March 10, 2004

Pop Quiz

Good morning, class. Today's quiz is on the sociology of literary taste.

Carefully read the following passages. Please do not peek at the links until you have answered question 3.


Like a house on the borderlands, epic fantasy is haunted: by a sense of lost purity and grandeur, deep wisdom that has been forgotten, Arcadia spoilt, the debased or diminished stature of modern humankind; by a sense that the world, to borrow a term from John Clute, the Canadian-born British critic of fantasy and science fiction, has "thinned." This sense of thinning --- of there having passed a Golden Age, a Dreamtime, when animals spoke, magic worked, children honored their parents, and fish leapt filleted into the skillet --- has haunted the telling of stories from the beginning. The words "Once upon a time" are in part a kind of magic formula for invoking the ache of this primordial nostalgia.

But serious literature, so called, regularly traffics in the same wistful stuff. One encounters the unassuageable ache of the imagined past, for example, at a more or less implicit level, in American writers from Cooper and Hawthorne through Faulkner and Chandler, right down to Steven Millhauser and Jonathan Franzen. Epic fantasy distills and abstracts the idea of thinning --- maps it, so to speak; but at its best the genre is no less serious or literary than any other. Yet epic fantasies, whether explicitly written for children or not, tend to get sequestered in their own section of the bookstore or library, clearly labeled to protect the unsuspecting reader of naturalistic fiction from making an awkward mistake. Thus do we consign to the borderlands our most audacious retellings of what is arguably one of the two or three primal human stories: the narrative of Innocence, Experience, and, straddling the margin between them, the Fall.


Andrew Sean Greer’s second novel has a high-concept premise that seems perfect for one of those $3 mass-market sci-fi/fantasy paperbacks. A man lives his entire life aging in reverse, born with the wrinkled, feeble, elderly body of a 70-year-old, and steadily growing younger and younger in his physical attributes and appearance. When Max is 20 years old, he looks like a man of 50; when he’s 50, he has the body of a 20-year-old and so on, until inevitably he transforms into an adolescent, a toddler, a helpless baby.

Of course, in a cheap sci-fi book, the main character’s name would have to be something that sounds like a new brand of antidepressant medication—and the story would be trite, gimmicky and shallow. Instead, The Confessions of Max Tivoli is a serious work of literature, written with a precision of language and a depth of feeling that doesn’t simply belie the book’s quirky premise, it transforms it, elevates it from what could have been just another clever idea to a profound meditation on life, love and the inevitability of growing old.


  1. Which passage betrays more anxiety, on the part of its author, over cultural status?
  2. Which passage implicitly links cultural and economic status?
  3. Which passage is from Salon and which is from the New York Review of Books?
  4. Sketch a rational-choice model explaining why hierarchies of cultural value might be more tenaciously defended by those with less cultural capital. (Hint: Consider investment under risk aversion.)
  5. Suggest a criterion for distinguishing pseudo-intellectuals from intellectuals. For extra credit, invoke Nietzsche's claim that harming others "is a sign we are still lacking power, or it shows a sense of frustration in the face of this poverty" (The Gay Science, 13).

Scientifiction ; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at March 10, 2004 07:13 | permanent link

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