Vladimir Nabokov

"Topical trash"/"Literature of Ideas"

By William Dane, 12 January, 2021

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which is very often topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

(Lolita. Everyman’s Library edition. “On a Book Entitled Lolita.” pg 333.)

During these times of rather prevalent "these times"–driven reactive theorizing—and intrusion as default—across computer screens and their Internet, I've been wondering whether perhaps the emphasis, in VN's pre–Internet Era quote above, might in some ways be on the plural.

Even a complex novel like Pale Fire springs in its various directions from a single inspired “fantasy” often from beyond the creator's ego (see VN's Lecture on Bovary, for instance), that can be captured and conveyed in something like a screenplay's log line. Whereas "topical trash"—in which the author has used an imaginative basis merely or partly to showcase from moralizing, philosophizing, and/or our-times ideologies—might tend to rely, in each case, on a plurality of surface/“zeitgeisty” ideas that ironically sum into a single opaque mass?

Semantically speaking, searching the Web for “Literature of Ideas” mostly turns up twenty-first century science fiction refs, but “Novel of Ideas” yields more literary considerations like the two articles below.



Alain Champlain

3 years 1 month ago

I'm not sure I follow you here.

Am I right in summarizing as: you think the term "Literature of Ideas" is conspicuous, because it's a rare construction compared to "Novel of Ideas"? (After that, I've definitely lost you.)

The term "Literature of Ideas" seems right to me, despite the low hits on google. The sentence structure calls for it. Also, the "novel of ___" construction itself is more rare than "___ novel," but I think it would be equally correct to say the uncountable form of "novel of manners" is "literature of manners," which also has comparatively low hits on google.

Are you saying you would have found the sentence "all the rest is either topical trash or what some call Novels of Ideas" less conspicuous? That seems less correct next to the uncountable 'trash.'

I also wouldn't say that a complex novel can be unsprung down to a single log line: to make Ada fit that description, for example, you'd have to argue that "The Texture of Time" and "Letters from Terra" secretly had the same log line all along. (I realize you haven't explicitly said "all novels..." — I probably disagree with the statement regarding Pale Fire, but thought it quicker to show the cracks as it applies to Ada.)

William Dane

3 years 1 month ago

I didn't mean to suggest that the log line analogy is necessarily useful; only that it's often possible to encapsulate, clearly, what a novel is about down at its original kernel of being.

Whereas describing what The Magic Mountain is about down at that level may be difficult without bringing in themes that were made a part of it.

What’s conspicuous in the quote for me, as a would-be writer and good Internet user, is, for instance, Nabokov’s indication of how “trash” appears in every era.

We—that we—can make certain inarguable “our times” statements like, technology facilitates greater quantities with more ease, and the Web, for instance, has been doing so for more than a decade and three quarters. Beacons with real depth like this Forum help to sustain literary value while it can be seen to erode elsewhere.

I've been wanting to define what Nabokov is referring to as Literature of Ideas etc.

…fakeness almost always ensues when situations and characters are extracted from ideas. When ideas emerge organically from situations and characters, the opposite effect is produced. Philosophy, however, must not seem real. It must actually be real, advancing its arguments, as in a geometric proof, through a succession of facts.

(Pankaj Mishra and Benjamin Moser, “Whatever Happened to the Novel of Ideas?” New York Times Sept. 15, 2015. https://nyti.ms/1USA7fh)

The quote is from Moser’s section, which has the subtitle, “A novel with ideas is one thing: Any novel has plenty. A novel of ideas is something else.”

The other article quotes Northrup Frye: “interest in ideas and theoretical statements is alien to the genius of the novel proper, where the technical problem is to dissolve all theory into personal relationships.”

(In Sianne Ngai, “The Gimmick of the Novel of Ideas,” The Paris Review June 25, 2020. tinyurl.com/yaug52o9 The quote appears to be from Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, 1957.)

Perhaps it’s when that process has been “completed,” and well (realistically), that it becomes possible to describe what (who) a novel is about, in fewer words.

Pale Fire is about an old poet who lives next door to—across a lane from—a devoted madman. (Perhaps some would invert so that madman comes first).