Friday, July 11, 2008

Not a Review: Brief and Late Thoughts on _The Kite Runner_

I recently listened to the unabridged audio version of Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. I wasn't sure I would like it, which is one of the reasons I got it in audio from my local library. Something this popular can't be very good, I figured. I was prepared to dismiss it.

And I will admit that I found plenty of passages and tropes that made the MFA student in me wince a little. Although it is quite well written overall, this is not a book that would survive the fiction workshop unscathed. (Is there any such book?) And yet, I have to admit that I was deeply moved by the story. It remains with me days after having listened to it.

"There is a way to be good again." I keep pondering this line.

All of this has to say something about a work's literary value. I'm not saying anything new here. For decades now critics have been seeking to rescue books like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Charlotte Temple from being dismissed as mere popular or sentimental writings.

Minutes ago I finished watching the movie version of The Kite Runner, which I thought was a worthy interpretation of the book, although--as usual--the film fell well short of the depth and texture of the novel.

Taking the two together I feel that I have a better appreciation of Afghani history and the plight of this country's people. It's an example of how a focused narrative can foster interest and emotional investment in ways that newscasts and histories rarely can. This is one of the reasons the novel will never die.

Readers, what do you think?

I look forward to seeing some of you in Florida soon!

"For you, a thousand times over!"

16 comments:

L said...

Totally agree with your post. I listened to this when it first came out. Which led me to watch the movie "Kandahar" (PLEASE, please see this movie), which led me to actually buy a burkha (on eBay, from Peshawar, mailed in a dirty cloth sac that was hand sewn shut) and want to visit Afghanistan. I think his book did great things and is just a great story. Haven't seen the film version yet. Maybe I'll check it out this weekend.

St said...

Haven't read The Kite Runner, but I'm with you on your larger point. Lately my literary tirade of choice has been about how the (to me) bothersome popularity of writers like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen among American writers -- especially at the expense of more "popular" American contemporaries like Willa Cather and Mark Twain, respectively -- is largely the result of American academic snobbery that saw, and continues to see, the very idea of plot as provincial.

Empire said...

You guys are way off. Ever since the cultural studies movement in Great Britain circa the 60s and 70s, popular culture and literature has become a legitimate area of study. It is now possible to write a dissertation in an English Department on Scooby Doo and/or reality television. And I guarantee you that an essay on The Kite Runner would be considered hot.

To suggest that Cather and Twain are understudied is factually incorrect. Even had you chosen better examples, though, I don't understand why creative writers constantly need to bitch about academics. Were I forced to make a hypothesis, I would venture to say that it comes out of the nexus of anti-intellectualism cum an inflated sense of an artistic ego (I'm a great artist, you're a parasitic critic), but either way it is too aggressive for my taste. Writers and critics need not be enemies.

Empire said...

Oh yeah, I forgot, instead of relying on a straw man, could you provide the names of those critics (and the essays they wrote) who see "the very idea of plot as provincial."

Ric said...

Oh, Empire.

You've never heard me bitch about critics. Never once. As a matter of fact I want to say that I remember a specific conversation I had with you after class one day where it was I that took the position you are taking now (although more tactfully of course) and it was you who was belittling the role of the critic compared to that of the writer/artist. I remember outdoor vending machines attached to this conversation.

As you point out, popular culture and popular literature have long been fair game for literary and cultural criticism. I, myself, presented an academic conference paper on the television show "Friends." But in my post I was addressing attitudes coming from MFA programs, which--considered generally--tend to hold very different perceptions, still holding on to the notion of high, literary writing and low, popular writing? Don't you perceive it so? Haven't we former MFAers internalized some aspect of this attitude? And should we dismiss it altogether? Isn't there a difference that we want to continue to recognize? The critical treatment of popular literature/culture is usually not about the work's artistic merit but rather its cultural significance. We can grant that _Scooby-Doo_ is an absolutely appropriate text for cultural criticism, but I'm not sure many would argue for its artistic merit (although a case may be made for the original _Scooby Doo, Where Are You?_. It was downhill from there. And the introduction of Scrappy-Doo just killed it in my opinion)

Overall, isn't it more helpful to raise and ponder these questions a bit rather than reducing them to a polemic?

Ric said...

And I told you Empire. If you don't stop over-using those fallacies I'm going to take away your freshman primer!

St said...

Clearly I wasn't talking about Lit departments, but rather creative writing programs -- hence the "among American writers" comment, not "among American literary critics and shithead blog commenters." But if you'd like to extend the argument to Lit courses, it would still apply.

Because, speaking of straw men, I never said Cather and Twain were understudied. I said they're not as popular among writer/academics as Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Which is true. And I strongly suspect the same could be said for Literature teachers. My experience in lit classes would certainly indicate as much.

I refuse to include a bibliography for my blog comments, you dick, but if you really want evidence for this academic idea of plot as non-literary, pick up just about any introductory creative writing textbook known to man and read the introduction. You're likely to find a statement that identifies plot-centric fiction as "genre," which is for all intents and purposes the same as saying it's "provincial." In any case it's non-literary.

It's pretty naive to say writers and critics need not be enemies, considering the pervasive animosity between the two groups. I'm not sure exactly why it exists -- I think one of the perhaps many factors is the relegation of the author that began with the New Critics -- only that it does and I doubt it's going away. I mean, mankind need not wage war on one another. The city of Seattle need not have miserable sporting franchises. Where does it end?

Otto P. Schleppleton said...

Oh dear.

Empire said...

Wow, there are so many fallacious arguments going back and forth, it’s hard to know where to begin (I know, Ric, that you celebrate all that is fallacious, so this isn’t a problem for you).

“You've never heard me bitch about critics. Never once.” Actually, I do remember you bitching about criticism via making fun of a certain poco professor and his lackeys. Granted, this was at a bar, so maybe I’m misremembering the event, but I find it highly unlikely that you’ve never once, in your entire life, bitched about criticism.

“ As a matter of fact I want to say that I remember a specific conversation I had with you after class one day where it was I that took the position you are taking now (although more tactfully of course) and it was you who was belittling the role of the critic compared to that of the writer/artist. I remember outdoor vending machines attached to this conversation.” I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I will point out that epistemologists have long recognized the problem of equating memory with knowledge.

“But in my post I was addressing attitudes coming from MFA programs, which--considered generally--tend to hold very different perceptions, still holding on to the notion of high, literary writing and low, popular writing? Don't you perceive it so? Haven't we former MFAers internalized some aspect of this attitude? And should we dismiss it altogether? Isn't there a difference that we want to continue to recognize?” I don’t like to make these kinds of generalizations. There are about one thousand MFA programs, so I’m guessing the people involved therein have all kinds of attitudes about literary and popular writing. Oddly enough, Arizona Buzz wrote a mystery book, so had you wanted to explore popular writing, you could’ve done so with him. Of course, claiming that many MFAers have internalized a certain attitude about writing is neo-colonialistic of you. And no, I’m not joking. Unless you’ve got some sociological studies backing this up, you’re merely projecting.


“(although a case may be made for the original _Scooby Doo, Where Are You?_. It was downhill from there. And the introduction of Scrappy-Doo just killed it in my opinion).” I couldn’t agree more.

“Overall, isn't it more helpful to raise and ponder these questions a bit rather than reducing them to a polemic?” When you phrase the issue in such a polemical manner, you’re in self-referential trouble.

Now, for Sleazy’s “arguments”:

“Clearly I wasn't talking about Lit departments, but rather creative writing programs -- hence the "among American writers" comment, not "among American literary critics and shithead blog commenters." Umm….I hate to break this to you, but literary critics are writers. Stop being such an elitist essentialist.

“Because, speaking of straw men, I never said Cather and Twain were understudied. I said they're not as popular among writer/academics as Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen. Which is true. And I strongly suspect the same could be said for Literature teachers. My experience in lit classes would certainly indicate as much.

Actually, here’s what you wrote: “Lately my literary tirade of choice has been about how the (to me) bothersome popularity of writers like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen among American writers -- especially at the expense of more "popular" American contemporaries like Willa Cather and Mark Twain, respectively -- is largely the result of American academic snobbery that saw, and continues to see, the very idea of plot as provincial.”

You are clearly implying that Twain and Cather should be more popular, which means you think they are understudied. As for the preferences of Literature teachers, that would depend on their specialty. Somebody concentrating on British literature would probably prefer teaching Woolf and Austen over Cather and Twain and vice versa for Americanists.

“I refuse to include a bibliography for my blog comments, you dick, but if you really want evidence for this academic idea of plot as non-literary, pick up just about any introductory creative writing textbook known to man and read the introduction.” One reason you refuse to include a bibliography, besides me being a dick, is that you can’t provide one because you’re pulling these arguments out of your ass. For example, I went to Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (6th ed.), which is the most widely used creative writing textbook. Interestingly enough, she doesn’t discuss plot in her introduction, nor does she mention genre fiction until page 411.

“It's pretty naive to say writers and critics need not be enemies, considering the pervasive animosity between the two groups.” Well, I’ve met a lot of creative writers who have animosity towards critics, but I’ve yet to meet a critic who makes fun of writers. I’m not saying this proves anything; rather, that’s just been my experience of the situation.

St said...

You disingenuous dickbag. Go back to your Writing Fiction and look at her big long appendix about the difference between literary writing and genre. (I have an earlier edition, I think the 4th, and it's Appendix A.) So it's the Appendix, not the Introduction. Kick me out of the creative writing field.

And it's an ancillary point, for which I have only anecdotal evidence, but I have taken a number of American literature classes (six or seven at the undergrad level, two at the graduate), and I have yet to see Mark Twain on a reading list. Cather was on one. Try finding me a period-appropriate British lit class without Wolff or Austen.

As it relates to creative writing specifically, I think it touches on a larger issue of American academics relegating American literature and American writers to less important positions than their continental counterparts. Especially pre-Hemingway.

And on another ancillary point, do you really disagree with the contention that Willa Cather is widely and unjustly overlooked? I was just reading an essay, I believe in A Literary History of the American West, in which the author claimed that few critics or readers who specialized in Western literature seemed to have read her.

Ric said...

Seth,

You're just remembering things incorrectly, very much so, and I can't argue with you on those terms.

Ace said...

I laughed aloud about 10 times while reading this thread. At work. In the cube. Now everyone thinks I'm insane.

I have nothing to add to the argument though. Continue entertaining me!

Empire said...

Disingenuous dickbag? Jesus Sleazy, do you also want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher? Ought we not make a rule about 3rd grade insults? If you have one or more graduate degrees, you should be banned from speaking/writing like a 3rd grader. For the love of Allah, you’re at Stanford. Fucking write like it.

As for your “points,” relegating the issue of genre to an appendix, instead of dealing with in the introduction, is not a minor issue of structure, especially when she prefaces said appendix with: “What follows is a discussion of some kinds of fiction likely to be found in current books and magazines, which are also the kinds of contemporary narrative most likely to show up in a workshop.” In other words, genre work is ubiquitous, both in journals and creative writing workshops. Seth: 1, Sleazy: 0.

“Try finding me a period-appropriate British lit class without Wolff or Austen.”
Okay. Here’s a link to Dr. Robert Fletcher’s Victorian Literature Course (sans Austen at West Chester University: http://courses.wcupa.edu/fletcher/lit342.htm. Seth: 2, Sleazy: 0.

“As it relates to creative writing specifically, I think it touches on a larger issue of American academics relegating American literature and American writers to less important positions than their continental counterparts. Especially pre-Hemingway.” I went to Proquest, which maintains digital copies of all theses and dissertations written in English since around 2000. Over the past two years, there have been 31 theses/dissertations written about Jane Austen, 31 about Mark Twain, 35 about Willa Cather, 482 about British Literature, and 4163 about American Literature. Pre-1930s, you’re absolutely correct: American academics did relegate American literature to the backburner. But that changed a long time ago and American literary studies dominates the field, as evidenced by the Proquest numbers. Seth: 3, Sleazy: 0.

“And on another ancillary point, do you really disagree with the contention that Willa Cather is widely and unjustly overlooked? I was just reading an essay, I believe in A Literary History of the American West, in which the author claimed that few critics or readers who specialized in Western literature seemed to have read her.” About Willa Cather being unjustly overlooked, see numbers above that prove more academics-in-training are writing about her than Jane Austen. Seth: 4, Sleazy: 0. And as for why scholars specializing in Western literature might not read her, I wonder if that has something to do with the fact that, minus Death Comes for the Archbishop, her books are set in the Midwest. Just a thought, and one that yields me another point.

Seth: 5
Sleazy: 0

Empire said...

Argument by analogy:

Sleazy, have you noticed how there isn't a single scholar specializing in native arctic oral literature who has written about Flannery O'Connor? This just goes to prove how understudied O'Connor continues to be in North American scholarship.

Otto P. Schleppleton said...

Friends,

I am hesitant to make this comment as I am not the author of this blog, and because I also know him (the author) to be much in support of the freedom of speech. But just because we are not required to temper our language here does not mean that we should not. I suggest only that we might keep in mind the public nature of this venue and its role in promoting the author's book and upcoming readings to a general public.

As some are likely to point out, I, myself, have made some hasty comments here that I have had to later qualify. That I have suffered such embarrassments, I hope, will only further speak to my gentle sincerity in this matter.

Again, this is not a call for censorship but rather a plea to consider audience and purpose, which I hope we can all agree are worthy considerations in any rhetorical situation.

Otherwise, I look forward to more stimulating discourse.

Affectionately,
O.P.S.

St said...

OK, Mr. Ph.D., I'll try to speak in a more refined manner suitable to your rarefied sensibilities.

Dearest "Empire",

Your argument is at best suspiciously selective, and at worst dishonest. In some parts you're just plain wrong. From the bottom of your post working up:

Your Cather assertion is a lie. A significant portion of The Professor's House takes place in New Mexico. Me 1, you 0.

Your Proquest numbers have little bearing on my argument for a few reasons, which I'm fairly sure you understood before you mentioned them. The most important is that, as I have now repeatedly mentioned, none of my comments thus far have been specifically discussing graduate study in the field of Literature. (Perhaps you didn't understand the introductory clause "As relates to creative writing specifically..." Perhaps I should use bold type when making important distinctions in the future, for your benefit. Or would you prefer all caps?) I WAS TALKING ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING PROGRAMS, NOT LIT PROGRAMS. There. Me 2, you 0.

Another tangental and somewhat less important reason your counterargument fails is your arbitrary choice to cite two years' worth of doctoral thesis topics as representative of broad trends in the study of American literature. These last two years, and indeed any other two years, are far too small a sample size to provide any substantive insight into the contemporary state of literature. Further, in your overzealous hegemony, you forget that few among the many consumers of literature and arbiters of literary taste choose to enroll in Ph.D. programs, much less complete a doctoral dissertation. Just because you count yourself among those few -- the academic elites who think themselves the gatekeepers of Literature -- does not mean anybody heeds you, or them.
Me 3.5, you 0.

Re: Austen, your single cut-and-pasted url (which is not the same as a hyperlink, by the way) provides only the slightest and most specious of counterarguments. My primary claim regarding Austen remains accurate: her works are present in an overwhelming majority of period-appropriate British Lit courses. Me 4.25, you 0.

And regarding Burroway's appendix, I feel fairly certain you are grossly misrepresenting the context in which those comments appear. She most certainly does make a clear distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. Perhaps I should be surprised that a Ph.D. student in Literature should prove so irresponsible in warping the content of a text to suit his arguments. I am not. However, since I'm not at home and don't have the book to cite a counterexample, I'll only give myself half a point for that.

Which leaves the score: Me 4.75, you 0.

But what do I know? I'm not a Lit Ph.D.