meanings in a published text, the final products of writing and the imaginative products of reading. Glover turns this traditional pedagogy on its head. He begins at the atomic level, examining the raw materials first, showing how authors use them to construct a literary work; only then does he move on to a wide-angle analysis of stories and novels, of meaning and truth.
Attack, however, definitely is not an exercise in remedial education. Glover is a literary technocrat with a cranky, professorial temperament. He studies the percentages of load-bearing words within sentences and paragraphs, offering dictums in terms that would be familiar to central bankers. In the title essay, Glover considers several versions of the same statement—“Mathilda hit George with a hammer,” “George was hit with a hammer by Mathilda,” and “George was hit with a hammer”—and then advises us to “look at these sentences in statistical terms:”
In the first passive voice version, there are eight words and only four of them carry a punch. We have suffered a statistically measurable dilution of linguistic force. . . . Look at your sentences and count the number of words with force and the number of words that are taking up space. You can express the results as a percentage. In the above examples, the percentages are 66%, 50% and 50%. The higher the percentage of words of force, the better the writing.
The core advice is one of many truisms offered by creative writing teachers all over the country: every word should do work. But this pseudo-scientific analysis perhaps makes the point too strenuously and, ironically, too simplistically. Glover invents a series of well-tailored situations to prove his rule, and to show that his method of analysis is in fact a useful tool. Like many scholars of the humanities and social sciences before him, Glover seeks the clarity and finality of the physical sciences (if only to end frustrating debates with impertinent student writers). Through the first four essays in Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover attempts to find a statistical measure for literary quality, to ground the abstract stuff of taste down to numbers and figures. But the proof, in this most abstract form, is unconvincing.
The method is somewhat more effective, however, when applied to vetted literary texts, from brief examinations of passages by Laurie Lee, Elizabeth Bowen, and Leonard Michaels, to whole chapters on books by Marc Anthony Jarman and MFA program–favorite Alice Munro. With clarity and abundant detail, he explicates the formal techniques of literary fiction: mirroring, image patterning, repetitions, shifting points of view, et cetera.
Glover flexes some real authority when he proffers best practices of literary craft, even if his statistical fixation is almost comically bureaucratic. Away from the machinations of text and form, though, the criticism is mixed, strongest where form and language lead to critical insight. Discussing difficulty and incomprehensibility in Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, Glover connects the novel’s style to Bernhard’s own resentment toward the shared Nazi past of German-language speakers:
How do you write the truth in a language of lies (when the Nazi statues are so huge they can’t be moved out of the cultural house)? The answer is that you draw attention to the corruption of the German language by writing in corrupt, unbeautiful, incorrect, unclear German. You use language to attack itself.
This is hardly groundbreaking insight (nor is the prose as pellucid as it ought to be) and Glover only becomes less incisive when he strays from this intersection. In the essay on Pedro Páramo, for example, he writes that Juan Rulfo “is Mexican and as such has a foot in the ancient world of epic and myth”; moreover, Mexico is plagued by its “obsession with the dead, its horrific past, its failure to create a political identity against the centrifugal forces of demonic violence.” Such old stereotypes ought to be left in the dustbin with Orientalism. In “Before/After History and the Novel,” Glover makes equally specious assertions about historical scholarship, linguistic development, and the demise of the Native American populations. Elsewhere, he earnestly compares the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to the minor media-generated uproar over heresies in The Da Vinci Code.
These critical missteps could be overlooked if the central critique of the book were not so tenuous as well. “Attack of the Copula Spiders” is the book’s impassioned raison d’etre: here, Glover promotes the myth that is sure to frustrate literary aspirants, serious readers, and our contemporary literary establishment—the myth of the post-literate age, “where most people can read and write to some extent, but where the literate sensibility no longer occupies a central position in culture, society, and politics.” Rather than build castles in the sky, let’s examine the evidence.
The polling organization Gallup regularly asks the public, Do you happen to be reading any books or novels at present? In 1957, at the supposed high water mark of literary culture in this country, only 23% answered affirmatively, about 32 million Americans. Answering the same question in 2005, however, 47% responded affirmatively, amounting to about 140 million Americans. The proportion of readers more than doubled in the age of television. As recently as 1990, only 36% of Americans were active readers. Even through the maddening rise of the Internet, readership has risen by 30%. Steve Jobs famously quipped that nobody reads anymore. He was wrong. And now Apple is selling e-books.
Not only are more Americans reading books than ever before, they are also writing more. In 1957 there were thirteen thousand new titles published for thirty-two million readers, one book for every 2,600 people. So many readers drawing from the same small pool of books understandably produced the sense of a monolithic, coherent, centralized literary culture. In 2005 there were 282,000 titles published for 140 million readers, one book for every 496 people. The mass-failure of newspaper review sections was just beginning, with publishers’ budgets stretched thin by the number of books they felt compelled to produce. Then in 2010, the same year in which Glover was presumably writing this book and cursing the illiteracy of our culture, one book was published for every forty-seven readers in this country (self-publishing accounts for much of this increase). These numbers do not even account for e-books.
Our dilemma is not post-literacy, but super-literacy. Americans have developed acute logorrhea over the past decade. The problems of economic sustainability in the publishing industry (too much competition for the audience, not enough coverage to engender purchasing) and of coherence in literary culture (with so many titles published, reading communities have fractured) stem directly from this explosion in the number of titles published annually. The demand for books has never been stronger, but the overwhelming flood of new titles is drowning reader, writer, and publisher alike.
Glover stands slightly at odds with himself over the question. He seems to know that post-literacy is a straw man, so he ties himself into knots trying to uphold it. On one hand, he writes, books are no longer important enough to be banned, as Henry Miller once was, because “nobody reads them anyway.” But school boards “routinely and quietly choose what classics our children can’t read, and nobody cares.” Let’s ignore the fact that civil rights lawsuits have fairly well barred the culture from the exorcisms that Miller, Joyce, Ginsberg and others faced. Either books are banned but the populace defers to a certain puritanical/evangelical paternalism, or books don’t matter enough to be banned at all. It cannot be both.
Likewise, the premise of this book—and the essence of our very real literary predicament—begs for scrutiny. Glover complains that MFA programs have become “a bit like taking piano or water-colour lessons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a popular outward sign of bourgeois cultural accomplishment.” This characterization seems right on the mark, but again it fails to actually support his thesis. If so much of the general public want to learn to write, if so many more people today are reading, then the growth of MFA programs appears to be evidence for the centrality of the literate sensibility to our culture. Popular enthusiasm has never before been so mistaken for general apathy.
Writing programs form a significant subtext throughout Copula Spiders. The MFA is a booming business, and expert writing advice is not cheaply bought. Tuition at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Glover teaches, costs $8,445 per semester, and yet, as he notes, “it is possible to obtain any one of these degrees without writing a publishable sentence, paragraph, story, novel or essay.” Not a ringing endorsement of his employer. Further daring the bounds of professionalism, Glover quotes passages from instructive letters he’s written to students while airing professorial grievances. He may gnash his teeth over the poverty of student writing, but he also revels in his literary superiority—even quoting, analyzing, and commending his own published work.
That egotism is a necessary character flaw, to some degree, and one often earned by a professor’s ability. If incoming students were on par with their celebrated teacher, there would be no need for Professor Glover or for any writing program at all. If it were within the power of the average person—and certainly MFA programs accept many average (if economically endowed) students—to produce high-quality works of literature, we would be awash in brilliant novels.
There is no such overabundance. Parallel structure, echoing, layering, poignant repetition, dialectical movements: the techniques of literary writing are not easily mastered. And even a virtuoso of prose may still not be capable of the insight, imagination, and intangibles that coalesce to produce powerful literature. So many instruments must strike at just the right tone in order to create really high-quality literature, it is no wonder that there isn’t more of it, nor that it resists being taught. As a larger proportion of people enroll in writing programs, the ability of the average student declines. As a larger proportion of people publish (or self-publish) books each year, of course the average quality declines, even as the total number of reasonably good books increases.
Perhaps literary culture is floundering. If so, Glover misdiagnoses the problem. As a result, Attack of the Copula Spiders embodies, rather than attacks, the signature contradiction of contemporary literary culture: the participation ethos. The MFA industry, which gives financial support to so many authors and is spurred by genuine enthusiasm for literature, also undermines the authority of books by graduating so many mediocre writers. It gives the impression of populism in a field that is essentially elitist, and this encourages participation without a sense of moderation or quality. Glover may bemoan the consequences of this system, but it is one in which he and his new book fully take part. Thus he joins so many writers who have recently lamented the death of literature with one hand, while escorting it to Hades with the other.
Daniel Evans Pritchard is a poet and critic living in Boston. He is the founder and editor of The Critical Flame, an online critical review journal, and the marketing director for Boston Review, a bimonthly magazine of politics and literature.
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