Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The romance of certain old books

Among the distempers of learning in our day is the habit of reading canonical fiction as if it were the only fiction in existence. In the recent n+1 pamphlet No Regrets, for example, the blogger and novelist Emily Gould complains about the “midcentury misogynists”—Bellow, Kerouac, Mailer, Roth, Updike—who populate what Amanda Hess describes in Slate as the “hypermasculine literary canon.”

The unexamined assumption is that misogyny was the stock-in-trade of these “midcentury” writers. No one feels obligated to defend the proposition nor even to examine the misogyny in any detail. What becomes clear, in leafing through women writers’ grievances against the books that “rejected” them, is that male novelists from an earlier generation are being judged by an anachronism, a criterion they could not possibly have known—feminism’s current dictates about respect for women. The moral complacency and self-congratulation implicit in the judgments worry exactly no one.

But “presentism” or “present-mindedness” is merely one fallacy behind such exercises in reading current moral fashion back into literary history. Just as bad is the radical abbreviation of an entire age’s literature by studying only those figures who now appear to be dominant. For an account of “midcentury” literary misogyny to have any validity whatever, more than a handful of writers will have to read. (One is struck by how often the name of Philip Roth comes up, as if the postwar era should be known as the Age of Roth.)

You will familiarize yourself with all manner of generalizations about postwar American fiction in 21st-century literary journalism without ever encountering the names of Paul Horgan, Allan Seager, Willard Motley, Wright Morris, William Bradford Huie, Hortense Calisher, William Eastlake, J. F. Powers, John Leggett, George P. Elliott, Mary Lee Settle, Isaac Rosenfeld, James B. Hall, Thomas Gallagher, R. V. Cassill, Mario Puzo, Oakley Hall, Warren Miller, John Williams, Vance Bourjaily, Mark Harris, Chandler Brossard, Harry Mark Petrakis, Herbert Gold, Evan S. Connell Jr., Thomas Berger, Leo Litwak, Jack Matthews, Alison Lurie, Wallace Markfield, Edward Lewis Wallant, or Richard Yates.

I can’t be alone (can I?) in finding something romantic about the “forgotten” or “neglected” books of the past. While I love Bellow and Roth as much as the next critic—more, probably, since I named a son after Bellow—it is precisely their importance to me, their centrality in my thinking, that makes me want to know (in Triling’s phrase) the “hum and buzz of implication” from which they emerged. I don’t read their books to feel accepted or rejected, to have my lifestyle choices affirmed, but to appreciate their distance from me, their difference. And no method of literary study is more effective at making them strange again—those natives of the foreign country that is the past—than in understanding them as conventional (or not) for their times.

Books could be time machines, but rarely are. They are sadly familiar to us, because they are canonical; that is, because we read them in the present, with the standards and expectations of the present, as towering figures of the present. To be borne into the past, boats beating against the current, the best books are those which are least familiar: the books no one is assigned on any syllabus, the books discussed in no classroom. If nothing else, you have to read these “forgotten” or “neglected” books in editions from the period in which they were originally published, since many of them have never been reprinted. The cover art, the dust-jacket copy, the yellowing pages, the formal typography, the out-of-fashion author photos—even as physical objects, the books are visitors from another time and place.

Besides, there is the intellectual challenge in deciding for yourself whether a book is any good. The celebrated titles of this publishing season are surrounded by publicity; even an independent judgment sounds like an echo of the blurbs. And no one is ever surprised if you like Roth (or don’t). But what about Allan Seager or James B. Hall? Will Amos Berry or Racers to the Sun repay your time, or only waste it? Are you willing to accept the risk of recommending either of them to a friend? If you take seriously the adventure of reading you must involve yourself, sooner or later, in the romance of certain old books.


Richard LeComte said...

I remember going to a diner in Middletown, Conn., in the early 1980s and seeing Paul Horgan sitting alone in a booth. He had a neat little stand that allowed him to read and eat at the same time.

zmkc said...

I enjoy the blog called Pykk - http://pykk.blogspot.com.au/ - which seems to me to be largely devoted to close readings of the kind of half-forgotten writers you are referring to. Re presentism, I assume Moby Dick must now be cast out, for daring to portray such a shameful activity as the pursuit of whales, without any proper recognition of our duty to save those creatures

James Anglin said...

As a kid I loved little old libraries in villages, schools, or cottages. It was important that the libraries were small. I hated the thought of somehow having to choose from among more books than I could ever read, but from a smaller collection of just a few shelves I could pick out a few titles or covers that caught my eye. Knowing that they would be works of obscure mediocrity was liberating because it removed the pressure of having to Duly Appreciate them. Finding that some of them were surprisingly good in some ways, I think I became more appreciative of other books that were very good in many ways, but also more willing to cast a cold eye on famous works.

Yet isn't the romance of old books that never made the cut for the canon part of the problem of English lacking a core of first principles?

There is also a certain romance of old scientific theories. Hardly anyone considers it a disservice to past scientific ages, though, when we graciously overlook their failures and remember only their achievements.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Pykk is a future Book Blog Hall of Famer. He makes it a little hard to jump in. He is always in the middle of something, a perpetual middle.

In Moby-Dick the whales take of themselves pretty well, so we can keep it.

Rich said...

I discovered Richard Yates as a Seinfeld fan. A season two episode is based on him, and the character Elaine is loosely based on his daughter.

Palinurus said...

What you call “presentism,” and rightly regard as inimical to the appreciation of great works of literature, I would call historicism: the self-contradictory notion that the intellectual and moral horizons of all men in all times are limited by their times; but our time is uniquely enlightened and the beliefs of the right-thinking among us provide a standard by which to judge all men in all times. So it is that contemporary critics can reduce Bellow and Roth to being typical of their time and yet somehow morally culpable for it.

Great works of literature are the best cure for this. My best teachers used to say, again and again, that it’s okay to have an opinion about this or that book, so long as you understand them first. Their point was that part of what made a great writer great was that he most likely anticipated any criticism you might have and, before you condemned a writer on some charge, you owed him a sort of due process whereby you at least gave him a chance to present his defense. That Roth or Bellow did not anticipate feminism is a laughable example of adolescent misreading. Bellow’s writings, for example, are about nothing if not the ironic, sad, but yet exuberant comedy ensuing from the clash of modern and fashionable ideas, such as the sexual revolution and feminism, with the permanent needs and desires of the human heart. Great writers are not simply time capsules or even time machines; at their best, they are timeless in so far as they can elevate a reader beyond the constraints and limits of time.

I don’t read Bellow because he is simply “different” from me. I read him for reasons similar to those that made me want to watch Michael Jordan play basketball: the fascination and delight of watching a prodigy do his thing, with the fervent hopefulness that maybe, just maybe, tonight I would see him do something extraordinary. While I can see the romance in old, forgotten books, I don’t think that I need to watch and know, say, the 1991 Bucks or Sedale Threatt's game, to appreciate Jordan. And even if I wanted to, who really has the time anymore?

BMC said...

Encounters with lost fiction from the near past for me are only romantic in a disturbing way. Used bookstores, a while ago at least, would have rooms of novels from previous decades. I rarely saw anybody looking for a title on these shelves. It was oppressive to contemplate the unceasing flow and sediment of literary silt, especially if you had any thought of writing something yourself.