The Comets of Literary Cohesion

Every few years, with the hyperbolic regularity of Kahoutek’s orbit, I return to B.R. Myers’ 2001 Atlantic essay, A Reader’s Manifesto, where he plays the enfant terrible against the titans of serious literature. With savagery Myers tears out the elliptical heart of Annie Proulx and then beats regular holes in Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo in a conscious mockery of the strained repetitiveness of their sentences.

I return to Myers because I currently have four novels in process. I return because I hope to be saved from the delirium of the postmodern novel that wants to be written merely because there is nothing really left to write about, at least not without a self-conscious wink:

But today’s Serious Writers fail even on their own postmodern terms. They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel. Time wasted on these books is time that could be spent reading something fun.

Myers’ essay hints at what he sees as good writing, quoting Nabakov, referencing T.S. Eliot, and analyzing the controlled lyricism of Saul Bellow. Evaporating the boundaries between the various “brows” and accepting that action, plot, and invention are acceptable literary conceits also marks Myers’ approach to literary analysis.

It is largely an atheoretic analysis but there is a hint at something more beneath the surface when Myers describes the disdain of European peasants for the transition away from the inscrutable Latin masses and benedictions and into the language of the common man: “Our parson…is a plain honest man… But…he is no Latiner.” Myers counts the fascination with arabesque prose, with labeling it as great even when it lacks content, as derived from the same fascination that gripped the peasants: majesty is inherent in obscurity. Anyone who has struggled with trying to translate foreign prose or tried to transcribe music from one instrument to another rapidly understands why the problems are unassailable cliffs to the outsider. So it is with literary prose. The less I understand, the more I feel it.

But what more is there to this? We break now away from literary criticism and to the psychology of text comprehension itself, bobbing and weaving a bit to avoid falling into the cliché of the postmodern novel. First, we know that reading comprehension is affected by two obvious factors: (a) our background knowledge of the topic, and (b) the cohesion of the text. We intuitively understand (a) when it comes to scientific texts. If we have a degree in the topic we have more background knowledge than if we don’t, for instance. (b) requires defining “cohesion” a bit. Cohesion can be measured by looking at repeated nouns and bridging concepts from one paragraph to another. Highly cohesive texts tie concepts together across sentences and paragraphs, reinforcing the relationships that are expressed in one sentence with those in others, forming semantic bridges to enhance the text. Less cohesive texts are more scatter-shot, leaving the reader to infer the relevant bridging principles.

The interaction between (a) and (b) could hardly be more interesting. When (a) is high, readers learn better and retain more when (b) is low. Repeat: low coherence texts are better for high knowledge learners. If one knows a lot, one gets easily bored by all the carefully chained concepts of high cohesion texts. Or, as a friend once said about software and hardware manuals, “They are for the weak of mind.” The opposite is obviously true. If you know little about a subject, the semantic bridges help get you from knowledge Midgard to Asgard, but they are just road noise for the knowledgeable.

It is aspirational, then, when obscurantist language and metaphors pile up like proton parts in the Large Hadron Collider. The authors are asking their readers to search for the God Participle. They want to be Latiners. They want Cormac McCarthy to transform the bloody mess of westward expansion into Exodus. They want it because they want low cohesion texts and the feeling of sailing through the vaulted ceilings of ancient cathedrals, like Leary on acid, like penitentes against the whip, like gurus stinking of enlightenment. Then the gentle readers can finally bask among the deconstructed mists after the dream has faded, waiting for the next cycle of literary critics to anoint the next round of elaborated prose and, as Kahoutek returns, so the gentle rush of spring will come again to the countryside.

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