Letter to a Critic

“Francis Bacon never tired of contrasting hot and cool prose. Writing in ‘methods’ or complete packages, he contrasted with writing in aphorisms, or single observations such as ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice.’ The passive consumer wants packages, but those, he suggested, who are concerned in pursuing knowledge and in seeking causes will resort to aphorisms, just because they are incomplete and require participation in depth.”

Understanding Media / Marshall McLuhan



Read your brilliant review of Kazuo Ishniguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun in The New Yorker and off to buy the book. I read How Fiction Works a few years ago and pulled it out again and am re-reading it again. The first chapter “Narrating” is the best explanation of modern narrative technique I’ve read. Notice you discuss Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of “Defamiliarization” in this chapter just as you do in your review. Will be interesting to see the use of defamiliarization techniques by the author. 

Very involved with the media ecology group and friends of the late Eric McLuhan. Have a number of articles and books published in the areas of media and symbolism. Like Marshall McLuhan, I am very much involved with exploring the relationship of literature to media. One of McLuhan’s last works was From Cliche to Archetype (1974). Your review and re-reading “Narrative” in your fantastic book, got me thinking that cliches are really the opposite of using Shklovsky’s “defamiliarization” method. Cliches are the opposite of creativity or participation by the reader/audience in a what an author is communicating. 

The unfamiliar involves greater “participation” of the reader/audience in a story or communication from an author. Familiar cliches invite little participation of the reader/audience with the particular communication of an author. All of this ties in closely – in my mind – with McLuhan’s ideas of “hot” and “cool” media in addition to his ideas about cliches and archetypes. Some of the most important work of his life. Late in his life when the world was (perhaps) becoming more of a cliche itself.

Am returning now to an earlier work called Cool: The Roots of Participation (could be a better title but haven’t thought much about it). It’s not about McLuhan’s ideas on media but rather on one’s connection with media. Perhaps MM’s most relevant book and ideas for our times. Relevant in pointing the way for a new technique in communication. Use and refinement of the technique could be tested against communication based on less participation of receiver of communication. Could show a new type of communication language based on these ideas of McLuhan. 

Have been writing many short blogs on my site as well as articles in various journals, now stopping to focus back on this earlier project of mine. The return backward has much to thank from your brilliant review of Klara and the Sun. How many others out there have any clue to what defamiliarization, and a Russian have to do with modern communication? But your review was so much about this rather than the cliched shouts of other critics of Klara and the Sun. The book shows life from the perspective of AI. This isn’t really what the book is about. It is really about an extension of the Russian’s concept by creation of a literary technique of defamiliarization. 

You identified perhaps the key book of our modern era that invites participation of the reader/audience because things are seen in a new way by our 1rst person (not trustworthy) narrator. I imagine, much like Finnegan’s Wake would have offered the reader this participation through juxtaposing unfamiliar things together. Making new sounds. And with these sounds, new words and unfamiliar ways of seeing a world. 

Not sure how I’ll feel after reading this book that looks to be perhaps one of the modern masterpieces in literature of our times. An example of the use of the theory of the Russian, given application in a novel of 2021. The best expression of a new style of literature needed by writers. Yet, something more than this. A new style outside literature for our times? In all culture? Greater participation in communication might involve development of a modern version of the Russian Shklovsky’s famous idea (and book) about the ideas of new and old, the surprising and habitual things of our worlds. How our perceptions of the world change when we are surprised by the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar words put together. Unfamiliar events. Things that are seldom brought together even by the forces of coincidence and synchronicity. 

I’m going back to Cool: The Roots of Participation. It deserves a little attention as it has sat on my MacBook Pro for a few years without saying much as I’ve gone on to blog to my site Midnight Oil and do other projects. Leaving, the Cool manuscript forgotten. As I poke the icon for the document on my computer screen back to life for the first (serious) time on the MacBook Pro for maybe six years. I browse through its hundred or so pages. Expanding on using the idea of unfamiliar and cool participation in an another’s communication.

My ideas go back to my other books and manuscripts on symbolism, media and literature. I have three works on symbolism. One published book was written right after 9/11 and is titled Battle of Symbols: Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media. (Daimon Verlag, 2003) Daimon is the world’s largest Jungian book publisher. My first work on symbolism and communication was Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication (1993). My next manuscript in this area was Symbolism of Popular Culture (1995). Then, there was Battle of Symbols. After Battle was the unpublished manuscript Media Nations written after meeting Eric McLuhan in Toronto in 2003. It applies the idea of MM’s hot and cool media to an index of nations of the world based on their use of one-way broadcast communication or two-way interactive communication. Largely, whether more a totalitarian government or democratic, free government. 

Returning to the earlier created manuscript, it’s apparent its idea has been changing since last visited on my computer a few years ago. Now, as I return to the manuscript, it seems relevant and right with the reading of Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. It has grown branches outward from original ideas in Cool. Ideas have been expanding outside the area of literature. Into the beginning of a new vocabulary and language based around pulling readers/audience in with the particular author’s media.

* * *

But Klara and the Sun, as well as your brilliant review of it, brings much of the thought and ideas of both Ishniguro, McLuhan and Shklovsky offer much hope for a new type of communication based on both the unfamiliar and requiring participation in the communication of the author/sender. Will the next great communicators be those that learn how to create more rather than less participation in communication sent out?

All of this technique that Ishniguro gives to the world in his works all allow more participation in their creation as works of art because of their use of that old concept of defamiliarization that has evolved into the great technique today for creating great art. And, as not a bad by-product, waking the populace up from its trance. It certainly can *(needs to be) used and experimented with by screenwriters, novelists, musicians and other artists as well as those from other positions in society. Novelists and musicians and filmmakers and broadcasters. Politicians perhaps?

In the end, I think it’s best in reviewing anything to employ the technique used in creating a review in the first place. Review matches the context more than just content it is writing about, narrating from a particular narrator perspective. 

I hope to employ your term “free indirect style” in describing this adventure. It seems to me, my manuscript Cool describes techniques employed in Klara and the Sun. Thanks for your review and reminding me I need to return to it.

Best regards,

John Fraim


Email to literary critic James Wood.

Buy How Fiction Works.

Buy Marshall McLuhan’s From Cliche to Archetype.

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