Howard Nemerov defines good writing as getting something right in language. And the only proper response to rightness, he adds, is silence. No other answer is required or even imaginable. On this showing, the first test is whether the text leaves the critic with anything to say. The immediate experience of literary greatness, then, would be akin to clarity of vision or understanding; there would be nothing more to add. And the comic role of the English professor would be to scour about for something to say anyhow.
Surely this is the effect that a certain kind of writer seeks. The prooftext is James’s story “The Middle Years” (1893), in which Dencombe, an elderly novelist staying at a health resort, receives an advance copy of his latest novel, “perhaps his last.” As he begins to read his own prose, Dencombe is reminded of the difficulties he faced in writing the novel, which also brought to his awareness, “though probably, alas! to nobody else’s,” the means by which he overcame them.
As he sits on a bench outside, enjoying the sunshine and idling with his book, Dencombe is joined by a young admirer—a staff doctor at the health resort—who has also finagled an advance copy of Dencombe’s book. Seeing Dencombe’s copy, the young doctor excitedly calls it “the best thing he has done yet!” Dencombe does not reveal his identity, “because a person was always a fool for insisting to others on his work.” Doctor Hugh is inflamed by admiration, asking his companion whether he noticed this passage or “Weren’t you immediately struck with that?” He grabs the book and says, “There’s a beautiful passage toward the end.” But he has accidentally picked up Dencombe’s copy rather than his own, and he colors when he sees what Dencombe has done to the pages:
For his admiring reader, though, the case is otherwise. “I see you’ve been altering the text,” Doctor Hugh says disapprovingly. The writer is a special pleader: he wants it both ways. He wants his reader to be horrified at any alteration of the text, but he also wants to alter it at will. Reader and writer are equally confident that good writing aspires to an ideal state of exact rightness, but the reader is far more willing to accept it in silence than is the writer, at least a certain kind of writer, who could be described worse than as a passionate and lifelong corrector of his own prose.