“Middlemarch in Six!” Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree

This is the first in what I plan as a regular series of re-posts from my archives. It seems appropriate to lead off with a review that was not only one of my earliest posts (it first went up on the blog in January 2007) but one that lays out some of my reasons for blogging in the first place. It is quite interesting (for me, at least) to see how I was thinking about blogging and criticism at the time, and to reflect on how things have changed in my writing life since then. When I wrote this post, I was venturing out of academic writing for the first time and quite uncertain about where my experiment might take me. One of the tasks I set myself, therefore, was to explore “books about books” written for non-academic readers, to find out what they were like and whether I might learn from them about how to write differently, or for a different audience, myself. Hornby’s was one of the first I read, and remains one of the ones I’ve liked the best. I’ve tweaked my review just a little to clarify its timing and reflect changes in the format of Novel Readings.
Another reason I chose to revisit this particular post is that just recently, Litlove at Tales from the Reading Room reviewed The Polysyllabic Spree along with Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind; you can read her very thoughtful review here. It turns out we liked and noticed (and quoted) some of the same things.

hornbyspreeIn addition to the reasons laid out in the introduction to this blog (see ‘About Me,’ above), I wanted to try writing up informal notes on my reading because of my ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the kind of writing about books I am expected to do professionally, namely academic literary criticism. Although I believe that academic criticism has its own kind of interest and value, as an avid reader I often find it frustrating and bizarre when the conversation about a book becomes remote in both form and feeling from the conversation I think the book itself is supposed to be a part of. My own area of academic expertise, for example, is the Victorian novel, and if any one quality could be said to be typical of so many books so widely varying in subject and style, it would be a sense of engagement with the world–not that they aspire to represent it mimetically (any reader of Victorian fiction knows there is nothing naive about what often gets called its ‘realism’), but that these books challenge their readers to think and care about all aspects of social, political, economic, and romantic life. “Dear reader!” Dickens concludes his polemical anti-Utilitarian novel Hard Times. “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be!” And of course his “Let them be!” is a call to action, not to complacency or passivity: let the world be the way you and I can imagine it to be, better, more just, more loving, more humane. But current literary criticism communicates little of this urgency, and none of Dickens’s humour, or, as he would have it, fancy.

My concern is not so much that literary criticism is often written in difficult, obscure prose (after all, every specialization requires its own jargon)–although I have finally achieved the courage and professional security to adopt Nick Hornby’s poetry-reading philosophy for my own reading of criticism and theory (“If something doesn’t give you even a shot at comprehension in the first couple of readings, then my motto is “F–k it” [p. 91, my polite hyphens]). My objection is more that we have distanced ourselves so completely from ordinary conversation about books that we have become irrelevant to all readers but ourselves. Of course, there are some exceptions, academics who have produced the textual equivalents of cross-over albums. But most of us know that when we write and publish even our most supposedly ground-breaking article, it is destined straight for the dustbin of other scholars’ footnotes. Most of us are presumably OK with this result, or there would be a revolution. Or perhaps the necessity of publishing such material to secure and keep our jobs and our professional credibility drives doubts away. But Dickens, to stick with my example (not least because he is one of Hornby’s favourite examples as well), certainly hoped his words had more life in them than that.

All this is by way of saying that I wanted to experiment a little with writing in a different way about books, a way that would reflect my experience of reading them and thinking about them in a more immediate, personal way than academic writing allows without letting go altogether of the analytic habits built up by years of professional training. Surely there can be an informed, educated conversation about literature that allows, for one thing, for judgment, for values, for affect, for liking and disliking. And, of course, there is such a conversation–indeed, there are many such conversations today, just not in the pages of academic journals. One contribution that I have just finished re-reading is Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree.

I first read sections of this book last year, when a graduate student passed it on to me thinking (rightly) that I would enjoy Hornby’s infatuation with David Copperfield (thanks, El!). Since I began thinking about alternatives to academic criticism, partly through my work on 19th-century literary reviewing, I have begun looking for examples of contemporary writing about books that achieves something like the balance I am interested in between analysis and immediacy, and going back to Hornby’s collection this week, I think he gets fairly close. Unlike those in Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, for example, Hornby’s commentaries, though engagingly personal and idiosyncratic, focus primarily on the books and not on himself. He attends to questions of craft, though my academic side wishes he would introduce some technical terms here and there for greater precision, and he thinks about the books in terms of the means they use to their ends while still considering also the value of those goals. For all his breezy style, he has a knack for summary judgments, as when, after recounting a particularly horrific detail from a rape scene in Pete Dexter’s Train, he objects that it seemed to have happened “through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability” (97). For me, the great charm of this collection is its combination of these moments of intense literary and moral scrutiny with irreverence and humour. Who says you can’t be both serious and funny? I loved his idea of the “Cultural Fantasy Boxing League” in which, he supposes, “books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. ‘The Magic Flute’ v. MiddlemarchMiddlemarch in six…” (58). Of course!

But Hornby really won me over when he articulated what I think book lovers everywhere feel: the extent to which our own libraries are extensions or reflections of our identities. This is why we recoil from well-intentioned and practical advice to ‘clear some space’ on our existing bookshelves to make room for new purchases! “I suddenly had a little epiphany,” he says, as he files away some volumes: “all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . . with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not” (125).

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is another Book About Books for my ongoing reading project–the longest-running one on this blog. As I’ve noted before, I began reading this kind of book as a deliberate exploration of the genre (what do people say?) and now I am also always curious about voice (how do they say it?).

Fadiman has lots of charming and interesting and erudite things to say about books, and about readers, but I actually found her voice a but off-putting. I think my reaction is related to one I’ve had before about writing that is really more about the writer than the subject–there seemed something faintly self-aggrandizing in her attention to just how very bookish her family is, how very particular they are about grammar, how very much she loves books … I know, I know. It’s her life, and I don’t doubt that she’s entirely sincere, and these are all things I appreciate or share myself. There was just something in the tone that I didn’t warm to.

As a result, I ended up liking best the essays that were more about other people. My unexpected favorite was “The P.M.’s Empire of Books”–unexpected because who knew that Gladstone could provide such delights? Fadiman herself certainly had no idea, until she discovered his tiny volume On Books and the Housing of Them. It’s not a book that brings unmitigated pleasure (“he may be the only man in history to have written a long-winded twenty-nine-page book”). But it turns out he had an endearingly insane passion for organizing his vast and ever-expanding book collection, and this led him to produce this intense instruction manual reflecting, as Fadiman says, the “quintessentially Victorian traits” of “Energy. Priggishness. Disciplined nature and control. Conceit. Probity. Neatness and passion for order. Authoritarianism. Singlemindedness.” (This list, by the way, comes from the index entry for “Gladstone, William Ewart,” in Roy Jenkins’s biography.) Gladstone’s mission was to solve the familiar problem of “too many books, too little space.” He did not shy away from particulars:

Mr. G. calculated that a library twenty by forty feet, with projecting bookcases three feet long, twelve inches deep, and nine feet high (“so that the upper shelf can be reached by the aid of a wooden stool of two steps not more than twenty inches high”), would accommodate between eighteen thousand and twenty thousand volumes. I trust his arithmetic. He had, after all, been Chancellor of the Exchequer. This shelving plan would suffice for the home of an ordinary gentleman, but for cases of extreme book-crowding, he proposed a more radical scheme in which “nearly two-thirds, or say three-fifths, of the whole cubic contents of a properly constructed apartment may be made a nearly solid mass of books.” It was detailed in a footnote so extraordinary it bears quoting nearly in full…

And it does, but to read it yourself, you’ll have to get the book–either one, as it turns out AbeBooks actually has a number of copies of Gladstone’s listed for sale. I’ll just give you the spoiler here: Fadiman reports that Gladstone’s proposed “system of rolling shelves … is used in the Bodleian Library’s Radcliffe Camera and at the New York Times Book Review, among many other places.” Now that’s a contribution to civilization!

Another essay I particularly appreciated because it seemed so very timely was “Nothing New Under the Sun,” which deals in a sly and charming way with the complicated question of literary borrowing–or stealing. The 9-page essay has 38 footnotes, all of which help to mess with our heads about “the sea-change[8] through which an aggregation of words, common property when scattered throughout a dictionary, is transformed into a stealable asset.” You all know what fn 8 says, right? This essay ends with an anecdote about a writer who, in 1988, was found to have “incorporated entire paragraphs” from someone else’s book into a New Yorker essay. The writer was, it turned out, a “compulsive plagiarist” who “borrowed repeatedly” yet “what a gifted writer he was!–he didn’t need to do it.” Sound familiar?

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

In the early days of Novel Readings, one of the things I was trying to figure out was how non-academics wrote about books, or (a slight variation) how academics wrote about books for non-academic audiences. So I read a lot of what I very ingeniously (OK, very literally) called “Books About Books“: Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. One that was always on my radar but that I somehow didn’t get hold of before I started focusing more on writing myself, instead of worrying about how other people wrote, was Ruined by Reading, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I was particularly interested in this one, because Schwartz is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, Disturbances in the Field–and now I would add that I am a huge admirer of her earlier novel Leaving Brooklyn, which I read for the first time only a couple of years ago. I was happily surprised to see  a copy of Ruined by Reading on the book rack at the school’s Spring Fair flea market this year: though it’s too bad Fred (whoever he is) didn’t want to keep such a nice gift from “Nanny and Poppy,” I think they would be glad to know it ended up with someone who appreciates it properly. And I did appreciate it. It’s part memoir, part meditation on the motives for, effects of, and–above all–the experience of reading. It’s loosely organized, associative rather than strictly logical, but Schwartz is too interesting and thoughtful a writer (and reader) for it to feel rambling, even though it ranges somewhat unpredictably across its array of topics.

There were lots of bits I particularly enjoyed or that made me feel a readerly kinship with Schwartz–her comments about “the fear of being interrupted” while reading, for instance:

Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by a panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand that I do something. Of course I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is bside the point. The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

Like her (maybe like you) I too “came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.” I understand, too, her love for Little Women–but unlike her, I never tried “copying it into a notebook” out of a fierce desire to possess it. “Only later did I understand,” she says, “that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my own pen.” I loved her closing peroration, about reading as an activity that matters because it is so completely, thoroughly “of the moment”: “the dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.” How amazing, “what a feat of transmission,” what is done by these marks on the the page. Because I had just been thinking quite a bit about choice in reading, though–about what to buy, what to read, why we make the choices we do, the section I appreciated the most was her discussion of “the convoluted agonies of choice.” Is it better to read contemporary books or “dead” books, to read by design or at random, to keep lists or to forget, to be a spider or a bee, a fox or a hedgehog? Ultimately, she concludes, “reading at random–letting desire lead–feels like the most faithful kind”:

In a bookstore, I leaf through the book next to the one I came to buy, and a sentence sets me quivering. I buy that one instead, or as well. A book comes in the mail and I begin it out of mild curiosity, to finish spellbound. A remark overheard on a bus reminds me of a book I meant to read last month. I hunt it up in the library and glance in passing at the old paperbacks on sale for twenty-five cents. There is the book so talked about in college–it was to have prepared me for life and here I have blundered through decades without it. Snatch it up quickly before it’s too late. And so what we read is as wayward and serendipitous as any taste or desire. Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

From the Novel Readings Archive

One of the reasons I began blogging in the first place was to experiment with writing about books in a non-academic way. One of the first blogging projects I took up, therefore (because research is an academic habit that is hard to give up), was reviewing examples of non-academic writing about books–books about books, but written for actual readers. I read Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, for instance, which was the subject of one of my earliest blog posts, and Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, and John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, among others. Unlike OLM’s Sam Sacks, who thought Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel was a “low point” in the genre of “books about the culture of reading” (to Sacks, Smiley comes across as “a supercilious book-club leader uttering inanities over a demitasse cup”–ouch!), I thought Smiley’s was one of the best of the bunch.* It seems apt, then, to continue my series of posts resurrected from the Novel Readings archives with my own review of this particular book about books.

*Continuing in a nostalgic vein, my comment politely disagreeing with him about Smiley (which seems to have been lost in the move to the new OLM layout)  was one of my earliest interactions with Open Letters. And I also read Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure, the main subject of his review, for my ‘books about books’ project but didn’t write it up because I thought Sam was completely right (and completely articulate, of course) about that one.

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. Continue reading

Critical Questions: James Wood, How Fiction Works

woodThe dust jacket describes How Fiction Works as Wood’s “first full-length book of criticism.” Anyone led by this blurb to expect sustained analysis supported by extensive research and illustration will be disappointed, as in fact How Fiction Works turns out to be essentially a ‘commonplace book,’ a collection of critical observations and insights of varying degrees of originality and sophistication, developed with varying degrees of care and detail. Wood acknowledges having set deliberate limits on his project, likening it in his introduction to Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, proposing to offer practical “writer’s anwers” to “a critic’s questions,” and admitting (though with no tone of apology) that he used only “the books at hand in [his] study.”

To some extent I agree with other reviewers who consider it only fair to evaluate the book Wood wrote, rather than regretting he didn’t write another one. Yet even within the parameters Wood sets, I think there are grounds for wishing he, with his exceptional gifts and qualifications as both reader and critic, had not sold himself (or us) short in fulfilling them. Further, beginning with the invocation of Forster but going well beyond it, the book has pretensions to grandeur: for instance, also in his introduction Wood remarks that Barthes and Shklovsky “come to conclusions about the novel that seem to me interesting but wrong-headed, and this book conducts a sustained argument with them” (2). With gestures such as this, Wood claims an elevated stature for his critical contribution that is undermined by its casual construction and over-confident approach to scholarship. Though How Fiction Works provides many further proofs of Wood’s critical gifts and considerable erudition, I think it also proves that even the best practical critic flounders when working only with what he has already to hand or in mind.

Right off the bat I was irritated by the book’s structure. Wood has said that he felt liberated by using the numbered “paragraphs” or sections, but allowing yourself to skip from thought to thought in this way means letting yourself off the hook too often. Frequently in the margins of my students’ work I write “And so? Finish the thought!” One effect of crafting, first paragraphs, and then longer pieces as sustained wholes is that in working out the overall movement of your ideas and building in appropriately specific transitions, you confront both the logic and the further implications of your claims: the form pressures you to think better. Numbered bits, however, relieve that pressure: you can just stop with one topic and start the next, and as long as they are more or less related, you can claim to be producing a unified whole, even if you are only papering over gaps.

wood-10In How Fiction Works, the breaks often seem unnecessary: a new number sets off what is really just the next sentence in the idea already unfolding. Most of the time, however, they are substitutes for careful transitions. They allow a certain stream-of-consciousness effect to creep in: that last bit reminds me of this exception to a general principle, or of a writer who also does that, or of another favourite excerpt, or of a time I went to a concert with my wife. Well, OK, I guess, and no doubt it would have been much more difficult to do a coherent chapter offering a theory of, say, fictional character, realism, or morality and the novel. And I suppose it’s true that non-academic readers don’t want the kind of detail and complexity such a full account of these topics would require. Even so, the numbered bits felt lazy to me. The footnotes too had an aimlessness about them. Some of them covered ideas or examples that seemed no less important to their chapter than most of the bits allowed their own numbered section (note 53 on p. 150, to give one example) while others appeared entirely unnecessary to the book (note 40 on p. 121, or note 41 on p. 124, for instance).

The TLS reviewer objects to Wood’s “grace notes”: “It is sometimes hard to distinguish a gasp of admiration for another’s skill from the contented sigh when the books in one’s study satisfy one’s own theories.” I shared this reaction, not least because “how fine that is” (139) is an expression of taste, not criticism. But Wood is a compelling reader of details, even passages. It’s when he makes broader assertions that he leaves himself more open to objections. For one thing, he has some governing assumptions about what fiction is for that he treats as universal rather than historically or theoretically specific. In his chapter on “Sympathy and Complexity,” for instance, as a footnote to his remarks on fiction as a means of extending our sympathies (the occasion for one of his shockingly few references to George Eliot!), he adds this:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on,–because it is alive and we are alive. (129)

Well, maybe, but not everybody, and not all the time: for instance, most of the Victorian critics I have been editing for my Broadview anthology would not have recognized this highly aestheticized motive for novel reading. Is it fair, or even sensible, to say that they were simply wrong? Or to ignore how the formal developments of the Victorian novel furthered ends not adequately respected by Wood’s post-Jamesian formulations? His is in many respects a teleological account of the history of the novel. “Progress!” he exclaims after a quotation from Proust: “In Fielding and Defoe, even in the much richer Cervantes, revelation of this altering kind occurs at the level of plot” (125). But were Fielding and Defoe trying to do what Proust did and failing? How much better we might understand them if we allow them what James calls their “donnee. “It is subtlety that matters,” he declares in his chapter on character; “subtlety of analysis, of inquiry, of concern, of felt pressure”: “I learn more about the consciousness of the soldier in Chekhov’s The Kiss than I do about the consciousness of Becky Sharpe [sic] in Vanity Fair.”

vanityfairoupBut Becky Sharp’s consciousness is surely not the point of Vanity Fair; indeed, I argue in my own lectures that too close a focus on Becky risks diverting us from Thackeray’s grand gesture of holding the mirror up to ourselves, so that the novel becomes an opportunity for us to reflect on our own morality and mortality. “Was she guilty or not?” the narrator asks–and, remarkably, will not tell us, because ultimately she is not the point but the occasion, the device. Thackeray is not a failed Chekhov any more than Dickens is a failed Flaubert. To Wood, “the history of the novel can be told as the development of free indirect style” (58), but that history is partial and often distorting. (About the operations of free indirect discourse and the importance of knowing who ‘owns’ which words, on the other hand, Wood is typically astute. Here’s one place where examples from Middlemarch would have served him well, though at the risk of undermining his generalizations. Consider this passage from Chapter 1, for instance:

And how should Dorothea not marry? — a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles — who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Think how much is lost on a reader who improperly identifies the source of that word “naturally”–or the last two sentences altogether!)

Wood is good on the telling detail as well and the quality he calls “thisness”: “any detail that draws abstraction towards itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability” (54). But again, when he moves into prescription, he becomes less persuasive, as when he objects to the “layer of gratuitous detail” in 19th-century realist fiction. Again, the challenge is in defining “gratuitous” (as, clearly, Wood himself is well aware), but he can’t propose any principle except, perhaps, his idea that “insignificant” details avoid irrelevance if they are “significantly insignificant” (68). After recounting an incident in which he and his wife had “invented entirely different readings” of a violinist’s frown at a concert, he claims that a “good novelist would have let that frown alone, and would have let our revealing comments alone, too: no need to smother this little scene in explanation” (72). Again, well, maybe. I can imagine at least one “good novelist” who might have done great things with their “different readings” of that little moment, perhaps even using their “revealing comments” as a chance to reveal even more about perception and reality as well as human relationships (“these things are a parable…”). Doesn’t it depend on what your novel is about and on the formal methods you are using to realize those goals?

boothcompanyI’d like to return before I close to the “Sympathy and Complexity” chapter, because this is a topic close to my heart, one on which I have spent a lot of my own critical energy recently, and one I expected Wood to handle particularly well. “Perfunctory” is the best word I can think of to describe it. I’ve mentioned already his dehistoricizing assumption that “we” don’t read in order to receive moral benefits. I doubt this is true in practice, and I also question the separation he implies between moral and aesthetic readings. Here is a case in which even a little research outside “the books at hand in [his] own study” would have immeasurably enriched his discussion: Booth’s The Company We Keep, for instance, would have helped him complicate exactly that separation. And the conversation about how fiction might do “what [Bernard] Williams wanted moral philosophy to do” (135) has many participants besides Williams (Martha Nussbaum comes promptly to mind!). Further, not all novels avoid providing “philosophical answers” (here, he replicates Nussbam’s error in generalizing about “the novel,” but as a professional novel reader, he should know better). Here the hybrid character of How Fiction Works proves a genuine weakness, I think. This chapter is not a full, responsible, or authoritative inquiry into its subject. Of course, it does not pretend to be (remember, the book promises only “a writer’s answers” to “a critic’s questions”). But then how should we evaluate it? Doesn’t Wood do even his non-specialist audience a disservice by taking up complicated subjects on which there already exists a rich body of scholarship and offering his own fairly casual observations with the confidence of real expertise? What a much greater contribution it would be to distill that complex material and present it accessibly! To grab what’s at hand and say just what comes to mind bespeaks an enviable but also problematic degree of confidence. And while the non-expert reader is in no position to object, the expert reader is easily deflected with the excuse that she is not the intended audience…

After I read How Fiction Works I re-read some of my collection of Wood’s essays, including his reviews of Never Let Me Go, Saturday, and Brick Lane. This is really wonderful stuff, as I have remarked before; I admire it wholeheartedly for its critical acuity, its literary elegance, and its moral seriousness. But considering How Fiction Works strictly as one among many books about books (and Wood is wrong, or perhaps disingenuous, when he says “there are surprisingly few books” of this kind about fiction [1]), I think there are many better choices available. I continue to recommend David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, for instance, which takes up many of the same topics as Wood, though under a less grandiose umbrella of prescriptive claims. I think it’s an exciting development that Wood has landed a job in Harvard’s English Department. In taking this now unconventional route from journalism to the academy, he is following in the footsteps of many eminent Victorian critics (David Masson, for instance). But considering how bitterly difficult it is for those following the established professional route to land any academic job at all, it’s frustrating to think that he may not be held to anything like the same standard of rigour as many critics far less lauded and applauded. Here’s hoping that he has more books in him as good as The Broken Estate.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

This book has a simple premise–that the best way for aspiring writers to learn their craft is to read (closely, attentively, alertly, appreciatively) the work of other novelists. Prose proceeds to elaborate on what she sees as the pedagogical benefit of close reading by moving through a sequence of chapters addressing specific aspects of novel-writing, each illustrated with examples from writers she admires. Her intended audience is primarily creative writing students; she offers her close-reading approach as a counter-balance to what she describes as the fundamentally negative tactics of writing workshops: “Though it also doles out praise, the writing workshop most often focuses on what a writer has done wrong, what needs to be fixed, cut, or augmented. Whereas reading a masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11). I’m not in a position to evaluate how well either strategy would work for someone trying to produce an original work of fiction, though it does seem to me that Prose’s emphasis on writing as a craft that presents technical challenges needing to be acknowledged and worked through intellectually (rather than transcended through inspiration) is probably useful.

Prose’s subtitle (“A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them”) suggests that she also hopes to appeal to and help out avid readers (the same ones who might pick up Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel or Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel. It may be this hope that leads Prose to avoid most specialized vocabulary. For instance, in her chapter on narration, she acknowledges briefly that there are types of narrators (“should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?” [85]) but does not explain in any systematic way just what these options are or that they are not exhaustive. As a result, her discussion of examples tends towards the impressionistic, rather than the analytical; she often seems to take for granted, too, that her reader will recognize the qualities she admires or finds effective, that she does not need to explain or justify her praise or her interpretation. Here is some of her commentary on a long quotation from Richard Price’s Freedomland:

Everything in the paragraph contributes to the speaker’s credibility, as a fictional character and as an honest human being: the diction, the rhythms, the slight repetitions for emphasis, the way that the tenses keep shifting from present to past and back. The choice of words and phrases (“used to like his cocktails,” “never raised a hand,” “passed on”) make us feel that this is how this woman might really recount an incident from her life. The language, the story itself, the specificity of the details (Jimmy Durante singing “September Song”) convince us that the woman is telling the truth. (91)

I can tell that she is convinced, but she has not explained the basis of her conviction to me in a persuasive or useful way. What aspects of the speaker’s diction are indicative of credibility and honesty? Why should including specific details convince us that someone is telling the truth? What are the signposts of unreliability?

I was also concerned at times about the qualities of Prose’s own reading. In some cases, she seemed to me an unduly trusting reader. Here’s some of her commentary on the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, for example:

Lest we receive a skewed or harsh impression of the Bennets’ own marriage, Mr. Bennet compliments his wife by suggesting that she is as handsome as their daughters. In fact, as we are discovering, theirs is a harmonious union, and indeed the whole conversation, with its intimacy, its gentle teasing, and with Mr. Bennet’s joking reference to his old friendship with his wife’s nerves, is a double portrait of a happy couple. (127)

Well, maybe, and the same needs to be said about her confidence in Nelly Dean as “the most credible witness” in Wuthering Heights. But she writes well about the significance of details (they “aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment” [207].

I think that what struck me as weaknesses in the book, particularly in its analysis of particular examples, come at least in part from Prose’s own deliberate distancing of herself from academic approaches to literature. “Only once,” she tells us in her account of her own development as a writer,

did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written. (8)

I have written before on this blog about my own frustrations with aspects of “literary academia,” but I have also resisted (even resented) this kind of dismissive attitude to scholarly and theoretical expertise. It is possible to turn such expertise (including attention to ideas and politics) precisely to understanding “what the writer had actually written,” and the result will be a better, fuller reading–and thus, if Prose’s own pedagogical theory is correct, better new books.


Denis Donoghue, The Practice of Reading

The Practice of Reading lies somewhere in between standard academic literary criticism and the more populist ‘books about books’ that I’ve been reading for my ‘writing for readers’ project. I suppose its main audience is an academic one, but its project and contents are quite miscellaneous and so it contributes more by modelling Donoghue’s idea of good reading across varied examples than by intervening incisively or extensively into any particular critical or theoretical debate. That said, Donoghue does present his ideas about reading and criticism in some detail in the first few chapters, and his broad aim is to make a case for aesthetic criticism (according to his careful definitions) against the various ideological versions he tags as the “New Thematics.” He advocates an aesthetic criticism that restores due emphasis to the ‘lived experience’ of reading texts, or to the element of ‘performance’ (qualities or properties that can’t be sustained in a paraphrase or plot summary). He calls for a “recovered disinterestedness,” a putting aside of our immediate selves and prejudices in order to release the imagination: “the purpose of reading literature,” he says at one point, “is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different”–an ability inhibited, he argues, by the pressures of identity politics, among other forces. While I am in sympathy with much of this strain of his argument, I have questions (answered, perhaps, in his other writings) about what knowledge, experience, or education he thinks is required to achieve a “lived experience” of a text that deserves being written up or shared with others. He points out himself that, for some texts, our selves are insufficient for good readings–“information is required.” Some knowledge of literary history and genre is certainly necessary for the kinds of readings he offers, and yet at some points he seems to take sides against those who insist on the relevance of historical context. How well does his version of aestheticism work on texts that, themselves, look out to their historical world, novels such as Bleak House, for instance? (How far is his a “poetics” for poetry only, or literature of a certain kind only, that is not itself overtly social or political?)

I liked his breakdown of critical modes into Arnold, Pater, and Wilde (interesting that his prototypes are all from the 19th century), and he is convincing about the way much criticism driven by “High Theory” follows the ‘Wilde’ approach in which the work of art ostensibly under examination becomes a “suggestion for a new work of [the critic’s] own” (here he is quoting Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist”). He goes on to suggest that such criticism (including much of Derrida’s, for example) is best understand as a separate literary genre–perhaps autobiography. In a slightly different context, he argues that recent critics of Macbeth “reveal what is happening in criticism more clearly than what happens in Macbeth.” I think he is right, but both conclusions might prompt the student of literature to wonder why she would bother with this kind of criticism, the lives of critics or the history of criticism being rather separate inquiries.

Most interesting and potentially useful for me are the ways he distinguishes between criticism that (taking an Arnoldian approach) attempts to talk about what the text is overtly about (“the object itself as it really is”–admitting all kinds of complications, of course) and those whose critical goal is to “rebuke” the text for not being something else, or at any rate to evaluate it based on an external standard. His discussion of Marjorie Levinson on Wordsworth reminds me of the discussion of Spivak in Freadman and Miller’s Re-Thinking Theory (also on Wordsworth), and his line on recent critics of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is my favourite in the book for the way it captures a particular (today, almost ubiquitous) approach to a literary text: “Yeats is not allowed to have his theme: he must be writing about something else.” So too is Charlotte Bronte often not allowed her themes in Jane Eyre, or Jane Austen, lately, in Mansfield Park, or George Eliot in Middlemarch in some recent readings (Elizabeth Langland’s, for instance).

I wonder if Donoghue offers the kind of aesthetic criticism Daniel Green (of “The Reading Experience”) would like to see more of.

John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel

How to Read a Novel is an eccentric, miscellaneous, diverting, informative and annoying book. Its basic premise is that we can all use some help deciding which of the overwhelmingly many books around us we should read…but at the same time, Sutherland shies away from offering any specific guidance, rather providing readers with tools they can use themselves to make selections from the overabundant options that surround them. Hence his interest in the apparatus surrounding the novel ‘itself’ (titles, jacket blurbs, endorsements, copyright pages, etc.) and in the mechanisms of the book industry (bestseller lists and book prizes, for instance)–all things we can peer at and consider without too great an investment of our precious reading time. As you’d expect, though, Sutherland is also interested in distinguishing wheat from chaff once we actually get deep into a novel, and so throughout the book he includes information, judgments, comparisons, all modelling (rather than prescribing) ways we can understand an author’s project, avoid oversimplistic or alienated readings that miss (or misrepresent, or just misunderstand) the point (see his discussion of John Banville’s criticism of Ian McEwan’s Saturday), and otherwise do better jobs of appreciating and contextualizing what we have gotten ourselves into. There are a number of plot summaries and quoted passages to illustrate or animate his ideas about why it is important to know the kinds of things he talks about; his selections are eclectic, and sometimes chosen, I suspect, for their shock value, to prove he is not simply another stuffy professor preaching that we should read “the classics.” There are a lot of throw-away remarks on current political figures and events: it must be nice to reach the stage of your career in which you figure (and so, apparently, do your editors) that whatever you think on any subject is worth putting into print, however random or irrelevant to the work at hand. I’ll be re-reading this book more carefully as part of my “writing for readers” project, but my first impression is that this is an idly interesting book that doesn’t explore its ideas or examples deeply enough to be engaging or helpful to serious readers, while it deals lightly, even hastily, with too many erudite bits and pieces to be engaging or helpful to readers who aren’t used to taking an analytic approach to books at all.

I was intrigued that Sutherland identifies Vanity Fair as his ‘desert island’ book. I know he’s a Thackeray scholar and all, and I am a big Vanity Fair fan myself, but wouldn’t you get depressed after a while if that was the only thing you had to read? Would you get something new from it on each reading, which is surely essential in that situation? Even Pride and Prejudice (that book that recent studies show most Britons could not live without) would probably wear thin if it were the only book you had. (Of course, my desert island book is Middlemarch, though I’d want a really well annotated edition–maybe the Broadview one, which has copious notes–so I could apply myself to all the scientific, philosophical, and historical aspects that there never seems to be enough time to comprehend fully under ordinary circumstances. Anyone else have a better idea?)

Cynthia Lee Katona, Book Savvy

book-savvyAccording to its jacket blurb, Book Savvy is “an effective guide for the burgeoning book-club community as well as a tool for literature teachers struggling to spark the interest of their students.” I certainly hope book clubs and teachers will choose better guides than this volume. For one thing, it is superficial, even shallow, in its approach to literature and to readers: do people literate enough to join book clubs really need icons indicating whether a book is one to be read “for information,” “for suspense,” or “to know oneself”? The author also rates each book for its “level of challenge”–at 5 we find “challenging masterworks of literature” (Madame Bovary or Hamlet, for instance, at 4 “works of literature with enduring qualities” (The Merchant of Venice, for example, or … The Robber Bride?), at 3 books that, while “thought provoking,” can be “read by almost anyone” (Sister Carrie or Bleak House…??), etc. Well, OK, the categories are idiosyncratic and the application of her standards sometimes suggests the author has not herself read the books in question very carefully, but I suppose for really insecure readers, it is helpful to be guided so as not to set your sights too high. And maybe, just maybe, it is odd but not unthinkable that The Picture of Dorian Grey should be brought up as an “example of a book to read primarily for thinking, writing, and conversational skills”; after all, as she goes on to say, Wilde “was a well-known wit and man-about-town” (p. 33), and wouldn’t we all like to be so quotable? Never mind what the novel is actually about! But when I came across this bit, I lost patience with amateur hour in the reading room: “One of the great innovations of twentieth-century literature was a movement away from telling the stories of kings and queens and other quite extraordinary people to the telling of stories of average people…” (p. 49). Innovations of twentieth-century literature? You see why I’m not sure she has read Bleak House, never mind, say, Moll Flanders? If Book Savvybleak-housse does spark a student’s interest, then that’s all to the good, but it won’t take most savvy readers long to figure out that they need to look elsewhere for real insight and reliable information.

This book has set me back a bit in my enthusiastic quest for ways to write about literature that fall in between the dreary erudition of professional criticism and the free-for-all of Amazon.Com reviewing. On the other hand, I suppose I could view it as motivating–inquiring readers deserve better. I’ve started Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, which looks much more promising. It interested me that early on she registers her own antipathy towards literary criticism academic style: “Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school….” (8).

Sara Nelson, So Many Books, So Little Time

Unlike Nick Hornby’s Pollysyllabic Spree (see previous post), Sara Nelson’s book is really a memoir. Because she is a book enthusiast, she talks a lot about what she reads (or, sometimes, does not read, or reads only part of), but she does not seem to know very much about books, or to be able to put her own reading experiences or tastes into any besides personal contexts. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, for instance, lead her to reflections on unreasoning passion, marriage and infidelity in her own life (no, she does not confess to having been unfaithful–except figuratively, as she concludes what I thought was a laboured conceit about her relationships with books, which are “the affairs I do not have”). The chronicle of her attempt to read and write about a book a week for a year is moderately entertaining, and Nelson’s style and personality are generally engaging, but for someone looking for literary insight, this book has little to offer.