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Friday, April 19, 2024

Is Haruki Murakami ‘pop’ or ‘literary’?

And does it even matter?

By JACOB ANDERSON — arts@theaggie.org

As has been remarked by pretty much everyone, there are increasingly few writers of literary fiction that have ascended to the throne of worldwide icon in the previous two decades or so. One could make a compelling case for the likes of Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace or take-your-pick-of-other-white-dude-postmodernist, but in the last 10 years? Five years? Sally Rooney comes to mind, but the pool of truly well-known literary authors is undeniably evaporating. Reasons are myriad, and many now find it occasionally challenging to identify an iconic living writer without asking in their head for a moment, “Wait, is that dude/chick still alive?”

For convenience, there has to be a name one can blurt out and be assured with near absolute certainty that the listener has read, one preferably not part of high school curriculum. Enter Haruki Murakami: one of the few living rockstar fiction authors, whose every neatly terse sentence has been ingrained within a western reader, whose numberless first-person narrators and Beatles references have defined the American perception of Japanese literature for the majority of his life. Ignoring Murakami’s torpedoing of the Japanese literary canon in American minds, he offers one of the last modern points at which the wide spectrum of readers can converge with some sort of opinion. And it’s not surprising that he’s so popular: His style manages to achieve the difficult state of being both effortlessly readable and almost spiritual. It evades all obfuscation and pushes the action of each work into a less conscious plane. It allows a pure communion with that undercurrent of supernatural logic that defines even his realistic novels.

As with any widely read author, Murakami of course has his detractors, and many of them not without sense. His unguided method of composition (in which the organization of each first draft consists of “sit down and write,” according to his book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”) can sometimes produce clunkers, and one gets the sense, especially in his later works, that his ego has grown to slimy proportions. But a consistent criticism (if it can be called that) is that his works are pop rather than literary.

So what makes an author pop? There are some easy criteria to throw out. Genre authors are certainly pop (Stephen King, Brandon Sanderson), and so are adaptations (film novelizations, if those still exist). But of course genre fiction still usually has literary elements, and the distinction isn’t always clear. This is the point at which many get an urge to plagiarize Justice Potter Stewart (“I know it when I see it”!), but if we defer, we’ll get to the somewhat obvious conclusion that the two categories are not mutually exclusive. But Murakami doesn’t write genre fiction or film novelizations. In fact, it appears initially that the only basis for his assignment of “pop author” is his popularity — and why not, doesn’t “pop” mean “popular”?

Rather than a coherent category, the assignment of “pop” in relation to art usually has to do with the public’s impression of an artist’s goal: if it’s to make money, that’s pop. The term is often pejorative obviously, intending to draw whatever is being discussed into the cabal of soap operas and Marvel movies and Top 40 music, but the term at its simplest level is a symbol of one’s impression of an artist. When people apply the term to Murakami, there is a justification. His orderly prose, while it has undeniable utility from an artistic perspective, has a perhaps greater utility in widening the audience for his books. If that sounds specious, let’s take a counterexample:

Imagine a college student walking into Barnes & Noble — someone intelligent but busy who hitherto has not had the time nor motivation to dive seriously into literature. It’s 2015, and in keeping with the notions of contemporary newspaper critics, this student encounters a copy of Joshua Cohen’s “Book of Numbers,” the 180,000-word hardcover that Mark Sarvas of the New York Times has declared “a digital-age ‘Ulysses.’” If this student flips to a random page in Cohen’s pleonastic, boomerish novel, they’re immediately invited to navigate the words “inconcinnous,” “bordelloized” and “microphenoms.” Imagine now a parallel universe in which this budding reader instead grabs “Kafka on the Shore” and opens it to the immensely pleasing sentence: “Nakata visited the vacant lot for several days.” In which of these worlds does the student read the first chapter, find themselves charmed and bring the novel home with them? Judging by the relative Goodreads ratings of “Kafka on the Shore” and “Book of Numbers” — 368,229 and 1,146 respectively — this fantasy has already played out several times. 

While the unwieldy diction and quintuple prepositional clause-ridden dexterity of many properly literary authors is generative and allows for a greater range of expression, there’s not much to say in their defense from an economic point of view. Murakami is easier to read, and his novels are nourishing, pleasant and melancholy and put the reader in a world they very much want to be in. Joshua Cohen probably has a thesaurus next to his keyboard but can’t properly punctuate a dependent clause to save his life.

But intentional or not, Murakami’s financially gratifying prose, when mired in a world of difficult books, leads some to view his deviation as more innate. It’s a difficult perspective to dismiss when the numbers tell such a convincing story. By choosing to write the way he does, Murakami has invited this paradox of categorization, despite its dubious importance, one which grows more ubiquitous as the number of young writers aping his prose grows with his popularity.

Making readable fiction is not condemnable, and Murakami is doubtless a better writer than Cohen. But in engaging with writing in his distinctive way, Murakami has opened both doors at once: those of popular acclaim and genuine artistic achievement. Whether those were ever mutually exclusive is an even worse conversation and one to which the answer is almost certainly a definitive and meaty “no.”

Written by: Jacob Anderson — arts@theaggie.org

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