The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Another phase

Posted on: January 26, 2008

Lately, I’ve had a renewed interest in books about literature. Last year it started (and ended) with The Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. What impact that text has had on my reading is unclear. I don’t remember the definition of a sicilian tercet but I have a stronger grip on poetry metres because of Beowulf and other Old English poems. Yes, the formalist chapter probably made the most impact on my poetry readings but less on novels. The theories that the writers most emphatically applied to novels, and about which I did recall a thing or two, were the ones I had little use for — feminist (All that Lacan semiotic vs symbolic, what?), psychoanalysis (still flogging Freud?) — and the others tested my patience so much that I did not complete the relevant chapters (some cultural rebels wanting to analyse literature as one would a chair or a bloody restaurant menu). Mikhail Bakhtin was a flickering glimmer in that land of nonsense but the writers did not spend much time with him and I did not follow up because the libraries either had one or two of his books in translation (and always on loan).

It did not have a chapter on postcolonial criticism but if it did it’s likely I’d have skipped it. No matter, though, since Adrian Hunt’s introduction to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner gave a detailed analysis of how some characters’ use of Scottish dialect not only helped to establish a Scottish identity, individuality, and complexity in opposition to English condescension and simple prejudice but how in certain scenes, it was used to tell entirely different versions or give particular point of views to the same story an English character attempted to analyse. That seemed to feasibly fall within postcolonial theory, as I imagine it, despite the novel’s publication date and Scotland’s present political status.

Claude McKay’s used Jamaican patois far more frequently in Banana Bottom and in a purer form, than Roger Mais did in his novels and Andrew Salkey in A Quality of Violence, which tended to a more creolised English. It made me hesitate when I began to write my post on the McKay because I wondered how difficult the lines would be for a non-Jamaican reader, knowing that people read my blog for recommendations and that my audience isn’t predominantly Caribbean. Did this impede its universality? Yet, there was a glossary in the back, as there was in the Hogg’s, and I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes. Anyway, that’s another post.

I was too hard on my feminists. I did appreciate the various theories about whether any female characteristics are inherent (biological) or acquired from socialization, and the argument as to whether there was such a thing as a female text ie novels written by women have certain particularities that would not be produced by a male. I just never think like this when I read a novel and so have no use for it. Jane Elizabeth Lavery’s feminist analysis of Desire and Its Shadow by Ana Clavel made me hastily scan for what information I needed before beating a hasty retreat in the face of Lacan’s mirror stages.

Recently, I noted a brief resurgence in online discussion on why litbloggers supposedly hate James Wood and why they are hopelessly wrong to do so in such an inflammatory, pathetically argued manner. Wood is awesome; their critical skills quail before his awesomeness. I felt I possessed insufficient knowledge (and interest) to judge the matter so I read only to see what others had to say. I had not read much from Wood beyond his London Review of Books contributions which I found persuasive enough that I acquired books by the authors reviewed (Edward St. Aubyn and E.P. Jones) but at no time then did I feel as if I were in the presence of a critical god (or misguided nincompoop).

Nigel Beale led me to Wood’s New Republic review of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth which partly acted as a manifesto on hysterical realism, a term which I often came across without having much of a clue about what it referred to. I’m somewhat clearer now. Some authors’ fictions that are identified as magic realism — Thomas Pynchon (oh? had no idea), Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith (for White Teeth) — should be properly called “hysterical realism” because of their inauthenticity and internal disunity. Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character…By and large, these are not stories that could never happen (as, say, a thriller is often something that could never happen); rather, they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them. They are not stories in which people defy the laws of physics (obviously, one could be born in an earthquake); they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion.


Near the end of White Teeth, one of the characters, Irie Jones, has sex with one of the twins, called Millat; but then rushes round to see the other twin, called Magid, to have sex with him only moments after. She becomes pregnant; and she will never know which twin impregnated her. But it is really Smith’s hot plot which has had its way with her.

I’m not sure that I agree with him, partly because I’ve not read the authors under scrutiny and intend to read only one (Pynchon). It certainly pushed me one step closer to Mason & Dixon. I have ever been reluctant to boo a book because it does not contain psychologically realistic characters. I acknowledge that there are books to which such characters help to create a marvellous text, and that though an author may have written his book in such a way that such characters would be necessary to make it convincing (even if he did not think so), I don’t look to it as a standard. The examples he gave made me think that he could be right or he could be wrong. I believe that novels, by nature, must deal with some aspect of human experience but I do not think a great one’s defining aspect should be how well it probes human consciousness as Wood has conveyed it.

(I was not heartened by this post which claims that Wood chastised Tristram Shandy for being too “lively”, which is just…what? Would it be indulging in mean pooterish blogger speak to say that all through that Green’s post I imagined Wood as an old man on his porch, holding Bleak House, waving his crane at the hyperactive novelists writing about talking cheeses, wheezing, “Get off my damn high quality (realistic!) lawn turf, you’re gonna give me a heart attack!”)

There’s also been some discussion on This Space, Jacob Russel’s Barking Dog and The Reading Experience, too, about “realism”: what the word means precisely and whether current literary fashion over favours it. It was spurred in part by James Tata’s series on…perhaps it was realism in 20th century American fiction. (I’m not sure because he doesn’t allow direct linking to his posts and I could find it nowhere on the first page, so I assume he is that rare breed of bloggers who doesn’t like to be linked to.) I found this one more engaging but again I could find no one definition to hold on to, in part because it was debatable (and that some said it was being confused with naturalism, another term I should know more about, especially since I reviewed Kokoro).

Finally, The Wooden Spoon‘s running commentary last year on NBCC members selections for books every critic should read, and Esposito at Conversational Reading who occasionally ruminates on his quest to become a better, more insightful reader by reading critical works about literature and close reading, made me idly consider picking one or two such books for myself. The problem is that when I weigh the choice of reading about fiction vs. reading fiction 99% of the time I chose the latter. Life’s too short! I think. I’ll pick it up as I go along.

Reading a batch of review on J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year forced me to reconsider. A few were very, very bad. Many were bad or depressingly mediocre. Of the 13 I’ve read so far I would only rate three as being worth your time not because you have a polished and refined taste for the highest tiers of literary criticism, dear reader, but because you are likely a living, breathing human being with a brain; a brain active enough that when a stranger tells you that something is bad or good you wonder why she thinks so, and the stranger’s is active enough to explain. It’s a real shame that the reader who isn’t inclined to read 3 or so pages of Hilary Mantel wax on (and on) is left with 750 words of plot summary + I’d give him a free hand job that’s how great it is!/No, no I didn’t really get into it.

I’ll save most of my ire for the assigned piece. One good thing out of the experience, I guess, is that it made me look harder at how I do things. I was not too worried about my blog reviews, but I scurried to reassess my Quarterly Conversation piece, and I am now more committed to doing better at other future submissions if they do turn up. Still, I was appalled enough at what I read that I’m tempted to put up a page entitled “Spot the difference?” in which I’ll place examples of erudite newspaper reviews beside regular ol’ blog ones. My god, if that’s the drivel these people think is acting as a gateway for quality, if that is the processed baby food they’re serving to adults…I don’t know whether to laugh or…

Anyway. This rather long post was supposed to be a kind of introduction for my thoughts on Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge, a book in which she seeks to establish what sort of knowledge literary art can provide separate from other art and more pointedly from scientific inquiry. I’ll put up an excerpt and then save the rest for Sunday Salon.


7 Responses to "Another phase"

“I’ve become more and more distrustful of this “universal” quality used as a criteria for great literature. Too often I find that it is used to erase the local qualities of non-Western text, probably to save a poor critic/academic from doing more research and forcing students to look beyond Greek archetypes.”

A distrust I applaud.

Milan Kundera’s essay, Die Weltliterature in The Curtain–especially the complimentary sections on The Provincialism of Large Nations and The Provincialism of Small Nations is essential reading. Kundera questions the national compartmentalization of literature in universities, and meets the objection of teaching translations head-on.

The New Yorker published a somewhat shorter version HERE

I see that the link I provided to the New Yorker article was to an abstract. It seems the whole essay in not available on-line.

Kundera’s “The Curtain”, as a whole, is a must-read, from a seasoned practitioner of the Art. There’s certainly a qualitative difference between knowledge-in-doing and extrapolated knowledge via careful observation (especially when that which is under observation is neither object nor action; something which only “exists”, uniquely, in every observer’s mind, and therefore exceedingly difficult to describe with broad authority).

It’s immediately after the closing sentence of the book’s “Die Weltliteratur” chapter that Kundera brings us the wisdom of the “most prestigious French critic of his time”, a finger-wagging admonition to Gustave Flaubert to “console and give ease to the reader” by a “picture of goodness”… a familiar trope from the long history of proscriptive aid on offer from critic to novelist. We can assume that M. Sainte-Beuve was only trying to be helpful, of course, but, long after both gentlemen are dead, do we regret that M. Sainte-Beuve didn’t have a stronger influence on Flaubert’s art?

(I was once informed, as evidence of the critic’s relative importance, that Samuel Johnson had lived long beyond his era in influence; to which I’d say: Mr. Johnson is not famous, chiefly, for the justice of particular critiques, whatever he thought of them at the time. )

Is it unfair to compare literary critics to barren governesses who scowl, roll their eyes, and snatch at the sleeves of their charges? In many cases, yes. A literary critic who *illuminates* the text under consideration (placing it in a context with its antecedents, for example), and does so in a way that’s a pleasure to read, is most welcome. A critic who measures the distance between a text’s apparent goal and its actual accomplishment, on the text’s own terms (in good faith) can be very interesting (whether or not we agree).

A literary critic who takes on the role of sermonizing cleric, or hanging judge, dismissing writers/ oeuvres/ styles whole, baffles us. What is the critic’s goal, in such cases? To persuade the readers who have already enjoyed the work of said writer to repent of their pleasure? To persuade said writer (despite long success, in some cases) to become a different sort of writer? To persuade an entire school of writing (even in such cases as the school is concocted by the critic) to conform to righter modes of expression? Or is such activity the possible symptom of a critic suffering from divided purposes… or the poison of overweening ambition?

There is no “perfect” work of Art; there is no “objective” form of Art criticism: neither end of that continuum is a Science. Even the finest criticism is glorified opinion of an entirely unstable nature, and even the most detailed taxonomy is not, by default, a body of knowledge (since anyone can describe anything in any terms they please).

Approaching a text, a reader (critic and non-critic both) brings his/her psychology to the table; her/his affinities and prejudices. A truly useful critic of fiction must be *open* to the work at hand; must be ready to “like” it… this is why, although the most shreddingly negative critiques are more fun, it’s the generally positive reviews that will prove to be most illuminating. “Liking” a novel, a critic is more likely to “get it”. A novel is a subtle emanation. To be even slightly closed to its effort is to miss a certain amount; even all of it, possibly. And then we’re in the territory of “bad faith”.

Negative reviews of *particular books* can be useful, if they steer a reader, who trusts the opinion of the reviewer, away from wasting time and money on that book; especially if that reviewer “gets” that writer and merely finds the latest effort(s) lacking. Fair enough.

Excoriating a writer/ oeuvre/ style, in even the most scholarly terms, is fine between friends, or in the form of intellectual debate, but as a “service” to those interested in literature, it’s less than useful: it’s bizarre (or simply careerist?).

I don’t, as a rule, like Westerns. I could write a scholarly, 15,000 word, anti-Western treatise. And to what end? Such broadly proscriptive “criticism” misapprehends, in a cardinal way, the purpose of novel writing; the purpose of novel *reading*. As an unknown I’m silly to do so; as a famous critic, I’d be slaying imaginary dragons for an audience who *fears*, or resents, imaginary dragons. Fine, as a performance; as entertainment. But as an addition to the overall bulk of Western knowledge? No.

Further, it astounds me that anyone can be so uninterested in (or ignorant about) human nature as *not* to see a Salieri Effect at play in some of the notable gems of the form, however dressed up, in flowing robes, they may be.

I wrote, in an email, once, to someone who was less than receptive to my wit (larf) at the time: “It dawned on me long ago that the overall practise of literature is less a repository of ideas than a web of affinities.”

I stand by that observation.

Well there, S.A… I’ll have to go back and take a second look at your comments on This Space and elsewhere. I’m not sure why, but I’d been reading you from a rather different slant.

Your comments above deserve to be set in their own post.

As it turns out Harper Perennial recently released that Kundera in paperback so I picked it up today. I passed over an Edmund Wilson at the used store in favour of a Rhys but I’ll probably go back for it. Thanks for the recommendation, Jacob. You’ve now raised my library of lit crit to…3!

Thanks for dropping in Mr. Augustine, I did not know that you still hung about. I think you pinpointed my reasons for being so sceptical of Wood’s “hysterical realism” argument — it seemed as though he were convicting the writers of simply writing fiction in a way he didn’t like and raising that to an invalid method. I don’t find anything particularly un-novel about valuing ideas over characters in one’s own approach, putting characters in service to them etc. because I don’t think that characters are the point of Fiction.

Still, his review of Coetzee was like sinking my brain in a pool of clear water after some of what I’d come across.

Working in the service of ideas rather than literary expression they throw in a lot of wacky and weird characters in multiple zany stories without making the effort to convince the reader of their plausibility in the novel’s world.

I think the detail in that review that told me the most about Wood’s view of what deserves to be included in fiction is that he puts “a Jewish scientist who is genetically engineering a mouse” into the same category of implausibility as “a talking dog”.


Bearing in mind that even the finest literary criticism is lapidary opinion, I’m always amazed/amused/horrified/baffled (depending on the time of day) at the way in which Wood’s writings are capable of shutting down the critical faculties of his diehard fans. I suppose it’s the ecstasy of self-abegnation we seek in most religions. Half-joking.

Wood comes out with a book of essays, called, not “Thoughts on Fiction” or “How Does Fiction Work?” but “How Fiction Works”… fairly confident from a fellow with one so-so (and touchingly schematic) novel in his fiction bibliography. Common sense (an undervalued commodity among intellectuals, as we know) indicates the need for scepticism.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy Wood’s work, which can always be trusted to entertain, and often educate us, and sometimes even honor his charter to provide a good-faith reading of the text. I only wish he’d stop trying to be James Clerk Maxwell, or Gregor Mendel, or a Martin Luther as gene-spliced with either of the other two: it doesn’t work. Despite that, I’ll pick up his latest, at some point, and enjoy quite a bit of it, no doubt.

Here’s a good example of Wood’s wobbly logic, and his willingness to fudge an argument to flatter his prejudices (or, worse, retro-engineer an argument from a preferred conclusion), from a recent interview with Birnbaum:

“JW: And I said it was one of those jokes that I never, ever find funny. One of the sheep-shagging jokes. And I say to her, ‘Why is it that bestiality jokes are never funny?’ And the joke by the way was something like this: A man goes into a Scottish bar—I mean it’s not an unfunny joke—there is a guy in a kilt who is drinking heavily at the bar. And he is clearly distressed. The stranger says to the man in the kilt, ‘Why are you drinking so many whiskeys? What’s wrong?’ And he says, ‘See that pier out there? I built that. I built that pier with my own hands, and they don’t call me McKenzie the Pier Builder. See that boat out there? I built that boat with my own hands. They don’t call me McKenzie the Boat Builder. And this very inn that we are sitting in, this tavern, I built it, stone by stone. But they don’t call me McKenzie the Tavern Builder. And yet you mess around once with a sheep and….’ It’s not unfunny. It’s pretty funny. But I said to my wife, ‘Why aren’t bestiality jokes, I mean, they are not really funny?’ And she rightly said, ‘They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.’ So they are actually fantastical. In a way this feeds into the hysterical realism thing. ”

Fadging the proposition as a metaphor for the Wood-concocted school of “Hysterical Realism”, he argues that the failure of bestiality jokes to make us laugh is categorical. Early on, Wood admits the joke is “…not unfunny. It’s pretty funny”… and proceeds to explain why it’s not “really” funny. As we all know, of course, “pretty funny” and “really funny” aren’t far enough apart on the spectrum of mirth to insulate Wood from a possible contradiction there. Is this type of joke funny, or not? If it’s funny at all (i.e., if “Hysterical Realism” succeeds, ever), the argument is already rather lame.

From there, Wood goes on to tell the joke in question… poorly enough to put his sense of humour under suspicion, at the very least, or to cause us to suspect that he needs, very much, for this joke to be unfunny, despite itself.

And what conclusion does Mr. Wood reach? For that, he consults with his wife (a practise that might go a long way towards explaining certain consistent flaws in Wood’s product), who informs us that bestiality jokes aren’t funny (hubby’s initial concession aside) because “They pretend to be realistic but they are not actually realistic. And that’s because no one has every actually met anyone who fucked a sheep.”

Which is demonstrable nonsense (ambiguity intentional). When I laugh at a joke about a penguin, a donkey and a Bush voter, it’s not because I’ve forgotten that penguins and donkeys can’t talk, rarely enter bars, and never, therefore, offer to buy low-IQ American Presidents drinks.

No one I know as ever met someone who actually had a parrot that caused a plumber to have a heart-attack, either; yet, the first time I heard that joke, I laughed. I’ve also laughed at jokes about martians, ghosts, God(s), talking fetuses, time-travellers, Linda McCartney (sorry), Napoleon, Julius Caesar… the list of the “unrealistic” goes on and on.

Bestiality jokes may well be an apt metaphor for “Hysterical Realism”, but not in a way that serves Wood’s purpose; quite the contrary. The above excerpt is a man telling us that he doesn’t like a certain kind of joke, although he’s not quite clear on “why”; he’s not even claiming such jokes aren’t funny, he only makes clear the fact that he doesn’t like them. Meanwhile, rather a lot of other people would disagree with him. Case closed.

An apt meta-metaphor, if you will.

I can only add to all that, that after all *my* years of reading, it strikes me that the difference between the great and the merely good, is, invariably wit… a sense of humour. The genius stuff has it, the other stuff doesn’t. Trouble is, one must *have* one in order to detect and appreciate it in others.


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