This Week in My Classes: September 28, 2009

My recent venture into list-making brought something into focus for me about my reading habits: left to myself, I incline towards the kind of fiction defended by Wilkie Collins in one of his Prefaces to The Woman in White:

I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art, was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character — for this plain reason, that the effect produced by any narrative of events is essentially dependent, not on the events themselves, but on the human interest which is directly connected with them. It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story ; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters : their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women — for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves. (see here for the rest)

Of course I recognize that there are, in fact, other ideas of fiction that have produced great results, many of which I have enjoyed. And of course I would not want my larger conception of (or my work in) literature to be framed or limited by this admittedly quite conventional theory…though I suppose it’s worth pointing out that telling a story can be done in many different ways, as can presenting characters, and even the idea of characters as ‘recognisable realities’ is surely amenable to the kind of recognition we get from, say, a character in Dickens whose outrageous exaggerations nonetheless strike us as somehow fundamentally truthful about how people live in the world. Even the ways in which we can be interested ‘about men and women’ are manifold. So it’s not, I think, as narrow an idea of the novel as it might initially seem. But its commitment to some kind of human interest at the heart of the novel is one I share, and I falter and sometimes stall reading novels that don’t offer the forward momentum of a well-constructed plot. Of course in the best of all possible worlds, and the best of all possible books, plot and character are used in support of deeply considered philosophies and the whole is composed in well-crafted prose (though just try defining that in a way that makes room for both Dickens and McEwan, Austen and Rushdie!). But if I had to choose, I’d take the novel with story and heart over the novel with beautiful words or experimental form. If I wanted to pause a lot and think, “how deft and original!” or “what a striking image!”–well, I’d be reading poetry.

Now, again, this is what I do left to myself; this is what I like best, which is really a reflection of who I am as a person as much as who I am as a critic or a scholar or a teacher. At the same time, this reading personality of mine inevitably affects these aspects of my life and work, though cause and effect may be hard to distinguish. Am I a Victorianist because these are my reading preferences, or have my reading preferences been shaped by many years of rereading a certain group of Victorian novels and working out how best to explain them so as to engage the attention, the interest, and finally (I always hope) the hearts of undergraduates?

In any case, for someone like me, this is a good week, because I’ve been reading The Woman in White with one class and I’m heading into Great Expectations with another. Now, there are passages of great expressiveness and even beauty in Great Expectations: Dickens is a writer who knows how to turn a phrase, who can go from blunt force to arresting image without slowing down. The Woman in White, too, has some marvellous description: the moonlit quiet of Hartright’s Hampstead walk, for instance, on which he has his first thrilling encounter with the mysterious woman in white. But in neither case is it really appropriate, or even possible, to linger over these aesthetic effects. These guys are masters of plotting, and their people! Once you’ve read them, they become part of your mental life–Fosco and Marian and Pesca, and even tediously insipid Laura, and Jaggers and Joe and Wemmick, who teaches us all the invaluable lesson not to grow up to be a mailbox. And though both novels deal, at bottom, with serious questions about values, social relations, power, prejudice, love, hate, and death (!), they also both communicate a great sense of fun. Pleasure in reading can come from many things, many effects and styles and devices and voices. For sheer imaginative exuberance, these novels would have to rank right up near the top.

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