Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Note on The "Cool Stuff" Theory of Literature

Several years ago fantasy writer Steven Brust presented "The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature" to the world. When asked about it in an interview with Chris Olson for Strange Horizons he described it as holding that
all literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool, and the reader will enjoy the work to the degree that the reader and writer agree about what's cool--and this functions all the way from the external trappings to deepest level of theme and to the way the writer uses words.
Brust has also remarked (apparently elsewhere, though I have not found the original source) that the novel can be "understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff."

As a Grand Unified Theory of Literature, of course, this leaves something to be desired, but as a more limited theory it certainly has its attractions, Brust's position being virtually irrefutable (of course people write as much of what they like as possible!) while still offering something of substance for our understanding of literature. When I look at the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction, what I find at bottom is a profound difference in the idea about what constitutes cool stuff, and the manner in which they advertise their particular sort of cool stuff to the would-be reader. Genre fiction presents sorts of cool stuff for which there are large, clearly established markets, reflected in the very name of the genre or subgenre of which they are examples, from Regency romance to forensic police procedural to young adult urban fantasy. The cool stuff in confirmed, highbrow literary fiction is apt to be of a less easily labeled or marketed kind, because it does not lend itself to formulaic use in cases, or perhaps because it simply lacks wide appeal. (Try, for instance, to picture large numbers of people seeking out the "Unreliable Narrator" fiction section of a bookshop.)

In either case, it is commonly a cause for complaint when the promised cool stuff was not presented in the quantities expected. "Not enough big weapons and battles," a fan may give as their reason for disappointment with a particular military techno-thriller. "But that book was all about plot and action! What about good writing?" a reader of literature may say in dismissing that very same book.

Of course, this is not to say that I take the position that it is all relative, that there are no grounds for suggesting standards - quite the contrary. But Brust's idea is a worthwhile reminder of something too often forgotten in the study of literature, the idea of literature as a source of pleasure to reader and author, reports of whose death have been greatly exaggerated. It is a reminder, too, of the limits to efforts to read literary works entirely and exclusively as a cultural code to be cracked in search of hidden meanings--as much of their content will invariably have other reasons for being there.

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