The first hints of summer still make us think of final exams as much as ice cream and sundresses. Lingering anxiety would have us believe that before you give in to sunnier amusements, you must put your intellect through its paces (the better to enjoy afternoons spent snoozing in the park with a copy of the Styles section spread over your face). Whether this is true or we’re just neurotic, there has been some lively commentary on the Nature of Literature this week…we dare say we’d perk up for it even if it was July.
Somewhat frightened by its creepy power to hold anyone (and, at 25 million copies, apparently everyone) in thrall, we have kept our distance from The DaVinci Code. We have, however, checked in from time to time on the curious case of Lewis Perdue, who claims that Dan Brown’s bestseller, ah, borrows a bit freely from Perdue’s 1983 DaVinci thriller (what a genre!), The DaVinci Legacy, as well as others of his books. Last Friday the federal judge presiding over Perdue’s copyright infringement suit against Dan Brown and Random House agreed to read both authors’ novels himself; once he has, he will announce whether they are “substantially similar,” in which case the case may proceed. Lewis Perdue’s several websites (please see first: "The Da Vinci Crock") contain charts and graphs enough to delight any devotee of Russian Formalism, and he makes an interesting comparison between his own case and software copyright infringement cases. Gothamist has no idea which side to root for, but we like the idea of literary forensics specialists being put on the stand. Quick, call the Oulipo!
If you establish that two stories’ guts are the same, how different do the bells and whistles need to be for the authors to feel comfortable? The British journalist Christopher Booker might not be surprised to find people squabbling over a scarcity of material. He recently published The Seven Basic Plots, a 728-pager explaining that all the stories people tell fit one of seven templates, and, further, relying on Jungian psychology to suggest that these seven stories are all really the same story: achievement of a mature self. Many reviews have suggested that Booker’s recaps of stories (everything from ancient epics to Spielberg blockbusters) are quite entertaining and even brilliant, but that things get a bit murkier when Jung is brought in. Worse, novelists such as Proust and Joyce are accounted failures because their work doesn’t fit the theory. Yes, our eyebrows are raised, too, but given the critical enthusiasm for the first part of the book, we feel inclined to check it out. (In case you’re curious, the seven basic plots are: overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; and rebirth. Gothamist believes some stories, such as the classic tale “Hunting for an Apartment,” could be cast in any of these moulds.)
If we know too much about how a book or film or someone’s psyche is put together, are we less able to appreciate it for what it is? Last Sunday Lee Siegel wrote about Freud in the Times Book Review because Civilization and Its Discontents has been reissued to mark the 75th anniversary of its publication. Though Siegel goes on to make a larger point about the clash between people of secular and religious worldviews, we found this essay particularly interesting for its suggestion that “if we have Freud to blame for the long-drawn-out extinction of literary character, we also have Freud to thank for the prestige of film.” We love us some movies, but we also spend a lot of time wondering about novels and what kind of audience they’ll command as time passes and visual culture grows ever more dominant. Gothamist wants to know: which are more relevant to your life, books or movies? Which post-Freudian novels do you admire? We liked Middlesex, but give us Middlemarch any day.