As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Samuel Richardson’s 1747 novel Clarissa is a famously long book. At 1,499 pages, My Penguin Classics edition resembles the phone book of a medium-sized city. Next to it, War and Peace looks positively spry. Moreover, War and Peace has Napoleon and the siege of Moscow, to say nothing of Prince Andrei and Pierre and Natasha. Clarissa’s plot covers exactly four points: “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies…” reads the text on the back jacket.
I was in my early twenties when I read the book for the first time. It was the late 1990s, and I had moved to New York after college. I worked as a reporter for a financial newsletter and lived in a tiny, purple-painted studio in the East Village. I don’t remember how many evenings and weekends I spent devouring the book, but my memory is that I was in a state of absorption the whole time, going through the motions of my job, but alive mostly when I was at home or on the subway with the book in my hands. While reading, I turned again and again to that paltry, unpromising jacket synopsis, certain that the person who wrote it must be not only something of a killjoy but also an exceedingly poor reader, confused about the very events of the book. Lovelace, with all his good qualities, with all his charisma, wouldn’t really rape Clarissa, would he? And Clarissa couldn’t actually die at the end. No way.
I was seduced not only by the novel’s plot (which could easily have devolved into melodrama) but by the intelligence of Richardson’s voice — the relentless, dialectical thoroughness with which it plumbs the characters’ shifting psychological states. Watching Clarissa and Lovelace come together and pull apart, misread, disappoint, under- and overestimate each other is fascinating. Clarissa is perhaps the first great psychological novel, in any language. It is also deeply moral. Clarissa, like various Austen and Eliot heroines, embodies Kant’s dictum that to be truly good, one must be not warm-hearted but rational. She assiduously evaluates her actions by the light of the imperative to do only what is justifiable from the perspective of an impartial third party. Her virtue, much heralded within the novel, is not of the narrow-minded or sanctimonious sort. It’s far more impressive, even to a skeptical modern reader.
I was so impressed that for years after I read the book, I identified as a Richardsonian. This was no small thing for me. I was at a point in my life where my job seemed completely separate from who I really was or wanted to be. I had aspirations of writing a novel, but my attempts to do so had all inspired the opposite of confidence (a trend that would persist for many more years). For me, reading novels was not only a central preoccupation but the primary way I exercised my intelligence. Matters of taste meant a lot; to a large degree, I defined myself by them.
In practice, becoming a Richardsonian boiled down to a couple of things: searching for a copy of his then out-of-print Sir Charles Grandison and looking slightingly on those who preferred the picaresque comedies of Henry Fielding. Fielding was Richardson’s contemporary and his rival. In 1741, Fielding wrote a parody of Richardson’s Pamela. In Richardson’s novel, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, a young maid lustily pursued by her employer who heroically resists his immoral advances. In Fielding’s book — called Shamela — she’s a scheming social climber who declines to become her employer’s mistress because she hopes holding out will win her the brass ring (as it were): marriage to a wealthy man.
There was little love between Richardson and Fielding in their day, and there remains today a divide between their fans. Nor is this debate quite as arcane as it may at first sound to those who aren’t actively interested in 18th-Century British male novelists. The Richardson vs. Fielding question is commonly used as a shorthand to talk about two distinct and ostensibly competing types of novels. Richardson represents the traditional realist novel with its emphasis on characters’ inner lives; Fielding’s exuberant, wide-ranging yarns are often seen as a precursor of the more formally inventive Modernist and post-Modernist novels. Richardsonians tend to see novels in the Fielding tradition as juvenile — full of showy gamesmanship but lacking in deeper meaning or seriousness, especially about character. Fielding’s devotees meanwhile see Richardson as long-winded and humorless, a moralizing, didactic prig; the novels in his line are complacent and limited, implicitly (or explicitly) bourgeois.
For years, this schema sounded pretty much right to me. I’d read Fielding’s masterpiece, Tom Jones. I’d even enjoyed it. The book tells the story of Jones, an infant foundling taken in and lovingly raised by a rich man, named (in the allegorical manner of the age) Mr. Allworthy. A jealous rival contrives to ruin Jones in Mr. Allworthy’s eyes and separate him from his one true love, the beautiful Sophia Western. Cast out, Jones goes traipsing across England, precipitating a series of baldly comic misadventures among robbers, recluses, revolutionaries, and — yes — gypsies. Along the way, Jones consoles himself for the loss of Sophia by engaging an assortment of ladies in various farcical sexcapades. Finally, the villain’s treachery is revealed, Jones and Mr. Allworthy are reconciled, and he and Sophia are married. And lest you hate me for the spoiler, I can assure you that from the first few pages of Tom Jones, you just know — from Fielding’s tone — that this is a book in which all will end well, the way you knew when watching Three’s Company that the misunderstanding would be cleared up by the end of the episode. In other words, Tom Jones is a comedy.
I appreciated comedy — in theory. Just as I appreciated the novel’s vitality and color and its aphoristic observations (e.g., “fellows who excel in some little low contemptible art are always certain to despise those who are unacquainted with that art”). I was in principle willing to overlook its contrivance-laden plot and mechanistic love story, in which the libidinous but big-hearted Tom and the angelic Sophia are kept from living perfectly happily together only because of the viciousness, greed, and lust of others.
But on another level I relished Tom Jones’s weaknesses of plot and character development: they were ammunition. And as a Richardsonian, I felt defensive. To be a Richardson person is to be on the side of the squares: the cool kids seem to be off reading Delillo or Pynchon. And whatever one might say about Tom Jones’s flaws, it’s nothing compared to what an ill-intentioned Fielding acolyte can do with Clarissa’s page count, its squeamishness about sex, its didacticism and painstaking, sometimes plodding earnestness. Even Clarissa’s strengths — attention to psychology and to individual consciousnesses, highmindedness, and moral sensitivity — seem not especially literary, at least not to a certain type of reader. The book’s selling points aren’t purely aesthetic. Clarissa is full of observations whose power depends less on their linguistic virtuosity than on their truth — that is, their accuracy in capturing something about the human condition. (This does not exactly impress the kind of readers for whom the word “truth” must only ever be flagged by scare quotes.) Nor is Clarissa in any way political; it touches neither on systems nor on economics. Which means: there goes one way a novel can assert its importance.
There is, of course, a gendered component to this. It’s not that Delillo or Pynchon and other writers said to be in the Fielding vein are exclusively male tastes — I was introduced to Delillo in college by a female friend — but back then it felt to me that the readers who had the most assurance, who took for granted that they were the most sophisticated, the best arbiters, were almost all stringy-haired guys with French cigarettes dangling from their mouths and dog-eared copies of Gravity’s Rainbow on their bedside tables. They were the Angry Young Men that Jonathan Franzen described in his New Yorker essay “Mr. Difficult,” and they had not worried themselves for weeks about Clarissa and Lovelace’s romantic troubles. If they had read Clarissa at all, they were more likely to discourse pompously about its old-fashioned technique — Clarissa is an epistolary novel — or its historical significance (Clarissa was one of the first mega-bestsellers, a huge hit, particularly with women). About the actual content, they seemed dismissive.
In retrospect, I can see that these young men had their own reasons to feel insecure: If the realist psychological novel is the less avant-garde taste, it is also the culturally and commercially dominant mode. But because at the time I felt vulnerable, like the besieged party, I took a keen and in retrospect unseemly pleasure in blows struck against Fielding and his ilk. There was Samuel Johnson, who famously despised Fielding’s work, arguing (the critic Allen Michie tells us) that he created “characters of manners” while Richardson wrote “characters of nature.” (Lest there be any doubt as to which Johnson preferred, this statement clears it up: “Characters of manners are very entertaining; but they are to be understood by a more superficial observer, than characters of nature must divine the rescesses of the human heart.”) I could also feel smug in pointing to contemporary allies, like Franzen, who in “Mr. Difficult” also recounts his move away from post-Modernist indifference, or even hostility, to the pleasures of the traditional realist novel. ([P]ostmodern fiction wasn’t supposed to be about sympathetic characters,” he wrote. “Characters, properly speaking, weren’t even supposed to exist. “[C]haracters were feeble, suspect constructs, like the author himself, like the human soul. Nevertheless, to my shame, I seemed to need them.”) Even the critic James Wood appeared to be on my side, criticizing various post-Modern novels and favorably contrasting Richardson’s “seriousness about human activity” with Fielding’s “rapid, farce-like, overlit simplicity.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Several months ago, I re-read Tom Jones. That is to say, several months ago, I walked around for a couple weeks in a state of rapture, pushing the book on anyone who’d listen.
The merits I’d once granted so patronizingly this time hit me with astounding force. That color! That vitality! Here, for example, is Tom eating dinner: “Three pounds at least of that flesh which formerly had contributed to the composition of an ox was now honoured with becoming part of the individual Mr. Jones.”
One of the characteristics of a great novel is that it is dense with the kind of fresh thought and observation that give the reader pleasure. Whether the pleasure is of the “haha” sort or the “aha” sort is less significant than the sense that the book is packed, that it seems to brim with ideas. (If you doubt this, just take a look at the first several pages of The Great Gatsby and notice how many fresh, smart and varied ideas are contained in those elegant sentences.) In lesser novels, the writer seems almost arrogant, as if he had a few ideas he was so impressed with that he thought they could carry an entire book.
Fielding delivers delightfully pointed observations in abundance. Here he is gleefully pointing up a bit of pompousness. The virtuous Sophia is being lectured by a self-satisfied aunt. Sophia declines to argue. Fielding writes,
“Argue with me, child!” replied the [aunt]. “I do not indeed expect it. I should have seen the world to very little purpose truly if I am to argue with one of your years. I have taken this trouble in order to instruct you. The ancient philosophers, such as Socrates, Alcibiades, and others did not use to argue with their scholars. You are to consider me, child, as Socrates, not asking your opinion, but only informing you mine.” From which last words the reader may possibly imagine that this lady had read no more of the philosophy of Socrates than she had of that of Alcibiades.
When Sophia decides to run away from her father’s house because he and her aunt threaten to make her marry a man who is not Jones, she enlists the help of her maid, a woman named Honour. Sophia and Honour plan to sneak out in the middle of the night with only what they can carry. But as the moment of their elopement nears, “a very stubborn difficulty occurred”–namely, Honour has second thoughts:
When a lady hath once taken a resolution to run to a lover, or to run from him, all obstacles are considered as trifles. But Honour was inspired by no such motives; she had no raptures to expect, nor any terrors to shun; and besides the real value of her clothes, in which consisted a great part of her fortune, she had a capricious fondness for several gowns, and other things; either because they became her, or because they were given to her by such a particular person; because she had bought them lately, or because she had had them long.
This is the kind of detail we expect in a novel that pays close attention to character. It is also smarter than it may seem at first, less of a throwaway. It tells the reader something about Honour, about the tack of her mind, something we won’t forget, and it does so not by sneering at her but simply by listening in on her.
What it tells us is central to Fielding’s project. Where the beautiful and noble Clarissa inspires selfless devotion from all but the most hard-hearted of her servants, the beautiful and noble Sophia has to make do with more ordinary levels of commitment. Not that Honour doesn’t appreciate Sophia’s gentle disposition and generosity. She does—inasmuch as those qualities make Sophia an easier and more pleasant boss. Honour is not hard-hearted, but she is busily going about her own life; in her mind, she isn’t playing a supporting role in Sophia’s story but starring in her own.
Honour isn’t exactly complex — none of the characters in Tom Jones is. Yet the book as a whole feels richly and abundantly peopled in large part because Fielding is so very clear-eyed. For all the gags (girl fights, damsels tied to trees and rescued in the nick of time, intercepted letters, pocketbooks accidentally dropped and luckily found by just the right person), Fielding has a keen eye for social life, for the social organism. Consider an innkeeper, whom everyone in the village believes to be a “very sagacious fellow… [who is] thought to see farther and deeper into things than man in the parish.” Is this because the man’s neighbors are uniquely capable of ferreting out true merit? Probably not, according to the bemused narrator:
[The innkeeper’s] look had contributed not a little to procure him this reputation; for there was in this something wonderfully wise and significant, especially when he had a pipe in his mouth — which, indeed, he seldom was without. His behavior likewise greatly assisted in promoting the opinion of his wisdom. In his deportment, he was solemn, if not sullen and when he spoke, which was seldom, he always delivered himself in a slow voice.
This lack of sentimentality toward the common people makes for humor, yes — but it is no more farcical than George Eliot’s salty observation, in the first chapter of Middlemarch, that “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.”
Fielding gets a lot of mileage from the human tendency to misread — to, say, mistake external trappings for intelligence or principled decisions to act against self-interest for weakness or stupidity. Time and again, Tom and Sophia are misunderstood by people less noble-minded than they are. Sophia, in particular, is accused of liking Tom only for his handsomeness — she is told that there are other, better men out there, that she has a shot of attracting even a titled suitor. Tom is likewise told that there are equally beautiful, equally wealthy women who might not give him so much trouble in the catching as Sophia does. The people who advise Tom and Sophia, who see themselves as wise (and who are often older than the young lovers) generally lack the moral capacity to understand them. These counselors imagine that Tom and Sophia’s claims of great and disinterested love are as hollow as such claims would be if they themselves made them. Watching Tom and Sophia get lectured at by a parade of self-satisfied boobs makes for good comedy — but it’s not slapstick. It is a way of acknowledging absurdity, laughter as a sardonic response to life’s inevitable humiliations and iniquities.
Nor is this passage slapstick. It comes fairly early on, when Tom, not yet sent away, is wandering drunkenly around Mr. Allworthy’s grounds. He runs into an old flame, a woman he recently found in bed with his tutor. But on this particular evening, she and Jones banter for a few minutes and then, as Fielding daintily puts it, “retire to the thickest part of the grove.” At which this point, Fielding launches into cheerful commentary:
Some of my readers may be inclined to think this event unnatural. However, the fact is true and perhaps may be sufficiently accounted for by suggesting, that Jones probably thought one woman better than none, and Molly as probably imagined two men to be better than one. Besides the before-mentioned motive assigned to the present behavior of Jones, the reader will be likewise pleased to recollect in his favor, that he was not at this time perfect master of that wonderful power of reason, which so well enables grave and wise men to subdue their unruly passions, and to decline any of those prohibited amusements. Wine now had totally subdued that power in Jones…To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men receive double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr. Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader or teach him anything more than he knows already.
It’s hard to resist Fielding’s affable urbanity, his drollery and air of bemusement, not to mention his light touch with the classical reference. Yet Fielding is also admonishing us not to condemn reflexively, to be more truly just — more commonsensical.
For all his levity and playfulness, his love of “amours” (the more ribald the better), Fielding is, like Richardson, a writer whose moral consciousness is almost always in evidence. Apart from the exhortations to be better judges — more discriminating, less likely to be deceived by appearances—the book is packed with old-fashioned life lessons, delivered in the form of sermonettes, like this one:
The wise man gratifies every pleasure and every passion [in moderation], while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. It may be objected that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Of course, there are things that Richardson does well that Fielding doesn’t come near. When we read Clarissa, we come to believe in Clarissa and Lovelace far more than we ever believe in Tom or Sophia; we don’t merely root for them the way we root for Cary Elwes and Robin Wright to beat the bad guys and reunite in The Princess Bride. That’s in spite of the fact that Clarissa is excessively — almost impossibly — scrupulous, and Lovelace is, ultimately, a villain. Clarissa and Lovelace come to feel real in large part because the inner workings of their minds are so ingeniously, so convincingly delineated: Clarissa’s complicated machinations, for example, as she balances her attraction to good-looking, intelligent and gallant Lovelace against her aversion for what she correctly suspects is also part of his character (untempered vanity, a capacity for deception that is, in fact, revolting). Or Lovelace’s vacillation between his spontaneous admiration for Clarissa and his twisted, doomed desire to win her love without actually treating her very well. (He wants her to love him so much that she will relax her standards — even though the reader can’t help but suspect that if she did he would immediately lose respect for her.) We watch, riveted, as the two of them parry. There are so many moments when it seems that, with all their intelligence and charm and self-possession, they may yet prevent things from going completely awry, but alas…they’re fucked. Fits of pique and pride cause each to do that which brings out the worst in the other. And then there’s the end. The end! I won’t say much beyond what’s on the back jacket. All I’ll say is that it’s haunting.
I don’t think anyone has ever been haunted by Tom Jones. Delighted, for sure, but not haunted. Does that mean that Clarissa is a better book? I’m surprised to find that I’m not sure anymore.
What doesn’t surprise me is that I much preferred Richardson when I was in my early 20s. If guys like Franzen, with their early love of difficult texts, were angry young men, I was what might be called a melancholic young woman. As much time as I spent reading and thinking about novels, I also spent a lot of time brooding about my personal life, specifically about boyfriends and ex-boyfriends and would-be boyfriends. I devoted as much ingenuity as I had at my disposal to the project of figuring out these slippery characters, trying to get a handle on who they were and make sense of their behavior. How could this one be so sensitive about art and politics and such a dick to women? How could that one have fallen for someone so vacuous? I also scrutinized myself — wondering where my overriding concern with relationships came from, what it meant, if it was something I should try to overcome in the name of becoming a better, more fully realized human being. If I turned to novels in part to distract me from these questions, I also turned to them for insight. I hoped they would shed light on what I grappled with. And because certain types of questions, about relationships and psychology and personal ethics, dominated my mental life, they seemed to me like the essential questions, the deepest ones.
These days, when I re-read books I read back and notice the notes I made in the margins, I am often struck by how humorless a reader I was. Rarely did I put a check by a joke — but if an author ever let drop an observation about the nature of love or the effect of solitude on the soul, rest assured that I double underlined it. An alarmingly high number of sentences I singled out for special approbation were proclamations that included the phrase “the human heart.” The truth was that I was so focused on amassing a certain kind of insight that I had very little time or energy to spare for anything else. A book like Tom Jones would naturally have seemed to me to be merely “fun” — by which I meant it was for shallow people who didn’t care so much about what was Really Important.
The reading I did in those years was incredibly meaningful. I don’t know that I will ever read so intensely, so hungrily again, and I did indeed learn a few things from those pronouncements about the human heart. But over the years, something has shifted in the way I read and respond to fiction. Humor has become a higher priority. I’ve become more sensitive to pleasures that are “merely” aesthetic — a well-turned phrase or an apt observation that sheds light into a particular character, even it isn’t of profound or generalizable import, even if it only gets something right about how a young servant would feel about leaving behind her gowns. And apparently I’ve become someone who can’t stop talking about how great Tom Jones is.
But I’m not the only one who has changed, moved toward a more catholic middle ground. Those lovers of Pynchon and Delillo, the angry young men whose sense of their own sophistication so aggravated (and intimidated) me? It turns out that a fair number of them have also moved away from their earlier positions. I don’t just mean Franzen and the re-assessment he described in “Mr. Difficult.” I can think of several men I know who have come to embrace some of the more psychological novels they once eschewed as “domestic” and “trivial” — and “feminine.” The critic William Deresiewicz describes just such a shift in A Jane Austen Education.
I’m in no position to say I told you so. How could I be, when I too have come to see my former position as smug and narrow in its dismissiveness toward books that weren’t exactly the type of books I liked best? My old approach, I see now, meant I undervalued not only Tom Jones, but also a wide range of books that don’t happen to foreground romantic relationships, from Billy Budd to The Trial.
I can no longer call myself a Richardsonian, except in the most promiscuous, non-exclusive sense. But maybe it’s time to stop reveling in this particular distinction. Tom Jones and Clarissa are both excellent books. For this particular reader at least, it’s going to be Richardson and Fielding instead of Richardson or Fielding. And who knows? Maybe one of these days, I’ll even give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.