Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The babble of literary gossip

Over at Gawker this morning J. K. Trotter dishes the dirt on Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Or, rather, its dust jacket. Trotter reports that the sliver of the anonymous letter pictured on the cover, which Delphine Roux sends to Coleman Silk in the novel—

Everyone knows you’re
sexually exploiting an
abused, illiterate
woman half your
age
—is the reproduction of an actual letter that Philip Roth himself received. From the rival novelist Francine du Plessix Gray (pictured below), a neighbor to Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom, if the former FBI agent hired by Roth to track down the anonymous letter’s sender is to be believed.

Gray denies sending any such letter, of course. And it never occurs to Trotter to ask the obvious question. If Roth actually received an anonymous note like Coleman Silk’s then who was his Faunia Farley, the “abused, illiterate woman” he was supposed to be sexually exploiting?

There is an even more obvious question. What difference, for an understanding and appreciation of the novel, could it possibly make? Like so many of those who hang around the fringes of literature, Trotter is more interested in gossip, the easy externals, than in the working machinery of fiction.

This isn’t the first time Roth has been obliged to defend The Human Stain from “the babble of literary gossip.” Last year he wrote an open letter to Wikipedia in which he patiently explained that the late Anatole Broyard, a critic for the New York Times who “passed” as white despite black parentage, was not the original of Coleman Silk. Like Mickey Sabbath and Swede Levov, his main character was “invented from scratch.” Roth explained how fiction works:Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ” [which was indeed an actual event] I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean. . . [etc.].I get cramps when I repeat myself, but for the benefit of those who would like me to blog more frequently I will: the only question in fiction is how consistently and well the writer adheres to the self-determined rules of his own game. Or, as J. V. Cunningham put it with rather more elegance, his “one theme is his allegiance to his scheme.”

Thus it may be the fact that John Williams was “inspired” to write his brilliant novel Stoner by a “real-life feud” in the English department at the University of Missouri, as two journalists claim in a recent article in Vox, or it may be the fact that J. V. Cunningham was the original for William Stoner, as the late Donald E. Stanford told me when I visited him in Baton Rouge (and as I told Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times twenty years later). But the actual facts are irrelevant to the fiction, which depends on how Williams transmuted them into a coherent world of new and interdependent facts.

Dust jackets and the originals of fictional characters are what we babble about when we don’t know how to talk about fiction. Sportswriters do much the same, yammering away about Johnny Manziel’s partying or Tim Tebow’s praying to avoid the effort of understanding difficult games from the inside. The gossip is harmless except when it masquerades as knowledge. In literature, it threatens to reduce every novel ever written to a roman à clef. When that happens, the only thing readers will need is a key.

4 comments:

R.T. said...

If the facts are irrelevant to the fiction, would that mean readings of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, just to cite to examples, cannot (or should not) be enriched by an understanding of the real life facts behind the novels?

B. Glen Rotchin said...

Totally unrelated to this post, forgive me, but I was wondering Professor Myers if you thought David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee's novel Disgrace was a Jew. Since I finished the novel the question has been nagging me. There are simply too many allusions and references to ignore. Also, when I searched your blog for insight i was surprised not to find any Coetzee reviews. Am I missing something?

D. G. Myers said...

Yes, Mr Rotchin, I am pretty sure Lurie is Jewish.

Can’t explain the neglect of Coetzee except to say that there is so much to write about, so much. . . .

Victorian Barbarian said...

"The gossip is harmless except when it masquerades as knowledge. In literature, it threatens to reduce every novel ever written to a roman à clef. When that happens, the only thing readers will need is a key."
But even in a roman à clef, there is artistry at work (albeit sometimes very little). The key functions to assist the reader in filling in the story or characters (facts or gossip, maybe). The key helps the reader turn the accidents into substance. I can't easily think of a case where the key is the whole thing--maybe Primary Colors?