The Bran Theory of Literature

One of the unpleasant things about being in the literary field is the snobbery that surrounds the definition of ‘literature’. There are people who seem to think that if a novel is accessible, fun, and exciting with a gripping story and vivid characters, it’s bound to be bad literature–shudder, entertainment only; and that if a novel is dull, obscure, bloodless, with tortured metaphors, unpleasant or blank characters, laden with an abstract message and no story to speak of, it’s bound to be, Emperor’s New Clothes style, good literature, to be celebrated in every journal and praised by every nervous reviewer. Certain people set themselves up as arbiters of what is mere ‘fiction’ and what may be elevated into ‘literature’. Like old-time puritans, they obsessively scour books for their literary purity, damning most, elevating a few. ‘This book is good for you, and that one will rot your mind,’ is the message behind their fulminations. I call it the Bran Theory of Literature.

The Bran Theory of Literature affects–or rather, afflicts– what is called adult ‘literary fiction’ to an unsettling extent. I happen to think ‘literary fiction’ is a nonsense tag, when used in the manner in which critics like Peter Craven use it (he is snobbily obsessed with dividing books into ‘highbrow’ and ‘enjoyable trash’–the criterion seeming to be that anything that sweeps him along in its story can’t possibly be intelligent or profound). Of course there is such a thing as literary style–the plain, the ornamented, the rich, the stark, and so on. All of these styles can be the framework for great literature which is also great page-turning stuff. But it’s fatal, in my view, if style is the be-all and end-all. There’s got to be more, much more. There’s got to be heart–and mind–and soul. And also the realisation that we are mere sensual humans, not pure ethereal spirits existing in some rarefied intellectual vaccuum. Too much style, too much twiddling of image and metaphor and idea is fatal to the novel’s lifeblood. Not enough, and it feels rather sketchy and unsatisfying too. But the modern Bran Theorists focus almost exclusively on style, to the detriment of everything else. That’s because style is the easiest thing to analyse; the secret of a novel’s emotional effect on readers seems too hard for these critics to quantify and dissect and score.
The Bran Theory of Literature is not new, and nor is its modern emphasis of style over story, though at various times, it’s been expressed differently, often in terms of morals as well, or ‘right thinking’. (‘Right thinking’ is certainly not absent from modern Bran Theorists’ frameworks, either). The immensely popular twelfth-century Romance, with its exciting,stories of love, adventure, magic, humour and mysticism, was damned by many contemporary Bran Theorists as not being good literature because they were based on old wives’ tales, barbarian fantasy and women’s dreams, which stopped readers from reading the right kind of improving stuff. What’s more, shock horror, they were written exuberantly in the ‘vulgar’ tongue, or ‘romance’ tongues, rather than in classical, restrained Latin. In the eighteenth century, the philosophers’ thunderingly dull abstract novels of ideas were seen as a counterpoint to the frivolity of the popular forms, fairytales and ‘precieux’ ultra-romantic novels. In the nineteenth century, it was the moral at the heart of a story which led to critics belabouring certain writers. In all these cases, it is the ‘improving’ quality of our Bran Theorists’ favoured works that is the issue, and the naughty, sinful quality of those other books.
Since the rise and rise of the specialist literary academy though, with huge numbers of would-be literary critics all trying to make their mark on the world, and the ‘publish or perish’ mentality in many universities, the Bran Theorists have multiplied alarmingly. Often, when you’re reading reviews or essays or critical pieces about literature, especially in specialist literary journals, you get no sense that the author actually enjoys reading. You get no sense of the glorious feeling that is a wonderful book; you get no sense of just why it is some books are so loved that people will re-read them many times, or why a child might so love a book that she might carry it around with her, close to her (as I often did!) You get no feeling for the notion that most writers write because they have a story bursting within them, that they are drunk with the world and its beauties, horrors, joys and sorrows and desperately want to get it all down there, anchor it somehow, in this thing called a novel. You get no sense of the fact that writers will weep or laugh or scream in unison with their characters as they progress along in a book. You get no sense of the passion. None at all. And no sense of the fun, too. (Because of course if you have fun, then you’re not a serious writer, QED.)
So-called ‘genre’ novels–crime, romance, fantasy, adventure, thrillers, etc– often escape the Bran Theory of Literature because they are classified in ‘trash’ or at least ‘fiction’: not enough style, the theorists think, too much character, too much story. Or else they read them in secret–their naughty bit of chocolate–while choking on the bran they try to serve up to others as the only way of writing. Occasionally, though, some Bran Theorists do focus on ‘genre’ just to show how cool and with-it they are, especially if they’ve decided to ally themselves with postmodernism. (Which by the way I’m not against in general terms–it’s more of a trend than a theory, just as modernism was. And in many ways I much prefer the postmodern literary era, with its more open and curious attitude, and its links back to a more medieval cast of imagination, to the ultra-realism, often dun-coloured realism, of the modernist era. ) When Bran Theorists get hold of genre novels though, what happens is that they tend to dessicate that poor old novel’s appeal, to make it bloodless, to turn it from meringue or chocolate pudding or hot curry into well, bran.
The two fields I mostly work in–children’s books and fantasy–are two of the lowest areas in the Bran Theorists’ estimation, of course. And this despite the fact that children’s literature has probably provided more enduring classics in the twentieth century than adult fiction has; or that fantasy is a field of the exploration of ideas and metaphysics par excellence. Of course there are one or two Bran Theorists working in these fields too, most especially in children’s literature, which can suffer from the schoolmarm-morals sort of school of Bran Theory( we need improving literature to teach kids right-thinking too, you see, so you never give a fantasy, a comedy or an adventure novel a prize). I’m glad, very glad though that in general we’ve escaped the pats on the head and the ‘Best Improving Work’ badges handed out by the Bran Theorists, because it’s meant that we’ve been free to go on our merry way, to take risks in our own individual ways, to break rules, to have fun with style and character and idea and yet to always remember the traditional wisdom: It’s the Story, Stupid!

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Down and Out in S
2022 years ago

Sophie:

I’ve never been one for the Big Style. Yet I miss it when reading stuff where style is absent. Many of the Airplane Novel Authors I’ve encountered in the last decade – the Grishans, the Crichtons, the Dan Browns – write so simply and yet so lifelessly that it feels like I’m reading a void. Very simple sentences. One after another. Like dead petals off a tree falling on the ground. No real build up. Makes me care so little about the characters.

This has nothing to do with Craven’s facetious “Highbrow” versus “Enjoyable trash” dichotomy. Most genre fiction has some sort of style – from the immortal Raymond Chandler for crime (with 1,000s of imitators) to Terry Pratchet for fantasy, and C.S. Forester for good boys-own death to the Frenchies war fiction. Or even Sci-Fi-meets-the-drug-culture like Naked Lunch. When you start cutting your story into pieces and shuffling them around, you really need to grab your reader’s attention. Fortunately, Burroughs has style dripping out of him. He had a gift for describing disgusting situations and characters.

Another thing about the “no-style-style” authors in the first paragraph is that they seem to be bollocks at making interesting characters. You have your good lawyer. You have your good lawyer’s wife. You have your evil lawyer, and the evil tobacco tycoon behind him. Everybody is as you expect, and there are no personality quirks that grab the reader. It seems that a minimum of style is necessary for character development – and character development is becoming more and more necessary as I grow older.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Bravo. You’ve articulated the roots of my ill-specified rebellion in English classrooms circa 98-99. That we were expected to dissect novels like frogs greatly annoyed me. I did not feel that a forced-march analysis was necessarily the best and only way to gain an understanding of a book.

I’ve generally found that good books explain themselves upon re-reading. They are good books because you want to re-read them. I must’ve read Neuromancer a dozen times. I still revisit books by teen writer Robert Westall.

What drove me to madness was analysis Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What’s to analyse? He wrote lazy, meandering junk with thinly – shabbily – veiled critiques of stuff he didn’t like, banana companies and the like. While the Bran Set was floating around breathlessly pointing out that magical realism could be liberated because it could use realist stylisms in a made-up world, I wondered loudly (and to great disapproval) why “magical realism” was in, and fantasy or science fiction out.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

I’ve got two novels on the go at the moment. One is David Foster Wallace’s Infinaite Jest. It’s very clever. It makes me laugh. But it’s also extremely long and more than a little obscure.

The other is Charles Bukowski’s Factotum. I’m not enjoying my job right now so Bukowski is kind of fun.

There’s not much point to literary snobbery. Personally I’ve got two categories:

1. Narcotic literature which takes my mind off how shitty life is. David Eddings comes to mind. It’s like getting drunk – pleasant while it lasts but not much use beyond that.

2. Books that might be hard work but turn out to be an investment. The kind of things I can think about for years after I’ve read them. Ursula Le Guin or Kafka perhaps.

I get pissed off at the way book shops put titles like Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty Four, or Saughterhouse 5 with ‘literature’ when they’re clearly ‘sci fi.’ It’s as if genre titles couldn’t possibly be ‘real’ literature.

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

If you want a serious laugh read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

I am not sold on the “it’s the story” theory either, Sophie – one of the best and funniest novels I’ve read – “The Trilogy” by Sam Beckett – has very little story but heaps of style.

I think whatever the elements of a novel – whether heavy on narrative or style – the enjoyment of it comes down to quality and affinity with the author’s worldview. You can get bad books in all genres. Including the literary style. “Literature” is a genre. That is why it is pur separately to the other genres. Maybe some of the ppl who read literature are up themselves but that doesn’t discredit the work in that genre.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

The Baboon is right. There’s not much story in Janet Frame’s novels. Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov often have stories, but it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t. In Kinglsey Amis’s The Old Devils, no-one does anything but get drunk or die suddenly; still it’s a masterpiece. In each case it’s the freshness of the language, the accuracy of the observation, and the dry wit that satisfy.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Am not trashing literature per se or style–but the Bran Theorists, who would argue Dickens can’t be literature because it’s too enjoyable, for instance.(they don’t now because it’s survived but would have done so at the time. The best revenge for writers against Bran Theorists is to have their work survive).
And I agree that no style is dull too. (I did say that in the piece).But I think that without story–which does not have to be plot or narrative-driven but must be centred on character–a novel simply falls in a heap. Or else it’s a prose poem.

wbb
wbb
2022 years ago

yes, and this will come down very quickly to taste, but I do not accept that “story” is necessary at all – sure the bran theory has some legs, but the idea that “story” is essential to a novel is never going to win me over. Why? Because of my experience of reading the type of novels James mentions. Both types of literature have their place.

Attack killjoy snobs if you desire but don’t over-simplify the argument. Trashy pot-boilers can be very enjoyable but so can watching TV. These are all different aesthetic experiences. Like listening to the latest toe-tapper on the car radio as opposed to listening to a massed orchestra in a concert hall.

It’s when snobs claim to not know how to enjoy easy-reading novels or at least to look down upon those who confess to such pleasures that – that’s when you have the right ot be indignant.

MD
MD
2022 years ago

It’s a good point, but it’s been made before of course. The current denizens of “literary criticism” or “literary theory” (what used to be known as “English departments”) don’t much like either literature or reading. Clive James has made the point over and over; Denby practically howled it in the night in “Great Books.” The first explanation is that the Bran Theorists don’t like fiction for the simple reason that they themselves can’t write and have no idea how it’s done, for what purpose, or why a reader might want to read it. They are, to a large degree, tone deaf to the music of life, bound by “theory” or politics, or both.

To give the Bran Theorists their due, at least they are consistent. They emphasize style, because in their “theory” style is all there is; style is substance. This conclusion proceeds naturally from their commitment to postmodern ontological idealism: language doesn’t describe or evoke reality, it is reality. Therefore, there is no “meat” to a book, only presentation. The presentation is itself the [only] reality. Thus, the text (the presentation) exists quite independently of any author or authorial intent, which to them are mere fictions.

The effectiveness or power of fiction is a mystery. Writers with quite different styles can be equally effective or powerful. And a minor story, or no story at all, told in common vernacular, can tell a much larger, comprehensive story (like Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”). And novels with “big stories,” dressed in the latest literary fashion, can be hopelessly trite, shallow, and irrelevant.

A critic who can lead through this twilight, with a small lamp perhaps, is useful; one who can’t, isn’t.