Clarissa, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Sorrows of Young Werther…the epistolary novel has a long and distinguished tradition, predating the classic doorstoppers of the 18th century. It’s a fascinating form that allows for a complex interplay of different characters and plot lines—and for plenty of dramatic confusion as messages overlap, are read by the wrong people, or are read in the wrong order.
The advent of email created a sort of electronic sub-genre of the classic epistolary tale. The email novel often takes place in a corporate setting, where it can shed light in interesting ways on the scandals and disappointments of office life. But as this list shows, writers have used emails in lots of other interesting ways too, delivering effects that are by turns hilarious, moving, romantic, poetic, and even erotic. What follows is a list of ten of the best novels written as email.
1. e by Matt Beaumont (2000)
Probably the best-known email novel of them all, Matt Beaumont’s e was originally published with the subtitle The Novel of Liars, Lunch and Lost Knickers. The story takes place in a fictitious ad agency, Miller Shanks, and captures some of the hedonistic excess for which the ad industry was notorious in the late 20th century.
At the start of the book, Miller Shanks has two weeks to win the prestigious $84 billion Coca-Cola account. The company’s big idea was actually stolen by creative director Simon Horne from a couple of recent college graduates. Because of an IT snafu, all the CEO’s messages are being rerouted via the Helsinki office, which brings the Finns in with a rival pitch of their own. There’s also a creative team on a location shoot for a porn channel in Mauritius, where they bump into Ivana Trump and lose each of their models to a series of comedy misfortunes.
The plot is pure office farce, and with its exploding implants, Y2K references, light bulb-obsessed jobsworths, creative prima donnas, and a boss with “an MBA from the Joseph Stalin School of Management,” it feels a tad dated now. But at the time, reviewers welcomed a hip new voice that had updated the epistolary novel for the modern age. In the ad industry itself, meanwhile, copywriters gnashed their teeth with envy and tried to work out who was who.
The book was a bestseller in several countries, and for a time Miller Shanks even had its own fictitious website. Beaumont, who had worked as an advertising copywriter himself, went on to write a follow-up, e Squared (2010), with text messages added to the mix.
2. Who Moved My Blackberry? by Lucy Kellaway
Though Who Moved My Blackberry? is a clear descendant of e, it is a triumphant satire of marketing and corporate nonsense in its own right. It’s largely told through the emails of fictitious marketer Martin Lukes, the sort of man who sends motivational emails to his own children, advising them, for example, to come up with “six key behaviors that will help you going forward.”
When Lukes, a character who began as the subject of a humorous weekly newspaper column, fails to land a plum new job, he engages life coach Pandora (motto: “Strive to thrive!”) and is soon engaging in heated negotiations with her over his maximum potential. (“Can we compromise and say I’m going to be 22.5 per cent better than the best I can be?”)
We follow him over the course of a calendar year in which he must deal with marital separation, professional rejection and rebirth, troubles with his children, office affairs, rebrandings and corporate cock-ups—and all of it set against the expensively nonsensical nostrums of Pandora. “Think of yourself like a colander,” she advises him. “Energy pours in, but pours out again through the holes. We need to find where those holes are, and find ways of blocking them.” Well, quite.
A kind of Bridget Jones for marketers, this is a very funny book indeed. But as with all satire there is a serious point here too, about the way in which corporate culture allows language to obscure narcissism, inauthenticity, and unpleasantness. A series of sackings are described euphemistically as “off-boarding 15 to 20 per cent of our family,” and the individuals affected are chosen by a process known as “Project Uplift.” Or as Lukes, who has little time for his wife or children or mother, observes: “There is a lot of negative baggage around the term ‘homeless.’”
3. Eleven by David Llewellyn
Eleven is set on a single day—9/11—in Cardiff. It is peopled by a cast of young office workers who spend most of their time emailing each other about anything but work—gossip, banter, the weekend’s plans, dreams of escape to London. At the center of the story is Martin Davies, a process accountant and would-be writer.
Martin’s girlfriend has left him, another woman he loves is getting married, and he can’t see how he can ever escape work because he’s deeply in debt. He is bored and frustrated and charts his quiet despair in a series of unsent emails saved in drafts. “I work so that I can have money,” he writes, “And in the days that fall between the times when I’m working, I’ll fill myself with chemicals and I’ll put on a smile and pretend to be laughing. My pretend laugh is now more realistic than my real laugh.”
Gradually, as the day unfolds, news filters through of a tragedy that has struck the United States. Against the backdrop of the horror of 9/11, our characters start to question their lives and all sorts of secrets and confessions emerge. But, despite the day’s events, the gossip and bickering and life’s immediate concerns can’t help reasserting themselves. Brilliantly paced and often very funny, Eleven’s blend of petty office politics and bloody world events makes this short book powerfully poignant.
4. The Closeness That Separates Us by Katie Hall and Bogen Jones
Ed and Lena meet at an unspecified conference in a French town that is foreign to both of them. They enjoy an evening together with a few other attendees; afterwards, they exchange email addresses. Even though their time together is brief, some sort of powerful attraction occurs, and as soon as Ed is back home, he sends Lena a message.
So begins an intense and curious correspondence, in which Ed and Lena gradually explore their feelings for each other as a strange virtual intimacy grows between them. Jokes and banter turn to confessions of desire and deeper feelings. But this growing passion is complicated by the fact that they barely know each other, live in different countries, and are already attached: Lena has a fiancé, while Ed has a wife and two children.
Most of the novel takes place in a sort of tortuous limbo where feelings and desires exist only digitally. Both writers are intense, cerebral types, and their emails are often as long as the letters in epistolary novels. Ed and Lena play a dangerous game, and each seems to be waiting for the other to make the decisive move. That both write in English, which is not either of their first language, adds to the sense of strangled erotic inertia.
At the end of the book, Ed and Lena finally meet, and the relationship is consummated—and ends in a rather convenient tragedy a few pages later. For all its intensity, it’s not always easy for readers to really believe in Ed and Lena’s passion, and the drawn-out suspense gives the book an unfortunate ponderous quality.
Author Katie Hall’s first book was a collection of poetry, Scribbling. Her co-author here is playwright Bogen Jones.
5. The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot
The Boy Next Door is just the first of a bundle of four loosely connected novels that make up the Boy series by Meg Cabot, the author of more than 50 books of romance for teens and younger readers, who is best-known for the hugely successful Princess Diaries series, which were later made into two Disney films.
The four novels in the Boy series comprise the personal communications between a group of staffers—and their families and friends—at a fictional New York City newspaper. Later installments use IM and journal entries too, but The Boy Next Door is all email.
The plot is pure rom-com. Deeply lovable if slightly eccentric Mel, thus far unlucky in love, runs into a boy next door, John, who’s looking after his aunt’s cat. The aunt is in a coma after being banged on the head by an intruder. Boy and girl hit it off; only boy turns out to be pretending to be someone else, a trendy photographer named Max. But they both love each other really, and once he’s found a way to make amends for deceiving her and she’s found a suitably comic way to take public revenge, you just know they’ll get together and maybe even solve the mystery of the aunt’s assault in the process. Oh, and though the boy is trying to make a career on his own merits, bless him, he also turns out to be a millionaire, which is nice.
The use of email between the characters inflates the dramatic ironies of the mistaken identity plot line. We also see how it helps office gossip spreads like wildfire, with various colleagues offering Mel relationship advice after every new development with John that she “confidentially” shares with her BFF. The milieu is unrealistic, the plot is utterly predictable, and the characters are glibly two-dimensional. But the whole thing is slickly done, with some enjoyable touches of spiky humor, and you can’t help rooting for Mel and John.
6. Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer
Emmi bumps into Leo on email; she’s trying to cancel a magazine subscription and contacts him by mistake. After a few brief exchanges, the pair becomes hooked on a virtual correspondence that quickly becomes more intense and intimate. As they start to share their secret desires and fears, the question of whether they will or should actually meet in person—especially as Emmi already has a husband and two adopted children—keep readers guessing all the way.
Plot-wise, there’s not much more to it than that, really. But the story keeps readers in suspense as the relationship winds through its various twists and turns and the near-meetings pile up. Leo has an ex that he’s struggling to get over, his mum dies, and he’s offered a job in Boston. Emmi sets Leo up with a good friend and then regrets it; later, an intervention from her husband sheds new light on our understanding of her family life.
Here again, email is a space for shared intimacies, an outpost for feelings and confessions that can’t be expressed elsewhere. But a book like this stands or falls on how much you invest in the growing relationship, and whether you believe in their growing attraction for each other; personally I struggled. The idea of a woman randomly connecting with a stranger on email feels a bit uncomfortable today, too.
Love Virtually was a bestseller in Germany, and its inconclusive ending paved the way for a sequel, Every Seventh Wave. Interestingly, although the book has a single author, it was translated by a husband-and-wife team, Jamie Bulloch and Katharina Bielenberg, who took respectively the male and female characters.
7. The Night Visitors by Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst
With The Night Visitors, we have moved far from the worlds of romance and office politics into the realm of the truly uncanny. The story begins when Alice Wells, a woman at the crossroads of a disappointing life, emails Orla Nelson, a distant aunt who was once famous for a decades-old book and is now trying to make a comeback. Desperate to make something of her life before it’s too late, Alice wants to write a book about Orla’s grandmother, Hattie Soak, a silent film star best known for fleeing the scene of a gruesome multiple murder.
Orla at first resists Alice’s overtures. She is tired of people digging up the old story, and adopts a cattily patronising attitude to her unknown relative, whom she dismisses as an amateur and a sensation-seeker. But her frostiness conceals infirmity and loneliness, and a series of mysterious tragedies soon turn the pair into uneasy virtual companions and amateur sleuths. The plot thickens. A film buff with a Hattie Soak obsession kills himself and his family in a car crash; Orla, whose sight is failing her, starts to see strange visions. Alice, who has visions of her own, goes to stay with the lone survivor of the crash, and finds that he, too, is behaving oddly. And what secrets are revealed when footage of Hattie’s final movie is uncovered?
We learn more about Hattie, about how both Orla and Alice had difficult childhoods, and how each has been withholding information from each other. The tension builds to a gripping and macabre climax. No more spoilers, except to say that in this very contemporary ghost story, the ghost is truly in the machine, as evil finds a way to transmit itself along wires and through the ether.
This is another email novel with co-authors. Richard V. Hirst is a journalist and author based in Manchester. Jenn Ashworth is the author of four novels, including A Kind of Intimacy, which won a Betty Trask Award in 2009.
8. Two Solitudes by Carl Steadman
Published in 1995, Two Solitudes—the title is taken from a phrase in a Rilke poem—has the distinction of being perhaps the very first email novel ever. Like many early email works, this story first appeared in performance—as a series of actual emails that were sent between two participants, with subscribers to the story cc’d on the unfolding tale. Now, despite being such a venerable digital antique, it is available only in an obscure online archive.
Both Love Virtually and The Closeness That Separates Us are inferior descendants of Two Solitudes, which is another dreamy, whimsical dialogue between two cerebral, introspective types reflecting on where their relationship is heading. But here, the exchange is far more subtle and oblique, and the overall effect far more satisfying.
Dana has to go away for a few months. She is living in her mother’s house and does some temping and some teaching. Lane waits for her. Each aches for the other, and they fill the yearning between them with stories of their daily lives: the funny office where Dana works, her shopping trips, Lane’s obese cat and his inability to control her diet. Each email concludes with a quotation, some clever, some pop-cultural, most quite obscure, that together serve as a kind of chorus, providing another indirect commentary of the eddies of the relationship.
As the emails slide by, we sense that Lane yearns more for Dana than she does for him—her evident fondness for him has a rival in her desire to be alone. The end, when it comes, has all the electronic finality of an undeliverable mail notification. This is not a story in which much happens, and yet it is beautifully written and its intimate, poetic mood stays with you long afterwards.
Carl Steadman was co-founder of Suck.com, an early satirical web magazine, and wrote several pieces of fiction influenced by the emerging Internet.
9. Blue Company by Rob Wittig
Another little-known gem from the annals of early electric literature, Blue Company is another tale that was initially told live: sent out in daily (or more) bulletins to select recipients over the course of May 2002.
It tells the story of Alberto, a sensitive copywriter working for a heartless corporate giant, who finds himself transferred with a bunch of other staff to Italy—only not modern-day Italy, but the Italy of the 14th century.
What sounds like a weak gag turns very quickly into something far more satisfying and entertaining because Wittig proves to be quite the historian, and fleshes out his medieval world with insight and wit. Food and hygiene are bad, of course, and the threat of violence is everywhere. But Wittig also gives us the post-traumatic impact of the Plague, the rise of humanism, the realpolitik of the city states, and wonderful sleights of perspective: “It still feels weird to pass by a brand new castle occupied by its original inhabitants.”
Of course there are all sorts of parallels between the medieval Italy and 2002: “Bush-the-son pursuing Bush-the-father’s personal vendetta against Iraq—That kind of shit happens all the time back here!” Alberto’s new role is not unlike his old one in marketing: “creating a fearsome field reputation for the company [of knights]—rumor mongering, essentially—so that people are (a) eager to contract us, (b) loath to fight us. It’s all about the brand!” At a party in Milan, when the smart people break out the white powder, it turns out to be that elusive Renaissance commodity, salt.
In this story, too, there is much yearning; prior to his transfer, modern-day Alberto had fallen in love with a woman and it is to her that he sends his secret bulletins via a smuggled laptop. Because there are no cameras, he sends simple but expressive ink drawings instead, which greatly add to readers’ enjoyment of the narrative.
Our lovesick troubadour relates his travails and woos his centuries-distant love as he travels with his band of fellow mercenaries (‘Blue Company’) towards Milan. In order to enter the city— and for a chance to get an autograph of his hero Petrarach—Berto et al. have to compete in a grand tournament. Later, they are caught up in a real battle (something their employer had reassured them wouldn’t happen) and are tested as never before. The whole thing is wonderfully clever, funny, and original.
Blue Company inspired another serial email novel, Kind of Blue, by digital theorist Scott Rettberg, with the same cast of characters. In this story, sanctioned by Wittig, Berto never ever actually made it to the 14th century at all, but was in fact simply “a mad sojourner trying to escape from the ruins of the 21st Century’s earliest days.”
10. Kitten on a Fatberg by Alex Woolf, Martin Jenkins, and Dan Brotzel
A very British combination of pathos and farce, Kitten on a Fatberg tells the story of a group of eccentric wannabe writers who join a critique group in their town of Crawley, England. The idea is to meet every few weeks, read out work, and share feedback. But before long, there are all sorts of complications: romantic entanglements, jealous rivalries, conspiracy theories, a whiff of scandal, and even an obsessive fan in a furry cosplay costume.
Written by three authors who are all members of the same real-life writers’ group, the characters are a smorgasbord of endearing if eccentric writer types. Keith, for example, is a sci-fi hack who’s obsessed with monetizing his work and thinks nothing of banging out 5000 words before breakfast. Keith claims to have invented a whole language for his 12-volume Dragons of Xęn”räh saga, but on closer inspection it’s really just English with funny a few extra funny symbols.
Alice is an obsessive writer who hasn’t managed to start writing yet; she’s been working on the first sentence of her novel for two years. Jon is a drug-addled hippie type with a UFO obsession; he writes deeply symbolic animal tales that people are forever misinterpreting. Peter sees himself as a “conceptual literary artist” who is always trying to push the boundaries in his stated aim to “re-present the present;” in practice, however, this mostly means just looking for new ways to spy on people. Blue writes very gloomy if rather derivative verse, Tom has an eye for the ladies, and Mavinder never actually shows up.
The self-appointed leader of the group is Julia, a part-time actress with a wealthy husband whom no one ever sees. She organizes the meetings, and tries to defuse frictions and keep everyone’s morale up. But she has quiet ambitions of her own, and when her glamorous connections help her secure a publishing deal, her true colors emerge.
The book culminates in a transcript of a farcical fly-on-the-wall documentary of a group meeting—commissioned by a TV company to promote Julia’s new book—where the group’s tensions explode in a variety of messily farcical ways. A series of appendices tell us what happened to the characters after this, and the mysteries of Alice’s fixation with her opening sentence are at last revealed.
Image: Tarun Dhiman
As much as I may rack my brain, there are 15 minutes or so in the dark that I can’t account for and that I’ll never get back—15 minutes during which, I have to think, that creep’s hands were touching my body. It’s a weird thing to think about all these years later, this weird little grain of rice in my consciousness, a scratch where the record skips. The truth is I will never know what happened, exactly. None of it will ever be resolved. He didn’t rape me, at least in part because he didn’t get the chance. He probably touched me, roamed his hands all over my body, but who’s to say? Only he could. I was passed out.
It was the fall of my senior year of college. A few days before, I’d gone to happy hour with my boyfriend and he’d dumped me shortly after the pizza arrived. I was crushed and caught off guard, and my incredibly intelligent way of responding to this was to rebound, or at least try to. The weekend came. I slid my bruised ego into the World’s Tiniest Dress and went to a party at the house of a grad-student friend of mine. I didn’t usually go to strange parties because I had my boyfriend and our tight-knit group of friends, except now I didn’t have the boyfriend and I was too embarrassed to see the friends. I left my apartment with the idea I’d do something dumb—kiss someone or something. If he heard about it later, all the better. That was the point.
When the two guys started talking to me at the party, I was drunk. Even so, some lizard part of my brain knew that when they asked me to leave with them, the right answer was nope. Drunk as I was, I could feel them watching me closely, so closely that I can still see the deep muddy brown of one’s eyes, his white-blond eyelashes. They were DJs, they said, and they were going to a late-night rave. I should come, too. They could get me in. They’d give me a ride. No thanks, I said, and stumbled off to the tiny guest room my friend had promised to me. She had this old millworker’s house. The bed was narrow with some antique, almost Dickensian frame. I remember pulling the blankets over me and staring at the wall a minute, feeling disappointed and lonely and, even before anything else happened, just incredibly ashamed of myself. Then I closed my eyes.
Flash forward, 14 years later. It’s the fall of 2017; I’m talking about #MeToo with a friend and we start coming up with a list of literary characters who, had they been real, might now be exposed as rapists, sexual harassers, workplace bullies, and/or terrible boyfriends. A dark joke, our list is long but hardly comprehensive: Humbert Humbert, Oblonsky, Mr. Rochester, Steven Rojack. Well. You’re kind of spoiled for choice.
One of the lesser-known names on the list was Patrick Standish, the main male character in Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel. In his era, of course, Amis was a near-ubiquitous man of letters who wrote novels as well as movie and restaurant reviews, poetry and criticism. He’s not nearly as widely read now, despite the New York Review of Books recently reissuing much of his catalogue. If people know Amis’s work, they tend to know his name-making first novel, 1954’s Lucky Jim, or perhaps The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. It’s a shame, because Take a Girl Like You is among his best—a great work of art, deeply moral and wonderfully realized. A lost classic.
Still, to make this argument, I’ve got to spoil it for you, and this is a novel which turns on an essential one-two punch, a lot like that Wilco song, “She’s a Jar,” that you can only hear for the first time once. It’s a funny, sometimes-rapturous love story that ends with a rape.
Jenny Bunn meets Patrick Standish. She’s a virgin and he’s a seasoned, self-aware lothario. They fall in love (“she had a sort of permanent two gin and tonics inside her” while “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid”). But Jenny still isn’t quite ready to have sex, and Patrick spends several hundred pages trying in vain to seduce her. At last, he breaks up with her at a party, telling her, “We’re finished. Even if you walked in on me naked I wouldn’t touch you.” In despair, Jenny gets super drunk and passes out in a guestroom:
It all faded away. Time went by in the same queer speedless way as before. Then Patrick was with her. He had been there for some minutes or hours when she first realized he was, and again was in bed with her without seeming to have got there. What he did was off by himself and nothing to do with her. All the same, she wanted him to stop, but her movements were all the wrong ones for that and he was kissing her too much for her to try to tell him. She thought he would stop anyway as soon as he realized how much off on his own he was. But he did not, and did not stop, so she put her arms around him and tried to be with him, only there was no way of doing it and nothing to feel. Then there was another interval, after which he told her he loved her and would never leave her now. She said she loved him too, and asked him if it had been nice. He said it had been wonderful, and went on to talk about France.
Their host comes into the room, realizes what Patrick has done, and kicks him out of the house. So maybe it’s perverse, but I feel as though I am in a kind of catbird seat for understanding all this, though it’s true I never bobbed up to consciousness like Jenny Bunn did. In my case, I just woke up the next morning, with no interval of awareness. I helped my friend clean up, drank a cup of coffee, drove home. I didn’t know anything before four o’clock that afternoon, when she called me and told me she’d thought it over. If it had happened to her, she’d decided, she’d want to know. One of those guys got in bed with you, she told me. He’d taken off his pants but didn’t seem to have an erection. He’d only been in there a few minutes. He hadn’t had time to do anything. Anyway, she’d kicked him out of the house. I thanked her for doing that and hung up the phone. I was sitting on my bedroom floor by this point, because my legs had given out for the first time in my life.
On the surface, Take a Girl Like You is a sex comedy, and tellingly, not every contemporary critic believed Jenny’s experience to be rape. In Postwar British Fiction, published in 1962, James Gindin describes the novel’s conclusion this way: “Jenny loses her virginity, but not as a result of moral or immoral suasion; Patrick tricks her into capitulation while drunk” (a view Merritt Moseley would decry in 1993). The 1970 movie adaptation, starring Hayley Mills as Jenny Bunn, portrayed the story as a kind of sexual slapstick, changing the ending so that Jenny chooses to sleep with another character. Then Patrick chases Jenny down a road in what’s meant to be a madcap scene. Cue a breezy theme song by The Foundations, roll credits.
But Kingsley Amis knew that what happens to Jenny is terribly wrong, though the word “rape” is not used, even by Jenny herself. The next morning, she wakes up puking, hungover:
Jenny decided reading would be too much for her. She smoked a cigarette until her insides felt as if they were getting as far away from the middle of her as they could. Then she put it out. But even with that big hollow in her interior she was recovering enough to start getting the first edge of thought. For it to have gone like that, almost without her noticing. At that she rebuked herself, sitting up straight in her chair. What was so special about her that it should have happened the way she imagined it, alone with a man in a country cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery, with the owls suddenly waking her up in the early hours and him putting his arms around her and soothing her, and then in the morning the birds singing and the horses neighing, and her frying eggs and bacon and spreading a wholemeal loaf with thick farm butter? A lot of sentimental rubbish, that was—she would be asking for roses and violins next. Much better be sensible, think herself lucky it had not gone for her as it did for some, sordid and frightening and painful and with someone you hated or hardly knew. That was happening every day.
That’s the crux of the novel, its turning from comic to tragic. Jenny deserves better and she doesn’t get it. In fact she is almost pathetically grateful that she has had it no worse. As light as Amis’s touch is here—Take a Girl Like You is not political, not a polemic—you can’t mistake his grief and revulsion. Amis would later describe Patrick Standish as the worst person he’d ever written about, and this when he made a career of writing about unpleasant people, including Roger Micheldene, the hideous antihero of 1963’s One Fat Englishman. Amis knew he wasn’t writing about any straightforward “capitulation.”
Take a Girl Like You is often compared with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but I say the better foil is Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the subtle, below-surface moral weight of the novel is with the victim—all of it springing from her loss and victimization. The Lolita comparison is, yes, a little ironic because Amis hated Lolita and hated Nabokov. Still, there’s a central likeness. Nabokov did not intend that we should fall for Humbert Humbert’s artsy, tortured rationalization of rape; Amis didn’t intend that Patrick Standish be taken for a sympathetic hero, either. Patrick is charming and funny and fun, even erudite, and he’s also a complete asshole. (As well as raping Jenny, Patrick sleeps with his boss’s 17-year-old daughter.)
You could even argue that Take a Girl Like You is in some senses a subtler and certainly a more realistic portrayal of rape because Jenny is not eye-poppingly young, and there’s no continuous, hysterical fireworks of justification. Amis gives both Jenny’s and Patrick’s perspectives in alternating sections, and Jenny’s experience is as deftly handled as it is, in part, familiar. I read the novel swearing under my breath. Kingsley Amis nailed it.
The natural next question is, how’d he do that? In his lifetime, most especially in his later career, Amis was notorious for his misogyny. As the biographies reveal, he was himself a prolific womanizer who sometimes felt guilty about it and often wrote about that guilt, not least of all in Take a Girl Like You. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being a sexist, repentant or otherwise. The evidence is mixed; you can neither dismiss him as a misogynist nor declare his misogyny merely supposed and perceived, as Paul Fussell did in his 1994 book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. To hear Fussell tell it, Amis is merely “tired of the automatic imputation of virtue and sensitivity to the female character … Women, Amis knows, can be fully wicked as men. They can lie and cheat and destroy with the best of them.” That’s true and yet not the whole picture. In some of the novels, the women do nothing but lie, cheat and destroy while the men struggle vainly to run the world in spite of this ongoing assault. Is that still satire?
It is, in the case of 1978’s Jake’s Thing, where the crazy women are leavened out with pathetic women and no character, the men included, is in any sense to be admired. You can’t miss the comic brio of its penultimate paragraph:
Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him.
But 1984’s Stanley and the Women is a bridge too far. There’s just one minor female character who isn’t a complete emotional monster, while every male character is sympathetic. Here the satire, if it still is satire, is as sour, unrelieved, and unrelenting as anything Amis ever wrote. In the U.S., several publishers turned down the book because the women on their boards objected. There’s a nadir in the poetry, too, though the 1987 poem that begins “Women and queers and children / cry when things go wrong” went unpublished and unfinished. In his excellent The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader described the poem as “calculated to cause the maximum possible offense.” (I’d add, without glee, that it’s also a bit rich coming from Amis, who had a paralyzing fear of the dark and couldn’t be left alone.)
Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t separate art from artist here because the offense is the whole point. Still, that convention—holding out the work from the person who made it—is flimsy to begin with. It presents a false choice. In the end, we don’t really get to choose between great works and flawed people. We get both. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of H.L. Mencken: “He had very grievous moral and intellectual shortcomings and even deformities … But any reductionist analysis of Mencken runs the risk of ignoring a fine mind that engaged itself in some high duties.”
It’s an uneasy position for this Amis fan. But what’s the alternative, not reading him at all? I love his work. Even in the minor novels, the ones that don’t quite come off, there’s always, always the intelligence, the bite in the closely observed details and those trademark Amis sentences that are wonderfully precise and yet never pretentious, never overwrought. My copies of his books are dog-eared and misshapen from repeated drops in the bath. I’m always in some stage of rereading The Old Devils, and I keep multiple copies of 1990’s The Folks That Live on the Hill because I’m always pushing it on friends. About the time I was at risk of rape at that party in 2003, I was working my way through everything Amis ever wrote, because my college library had every title. I have never encountered that happy condition since, and it almost makes me wish I’d never left school. Maybe you’re not supposed to have a favorite writer—maybe he shouldn’t be my favorite writer—but Kingsley Amis is my favorite writer.
That Amis remains a complex figure is fitting, full stop. There remains something akin to the “problem from hell” that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s work. In the case of Amis senior, it is not a recurring preoccupation with the “despoiliation of very young girls”; it’s a recurring, vigorous anti-woman streak that does not at all preclude him from seeing what women sometimes suffer at the hands of men. In 1969’s The Green Man, for instance, the narrator labors to banish the ghost of a long-ago rapist. And Amis’s 1976 alternate-world novel The Alteration, as William Gibson has written, “depicts the oppression of patriarchy, given full reign by theocracy, as thoroughly as any novel prior to, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”
To dismiss Amis as a misogynist would be an attempt to resolve the sort of frustrated justice he himself depicted over and over again. Great works, flawed people. The facts do not really compute.
I never saw that guy, the one who got in bed with me, ever again. I got up off the floor and moved on with my life because it did not occur to me that there was a choice. I did not consider calling the police, not for a second. I was too embarrassed as it was, and in my gut I know that if I had been raped that night, I wouldn’t have reported it. Imagine saying to the police: I’d just been dumped. I was very drunk. I was wearing this napkin of a dress. I don’t remember it. Dear God. Even now. I didn’t even say #MeToo last fall when the hashtag was trending because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. Also because I didn’t think of it as anything special. Also because it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. The breakup hurt me much worse, and for longer. For me, “trauma” doesn’t seem like the right word; whatever happened to me that night I just took as part of the fabric of experience. Why make a fuss, and open myself to judgement and blame? Wouldn’t I have to be a purer victim for it be really wrong in the eyes of our culture?
This points to the ultimate triumph of Amis’s Jenny—his sense of the full scope of her predicament. Jenny not only moves on with her life; she makes up with Patrick. In the last lines of the novel, Patrick says, “It was inevitable,” and Jenny responds, “Oh yes, I expect it was. But I can’t help feeling it’s rather a pity.” In the sequel, 1988’s Difficulties with Girls, Jenny and Patrick are married, have been married eight years as the novel begins. The rape has receded from view, becoming just another part of the knit of Jenny’s experience, and in this way, I’m convinced, Amis brings our dilemma into focus as few other novelists ever have.
The question that #MeToo is answering is, in part: What do we do with these experiences? How do we describe them and how do we integrate them into our lives, and why have we tried to integrate them? How have we been encouraged to erase them? Shouldn’t we hold them apart? What exact behavior becomes legible here, and who benefits when we keep our mouths shut? Almost 70 years after Take a Girl Like You, we’re having that public conversation. Amis was there in 1960. Rereading it and the rest of his catalogue over the last couple of months, I’ve come to see again the particular wingspan of his accomplishments as a writer. The range of the novels, the humor and precision in the poems. All that lively, fun, cutting intellectual energy put to such wonderful use—most of the time. If we’re left with irreducible ambiguities (and indefensible shit like “women and queers and children”), well, at least we get the art, too.
As Amis knew, misogyny and rape don’t take place at some great remove from art and life. They’re part of an ambient hum that drifts in and out of our consciousness, moving from background to foreground and back again. Then as now, that’s the awful problem.
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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I read a lot of headlines about the Sony data hack before I mustered the interest to read anything else about it. There are so many things to click, and the headlines seemed to concern only empyrean Hollywood types, and I am on maternity leave and partially brain-dead. Someone was racist, a woman made less money than a man, something about Angelina Jolie. But eventually the headlines became so relentless that I finally clicked, like an old bloodhound heaving her bulk from the porch and loping off in the direction of a rumpus. I began with one exchange of emails between Sony bigwigs Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal and was immediately so enthralled that I went hunting for others that had been published on the various news sites.
Last year I was sent a copy of the highly experimental Nanni Balestrini work Tristano, the result of a machine randomly shuffling 10 different chapters of an already experimental 1966 novel to create eerie nothings like this:
A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.
I found Balestrini’s novel alien and repugnant because I am wedded to more traditional narratives; for me all intention and meaning had been stripped from its words by virtue of its reshuffling. But Pascal and Rudin’s emails, which are basically incomprehensible to anyone outside of their industry, are somehow more compelling by virtue of their incomprehensibility, Amy Pascal’s sibylline utterances full of a surprising sort of illiterate pathos and mystery:
I would do this for you
You should do this
Miranda July capitalized on the seductive nature of other people’s mail in the summer of 2013 with “We Think Alone,” an art project whereby people could sign up to receive forwarded emails from celebrities’ inboxes. This was an inspired choice; snooping around people’s emails hits pleasure centers arguably more primal than those tapped by schlepping to a museum, paying $25, and getting a headache after 30 minutes looking at a pile of cat food cans welded together. And while for some people it’s the snooping itself that makes other people’s mail interesting, readers with qualms about privacy could feel secure in knowing that the celebrities themselves had provided access. (N.B: while personal correspondence should be off-limits unless the recipients have consented or are dead, I feel okay about quoting from the Sony leak, and the Wikileaks emails below, because they are ostensibly corporate records, and not personal ones.)
Some commentators observed that Miranda July’s curated emails did not reveal anything particularly titillating about these celebrities (among them Kirsten Dunst and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), but I found the voice of their communiques as compelling as the things disclosed therein. Note the lilting, seemingly non-native English of Kirsten Dunst’s email here:
I also have some great experiences from yesterday as I was in a photo shoot for Bulgari, and there were so many elements and people. I have very strong Ideas to talk about.
I’ll do the second assignment tomorrow, I have a night flight to Boston and it’s hard for me to get in a comfortable place in sleep to dream.
If Kirsten Dunst’s email selections revealed that there is a level of fame at which you don’t really need to worry about what you sound like, to the extent that you are willing to forward your strange musings to thousands of strangers, Pascal and Rubin’s emails indicated that the more money and prestige are attached to your job, the more your professional correspondence is likely to be composed and punctuated like a comment on a Huffington Post article. But more importantly, they show a mode of communicating that has been molded by the melodramatic conventions of the very industry that produced it, plaintive lines like “Don’t pretend all thoes things didn’t happen cuz it makes me feel like I’m going crazy” or “Why are u punishing me”; admonitions like “You’re involving yourself in this massive ad pointless drama that is beneath you”; or the more ominous “You’re about to cross a line that won’t get uncrossed after you do it.”
In 2012, Wikileaks published millions of emails harvested from Stratfor, a global intelligence research firm in Texas. Wikileaks and the news media were interested in these emails for their geopolitical implications, but they also represent a veritable cornucopia of narrative pleasures, all the more delectable because they are strange and secret and real. They likewise reflect a very particular professional sensibility, sometimes self-conscious, often comic, and full of bravado. Even a fractional survey of the emails’ subject lines is evocative: “Fucking Tajikistan;” “Fucking Europe;” “Fucking Russian Defense Guys;” “Fucking Abottabad;” “fucking Mubarak;” “fucking guatemalans;” “fucking Belgium;” “fucking kangaroos;” “fucking hipsters;” “what a fucking shit show;” “Get ready to be hit in the fucking face with a fist full of friendship;” or the succinct command, “pay the fucking utility bill.”
There is no way that a person could read all of them, and random clicking might yield all sorts of tantalizing fragments, à la Balestrini by way of Graham Greene:
I mean look, I never said that the fact these camels/horses came from tourists
meant it wasn’t organized, right. I was just saying that the horses/camels
don’t mean anything in of themselves. There are horses/camels near the
city and in considerable numbers.
These are corporate records, but they are also full of human currents, intimations of complex, even tender relationships:
Reading this, I get the sense that you, in some sense, fear and crave
change at the same time. You find beauty in the concept of change, but to
a limit. You fall back to the comforts of familiarity, the languid
The joy of reading other people’s mail is a well-known, well-documented phenomenon. Anyone who has spent time in an archive has found themselves wandering through the hedge maze of correspondence, which can lead either to fruitful new projects or simply leave the reader floundering in some voyeur’s backwater, pointlessly obsessing over the sheer novelty of the way that people communicate with one another. We have epistolary novels, of course — themselves a product of human interest in other people’s mail and the narrative possibilities thereof. No sooner had the novel been invented than it had been given the epistolary treatment, in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa.
Contemporary novels use correspondence not only to drive a story, but to attempt the herculean work of capturing the spirit of an age — past, present, or future. Some of these are convincing — better, even, than reality — like A.S. Byatt’s divine Possession, built around an amazing fabricated correspondence that works to make the novel simultaneously a mystery, love story, and postmodern work of criticism. Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story constructs a textual future English patois, told through the “Globalteen” messaging accounts of two young women. But these and other wonderful novels that have successfully used the epistolary format cannot scratch the very specific itch of the leaked email, the archived letter. As Shteyngart’s sad sack anti-hero Lenny Abramov writes in his diary, describing his new electronic device: “I’m learning to worship my new äppärät’s screen…the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.” There is a fundamental inauthenticity to the epistolary novel; we cannot forget that it sprang from the mind of its author.
The ludicrous Tumblr, “Texts from Bennett”, which purports to be the SMS record of a Midwestern white boy with delusions of hood status, seems cognizant of the disappointment that undergirds epistolary works of art, guaranteeing in its header that it is “100% Real.” It’s not real, though, and its offerings are ultimately unconvincing, a collection of zany, “urban”-inflected bon mots:
like I said I luv anamels alot 2. i used to rescue rockwilders im one of da highest paid members of PITA.
If “Texts from Bennett” is obviously fake, it is grasping at the heart of leaked mail’s allure. The Tumblr was so popular that it was in fact turned into a novel, one with a surprising number of positive reader reviews, many of which expressed sentiments along these lines: “We all know an incredibly white person who attempts to act as ghetto as possible, but Mac Lethal knows whats up with Texts From Bennett.” (Reading Amazon reader reviews, like Internet comments, comes close to scratching the epistolary itch. Reading comments can be irresistible, not for the opportunity to wallow in outrage about the ignorance or malevolence of your fellow clicking public, or not only that, at any rate — it’s that intimate glimpse at the way people communicate, the things that they say and the ways that they say them. There is nothing like a YouTube comment for revealing our humanity in all its forms.)
Most correspondence we have the opportunity to read is of the highest caliber, composed by great minds and published (perhaps even written, at some level) for the public’s edification. So we have the letters of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rilke, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Deborah Devonshire née Mitford. These are gorgeous pieces of writing, but they assume an unrealness by virtue of the genius of their authors; they are artifacts of an age and class for which correspondence was understood as an art form. I remember the surprise, the electric thrill, of reading, at of one of my many past part-time archival jobs, a letter written by a regular enlisted man in World War I. Far from the texts of my college Modernism curriculum — the majesty of the war poets, the self-conscious zip of BLAST or the raffish style of the Wipers Times — the letter was rife with misspellings and homey sentiment, the product of a semi-literate young man sending a short and melancholy message home to his mother. I had never thought about what a normal person might sound like during that era. There can be great style and meaning in unstylishness, “Texts from Bennett” notwithstanding. (The Telegraph published a batch of WWI letters written in a similar vein: “I am very sorry for what I done when I was at home and will pay you back when I get some more pay.”)
We are awash in narrative these days. We are in a golden age of television, where highly polished narratives are whipped up by streaming video companies, tailored to our mined preferences, and basically guaranteed to be addictive. Even our news gets a narrative now: something happens — like the Sony leaks, for example — and we have not only the text, but the meta-text, the commentary on ethics and implications. We have lovingly and expensively produced radio plays based on real-life murder cases, and rounds and rounds of narrative about whether they are bad or good and what they say about our culture. Forget the forest/trees taxonomy; we are so spoiled for narrative that we have multiple forest visualizations — time, space, temperature.
Readers and writers, I think, are particularly susceptible to the narrative delights of real correspondence, which will always exceed the limits of any one novel’s philosophy. A building of Paris’ Palais de Chaillot is inscribed with a verse of Paul Valéry:
It depends on those who pass
Whether I am a tomb or treasure
Whether I speak or am silent
The choice is yours alone.
Friend, do not enter without desire.
Archives are a public good, but they are predicated on this desire. In one sense, my interest in the recent leaked emails is narrative hunger taken to its most pathological reach. Rather than lament the implications of the Sony emails (that insanely rich and powerful white people are still a bunch of crummy racists; that people spend millions of dollars to make shitty movies while the world burns) or the grim findings of Wikileaks (that there is a revolving door between the government, business, and security sectors), I treat these documents as another avenue for narrative desire. But there’s nothing like the magic of an authentic human document. We are surfeited on the “what” of the narrative. Leaked emails give us that rare and precious thing, the “how.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Jason Rogers
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
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.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it.
I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers — idle hands, etc. — but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader — it is the basis for his process of composition.
A précis of Shandy is more or less impossible, and tempts Shandean distractions of its own. Nonetheless: the title character wishes to write his memoirs. (The why is unclear, though an encyclopedic impulse runs in the family — Shandy senior has written tracts on the naming of children; pseudo-Descartian meditations on the pineal gland; a discourse on the importance of proper balance between “radical heat and radical moisture” in the human animal — you get the idea.) Along the way, everything goes wrong, both in the writing and the living. A mis-wound clock distracts his parents at the moment of his conception; a scullery maid’s malapropism results in his absurd, medieval first name; the memoirist himself becomes so distracted that he does not emerge from the womb until the novel is one-third done. Sterne writes a chapter on buttons; he writes a chapter on knots. Many of the chapters are shorter than a page. The author’s preface arrives in chapter 20 of the third volume. The novel’s most endearing character — besides the garrulous autobiographer himself — is Uncle Toby, a veteran of the French wars who returns with an embarrassing wound to his groin and, post-convalescence, spends his days in the backyard building scale models of various theaters of battle, the better to relive his glory days. Transitions between high, anarchic comedy and sustained passages of sentiment can be sudden and vertiginous. Shandy is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash; Shandy falls in love with a “nut-brown maid” in France; a heartstring-yanking obituary for a jolly priest named Yorick is followed by a wordless, all-black page; an inveterate bore named Phutatorius (Latin for “Fucker”) has the misfortune to catch a burning chestnut in his breeches. (Genitalia in general do not fare well in this book.) And an alleged act of bestiality leads to the iconic final words of the novel:
‘L–d!’ said my mother, ‘what is all this story about?’ —-
‘A COCK and a BULL,’ said Yorick —- ‘And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.’
I could go on, but that’s the point — Shandy’s project is telescopically expandable, as he notes with less anxiety than glee: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” Days are more easily lived than written, at least with the narrator’s level of detail and errant whimsicality: “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good.” Hamlet saturates certain volumes of Shandy, the Dane’s inability to take action here spun into a structural literary motif: the fullness, absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of life outpace man’s ability to take stock of them — and man, in turn, responds by dragging his feet, gazing at his navel, and losing focus whenever a new and shiny object is presented to him.
Let’s not mince words: this is all deeply silly. And that, of course, is the point. On trial in Shandy are the masturbatory elements of scholarship; distractible humans and their whimsical hobbies; the proliferating literary phenomenon of “biographical freebooters”; and self-involved males who can argue (with a Voltairean antilogic) finer points of causality while, upstairs, poor Mrs. Shandy lies in excruciating, protracted labor. Few novels — even few early novels — have less believability in them. And yet Shandy, in all its digressive, distracted, ADD glory, captures something of life that narratives of linear focus rarely can.
The characters who labored in service to the early novel — the fictional memoirists of Defoe, the virtuous letter-writers of Richardson — told tales semi-intended to be taken as true, and which sometimes were: after the massive success of Gulliver’s Travels, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift, “Gulliver is in every body’s hands…I lent the book to an old Gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.” The idea of readerly enjoyment was a vicarious identification with characters we might, in an idle moment, fancy to be real. (Richardson coyly dubbed himself the mere “editor” of Clarissa; Fielding, in proto-Sternean mockery of Richardson, insisted on Tom Jones as a “history.”) Sterne took this early and enduring premise of fiction and extended it to its illogical conclusion: a book that seeks to mimic “reality” will, in fact, smack of distraction and madness.
When people talk about Shandy nowadays, it is in the context of the postmoderns. In the inventive and charming 2006 film, Steve Coogan intones: “Shandy was a postmodern classic before there was a modernism to be post about.”
Sterne indeed anticipated many of the tics and preoccupations that came to define (and oversimplify) postmodernism as inherently “self-conscious.” A text is a text, and there is an author behind it, whatever Roland Barthes may say, and somewhere in the 20th century the dominant premise of fiction — the suspension of disbelief, of our knowledge that these characters aren’t real — was no longer enough. The Wizard had to emerge from behind the curtain; metacritical comment became de rigueur. Books of fiction had to declare as such, and to remark, speciously or otherwise, on the process of their own composition.
What is lacking in the more paranoid of the postmoderns is a Shandean sense of textual play as total entertainment. Did Sterne agonize over the “constructed” nature of his opus? No; he reveled in it. His footnotes were not self-lacerating interrogations of the potential dishonesty of the enterprise — they were postscript punchlines to jokes that already had you splitting your sides and getting weird looks in terminal D at O’Hare. The book is a total funhouse, full of toys, surprises, and regressive loops. Volume IX leaves two chapters totally blank, where the author sees fit to introduce the events of chapter 25 before returning to numbers 18 and 19. In lieu of describing the toothsome Widow Wadman in Volume VI, Sterne allows you an empty page on which to draw your conception of the perfect woman: “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—-as like your mistress as you can—-as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you–’tis all one to me.”
‘Tis all one to us, as well. Sterne invites us to skip passages that bore, forget passages that displease, to hop and jump between chapters, and to reimagine scenes to our own liking. In elevating to muse-status his own fickle fancy, Sterne indulges ours, creating a book that is less a novel than the longest sustained joke in the English language.
And yes, it is long. But here’s the secret: you don’t really need to finish it to get the joke. Just follow the big F, if you prefer — you’ll miss the climax between Toby and the Widow, but so did Coogan et al. in the film. (There was just a lot happening on the set, see, and they got distracted.) Information overload is not a new phenomenon — it’s sort of just part of being alive. Our current objects of distraction may be somewhat newer and shinier, and fewer of us read Latin and French, but the Shandean truths abide. If Sterne can teach us anything, it is to enjoy the flightiness of our mortal minds — not to lament, but to laugh.
In the house where I grew up, the child of English teachers, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre connoted “classiness” in at least two senses. On one hand, its filmed adaptations of classic novels added a touch of literary refinement (and sometimes even of eat-your-vegetables self-improvement) to a television schedule larded with junk food. On the other, it offered a place for us churchmice to indulge our fascination with “class” in the baser sense: idle wealth and posh intrigues and butlers who ring for tea at three.
In America, I’ve lately come to feel, this latter is the love that dare not speak its name. We’re a nation whose hereditary upper class keeps insisting there’s no such thing (see gubernatorial scion and presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tweets from Carl’s Jr.), and where even the concept of “class” is dismissed as taboo (see the suggestion, ibid., that income inequality is something best talked about “in quiet rooms”). But Masterpiece, safely couched in the past, and usually overseas, remains one of the public venues where the upper crust, albeit fictional, can exercise their privilege without scruple, and where the rest of us can go to gawk. Those houses! Those costumes! Those accents! (In this light, The Forsyte Saga, which launched the series 41 years ago, appears almost proto-Kardashian.)
The current Masterpiece feature, Downton Abbey, mashes both class buttons hard. In the economic sense, it centers on the Earl of Grantham and his fabulously wealthy family, and on the eighty-eleven-dozen servants who attend to their every whim. On the cultural front, it offers a whiz-bang pastiche of three centuries of English literature. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is a venerable type: part Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, part Thackeray’s Miss Crawley, part Dickens’, Aunt Betsey Trotwood (likewise played by Smith in a Masterpiece adaptation)…maybe with a touch of Professor McGonagall thrown in to keep things lively. Carson the Butler surely owes some of his imperturbability to Wodehouse’s Reginald Jeeves. The central romance, between the earl’s eldest daughter and her cousin Matthew, hews closely to the Jane Austen playbook (though, two episodes into Season 2, it’s still not clear who’s Elizabeth and who’s Mr. Darcy). And Downton Abbey, the titular estate, is like a mash-up of Brideshead and Wuthering Heights.
I doubt any of this is accidental. Downton Abbey’s creator, Julian Fellowes, has adapted Twain and Thackeray for screens large and small, and has gone so far as to nick the Crawley surname for his own aristocrats. Nor is his erudition limited to English-language literature; this is the kind of show where, when a Turkish character appears, his name is an amalgam of two of the greatest living Turkish novelists: Kemal Pamuk. (I’m still waiting for the American character named Melville von Updike.)
Needless to say, Downton Abbey is also serious fun; it’s become a surprise successor to Friday Night Lights and Mad Men as TV’s current “must-watch” show. But when, in the dead days between finishing Season 1 on DVD and waiting for the premiere of Season 2, I rummaged through my Brit-Lit shelf looking for some upstairs-downstairs action to sustain me, I was shocked by how little of the actual aristocracy I found.
It turns out that my sense of the “classiness” of the English novel is like my sense of the monolithic “classiness” of English elocution — that I suffer from a kind of cognitive foreshortening, wherein important distinctions disappear. In fact, what the English novel is overwhelmingly about, in class terms, is not the hereditary nobility but the middle classes: the downwardly mobile landowners, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie.
Granted, the English class terminology is hopelessly confusing (sort of the way over there “public school” means private school.) But consider the seminal novels of the 1700s. Richardson’s Clarissa may moon around a swell house, but she hails from a family of arrivistes. And though Fielding’s Tom Jones lives with Squire Allworthy — a member of the landed gentry, if I’ve got my terminology correct — he does so as “a foundling.”
Then there’s the 19th century. Mr. Darcy, with his £10,000 income, could probably give Allworthy a literal run for his money, but his Pemberley estate is more the Maguffin in Pride & Prejudice than its setting; Jane Austen’s eye keeps returning to the raffish Bennets. Or take the Bröntes. We experience the grandeur of Rochester’s Thornfield Hall only through the eyes of Jane Eyre, the governess. Class roles are more fluid in Wuthering Heights, but between Heathcliff and Catherine, one is always on the way up and the other on the way down. Even Thackeray’s Crawleys, with their titles, are really supporting characters. The main attractions in Vanity Fair are the upper-middle-class Amelia Sedley and the scheming Becky Sharp. And perhaps the very greatest of the 19th-century English novels, Middlemarch, declares its allegiances right there in the title.
It’s possible to account for the English canon’s emphasis on the middle purely as a matter of dramatic interest. Unlike earls and princes and duchesses, the gentry and the striving bourgeoisie are people with places to go, with something to gain…and to lose. Still, compare the English novel of this period with the Russian — all those counts! — or with Proust’s elaborate explication of the Guermantes line, and you remember that aristocrats have plenty to lose, too, starting with reputation. (Indeed, questions of reputation animate some of Downton Abbey’s key plotlines.) And surely readerly interest in lifestyles of the rich and fabulous isn’t a new phenomenon. In fact, I suspect that the overlay of aristocratic intrigue in a novel like Vanity Fair is an attempt to satisfy it.
But the rise of the English novel parallels historically the rise of the middle classes; these are the classes from which most of the great novelists hailed, and to whose upper reaches their profession would have limited them. Dickens, one of Karl Marx’s favorite writers, offers the archetype of Victorian social cartography. Sure, you’ve got your Lord and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, but more often the aristocrats resemble the generic Oodle and Boodle and Noodle, who in Little Dorrit form a kind of choral backdrop to a foreground of slums and inventors’ workshops and banks and debtors’ prisons.
To really get your fill of the aristocracy in between visits to Downton, you might look to the second tier of the 19th-century canon. There’s Eliot’s brilliant but flawed Daniel Deronda; there are Trollope’s Palliser novels and some of the Barsetshire ones. (There are also glimmerings of nobility throughout the top-shelf corpus of that American interloper, Henry James.)
Or, interestingly, you could just move on to the 20th century, in whose early years Downton Abbey is set. For here and only here, with the aristocracy in decline, does it move to the center of the English novel. (I guess you don’t really miss something until it’s gone.) Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End are palpably influences on Downton Abbey. In each, a sense of nostalgia for the days of real privilege hang heavy; in each the shifting sands under the aristocracy’s castles are viewed through the prism of war. Portions of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music Of Time likewise concern the titled classes. I’ve not read At Lady Molly’s, but I might well be forced to turn to it a couple of months from now, when I’m once again going through Downton Withdrawal. Perhaps the single most Downton-y book I know of — I’d be shocked if Mr. Fellowes (er…Sir Julian) hadn’t read it — is Henry Green’s miraculous short novel Loving, from 1945. Green’s beautifully impacted idiom is short on exposition, and when I picked up Loving a few weeks ago, I found it enriched by the hours I’d spent in Fellowes’ world. That is, I suddenly understood the difference between a head housemaid and a lady’s maid.
The two most astute novelists of class currently working in England, I think, are Edward St. Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. St. Aubyn hails from the social stratosphere himself, and the terrific first three novels in his Patrick Melrose cycle — Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope — detail what’s happened to the Granthams of the world three or four generations on from Downton. Spoiler alert: the titles and the dough still linger, but the culture has moved on, leaving in its wake terrible boredom and worse behavior. Hollinghurst’s finest novel, The Line of Beauty, can’t properly be said to center on the aristocracy, but retains some of Waugh’s nostalgia (and much of the flavor of mid-to-late period James). Who has replaced the hereditary nobility, at the top of Margaret Thatcher’s England? Callow politicians and oil millionaires. Still, like a title and a castle, parliamentary clout and petro-pounds are not available to everyone, and so our protagonist, Nick Guest, occupies a familiar position: nose pressed to the glass.
In the end, this is the secret to Downton Abbey’s success, as well. The glamour of the earldom draws us in, but it’s the vividly realized characters who surround it — especially the servants below-stairs — that hold it in perspective, and so give it life. We live now in the Age of Austerity, and as a sometime practitioner of what Romney has called “the bitter politics of envy,” I feel a little weird being enthralled with this show. But then I look at what else my poor TV has to offer, and I find myself murmuring, Burgundy-style, “Stay classy, Downton!”
It is the summer of 1970, a “hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer,” and Keith Nearing—twenty-year-old University-of-London-student (English Literature), occupying “that much disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven”—takes up residence in an Italian castle, accompanied by his girlfriend Lily—“5’5”, 34-25-34,” also a fellow student (law), on-again after a brief but fraught respite initiated by Lily’s desire to “act like a boy”—and Lily’s best friend, the nobly-born and enticingly-named Scheherazade—“5’10”, 37-23-33,” only very recently transformed from an unremarkable, bespectacled do-gooder into a swan-necked, amply-bosomed goddess. And because vital statistics, as Keith well knows, are destiny, his own fate seems already determined: he will feel bound to Lily, bound by gratitude and compatibility and history; he will desire Scheherazade, desire her madly, greedily, recklessly.
This is the basic premise of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow, and it is a simple premise really: a love triangle powered by youthful lust and a suitably exotic locale. Then again, maybe not so simple, for Keith is, of course, “a K in a castle,” which lends the proceedings an air of ominous possibility. And there is the matter too of the time, the historical context, the summer of 1970, portentous beginning of the Age of Narcissus, the self-reflective, self-absorbed, seemingly endless “All and Now” follow-up to the Age of Aquarius, whose tentative stirrings have given way to full-on revolution. (You know how sexual intercourse began in 1963, sometime around the release of The Beatles’ first LP? Well, by the time we get to our castle in Montale, The Beatles have broken up.) And revolutions, well, revolutions are…complicated, cutting a swath of collateral damage, and The Pregnant Widow—subtitle: “Inside History”—chronicles the sublime chasm between world orders new and old, the “long night of chaos and desolation” that must pass “between the death of the one and the birth of the other.” (This vision of destruction comes courtesy of the philosopher Alexander Herzen, whose observation that “the departing world leaves behind it, not an heir, but a pregnant widow” also lends the novel its title.)
Here then are the clauses of the Revolutionary Manifesto, as documented after-the-fact (though the bulk of the book focuses on the crucial summer, the narrative reaches into the present-day):
“There will be sex before marriage.”
“Women, also, have carnal appetites.”
“Surface will start tending to supersede essence.”
Sex will be separated from feeling, much like feeling was long ago detached from thought, and sex will also be separated from thought.
How Keith will navigate the new normal, find his footing on terrain much longed for but little understood, furnishes the narrative’s true interest. This is not so say that The Pregnant Widow is preoccupied with Big Ideas at the expense of development and action; there is, in fact, much by way of plot.
The castle—property of Scheherazade’s thirty-year-old uncle, Jorquil (“it was that kind of family”)—is equipped with wings and turrets and a pool, where the newly beautiful, newly liberated Scheherazade sunbathes topless and learns to love her own reflection, but it quickly grows crowded. As the summer gets underway, Keith, Lily, and Scheherazade are intermittently joined by Whitaker and Amen, an older English expat and his eighteen-year-old Libyan boyfriend; by the Scheherazade-admiring Adriano, a dashing aristocrat, who also happens to be 4’10”; by the Dakotan divorcee Prentiss, who has in tow her recently adopted twelve-year-old Mexican daughter, Conchita, and her grossly obese helpmate, Dodo; by the Sphinx-like Gloria Beautyman—“5’5”, 33-22-37”— whose riddle is concealed behind a body joining a dancer’s upper half with a bottom that earns her the nickname “Junglebum;” by Timmy, Scheherazade’s erstwhile boyfriend, returning from a stint in Jerusalem, where he had gone to convert the Jews; by Rita, known as “the Dog” (because “she reminds you of a dog”), a proud warrior of the Sexual Revolution. These interlopers lend the novel a Dickensian texture, an impression further abetted by their tendency towards resonant if improbable names (though this is of course also quite consistent with Amis’s typical style) and memorable quirks. They take in the sights and the swimming, the splendid dinners and the lovely grounds, and, in return, they full-heartedly immerse themselves in castle life, sometimes aiding, sometimes impeding Keith’s schemes to seduce Scheherazade without hurting the suspicious Lily.
Will Keith succeed? Perhaps the more pertinent question is, will Keith survive? Will Keith—literally the orphaned son of a pregnant widow, his father having died in a car accident on his way to the hospital, his bereaved mother quickly following in childbirth—emerge intact, integrated in thought and feeling? Will he master and navigate and accept the new ideology, the new world order his moment in history makes him heir to? Armed with nothing more than the English literary canon, Keith at first seems to stand little chance. Clarissa, he surmises, is boring, with its “one fuck in two thousand pages,” its heroine who must die of shame. But Keith’s reading and Keith’s experiences finally prove that revolutions in sex, like revolutions in literature, change only the surface, the wording, not the import, and though The Pregnant Widow could never be confused for, say, an Austen novel, there is something old-fashioned about it. Perhaps it is its sincerity, a real attempt to tell some essential truth, a truth at once of its time and timeless. Perhaps it is its investment in its characters and its worldview. Or its quiet humor, funny and cutting and sly. Or its intelligence, its knowingness, which never seems pretentious or irrelevant. Which is a long way to say that there is much to recommend it.
A great deal has been said, in recent reviews of The Pregnant Widow, about Amis’s return to form, his artistic success after a series of disappointments. (Indeed, there was some surprise when the book was conspicuously left off the Man Booker Prize longlist.) Like Philip Roth, to whom he has been compared since the beginning of his career, Amis seems to be initiating his sixties by embarking on an ambitious, historically-minded project with keen insight and masterly sentences. But this is, of course, speculation. Something more definitive then: The Pregnant Widow is a stunning book; it contains within it all that is best in the English novel.
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted, “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom’s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread. The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up. Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.”
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick’s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.
More Difficult Books
The intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy.
What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch’s midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.
Yet Mortals doesn’t feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray’s blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
One of the most morally and aesthetically interesting aspects of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary film Grizzly Man, the enchanting and bizarre tale of Timothy Treadwell’s life and death among the grizzlies, is Herzog’s decision not to include the existing audio of Timothy Treadwell and Aime Huguenard’s deaths. Treadwell and girlfriend Huguenard were eaten by a grizzly bear while living amongst the grizzlies in Alaska in the summer of 2003. Treadwell’s video camera (at least its audio function) was on while the two were being attacked and this audio is now in the possession of one of Treadwell’s friends. Herzog himself listens to the footage in Grizzly Man, and though viewers cannot hear it, they see Herzog listening to it, and hear him tell the audio’s owner that the recording should be destroyed.A strict empiricist would disagree: If we are to understand an event or a life we must examine all of the evidence, however gruesome. But then, artists are not lawyers or scientists, and artistic justice is rather another thing than scientific or legal justice. Herzog’s choice not to include the audio recording of these two surely horrific deaths is a question that many artists are confronted with. What aesthetic and ethical effects will the representation of a certain act, particularly something like dismemberment or rape, have on my audience? Will the representation of such acts necessarily invoke responses of arousal or morbid fascination in the viewer? While this might serve the purposes of certain artists intent on impressing upon us as visual consumers our complicity with the rapist, voyeur, or bear, it becomes deeply problematic when the artist does not want us to identify with the assailant.Those who have read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace will know that the horror of a traumatic event that goes undescribed is not lessened, as will those who have read Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). Sometimes referred to colloquially as “The Rape of Clarissa,” Richardson’s nearly 1600 page novel does not actually describe Clarissa’s rape. It is through Clarissa herself that we get the novel’s only approximation of a description of the event and her drug-addled memories are described only vaguely – shadows, a candle, the prostitutes (who, we later learn, held Clarissa down for her rapist). Richardson’s choice to refuse description, like Coetzee’s, is an ethical choice. It is a choice that absolutely refuses to offer us the possibility of aesthetic engagement with monstrous acts. If literary and other fiction is, as some hold, a means of playing make-believe, of trying on alternate identities, artists who refuse to represent horrific acts tell us something in these refusals. They do not want us to imagine these things, they do not want to provide the means by which we will be implicated in dehumanizing other people (even if these people are only literary characters). Even to write descriptions of such events would be, to whatever degree, to aestheticize them. And to make a rape into an object of aesthetic contemplation, aesthetic pleasure, is a sort of crime.Sofia Coppola’s 2006 Marie Antoinette is the most recent example of this phenomenon that I have encountered. Coppola uses artistic refusal in her decision not to represent any social reality beyond Versailles until the very end of the movie, and then, only slightly. Occasionally, a court character mentions unrest among the people, bread shortages, increased taxes, but no physical evidence of it ever invades Louis XVI’s court until the film’s end, when a crowd of peasants surrounds the palace. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) goes out onto a balcony of the palace and we hear below her (and even see the torches, pruning hooks, and scythes – though not the faces – of) the people below her on the ground. The scene astonishes because through it we realize that Marie and Louis had no idea what was happening beyond Versailles – had no idea these people truly existed, much less that they existed in exigency and anger. They have never seen them – they did not physically exist until this moment when it is too late. And we are made, like the monarchs, to have no idea of the anger and suffering of their people (no visual idea at least, though we all know their eventual fate). Is this refusal unethical? Does it mask the suffering of thousands to force upon us sympathy for two thoughtless, pampered fools or does Coppola’s demand that we understand the king and queen’s ignorance press for an even more scrupulous definition of justice?In “Weighing In,” Seamus Heaney invokes “the power/Of power not exercised”: Sometimes we say more and say it better by refusing to speak.
A recent post at Pinky’s Paperhaus entitled “The backwards academic,” muses critically on the backward-looking focus of the GRE subject exam in English literature, required for applicants to English department Ph.D. programs, and, in Pinky’s case, Ph.D. programs in Creative Writing.Having cited the breakdown of the GRE subject exam in English Literature (pasted in below from the post):- Continental, Classical, and Comparative Literature through 1925 – 5-10%- British Literature to 1660 (including Milton) – 25-30%- British Literature 1660-1925 – 25-35%- American Literature through 1925 – 15-25%- American, British, and World Literatures after 1925 – 20-30%Pinky expresses some concerns – both personal and philosophical:To sum this up, 70-80% of the exam focuses on work before 1925. 25-30% of the entire exam will be on BRITISH LIT BEFORE 1600. What concerns me isn’t that I can’t possibly do well on the test (I can’t. I was terrible at recognizing poets from excerpts when I learned them more than a decade ago, and I don’t know a caesura from a sestina) but what this focus indicates. The discipline, as it appears through the lens of this exam, is inherently colonial, still trying to prove to big bad monarch daddy that we deserve his love, we do, we really really do, because we can appreciate him and study his dirty bards and his pious poets and his sarcastic essayists and his metaphysical poets and his beowulf, thank you very much, and since we’ve been so good, may we please have some more moors, please?The essence of Pinky’s concern, is the exam’s historical focus – What about, she wonders, contemporary fiction, blogs, the effect of the internet on reading? All of these, she suggests, seem the relevant questions – not Milton, sestinas, and Beowulf.I have a few thoughts on these questions, both practically and philosophically speaking, as someone whose taken this exam, and is now entrenched in the academy. Practically speaking, the only way to do well is to spend a few months studying Norton anthologies: No one, even with a freshly minted B.A. in English, is ready for this exam without putting in some time. Also, it’s a multiple choice exam: How, realistically, could they ask questions about the amorphous world of the blogosphere (Name the contributors of certain blogs? Pick traits of a blog essay?) or the yet to be determined effects of things like Google Books and Project Gutenberg on reading practices? Exams have genres too and multiple choice exams cannot help us explore abstract and emergent fields.Philosophically speaking, it seems to me that the desire to get a Ph.D. implies a desire for a deep understanding of a field, and a deep understanding means history. If you just want to contemplate the effects of the internet on literature and read contemporary novels, blogging and book-reviewing will certainly suit you. The doctorate in literature (and, I presume, Creative Writing, since faculty in CW do end up teaching literature quite often), for better or for worse, means theory, the history of forms, the evolution of genres, methodical consideration of allusion and borrowing.Someone with an interest in the internet’s effects on literature and the rise of the blogosphere might naturally appreciate the 18th century English pioneers of the newspaper and essay (Addison and Steel’s The Spectator, for one) and maybe read a little bit of Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which resemble nothing so much as the ultimate fulfillment of quintessentially 18th century ideas about the periodical press as a virtual space for rational debate on subjects of public interest, a space in which all who desired to participate, regardless of class, were allowed. The rise of the periodical press and its role in facilitating writing as a profession for middle-class people was revolutionary – and we’re still enjoying it today as we write our blog posts. Again, to read examples of the early “essai” as practiced by Montaigne – coiner of the genre’s name – (or by Sir Thomas Browne or Francis Bacon) is to be delighted to discover that the rambling, loose essay format that blogging allows and sometimes seems to encourage is nothing so much as a return to the essay’s generic origins. In sum, feelings about how a new technology impacts literature are only broadened by knowledge of literature’s history.And a final philosophical point: The best modern and contemporary writers draw from the literature of the past. Joyce and Pound’s titanic knowledge of the history of forms, T.S. Eliot’s profound reliance on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Antony and Cleopatra and Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf’s delightful literary critical essays, and her respectful appreciation of Aphra Behn and Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own for the help they’d inevitably given her as a woman writer. More recently, I offer J.M. Coetzee’s Foe as a re-reading of Robinson Crusoe, his Disgrace as a reading of Clarissa (this reading is Blakey Vermeule’s), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty as a reading of Howard’s End. Frank Miller’s 300 as a rereading of Herodotus.I am also generally horrified by how little I know, how little my peers know, how little my students know or care about history. And I find myself thinking about the affable but fraudulent academic hero of Don Delillo’s White Noise, a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t know German. Shortchanging history when studying literature inevitably leaves a similarly gaping hole.