Reading and “Spots of Commonness”

Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My book club met on Sunday to discuss Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. We all basically really enjoyed it: we found it funny and sharp and yet also just serious and touching enough to be anchored in believably human feelings about the kind of deception and betrayal that not only ends a marriage but taints its happiest memories. Towards the end of the novel its narrator Rachel recalls being asked why she turns everything into a story:

So I told her why:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

What a lot of truth about stories, about laughter, and about life is packed into those few lines!

I liked a lot of things about Heartburn: the laugh-out-loud comedy, the book’s clever plotting, the ring Mark gives Rachel that comes to symbolize her stolen and then freely relinquished relationship with him. “I love the ring,” Rachel says to the jeweler she sells it back to, “but it really doesn’t go with my life.” I especially liked the cooking. I too consider potatoes a comfort food–though I had never thought to connect potatoes with love quite the way Rachel does. (Her recipe for Potatoes Anna sounds particularly delicious, but it also sounds like more trouble than I’m ever likely to go to.)

There was one thing in the novel that I didn’t like. When Rachel’s friend Richard tells her that his wife Helen has fallen in love with another woman, Rachel figures it would be a mistake “for me to have introduced the word ‘dyke’ into the conversation,” but then Richard introduces it himself and they go back and forth about how you can “tell if someone’s a dyke” or whether “all women have tendencies of that sort.” It seemed to me as I read this section that it was a mistake for Ephron to have “introduced the word ‘dyke,'” and then to have kept on using it. I blame Ephron (not Rachel or Richard) for it because I don’t see any reason to read it as a “tell” of some kind about the characters: there’s no sense that this is a moment in which (as in one of Browning’s dramatic monologues, for instance) they give away more than they mean to about themselves; there’s no implicit narrative judgment, no distancing irony, no self-conscious scare-quotes, nothing that would make this other than what it sounds like, that is, the casual deployment of a homophobic slur by two characters we’re supposed to like.

Some members of my book club wondered if “dyke” would have been meant or heard as derogatory in 1983: if not, my negative reaction would be anachronistic. I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but I did poke around in a few sources that confirmed “dyke” was basically always an insult, though the term has of course also been reclaimed as a positive one–as in the “dykes vs. divas” softball game that is a well-known feature of Halifax’s annual Pride Festival. I don’t think Rachel and Richard are engaging in any such subversive recalibration of the word (and it wouldn’t be their business to do so in any case), and I don’t think Ephron is either. She just strikes a wrong note here–she betrays what George Eliot calls in Lydgate a “spot of commonness.”

This exchange takes up less than half a page in a scene that is fairly incidental to the novel as a whole. The insignificance of it by that measure got me thinking about cut-off points for my tolerance of this kind of–what should I call it? a failure? a blot? a slip? When or why do we shrug off something that we recognize as a lapse, something that signals a gap between our own values or standards and those on display in a book–and when or why do we find it too much to take? It sometimes feels as if we are in a particularly absolute phase right now in this respect. I’ve seen some recent books written off entirely by some readers for their insensitivity on a particular point–one example that comes to mind is Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, which was roundly criticized for its characters’ fat-shaming. I’m not in any way suggesting the fat-shaming is OK; I’m wondering about how we decide the extent to which such a “spot of commonness” affects our judgment of the book as a whole. When do we say “it’s a good book except for X ” and when do we say “it just isn’t a good book because of X”?

The extremes are easy. Gone with the Wind, for instance, doesn’t just include a couple of incidentally offensive bits: as I wrote in my 2010 essay about it, the novel “endorses racism and romanticizes slavery.”  But so many books include but (arguably, at least) aren’t actually built on problematic views or attitudes: some examples in books or authors I generally like a lot include the anti-Catholicism in Villette, for example, or the occasional anti-Semitism in Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers, or Dickens’s annoying tendency to either vilify or idealize women, or the racist caricature of Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (here’s a thoughtful little piece by John Sutherland on Thackeray’s racism). One approach is to read every such “small” example as indicative of wider and cumulatively unforgivable systems of prejudice and oppression and condemn the books accordingly as complicit. I think that is true about the big picture but not very helpful about specific cases: symptoms of even the worst diseases can range from mild to severe, after all, and sometimes a book’s own moral energy can be part of what makes its moral failings stand out so urgently.

I expect we all handle moments of disappointment with a book in our own way: we all probably have our own particular issues on which we allow no compromise, as well as our own degrees of tolerance for “spots of commonness” in cases where (as Eliot intends with Lydgate) the good, in our estimation, outweighs the bad.  This means being clear-eyed about faults, not excusing or ignoring them, but also not letting them set the entire terms of our engagement. For me, the more I otherwise admire a book–the more I think it deserves and repays a thoughtful response–the more effort I’m willing to put into weighing the implications of its flaws. The risk, of course, is that I might end up making excuses for them, but we all also probably have books for which we are willing to take that risk because they mean so much to us and we want to do our best by them. I’m certainly not going to go to that kind of trouble with Heartburn: I mostly enjoyed it, I almost certainly won’t reread it, and that’s an end of it.

Bad Writers, Good Books

The invaluable Arts and Letters Daily alerted me to an essay by Sam Schulman at In Character (“A Journal of Everyday Virtues”–really?) on the topic “Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter?” Schulman’s interest is in the relationship between our knowledge of a writer’s life and character, as revealed, for instance, through literary biography, and our estimation of their works:

What does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now?  What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate?  It is this.  The weakness of character of Dickens, Larkin and Naipaul comes from the same source that drives their art (in contrast to Cheever’s alcoholism and priapism does not).   What drove the three writers to punish – to hurt quite a few people who were close to Dickens and (if French and Naipaul are right) virtually everyone who came within reach of Naipaul – drove them to their desk every day.  Without Naipaul’s ruthlessness about using others as means not ends, there would be no Naipaul.  And Dickens?  He gave an interview in 1862 to a young Russian journalist named Fyodor Dostoevsky which Slater guesses Dickens thought would never see the light of day:

“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to live, being used up in what he wrote.  There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.  From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”

This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others.   But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it.  And if we readers are complicitous – well, that’s not a bad thing either.  So I intend to read Naipaul’s “Mimic Men” next, as an exercise in shedding my own more superfluous illusions.

I don’t want to fall into a pattern of excessive self-quotation here, but this topic has been around the lit-blogosphere before, via shocked responses to Dickens’s genocidal response to the Indian Mutiny. I wrote at some (and somewhat rambling) length about the issues raised, in my post “Dickens and ‘The Limitations of Anguished Humanism.'” Here are the main parts of my own answer to Schulman’s question “Does it matter?”

There are a number of issues mingling in these discussions, probably the least interesting of which (from a literary standpoint) is the biographical question of Dickens’s racist / imperialist views. One question is how far admiration of writers’ work commits someone to admiration of the writers personally–or, coming at it from the other direction, whether distaste for a writer’s character (personality, values, politics, etc.) ought to affect our estimation of his or her work. (Do we also wonder whether whole-hearted endorsement of writers’ values or politics ought to motivate us to value their literary productions especially highly? I think we allow, in such cases, for plenty of “yes, but…” responses.) A further question is whether writers’ work inevitably (if not explicitly) reflects or reproduces their stated values, so that if we learn something distasteful about a writer, we should re-examine our understanding of their work expecting to find traces of that quality. If Dickens was racist, is it inevitable that his works are, in some way, also racist? Do we–must we–read them differently once this biographical aspect is known? Does an indictment of Dickens’s ideology lead us towards an indictment of his fiction? The initial Sharp Side post suggests that the answer is yes: that the stance of “anguished humanism” attributed to his novels is inevitably a flawed or inadequate attitude, as we should expect from someone who could express “genocidal” sentiments. So the biographical criticism is meant to affect our literary criticism (at least insofar as that criticism is political). . . .

. . .  I think it would be worth working through [these questions] more patiently with reference to some of the thoughtful contributions made by those working at the intersection of literature and ethics or moral philosophy. . . . In Philosophy and Literature a few years back, for instance, there was a piece by Richard Posner called “Against Ethical Criticism” (21:1, 1997); it was followed by responses from Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and then Posner’s reply (22:2, 1998). Among the topics they debated were the relevance of an “author’s moral qualities or opinions” to our “valuations of their works” (they basically agree that no, it should not . . . ). Here’s Booth, right on topic:

Should the moral qualities of the flesh-and-blood author affect our evaluation of any work? For example, should a brilliant story celebrating the triumph of compassion be dismissed when we discover that the author actually beats his wife? Should my judgment of the literary worth of the novels by the Marquis de Sade be determined by learning that he committed atrociously sadistic acts, or, in the opposite direction, that Sade could behave generously, however rarely?I hope we would all answer “no.” Moralistic criticism that answers “yes” is dangerous. Authors whose daily behavior is scandalous can compose stories of wondrous moral richness, sometimes actually realizing, as Samuel Johnson liked to insist, their own genuine ethical aspirations better than they ever do in “real life.” As he says, “a man writes much better than he lives.” I love living with the Tolstoy I meet in his novels. But I would certainly not want to live with the man that his mistreated wife had to live with. Does this view of the man change my judgments of War and Peace? Absolutely not. On the other hand, a perfect angel might write a tale exhibiting every conceivable fault, including a lot of ethical balderdash. (“Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake”)

Readers who can’t reconcile their readerly experience of Dickens via his novels with revelations about his personal prejudices can be helped out with Booth’s idea of the “implied author”: “the full engagement is with the chooser, the molder, the shaper” of the story–”it is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work” and Booth argues (persuasively, I think) that it is “that chooser” with whose ethics we must engage. Of course, the question of whether Dickens’s novels are morally admirable or objectionable begins, not ends, here. Both Booth and Nussbaum provide extensive examples of how we might pursue such an ethical inquiry through attentive reading of literary form, while Posner defends a version of aestheticism according to which “the moral content and consequences of a work of literature are irrelevant to its value as literature” (“Against Ethical Criticism”). (Interested readers will find Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction a particularly rich and engaging source of ideas and questions.)

Fiction and Development

Recently The Telegraph reported on the contribution fiction can make to international development, as examined by a study done by a team of scholars at Manchester University and the London School of Economics:

[Dr. Rodgers, of Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institude] said: “Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job – if not a better one – of representing and communicating the realities of international development.

“While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.

“And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.”

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner “has arguably done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan under the Taliban and thereafter than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research”, said the report. (read the rest here)

I actually supervised an honours thesis in Dalhousie’s International Development Studies program that examined Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South for its implicit and explicit contributions to theories of development. One source we found useful in setting up the project was Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice, which makes a related case for the potential value of literature and the “literary imagination” in developing public policy; another was an essay by Richard Horton in the TLS called “Mr. Thornton’s Experiments.” The risk of such analyses is that they risk reducing literary works to their social or historical content. What I’ve always liked about Nussbaum’s work in theory is that she aspires to consider literary form, rather than to abstract social or political messages from her texts. In practice, I don’t think she always manages to do this, but the idea that literary form is itself expressive of philosophical and other ideas seems to me a case she (and others including Wayne Booth) make quite convincingly. The IDS student I worked with did a good job at incorporating explicit consideration of genre and form into her analysis.


Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Of the array of ‘books about books’ aimed at general audiences that I’ve read in the last few months, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is by far the most intelligent and engaging. Smiley writes as a novelist primarily, reflecting often on her own experiences and motivation as an author, but she also writes as a scholar, a dedicated reader, and an insightful literary critic who can capture a significant idea about a writer or a text in a well-crafted sentence or two. Here, to give just one of many examples, is Smiley on Anthony Trollope:

Trollope was a great analyst of marriage as a series of decisions that turn into a relationship and then, as time goes by and the children grow up, into history and architecture; simultaneously, he was the great analyst of politics as it devolves into feelings and their effects on the nation. If we say that Trollope is the ultimate realist, we are recognizing that his work as well as his life recognized more points of view, more endeavors, more sensations, more things to think about and reasons to think about them than almost any other novelist; that the technique he developed for balancing the attractions of these sensations–in sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, and entire books–beautifully mimics the way many people construct their identities moment by moment. (133)

Not only is that analysis elegantly put–I love the description of marriage moving from something intangible and negotiable into something with the solidity of a building–but every reader of Trollope will appreciate how well Smiley has captured the distinctive qualities of Trollope’s accomplishment in something like the Palliser novels or the Barchester chronicles.

I was particularly impressed with Smiley’s engagement with the moral implications of some of the novels she considers. Her comparative discussion of Wuthering Heights and de Sade’s Justine (in which Bronte’s novel comes off much the worse) is an excellent example of ‘ethical criticism’: like Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and others (though without explicit reference to any theoretical work in this area) Smiley illustrates that elements far more complex than a novel’s content need to be considered when evaluating its ethical import:

Justine shows that whatever an author’s motives for depicting horror, the form of the novel itself molds the depiction. Ostensibly shocking and immoral, Justine actually promotes a certain moral point of view–that integrity and virtue can be retained and recognized in the face of relentless suffering. In addition, to expose secret corruption is to challenge its existence because of the nature of the novel as a common and available commodity. (111)

[F]ar more shockingly cruel, in its way, than Justine is that staple of middle school, Wuthering Heights. No one has ever considered Wuthering Heights to be unsuitable for young girls; most women read it for the first time when they are thirteen or fourteen. There are no sex scenes in Wuthering Heights. . . . At the same time, there are no beatings or shootings in Wuthering Heights. The only blood is shed by a ghost in a dream.

At the same time, the theme of Wuthering Heights is that any betrayal, any cruelty, any indifference to others, including spouses or children, is, if not justifiable, then understandable, in the context of sufficient passion. . . .

Do the characters of Wuthering Heights perpetrate even a grame of the harm that the characters of Justine do? No. Does Wuthering Heights seem in the end to be a nastier novel than Justine does? Yes. They are similar in that both are unrelieved and both have endings that are happy relative to the rest of the novel. But it is more disheartening to read about Heathcliff’s domestic sins than it is to see the crimes of the ruling class exposed, because the exposure of political crimes seems like a step towards ameliorating them, while Heathcliff’s cruelties are specifically directed at those he should be nurturing, and only chance intervenes between him and his victims . . . . The paradox is that novelists ended up exploring the rich subject of the morality of interpersonal relationships only to discover that while, on the one hand, this subject was safe from the danger of sex and violence, on the other hand, achieving in such plots the satisfying feeling of redress is difficult if not impossible. (114-5)

The specifics of her argument will no doubt strike other readers as debatable, but to me her analysis is an effective example of the Victorian critical premise that I have been exploring in my research: that it is not the subject but its treatment that determines a novel’s moral character. The conclusion to this particular section also, I think, effectively captures the problem of the unsatisfying endings that are so common in 19th-century marriage plots (Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for instance, or Middlemarch): the novels expose and critique systemic problems with marriage and the condition of women but struggle to resolve them–or (as with Jane Eyre or The Mill on the Floss) resolve them by abandoning realism.

I was interested in the ethical aspects of Smiley’s readings for my own reasons, but her larger goal is to argue in favour of the novel as perhaps the ultimate expression of freedom, not just artistic but also personal and political. At several points, she makes claims about the benevolent effects of the combination of analysis and empathy demanded of novel readers:

Pride, arrogance, moral blindness, and narcissism are endemic among humans, especially humans who occupy positions of power, either in society or in the family. But when I have read a long novel, when I have entered systematically into a sensibility that is alien to mine, the author’s or a character’s, when I have become interested in another person because he is interesting, not because he is privileged or great, there is a possibility that at the end I will be a degree less self-centered than I was at the beginning, that I will be a degree more able to see the world as another sees it. And there is the possibility that I will be able to reason about my own emotions. . . . When I’ve read lots of long novels, I will be trained in thinking about the world in many sometimes conflicting ways. . . . Perched on the cusp between the particular and the general, between expertise and common sense, the novel promotes compromise, and especially promotes the idea that lessons can be learned, if not by the characters, then by the author and the reader. (175-6)

These are familiar arguments but important and eloquently made. Perhaps the finest quality of the book, though, is that Smiley not only makes such a case but enacts it through her rigorous, intelligent, well-informed, sympathetic engagement with the novels she writes about. Probably the main reason a reader turns to criticism at all, instead of resting content with having read the novel itself, is to carry on the conversations the book begins. Smiley’s manifest love of fiction and its possibilities (aesthetic, social, and political), together with her expertise as both novelist and student of the novel, make her someone I’d like to talk to, even about our disagreements. Though very different in approach, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel is as good a book as David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction as a guide and introduction for avid readers looking to broaden and improve their reading experiences with some expert help.

I do think Smiley is disingenuous, though, when she justifies her own decision to avoid “theorists of the novel . . . even though there is an entire academic industry based on theorizing about the novel”–“I preferred,” she says, “to glean my ideas about the novel from the books themselves. My justification for this . . . is that novels were invented to be accessible”:

Specialized knowledge about the novel is something the reader may engage in for added pleasure, but doesn’t need to engage in merely to understand what she has read. (278-9)

That Smiley is as good at gleaning ideas from novels as she is, is the result, surely, of her exposure to a wide range of specialized knowledge about the form, including (as displayed continually in her introductory chapters) historical and contextual knowledge, awareness of different genres and forms, attention to ideological implications, and so on. One of the reasons her book strikes me as valuable is precisely that it mobilizes this kind of specialized knowledge in an accessible way and shows that having it makes reading novels a richer, more rewarding experience. Though she’s right that “the authors and books on [her] list constitute a treasure available to all” (279) in the sense that anyone who is motivated to do so can read them, for many, without some kind of preparation or education (of the sort, for instance, supplied by Smiley’s book) the experience might yield little pleasure or insight. (There are lots of books I don’t feel prepared enough to read–or at least to read and enjoy–and I study novels for a living!) Smiley is an expert, but she wears her erudition stylishly, and we, her readers, are its beneficiaries.