Saturday, October 24, 2009

Needless difficulty

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:

Gregory is coming up thirteen. He’s at Cambridge, with his tutor. He’s sent his nephews, his sister Bet’s sons, to school with him; it’s something he is glad to do for the family.Although the passage is not opaque, the back-to-back third-person masculine pronouns cause a momentary confusion. And to what end?

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.


Levi Stahl said...

I agree with you that Mantel's overuse of the pronoun "he" creates confusion, but I have to disagree about the reasons you ascribe to her choice.

I think her reasons are very clear: she intends to both put the reader as close as possible to Cromwell's perspective without taking on an actual first-person point of view--and, incidentally, if that requires the reader to pay a bit closer attention, she doesn't mind, because the whole book is largely about how Cromwell stays alive and relevant largely because he pays such close attention.

Though I think those reasons are perfectly clear when you read the book, Mantel herself explained as much in an interview with the New Yorker recently:

"I’m behind his eyes, so Cromwell is always 'he.' Occasionally, there is an ambiguity, and the 'he' could refer to somebody else, and I think that’s just the price you pay. To keep calling him Cromwell wouldn’t fit with the way the book is written. Although it’s written in the third person and not the first person, it’s actually more intimate than many third-person narratives. It’s as if the camera is on his shoulder."

You and I can disagree with Mantel about the efficacy of her choice--I'm with you that it frequently adds complexity without adding much meaning or insight--but I think it's unfair to ascribe it to some worry about being mistaken for an entertainer. It seems clear that she chose it because that was the best way she knew to tell this story.

AvidReader said...

My partner recently finished Wolf Hall and she complained about the difficulty of working out who the 'he' was at various points in the book. Seems a perverse choice of style.

R/T said...

My attempt to read Mantel's book has been complicated by what you allude to in your comments: the lack of clarity in the narrative. Clarity may not be a "literary" quality (i.e., no one would accuse James Joyce of clarity in his novels), but it seems to be intentionally shunned by too many contemporary writers who seek to present themselves as singular writers in our post-post-modern environment. Again, I doubt that many others would argue for clarity in diction and syntax as literary qualities; however, I wish more writers would lean more towards Hemingway than Joyce.

D. G. Myers said...


You and I are under no obligation to accept Mantel’s extra-textual reasons. In an interview, she is a little more than a friendly critic, an outside critic—better informed, of course, but with no privileged status.

The truth is that the exclusive use of the third person is not “actually more intimate.” The effect is the opposite. It is alienating. Because you are constantly aware of it, the device seems artificial.

This becomes almost painful where Mantel realizes that her commitment to the device is only creating confusion. So she occasionally writes this: “He, Cromwell, is. . . .” Again, this only makes you realize that Mantel is going to stick with her narrative strategy no matter what. The effect isn’t intimacy, but stubbornness.

The exclusive use of the third person is, then, a pointless “artistic” decision that serves— What? Not the narrative, as I have demonstrated in at least two ways, and as even Mantel acknowledges. What, then? Only this: the need to stamp her book as art, as literature, for difficulty is the awl-hole in the ear of “literary fiction.”

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Wasn't Wolfe accused of the same thing by Updike et al? I'd never read Wolfe until recently when I read A Man In Full and found it a fantastic read. It doesn't have the transcendence of Updike's prose but it is brilliant writing nonetheless. Who defines the difference between literature and entertainment? Is there a benchmark?

D. G. Myers said...

Who defines the difference between literature and entertainment?

Everyone and no one. See my five short essays on literature, starting with this one, listed under Topics in the lefthand menu.

Ray Sawhill said...

I always wonder why people in the books world refuse to learn a key lesson people in the movies and theater worlds have long been comfortable with: that the line between "artist" and "entertainer" is often fantastically funny. Cary Grant never offered himself up as a serious artist, yet his work is still with us, while the work of many of the serious-and-pretentious crowd has been long forgotten. Same with Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire ... The list goes on and on. Why is the writing world assumed by so many to work differently than movies and theater?

The Brits seem more comfortable with this than we are. They don't seem to be as drawn to being severe about art vs. entertainment as we are. They're OK with the fact that entertainers like PG Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fiction that has lasted -- that Wodehouse and Doyle may well qualify as giants even though they never wrote anything that wasn't primarily intended as entertainment.

Are the Brits more culturally secure than we are? When people like Roth go on and on, and other people take him seriously, I feel embarrassed to be an American ...

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent points, Mr Sawhill. What exactly is wrong with entertainment? And why is “writing” to be preferred?

Not sure whether you mean, in your last sentence, that you are embarrassed by people who take seriously the sort of remark that Roth makes in the Wall Street Journal interview or by people who take his fiction seriously. If the former, I’m with you. If the latter, not so much.