This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The tale of Clive I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission: he wants to write the perfect novel. Clive has a lot going for him: he's intelligent and well read; he's made a study of contemporary fiction and can see clearly where his peers have gone wrong; he has read a good deal of rigorous literary theory - those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built - and is now ready to build his own unparalleled house of words. Maybe Clive even teaches novels, takes them apart and puts them back together. If writing is a craft, he has all the skills, every tool. Clive is ready. He clears out the spare room in his flat, invests in an ergonomic chair, and sits down in front of the blank possibility of the Microsoft Word program. Hovering above his desktop he sees the perfect outline of his platonic novel - all he need do is drag it from the ether into the real. He's excited. He begins. Fast-forward three years. Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalisingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection; its shape is warped, unrecognisable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate. For example, when it came to fashioning the character of the corrupt Hispanic government economist, Maria Gomez, who is so vital to Clive's central theme of corruption within American identity politics, he found he needed something more than simply "the right words" or "knowledge about economists". Maria Gomez effectively proves his point about the deflated American dream, but in other, ineffable, ways she seems not quite to convince as he'd hoped. He found it hard to get into her silk blouse, her pencil skirt - even harder to get under her skin. And then, later, trying to describe her marriage, he discovered that he wanted to write cleverly and aphoristically about "Marriage" with a capital M far more than he wanted to describe Maria's particular marriage, which, thinking of his own marriage, seemed suddenly a monumentally complex task, particularly if his own wife, Karina, was going to read it. And there are a million other little examples ... flaws that are not simply flaws of language or design, but rather flaws of ... what? Him? This thought bothers him for a moment. And then another, far darker thought comes. Is it possible that if he were only the reader, and not the writer, of this novel, he would think it a failure? Clive doesn't wallow in such thoughts for long. His book gets an agent, his agent gets a publisher, his novel goes out into the world. It is well received. It turns out that Clive's book smells like literature and looks like literature and maybe even, intermittently, feels like literature, and after a while Clive himself has almost forgotten that strange feeling of untruth, of self-betrayal, that his novel first roused in him. He becomes not only a fan of his own novel, but its great defender. If a critic points out an overindulgence here, a purple passage there, well, then Clive explains this is simply what he intended. It was all to achieve a certain effect. In fact, Clive doesn't mind such criticism: nit-picking of this kind feels superficial compared to the bleak sense he first had that his novel was not only not good, but not true. No one is accusing him of so large
a bad metaphor. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers. the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost. out of reach. Writers do not say. myopic. but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost . what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is. In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work. Its purpose was to suggest that somewhere between a critic's necessary superficiality and a writer's natural dishonesty.Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. deluded. The critics. then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. everybody agrees that she is just as you'd imagine a corrupt Hispanic government economist in a pencil skirt to be. but a question of character.vain. This is hard for young writers. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live. most of the time. with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up. they don't consider problems like these to be central. It is always easier to depersonalise the question. what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?" A map of disappointments . and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes. after all. cowardly. To writers. It is very hard to get writers to speak frankly about their own work. compromised. As for Maria Gomez. Writers feel. or "disappointed bridges". writing well is not simply a matter of skill. particularly in a literary market where they are required to be not only writers. for example. a tedious denouement. but also hucksters selling product. 2. as Joyce called them. when they criticise. get wet. who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. One writer. replied by refining my simple question into a series of more interesting ones: I've often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: "Never mind critics.a crime.at least. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self . over on the opposite coast. Most writers. speak of the paintwork and brickwork of the novel. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets. But for the people who write novels. "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" . Map of disappointments . to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavour we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. of a naturally analytical and philosophical bent. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers. like Clive. The craft that defies craftsmanship That is the end of the tale of Clive. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. to say the least. a matter of some importance. Clive is satisfied and vindicated. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books? It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles. He begins work on a sequel. a country I imagine as mostly beach.that would be a revelation. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. to grasp at first. What does it take. and are confident he will fix these little mistakes next time round.
For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer's work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. Occasionally it's worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is. What writers know First things first: writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality or otherwise of their own work . and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of . independent of its originator. of personality. Literary success or failure. It's what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf. There is a rogue element somewhere . despite all this. completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of seminars. he claimed. Eliot decimated the very idea of individual consciousness. easy to ridicule. most writers are quite deluded about the nature of their own talent. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. was not interesting. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. But writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. the "soul" would have done just as well. that most distinguished of critic-practitioners. by this measure. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language. 4. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality. you see style as a personal necessity. the poetry was everything. although. depends not only on the refinement of words on a page. among other things. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. but in the refinement of a consciousness. But neither did they think of a writer's personality as an irrelevance. standing in our way. of Iris Murdoch. difficult to express. in writing. Though we rarely say it publicly. the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it. for better or worse. "Tradition and the Individual Talent". or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake. Rather. That's why. in its widest sense.God knows.for convenience's sake we'll call it the self. In his famous essay of 1919. what Aristotle called the education of the emotions. a question of character. The poet and his personality were irrelevant. you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax. the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private. and what there was. When you understand style in these terms. Tradition versus the individual talent But before we go any further along that track we find TS Eliot. nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. of Roland Barthes. and yet. true.never write great ones. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting. There was hardly any such thing. and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man's life to understand his work". we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. 3. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be. in less metaphysically challenged times. unique. in the public imagination. I think that fiction writers know different. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism.
"is not a turning loose of emotion. That essay is written in so high church a style. it's our way of processing the world. "the responsible person interested in poetry". it is our way of being active. This analogy has proved a useful aspiration for critics. nonbiographical criticism of which they had long dreamt. radically creative. but they also unavoidably exist within the garden of the self and this. it is not the expression of personality. and to which they have every right. It is certainly very important." says Eliot. caring for Barth over Barthelme constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him. requires nurture and development. such as the tricky fact that he had committed his wife to an asylum). but it is naturally of . or at least none the critic need worry himself with.a devotion to tradition . Eliot's analogy just won't do. Eliot's analogy freed critics to do the independent. a continual extinction of personality.preferring Milton to Moliere.ruthlessly to separate the personal from the poetry. however.literary history." says Eliot. is a brilliant demarcation of what is properly within the remit of. with his beliefs about the nature of the world. Just because Eliot didn't want to talk about it. too. Fiction writing is not an objective science and writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate.but that is a narrow vision. The self is not like platinum it leaves traces all over the place. performing an act of meaningful recombination. There is no doubt that Eliot's essay. but never was a man's work more inflected with his character. our way of being. so disinterested. that it is easy to forget that young critic-practitioners make the beds they wish to lie in. The choices a writer makes within a tradition . This shameful fact needn't trouble the professor or the critic. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science. As for that element of his work that he puts forward as a model of his impersonality . as Eliot argues. 5. but an escape from personality. he famously compared a writer to a piece of finely filiated platinum introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. Eliot may have been ruthlessly impersonal in his writing in the superficial sense (if by that we mean he did not reveal personal details.such devotion is the very definition of personality in writing." "The progress of an artist. with such imperious authority. as he puts it. entering into a tradition. It has allowed them to believe in the writer as catalyst. and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure." These credos seem so impersonal themselves. doesn't mean it isn't there. Personality is much more than autobiographical detail. "is a continual self-sacrifice. which is that writers are in possession of "selfhood". that even if all your affective experience as a writer is to the contrary. "Poetry. and yet leaving no trace of himself. It lays out an entirely reasonable boundary between what we can and cannot say about a piece of writing without embarrassing ourselves. you are intimidated into believing it. For writers. and it was in Eliot's interest . that writers should foster an understanding of the cultures and the books of the past. Writing as self-betrayal Back to my simple point. He was so concerned with privacy that it influences his terminology: everywhere in that essay there is the assumption that personality amounts to simply the biographical facts of one's life . with its promise to "halt at the frontiers of metaphysics or mysticism".given the complexity and scandals of his private life and his distaste for intrusion . but an escape from emotion. and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities.
then. in a poem of the same title: It is small and no more visible than a cricket in August. just as Plato had an idea of the forms. between alliances. it's impossible to even know what that would mean. like failure.work done for what Heidegger called "Das Mann". at all . That novelist. asks the writer. In what form. What is a cliche except language passed down by Das Mann. Neither custom officers nor their beautiful dogs will find it.as Zagajewski suggests ." Writing feels like self-betrayal. the indeterminate "They" who hang over your shoulder.. although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it. answering the question: "How would you define literary failure?" I was once asked by a high-school student in an audience in Chennai: "Why.. writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. the cliche. When we write.after all. and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express? With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding. That is why the most common feeling. I suppose like all of us who came of age under postmodernity. we have the idea of a total revelation of truth. are you so eager to please?" That's how I tend to define failure . Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski.is a chimerical impossibility. the critic's favourite. each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with. upon re-reading one's own work. as writers. which alliances are strong enough to hold. between serviceable truths. It even fits under a bandage. is naturally sceptical of the concept of authenticity. similarly. warping your sense of judgment. even poets from novelists. it hides itself. used and shop-soiled by so many before you. comics from tragedians. And so. to deal with the fact that when we account for our failings. to masquerade. is Prufrock's: "That is not it at all . you have re-presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true . It likes to dress up.. what he (not me) would call your authenticity. as all dwarves do. under adhesive. the feeling that is strongest is a betrayal of one's deepest. especially what is called "cultural authenticity" . instead. in another email.. 6. you have taken a short-cut. and yet its total revelation . can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self. like me. sir. how can any of us be more or less authentic than we are? We were taught that authenticity was meaningless. To me. authentic self? That sounds very grand: maybe it's better to start at the simplest denomination of literary betrayal. How. which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it. Actually.no little significance to writers themselves. Between hymns. It lodges between granite blocks. multifaceted self. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called "realists". Writing as inauthenticity Here is another novelist. but cannot realise it. that is not what I meant. speaking of The Self.
what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again. as they are at the ballot box. To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence . to write with the average reader in mind.and strange. I apologise. the modern writer has a duty to entertain. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language. These days. one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language. the myths of your historical moment . 7. this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. how we might fail to fulfil it. as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.an obligation that the writers and readers of literature are under. and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear. in literature.once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in . but a betrayal all the same. that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure . in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate "purse" from its old. presupposes a duty . less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs. Writing is not a science. that are clear and interesting and intelligent. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones . to be a curio. We are really speaking of consumer rights. This is not a good time. not particular. For writers have only one duty. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince. properly pursued. to be in good taste. I have no objection to books that entertain and please. Duty is not a very literary term. whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which "inauthentic" is truly the correct term.anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers. If that sounds woolly and imprecise. of betrayal. the out-and-out lies of your nation.a small enough betrayal of self. Do writers have duties? All this talk of authenticity. to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure. Above all. what that might be. the slogans. It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty. fiction needs to be general. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply. produces complicated. . That is what I am looking for when I read a novel. will always be welcomed. the second-hand dogma. This single duty.for example. persistent friend "rummage". various results. and to do this. when we do speak of literary duties.but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so. Personally. as a consumer of literature. the truths that are not your own but other people's. whole characters. with characters that speak the recognisable dialogue of the sitcom. and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer. we mean it from the reader's perspective. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment. and if they should be missing. Readers seem to wish to be "represented". you have not told the truth. To speak personally. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognisable . the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. the mottos.
although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher. But great writing . 8. and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. the waitress in the cafe offers a non. Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. I don't care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. every 30 years. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon. Bad writing does nothing. It is what you can't help tell if you write well. educates no emotions.we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family. no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero.great writing forces you to submit to its vision. a dog dances in the street. where the self is so neatly wedded to the social. changes nothing. Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. walking through your neighbourhood.is a duty of the most demanding kind.it will always be a partial vision. and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. If. when it panders to the generalities of its day. In America.sequitur. We refuse to be each other A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I've been talking about the duty to convey accurately the truth of one's own conception .. not just of a man . Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs. Fictional truth is a question of perspective. the world has turned Chekhovian. A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition. Such a revelation is impossible . not autobiography. people complain that there were only a few first-rate . This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy. rewires no inner circuitry . And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks. it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. Great styles represent the interface of "world" and "I". no matter how alien it may be to you. no matter how long you live. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. 9.. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's. their dream of the perfect novel is called "The Great American Novel" and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation.
Fact is. What I'm saying is. truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one's eyes water just thinking about it. actually. hard-won.novels published. It is a writer's duty. equal. is every bit as tough as writing . when you spend time with a book. they only wish to debase reading and readers. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt. This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. when you practise reading. given the shared and ambivalent nature of language. deluded nature of the self . done properly. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare. But there's no reason to cry. skills to play this piece of music. in which the labour required on either side is. Reading.I really believe that. because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her. or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Note to readers: a novel is a two-way street A novel is a two-way street.given the nature of our mediated world. given the elusive. that's because there were only a few. It is also a reader's duty. too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns. a reader must have talent. the legacy of honourable failures. That is certainly one of the . to tell the truth of your own conception . And yet. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television. She must use her own. the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. not the monument of fulfilment. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park. The greater the skill. or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston's capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland's strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert's faintest nuance. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. Did I mention that yet? 10. deceitful. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it. in the end.truly takes a genius. Quite a lot of talent. it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate. The art is in the attempt. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader. and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do.
many things fiction can do. They are like the instructions that come with furniture at IKEA. the state-of-the-nation and so on. and only the individual reader is important to me.” he argues. but only within our own skins. The first blueprint is drawn from this original novel. To exist under the guidance of pure thought is like travelling in Denmark with the help of a small map of Europe. he reaches out for the truth – in order to exist in it. too. "Read Better" 11. for the cogent reason that we cannot fully exist in systems. within each reading system. he warns. There is always. but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. it is still more impossible. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more. on which Denmark shows no larger than a steel pen-point – Aye. and so naturally are very susceptible to those who come offering positives like – in the case Kierkegaard is considering – the overwhelming positive of Hegel’s “System”. Such novels have a guaranteed audience: an appropriate reading system has been created around the first novel and now makes room for them.” That’s how young readers are. the gendered. “A philosophy of pure thought.” A writer with such strong opinions would find it hard to survive in the present literary culture. which is usually a work of individual brilliance. an ur novel – the one with which all the other novels are forced into uncomfortable conformity. the idea of the “individual reader” having gone into terminal decline. All one need do is seek out the flatpack novels that most closely resemble the blueprints already to hand. System readers. system writers “A work of art. But then how should we read? What does one tell a young reader struggling to choose from the smorgasbord of theoretical reading “systems” that are put before him or her in an average undergraduate week? Søren Kierkegaard has a useful piece of analogous advice. But. “has no importance whatever to society. one that shines so brightly it creates a shadow large enough for a little cottage industry of novels to survive in its shade. whole systems that concern themselves with the experience of being a self will not lead us to truth. the postmodern. not Nabokov. as Kierkegaard explains it. when they start out. state-of-the-nation novels bring great comfort. When the world is nervous.” . The Nobel went to Pasternak. It is only important to the individual. if the truth that is sought is something to exist in. in reading groups.” said Nabokov. “is for an existing individual a chimera. They are doubters and seekers. This state of affairs might explain some of the present animosity the experimentalist feels for the realist or the cult writer or the bestseller – it’s annoying and demoralising to feel that readers are being trained to read only a limited variety of fiction and to recognise as literature only those employing linguistic codes for which they already have the key. various general reading systems are offered – the post-colonial. In writing schools. They are living in a negative. Hovering in doubt and without a foothold for his life. in universities. The upshot of this is that the intimate and idiosyncratic in fiction is everywhere less valued than the ideologically coherent and general. given to sceptical youths approaching philosophy for the first time: “The youth is an existing doubter.
If fiction is going to be this particular and inimical.When we are confronted with a delicate. will begin to write novels to please you – novels that feel almost as if they have been written by committee. our lives. We want one man to symbolise a nation. this question of race. He survived communist Russia: he knew all about the collectivisation of thought. that offers no journalistic signposts as to its meaning. when you submit to Nabokov’s vision. it seems a pointless activity. Frankly. on these terms. But we’ve forgotten how to walk round Copenhagen. They have the Sunday supplements in mind and their fiction is littered with hooks. A success. It’s only an emotional education. We want a novel to speak for a community or answer some vital question of the day. knowing your taste. taking it in. Becoming your own cartographer When it comes to reading. Lolita is easy to read if you believe in symbols. such books look awfully tempting. 12. that pretends to no encyclopaedic knowledge of the world. maybe even just Copenhagen. or centred around some issue in the papers. then only a limited number of books will interest you and even those that you are promised are within the genre will often disappoint and irritate. We have our map of Europe and this novel is Denmark. this subtext. You have to throw away other people’s maps. System readers create system writers. failing. The problem is. odd little novel. it’s a Kierkegaardian level of commitment that we’ve forgotten about: intimate. and everything to do with our ethical reality as subjects. ready made for general discussion. is one that fulfils the model. We want a novel to be the “last word” on what it is to be a young Muslim. painstaking. as good novels well know. and let Lolita be individual child. this debate about gender. These are the big idea books and for the young particularly. Nabokov wrote a book about an individual child called Lolita. You have to make the map of Copenhagen yourself. Like good system-makers. not general model. But what of the novels that don’t give themselves easily to such general public discussion? Sometimes it feels like the qualities readers and critics most want to find in novels are those that are antithetical to the writing of a good one. if you read exclusively in the post-colonial manner. For example. a panopticon. . with nothing at all to do with Hegelian systembuilding or theoretical schools. only a transformative experience. a failure. we seem to have no idea how to read it. failing to do all the things you had expected they would. that is not set in a country at war. but he correctly predicted it would be read as a general allegory of “Old Europe ravishing young America” or “Young America seducing Old Europe”. And then it will come to pass that some writers. hovering above the whole scene. armed with the reading systems for which they paid good money in college. In the end. or an American soldier. telling us “how it is”. we’d rather give it up and read something useful and real like a biography of Stalin. perfect for a double page feature. only a going-through. writers who can unpack their own novels in front of you. we want a view from nowhere. You have to be open to the idea that Copenhagen might look and feel completely different to what you expected or believed it to be. We want them to be wholly sufficient systems of ideas. or a mother. view from somewhere. are always a partial. pointing out this theme and that. the book that refuses wider relevance.
interested only in what is good. His criticism is the expression of personal taste and personal belief – the most beautiful kind of criticism. a simple enough truth and yet one the corrective critic refuses to recognise. as Kingsley Amis once accused his son of being. a different urgency. If an Emerson were forced to be a Wesley. in my opinion. not the syllables. or giving Thomas Bernhard a rap on the knuckles for failing to be Alice Munro. by being champions of which in alternation. if another is unrecognised he will be its champion. let’s call him the corrective critic. gives a piece of advice the corrective critic would do well to heed: Each. recasting his own failure of imagination as a principle of aesthetics. One of us must soften himself.different men may all find worthy missions. The divine can mean no single quality. Committed to his theory. another must stand firm. And while there is nothing wrong with believing in a certain quality in novels over any other quality. from his peculiar angle of observation. or a Moody forced to be a Whitman. Coupland understands the outlines of a cubicle perfectly. It is a fortunate coincidence that it happens to coincide with his own prejudices and preferences. It follows that each writer’s duty is different. And although it’s certainly the case that Philip Larkin was incompetent when it came to the idea of women. the total human consciousness of the divine would suffer. it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely. He must also make his taste a general law. But there is something odd here: he fears that his personal taste is not sufficient. If the corrective critic were not so intent upon looking for one quality through it all he would notice that these apparent lacks are also aspects of each writer’s strength – but he seeks the sentence of literature. it must mean a group of qualities. He is essentially meritocratic. a leaf in the wind of trend. But while it may be true that Douglas Coupland understands little of the pastoral. who prides himself on belonging to no school. we have to return more fully to the idea of a writer’s duty. as the novelist has. and good for all time. and his failure to comprehend the first is his illumination of the second. If a reputation is artificially inflated he will deflate it. this is what I love. He is not. Corrective criticism AKA failing to be the sort of thing I rather like Far from the system critic there is another critic. This is really a posh way of saying different strokes for different folks. it is vitally important that one recognise one’s . takes in a certain sphere of fact and trouble. which each must deal with in a unique manner. It is not enough for him to say. I said earlier that it was each writer’s duty to tell the truth of their conception of the world. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature’s total message. does not occur to him. while discussing religious subjectivity. In his Varieties of Religious Experience William James. The pointlessness of penalising Bret Easton Ellis for failing to be Philip Roth. who feels he knows his own mind. regardless of fashion. he defines his theory as “literature” itself. for their independent visions must necessarily each have a different emphasis. To understand the problem with corrective criticism. All he sees are writers who lack the qualities he has decided are the definition of good literature. – in order the better to defend the position assigned him.13. He has decided there is only one worthy mission in literature. this what I believe. it happens that women were not his business – his business was death. one must yield a point. another must harden himself. It is his way or the highway.
for example. better writers But if the real duty of writers is to themselves. how can they ever fail? Are we advocating a new “nice” criticism. believing everything else is subjective belief except his own objective atheism. But that’s just me. To see things as they really are … to me this is always and everywhere. I believe that. Imagining better readers. to write well. can believe itself to be of the utmost importance. in writing. Wouldn’t this be an interesting project for a new generation of critics to undertake? Every critic is an artist in this fantasy literary republic I’m envisioning. What I am imagining is. as ethical individuals moving through the world. The corrective critic is like one of William James’s cocky atheists. Iris Murdoch. That’s what Wallace Stegner meant when he called the novel the “dramatisation of belief”. can lie. One critic-practitioner. and I believe further that this relationship can be traced at every level – a sentence can be self-deluded. a piece of literary criticism. that’s a fascinating. you must convince yourself of the inviolable reality of other people. What if the personal qualities we need to recognise the Good in life do indeed bear some resemblance to the literary tools we need to write well? It is. if we reject it. in art or morals. And a response to a novel. . part of what we are rejecting is what that fiction believes. are prone to the belief that all the world’s a movie. can try too hard to please. We are honest about our literary tastes when we recognise that if a piece of fiction appears to fails us. every critic is doing as much imaginative work as the novelist. To live well. can show an ulterior motive. It is important that we recognise. 14. Murdoch once said. a matter of morals. lingering on set. that the New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani fundamentally does not believe the world to be as David Foster Wallace believes it to be. and requires. more radical ways to trace the relationship between our experiences and the demands that narrative makes on us. and all the other people. is also a dramatisation of belief. but of one’s entire personality. I’m sure there are many other. understood this well. a far more thorough reader. because my reader recognises that writers exist like the rest of us. My reader holds writers to the same account as the rest of us. where all writers get off the hook just because they tried hard. For a writer. the tissue of self-aggrandising and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what there is outside one … This is not easy. It is the great challenge of art to convince ourselves of this fundamental truth – but it’s also the challenge of our lives. merely extras. One might say here that art is an excellent analogy of morals or indeed that it is in this respect a case of morals. She insisted on the idea that artmaking was a test not only of a skill. in life. were in good faith? No. Here she is making a high-wire connection between what it takes to make good art and what it takes to live well: The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy. my reader does not allow writers to transcend the bounds of the human. can be blind to anything outside itself. just like everyone. incredibly hard to make oneself believe that other people really exist in the same way that we do ourselves. terrifying idea. I hope. a discipline. Writers. as many ways as there are shapes of narrative.own beliefs. in which they are the star.
he had both a sensuous understanding of the creative artist and an unimpeachable critical skill. Maybe we have to get out of the academy and away from the newspapers and back into our reading chairs to regain access to this feeling.probably more. This is my private language for a private understanding. you will find fiction opening up before you. But Roland Barthes is a good exception to that rule. his preferences. that is good”. deeply connected to the critic’s own beliefs.” he says. He is piecing together. imagining the novelist. Austen makes me alive to the Beautiful and the Proportional. Listen to Virginia Woolf. “Each critic. impossible for the most self. In conclusion I have tried to make a case for the special role of writer-critics. commitments. There is a suspicion that writers who become critics retain too much of the sentiment and mysticism of their craft to be capable of real critical thought – maybe I am evidence of that. values and failures. I can slide down Nabokov. and learning that it is hard to conceive of any one mind sufficiently endowed. To read The Virgin Suicides followed by The Idiot followed by Despair followed by You Bright and Risen Angels followed by Bleak House followed by Jonah’s Gourd Vine followed by Play it as it Lays is to be forced to recognise the inviolability of the individual human experience. as the means of exercising an intellectual function which is his. will find its companions in a community of like-minded readers. and not fully under my own control. pleasures. with as little personal fantasy and delusion as possible. and obsessions. speaking of the experience of evaluating fiction from the comfort of her reading-chair: It is difficult to say. Austen’s resembles one of the glass flowers you find in Harvard’s Natural History Museum. Fiction confronts you with the awesome fact that you are not the only real thing in this world. that is. my favourite writer-critic. and which. And if you read with the wideness and flexibility Murdoch describes. obsessions. as I apply them to the test of my own sensibility. It is the critic’s job to formulate a public language that comes close to their own private understanding. I have said that when I open a book I feel the shape of another human being’s brain.” That’s what I want to hear and feel from critics and readers.confident to find more than the seeds of such flowers in himself … [Yet] even if the results are abhorrent and our judgements . the beliefs and obsessions and commitments that powered the novel into existence in the first place. 15. here it succeeds. here it fails. he understood that the critic’s job is a non-cynical truth-seeking exercise. Each has strengths and weaknesses. And as he does so he reveals his own beliefs. this deepest self. “Not only is this book of this sort. Most of all. if it is acute enough. To me. George Eliot’s is like one of those pans for sifting gold. in accordance with a certain existential pattern. To carry out this part of a reader’s duty needs such imagination. He speaks the truth about an individual experience with a novel. this is bad. but it is of this value. resistances. as it is in my interest to do. Nabokov’s brain is shaped like a helter-skelter. A great critic is. “chooses his necessary language. and his alone … he puts into the operation his ‘deepest self’. but only hidden among mundane grey stones of some weight. retroactively. insight. but not slowly. in the end. but the final result has no scent and is cold to the touch. I can find what’s precious with Eliot.
studying failures. . or hair restorers or Icarus’s wings. and reading it and all novels is a process like no other.” said Simone de Beauvoir. and the novels we love exercise our sensibilities: they educate and complicate those parts of us that feel. reading failures. The world is not only as we say it is. we readers! Writing failures. we learn through feeling. What a strange business we are in. That writing and reading should be such difficult arts reminds us of how frequently our own subjectivity fails us. would indeed be impoverished: the novel would not exist at all. no ethics. the nerve of sensation that sends shocks through us. then of course all idiosyncrasy. still our taste. And I believe that. we critics. or Judge Judy shouting at us about justice through the television. no gift – we would simply be speaking to ourselves. This is what separates them from philosophical treatises or laws or newspapers. too. Imagine a science institute that spent its time on the inventions that never actually do what they say on the tin. There would be no act of communication. The Trial properly translates as The Process. reviewing them. Yet it is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human. is our chief illuminant. like diet pills. Fail better. We do not know people as we think we know them. we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it. no process. both fail in varied. as Woolf suggests. fascinating ways to complete this action as ideally it might be completed. works upon us in a fundamentally different manner than John Rawls’s essay “A Theory of Justice”. “Without failure. a novel about justice. But if it were ideal. if the translation from brain to page were perfect. Writers learn through feeling.are wrong. Both the writer and the reader must undergo an ethical expansion – allow me to call it an expansion of the heart – in order to comprehend the human otherness that fiction confronts them with. we writers. The Trial.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.