April 18, 2007

What does a novelist do for us?

Partly prompted by a recent debate in the comments section of Bookninja over Yann Martel's recent challenge to the Prime Minister (which led some contributors to the site to debate the importance of literature)--and partly just by my own interest in the question, here's an excerpt from an essay by Leslie Stephen called "The Moral Element in Literature" that I have been editing for the anthology I'm working on. Stephen is considering, among other things, why (in his opinion) novelists fail aesthetically when they write too much "with a purpose." Such efforts as, to use his example, Dickens's attack on government bureaucracy by way of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit "implies a confusion of function," he suggests. And yet "if a poet should not have the same purpose as the politician or the economist," the conclusion is "certainly not that he should have no purpose. To have no purpose is simply not to be a reasoning being." So if poets or novelists should have no direct practical aim or purpose, or not seek to prove particular theories about the world, what can they do for us? Here's part of Stephen's answer:

He shows us certain facts as they appear to him. If we are so constituted as to be unable to see what he sees, he can go no further. He cannot proceed to argue and analyse, and apply an elaborate logical apparatus. There is the truth, and we must make what we can of it. But, on the other hand, so far as we are in sympathy with him, the proof--if it be a proof--has all the cogency of direct vision. He has couched our dull eyes, drawn back the veil which hid from us the certain aspect of the world, and henceforward our views of life and the world will be more or less changed, because the bare scaffolding of fact which we previously saw will now be seen in the light of keener perceptions than our own.

Elegantly put. But how close is Stephen coming here to James's idea of being "one of those on whom nothing is lost"? The emphasis on perception over action (currently very trendy in ethical/philosophical approaches to literature) leaves me dissatisfied, for reasons I have discussed in some of my academic writing. Still, Stephen does suggest a role for the novel in the world, albeit an indirect one. After all, if we never changed our views of life, we would never seek to change our, or others', experience of it.

April 16, 2007

Zadie Smith, On Beauty: Disconnected

I did not 'connect' with this novel at all. After I finished it, I went back and read through the two or three pages of quotations from reviewers, all full of enthusiasm and praise ("wonderfully engaging, wonderfully observed"; "accomplished, substantive, and penetrating"; "an ambitious, warm and bending [bending??] portrayal"; "hilarious"; "ironic, acerbic and intelligent"...). Say what? The characters never came to life for me; each of them seemed like an embodied idea or function. It's true that Smith has a virtuosic ability to render different voices, dialects, cadences of speech--but the conversations lacked naturalness. The prose seemed stilted and full of details that didn't add anything to either its sound or its meaning. Here's one small example of the kind of thing that annoyed me: during what is actually one of the most important encounters in the novel (the 'bonding' between Kiki and Carlene Kipps), Kiki "felt in her purse for her lip balm" and then applies "a layer of colourless gloop to her mouth" (172). There's some motivation for her to put on the lip balm (awkward conversational moment) but "colourless gloop" is a phrase that doesn't belong to Kiki or the narrating voice--who would describe lip balm that way? Is there some reason we should look at lip balm problematically? Is it the lack of colour? Is there some implied anti-consumerism sub-text? Or is it just a sloppy intrusion of, maybe, Smith's own dislike of such products? (Why? What's wrong with them?) I realize this is a small detail, but overall much of the book had this effect on me: why is this happening? why are they saying or doing this now? why does this part belong with the other parts of the book?

I also found the whole depiction of the academic context wholly unbelievable. OK, it's meant satirically; it's a 'campus novel' (among other things) but not necessarily bound to capture the realities of professional life at universities today. But in this area too I was endlessly distracted and annoyed. How is it that Howard has been at Wellington for so long and neither received tenure nor reached the end of a tenure-track contract? Even at the most elite colleges, aren't there procedures and time-tables for these things? Part of the novel's denouement is his acceptance of a sabbatical, conveniently, to defuse the problems that have arisen--but sabbatical leaves are not just handed out anyplace I know about; again, there are procedures and regulations. His supposedly climactic PowerPoint presentation can't mean anything in relation to his tenure chances--does a public lecture ever? Am I missing the point of all these breaches of academic protocol in the plot? Are they confusions about the academy, versions of the academy that those of us in less privileged institutions don't share, adaptations of academic life to suit Smith's thematic purposes? (What exactly are these, by the way? They never coalesced for me in any striking moment or image in the novel.)

Some of the ways she worked up the 'culture wars' were sort of funny, but not particularly deep and, in their overall leanings, predictably left-liberal. Though she brought Kiki around to some kind of interest in Monty's "conservative" take on issues such as affirmative action, none of the characters that might have been used for a really probing case study were used that way after all, and the politics got sidelined, I thought, by the cliched sexual escapades of both Howard and Monty. Nothing really came of Levi's attempt to discard his actual class identity and the white part of his family background; Jerome's relationship with Victoria also goes nowhere in particular, simply getting diffused among the other miscellaneous plot twists. I could go on with complaints and questions, it turns out, but that's probably enough for now.

Now, given the praise heaped on the book by the reviewers, I'm open to ideas about how I might have read it better and enjoyed it more. I did find it mildly entertaining and readable, in the sense that I kept reading along happily enough waiting and hoping for it to come together in some stirring way. It just didn't, and while some novels leave me feeling I underestimated them on a first reading and would like to go back more thoughtfully (The Night Watch, most recently), On Beauty just left me disappointed.

April 9, 2007

Robert B. Parker, School Days

Works for me every time! There is a certain sameness about the Spenser novels, to be sure, but their consistency is usually a virtue. And in this case, there's a good dose of social relevance (school shootings) along with the usual psychological and social commentary--admittedly, elliptical to the extreme, but one aspect of these novels that I appreciate is how much work gets done in the silences and spaces, not in any postmodern sense of the important elements being absences or anything, but simply that when Parker's on his game, the situations and characters are conveyed strongly enough that we can fill in the blanks, come to the conclusions, ourselves. The influence of Raymond Chandler is strong, of course, with the whole "down these mean streets a man must go..." model, but Spenser's readiness to get mean himself when his code of honour requires it is usually the most interesting aspect of the plot. I have long admired the relationship Parker establishes for Spenser and Susan (who should surely be played by Terri Hatcher, if she can control her more gawky mannerisms?) and found the sexual and the racial politics of these novels a refreshing break from PC pieties (while insistently alert to inequities and injustices, both systemic and personal). (While I'm thinking about it, I'll just add that I've always admired Dick Francis for a similar ability to imagine equal, mature , independent women for putting into relationships with his male protagonists.) I do wonder, though, about Parker's fascination with assertively sexual women, such as Rita Fiore. Her intelligence and skill are never in doubt, and in some ways it seems a positive thing to create a character who is both a powerful professional woman and a sex kitten: women have struggled long enough with stereotypes that insist intellectual prowess is incompatible with femininity or allure. And yet I also feel that Rita plays into other cliches (fantasies?) about the qualities that make women attractive to men (OK, she's a smart lawyer, but look at those great legs!). Because I find the ethos of the Spenser novels overall so advanced, it feels carping to fret this detail, and I don't think Parker has any obligation to match his characters up to any specific standard in this respect. I guess I'm just surprised. Maybe this is a way to put a positive spin on the sexpot characters from the hard-boiled novels--kind of an updated, she's on our side now, verson of Brigid O'Shaunessy? Gorgeous dames aren't necessarily dangerous?

April 8, 2007

A Reader's Responsibilities

Ian McEwan's recent letter in The Guardian points to an aspect of criticism that is perhaps underestimated by those advocating a turn away from academic approaches towards more 'aesthetic' or 'literary' responses. In reply to a reviewer who attributed one of his character's views to him, McEwan writes,

As for Saturday - a character in a novel who expresses hostility towards novels in general should not be seen as an entirely trustworthy mouthpiece of his novelist creator. For example, the pro-Iraq war views Henry Perowne expresses in an argument with his daughter are not mine and nor, for that matter, are her anti-war opinions. On the other hand, I would agree with Perowne that some - not all - peace protesters are naive. Who can forget those daft and earnest English folk parading through central London last summer with placards that read, "We are all Hizbullah now"?

I sometimes wonder whether these common critical confusions arise unconsciously from a prevailing atmosphere of empowering consumerism - the exaltation of the subjective, the "not in my name" syndrome. It certainly seems odd to me that such simple precepts need pointing up: your not "liking" the characters is not the same as your not liking the book; you don't have to think the central character is nice; the views of the characters don't have to be yours, and are not necessarily those of the author; a novel is not always all about you.

The complaint that readers too readily conflate characters or narrators with biographical authors is a familiar one to students of the novel (Jane Eyre, anyone?); in part McEwan is asking that his artistic freedom be respected. But he is also demanding that his work be read properly, with due attention to its technical complexities, so that, to use his own example, it is not assumed that because his protagonist in Saturday is (cautiously) in favour of invading Iraq, either the author or the novel takes the same position. Particularly if a reader is going to make public pronouncements about a novel (as in a review), the reader should be skilled enough--knowledgeable enough--to avoid misreading. And it is possible to misread: a reader's response can be wrong, misguided, confused. All opinions are not equal: some represent a fuller, more careful, better-informed engagement with all the elements of the work. Henry Perowne, to stick with the Saturday example, is a compelling but flawed character: his world view has limits not shared by the novel overall, which, among other things, self-evidently values literature more highly than the neurosurgeon does. One of the things the novel is about is the limitations of Perowne's materialist view of the world--though at the same time, the novel is filled with respect for the "grandeur" in that view of things (a Darwinian phrase with rich implications for McEwan's novel). In some of the anti-academic discussions, the reader's responsibility to the text and author in question gets sidelined because of the emphasis on responding to, rather than analyzing, a text. A responsible (rather than just responsive) reading requires, just to give one example, attention to point of view, which can include recognizing when a thought or opinion not in quotation marks nonetheless represents the views of a character ("she was only Anne," we read in Austen's Persuasion, but a reasonably alert reader will promptly understand that this dismissive attitude belongs to Anne's foolish family, and one of the novel's main points is that their inability to appreciate her signals their broader moral disabilities). Unreliable narration is another technical issue that must be rightly understood for a good reading of many books: Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, for instance, would be radically misrepresented by a reader who accepted the narrator's deference for authority as the novel's own. While these days nearly anybody can read a novel, that does not mean everybody reads it equally well. Academic scholarship may be of questionable public value in its more erudite forms (though it may also be of intrinsic interest and therefore arguably worthwhile nonetheless), but in my own experience at any rate, English professors spend a lot of time trying to equip their students, not with politics or Theory but with the knowledge and tools to be better readers. If we do value literature, than this kind of expertise is surely worth promoting, even demanding.

Recent discussions about Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books That You Haven't Read prompt some of the same thoughts. While I can see many occasions on which you might be in a conversation about a book you have not read, I don't accept that there is any value in your pronouncing on it in any way. For example, I have not read Bayard's book myself, only reviews and commentaries on it, such as Leah McLaren's in this week's Globe and Mail. So I can talk about it in a limited way, and I might even get passionate about what I take to be some of its claims. But I can't responsibly judge or review the book without reading it for myself. I think it's outrageous if it is true, as McLaren's column states, that Bayard "admits to giving lectures on books he hasn't bothered to open"--unless (and you see, I can't know this without reading more) he lectures solely on context, literary relations, historical significance, or other issues that do not depend on specific textual evidence or close reading. If he talks about the specifics or the qualities of the books themselves, he is a fraud. As McLaren points out, we live in an "era of crib culture" in which people seem ready to accept "intellectual shortcuts" whenever possible. But substituting someone's report about a book for your own reading of it is shoddy as well as risky, and our readiness to give up on "heavy reading" is not necessarily something to be complacent about. Required reading lists have the merit of motivating students to struggle on with things they find uncomfortable, unfamiliar, even boring. As McEwan says, "a novel is not always all about you," and in that respect education differs substantially from other 'consumer' products. To consider my own experience again, it's remarkable how many students are capable of learning to like a novel, or (since 'converting' them to like things is not really the point of teaching them) learning to appreciate the merits, qualities, or significance of a novel, as a work of art and a contribution to pertinent cultural, social, aesthetic, or political discussions, even if their first response was boredom or confusion. Again, some expertise is required, some technical terms useful, some precision in analysis as important as visceral responses. And again I think that as readers, or as serious and responsible readers, we have an obligation to the texts and authors to study our primary source carefully before we arrive at (much less publish) our conclusions.

April 3, 2007

Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading

The Practice of Reading lies somewhere in between standard academic literary criticism and the more populist 'books about books' that I've been reading for my 'writing for readers' project. I suppose its main audience is an academic one, but its project and contents are quite miscellaneous and so it contributes more by modelling Donoghue's idea of good reading across varied examples than by intervening incisively or extensively into any particular critical or theoretical debate. That said, Donoghue does present his ideas about reading and criticism in some detail in the first few chapters, and his broad aim is to make a case for aesthetic criticism (according to his careful definitions) against the various ideological versions he tags as the "New Thematics." He advocates an aesthetic criticism that restores due emphasis to the 'lived experience' of reading texts, or to the element of 'performance' (qualities or properties that can't be sustained in a paraphrase or plot summary). He calls for a "recovered disinterestedness," a putting aside of our immediate selves and prejudices in order to release the imagination: "the purpose of reading literature," he says at one point, "is to exercise or incite one's imagination; specifically, one's ability to imagine being different"--an ability inhibited, he argues, by the pressures of identity politics, among other forces. While I am in sympathy with much of this strain of his argument, I have questions (answered, perhaps, in his other writings) about what knowledge, experience, or education he thinks is required to achieve a "lived experience" of a text that deserves being written up or shared with others. He points out himself that, for some texts, our selves are insufficient for good readings--"information is required." Some knowledge of literary history and genre is certainly necessary for the kinds of readings he offers, and yet at some points he seems to take sides against those who insist on the relevance of historical context. How well does his version of aestheticism work on texts that, themselves, look out to their historical world, novels such as Bleak House, for instance? (How far is his a "poetics" for poetry only, or literature of a certain kind only, that is not itself overtly social or political?)

I liked his breakdown of critical modes into Arnold, Pater, and Wilde (interesting that his prototypes are all from the 19th century), and he is convincing about the way much criticism driven by "High Theory" follows the 'Wilde' approach in which the work of art ostensibly under examination becomes a "suggestion for a new work of [the critic's] own" (here he is quoting Wilde's "The Critic as Artist"). He goes on to suggest that such criticism (including much of Derrida's, for example) is best understand as a separate literary genre--perhaps autobiography. In a slightly different context, he argues that recent critics of Macbeth "reveal what is happening in criticism more clearly than what happens in Macbeth." I think he is right, but both conclusions might prompt the student of literature to wonder why she would bother with this kind of criticism, the lives of critics or the history of criticism being rather separate inquiries.

Most interesting and potentially useful for me are the ways he distinguishes between criticism that (taking an Arnoldian approach) attempts to talk about what the text is overtly about ("the object itself as it really is"--admitting all kinds of complications, of course) and those whose critical goal is to "rebuke" the text for not being something else, or at any rate to evaluate it based on an external standard. His discussion of Marjorie Levinson on Wordsworth reminds me of the discussion of Spivak in Freadman and Miller's Re-Thinking Theory (also on Wordsworth), and his line on recent critics of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" is my favourite in the book for the way it captures a particular (today, almost ubiquitous) approach to a literary text: "Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else." So too is Charlotte Bronte often not allowed her themes in Jane Eyre, or Jane Austen, lately, in Mansfield Park, or George Eliot in Middlemarch in some recent readings (Elizabeth Langland's, for instance).

I wonder if Donoghue offers the kind of aesthetic criticism Daniel Green (of "The Reading Experience") would like to see more of.