In his interview yesterday with Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal (many thanks to Dave Lull for bringing it to my notice), Philip Roth distinguished the likes of James Patterson and Nora Roberts by saying, “They are entertainers. They aren’t writers.”
As much as I admire Roth, this is the merest snobbery. Its only value is in passing on the information that Roth feels superior to the likes of James Patterson and Nora Roberts. It provides no test, no probative mechanism, for differentiating entertainers and writers.
Here is one—though it is not universal. (It has nothing, for instance, to do with Roth.) I have only just begun Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, a historical novel about politics at the court of Henry VIII from Thomas Cromwell’s side of the story. (The novel is, among other things, a contrarian portrait of Saint Thomas More, who has been a hero to us literary types ever since Robert Bolt’s Man for All Seasons. Mantel wants to make the case for Cromwell instead.)
For some reason, Mantel decides never to refer to Cromwell by name in narrative voice. She uses the third-person pronoun exclusively. Cromwell is called by name only by the other characters—in dialogue.
The device is awkward and does little, as far as I can tell, beyond establishing that Martel is not an “entertainer.” The exclusive reliance upon the third person makes it impossible to forget that the novel is written, that it is a complex act of verbal artifice.
But Mantel gets nothing else from it, and she sacrifices a good deal, especially in clarity. Here, for example, is an early passage about Cromwell’s son:
This is a small but crystalline example of the needless difficulty in self-consciously “literary” writing since modernism. A better writer, less worried about being mistaken for an entertainer, would overcome the difficulty of getting her prose out of delight’s (that is, entertainment’s) way.