The Mumpsimus points me to an essay on Angela Carter in which Carter is quoted as saying "I've got nothing against realism. . .[b]ut there is realism and realism. I mean, the questions that I ask myself, I think they are very much to do with reality. I would like, I would really like to have had the guts and the energy and so on to be able to write about, you know, people having battles with the DHSS, but I, I haven't. I've done other things. I mean, I'm an arty person, ok, I write overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose - so fucking what?"
The defensiveness with which Carter speaks here is well-justified. Not only was she accused of being un-British in her choice of subjects and her prose style, but writers like Carter, who willingly employ an "overblown, purple, self-indulgent prose" are frequently treated not like they are in some way bad writers but are actually bad people. I am frequently amazed at the vehemence with which some reviewers and readers react against stories or novels that are unconventional or stylistically "excessive." The authors of such works are regarded as deviant, hostile to "ordinary" readers, just plain contemptuous of good order in matters of storytelling and style. (Even a writer as conventional as John Updike is sometimes attacked for these sins.) And woe indeed to the writer who, like Carter, combines an extra-realistic approach and a "purple" prose.
An essay in the current issue of Raritan (Spring 2004) reprises these once-infamous remarks by Philip Roth:
. . .I set myself the goal of becoming the writer some Jewish critics had been telling me I was all along: irresponsible, conscienceless, unserious. . .A quotation from Melville began to intrigue me, from a letter he had sent to Hawthorne upon completing Moby Dick. . ."I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb." Now I knew that no matter hard I tried I could never really hope to be wicked; but perhaps if I worked long and hard and diligently, I could be frivolous.
And indeed from Portnoy's Complaint on, Roth produced numerous books that were "frivolous" in comparison to his earlier work, that went beyond the bounds of decorum in structure and good taste in style, that were "excessive" in many, many ways, but . . .so fucking what? They are also books that will continue to stand as among the best American novels written in the latter part of the twentieth century. They are all clearly the consequence of "hard and long and diligent" work, and in their very excesses and frivolity are as serious as anything written by more obviously earnest writers of the time, including Roth's colleague Saul Bellow.
Yet there are still readers who can only see the frivolity--that is the comedy, as savage as it can sometimes become--and the excesses--Roth's frequently freewheeling style--and who regard books like Sabbath's Theater and Operation Shylock as fundamentally not serious, as irresponsible treatments of subjects that ought to be treated in a grim and sober way. They welcomed, on the other hand, American Pastoral, because it seemed closer to this more earnest approach. (I like American Pastoral as well, but not for this reason.) I think Roth would probably agree with Carter in every particular of her statement, and both of these writers could serve as models of the sort of writer willing to endure the charges that their writing is an example of moral failure, as long as they were ultimately seen, rightly, as aesthetic triumphs.
Whenever I hear or read someone urging writers to be "clear," to "communicate," to avoid "trickery," I can only take it as an exhortation to be good. Not to offend official sensibilities or imply that many readers are too timid in their willingness to take risks. In the name of literary decency not to engage in "too much writing." Perhaps in the long run these stylistic gatekeepers can be persuaded that literary form and style have nothing to do with morality, but most of them probably don't really much like literature, anyway, if "literature" is more than just an opportunity to assert your own virtue.