Responding to the latest iteration of the perennial argument that "the novel is dead," David Ulin appropriately dismisses the notion that the "literary novel," now in its death throes, was still culturally healthy as recently as the 1980s. (Maybe I just missed that while I was otherwise diverting myself in graduate school.) But Ulin just redates literary fiction's last period of cultural relevance: "for me, you have to go back to 1950s, or even earlier--Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the 1920s and 1930s, not only novelists but also household names."
This is a myth. Fitzgerald and Hemingway were not household names, although Hemingway did because of his extra-literary activities manage to become better known than almost any other serious American writer of the 20th century. Hemingway was an outlier, however. Fitzgerald's first book was popular, but his subsequent books were much less so, and by the time of his death he was almost forgotten. (The Great Gatsby was a commercial failure and was by no means universally praised by critics.) Our romanticizing of "Paris in the 20s" obscures the fact that at the time, American culture at large was indifferent to the whole thing.
Faulkner worked in almost complete obscurity during the 1930s, the most artistically fruitful period of his career. Nathanael West was ignored, except by B-movie producers. Zora Neale Hurston was unknown among most readers, and her fiction even among African-American readers and critics was frequently dismissed. Dos Passos's USA trilogy was hardly competition for MGM and Warner Brothers in attracting audience's attention.
If we still have the impression that the 1950s was a friendly time for the serious novel, this is mostly because our perception is filtered through the critical commentary of the time, commentary by prominent critics such as the New York Intellectuals, whose legacy endures. That this legacy remains alive, however, is mainly due to the contrast it provides to the current critical scene. The late 1940s and the 1950s was a time when serious literary criticism still appeared in general-interest publications that avoided both the hermetic preoccupations of academic criticism and the superficialities of newspaper reviewing. These kinds of publications no longer exist (efforts are being made to re-create them online), and thus if a golden age has been lost, it is this age of consequential literary criticism that has passed. That the Los Angeles Times is now what passes for an authoritative source of critical discourse is itself a sad commentary on current literary culture.
Ulin himself seems to realize this, as he laments our situation: "Amid all the noise, who, really, can get noticed? And how long can such notice last?" If the need is to "get noticed" by the Los Angeles Times or The Colbert Show, no doubt the task seems overwhelming. But the actual need is for writers to get noticed by readers, not publicists, readers who will take their work seriously. For this task, critics are needed who can alert such readers to writing worth taking seriously, perhaps even to show why "notice" of some work might "last." If Ulin means to confess that the current state of literary criticism is such that it isn't up to the task, he's probably right, but the solution to this is not to assume that nothing lasts, but to advocate for better literary criticism.
Ulin's despair at the prospect of writers gaining notice (an odd stance for a book critic, really) leads to his disdain for the idea that writers might write for "posterity," which is a "fool's game." Since the writer is apparently left hopeless between the impossibility of finding an audience now and the oblivion that substitutes for posterity, the only justification left is an egocentric one: "the only reason to write is self-expression." This is a peculiarly American notion, that art is a form of "self-expression," good as therapy or asserting one's presence in the world.
I am unaware, however, of any great writer who wrote out of the desire for "self-expression," except in the most obvious sense that some writers, like some artists generally, seem compelled to practice their art. Expression of the art form's possibilities is the goal, not some amorphous emanation of the "self." Most great writers of the past would have been appalled to learn they had been engaged in "self-expression," among other reasons because they wouldn't have known how self-expression could be evaluated. Most of these writers would have indeed been writing for posterity, the harshest but most respected critic of all, whose positive judgment was vastly more prized than the "fleeting conceit" of self-expression.
I agree entirely with Morris Dickstein's assessment of American fiction in the 1960s:
. . .The dream of the Great American Novel disintegrated, as did the line between high art and other kinds of cultural performance, but the novels that continued to be written were some of the most staggeringly ambitious that America had produced. The second coming of modernism in American fiction, which Tom Wolfe deplores and misunderstands, may have narrowed the audience for the novel and limited its ability to deal with the immediate carnival aspect of contemporary fashion, but it gave the dream of the novelist a new kind of grandiosity and range . . . . (Gates of Eden)
"The second coming of modernism" is of course what came to be called postmodernism, but in many ways Dickstein's formulation is a better way of thinking about the "ambitious" books of the 1960s, since it does not tie them to the various philosophical positions usually ascribed to the "postmodern" but instead emphasizes the formal and stylistic adventurousness of the best fiction of the 1960s, the way it so clearly challenged the reinscribed realism of the 1950s (which tended to be of the Jamesian, "psychological" variety), a challenge that was actually given numerous names: "black humor," absurdism, "metafiction," etc. While some of these books were in fact quite popular (Catch-22, Portnoy's Complaint), this was more the happy reward of their literary ambitions, not the ambition to seek popularity. Dickstein is thus correct as well that in the long run the adventurous fiction of the 1960s "narrowed the audience for the novel" to those readers already disposed to the "literary" in fiction, who did not read novels for the kind of "entertainment" that could be found more abundantly in movies and television.
This is the audience current novelists have inherited, but one sees little evidence of the ambition leading, as Dickstein puts it later, to "the belief that old molds can be broken and recast, a sense that reality can be reshaped by the creative will." At best that fiction which gets called adventurous or unconventional simply repeats the moves already made by the mold-breaking writers of the 60s and 70s or retreats even further to a tepid kind of surrealism, while most current fiction settles for worn-out modes of domestic and psychological realism, or indeed concentrates on the "immediate carnival aspect of contemporary fashion." There are exceptions, of course, but those exercises of the "creative will" seem even more isolated when compared to the appearance of so many writers of "grandiosity and range" in the 1960s. At times it almost seems that the ambition of most new writers is simply to be published--a prerequisite to securing and then maintaining a position in the creative writing program--while for others the pinnacle of ambition is to have one's novel optioned to Hollywood. Far from embracing the smaller but more discerning audience left to us by writers of the 60s, which still allows for expanded creative freedom, many current writers look to abandon this audience altogether for some small sliver of the mass audience and its glitzier rewards.
The response to Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity included numerous references to the book as "postmodern," "innovative," or "absurdist," terms that by now are mostly used to indicate that the work at hand is not a conventional work of "realism." Often postmodernist and realist seem to be the only two categories available in which to put new works of fiction--the former to designate anything that runs counter to the broadest currents of mainstream "literary fiction," the latter to identify the fundamental aesthetic orientation of mainstream fiction. A Naked Singularity is clearly enough not mainstream, from its length (de la Pava seems more interested in putting everything in than in exercising editorial restraint) to its long stretches of dialogue without expository supplement, its gradual shift from a kind of expose of the American judicial system to a crime novel complete with "caper," all enveloped in a quasi-science fiction atmosphere that may just be the eerie reflection of the protagonist's psychological breakdown. But do these qualities alone warrant calling the novel "postmodern"? Moreover, does calling it postmodern further make it "innovative"?
There's no doubt that A Naked Singularity takes real risks if its intended audience is indeed typical readers of literary fiction. That de la Pava chose to self-publish his novel after it was rejected by every agent to whom he sent it suggests, of course, he does not consider this to be his likely audience. The reader of A Naked Singularity needs to be willing to become immediately immersed in the daily business of a big-city American court at its most random and chaotic, in the company of the novel's protagonist, Casi, a public defender attempting to negotiate his own way through an environment that ultimately we understand has taken its toll on him, despite the fact that he has apparently been successful enough at his job he has yet to lose a case that has gone to trial. (He spends most of his time attempting to prevent his clients from going to trial in the first place through plea bargaining.) There is little indication in the novel's first 100 pages that anything like a conventional plot of the kind we might expect from a novel with a legal setting is going to develop, although Casi's account of the courtroom scenes and his interaction with his clients is quite compelling on its own.
This early part of the novel doesn't avoid realism but, if anything, could be described as hyperrealism. The depiction of the hellish atmosphere and moral degradation of the New York lower courts is uncompromising and unrelenting as we follow Casi through his daily activities. If the ultimate goal of realism is to represent life as lived as faithfully as possible, A Naked Singularity surely accomplishes the task, giving Casi's encounters with his colleagues and his clients its scrupulous attention. Such an approach can seem postmodern only when "realism" has become confused with conventional storytelling: "plot," after all, is an artificial imposition on the artistic treatment of reality in fiction, since rarely do we experience our lives as "story," complete with beginnings, middles, and ends. Historically, realism has been a mode most supportive of character and setting, and certainly A Naked Singularity provides plenty of both.
Eventually it provides plenty of plot as well, but by the time we get to the heist, meticulously planned by Casi and a colleague, and its ultimately violent outcome, we have also been introduced to several other narrative strands, including Casi's interactions with his family and his volunteer work on a death penalty case from Texas, as well as the interpolated stories Casi tells about various boxers of the 1980s, especially Wilfrid Benitez, with whom Casi seems to have a strong connection. This digressiveness would appear to be another feature of the novel that might lead readers and reviewers to call it postmodern, but finally all of these strands work together to providea coherent character portrait of the protagonist. Because the novel is further unified by Casi's first-person narration, the digressions are less a symptom of postmodern fragmentation than an alternative method of characterization that arguably renders his increasingly erratic behavior and deteriorating state of mind with more fidelity than a more linear, conventional form of "psychological realism" would.
The postmodern writers with whom de la Pava has been most frequently compared are Wallace, Pynchon, and Gaddis, and of the three it seems to me that A Naked Singularity has most in common with the latter, particularly A Frolic of His Own with its similar legal setting, but the reliance on dialogue in Gaddis's fiction provides the closest parallel to de la Pava's approach in his novel, although he does not pursue the strategy as radically as Gaddis does. Moreover, although Gaddis is frequently classified as a postmodernist, his work is much less explicitly metafictional or absurdist, much less an attempt to create a distorted or artifical world separate from reality than to be truer to reality by getting it all in, the sheer babble and noise of American culture as reflected by the perpetual talk of his characters. A Naked Singularity certainly could be identified as a novel of "excess" ( a designation coined by Tom Le Clair), and it shares with Gaddis as well as Pynchon and Wallace a willingness to violate the boundaries of what would ordinarily be considered "well-made fiction," creating in the process an impression of excess that is actually very carefully calibrated in its effects. The work of all of these writers puts the reader in the same position as the characters in their novels, who often find themselves in the middle of a seemingly overwhelming "system" they are attempting to comprehend.
If A Naked Singularity bears comparison to the meganovels of Pynchon, Gaddis, and Wallace, it is hard to say that it advances beyond the achievements of these earlier works, either formally or thematically. To suggest that this novel probably should not be considered innovative is not to undervalue its own achievement. At a time when ambition in American fiction is most often expressed in the "social novel," in hybrid genre forms such as the post-apocalyptic narrative and tepid forms of magical realism, or simply in securing a contract with a mainstream publisher, it is refreshing that a writer is willing to be more formally adventurous, in a mode less assimilable to prevailing expectations of "literary fiction"--so much so that no agent or publisher was willing to take a chance on this book. The most foolish miscalculation on the part of those who concluded this novel was not worth publication is in the assumption that readers would not find it engaging because of its unorthodox structure, but in fact once we have oriented ourselves to its method the novel is quite entertaining (if at times disturbing in its portrayal of the dysfunction of out "system of justice"). In the novel's expository passages, Casi's voice attracts our interest, and de la Pava's control of language in general should be apparent to any serious reader.
There really can be no fixed category of "innovative" fiction. Sergio de la Pava is admirably following up on the innovations of Gaddis and Pynchon, exploring possibilities suggested by their example, but the invocation of a term like "postmodern" as a convenient way to identify a book like A Naked Singularity works more to obscure our perception of what's truly innovative in new works of fiction than to assist it. No familiar terms will seem adequate to describe the introduction of the really new.
It is finally unclear exactly what audience Hershel Parker had in mind in writing Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative. Parker is a distinguished academic scholar, but while a great deal of the book is preoccupied with laying out Parker's side of an academic quarrel, the tone of his exposition of the controversy doesn't suggest he expects the other side to respond--certainly not as part of an ongoing scholarly debate. On the other hand, the nature of this dispute is sufficiently arcane that it probably would not really be of interest to general readers, although Parker's animus against his various detractors is expressed trenchantly (and often) enough that these readers might find his demonstrations of malfeasance occasionally entertaining.
Presumably, admirers of Herman Melville would be potential readers of Melville Biography, but unfortunately most of the discussion in the book requires some prior familiarity not just with Melville's life and work but specifically with Hershel Parker's own previous writing about Melville, most obviously his two-volume biography, published in 1996 and 2002, respectively. At best this book serves as a supplement of sorts to the biography, as we do learn about the assumptions behind Parker's practice as a biographer, and the final section of the book, "The Biographer in the Workshop," does focus on material not included in the biography, and does provide interesting information about such things as the influence of copyright law on Melville's short-lived career as novelist and his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Still, it would seem that readers who might be interested in such information about Herman Melville would have gone to the biography first before taking up this postscript.
Melville Biography is most interesting as a continuation of a quarrel Parker has been conducting for years--arguably throughout his whole career as a scholar--with academic criticism. The terms of this quarrel roughly correspond to the opposition between "criticism" and "scholarship," with Parker's own work exemplifying the latter and what Parker perceives to be the academic establishment predominantly practicing the former. As the title of this new book suggests, Parker's scholarly work has mostly been biographical (as well as mostly focused on Herman Melville), culminating in the two-volume biography but even before that concentrating on biographical and historical context as the indispensable foundation of serious literary study. Since the death of Jay Leyda, creator of The Melville Log, literally the day by day documentation of Melville's life, Parker has taken over as the proprietor/editor of the Log (and to his credit has expanded it substantially), just one indication of the way Parker has devoted his academic career to retrieving as much concrete information about Herman Melville as possible.
Parker is not interested in accumulating this information just to know more about Melville the historical figure or human personality. He believes that literary criticism cannot proceed at all unless it arises first from reliable knowledge of the writer's circumstances, especially the circumstances related to the work's composition and publication. Parker has frequently expressed his disdain for criticism and interpretation that ignores possible problems with the status of the text itself and blithely comes to conclusions based on corrupted or uncertain texts. His most thorough examination of this issue is his 1984 book, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons, in which he discusses such textual problems not just in Melville but also Henry James, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and, bringing the subject farther into the present, Norman Mailer."It seems that treating the author as an abstracted, olympian power," Parker writes at the end of the first chapter, "frees critics to celebrate nonsensical texts and adventitious meanings in texts where the words, but not all the meanings, are the author's; and treating the text the author created as if it were merely a hypothetical concept, frees them to identify 'the text itself' as the published text or the revised and republished text."
Parker's point is that too much academic criticism, in the form of "close reading," which focuses its attention solely on "the text," carelessly assumes the reliability and authenticity of the text being read. Before venturing an interpretation or asserting the historical or cultural forces the work allegedly makes visible, Parker asks, shouldn't we have some confidence that the text we're citing is the text the author wanted us to read? Even if, as in the case of Crane, the author acquiesced to revisions in order to get the work published, should we accept a palpably inferior text because the author didn't or wasn't able to signal a preference for another version (in Crane's case because of his early death)? Aren't the conclusions a critic might reach about a literary work questionable if the text of that work is itself questionable?
These are entirely relevant questions, ones that academic critics should take seriously, that raise issues transcending the stale debate about the role of the scholar vs. the role of the critic. Surely the critic venturing to claim an authoritative interpretation or close reading of a particular work should have some sense of the text's own authority. Although the most radical implication of Parker's detailed explication of the messy textual histories of these books by Crane, Twain, and Melville is that there might be some works for which a final, definitive text isn't possible, even that finally no such text is really possible for any work of literature, literary criticism that simply ignores the problems Parker identifies is either willfully negligent or shows little respect not just for those scholars who work at providing conscientiously edited texts but also for the process of literary creation, the essential messiness of which is reflected in the realities of publication, even when the latter don't actively mutilate the writer's intended text.
Parker weakens his case, however, by his inclination to blur all disinctions and label anyone who favors interpretation or close analysis a "New Critic." This is made evident directly in the title of Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons in its explicit evocation of the "verbal icon," W.K. Winsatt's notion of the literary text as an aesthetic object made of words, to be approached and appreciated as such by the critic conscious of the work's aesthetic integrity. Parker believes that the original New Crtics' dogmatic rejection of "extrinsic evidence," evidence not directly to be found in the verbal disposition of the text at hand, was so influential that their "avoidance of 'textual bibliography' in all its aspects, including study of compositional evidence, has prevailed during all later fashions in criticism." Indeed, "even the deconstructionists in practice treated any text as a New Critical given, however thoroughly they would then proceed to deconstruct it," and the New Historicists, who would seem to have retrieved "extrinsic evidence" from opprobrium, unfortunately "proceeded to write history and literary history as if research had all been done before, once and for all, prior to, say around 1940." (The last quote from Melville Biography.) These postmodern historicists "were no such fools as to hope to tell the truth: there was no such thing as truth."
Parker is dedicated to the idea that there is truth to be applied to works of literature, and finally the influence of New Criticism has been to emphasize coherence of interpretation over truth, the integrity of close reading over scholarship that uncovers the truth. But while there is some plausibility to the notion that deconstruction (at least as practiced by Derrida) has affinities with New Critical close reading, to the extent that New Criticism was an attempt to place the study of literature at the center of the English curriculum, in effect to place literature itself at the center of this curriculum, deconstruction was less interested in close reading as a strategy for appreciating literature as a means for raising questions about the nature of human communication, ultimately about the nature of human thought. Although Derrida's reading strategies could certainly be used to examine a literary text in a way that would be compatible with New Criticism--emphasizing uncertainty, ambiguity, "gaps," etc,--the rise of deconstruction (of what is called "critical theory" more generally) most immediately signalled a move away from "appreciation" of literature to its more detached "interrogation." Both critical theory and new historicism, however much they avoided "textual bibliography," also unfortunately tended to avoid literature as well. In their shared goals of enhancing appreciation of literature as the actual subject of the discipline of literary study, Hershel Parker the scholar surely has much more in common with New Critics than with critical theorists, new historicists, and those academic critics now engaged in cultural studies, all of whom have done much more than the New Critics ever did to make Parker's kind of textual and biographical scholarship passe.
Even if you accept that there is a divide between "criticism" and "scholarship" of the kind Parker laments, and even if you accept that New Criticism may have helped to orient literary study away from biographical criticism, text editing, and historical investigation (all of which nevertheless remained visible scholarly approaches even during the heyday of New Criticism), it is a not a necessary conclusion that New Critical formalism was inherently hostile to traditional scholarship. For one thing, conscientious proponents of close reading would be foolish to dismiss attempts to establish reliable texts or to get historical information right for the very reason that Parker's own discussions in Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons provides: A reading of a flawed text is ultimately a flawed reading. For an approach that implicitly holds every word in a literary text to be potentially significant, perhaps crucial, to disdain a concern that all the words be justifiably in place would undermine the whole project. Moreover, New Criticism's skepticism about non-textual "evidence" came from a resistance to "readings" that, in drawing on history, biography, or politics, diverted attention from the experience of reading the work to these other subjects, not from a lack of respect for the accomplishments of literary scholarship.
In Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative, Parker's ire is primarily directed at such current academic critics as Andrew Delbanco and Richard Brodhead (currently President of Duke University), both of whom could be called "New Critics" only in the expanded, indeterminate definition Parker has given it in order to identify the source of these critics' disparagement of his work, especially the biography of Melville. I myself find Parker's defense of his biography against the criticisms made by Delbanco and Brodhead persuasive, but also don't understand why these criticisms can't simply be addressed in their own terms rather than generalizing them into a perpetual struggle between what in Parker's analysis are ancient enemies. Not only is this likely to seem to most potential readers of the book a rather musty characterization of the issues, belonging to an era now long superseded by one in which both criticism and scholarship have been radically transformed, but the terms of the debate seem to have become so personal for Hershel Parker that the book can at times be uncomfortable to read as well. It is clear enough that Parker feels his biography was unfairly treated (and indeed perhaps it was), but a grievance sustained over the length of a 500-page book can finally wear a little thin.
Flawed Texts and Verbal icons is an illuminating and important book, well worth reading even by those who might consider Parker's scholarly approach hopelessly old-fashioned, who might instead come to recognize that inaccurate or corrupted texts are just as threatening to "extrensic" historical and cultural generalizations using literary works as critical specimens as to "intrinsic" explication. As long as literary texts remain the ostensible focus of literary study (which of course is even now not always the case), their reliabilty will always be a relevant issue--not to mention its relevance simply to readers who want to feel confident the books they are reading adequately represent what their authors intended them to read. Melville Biography, unfortunately, is of much less interest, although perhaps it could persuade a few to give Parker's biography a try, or to pursue the underlying points of contention more directly through Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons instead.
It might indeed be the case that many "negative" reviews of fiction are glib and opportunistic exercises in what has come to be called snark. Such reviews make little real effort to adequately describe the ambitions and strategies of the book under review, or to assess the book's success or relative failure to fulfill these ambitions with any degree of specificity. If this sort of review were to disappear, neither literature nor literary criticism would register the loss.
But to dismiss all critical evaluation that reaches unfavorable conclusions as illegitimate, somehow an affront to the "community" of writers and readers who value books at a time when reading seems endangered, is not just irrational but in fact a greater danger to sustaining a serious literary culture than indiscriminate snark would ever be. That some reviews elevate shallow and superficial pronouncements over considered judgment does not mean negative reviews that are carefully considered should be equally rejected. Moreover, writers themselves should welcome the latter sort of review, since it signifies the work has been taken seriously and given close attention. This seems to me an infinitely preferable response than empty praise, which, in the absence of the more rigorous standards implied by the possibility of a negative judgment, is all that reflexive approval is destined to become.
I wouldn't necessarily use the word "smarm" to identify this kind of praise, although anyone who writes book reviews simply to uncritically celebrate otherwise mediocre writers because all writers need "support" is hard to take seriously. Especially when the reviewer is him/herself also primarily a fiction writer, readers are well-justified to think that such reviews are a form of self-protection at the least, but even when they are sincerely intended, more often than not the lack of real critical engagement with the book under review undermines credibility. Synopsis substitutes for analysis, and judgment is replaced with rhetorical flash and vacuous accolades. Indeed, this sort of rah-rah reviewing is so common, so much dominates the discourse of book reviewing at the moment, that it's always surprising to me when someone suggests there are too many negative reviews around in the first place.
The advice often given to reviewers and critics who might have something actually critical to say about a book or a writer is to just say nothing instead, to let one's silence stand as sufficient commentary. In long-form criticism, this makes some sense; extended consideration of the flaws in a particular work or a writer's body of work is not usually as worthwhile a use of critical space as the explication of the most accomplished works and admired writers. (Although dissenting evaluations of established writers that question their critical standing certainly have their place.) However, contemporaneous book reviews serve a different purpose. The best reviews do not facilitate "consumer choice" or "cultural discussion" (although some reviews might inadvertently do these things) but take on the responsibility of providing an initial critical reaction to books that presumably seek an audience not just among those who happen to read this week's newspaper, and not just among readers this month or this year, but also future readers for whom the book's literary merit has become the most important consideration, not its purely occasional interest as a "new book" or as an artifact arising from its circumstances of its publication (the review's circumstances of publication as well). In some cases, those reviews provide the only available critical guidance to such readers, but even if additional, more extended criticism has subsequently appeared, often the presuppositions at work were introduced by the initial responses to the book or writer found in reviews.
This was certainly my experience as a fledgling scholar of contemporary literature, when I was trying to round up the critical responses to writers in whose work I had an interest. Of course, most contemporary fiction has yet to accumulate the kind of formal criticism associated with more canonical literature, but I would always look first at the reviews, and usually found they had in one way or another (in rendering both positive and negative judgments) established the context in which the writer's work continued to be discussed, the most thoughtful and conscientious reviews often enough still providing valuable insights into that work. Had I been surveying reviews motivated by the perceived need to reinforce a literary "community" against attack rather than to reinforce literature itself through honest and detailed literary criticism, even in the modest form of the book review, I would most likely have found little of value and concluded that such a "literary" culture doesn't really take literature very seriously.
Certainly no writer welcomes an unfavorable evaluation of his/her work. It's another thing altogether, however, to extend one's dissatisfaction with this sort of critical scrutiny to a general proscription of negative criticism in the name of fellow-feeling for one's putative colleagues. Not only does this reduce the creation of literary art to an exercise in group solidarity, but it's practically an invitation to writers encouraging them to do shoddy work. Since whatever I might write is going to be praised simply because I wrote it (lest I get discouraged), there's no particular reason for me to artistically challenge either myself or my potential readers. Even if I have mustered up some ambition and taken risks, if the result is met with the same bland acceptance as all the less adventurous books, what motivation do I have to maintain my ambition? And if it is met with the silence that is supposed to be an adequate sign of disapproval, what reason would I have to consider this as anything other than cowardly?
An excerpt from "The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy," available here.
When James Purdy died in 2009 at the age of 94, most people who still recognized his name surely judged that he had long outlived whatever relevance he and his books might once have had. Although he published almost 30 books, according to the James Purdy Society website only 9 of them remained in print, and these did not include the novels that won Purdy his once-estimable reputation, among them Malcolm, The Nephew, and Cabot Wright Begins. That these books were at the time of his death apparently not valued highly enough by publishers to make them available to readers seems compelling evidence either that the American cultural memory cannot sustain a writer lacking at least one “big” book, or that Purdy’s work doesn’t deserve continued recognition.
While the first explanation is unfortunately probably true enough, it doesn’t satisfactorily account for the neglect of James Purdy, whose novels during the 1960s, at least, were reviewed by prominent critics and remain sufficiently provocative in subject and theme that readers might still find them controversial—as did some contemporaneous reviewers who dismissed them as sensational or even immoral. As to the second explanation, no one who has been intrigued to read deeply into Purdy’s singularly disturbing stories and novels would be able to say this work might just as well be forgotten. However, after reading more of Purdy’s fiction, we can perhaps begin to understand why it was never entirely welcomed by the critical gatekeepers—popular and academic—who by default keep a writer’s reputation alive in book reviews and scholarly journals and on course syllabi, and why it was never likely to appeal to a large audience. At the same time, we can also begin to recognize that the very qualities of Purdy’s work that might explain its failure to maintain greater cultural visibility are also the qualities that make his work so remarkable—and that should win it a future audience.
Although in some ways Purdy was altogether attuned to the literary spirit of his time, especially in the 1950s and 60s, he gradually and increasingly became much less so. However, the way in which he remained true to his vision, style, and assumptions makes his fiction that much more valuable to future readers. Looking at Purdy’s most representative books shows why Purdy’s fiction was at first difficult simply to ignore but increasingly was ignored, in part, no doubt, because Purdy was ultimately a prolific writer, but also because Purdy did consistently adhere to core stylistic and formal assumptions and explore recurring themes. If readers and critics (particularly the latter) found this a convenient excuse to dismiss Purdy’s books, especially the later ones, as repetitive, the underlying resistance to Purdy’s work, I would argue, is a resistance not so much to repetition as to the challenge his fiction poses to passive or inattentive reading. On the one hand, it is as devoted to telling the truth about human existence as any body of work by an American writer, while on the other it relentlessly questions fiction’s capacity to reveal that truth. Further, Purdy’s fiction can seem straightforward and transparent, quite immediate in its visceral power, while at the same time frequently working quite subtly and indirectly, which an inattentive reader can miss. These are not the only challenges Purdy’s work presents, but in my opinion they most immediately explain its gradual loss of favor.
Purdy’s alienation from the dominant literary culture as represented by both publishers and reviewers ultimately became quite profound, prompted, no doubt, by his acknowledgment of the perceived irrelevance of his books, although publishers had demonstrated indifference, if not outright hostility, to his earliest fiction as well. (His first important work, 63: Dream Palace, was published in Great Britain after it could find no publisher in the United States.) Yet it is also the case that Purdy did very little on his part to ameliorate the situation. He gave few friendly interviews, did not participate in any efforts to better “position” his work in the literary marketplace, and above all never tried to write differently in order to make his fiction more amenable to conventional expectations of “literary fiction.” For readers, journalists, or critics who are more interested in writers than writing, more concerned about business than literature, Purdy’s attitude might have understandably been frustrating. Similarly, some readers and critics might rightly have found Purdy’s fiction stubbornly idiosyncratic, but dismissing it as idiosyncratic before determining if those idiosyncrasies actually amount to a sustained artistic vision hardly seems a very serious response.
Indeed, those of us who have read deeply into Purdy’s fiction quickly enough realize that what could be called its idiosyncrasies are in fact its greatest strengths and that Purdy didn’t merely write one or two individually adventurous, original stories or novels but instead created a comprehensively original body of work, each separate work providing a variation on Purdy’s themes and methods but also exemplifying his larger achievement. Purdy wrote few, if any, really weak books, and so almost all of them are equally good introductions to his work. In many ways, a reader who first approaches Purdy through one of his last novels will encounter the same Purdy one will find in his earliest novels, but an uninitiated reader might still want to start at the beginning to best see how he develops his distinctive fictional world. The terms and contours of that world are in fact remarkably apparent in Purdy’s first extended work of fiction, the novella 63: Dream Palace.
In a review of the novel in Review 31, Helen McClory makes a curious criticism of Helen DeWitt's 2011 novel, Lightning Rods:
What it lacks is interiority. The narration, because it is so slick and over-worked, has the feel of a voice-over; it's all surface, even when we are ostensibly presented with access to the minds of the characters. This creates a sensation of hollowness. . .
The total misperception of DeWitt's purpose in Lightning Rods is extraordinary. As almost all other reviewers of this novel observed, it is most certainly a novel of "interiority," although it is a special kind of interiority that deliberately uses the contents of consciousness--more importantly, the forms of expression those contents assume--to create a pervasively "surface" effect. If it seems "slick and overworked," that's because the modes of thinking the novel travesties are themselves so formulaic and riven with cliche. "A sensation of hollowness" is precisely the effect Lightning Rods is designed to create.
The plot of Lightning Rods is no doubt by now well-known, as the novel received numerous reviews that prominently emphasized its outrageous premise. A failed vacuum cleaner salesman, Joe, is inspired by his own sexual fantasies to begin marketing a new service designed to help alleviate sexual harassment in the workplace: a contraption installed in an office bathroom that allows testosterone-addled men to have anonymous sex with women (the lightning rods) whose bottom halves are exposed rearward and then withdrawn back through the bathroom wall. The service proves to be quite successful, for the companies whose workplaces become less litigious, for the men whose needs are fulfilled and thus become more efficient and cooperative workers, and for the women. who are handsomely rewarded financially and in some cases use the job to work themselves up the "corporate ladder." (One of the lightning rods eventually becomes a Supreme Court lawyer.)
Joe's diligence and sincerity are reflected in the manner of the book's narration, nominally in the form of "free indirect" discourse, the stylistic/narrative mode developed precisely to plumb a character's "interiority." But while the language with which the story is told surely does capture the way Joe both perceives the world and explains it to himself, it is indeed shallow and hackneyed, permeated by the external languages of self-help and commerce:
Now if you're selling encyclopedias it's obvious you're selling people the idea that they can be what they want to be. But even if you're selling vacuum cleaners you're selling people the way they could be--they could be people who will clean their stairs and the furniture and curtains using appropriate attachments, instead of borrowing a vacuum cleaner for Thanksgiving and Christmas from their next-door neighbors. You're selling the chance to fix something that's wrong. What you're selling, basically, is the idea that there's nothing wrong with the customer; maybe they don't know as much as they should, or maybe they happen to live in a dirty house, but that's because they don't have the one thing lacking to put it right.
The reader could turn to practically any page in Lightning Rods and find a passage like this. Clearly DeWitt wants not just to emphasize Joe's subjectivity, but to suggest that this very subjectivity has been thoroughly determined by the all-pervasive discourses, and the underlying assumptions, of American-style capitalism and its accompanying modes of therapeutic encouragement. No matter how "deep" we plumb into Joe's "interiority," we're only going to find more such platitudinous language and bromidic concepts, since in effect they have replaced any genuine interiority, substituted for any genuine thinking, beyond the need to apply the concepts most effectively. As Edmond Caldwell observes in his review of the novel, "It is less like Joe 'uses' this language. . .and more like this language thinks him"--although it might be even more accurate to say there is no thinking at all going on, only the pre-formulated thinking represented by the recycling of familiar expressions.
Caldwell also maintains that the novel is a satire of its own ostensible genre, the novel of "psychological realism," which "stands revealed as a patchwork of readymade materials--cliches and slogans, the hoariest sententia and newly-minted banalities." If all such novels are "no less a howling absurdity than Lightning Rods, the difference is that one of them knows itself as such." While I would not deny the accuracy of this reading, I don't think the self-satirical impulse fully accounts for the effects DeWitt manages to achieve in nevertheless exploiting the assumptions of psychological realism. She employs its "cliches and slogans" in a way that, at the same they are revealed to be such, transcends the "banalities" of this mode of narration to tell a story that is far from banal, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of John Barth's notion of a "literature of exhaustion" that takes the very "used-upness" of a literary practice and creates something new. As much as it shows psychological realism to be "a patchwork of readymade materials," the novel also shows that human consciousness itself (at least of the "ordinary" variety) might be a hodgepodge of such materials. There's no going "deep," only going sideways into more culturally determined fragments of predigested language.
"Surface" and "interiority" are interchangeable, versions of each other. The characters' motives are not hidden (to themselves or to us) but quite transparent, although those motives are encapsulated in the shallowest, most insipid kind of interior discourse. The most powerful human motive, sex, is, of course, thoroughly externalized, subjected to the same trivialization and commodification by which American culture reduces all human activity to commerce. (It isn't prostitution if it makes good business sense.) Much of the humor in Lightning Rods comes from the way in which the characters readily adapt to circumstances that might otherwise provoke feelings of shame and degradation, how easily the sexual drive comes to be regarded as something that merely requires the right kind of management.
What makes this novel more than simply satirical (whether of the American commercial imperative or the novel of psychological realism) is that the ostensible target, our protagonist Joe, in whose "interiority" we have been placed and whose idea it is to channel the sexual drive in his commercialized service, is finally not a character deserving only of our laughter. Above all, Joe is utterly sincere in his belief that his service will have beneficial effects, that in offering it he is doing good. He shows concern for his employees, and as a sideline to the main business of providing lightning rods, he also devises an adjustable toilet to make public restrooms easier on short and/or obese people. His sincerity and good intentions make it difficult to regard Joe as a purely risible figure; he winds up being a rather sympathetic character who at worst has succumbed to the irresistible influence of cultural forces outside his control.
Readers of DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, might at first find Lightning Rods a radically different kind of work, almost to the point it doesn't seem by the same writer. Samurai is a sprawling novel that at times courts formlessness, while Lightning Rods is a compact, sharply focused work exhibiting a unified narrative perspective that contrasts with the bifurcated perspective of The Last Samurai. Ultimately The Last Samurai could be called a novel about a search for identity, while the characters in Lightning Rods seem quite confident in their identities, even if those identities are ultimately culturally constructed. To a degree, however, both books are about the use and abuse of language.The Last Samurai highlights the possibilities of language in its story of the budding genius Ludo and his facility in many languages and ability to relate them to each other, something that DeWitt also does in the novel as a whole. Lightning Rods illustrates our more common relationship with language, whereby we allow our thinking to be determined by language in its most ossified, restrictive forms. If The Last Samurai implies the yet untapped potential of language when viewed cross-culturally, Lightning Rods reveals how any language can become so burdened with the conceptual debris scattered by one's culture as to become hazardous to all thought.