Literature doesn't take no for an answer. Whether it's "Moby Dick" imposing great truths about Life and Death through epic fiction, or Kafka's "Trial" suggesting eternal verities about bureaucracy, or minimalist stories faxing life's details to us in shopping lists, literature notices things and gets them right.
And it requires readers to notice and accept them too. You can't deny Emma Bovary or Raskolnikov or Oliver Twist -- you salute, or nod, or turn away. Literature demands acquiescence.
So the question arises. Does American literature in our time rest in great journalistic novels such as "The Bonfire of the Vanities?" In the Sag Harbor softball prose of New York and L.A. trendies? In the stolid plot-flipping of bestseller stalwarts such as Michener? In the pre-faded polish of workshop veterans?
Or in Sniglets?
A Sniglet is "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." Originally coined by former, would-be short-story writer Rich Hall for the HBO comedy series "Not Necessarily the News," the Sniglet now runs wild in five paperback volumes, published by Collier/Macmillan and each costing $5.95. Over the years, they have racked up a combined total of more than 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Having generated a genre with more than 1.4 million copies in print, the Sniglet seems, as a movie publicist might pump it, "Less than an aphorism, but more than a man. ... "
Actually, it's a form bent on noticing rather than recording. It attends to the "uncontrollable urge to lean out the car window and yell 'Moo!!!' every time you pass a cow" (bovilexia). Or the predicament of the person in a theme restaurant who, faced with the choice between Turtles and Tortoises, can't determine his or her designated bathroom (genderplex).
Does Anne Tyler, or Ann Beattie, or Annie Body Else notice anything this precisely, let alone this much, in contemporary writing? The Sniglet deserves respect, if not an instant secondary trot by Alfred Kazin. Like any bold literary form, it breeds subgenres.
There are basic verbs such as ophead ("to smash one's head against the crease of a newspaper to get it to fold"), useful nouns for psychological conditions such as phonesia ("the affliction of dialing a phone number and forgetting whom you were calling just as they answer"), and inspired adjectives that capture a deviant compulsion -- choconiverous: "the tendency when eating a chocolate Easter bunny to bite off the head first").
Sniglets also cover such quasi-medical conditions as oopzama ("sudden scratching of scalp or face upon realization that the person you were waving at isn't who you thought it was"), long-deserving though neglected substances such as opukum ("that horrible-looking liquid the scooper sits in at the ice cream parlor") and esoteric geographic locales (hozone: "the place where one sock in every laundry load disappears to").
Cute. But literature? One expects snooty critics to be condismissive. Aren't Sniglets just arch lexicographic ad-libs, canny neologistic gimmicks? Look at the titles of some of the collections: "Unexplained Sniglets of the Universe" (1986), or "When Sniglets Ruled the Earth" (1989). The underlying message is "Necessarily Not to Be Taken Seriously." (The others in the series are "Sniglets," 1984; "More Sniglets," 1985, and "Angry Young Sniglets," 1987.)
And yet. Why should wispy MFA stylists hog all the literary prestige of fiction's postmodern pluralism? If serious literati can ditch conventional narrative for playful murk, why can't Hall do so for playful clarity? Perhaps "Sniglature" takes contemporary literary freedom even further than such writers dare, with less pretense.
Ponder the case.
For starters, it fits snugly with leading aphorisms about literature. "Literature," said William Ellery Channing, "is the expression of a nation's mind in writing." Do you know a plainer expression of the American mind than the widespread willingness to furble ("wander through a maze of ropes at an airport or bank even when you are the only person in line")? Neither Henry James nor Edith Wharton limned the genteel, democratic decorum of America more lucidly.
Christopher Morley called literature "the sudden expression of the fierce, hilarious lives of human beings." Do you know anything more sudden and fierce than an outbreak of elbonics ("the actions of two people maneuvering for one armrest in a movie theater")?
Sniglets, truth be told, socialclimb toward literature with no crasser a gait than that exhibited by our most Sammy-Glickish of genres, the mystery. Except they scamper up walls like Hollywood soldiers, overwhelming fair critical response by sheer numbers.
Some are merely taut and clever (butthenge: "a pile of cigarette butts occupying a parking lot space"). A few, however, radiate etymological afflatus (java-vu: "phenomenon of constantly adjusting the sugar/cream level of your coffee to your liking, only to have a waitress come along and ruin it again").
Most of Hall's creations, indeed, amount to long-missed donations to our taxonomy of the world. They resemble such natural Sniglets of the past as jaywalker (Cro-Magnon man needed "a pedestrian who crosses the street in disregard of traffic signals"). Why not reward Hall for such leaps as airplause ("gratuitous ovation awarded a pilot on completion of a safe landing"), and survoid ("the irrational walking pattern one makes at the shopping mall to avoid a person approaching with a clipboard")?
Don't American culturati traditionally admire the timely coinologist, admitting Tom Wolfe into literature partly on the panache of "radical chic," "the Me Decade" and now the "social X-ray?"
But the most powerful reason for treating Sniglets as literature is something one notices about them: how they typically pounce on private embarrassments and irrationalities. Like the best fiction, Sniglets take us into unfinished psychological basements: the misery of underwonder ("that 'knowing' feeling, when carrying an arm load of laundry, that causes you to look behind and see a trail of dropped underwear"), the pathos of medipeep (the "uncontrollable urge to look inside a host's bathroom cabinet"), the je ne sais quoi of premaderci ("the act of saying goodbye to someone, then running into him again moments later").
And no one can question the very literary attention of Sniglets to character and motivation. A tendency toward lockoblank ("trauma of returning to school from Christmas vacation and being unable to remember one's locker combination") can make an antsy Kafkaesque Joseph K. of any man. That awful phenomenon of Majury -- the "blatant lies and illogic that mothers use to discourage 'dangerous' activity among children (i.e., 'What if your face freezes like that?')" -- steers us to a pathology bigger than Portnoy or any single literary victim.
These Sniglets of the soul prod profound thoughts, confirming that we typically develop words for the things we must speak about, and shun words for experiences that dare not speak their names.
Precisely because Sniglets accomplish no less than great fictional characters (for instance, they give concrete form and name tags to shared intuitions), Sniglets also pass a crucial test of literature: intimating the universality of human experience.
We quake, for instance, in recognition of credidiots ("people who linger during the credits of a movie as if they're going to recognize someone"). Sniglets thus supply one of literature's abiding comforts, shaken but not deep-sixed by modernism -- authorial wisdom. When we think of Krashtonite ("the indestructible material the 'black box' is made of"), Hall's lingering query ("How come the rest of the plane isn't made of this?") confronts us with a reply to public policy that not even Le Carre' has risked in his fiction.
Finally, like all serious literature, the Sniglet revels in obsessional subjects, epiphanic experiences. Proust's madeleine gives way to Hall's escalator as a fount of inexorable memory (Hall is haunted by the greelite that beams from below the moving stairs). The capacity of a social group to agree on toppings for a pizza (compizzable) also assumes Homeric dimensions, showing that Hall the poet is a man of his times.
If we accept the good in Sniglature, of course, we must concede the bad. Like the minor works of many masters, Hall's mirrorings occasionally flop. Some Sniglets, for instance, mislead, like jiffylust ("the inability to be the first person to carve into a brand-new beautiful jar of peanut butter"), where jiffybacy is in order.
Yet the observations behind the failures remain gifts. Gertrude Stein supposedly upbraided Hemingway by remarking, "Remarks are not literature." But an insight is an insight is an insight. Putting down any of Hall's 90-page books on a hot summer day, thinking about the accumulation of hair in a drain after showering (baldage), or reporters who caffidget ("tear Styrofoam coffee cups into several hundred pieces"), one finds oneself in the presence of something far more deeply interfused, whose setting should be literature's main table.
"Only connect," E.M. Forster instructed pursuers of literature. But he checked in before postmodernism. "Only notice," says Rich Hall, the Forster for the '90s. Fit Over 40
Remar Sutton is on vacation. His column will resume when he returns.