Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Bees | Fiction | Royal Jelly - Critical Consensus and Counter-Consensus

I think of bees and fiction, and the first image that crops into my head is that of Roald Dahl’s Twilight Zone story, ‘Royal Jelly’. The story’s simple; a father who’s also an obsessive beekeeper starts feeding his newborn daughter the bees’ nutrition-rich ‘royal jelly’, as many fathers still do (you can also put it in your hair; in either case, if you’re allergic to it you may die, so I wouldn’t personally recommend it). Daughter turns into a queen bee.

Cosmetic product users, beware; you could end up as adorable as this.

I had written an article for this week where I went on from here to discuss the photo of a model who’d been hired to dress as a wasp at one of this year’s hugely popular American comic book festivals, and went on to talk about the ordinary people who dress up as fictional characters they admire, trying to eat the royal jelly of the coolness, sexiness, and individuality of, say, the Joker or Jack Sparrow, and become that character by association. By doing so, I said, they were in danger of killing their own true individuality. It was a pretty good article. Sadly, it had little to do with bees and less to do with fiction, so I scrapped it, and I’m going to discuss Gabriel Josipovici’s now-notorious comments about Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Julian Barnes being “hollow.”

If there’s one sort of literary-based article I’ve come to loathe, it’s the ‘Everybody, look! A moderately well-known writer or academic has dared to impugn a member of our beloved literary canon’ announcement, which from Roddy Doyle slagging off Ulysses to Josipovici calling Barnes “smart-alec, slightly anxious”, never deviates in style. It always has the exact tone of the sort of schoolchild who’s heard one of his peers say something a bit silly and can’t wait to tell the rest of the class so they can all mock together.

“Oh my God, Gabriel- I can’t believe you said that! Guys! Guys! You’ll never guess what Gabriel said!”
Let’s save the ‘decline of literature’ implications of Josipovici’s words for another day (though they would have fitted well with the decline of the honeybee) and concentrate on what he said about the authors “showing off” and “an ill-educated public being fed by the media – this is what art is.” He goes on to wonder why writers like Rushdie feel the need to boast and shock. Ignore the elitism and let’s remind ourselves that the authors, as well as the public, are being fed royal jelly by the hive of literati. And, honestly, glancing back over the sort of royal jelly they’ve received over the years, you’d have to be horribly arrogant to think that you could possibly avoid being affected by any of it.
“Will Barnes ever write a dull or mediocre novel?”

“Every sentence and every paragraph works with the coiled precision of the watch mechanisms that the narrator's father repairs, and glitters with the lapidary perfection of the diamonds he sells.”

“[Saturday] offers a detailed portrait of an age, of how we live now, and... it offers more, something transcendent, impossible to dissect.”

And then there’s the New York Times Book Review review that puts Rushdie in the company of Swift, Voltaire, and Sterne. (Incidentally, Metacritic has a books section. Who knew?)
I don’t want to speak for the authors themselves, but I do wonder if even Kafka could have kept his insecurity secure when he was being told this sort of thing. Self-satisfaction is built on self-doubt, and, as writers, we are constantly in dialogue with our readers, whether we claim otherwise or not. And, because we’re largely insubstantial creatures, their reaction is always going to affect us, even reshape us. We want to be outsiders, but we do long for the approval of the hive; we want, above all, to be heard by them. If Beckett had been as “damned to fame” as he clearly enjoyed claiming, then why publish in the first place? Why did B.S. Johnson cling, desperately, to one critic’s assertion that he was “one of the best writers we’ve got”, repeating it in covering letter after covering letter to uninterested publishers? Did even Allen Ginsberg really want to break out of the mainstream alone, so much as create his own edge-group?

I decided to put up a photo of the wasp-lady anyway.  Unless she is a bee.  Is that the Transformer behind her that's meant to be like a bee?  Why does the Transformer species even know about bees?  God, I'm so confused.

Only true literary royalty can accomplish that paradox of being one of the people, being their representative, their voice, being appreciated by them, while also being alone and apart.  It’s queen bee or nothing, for a writer. And, most interestingly as far as this metaphor goes, hive members have been known to “cuddle” their queen to death, pressing their bodies around her and suffocating her. Hive = critics, queen = writers established in the canon; geddit? Geddit?
Additionally, there are many potential queens, but it’s only the one who sleeps with the hive that reigns supreme. And these potential “virgin queens” like to try and kill each other. I was amused by the Literary Encyclopaedia’s winningly objective entry on Josipovici;

“Gabriel Josipovici is one of the major contemporary British authors. If this fact has so far escaped the notice of British literary critics and much of the British public, this is no doubt due to Josipovici's denigration as 'merely' an “experimentalist”.”

So this becomes, in my mind, an issue of a member of the counter-culture movement scoffing at the mainstream – and he couldn’t have chosen any more mainstream authors, you note, to attack. (Is it my imagination, or are the worldwide media making this sort of contrarian thing more prevalent? A book wins the Prix Goncourt, Michiko Katutani shoots it down. To Kill A Mockingbird has an anniversary, we hear it may not have been all that, and immediately read a counter-article stating that, actually, it was. Armond White seems to have built an entire career out of doing this.)

Yes, readers are affected by critics who tell them what art is; and critics who tell them what art isn’t. So are writers. All of us enjoy forming tribes rather than opinions. The Internet has a wonderful, crass name for this- it’s called ‘circlejerk’. You sit in a circle with your friends who all agree with you, and you, er...jerk, communally. Rushdie will have his circlejerking hive, and Josipovici will have his. But what the latter should not do is posit himself as a lone voice speaking out against the hive mind of literary criticism when he’s a wannabe queen bee as well. He isn’t literature’s new saviour against Rushdie and co., but another voice, yelling into the sea of voices.


  1. I am glad I stumbled upon this article, I too have an interest in the lack of clear logic in the popular transformers series'.

    Firstly, I absolutely agree with the author here that the 'bees' are an issue in the franchise. However, more is at stake!

    1. In "Transformers," there was this giant battle in the middle of downtown Los Angeles -- excuse me, Mission City -- that was witnessed by thousands of people at the very least. But somehow the government was able to cover up the whole thing, and now the existence of alien robots is just an internet rumor? How did they do it? Pay off everyone who was there and quickly fix millions of dollars in damage? Also, didn't Keller (Jon Voight) go on TV and tell everyone we were being attacked by "a technological civilization far superior to our own"? How did they spin that?

    2. There are two pieces of the Allspark cube left: the military has one under lock and key, and Sam discovers another. The Decepticons steal one and bring Megatron back to life. But when Sam (Shia LaBeouf) wants to bring back Optimus, he has to find the Matrix of Leadership on the other side of the globe. Why not use the other piece? Mikaela (Megan Fox) has it in her backpack the whole time. It brought his kitchen appliances to life, why can't it do the same for Optimus?

    3. Speaking of Megatron's rebirth, when the Decepticons venture deep into the ocean to revive him, the Navy crew tracking them reads five contacts. When they get down there, they tear apart one of the robots for parts to rebuild Megatron. Then as they rise to the surface, the same Navy guys say they spot six contacts. The little "Doctor" robot popped out down there, but he's about a third of the size of a person. Would he have shown up on sonar?

    4. That reminds me: even if I were to forgive the Doctor's German accent -- and director Michael Bay is asking me to forgive a lot of ridiculous accents -- why would a robot need glasses? He has little lenses that flip in front of his mechanical eyes. Couldn't he just get his eyes adjusted? You'd think with all the laser guns, someone could perform a Lasik procedure.

    5. Apparently, Transformers can look like people now. How? And how is it that even though the robo-girl (Isabel Lucas) is made of metal, she can still straddle Sam without crushing him. And if Bumblebee knows something's wrong with her, why does he spit antifreeze at her instead of telling Sam? Yes, his voicebox is broken, but wasn't it fixed at the end of the last movie? A ridiculous oversight.

    6. The geography of Egypt is way out. The stone city of Petra in Jordan is over 250 miles away, over mountainous terrain, with few paved roads and the Israeli border between them, so how can they drive from one to the other in a couple of hours. And the Pyramids are said to be shooting distance from the Mediterranean, but they are actually well over 80 miles inland. Even if the Navy ship had a secret rail gun, and even if the captain would take an order to fire from a former agent of a government branch that no longer exists (over a walkie-talkie that inexplicably starts working again), how could it hit a moving target from that distance?

    7. Sam briefly dies and goes to Robot Heaven. Robot Heaven?!?! Well, that is just fucking ridiculous.

    So I think you will agree, the bees are the last of our worries here.

  2. Silkworms, hello.

    I've nothing intelligent to say about Transformers, so I'll move on to Gabriel Josipovici. If I'm lucky, I'll have something quasi-intelligent to say on this topic.

    He has a book coming out very soon, _Whatever Happened to Modernism_, from which the remarks quoted in the Guardian come from. The quotations have been selected from a context which is unknown to me as the book hasn't appeared over here yet. Those who are in arms about what he said, or praising him for what he said, might do well to wait and read what his entire argument is rather than go on what the newspaper thought was sexy to use as a way to make controversy.

    I doubt, from reading Josipovici's fiction and non-fiction, that he considers himself a lone voice. He's got an ego, like any writer, but it's not the monstrously large one you seem to imply he has when you say:

    "But what the latter [G.J.] should not do is posit himself as a lone voice speaking out against the hive mind of literary criticism when he’s a wannabe queen bee as well."

    Also, unless he's changed completely, it's clear when reading his work that he has no interest in being seen as a "saviour," new or old, of literature or anything else.

    You tag Josipovici as being "a member of the counter-culture movement scoffing at the mainstream..." I find this a puzzling statement, mostly, I'm sure, because I don't live in england. Does being classed as an experimental novelist gain you automatic entry into the counter-culture? Jospiovici has been publishing books in england since about 1969, and has three coming out this fall alone. One is from Yale, one from Carcanet, and one from CB Editions (I believe). His plays have been performed on radio and possibly the stage. He's also been a professor at oxford for some time. How much more part of the culture can you get?

    And who's to say that experimentalist writers aren't part of a culture? That seems like pigeonholing and, in the end, nullifying of creative intent. It's unhelpful.

    My suggestion is to wait until the book comes out, and then decide what to think.

    Thanks for your comments, by the way.


  3. I actually think the concept of Robot Heaven's pretty cool. I mean, if a robot is 'good', it's only good because its maker programmed it to act in a good way, and vice versa- therefore, ultimately, responsibility lies with the all-controlling creator, not the human. I, er, mean 'robot'.

    Do Transformers have a god, Manformer? You seem pretty knowledgeable about the universe.

  4. Hey, Jeff-

    On one hand, reading the article back, I do agree with you - perhaps I went too far in questioning Mr Josipovici's motives, and I apologise for that. A bit shabby of me, really.

    On the other, someone has let these stir-causing comments appear shortly before the publication of a book without a great deal of mainstream appeal, so I don't know if it is so entirely wrong to be a little cynical. The publication of these comments, by themselves, is a statement - and an inticement. You yourself do seem pretty inclined to buy the book once it's out.

    And I do think there is something implicit in an author saying, 'all of these canon authors are flawed; where are our Melvilles?' that suggests that he himself is not; that he, potentially, may be a Melville. The fact that his comments were part of his Modernism book suggests to me that he's maybe written it as his own manifesto. How to conjure writing that isn't hollow, perhaps.

    But as to "does being classed as an experimental novelist gain you automatic entry into the counter-culture?"
    Well, make that "a popular, respected experimental novelist" and I'd argue, "damn right it does, whether the novelist wants it to or not." I didn't mean that an experimental writer isn't part of 'the culture', because the counter-culture's part of the culture as well. The Hell to its Heaven, as it were. Opposed and yet part and parcel of.

    As I see it, any 'counter-culture' is itself, very much a culture and part of mainstream 'culture' as a whole, but it defines itself as the revolution against the mainstream. 'Experimental' can't be 'mainstream', by its very nature- if it appears to be, it'll just be a retread of an earlier experimental piece, so it won't really be experimental.

    By placing himself in opposition to these mainstream authors, Josipovici will have made enemies of some of those in the mainstream and friends of the various counter-culture types, by giving himself very public exposure (and, as you rightly noted, he's been around a long time and published a great deal, even if he hasn't been recognised). Thus he becomes a hero of c-c - until, perhaps, like an aging queen bee, he becomes too popular, too mainstream, and is rejected.

    It is the Ginsberg paradox - for your c-c to have any weight, people need to know about it, and once enough people know about it, it's almost certainly going to end up being enveloped by the mainstream and becoming part of the mainstream. It's almost the same point Josipovici makes in his comments; the canon authors were great before they became canon, when they had something to shake their fists at.

    ...that's far, far too long. I think when an article writer's justifications go this long, they're probably a sign that the article isn't working.


  5. Jon, hello.

    Thanks for the considered, and considerate, reply. I appreciate what you wrote.

    You said:

    "On the other, someone has let these stir-causing comments appear shortly before the publication of a book without a great deal of mainstream appeal, so I don't know if it is so entirely wrong to be a little cynical. The publication of these comments, by themselves, is a statement - and an inticement. You yourself do seem pretty inclined to buy the book once it's out."

    A minor point here: we can't know what Josipovici said, only what was quoted (which then became churnalism as various other outlets repeated it without checking). He may have told the reporter more, so all we're left with is what we got. And the Guardian decided to publish these remarks, not Josipovici. So they saw the potential for headlines and fuss coming from it.

    I've been reading Josipovici for a few years now and will be in line to read whatever he writes, whether or not news of it makes the Guardian. (He had a novel appear first in german a few years ago, and only this October is anyone willing to publish it in his homeland.) It's a safe bet that I'd be getting _...Modernism_ even if there wasn't a controversy.

    Lastly, and not to argue, I think blues guitarist and singer Buddy Guy said it well: "Who's goin' to fill these shoes?" Meaning, who's going to play the blues now that Stevie Ray, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and others are dead, and, inevitably, when he and B.B. King (and others) die? This doesn't mean Guy is saying he's of the deep blues blood and no one else comes close (no Melville among the people he sees, so to speak), but that he's wondering who'll come along to continue the tradition. I think Josipovici means it more like that, but again, as I said, he is a writer and he does have to have an ego.

    Thanks again for your response.