Not long ago I read a weblog post in which the blogger extolled the virtues of a recent critical book by declaring that it examined the fiction of a well-known postwar writer in ways that went beyond the "merely literary"--specifically that it examined the sociopolitical significance of that fiction. Just a few days later I came across the same phrase in a slightly different context; this time what was at stake in a particular writing strategy easily transcended the "merely literary."
Versions of this idea--that worthwhile or important writing must of course be characterized by qualities that elevate it above mere literary value--are to be found everywhere in discussions of books and writing in American publications (Leon Wieseltier's non-review of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint in the NYTBR, for example, can be explained as Wieseltier's refusal to waste his time assessing the "merely literary" features of that book), but seldom is it stated as baldly as in these two instances. And it is quite likely that neither writer really thought that in speaking of literary value in this way they were necessarily denigrating literature or the literary--it's just that everyone understands there are more important tasks to fulfill in the act of writing, even in the act of writing fiction or poetry, than just to do it well or with some originality. Don't they?
Most often it is politics that is considered more important than the "merely literary," some kind of engagement with the "real world" that demonstrates the writer's concern for the problems of injustice or income distribution or international instability. Even writers as universally acclaimed as, say, Philip Roth are frequently judged by these standards. Roth's best novel in the last decade and a half was easily Sabbath's Theater, but much more attention was given to his later trilogy, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, since they were more obviously about consequential subjects like politics and cultural history. Sabbath's Theater, a ferociously comic novel about--about what, an oversexed puppeteer?--was "merely literary." (Although not very decorously so.)
But it doesn't have to be attention to politics per se that justifies our taking a writer or book seriously. We just have to feel that the writer is reaching beyond the pages of a book to grapple with "issues," is "saying something" about the world, conveying ideas or stirring up emotions. As Ruth Franklin put it last year in a review in the NYTBR (I jotted this down in a little notebook because it seemed such a forthright statement of this point of view), "literature's most necessary task [is in] communicating the writer's thoughts about the world we live in." Presumably anything else a fiction writer or poet might be concerned with, such things as exploring the stylistic possibilities of language, formal invention, even just telling a story in a skillful way or making us laugh, is "merely literary." (Although why insist on calling that which does meet Franklin's criterion "literature"?)
And why would we as readers be interested in a writer's "thoughts about the world we live in" in the first place? Is there something about being a novelist or poet (or memoirist or essayist) that makes one's "thoughts" more significant than anyone else's? I hardly think so. And I don't really think most such writers want to be burdened with the role of "thinking" in this sense, anyway. They probably want to write well enough and in such a way as to attract a certain kind of reader, a reader who doesn't dismiss the "merely literary."
The September 10 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education contains this little item:
Storytelling has helped make human beings "a nicer species," says Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, in a converstation [in the summer issue of Seeds] with Rebecca Goldstein, a visiting professor of philosophy at Trinity College and the author of several works of fiction, including The Mind-Body Problem. They discuss a variety of topics related to how science and art are grappling with "substantive questions.". . .
. . .Exposure to a wider range of stories has helped people empathize with groups they might otherwise have considered "subhuman," [Mr. Pinker] suggests. "Fiction can be a kind of moral technology."
Ms. Goldstein agrees that storytelling serves a moral purpose. "To be in the throes of a story, to have one's emotions provoked by another's story is not quite ethics, but it's kind of the shadowlife of ethics," she writes. "Storytelling is something that can awaken attentiveness, engagement, and empathy to a life that isn't one's own. And to be attentive, engaged, emphathetic. That is moral."
What an all-encompassing justification for writing and reading fiction. It makes us a "nicer species"! I'm not going to argue that fiction has no moral content, that it cannot provoke a kind of moral reflection in some readers. This is, in fact, a nice side effect of some works of literature. But can literature only be justified because it might lead to this kind of reflection? Must we reduce fiction to "a kind of moral technology"? Otherwise it is "merely literary"? (I'm actually a little surprised to see Rebecca Goldstein indulging in this kind of analysis. Some of her books strike me as nicely "literary" indeed, and they need not embody some "shadowlife of ethics" to be worth reading. As for storytelling as "something that can awaken attentiveness, engagement, and empathy to a life that isn't one's own": What would Goldstein make of Mickey Sabbath?)
I, for one, am quite content with the "merely literary." In fact, if I read a description of a particular book that emphasizes its political implications, its effectiveness in "communicating the writer's thoughts," the way in which it in effect functions as "moral technology," I'm probably going to run away from that book like a child fleeing an ogreish schoolmarm. The book and its author may want to do me good, but whatever benefits there are to be derived from it are going to be overshadowed by the pain involved. (Perhaps, however, I will come back to it later, after learning that the schoolmarm was the reviewer or critic, who really didn't know what she was talking about.) I may be among a dwindling number of readers who think that the "literary" has "substance" in and of itself, that the good it can do on a purely experiential level is reward enough. But to those who think that reading novels and stories and poems can be a worthy endeavor only if they point us to larger questions about politics or ethics, I can only ask: Why not just go talk about politics or discourse on morality or think big thoughts and leave literature alone? The rest of us will settle for our meager pleasures.