Nabokov begins his lecture on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (published in Lectures on Literature) with a pithy plot summary - but you probably know the outlines already - and a pair of injunctions.
First of all, if you have the Pocket Books edition, you will veil the monstrous, abominable, atrocious, criminal, vile, youth-depraving jacket - or better say straitjacket. You will ignore the fact that ham actors under the direction of pork packers have acted in a parody of the book, which parody was then photographed on a film and showed in places called theatres; it seems to me that to call a movie house a theatre is the same as to call an undertaker a mortician.
Of course I had to have it. And so I do. And you'll see the cover if you click 'read more'.
It was a bit of a disappointment when I found it. Paperback covers containing stills of actors from films are always disappointing - which is strange, because old film posters are always interesting. Moving right along:
And now comes my main injunction. Please completely forget, disremember, obliterate, unlearn, consign to oblivion any notion you may have had that "Jekyll and Hyde" is some kind of a mystery story, a detective novel, or movie. It is of course quite true that Stevenson's short novel, written in 1885, is one of the ancestors of the modern mystery story. But today's mystery story is the very negation of style, being, at the best, conventional literature. Frankly, I am not one of those college professors who coyly boasts of enjoying detective stories - they are too badly written for my taste and bore me to death. Whereas Stevenson's story is - God bless his pure soul - lame as a detective story. Neither is it a parable nor an allegory, for it would be tasteless either. It has, however, its own special enchantment if we regard it as a phenomenon of style. It is not only a good "bogey" story, as Stevenson exclaimed when awakened from a dream in which he had visualized it much in the same way I suppose as magic cerebration had granted Coleridge the vision of the most famous of unfinished poems. It is also, and more importantly, "a fable that lies nearer to poetry than to ordinary prose fiction" [quote from some guy named Gwynn] and therefore belongs to the same order of art as, for instance, Madame Bovary or Dead Souls."
Let me say some things, first, about Nabokov's snobbery; second, about "Jekyll and Hyde". Holding Stevenson's story at sanitizing arms length from 'lowbrow' detective pulp is, of course, a silly, affected gesture. Abominating film is, of course, silly. The hectoring, histrionic dandyism of Nabokov's lectures - like insisting on smelling the world only through rosewater scented hankies embroidered by French nuns, and then insisting on telling everyone that one insists on this, and threatening to test undergraduates on it - well, it is a very winning manner. The fact is: obtuse insistence on the highbrow/lowbrow distinction almost never does actual aesthetic harm, since the stream of popular culture runs so swiftly. If the effect is to slow you down a little ... well, that will probably allow you to take in some choice bit of popular culture with a lingering, more appreciative gaze. And I have little doubt Nabokov genuinely was bored by detective novels, other pulp fiction, and films. He wasn't just faking it, for social reasons, or making baseless assumptions about what he would find. He just didn't care for plain verbal surfaces - and it wouldn't have made a difference to him that plainness was made artful, by Hammett, Chandler, et. al. And it's true that Stevenson writes a kind of controlled, elegant, poetic prose that few fantastic/detective fiction writers produce today - even those who, in my opinion, have long since left Stevenson in the imaginative dust.
Above all, Nabokov earns his keep by having interesting, insightful, loving things to say about the books that arbitrarily enter his canon. And one must make allowances for our ancestors' backward ways. They had never seen a "Simpsons" episode or heard a Beatles song. Just think what that means.
And Nabokov's right about "Jekyll and Hyde". Here's a fun fact about the book no one remembers. Jekyll, when he becomes Hyde, becomes smaller and (plausibly) physically weaker.
It says a lot about the gulf between Stevenson and ourselves that we don't know this about this famous book. We automatically assume (admittedly, Hollywood and Bugs Bunny cartoons have conspired to keep us in the dark) that any such tale of transformation must be some sort of Incredible Hulk-type scenario (cf. "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"), not the dreamwork "bogeytale" it actually is. And, as Nabokov says, once you've mucked this much up, the rest of the story pretty much train-wrecks itself on schedule: Hyde knocks down ... a girl; is collared; made to go get a check (made out by Jekyll) to pay reparations (yawn). There is simply no room in the actual story for a dramatic conclusion with rattled but grimly efficient 19th century swat-teams of bobbies (nervously twitching their billyclubs around corners, shouting 'move! move!' to the ones in back, who rush to the front) closing in on the cornered monster. So Hollywood is at a loss. Stupid Hollywood. (Hint to Hollywood: Michael Douglas as Jekyll; he's the right kind of healthy middle-age, with an undercoat of rot; Kevin Spacey as Hyde - if it weren't such a shameless "Usual Suspects" rip-off. Oh, hell. I give up. But you get the idea.) It's really a great little creepy and wonderful tale Stevenson penned. You should read it.
Which brings me to the real point of this little essay, which is that I want to rail against Robert Scholes' new book, The Crafty Reader, which you should never, never read. (I think the nearest English equivant of 'crafty', which is a technical term for Scholes, would probably be 'complacent'.) I blogged about this a couple months ago, indirectly, because I enjoyed a Mark Bauerlein essay that railed against Robert Schole's new book, The Crafty Reader. Which might make me sound like a glutton for punishment. But I thought I should give the guy a fair shake. And. This is the thing. I noticed that one of his chapters - the one on "Fantastic Reading" - is about Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer. I just read the novel. It was great. It's good for an old English prof to be spreading the word about good fantastic fiction. I was prepared for forgive all - to atone publically - if Scholes made good. Really. I'm not a proud man. I would have said I was wrong.
And I was wrong.
Scholes is much worse than I had been led to expect. Let me just start with this passage from the Introduction.
The arrival of new media often generates a gap between accepted of "high" texts and those new texts regarded with suspicion or simply labeled "low". The popular drama in Shakespeare's time was regarded as low and only gradually achieved a high status. Following a similar trajectory, the novel began as a low form and was gradually elevaterd to the level of literary art. More recently, we find film following the same pattern. But the rise of so many new media, so recently, has threatened to leave us with a deep gap between what is thought of as "high" art or literature, on the one hand, and "mass" or "popular" culture, on the other. Without rejecting the notion that some texts are indeed better than others (for some purposes), I will assert here, and maintain throughout this book, that valuable texts are to be found in all media, and in many genres within those media.
This is supposed to be a very 'crafty' attitude. And, I suppose, if parents are starting to get cheesed off about sending their kids to watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" for $30 thousand a year, a certain amount of craft may keep the racket going. (Really - I've said it before - my only complaint is that so many essays and classes on Buffy are bad, not that they get written and taught.) But think about the banality of this transparent attempt to be wiser - craftier - than, say, Nabokov. What would it mean for NO texts to be better than ANY others (for ANY purpose). So, for example, the latest issue of "Superman" is no better than "Hamlet" for purposes of finding out what happened to Superman since last month. Likewise, reading "Hamlet" is no better than reading the latest issue of "Superman" for purposes of arriving at a view of Elizabethan dramatic culture. For that matter: "Superman" is no worse than a heavy, Complete Shakespeare, for purposes of serving as a doorstop. In short, Scholes is scrupulously distancing himself from a position that it is quite impossible that any human being has maintained.
And how does Scholes know that valuable texts are produced in ALL media? Post-its on fridges? Furry fan fic? (Via Crooked Timber.) He is even sure that sub-genres of every genre have merit? Whence this absurd certitude?
It will be objected that these are not the cases Scholes is thinking of. To which the decisive rejoinder runs: it is quite obvious that Scholes is not thinking at all. He is hoping that the issue will go away, and he will not be called upon to think about it. Which is fair enough, if the whole thing just baffles him - I mean, the whole some-things-are-good-some-are-bad thing. But then: why write about it? Why oblige libraries around the world to purchase his university pressed maunderings?
And now, the bit about Gene Wolfe.
Having established myself as a nontheoretician, I shall now proceed to theorize, boiling a few roses and serving them up as a dish for the crafty reader.
By this point Scholes has already established himself as a compulsive mannerist, in the field of theory. And the thing about the roses - although somewhat explained by larger context - is just as lame as it sounds. The frequent repetitions of the term 'crafty reader' really start to grate by page 185, let me tell you.
As the title of this essay ["Fantastic Reading"], we are once again in the land of genre - my assumption being, here as elsehwere, that generic concepts help us clarify what we are doing as readers.
The land of genre? Lameless of phraseology and emptiness of thought-process vie for rulership of this troubled kingdom, bordered by the land of texts that cannot be subsumed under any category whatsoever? Is Scholes serious in thinking that it is worth mentioning that some texts are like other texts, or that using concepts is a good thing while reading (as opposed to being unconscious, while reading?) The amount of time that Scholes spends craftily stating the tautological (with a knowing gleam in his wise old eye) ... I think the book would shrink by 15% if he kept sheer obviousness to himself.
In the present case, we are entering a field cluttered with such notions:
With concepts. Yep. Seems that practically every kind of book is some kind of book or other. Amazing strange, that is!
fantasy, science fiction, speculative fabulation, and finally science fantasy. They are used not only by literary critics and theoreticians but even by the writers of dust jackets, from whom the crafty reader may often learn a lot - though not necessarily what the writer intended to convey.
The craftiness of that last clause kills me. I remember a phrase from Saki: like a cow trying to annoy a gadfly. Almost like a scene from nature, then - but hideously unnatural. Imagine the expression on the cow's broad face. Imagine the ingeniousness of the mind that conceives it can glean information from the covers of books; indeed, that it has a momentary edge over the blurb writer, can see through the latter ... to a certain extent. And imagine that this mind has, but a sentence earlier, deigned to inform us that the existence of the genre of fantasy novels is not some sort of arcane, triply-kept secret of the guild of theoreticians. Even the writers of dust jackets have some glimmer of a sense that this genre exists. (Thank goodness that libraries around the world are storing this wisdom away carefully on shelves, lest the knowledge that blurb writers for fantasy novels know there are fantasy novels pass from the ken of men!)
I read them all the time myself. You shudder with horror, no doubt, at my willingness to sink to such depths, but I can say in truth that on countless occasions the perusal of such ephemeral prose has spared me hours of anguish that I should have endured had I ventured beyond the jacket into the chaotic maunderings enclosed therein.
Maybe in 1940 - in Nabokov's day - profs could get props by posturing as paperback readers. But I should think the day in which any sizeable portion of Scholes' audience 'shudders with horror' at the thought that he has chuckled at stupid blurbs has passed. The set up for this drawn-out expression of disdain for blurbs is getting excruciating, isn't it?
In my experience at least half the time one does best to violate all proverbs, sayings and other repositories of gnomic wisdom. Often one can, should, and does judge a book by its cover.
I can't, in fact, think of a single time at which it would be best to violate ALL proverbs, so forth, all at once. Oh, never mind. It's true that I know what he meant to say. But is aggressive, in-your-face imprecision a good thing, I ask you?
In this case, however, we are not judging a book but discussing an apparently curious and unnatural phenomenon: an oxymoronic monster named "science fantasy." A few lines from the land of blurbs and blushes [give the 'land of ...'-trope a holiday somewhere far, far away. yeesh] will serve to launch us on our mission, which is nothing other than an attempt to determine the status - real or imaginary - of this purported creature. Here are the magic words: "a stunning blend of the lyric extravagance of fantasy and the keen edge of science fiction, meeting in a future so distant that it seems like the ancient past." In its stunning blend of confidence and vagueness this blurb might serve as cover for many works of science fantasy. If we don't look at it too closely, it even seems an accurate description of what we may find inside the book itself.
And if we don't look at that last sentence too closely, it might not occur to us that almost any description of what might be found in any book might be accurate - but most in fact aren't. (I tell my first year students this all the time. Don't qualify your claims to the point where they become completely empty. If you think about it, empty claims aren't much use.) And in fact this description of the novel is not accurate. It isn't any part of the plot that the fact that the story is set far in the future entails that it seems very ancient - although it does seem very ancient. I might add that Robert Scholes subsequently evinces little or no interest in fulfilling his dull mission to determine whether there is any such thing as science fantasy.
These particular words served as a pitch for Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer (1980), the first volume of his Book of the New Sun, but they would be no less (and no more) appropriate for Samuel Delany's Neveryon books and for many others.
That is right. These particular words would be innacurate, applied to Delany's works. And to many others. As they are inaccurate, applied to Wolfe's. Why is this being pointed out?
If by "lyric extravagance" we mean language spinning discourse out of itself, words flowing from previous words, sounds echoing sounds, textuality rampant, semiosis unlimited, narrativity unbounded - well then, yes, these words are indeed characterized by "lyric extravagance," or "extra-vagance" as Thoreua like to think of it. They are in principle interminable, affecting closure rather than effectiing it.
First of all, this is obviously a terrible definition of 'lyric extravagance'. It's a clear case of throwing everything in the pot - even the phonebook (in which, after all, 'words flow from words';) and then discovering Wolfe's book is in the pot. And the claim that Wolfe's works are 'in principle interminable' is either a straight a priori deduction from the speculative doctrine that all works are - in which case, why mention it? Or else it is unwarranted . Since the only evidence we have is one inaccurate blurb. (Judging a book by its cover can be taken to extremes, it would seem.)
Science fiction is described as hard and sharp - in contrast with the soft and shapeless lyric extravagance of fantasy. Science fantasy, then, is by definition an impossible object, hard and soft, pointed and uncircumscribed. Yet it is said to exist.
Now there is something odd about science fantasy, as a genre. But you won't get at it means of such a dull, easily-seen-through paradox as this. Honestly. There is no contradiction in the thought that something is hard in a certain way (or in one place), soft in another. And if you are this bad at logic, and if you are a literary critic - why not do some literary criticism and spare everyone the spectacle of your logical fumbling?
The existence of strange objects implies the strangeness of the world in which they exist.
Technically, no. And where is this claim coming from? it's a non sequitar. And now some stuff about how Dorothy said she wasn't in Kansas, while on the set in LA.
But we are straying from our text.
Technically, no. Since one cannot stray from a thing one never got to to begin with.
That blurby quotation [a.k.a. a blurb] concludes by asserting that Wolfe's narrative is set "in a future so distanty that it seems like the ancient past." The assumptions behind this phrase are interesting.
No. They aren't.
A whole theory is implicated in the syntactic structure governed by two little words: so and that. So far into the future that it resembles the ancient past.
First, it is dull to point out that the meaning of the sentence is a function of the words it contains. This is a quite ordinary, unremarkable circumstance. Second, it isn't true that the syntactic structure implies this theory. (Many sentences have this syntactic structure. For example: 'Bob ate a burger so big that it made him feel full.') In a pinch, the sentence might be said to imply the theory. More accurately: it would be odd to utter the sentence if one did not believe some such theory. (Not to be picky. But if Scholes is going to get so fancy about it, he might as well not be so far off the mark.) Which - since it is a rather silly theory - strongly suggests whoever wrote it wasn't thinking very hard. Which is surely the case. Since, as noted, it is an inaccurate blurb. But don't let that stop you, prof. Scholes. On you go! Oh, wait. I'm getting off here. A lot of senseless stuff follows, and the occasional true statement. But he doesn't get back to Wolfe.
I can imagine doing this is you really hated Wolfe and wanted to snub him, egregiously, by judging and convicting him exclusively on the basis of one bad burb. The gratuitous unfairness of such a critical exercise could be the whole point. But Scholes doesn't say whether he likes or dislikes Wolfe. He doesn't even say whether he's read Wolfe, past the cover. Oh, hell with it. I'm going to bed.
Pulp fiction - fantasy, sci-fi, almost anything - is so much better off with Nabokov, who breezily disdains it, than in the hideously clumsy clutches of Scholes, who pretends to be so craftily open to its charms. It just depresses the hell out of me. Books like this. Bah.