Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oh, that Jewish problem

“Does the English Department Have a Jewish Problem?” This was the bait to trap unwary Modern Language Association conventioneers into attending a panel discussion earlier in the week. According to a story by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed, six somewhat prominent literary scholars sat together at a long conference table in the Philadelphia Marriott on Sunday evening to mope that American Jewish writing is “not a hiring priority” and “not considered a research specialty” in most English departments, because Jews are not viewed as being “distinct from other white ethnic groups.” To most academics the Jews are no different from other white people, and they are no better off when they insist that they are different: “Jewishness has been associated with Israel” and therefore with “colonialism and racism.”

When Jewish writers are included on the reading lists for courses in ethic literature the students complain they do not belong, because American Jews have not experienced the same “truly marginal status of people of color.” They have “have found their place” in American society, and need no extra boost from the literary curriculum. Thus nearly every English department in the country has at least one specialist apiece in black literature, Native American literature, what is clumsily known as Latino/a literature, and sometimes even Asian-American literature. But few have anyone who specializes exclusively or even primarily in American Jewish literature. Aside from antisemitism, which the panelists were quick to dismiss as an explanation, why should that be?

The answer is not hard to find.

English professors these days pursue many different research interests from many different angles—they share neither a common body of knowledge nor a common repository of methods—but they are unified by one thing, which functions as a shibboleth among them. They are actively hostile to the social order. Their professional obligation, as they conceive it, is to sow the seeds of indignation and discontent, to nurture the green shoots of ressentiment, to give voice and expertise to oppositionality. “Ethnic literature” is included in the literary curriculum to challenge white privilege. But American Jewish writing does not readily lend itself to such a project.

There are exceptions, of course—the Communist propagandist Mike Gold comes to mind, along with a few other proletarian novelists of the ’thirties—but for the most part American Jewish writers have been absorbed with something other than social problems. If Jewish literature, as the critic Baal-Makhshoves famously said, is one literature in more than one language, then several questions confront the Jewish writer before anything else. In what language is he going to write? If he decides upon the landsprakh, the vernacular of the gentile majority, will he succeed in thoroughly cleansing his style of all traces of Jewish bilingualism? Not even a writer like Philip Roth, who found that he must write in “the jumpy beat of American English,” was able to be the writer he wished to be without occasional recourse to Yiddish and the liturgical vocabulary of Judaism.

Even to wrestle with the language question, to forge his style in the wrestling match, is to locate the writer within Jewish literature. And as a direct consequence, his writing in larger or smaller part will be constructed as an “internal dialogue between Jews,” which the great critic Ruth R. Wisse calls “the natural form” of Yiddish and perhaps all Jewish writing. But if he is also an American writer, who is equally determined to enter into dialogue with great American writers like Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Ernest Hemingway (all of whom had Jewish problems of their own), then his writing will necessarily be—to use the word in its only legitimate sense—multicultural.

Any scholar who would specialize in American Jewish writers, then, would have to master both American and Jewish literature—and not merely popular Yiddish fiction, but the real literature of the Jews, the religious literature of the Jews, starting with the Hebrew bible and plunging into the sea of the Talmud. He would, in short, have to be a scholar of Jewish religion as well as literature.

All of which he would also have to bring into any class on American Jewish literature. And none of which does very much to work up righteous indignation toward the wrongs of American capitalism. Is it any wonder English departments are little interested in advancing the massively bookish and time-consuming study of American Jewish literature?

Update: The proper name for the field, by the way, is American Jewish literature. To reverse the adjectives is a blunder. Those who have created the literature are American Jews, not Jewish Americans.

Update, II: To speak plainly, English departments do not need American Jewish literature as a pretext to hire Jews, who are distributed throughout the subspecialties of English. Advertising for positions in African American or Native American or Latino/a literature is a way to guarantee “minority” applicants and then to engage in employment discrimination without appearing to do so.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Stripping away the prejudice

Why the Washington Post saw fit to publish it is unclear—it has small news value and less new insight—but the novelist Julianna Baggott, who teaches in Florida State University’s creative writing program, complains in an op-ed today about the eight-week-old Publishers Weekly list of the year’s hundred best books, which contained (as everyone knows by now) no women in the top ten. There is, Baggott whines, a prejudice against women in the literary world. “So how do we strip away our prejudice?” she asks. “First, we have to see prejudice.”

No, ma’am. First we have to establish prejudice. Every single complainant against the dismal PW list has merely assumed prejudice. “PW hasn’t yet owned up,” Baggott hiccups—even though ten of the twenty-six titles listed in fiction and poetry, excluding mysteries, are by women. That’s thirty-eight percent. How high must the percentage be to evade the prima facie guilt of literary prejudice against women?

The accusation has become so commonplace that it has begun to sound like a pre-recorded sales pitch. The unavoidable truth is that literary posterity is ruthless: it accepts only the best. For a while you can get away with substituting irrelevant criteria for literary greatness, but over time they will be ignored. Lists of the year’s best books will be ignored too.

Creative writing functionaries like Julianna Baggott can yelp that “The top [literary] prizes’ discrimination against women has been largely ignored.” And perhaps they will even be successful in bullying prize committees into bestowing more awards upon women. But in the long run it will make no difference. One of America’s Nobel Prize-winners in literature was Pearl S. Buck, upon whom no one wastes criticism any longer. Few people even read her. Her international prize is irrelevant; her sex is irrelevant. All that counts to posterity is the literary gift, which Buck, sad to say, did not possess in superabundance.

While it is dismaying that someone who devotes her life to the teaching of writing places more importance on gender politics, Baggott is hardly unusual in doing so. For most people, almost anything is more important than literature. In literature there is a single overriding value—how well something is written—and few people are ready to strip away the prejudice that life is more meaningful off the page than on.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The permanent home of language

Not too surprisingly, Patrick Kurp finds himself reading more books these days and fewer things online, including blogs. The reason? His “festering impatience with shoddy writing.” While “good writing is always rare,” he observes, it particularly hard to smoke out “in an age when seemingly everyone is convinced of his obligation to share his precious words.”

Part of the problem is sheer numbers: listserve lists, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other “social networking” technologies are merely the latest example of what Henry James called the “multiplication of endowments for chatter.” No one who has accepted the moral obligation to write well is on Twitter, except perhaps to draw attention to good writing elsewhere. Nor is settling for the ready-made phrases that come tumbling off the top of the head a necessary and sufficient condition for blogging or any other means of “instant publication.” The technology is not at fault; or, rather, its only offense is that it permits the indulgence of bad literary habits and worse principles.

The real problem is identified by the poet D. J. Enright, from whose posthumous memoir Injury Time (2003) Kurp quotes:

There are two reasons why people don’t make good writers: (a) they have nothing to write about, (b) they are not at home with the written word (however fluent they may be in the spoken word). The latter is by far the most potent reason. If you can write, you’ll find something to write about; having something to write about doesn’t make you a writer.The only thing that makes someone a good writer is being “at home with the written word.” What does Enright mean, exactly? More than being comfortable—relaxed, secure, free from anxieties—in the literary language. Something closer to being a native speaker of the written tongue: the good writer’s first language is the language of the page, not the streets or screen. By definition his sentences are not natural, but artificial: they are seized by hand from the floods of life that stream around and through us.

The influence of Christianity, with its preference for language that reflects Christ’s own social position—“humble, socially inferior, unlearned, esthetically crude or even repellent,” on Erich Auerbach’s description—encourages the suspicion of linguistic artifice.[1] Not merely the language of the gutter but the slapdash verbal guesses of the pavement and shop floor are twisted homage to Christ’s example.

Since the stylistic commonplace throughout Christendom is that low speech is authentic (and high language is affected and insincere), and since modern technology has made it easier and easier to translate low speech into written words, by progressively easing the manual labor required to do so, the armies of shoddy writing march largely unopposed across the globe. Those like Kurp who pull back from the latest technological novelties may appear to be seeking the literary equivalent of “sustainable living.” In truth, though, they are simply trying to remind the rest of us that ultra-high speed broadband and 45-nanometer processors may be really cool, but they are not indispensable for good writing. This is something else that Kurp learned from D. J. Enright. In a poem from the ’seventies, Enright wrote:I too would avail myself of the large and common
       benefits of modern technology.

That on the Wings of Imagination a chartered jet
       shall transport me to my inspiration.

That tapes may record the best and happiest moments
       of the happiest and best minds.

That a fine excess of surprising subject-matter
       be relayed to me by satellite.

That powerful pumps ensure the spontaneous overflow
       of powerful feelings.

That cameras shall arrest the vanishing apparitions
       which haunt the interlunations of life.

That sophisticated computers select the best words
       and collocate them in the best order.


A pointed stick, some vegetable dye, a strip of bark
       removed by stealth from the public park.
Technological marvels cannot solve the problem of writing. When all else fails, a pointed stick dipped in vegetable dye can be dragged across a strip of bark—but the need for inspiration, mind, subject-matter, strong emotion, memorable images, and the best words remains the same, no matter the technology used in tackling the problem.

The problem is the problem of language. And it dawns upon me that there is a reason those who prefer what J. V. Cunningham called “sinuous and exacting” language to low authentic speech—those like Kurp who spend less and less time with their eyes fixed on a computer screen—read so much fiction (in prose and verse) instead. The reason is this. Fiction is the only form of human discourse that hunts more after words than matter. If you insist, before anything else, upon “the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses”—if these are more important to you than “the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment”—then you stay home with fiction.[3] For it is the permanent home of language.

[1] Erich Auerbach, “Sermo Humilis,” in Literary Language and Its Public in Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, trans. Ralph Manheim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 40.

[2] D. J. Enright, “The Progress of Poesy,” in Collected Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 166. Originally published in Sad Ires (1975).

[3] Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605): 1.IV.2. Bacon called these preferences the “first distemper of learning.”

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry shopping holiday

Since I don’t want to be one of those “Jewish guys” who “trash up the malls every year” with expressions of Christmas cheer that I have no right to, since I’m “not in the club,” I’d do better just to wish the readers of A Commonplace Blog a merry shopping holiday. If you “don’t believe Jesus was God,” but don’t want to “[c]elebrate Yule instead or dance around in druid robes for the solstice,” you may notice that you receive no U.S. mail today, that traffic on the roads is light, and that there is no place to buy milk. But please don’t wish anyone a merry Christmas. You might be told to “buzz off.” Because, you know, I get angry when non-Jews wish me a happy new year at Rosh Hashanah. I yell at them not to “mess with” my holiday. As opposed, say, to treating Hanukkah—a minor post-biblical festival—as if it were the only Jewish holiday, the second-rate Jewish Christmas.

Oh, to hell with it. A merry Christmas to you! And joy to the world! I realize that I am committing “spiritual piracy,” but I console myself with the reflection that I am not alone:

Ceremonies for Christmas

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas log to the firing,
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your heart’s desiring.

With the last year’s brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your psalteries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-teending.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding;
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by,
To fill the paste that’s a kneading.

                   —Robert Herrick

Even those who don’t believe that today is the birthday of the messiah can enter into the Christmas spirit—as the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire knew very well.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Five Books of doctors

With the Democratic Party “unwavering” in its determination to rebuild American health care from top to bottom, regardless of public opposition and a lack of bipartisan consensus, perhaps it is a good time to escape the frustrations of politics by taking stock of doctors in fiction. Who knows what the medical profession will look like in a generation.

Despite the perennially huge American audience for medical dramas, which seem to have begun in the late ’thirties with the MGM series of films about Young Dr. Kildare, there has never really been a similar demand in literature. Another young doctor, Frank G. Slaughter caught the wave a few years later and rode it to millions of sales, scribbling nearly a score of bestsellers about doctors between 1941 and 1984. Except for Sinclair Lewis in Arrowsmith (1925), however—not a particularly good novel—few men and women have resorted to fiction to explore the realm of medicine.

The obvious medical novels are Der Zauberberg (1924) and La Peste (1947). Yet Mann’s focus is on the patients in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos. The medical personnel, including the doctors, remain in the background, faceless institutional functionaries. Not even Hofrat Behrens, the sanatorium’s director and chief of medicine, plays much of a role beyond repeatedly delaying Hans Castorp’s release from the captivity of unending treatment. Camus is far more interested in the thinking and behavior of medical men. Bernard Rieux may be the greatest portrait of a doctor in a medicine—and, not incidentally, he also turns out to be a good writer (or, at least, a good narrator). But it is never possible to forget the political and allegorical dimension of La Peste, which continually threatens to transform Dr. Rieux and his medical colleagues into transparent surfaces.

For a selection of novels about doctors, the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database at NYU is the place to start. The database is intended to be comprehensive, though, which is its vice as well as virtue. Because it is impartially unselective, chucking together books that merit serious attention with middlebrow potboilers, it offers small advice or direction to anyone who wants to read only the best. Nevertheless, what is surprising is that even so comprehensive a database contains so very few good novels that evince more than a glancing curiosity in the rational habits and moral competitions of medical doctors.

The best of them may be one that is rarely thought of as a doctor’s novel. Middlemarch (1871–72) is such a vast panorama that Tertius Lydgate is easily overlooked. He may be the novel’s most admirable character, though. A medical innovator, he is Eliot’s exemplar of the new sort of level-headed professional reformer and man of learning just coming onto the scene. Although he judges himself a failure in the end, Lydgate was a glimpse into medicine’s future.

Here are five more recent novels about fictional doctors in the Lydgate mold.

(1.) Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (1971). In a novel set in the near future, Dr. Tom More is a “not very successful psychiatrist” and bad Catholic who is prey to “depressions and elations and morning terrors.” Estranged from orthodox psychiatry, which “promotes adjustment to the environment, or, as I call it without prejudice, bestialism,” he has invented the lapsometer, a device that measures how far a man’s self has falled from itself. His colleagues scoff at him, but with the device More diagnoses not only the ills of the age, but theirs as well.

(2.) Norma Rosen, At the Center (1982). The Bianky Family Planning Center is an abortion clinic established in the memory of a young woman who died in an illegal abortion. Dr. Edgar Bianky and his two partners “preside over death all day,” but are determined to do good. The tension between the cross-purposes dominates their personal and professional lives. As one of them says, they have “let an idea, what was originally for human good, become more important than human good.” Rosen, the mother of the novelist Jonathan Rosen, has not written a tract; the novel is neither pro-abortion nor anti-abortion. Rather, it shows that the contest between high ideals and human realities is at the center of the medical life.

(3.) Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence (1986). Her sixth novel is set in post-war Italy. As a boy of ten, Salvatore Rossi was taken by his father to meet Antonio Gramsci, who had inspired the older man to become a Communist many years before. Long a political prisoner, Gramsci was by then dying in a Rome clinic. Rossi promises himself two things: to have nothing to do with politics for the rest of his life, and to become a doctor. At thirty, he is a successful neurologist in Florence. Then he meets a girl.

(4.) Ha Jin, Waiting (2000). Lin Kong, said one critic, is “China’s Dr. Zhivago.” Married by arrangement to a woman who will not agree to a divorce, Kong must wait eighteen years to marry the woman he prefers. In the mean time, they are not permitted to show each other any affection or even to take lunchtime walks around the hospital grounds. Married at last, Kong does not find the happiness he had hoped for. He “waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.” His long and ultimately disappointing wait is a potent symbol of human experience under Chinese Communism. And the practice of medicine is little different under such conditions, Kong learns.

(5.) Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep (2001). Ian Ogelvie is a thirtysomething psychiatrist and sleep researcher who is running clinical trials of a revolutionary drug that provides “inspired” REM sleep. Once upon a time he had been brilliantly promising and idealistic: “Over the years all the fat shiny plums of precocity—the internships, the fellowships, the awards, the publications—had fallen off the tree for him on schedule.” Now, however, he is the creature of his own career expectations. Then he meets Bonnie Saks, a fortysomething divorcée who has volunteered for the study because insomnia is preventing her from finishing a dissertation on Thoreau. The two are, in many ways, each other’s last chance. Neither love nor a cure is the final result.

The gaping hole in the fictional representation of medical doctors is their professional training. As Larry McMurtry says in his most recent memoir, almost no American novels have paid any attention to the experience of graduate school—Philip Roth’s Letting Go, his own Moving On—but how much more true of medical school! Except for Arrowsmith and Morton Thompson’s soap-operish Not As a Stranger, another of the big fat socially conscious bestsellers of the ’fifties, there is just no American fiction that undertakes to show how idealistic overachievers are turned into mere doctors.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grade appeal

Semester grades were due yesterday. I submitted them on time, and then fell into a deep and untroubled sleep. I was suffering from the exhaustion of undergraduate prose.

This morning a student in my Philip Roth seminar wrote to protest his B. “I did not get any indication through out the semester that my performance in class was less than adiquit,” he wrote. (Since when is a B “less than adiquit”?) True enough, he had followed me into my office one day after class to complain that he disliked the class, disliked Roth, disliked me personally. He had intended to sign up for a different seminar, he said, and regretted his mistake. He disapproved of my teaching style: I firmly directed the conversation rather than letting the students lead the way; I took class time to enunciate my own views and did not scruple to correct a student’s approximations and blunders.

For the rest of the semester he publicly acted out his dislike. He repeatedly yawned in class, loudly and dramatically, dropping his head to the seminar table with a thud, as if to say, “This is sooo boring.” He dismissed Roth’s ideas, after a careful exposition of them on my part, as “stupid.” He would not explain further, when pressed. He laughed aloud when I momentarily lost the thread of the discussion.

Most importantly, he seemed to think that his role as a student was, on slim literary qualifications, to agitate for the opinion that Philip Roth is not a great writer, with little or nothing worth saying. Even if he had had the critical talents commensurate to it, the undertaking would have been beside the question. My purpose in teaching the seminar was neatly set out by Leon Kass in the inaugural issue of National Affairs last fall. It was an “old-fashioned purpose” and it was pursued in an “old-fashioned way”:

I have sought wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, largely through teaching and studying the great works of wiser and nobler human beings, who have bequeathed to us their profound accounts of the human condition.The question facing the seminar, in other words, was not whether Roth is great, but what he has to say and how he says it. His greatness—that is, the profit to be had from attending to Roth’s saying—was the course’s donnée. Now, this approach belongs to my larger critical and scholarly project of “paying less attention to texts [as autonomous icons] and more attention to authors.” Next semester I’ll be doing something similar with Nabokov’s American writing.

But even if this approach is flawed, something like it is a necessary precondition to attention. If I decide in advance that you are “stupid,” I am not likely to listen to you very closely. And by conversion: if I decide in advance (for whatever reason) that I am not going to listen to you, I will have small difficulty in concluding that you are stupid. In literature there is an obvious corollary. “Poetic faith” may or may not require a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but critical reason demands a willing suspension of disapproval. Right now there is probably no writer I dislike more intensely than the Anglo-Irish novelist John Banville. In replying to a spasmodic expression of my dislike, Richard Crary reminded me of the critic’s first responsibility—before rejecting a writer out of hand, always read more of him, and especially his best. Thus I have assigned myself, as punishment for my irresponsibility, the chore of reviewing Banville’s latest novel The Infinities when it is released in the States next year. (In the mean time, here is Tom Cunliffe’s pleased review over at A Common Reader. Tom Deveson in the Times was decidedly more ambivalent, and in the Guardian Christopher Tayler was even more so, but I am trying not to let them prejudice me in advance.)

My B student, however, went in a different direction. When he had informed me of his dislike for Roth and the seminar, I had urged him to judge them by their own standards. Here is what he thought that I meant. Since I had argued in class (as I also wrote on this blog) that “the worst thing” ever done by Alexander Portnoy was the sexual degradation of his lover the Monkey—he had earlier held out for the dissenting view that Portnoy’s real sin was to be an unreliable narrator—my student claimed that Roth is to be weighed by the same measure.

After all, what is the “Zuckerman device” but the degradation of other human beings, by taking over their stories and determining their meaning, and merely to “fit his needs as a storyteller”? “It is the height of arrogance to think that you are better suited [to tell their stories] than the people who live through them,” he concluded. That these people do not even exist outside Zuckerman’s narratives—that their stories would not have been told at all without Zuckerman’s “presumptuous inventions” and dreamed-up “realistic chronicles”—was not even a possibility to my B student.

In short, he rejected the premise, not only of Roth’s nine Zuckerman novels, but of narrative fiction as such. If he had enrolled in a history seminar with a similar attitude (“I don’t take no stock in dead people,” he might have grumbled), or if he had told his chemistry professor that he disapproved of classifying substances and developing techniques for their transformation into other substances, how would he have fared? Would a B have even been a generous grade?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Spam comments

A new kind of spam comment has begun to be submitted for moderation. Since the Japanese-language advertisements for Japanese porn and the offers to satisfy your curiosity “to know how one can reach $2000 per day of income” are so obviously bogus, some companies are resorting to flattery: “I would like to thank the author of this article for contributing such a lovely and mind-opening article,” said a comment on a months-old post that I received this morning. Googgling the comment turns it up at the Marketplace of Ideas Blog, the EU Law Blog, the New American Media Blog, the BTD/GTD Blogs, the Marketplace Today Blog, the I’ve Been Mugged blog, and the Christian Science Fiction blog.

The comment originates, apparently, from a term-papers-for-sale mill. What is unclear to me is how the spam works, since it wisely contains no link (which would immediately identify it as spam, after all). I am also amused at the assumption that appealing to his thirst for praise will trick the blogger into posting the spam. Surprising to see how often the trick has succeeded! Does anyone really do business with companies that must resort to such transparent humbugs to advertise their names?

Update: More spam flattery: “It is very interesting for me to read that post. Thanks for it. . . . I definitely want to read a bit more soon.” Sent anonymously. Do such comments serve as a kind of target? Later spam is sent to any blog that posts the flattery?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Categories of the novel

Robert Liddell, the English novelist whose close friendships with Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym influenced the course of the English novel, was perhaps best-known for his wonderful Treatise on the Novel (1947). In the late ’sixties, Wayne Booth arranged for its reprinting in a single volume along with Some Principles of Fiction (1953) by the University of Chicago Press. Although long out of print, it is worth hunting down. It is perhaps the best one-volume introduction to the novel, written in short bursts of aphoristic and shrewd opinion.

Liddell says that there are only two categories of novels: (1.) “Novels which call for serious literary criticism.” (2.) “Novels which are beneath serious criticism.”[1]

The first category contains two subdivisions: (a.) “Good novels.” (b.) “Novels which might have been good.” To the second division Liddell consigns books that are “bad, uneven, or technical failures,” although they are written by writers with “minds of the necessary sensibility.” This division would also include the botched attempts by writers who earlier or later engineered good novels. The good novelist is anyone who has somehow managed to write a single good novel, but his other novels also merit study on the basis of his exceptional achievement. And then there are the novelists of eternal promise, who never quite put it all together in a single book—Aldous Huxley, Truman Capote, John Updike, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster.

Liddell subdivides the novels beneath serious criticism into middlebrow and lowbrow books, but unfortunately he says little more to clarify either division. Distinguishing between them, he comments, is “like establishing the precedence between a flea and a louse.”

In his 1964 interview with Playboy, Nabokov was characteristically sharp-toothed:

The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at least one of the characters to be the author’s stooge. If American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is acutely and ridiculously class-conscious; he finds it so much easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.[2]Note well that Nabokov does not disdain ideas in fiction; he disdains general ideas, the conventional wisdom, the received persuasions of everyday life. On his showing, good novels require serious criticism because of the particularity of their ideas, and their close attention to words—or as I would prefer to say, at the risk of correcting Nabokov, sentences.

[1] Robert Liddell on the Novel, ed. Wayne C. Booth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 10.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), p. 41.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Books I couldn’t finish

Everyone has a list of the best books he read during the year. The Amateur Reader compiles an idiosyncratic list of some book bloggers’ lists, while the New Yorker polled staff writers and recognizable names about their year’s reading. (Stephen King named Sarah Waters’s Little Stranger the best book of the year.) As far as I am aware, though, no one bothers to inventory the books he couldn’t finish—or the books he struggled through, and only because he had previously committed himself to reading them. But obsessive readers need to know which titles to avoid too.

After mocking the portentous symbol that gives the novel its title, for example, I felt duty-bound to read and review Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, a novel that stretches political grievance into one long purple patch. Rarely have my eyes dragged themselves across vaster wastes of empty language. Easily the worst book that I have read in five years.

After enjoying his autobiographical novel In Revere, in Those Days and awarding a thumbs-up to his political thriller Fidel’s Last Days, I was looking forward to Roland Merullo’s American Savior, a political satire in which Jesus Christ runs for president. There were some false steps at first, but Merullo’s prose was incisive and spirited, as usual. Then came the inevitable question about abortion. Jesus says that he has no position on it; it is right and wrong. When that satisfies no one, he announces:

[W]ith full respect for the complexity of this matter, as president, within the first two months of my first term, I will convene a national conference on the question of abortion. Held here in Kansas, the heart of the nation, televised nationally. It will not be a debate. Hate speeches will not be allowed. It will be a conference, with speakers representing each position given equal time. This will not satisfy everyone, I realize that. I think of it as—I stopped reading. Not only did Merullo fail to solve the most fundamental problem that faced him in suspending disbelief at the thought of Jesus as a presidential candidate. He succeeded in making Christ sound like any other politician.

For background reading to my Commentary essay on hipster Judaism, John Podhoretz recommended two books by the “original hipster”—the Jewish Buddhist (or Buddhist Jew) Roger Kamenetz. In the end, I didn’t use anything from either The Jew in the Lotus or Stalking Elijah, because I could not read more than two sentences in a row of Kamenetz’s wide-eyed summaries of religious ideas and history, which display all the critical skepticism of an undergraduate report, or his everything-is-beautiful accounts of the meetings between Jews and Buddhists—meetings that, as far as I can tell, accomplished about as much as the Copenhagen conference on climate change. What is worse, I made the mistake of taking one of the books to shul with me on a Saturday morning, and was reduced to listening to the Torah reading for diversion.

Jess Walter’s 9/11 novel The Zero was something I undertook in my longrange plan to read every American 9/11 novel. Police detective Brian Remy, assigned to escort VIP’s around Ground Zero, has gaps in his memory or a “crack in his mind—or whatever it was”—and Walter falls back on the device to jump his narrative from incident to incident. The device gets tiresome very soon:    Markham pulled an eight-by-ten photograph from the briefcase and slid it across the table. . . . In the picture [a young woman] was sitting in a restaurant patio wearing a spaghetti-strap evening dress and holding a martini up to the camera.
    “Gibson,” said Markham.
    “You said martini. It’s not a martini. Onions instead of olives. . . .”
    Had he said martini out loud?
    “Yes, you did. But see, it’s a Gibson.” Markham pointed to the glass again. “You can just make out the cocktail onions. Here, you can see them better in this one. . . .”
    He put the onion picture away and pointed again at the picture of the girl. “This is March Selios.”
    Remy looked at the picture. Marge?
    “No, March. Like the month.”
    Remy bit his lip so no more words would sneak out.
Maybe he should just get some help, I scribbled in the margin, and put the book down for good. So much for my plan to read every American 9/11 novel.

These have now joined the other books that I have no intention of ever opening again: John Bayley’s Elegy for Iris (Alzheimer’s, details), Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (I just can’t seem to work up any sympathy for hostage-taking terrorists), or Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Waist-deep in student papers

I will not be posting anything very intelligent or even intelligible today, for that matter. I am waist-deep in student papers, in which slavery still existed in the South into the ’twenties, tragedy involves the death of the main character or protagonist near the end of the novel, Gatsby “turned out all right in the end” because passionate and adulterous amor vincit omnia, a bastard is how each of us is born, and grammar takes early retirement. By tomorrow morning I may have recovered.

Update: Best examination answer so far. Asked to identify the last words that Nick says to Gatsby (“They’re a rotten crowd. . . . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”), one student writes: “Jews living in New York.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The decade in review

In replying to my “realistically pessimistic” prediction that 2010 probably won’t be a great year for books, Kerry (no last name) at Hungry Like the Woolf takes the approach of asking what literary years have been great, since “most years do not produce even one ‘book for the ages,’ even if most years produce plenty of very good books.” I am not at all sure about that afterthought. Most years produce a few books that might possibly repay a rereading. At all events, relying upon the Millions’ jury-deliberated list of the Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far), Kerry nominates 2001 as a very good year.

Below is my list of the decade’s best English-language fiction. If a year’s greatness is measured by the number of excellent titles published then Kerry is surely right: 2001 was the best literary year of the decade. Seven first-rate works of fiction were published—or important works of fiction, at least—although only Richard Russo’s Empire Falls scored a place on my list of the decade’s five best. For my money, though, the most distinguished year of the last ten was 2004 when all four of the year’s most memorable fiction are keepers.

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein
Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Philip Roth, The Human Stain

Malcolm Bradbury, To the Hermitage
Robert Cohen, Inspired Sleep
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
Ian McEwan, Atonement
Philip Roth, The Dying Animal
Richard Russo, Empire Falls
Tim Winton, Dirt Music

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
Michael Frayn, Spies
Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Notebook
William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault
Sarah Waters, Fingersmith

Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire
Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal
Steven Millhauser, The King in the Tree

Ha Jin, War Trash
Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World
Colm Toibin, The Master
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man
Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Francine Prose, A Changed Man
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
William T. Vollmann, Europe Central

Martin Amis, House of Meetings
William Boyd, Restless
Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children
Richard Powers, The Echo Maker


Peter Carey, His Illegal Self
Cynthia Ozick, Dictation
Richard Price, Lush Life
Francine Prose, Goldengrove
Marilynne Robinson, Home
Tim Winton, Breath

Zoë Heller, The Believers
Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
William Trevor, Love and Summer
Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

Update: In a feature for the Second Pass on books from the past decade that have been unfairly overlooked, Lisa Peet recommends William Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2002). Although I prefer his four-years-later spy novel Restless, which grew out of the earlier novel, a good case can be made for his 500-page journal of the twentieth century. It is the only book (so far) that I regret leaving off the above list.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In an interview with the Washington Post shortly after Goldengrove was published, Francine Prose sighed, “I would really like, before this whole thing is over, for at least one review to talk about the sentences in my novel.” Before it was anything else, she said, Goldengrove was a “vehicle for me to hang those sentences on.”

Along with every other reviewer of the novel, I failed her. A little later, in reviewing Robert Cohen’s Amateur Barbarians, a lesser novel, I did discuss the sentences. But as much as I have written about Prose—with more to come in a national magazine—I have never said anything about the grammatically complete expressions of her thought.

Or does she mean something else by “sentences”? In Latin, sententiae are opinions, aphorisms, dicta. Indeed, in the Middle Ages sententiae were short passages from longer works that were copied out and rearranged for their moral or amorous wisdom—a meaning still preserved in the adjective sententious. The earliest use of the word recorded in the OED, dating from the first quarter of the thirteenth century, refers to the meaning of a passage rather than its wording.

Almost exactly the opposite is its use by contemporary writers. “I turn sentences around,” Lonoff tells Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer:

That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie down on my sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.This may be the surest way to divide the world of literature into East and West. There are some writers for whom literary distinction is identified, at its most basic level, with exactitude of sentences. And there are other writers whose priorities lie elsewhere—story, thesis, “atmosphere,” effect, catching the wave of topical chatter. For years, when new acquaintances would ask my opinion of Stephen King, I would not know what to say, since I have never given him a second thought. Now it occurs to me why: King spares little attention to his sentences.

And I wonder if this is the real division that critics only approximate when they speak of the difference between “serious writing” and everything else. The novelist Charles Johnson attributes it to a sense of urgency:Now if you can write out of the sense that you’re going to die as soon as this work is done, then you will write with urgency, honesty, courage and without flinching at all, as if this were the last testament in language, the last utterance, you could ever make to anybody. If a work is written like that, then I want to read it. If somebody’s writing out of that sense, then I’ll say, “This is serious. This person’s not fooling around. The work is not a means to some other end, the work is not just intended for some silly superficial goal, this work is the writer saying something because he or she feels that if it isn’t said, it will never be said.”By writing as if you’re going to die as soon as the work is done, Johnson seems to mean writing with finality. Nothing is more dissatisfying than an idea that is given merely provisional statement because the writer is in a hurry to get on with it. In “An Octopus,” Marianne Moore defines her aesthetic conviction:Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
But it is not neatness of finish that identifies good writing—not the quality of having been arranged and shined—but of completeness. And since the basic unit of grammatical completeness is the sentence, the basic unit of all good writing is the sentence.

A writer whose sentences are not exacting and exuberant is just not worth reading.

Monday, December 14, 2009

2010 probably won’t be a great year for books either

At the beginning of the year, the Millions enthused that 2009 might be a great year for books. It didn’t turn out that way, sadly. But there is always next year.

The forthcoming novels that everyone is talking about are David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, which Little, Brown is expected to release in 2010, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which will reportedly be released in time for next Christmas.

Here are a few books to look forward to, or not, with firmer publication dates.

• Ralph Ellison, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . (Modern Library, January). The complete manuscript of Ellison’s uncompleted last novel, which was abridged as Juneteenth in 1999.
• Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (Reagan Arthur, January). A man walks out on his family.
• Rebecca Goldstein, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon, January). Mrs Steven Pinker fictionalizes the public debate between religious faith and the new atheism. Christopher Hitchens is all in favor, which tells you which side the novel takes. An excerpt is here.
• Herta Müller, Traveling on One Leg, trans. Valentina Glajar (Northwestern UP, January). First English translation of Nobel Prize winner’s novel about a 35-year-old woman who escapes from a Soviet Bloc country to West Germany. Originally published in Berlin in 1989.
• Anne Tyler, Noah’s Compass (Knopf, January). A 60-year-old teacher, recently fired, is attacked in his apartment, and can’t remember.

• André Aciman, Eight White Nights (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, February). A torrid weeklong affair.
• John Banville, The Infinities (Knopf, February). His family gathers around a dying mathematician. And so do some Greek gods.
• William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms (Harper Collins, February). A spy novel by the author of Brazzaville Beach and A Good Man in Africa.
• Don DeLillo, Point Omega (Scribner, February). The portrait of a “defense intellectual,” and a glimpse inside the American war machine.
• Louise Erdrich, Shadow Tag (Harper, February). A troubled marriage and a family in disarray.
• Craig Nova, The Informer (Shaye Areheart, February). A serial killer targets prostitutes in ’thirties Berlin.

• Aharon Appelfeld, Blooms of Darkness, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Schocken, March). A eleven-year-old Jewish boy is hidden from the Nazis in a brothel. Originally published in Jerusalem in 2006.
• Fernanda Eberstadt, Rat (Knopf, March). An Incredible Journey by two children, fifteen and nine, from “the Pyrénées Orientales, a gorgeous but forlorn Mediterranean no-man’s-land just north of the Spanish Catalan border,” to London.
• Chang-rae Lee, The Surrendered (Riverhead, March). A Korean girl, orphaned by the war, and an American soldier are reunited thirty years later. By the author of the brilliant Native Speaker.
• Ian McEwan, Solar (Nan A. Talese, March). A Nobel Prize-winning physicist is cuckolded.
• Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper, March). A “deeply honest look,” says the publisher, “at the human cost of the American health care and insurance systems.” If it were a dishonest look, would the publisher say so?

• Pearl Abraham, American Taliban (Random House, April). A surfer’s hunger for the spirit leads him to Islam.
• Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, trans. Madeline G. Levine (Yale UP, April). The first authoritative translation of Borowski’s prose fiction, including numerous stories that have never appeared in English before.
• Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf, April). A reinvention of Tocqueville’s journey to America.
• Roddy Doyle, The Dead Republic (Viking, April). The final volume of the Irish novelist’s trilogy about the one-legged IRA veteran Henry Smart, who finally returns to Ireland after thirty years in the States.
• David Goodwillie, American Subversive (Scribner, April). A young American woman, not an Arab terrorist, is suspected of detonating a bomb in a Manhattan office tower in 2010.
• Alasdair Gray, Old Men in Love: John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers (Small Beer, April). The diary of a retired headmaster, begun on September 11, 2001, which discusses politics from the angle of socialism—with a few postmodern touches thrown in for good measure. Originally published in the U.K. in 2007.
• Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Farrar Straus & Giroux, April). A followup to the Orange Prize-winning Small Island (2004). Slavery comes to a violent end on Jamaica.
• Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil (Spiegel & Grau, April). A donkey and a howler monkey undertake an epic journey together.

• Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow (Knopf, May). Explaining the title, Amis told the Independent three years ago, “[A]t the end of a revolution you don’t have a newborn child, you have a pregnant widow. And the pregnant widow in this novel is feminism. Which is still in its second trimester. The child is nowhere in sight yet. And I think it has several more convulsions to undergo before we’ll see the child.”
• Shirley Jackson, Novels and Stories (Library of America, May). Author of a haunted-house classic as well as that staple of the high-school canon known as “The Lottery.” Life among the Savages, her memoir of motherhood, probably won’t be included, which is a shame. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates.
• Ted Mooney, The Same River Twice (Knopf, May). Three American expatriates get themselves in trouble with elements from the former Soviet Union.
• Chuck Palahniuk, Tell-All (Doubleday, May). A Hollywood novel set in the era of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The “tell-all” memoir in question is about Lillian Hellman.
• Jane Smiley, Private Life (Knopf, May). The wife of a scientific genius from the 1880’s to the Second World War.

• Ann Beattie, Walks With Men (Scribner, June). The first novel in eight years—a hundred-page novella, really—by the chronicler of affectless baby boomers adrift.
• Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (Knopf, June). Punk rock and psychological compulsion from San Francisco to Africa.
• Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, June). A sequel to Less Than Zero. The L.A. druggies turn middle-aged.
• Oscar Hijuelos, Beautiful Maria of My Soul (Hyperion, June). “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” was the song that made the Castillo brothers popular in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. His new novel is “related to” the older one, Hijuelos says.
• David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House, June). At the end of the eighteenth century, a young man with the appropriate biblical name comes to Japan to work as a clerk—to earn enough money to wed his girl.
• Henry Roth, An American Type (Norton, June). The last novel by the author of Call It Sleep, discovered among his unpublished papers after his death.

• Kevin Canty, Everything (Nan A. Talese, July). In Montana, the middle-aged come to terms with loneliness and mortality.
• Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector (Dial, July). Fourth novel by the author of The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls.
• Rick Moody, The Four Fingers of Death (Little, Brown, July). A nearly 700-page dystopian novel about America in 2025.
• Cristina Garcia, The Lady Matador’s Hotel (Scribner, September). The residents of a luxury hotel in a country like Guatemala become increasingly intertwined with one another over the course of a week.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Conversion is a romance

It is part of Francine Prose’s genius to have spotted that Middlemarch is a conversion narrative. When she set out to rewrite Eliot’s “study of provincial life” as A Changed Man (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), Prose tossed out the panorama of criss-crossing subplots and reduced the story to its essence—a romance between a deficient man with a murky past and a “later-born Theresa” whose best chance for doing good in a world without “coherent social faith and order” is to marry the man and spread goodness at a remove, by improving him.

A Changed Man tells the story of Vincent Nolan, a 31-year-old white supremacist with Waffen-SS bolt tattoos on his muscular biceps, who breaks with ARM, the American Rights Movement—also known as the Aryan Resistance Movement—and flees to New York in a stolen pickup truck along with fifteen hundred dollars and a stash of prescription painkillers that he also boosted from his cousin, a skinhead leader. Nolan shows up unannounced at the offices of World Brotherhood Watch, a human rights organization headed by a Holocaust survivor celebrated for his saintliness, and asks to be taken in. “Why don’t you phone us in a few days?” he is asked. Nolan tries to make himself clear:

I don’t know how to say this, but I can’t go back. Leaving ARM is not like quitting the Boy Scouts. I can’t wait for you to call and have some guy at the tire place where I work, where a bunch of ARM guys work, say, Hey, Nolan, phone call. For you. World Brotherhood Watch. Those guys don’t just let you go. They’re not real fond of . . . defectors. This one guy who left Wyoming ARM. They found out where he was and put him in the hot seat and cut off three of his toes. They would track me down, is what I’m saying. As it is, I’m risking my life. If they knew I was here . . .   [ellipses in original]“We can call you at home,” he is told. The brotherhood promoters still don’t get it. “I’ve been staying on my cousin’s living room couch,” Nolan explains. “I have no home. I’m homeless.” And with that the story really begins.

Nolan is taken home by Bonnie Kalen, the 41-year-old development director of Brotherhood Watch, a divorcée with two sons, and installed in her spare bedroom across the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County. The inevitable happens—what is inevitable when an unmarried man and an unmarried woman sleep alone in the same house—but like Eliot’s pushing Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw apart until twenty pages from the end of her 600-page book, Prose lusciously defers the gratification of the inevitable till the very end.

Although it is the longest and most ambitious of her twelve novels, A Changed Man is not primarily about a profound and philosophical topic like the struggle with darkness. Its subject is human character, and how it is changed. Not by grand beliefs and public campaigns to do good, Prose is convinced, but by simple nearness to those who want better for us—this despite her epigraph from Middlemarch. After Ladislaw tells Dorothea that he has been forbidden to see her any longer, she replies:I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me. . . . That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.In Middlemarch, Ladislaw is forbidden to see Dorothea by her husband the Rev. Edward Casaubon, a pedant who wastes his spirit in a futile lifelong quest to compile a Key to All Mythologies. Self-important, condescending, Casaubon hopes that Dorothea will carry on his work after his death, “the lonely labor, the ambition breathing hardly under the pressure of self-distrust,” even though it would entomb her. The irony is that Dorothea is able to do real good at last only when she flouts her husband’s instructions, after his death. For though he may not have been an intimate of evil, Casaubon was nearly a stranger to the good.

In Prose’s novel, the Casaubon figure is the Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow. This is the most daring aspect of A Changed Man. Although not as celebrated as Elie Wiesel (he is annoyed when the paparazzi snapping Wiesel’s picture stop clicking their cameras when he walks by), Maslow is, in the opinion of some, “the greatest Holocaust witness. The saintliest and most selfless.” Bonnie Kagen in particular reveres him: “How rare it is,” she reflects, “to have a boss who’s a better person than you are.” Her son Danny is not so sure. He calls him Meyer Manson:So, Mom, what did Charlie—I mean Meyer—say today? Don’t call him that, says Bonnie, even though she’s weirdly pleased that her son knows who Charlie Manson is. By now that counts as history. Plus, she understands what he means. When Meyer gets his big ideas, his visionary plans, other people—mainly Bonnie—wind up handling the details.Danny is not far off the mark. In time, Vincent proves himself to be the better man. A lifetime of carrying the public battle to evil does not necessarily make a man very good, and a season in hell does not necessarily disqualify a man for goodness. In the novel’s climatic scene, when they appear together on an Oprah-like afternoon talk show, Vincent defends Maslow against his neo-Nazi cousin Raymond Gillette, who has wormed his way into the studio audience to unmask Vincent as a “liar and a thief” and the Jew as “a danger to the entire white race.” When Raymond advances threateningly on Maslow, Vincent tackles him from behind and punches him bloody.

Maslow is appalled by the violence, but he does not know the truth—namely, that Raymond had hunted down Bonnie’s house, parking in the driveway, baring his swastika tattoos to Danny, placing menacing phone calls. Instead of reverting to the violence implicit in white supremacism, as Maslow assumes, Vincent is fighting on behalf those who have taken him in and given him a home. Guessing Maslow’s reaction, though, he is as ashamed—even though he is acting out of gratitude and obligation, defending the goods that he has come to enjoy against the evil that would destroy them.

The principal good, of course, is the love that has taken root, unacknowledged by either of them, between him and Bonnie. A couple of days ago, I described Bonnie as a “helicopter parent,” hovering anxiously over Danny and his brother Max. She is a chronic worrier, always imagining the worst that can happen. It makes little difference that, in her experience, she is probably right to worry. “With her admirable but hopeless desire to be good, to do good,” Bonnie reminds Maslow’s wife of Dorothea Brooke—“that ninny in Middlemarch.”

The effect of Prose’s novel is almost exactly the opposite of Eliot’s. Most readers agree with Dorothea’s sister in saying that “Nobody thinks Mr Ladislaw a proper husband for you.” Many readers will wonder what Vincent sees in Bonnie, who at her best looks appealingly “waifish.” It is a measure of Prose’s achievement in A Changed Man, however, that their coming together, so long deferred, is so satisfying at the end—and so believable. Vincent misses talking to Bonnie when he flees after beating his cousin on television—she has reduced his jagged experience and unsavory ideas to conversation. And Bonnie becomes a better mother when Vincent is around, more trusting and patient, less edgy and censorious. Romance is the means by which two flawed persons manage to prove, in Eliot’s words, that “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing,” and may be rescued and healed as the body is.

According to William James, conversions come in two varieties—a “conscious and voluntary way and an involuntary and unconscious way,” or the “volitional type” and the “type by self-surrender.” In A Changed Man, Francine Prose explores a third type, in which a man experiences not so much a change of heart as a change of address, circumstances, loyalties: in which conversion is neither a rational persuasion nor a mystical experience, but a simple preference for a home, a better way of life—and a little romance to sweeten the change.

Britain to leave free world

Won’t be long now.

The decline of publishing

Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews will close up shop at the end of the year, its owners announced yesterday. Like Max Boot, writing on Contentions, I never read them. Among the first jacket blurbs that I ever came across were, I remember with a flush of shame, from Kirkus Reviews. Trying to make sense of the literary world without any guidance, I was under the delusion that Kirkus was a valuable source of reliable criticism—until I went off to college and an admired professor laughingly disabused me. Editor & Publisher is the trade journal of newspaper owners; it should have been called Publisher & Publisher. I don’t recall anyone’s reading it in newsrooms when I worked there.

Unlike Boot, then, I am not “saddened to learn of [their] fate.” Anything that contributes to “the general decline of the publishing industry” saddens Boot. But even if that’s what their passing signifies, so what?

It is a vulgar error to confuse the decline of the publishing industry with the decline of literature and authorship. The two are related in much the same way that coffee is related to the electric percolator. The kitchen gadget is simply one way to brew the nectar of concentration. Coffee consumption has not declined along with the gradual disappearance of electric percolators. Or, to switch to the favored analogy of both Luddites and technological cheerleaders, traveling along roads did not melt away with the horse-drawn carriage trade.

What is happening is a reconception of the book. Once upon a time you could distinguish a book, the material object that could sit on a shelf or stop a door, from the text, an ideal order whose storage and transmission it made possible. That distinction is in the process of evaporating. What we are witnessing is the material book’s decline in cultural significance.

New gadgets for storing and transmitting texts are being developed. And right now they command higher prices than the texts they store. But this is probably a transitional phase in the market. New hardware is always expensive; software prices are more stable, because they represent the intellectual content that makes the software worth something. The problem that faces authors is how to capture a fair share of the market for their intellectual content. That’s what book-buyers are paying for.

In the long run, the decline of the publishing industry will only benefit authors as they are able to connect to consumers without hundreds of intermediaries who have their hands out. How will the authors of the future get paid? Who knows? That’s not the kind of problem I give my waking hours over to. But there are plenty of men and women who do.

Here is one example. I have a friend who markets a computer-based facsimile-transmission system to businesses. He provides the technological gadgetry for sending and receiving faxes—for free! He is paid every time a business sends or receives a fax. And of course, the system is first-rate; his users fall in love with it; usage explodes, and he makes tons of money. Why? If he concentrated on selling the technological gadgetry, discrete physical units, even of the objects that store the software that runs the system, he could only make money one unit at a time. His money-making capacity would be constrained by his physical ability to reach customers. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argued a couple of years ago in The Black Swan, “There are no physical constraints on what a number can be.” There are no physical constraints on the number of faxes that a business can send, using my friend’s system. My friend has made the conversion from selling material objects to selling ideas.

In their day-to-day writing, authors have always already been converts. But in their sales, they have been captive to the publishing industry, which conceives of books as material objects. The trick is to find a way to get paid for ideas. If I were running Amazon, I’d sell Kindles for a song and give away ebooks for free. Readers would only be charged when they opened a new book and scrolled to the next page. They are paying to read, after all; not to hold a gadget in the hand. And who knows? Maybe an author far cannier than I will beat Amazon to some such punch. In any event, the authors—not Amazon—will be the ultimate beneficiaries, if they are smart, of publishing’s decline.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Mothers and the novel

In a salty and unsparing examination of her vampire romances, Mario the Epicurean gives Stephanie Meyer her due (“Twelve-year-old girls could do worse than Twilight. They could also do better—try Wuthering Heights, for Christ’s sake!”). The Meyer phenomenon is “nothing new,” he concludes, and not worth getting worked up over.

Along the way, he mentions my “effective dismissal” of Nina Baym’s theory that the “basic American story” melodramatizes the plight of men “beset” by women who seek to constrict and destroy them. In an interesting addendum to my refutation, Mario argues that Baym was seeking to distance herself from a feminism that, by elevating “great female achievement or exceptionality,” implicitly downgrades motherhood. Since mothers are women, Baym insisted that “gender is only the ground of the analysis,” and she had to locate—or to invent, in my view—the source of hostility to the feminine and maternal in American novels by men, since she was not about to blame it upon feminism.

Mario is having none of it. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again,” he declares, throwing down a gauntlet: “there are good reasons to be hostile to mothers.” After criticizing the concept of the mother in Freudian psychoanalysis, Mario lowers the boom:

The mother is an authority figure, every bit as much of one and as forbidding a one as the father. Successful individuation means overthrowing maternal as well as paternal authority, and these two forms of authority may in the end be more similar than dissimilar.I am not qualified to comment upon psychoanalysis, and my firsthand experience of mothers, although cutting against Mario’s assertions, is limited to two of them—my own mother, a coal miner’s daughter from southern Indiana, and my wife, the mother of our four children—and personal experience, therefore, does not provide a large enough sample from which to generalize. In my field of expertise, though, there are abundant counter-examples. Mario is a far more rewarding critic than anyone who rushes to “update” Baym’s rusted-out thesis (and a better writer too), but about mothers in the novel, at least, he is just plain wrong.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have praised novels by women—Cather’s My Ántonia and Cynthia Ozick’s two-part novella The Shawl—in which motherhood is represented as a moral category. In Cather, a country is defined by its mothers, who stay on and “maintain it as a home to which the exiles can return.” They are, in short, the source of patriotism. In Ozick, meanwhile, they are “the source of consciousness, of conscience, the ground of being. . . .” The words are Ozick’s. It is the mother who remembers the past, the fond moments that subside, the terrible losses that remain, and memory is “the ground of being.” Thus the mother is the basis of culture.

One of the best novels ever written about a mother is Janet Lewis’s wonderful Against a Darkening Sky (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1943). It is the story of Mary Perrault, a young woman originally from Scotland, who came to the town of South Encina in California’s Santa Clara valley, married a warm and unpretentious man who earns his living as a gardener and breeder of rabbits, and raises four children with him. As the novel opens, the two oldest—seventeen-year-old Melanie and two-years-younger Duncan—are emerging from adolescence; or, as Mario might say, they are about to seek their success at individuation.

Her mother approves of Melanie’s eagerness for independence, but she is also worried about “the heartaches and loneliness” by which youth “arrives at self-sufficiency.” Coming home from the beach with her boyfriend one afternoon, Melanie sprawls on the sofa in front of him. Appalled by her manners, Mary is more brusque than she means to be, because she is unsure whether to interfere. After the boy has gone home, she scolds Melanie for exposing “quite so much of yourself.” Melanie accuses her of being as bad as the old Italian woman in the neighborhood who “thinks I’m going straight to Sodom and Gomorrah because I don’t have sleeves in my dresses.” Mary wishes she hadn’t interfered. And besides, Melanie is “no city child.” She knows the facts of life:But it was not of the facts that her mother had wished to speak, but of an emotion stranger than the facts, sometimes noble, sometimes ignoble, lifting and changing the spirit, sometimes overwhelming it, a dangerous and magnificent force, the source of life. Of this she had not been able to say a word.To show Melanie that she trusts her, Mary says nothing further about the subject. It is the “one effort of hers to educate her daughter.” From then on, she remains in the background, influencing Melanie without interference. But influence her she does.

One day Melanie comes home to find the house deserted. The stillness makes her more acutely aware of things she had always taken for granted. She studies her mother’s wedding portrait, when Mary was hardly older than she:She suddenly recognized her mother as an individual, a person distinct from the family which had grown up about her, and she began to realize from the reserve in her young mother’s eyes the knowledge of a deeper passion than she yet knew herself. . . . [Later] that evening as she lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep, she reached back through her memories, searching, and trying to set in order those recollections which would give her some picture of her mother as a young woman, and felt, somehow, in this effort, a new kinship with her mother, their common womanhood. She thought of herself as following her mother in a series of common experiences, of which the first was this restlessness and effervescence, this desire of bestowing herself, of being gracious and tender.So Mary had been able to speak of “an emotion stranger than the facts” after all—by not saying a word. Melanie begins to achieve “successful individuation” by recognizing her mother as an individual and not by throwing off Mary’s authority. Except for once, Mary has not tried to exercise authority over Melanie. Her quiet trust has the surprising effect of promoting her daughter’s individuality, which Melanie begins to come into by feeling a “common womanhood” with her mother.

As for Duncan. His mother also makes just one effort to educate him, but it is decisive. When her son puts on his jacket one evening to go with a friend to watch the lynching of two murderers, Mary announces that she will not have it. “I’ll not have you joining any gang of speakeasy drunks to help kill any man, no matter how bad he is,” she says. “And break the law, whatever little law there is left unbroken in this country.” Duncan protests that he and his friend are not going to kill anybody: “We’re just going to see the fun. You said yourself they ought to be lynched.” Mrs Perrault flies up at him:It’s one thing to say it and another to do it . . . and you know me well enough to know I’d not let any one of you have anything whatever to do with a killing. Fun! I’ll not have you standing and gawping at a murder. I’ll not have you a part of any crowd that does any such thing. I’ve never before, since you were in long pants, forbid you to do any single thing, that I mind, but I forbid you now. You’ll not go out of this house for any such purpose this night or any other night.Although she regrets the display of authority, she does no more than to reveal to Duncan the moral content of his own character. As he stands by the back door, trying to hear through the distance what is happening miles away, Duncan realizes that “[h]e had not wanted to participate in any action against the men in the jail. He knew now that he had not wanted to be in the mob at all.” His mother has given voice to the “dreadful uneasiness” that had possessed him since the murderers’ arrest and the discovery of their victim’s body. As the novel ends, Duncan looks up and sees his mother “mending a pair of old corduroy pants, her head bent forward, the greyed brown hair brushed back loosely from the clear, lined forehead.” It is an image of steadiness and reassurance, not an authority that must be thrown off, and these are exactly the qualities that a young man requires for “successful individuation.”

I could heap up other examples: May Welland in The Age of Innocence, who raises her son Dallas to believe, as his father does not, that marriage and family are rooted in a deeper passion than turbulent desire; Genya Schearl in Call It Sleep, who defends her beloved son David from his father’s brutal authority; Bigger Thomas’s mother in Native Son, whose inconsolable wretchedness in her son’s jail cell stands in stark and dignified contrast to the voluble authority of the men who file in to counsel and hector him; or Ellen Fairchild in Delta Wedding, who influences her children by remaining an outsider to their Jim Crow ways.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: American literature does not give good reasons to be hostile to mothers, because it does not give many mothers at all. Every now and then, however, you will stumble upon a book that reminds you that mothers represent the ordinary successes in life, including the success of being an individual. Without them no individuality is even possible—at least if Janet Lewis, and a very few of her peers, are to be trusted.

Monday, December 07, 2009

December 7, 1941: The Review reviewed

At the beginning of every week, Levi Asher runs an enjoyable feature that he calls “Reviewing the Review,” in which he slices through the pages of the previous Sunday’s New York Times Book Review with irreverent scissors.

Sixty-eight years ago today—a cloudy Sunday morning in New York with temperatures in the mid-fifties—the New York Times Book Review was published as usual, but then quickly swallowed by events. Many of its reviews must have gone unread as New Yorkers learned some time after 2:30 in the afternoon that their country had been attacked without warning by Japan. The Review might as well have been set in an alternate reality; except for a small advertisement for Japan Inside Out, a book by Syngman Rhee under the imprint of the Christian publisher Fleming H. Revell (“Dr. Rhee brings warning to the United States that, while watching Hitler, Japan is carrying out her long cherished plan”), no hint of a Japanese threat appeared anywhere. The books that received respectful attention were a “social estimate” of Hollywood, a five-volume Dictionary of American History, a historical novel about eighteenth-century Dublin by Oliver St. John Gogarty (Joyce’s Buck Mulligan), and a biography of the Nazi diplomat who negotiated the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. There were also tributes to the romance writer W. H. Hudson and a Christmas list of the year’s best books. The editors of the New York Times Book Review, if not the rest of the country, were still watching Hitler, or trying not to.

It must be admitted right off that 1941 was not a particularly good year for American literature. The most important literary event of the year was John Crowe Ransom’s introduction to what he called The New Criticism. The name stuck—for good. American fiction was not so lucky. In Fiction of the Forties, Chester Eisinger lists nine works of fiction as the year’s best:

Gerald Warner Brace, Light on a Mountain
Howard Fast, The Last Frontier
Caroline Gordon, Green Centuries
Andrew Lytle, At the Moon’s Inn
Carson McCullers, Reflections in a Golden Eye
John P. Marquand, H. M. Pulham, Esquire
Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?
Wallace Stegner, Fire and Ice
Eudora Welty, A Curtain of Green

The best works of fiction overlooked by Eisinger are Janet Lewis’s novella The Wife of Martin Guerre and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov’s first English novel. Fitzgerald’s unfinished Last Tycoon was also published during the year. Allen Tate came out with Reason in Madness, a collection of essays. Kenneth Burke’s Philosophy of Literary Form appeared from the Louisiana State University Press. William Alexander Percy—Walker Percy’s legal guardian—finished Lanterns on the Levee, his autobiography. Ellen Glasgow’s In This Our Life won the Pulitzer Prize.

American fiction was going through a bad patch. The Review’s Book and Authors column announced that a distinguished jury impaneled by the Limited Editions Club had selected For Whom the Bell Tolls as the American book, published in the past three years, “most likely to attain the stature of a classic.” The jurists were Sinclair Lewis, Sterling North, and Clifton Fadiman, who preferred Hemingway’s hard-boiled sentimentality to Native Son, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Big Sleep, or Faulkner’s Hamlet.

England had the better year in 1941. T. S. Eliot wrote and published “The Dry Salvages,” the third of his Four Quartets. Auden saw The Double Man into print. Elizabeth Bowen compiled her fifth volume of stories, Look at All Those Roses. Joyce Cary published two novels: The House of Children, which won the James Tait Black Prize, and Herself Surprised, the first volume of his trilogy of novels about England from Edwardian days to after the Great War. Ivy Compton-Burnett published Parents and Children, another of her books about domestic tyranny. Robert Graves and Alan Hodge collaborated on The Long Weekend, their social history of England from 1918 to 1939. Patrick Hamilton published Hangover Square. Arthur Koestler wrote his first book in English—Scum of the Earth. C. S. Lewis delivered his lectures on Paradise Lost at University College, North Wales, although the Preface was not revised and printed by Oxford University Press till the following year. Charles Morgan published The Empty Room. Osbert Sitwell told a ghost story in A Place of One’s Own. And Virginia Woolf’s posthumous Between the Acts was published.

The editors of the Book Review recommended a few of the year’s good books, but they dropped into the hole of three long pages of deservedly forgotten novels, starting with Hilde Abel’s Victory Was Slain (“democracy in Austria was executed by that nation’s own politicians well before the Hitler march”). Samples:

• “The Timeless Land is a historical novel of the settlement of Australia. The stuff of epic drama is given by Eleanor Dark, the author, a living expression that is worthy of its subject.”

• “John Faulkner’s novel of men and work is a sensitive study of just what happens when a government attempts to help the helpless. Men Working.” By William Faulkner’s younger brother.

• “Jacob is a wise and subtle book in which the author, Irving Fineman, identifies himself with the biblical character and present[s] Jacob in the ever-interesting role of a human in stress rather than a patriarch in the pages of antiquity.”

• “A book about Nazis that is a novel first and not a political pamphlet is That Lofty Sky by Henry Beetle Hough. It proves better anti-Nazi propaganda than many another book that attempts to be propaganda because it does not sacrifice truth.”

• “Piercing to the core of the problem of the Negro living in a world of white men, Royal Road, by Arthur Kuhl, is an effective spotlight on tragedy. It is a simple, heart-breaking tale of a gentle Negro whose doom was written in the color of his skin.”

• “John Myers Myers”—a name that I can second—“has written a rousing tale of fighting and feasting and drinking and adventuring in general, the setting far away in time, the tenth century. The hero is a wandering fighter-poet who ranged Europe when feudalism was something new. Mr. Myers calls his novel The Harp and the Blade.”

• “Elizabeth Lee Wheaton’s novel, Mr. George’s Joint, is a freshly original and richly authentic picture of some aspects of Negro life in the South, of Negroes bent on ‘pleasuring themselves’ [sic!] while they can.”

The reason for the list’s woosiness becomes clear when you read the Review’s lead article—Bosley Crowther’s long consideration of Hollywood: The Movie Colony, the Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten. Described by Terry Teachout as an “unerring index of middlebrow taste,” Crowther was exactly the right choice to review Rosten’s book about “the oddest community in America and the most screw-whacky business in the world.” Rosten himself was a middlebrow’s middlebrow, producing during his long career The Education of H*Y*M*A*N   K*A*P*L*A*N (1937), which introduced Gentile America to Jewish humor (you’ll pardon the expression), as well as The Joys of Yiddish (1968), which for the language of Eastern European Jewry ditto.

By December 7, 1941, the social research behind Rosten’s Hollywood had already dated, but “as a philosophical reflection of the society which works at making films it stands as one of the few really cogent books in cinema literature,” Crowther concludes. So cogent was it that, except for library reprints, the book was never reprinted. “Mr. Rosten has promised to supplement this present work with a second volume devoted to the economics of film production,” Crowther reports, “and to the vital problems of labor, morality codes and censorship.” He never delivered on his promise. With the world at war, nobody really wanted to read about Hollywood morality codes and censorship. There was enough middlebrow philosophy on war, totalitarianism, collective responsibility, and the sentimental dream of human brotherhood to fill the gap.

After reassuring yourself that you will never have to pick up Rosten’s book, you turn the page to find tributes to W. H. Hudson, the “Genius of the Pampas,” by the literary scholar William York Tindall and the Argentinian historian of philosophy Angélica Mendoza. In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway destroyed Hudson’s reputation for all time, ridiculing Robert Cohn for reading and rereading Hudson’s 1885 novel The Purple Land:

The Purple Land is a very sinister book if read too late in life. It recounts splendid imaginary amorous adventures of a perfect English gentleman in an intensely romantic land, the scenery of which is very well described. For a man to take it at thirty-four as a guide-book to what life holds is about as safe as it would be for a man of the same age to enter Wall Street direct from a French convent, equipped with a complete set of the more practical Alger books.Tindall and Mendoza try their best, but are unable to resuscitate Hudson for a new generation. “His appeal is to youth,” Tindall allows—the “young in years” and also “those who are young in heart.” Although his style is “perfect for its purpose,” with words that are “lucid and fastidiously chosen, the rhythms easy and natural,” Hudson’s books will continue to be read “for their substance, his picture of the youth of a great continent and of the wild life of its plains.” Mendoza claims Hudson for Argentinian literature—and your reaction, sixty-eight years later, is that Argentinian literature is welcome to him.

About the only relief is provided by the Review’s unfamiliar heft: sixty-five pages, including eighteen full-page advertisements. Sections are devoted to new books of poetry—Edna St. Vincet Millay’s Collected Sonnets, Paul Engle’s West of Midnight, Dilys Bennett Laing’s Another England, Louise Townsend Nicholl’s Dawn in Snow—and a sixteen-line poem written in alexandrines by John Peale Bishop is printed above a promise to review his Selected Poems very soon. Other sections are handed over to “new books for younger readers,” new mysteries, and even seven new “Western and adventure” titles.

The most interesting book reviewed in the entire issue—the only book that pricked my interest—was a history of nineteenth-century Virginia health resorts such as White Sulphur Springs. They sound something like the Standish Sanitarium in A Day at the Races. Every summer, high society from North and South would relocate to the Virginia mountains—a “general muster under the banner of folly,” as the English novelist Frederick Marryat wryly commented—to live in Queen Anne cottages and take advantage of the healing waters. No great men make an appearance in The Springs of Virginia; Perceval Reiniers’s book is cultural history more suited to a later decade, although it avoids theory in favor of anecdote and illustration. Even H. I. Brock’s review is delightfully informative. I will probably never read Reiniers’s book, but now I know something I didn’t know before. Not many book reviews can accomplish as much.

The most striking thing about the Review as a whole is its topicality. In an addition to a long notice of Satan in Top Hat, a biography of Franz von Popen, the Review’s editors assigned reviews of a short book detailing “the organized activities of British women” in the war effort (“especially in the three main types of war work—service with the army, navy and air forces; voluntary work among civilians; and work in the official civil defense directed by the Ministry of Home Security”) and two accounts of the European war (Lion Feuchtwanger’s Devil in France, on the Nazi occupation, and Raymond Daniell’s “picture” of wartime London). Herbert W. Horwill’s literary letter from London asks “why the present war has yielded such a scanty crop of poetry.” After quoting the opinions of Stephen Spender, Edwin Muir, and Robert Graves, Horwill turns to British politicians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who appealed for more British war poetry. “[O]nly 1.5 per cent of the paper consumed in this country [is being] used for books,” one pointed out. “Books have been rationed more than beer and betting,” said another.

The reviewers’ critical vocabulary may be more sophisticated, but the Review has changed little in its bias for the literature of topical comment. And this explains why, in sixty-eight years, the Review’s lists of the year’s best books have always overbalanced onto the side of social-problem novels and politically orthodox nonfiction (at least how the Times’s editors define political orthodoxy). Another word for topicality, come to think of it, is Midcult—mass culture’s pretense of being high culture. And the last thing wanted by readers in the middle is to be worried on a Sunday morning over warlike threats from ancient imperial powers with an implacable hostility toward the United States—then or now.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Updating fallacy

Just now catching up on my reading of the book blogs, which I shamefully neglected during my ten-day stay in California. I am tickled to find that, while I was gone, Andrew Seal gave another demonstration of how not to do literary criticism. For reasons that are still not clear to me, he dusted off an old essay by the feminist scholar Nina Baym, which he found in a school anthology, and decided to use it as a “still serviceable model” for complaining about the exclusion of women from American fiction.

This is not, of course, the procedure of a rational inquiry. Seal announces that he is “updating” Baym’s essay, because it excites him and “feels largely on target.” Instead of examining its “bracing rush of argument,” then, he accepts its validity as a given, and bracingly rushes to his real concern: confirming its findings (“yep, guess we still do that”) by applying them to eight randomly selected novels written by men during the past decade. Seal is numb to the irony of treating as canonical—that is, established by the authority of republication in an anthology—an essay that reproaches the “canon” of American literature.

But what if Baym’s argument is false? If so it follows that “think[ing] through its major claims . . . in light of the American fiction of the past ten year[s]” is sound and fury. The first duty in reading literary criticism is to think through its claims, not by industriously extending them to further corroborating examples, but by scuffling to falsify them. If and only if the claims resist falsification can they be validly extended to texts undreamed of in the original critic’s philosophy. A critical argument may “generat[e] enthusiasm and a feeling of recognition” and yet be utterly false.

Does Baym’s argument hold up?

At least the argument is clear. “As late as 1977,” Baym declares, “that canon [of American literature] did not include any women novelists” for the simple reason that literature is read “always through the perspective allowed by theories,” and until very recently “theories of American literature” posited “a literature that is essentially male.”[1]

Neither major nor minor premise is true. Baym is not really interested in whether they are true, because she offers no argument in support of either. They are for her axiomatic: claims that are so obvious they need no further proof. In literary criticism, however, there are no axioms, because there is always something else from which a critic’s assertions follow. To treat a controversial claim as axiomatic is merely to explore the familiar contents of an ideology, to invite colleagues to rehearse the well-practiced tenets of a party.

Consider the claim that, as late as 1977, the American canon did not include any women novelists. It is impossible to determine what the word canon refers to. Course syllabi? Examination lists? Baym’s notes from lectures she heard as an undergraduate? Who knows? The vagueness of the referent liberates Baym from having to defend the claim.

For if she were referring to literary history, the claim would be demonstrably false. In his History of American Literature (1896), Fred Lewis Pattee devotes an entire chapter to “Woman in Literature” in which he discusses Helen Hunt Jackson at some length, describing her Ramona as a “matchless work of art,” and also includes longer or shorter sections on Harriet Prescott Spofford, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Noailles Murfree, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, while glancing at Rose Terry Cooke, Jane G. Austin, Mary E. Wilkins, Mary Hallock Foote, Alice French, Rebecca Harding Davis, Louise Chandler Moulton, Blanche Willis Howard, Mary Hartwell Catherwood, and Margaret Deland. Elsewhere in the book he dilates upon Catherine Maria Sedgwick and Harriet Beecher Stowe, while paying less attention to Louisa May Alcott. In a book intended as a school text, Pattee lists the following novels by women as “required reading”: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Stowe’s later Oldtown Folks (1869)—a book described in a 1953 article in College English by Ruth Suckow as an “almost lost American classic”—along with The Story of Avis (1877) and Jack the Fisherman (1887), both by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Ramona (1884).

Except for Stowe, none of Pattee’s canonical women novelists received much attention in the twentieth century. Other women displaced them. The main figures were Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Ellen Glasgow. Critical discussion of them began in the ’twenties. Elizabeth Monroe singled out all three for praise and extended treatment in The Novel and Society in 1941, and Alfred Kazin did the same the next year in On Native Grounds. More women entered the “canon” in short order. Eudora Welty was first given the serious critical treatment in the ’fifties, Flannery O’Connor at the end of the decade (the first articles were on Delta Wedding and Wise Blood). Kate Chopin’s Awakening was rediscovered in 1956 by Kenneth Eble, and began attracting widespread scholarly notice in the late ’sixties. Alcott was firmly entrenched in American literary scholarship by the ’seventies.

Baym’s major premise is either too vague to qualify as a truth-claim or is factually untrue. What, then, of her minor premise? Is it the case that literature is read “always through the perspective allowed by theories”?

Again, the imprecision of the claim makes it difficult to know exactly what Baym means. If she means that apriori assumptions always precede the reading of a literary text, who would quarrel? But clearly she means something more:

There are . . . gender-related restrictions that do not arise out of cultural realities contemporary with the writing woman, but out of later critical theories. These theories may follow naturally from cultural realities pertinent to their own time, but they impose their concerns anachronistically, after the fact, on an earlier period. If one accepts current theories of American literature, one accepts as a consequence—perhaps not deliberately but nevertheless inevitably—a literature that is essentially male.Theories are collective, cultural, subsuming. They begin with a hypothesis; they employ a common vocabulary; they depend upon “the idea of Americanness” or “the idea of the best”; that is, they are an explanation of “some qualitative essence.” They are, in short, full-blown and widely accepted interpretations that are just waiting for new texts to be worked in.

But is it true that this is how unfamiliar books are read? A common cultural interpretation of an entire literature precedes the encounter with a new text, and reading it involves—perhaps not deliberately but nevertheless inevitably—making sense of it in the terms of the common cultural interpretation? Pretty clearly, Baym is advancing some literary version of a Kuhnian scientific paradigm (“universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners”).[2] And her concept of “the perspective allowed by theories,” which defines the reading of literature, suffers from many of the same problems as Kuhn’s concept of a paradigm.

For young critics like Seal, the suggestion that there are any problems at all with Kuhn’s paradigm is not merely heretical, but absurd. The concept of the paradigm is axiomatic in a certain broken-backed style of criticism wildly popular in academic departments of English, where Seal memorized his errors a few years ago. How is it, though, that (in Baym’s words) “we never read American literature directly or freely, but always through the perspective allowed by theories,” but somehow we enjoy unmediated access to this very assertion? Or is it only American literature that is filtered through a ready-made perspective? And are we really sure that such a perspective even exists?

No doubt many sweeping interpretations of American literature are similar, but does this similarity leave us no choice but to believe in the hocus-pocus of a single common theoretical perspective? The truth is that Baym’s argument is non-falsifiable because it twirls around in circles: the “basic American story” is found to be antagonistic to women because antagonism to women is defined in advance as the “basic American story.” That’s just what makes it a “theory” or “perspective” or “paradigm.”

More to the point, how did someone like Nina Baym come to shake off the prevailing theories of American books, which encouraged her to accept a literature that is essentially male, in order to adopt a different paradigm in which women novelists are included? Is it possible that she arrived at an interpretation of the American novel that differed from the prevailing theories? On her own showing, though, these theories do not allow a different interpretation. How then was she able, all on her own, to shift the paradigm?

The plain truth that new books are not read “through the perspective allowed by theories,” and if they were, Andrew Seal would not have to study the perspective in order to extend it, rather woodenly, to eight novels by males in the last ten years. He would, instead, read the novels in its terms unconsciously, without any intellectual freedom, as if no other terms were even conceivable.

But that is not how we read. We read new books against a lifetime of reading books, and as we open a new book we toss a net of expectation over its unread portion, which we pull back and adjust as we go along—as the book is converted from expectation to memory. By this means we are able to avoid such stupidities as saying, for instance, that Delphine Roux, the French professor in The Human Stain, is an “encroaching, constricting, destroying” woman who proves that Philip Roth “conform[s] to the American myth,” according to Nina Baym, whereby men are “beset” by women, but “struggling to break free” of them—even though the agent of Coleman Silk’s freedom is Faunia Farley, another woman conveniently ignored (because inconvenient to his theory) by the theory-besotted Andrew Seal.

[1] Nina Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” American Quarterly 33 (Summer 1981): 123–39.

[2] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. x.