Renata Adler’s new collection, After the Tall Timber, which spans 40 years of her reporting, essays, and criticism, has a distinctly valedictory purpose. It is startling to be reminded that Adler is now 76 years old — a product, as she calls herself, of World War II and the Dwight D. Eisenhower era. Her voice on the page is ageless; never that of a young writer precisely, it is even now not the voice of senescence. From the start, Adler’s work has been sophisticated, well-defended, and willfully provocative. The strong tendency of her career has been to resist the received idea — to unpack that idea, disprove it, and remind the reader whose interests the false account serves. After the Tall Timber implicitly argues for a particular view of Adler as a writer, the bomb thrower-aesthete. But as the title of her 1970 collection, Toward A Radical Middle, suggests, Adler is a bomb thrower of a curious sort, a Jean-Pau Marat figure in the service of what can seem distinctly like ancien regime values: erudition, critical distance, a restrained elegance of style.
Herewith follow some observations on one of the more unusual careers in American journalism.
1. She Is a Cautionary Tale
Adler has spent much of her career ridiculing her fellow journalists, and she has generally aimed high, repeatedly attacking The New York Times for what she views as its complacency and self-regard, lamenting the decline of The New Yorker following its sale to the Newhouse family, and suing Vanity Fair for libel. That all of these institutions employed her before, during, and/or after becoming the objects of her scorn tells us something about Adler’s self-conception; she is perennially Will Kane in High Noon, flinging her press pass into the dirt. Adler is a celebrity journalist who has decried celebrity and careerism as the dominant impulses of her peers. She has also walked the walk, consistently biting the editorial hand that feeds, frustrating the commercial motives of her publishers by producing uncategorizable work ranging across genres, and taking several years away from journalism at the height of her fame to earn a Yale J.D. Adler has written to please herself, and for posterity; and everyone else be damned. This has periodically left her unpublishable, or nearly so. These days, a journalist can want her autonomy, or she can want health insurance, but she had better not want both.
2. She Was Right About The New Yorker — Before She Was Wrong
Adler’s 1999 book, Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker, asserted that the magazine was “dead” and that “not a single element” of the enterprise created by Harold Ross and carried forward by William Shawn remained. Adler had by then worked for The New Yorker for 35 years and was strongly identified with the magazine, though she had published elsewhere and had even left for 14 months to be The Times film critic. Shawn had, in effect, given her life as a writer, hiring her in 1963 while she was still a graduate student, and Gone is the work of someone who has taken her boss perhaps a little too seriously and the purported betrayal of the great man’s standards a bit too personally. It is also marred by a disconnect between its high-minded tone and a good deal of what amounts to score-settling with colleagues at the magazine with whom Adler had clashed either personally or in the internecine fights for editorial favor for which The New Yorker is famous. Gone is distinctly inside baseball, as one of its targets, Robert Gottlieb, noted in a New York Observer essay-review after the book was published, remarking of the web of interconnections among the main antagonists, “Small world, isn’t it?”
Still, Adler had a point. The New Yorker, at the moment she was writing, seemed to be badly adrift. The Newhouse family, owners of the glossy Condé Nast empire, had taken over in 1984, and the editorial direction signaled by the 1993 hiring of Tina Brown was not promising. Adler argued that the magazine under Brown and her predecessor, Gottlieb, had changed from being one that created its own audience through the integrity of its editorial product to one that sought a kind of commercial mean driven by a finger-to-the-breeze sense of what was hot or trending in the culture. As Gone went to print, David Remnick had just taken over from Brown as editor. How could Adler have predicted that The New Yorker under Remnick would become the consistently excellent publication that it is today — a New Yorker to rival the A.J. Liebling/Joseph Mitchell Golden Age?
3. Her Legal Journalism Is Especially Distinguished
Adler was part of a vanguard, including Lincoln Caplan, James Stewart, Steven Brill, and others, who brought to legal journalism a new rigor, technical competence (each of the foregoing had a legal education), and understanding of the law’s disciplinary tensions and limitations. Adler was a trained lawyer, but she brought a philosopher’s fine attention to the subtlest processes of discourse — to the vigorous fakery, really, of much legal argument. In this, Adler’s model seems to have been Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann In Jerusalem is one of the first and most famous trial books.
In her writings on the law, as elsewhere, it can be difficult to tell whether Adler is a cynic or a scandalized idealist. From Reckless Disregard (1986), Adler’s great book about two high-profile libel trials of the early 1980s:
[T]hough the First Amendment has been held, since [New York Times v.] Sullivan, to tolerate a certain category of inadvertently false statements, in the name of freedom of debate and of expression, it cannot be held to license wholesale violations of the Ninth Commandment, or to abrogate a profound system of values, which holds that words themselves are powerful, that false words leave the world diminished, and that false defamatory words have an actual power to do harm. Nor can it be that any Constitutional or journalistic interest is served by these stages of resolute insistence (first, in the world, after the moment of publication; then, under oath, in the courts) that the story, the “witness,” as published, is true; and of resolute refusal to inquire (first, for reasons largely of public relations; then, when suit is brought, on the advice of lawyers), all for the sake of “winning,” and without care, at any point after publication, whether the story, the witness (now even in the literal, legal sense) is, quite simply, false.
“Decoding the Starr Report,” her attack on the goals, the methods, and the honesty of Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, is some of the best work of the later part of her career. Adler argues, through her customary method of close reading of sources and materials, that Starr’s investigation of the Clintons — for whom Adler also has no great regard — was lawless, self-serving, and entirely motivated by politics and personal enmity.
The six-volume Report by Kenneth W. Starr to the U.S. House of Representatives — which consists, so far, of the single-volume Referral and five volumes of Appendices and Supplemental Materials — is, in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt. What it is textually is a voluminous work of demented pornography, with many fascinating characters and several largely hidden story lines. What it is politically is an attempt, through its own limitless preoccupation with sexual material, to set aside, even obliterate, the relatively dull requirement of real evidence and constitutional procedure.
“Decoding the Starr Report” is a confluence of Adler’s signature strengths: her Robert Caro-like doggedness with source materials; her vast rhetorical resources; her capacity, by no means common among journalists, for abstract thought; and finally — and this has served her well and at times not so well — her capacity for indignation.
Adler never practiced law, and she seems to have developed a hearty dislike for lawyers, for their self-importance, their ingrained relativism, and their combination of grandiloquence and syntactic clumsiness. It is easy to imagine, however, Adler having become a very powerful First Amendment lawyer in the Floyd Abrams mold — if only she could have behaved herself, even by the modest standards of contemporary law practice. But then, if she could behave herself, in the sense of not giving offense to judges and to her law partners and clients, she would not be Renata Adler, and “Reckless Disregard,” Speedboat, and the rest would never have been written. And how much does the world need another corporate lawyer, anyway?
One note of reservation. Adler’s editors have not served her well by reprinting “Searching for the Real Nixon Scandal,” her look back at the impeachment case presented by the House Judiciary Committee she served as a staffer. She argues, not entirely implausibly, that the articles presented against Richard Nixon were legally deficient, but also, startlingly, that Nixon should have been impeached for an entirely different crime: accepting bribes from South Vietnamese officials in 1972 to keep the U.S. in the war, leading to the needless deaths of U.S. soldiers. This is the sort of thing that should not be written in a magazine like The Atlantic (where the story was published, in December 1976) without substantial evidence, and the evidence, in my view, is not there. It is not that one is reluctant to believe the charge; at this point, one imagines the Nixon White House capable of almost anything. But Nixon, as Adler herself points out elsewhere, has the same right as anyone else to be convicted on the basis of evidence rather than innuendo. The inferential leap between the Nixon campaign’s notably opaque finances and the conclusion that blood payments from the South Vietnamese were thereby concealed is simply too great.
4. She Is an Exemplary Modern Novelist, But Not a Great One
Adler published two mid-career novels, Speedboat (1978) and Pitch Dark (1983), slender volumes about intelligent but neurotic women tossed by the roiling sea of New York media culture. Speedboat in particular owes a good deal to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (1970), in which Maria Wyeth is a human seismograph, an instrument delicate, responsive, and finally inert. Adler’s novels are characteristic of the period in American fiction to which they belong, many of whose major figures (John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, Didion) enacted a calculated distance from the traditional aims of narrative faction. Speedboat states its author’s position quite clearly:
There are only so many plots. There are insights, prose flights, rhythms, felicities. But only so many plots…Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta, they are shuffled and dealt then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls flat on the floor.
Speedboat and Pitch Dark are back in print from NYRB, the publishing imprint of The New York Review of Books (the publication where Adler has perhaps belonged all along), and their virtues have been warmly extolled by a new generation of readers (“for sheer linguistic pleasure, fierce intelligence, and a vivid picture of seventies New York, look no further”; Sadie O. Stein, Paris Review blog). It seems almost inevitable that Adler’s novels, which have been passed hand to hand, samizdat-style, for decades, should be enjoying a renaissance now, at a moment when the privileged status of the traditional novel, and even the very basis of its claim on our attention, have been called into question. Critics like David Shields, who cites Speedboat approvingly in his manifesto, Reality Hunger, regard the imposition of order upon experience that has been the basic genre-work of the novel for 200 years as suspect, a dead letter, a mannerist exercise, in light of the way we live now.
I will admit to being a bit impatient with this claim, though not necessarily with the claimants. It is certainly true that one might find the order imposed by a given novel unsatisfying. More fundamentally, one might reject the entire Western enterprise of self-construction through narrative, preferring radical acceptance, or religious submission — some form of permitting the flow of experience to sluice over and around oneself rather than damning it up in the service of order; in this view, narrative is almost a form of technology, another wrongheaded Western means of taming nature. And I do understand the frustration of readers with the synaptic familiarity of novelistic plot, the patting down of loose ends that so often makes the last third of a novel so much duller than what preceded it.
And yet I think the smart money is on the novel to survive in the age of Twitter and beyond. Jonathan Gottschall has argued (The Storytelling Animal), to my mind persuasively, that narrative has an essential evolutionary function. Making meaning is as endemic to our nature as our biological functions. The revanchist argument for the traditional novel is deeply unfashionable just now; one risks being cast as stodgy, middlebrow Arnold Bennett to the brilliant, gossamer-like Virginia Woolf — and we know how that fight turned out. Still, we should not mistake the aesthetic exhaustion of a few writers, even very gifted ones like Adler, for the exhaustion of a genre as a whole. The novel has been a remarkably flexible and capacious form, adapting easily to the most jarring shifts in the social order, taking in Western and non-Western, advanced and relatively primitive societies. Perhaps the pure novel of consciousness, the lightly fictionalized, largely shapeless, one-damned-thing-after-another novel, of which Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle is the latest instantiation, is simply one more adaptation. The fact that Adler published only two short, episodic novels in a long career (she told The Believer in 2012 that she had completed the manuscript of a third novel, but no announcement has since appeared) suggests that, for her at least, what seemed like a new pathway ended in an infernal grove.
This is not to deny the elegance and conviction of Speedboat and Pitch Dark, which have, perhaps, a small place in the history of the American novel. When I say that Adler is an exemplary modern novelist, I mean simply that she has any aesthetic agenda — that her work is self-conscious, the product of thought, as so many novels are not. That I have yoked her into service in an argument over the future of the realist novel is perhaps even a little unfair. Fitting, then, to conclude with a reminder of how well Adler the novelist actually wrote. From Speedboat, the toxic party we have all attended:
Some people, in a frenzy of antipathy and boredom, were drinking themselves into extreme approximations of longing to be together. Exchanging phone numbers, demanding to have lunch, proposing to share an apartment — the escalations of fellowship had the air of a terminal auction, a fierce adult version of slapjack, a bill-payer loan from a finance company, an attempt to buy with one grand convivial debt, to be paid in future, an exit from each other’s company that instant.
5. She Embodies a Paradox of Gender Politics
Some of the bitterest criticism of Adler has been heavily gendered. She has been accused of shrillness, vindictiveness, excessive self-regard — qualities that would not necessarily be disqualifying in a male journalist. The irony here is that Adler is in some ways an ambivalent feminist, an assertive woman writer who “reads male.” She is by no means reliably liberal in her politics, and she has demonstrated no excess of sorority in her treatment of Pauline Kael, Monica Lewinsky, and some other female subjects. For the most part, she has chosen to dwell within the largely male precincts of politics and law and has eschewed the “domestic” subjects toward which women writers are often steered. She has refused to be ghettoized, which can be read either as a feminist position or as a rebuke of the feminine sphere, or both. Like Hillary Clinton, she has been too “masculine” for some and can never be masculine enough for others. It is embarrassing even to invoke these categories; my point is that for a writer of Adler’s generation they were inescapable. This is one fight she never chose.
6. Her Work Was Made to Last
Most journalism is written quickly and is meant to be digested in the same way. One is reminded of the old Jay Leno joke about his being informed while flying that he could take the in-flight magazine with him when he landed: “No, thank you. I don’t think I’ll be wrapping any fish today.” Adler does journalism to a different tempo and with very different goals in mind. She aspires to write not just the first draft of history, but the last. She is justly praised as a stylist, but her work reminds us that elegance of style cannot be separated from elegance of thought. There can be no mere lacemaking for the author of “The Porch Overlooks No Such Thing,” her critique of The Times’s handling of the Jayson Blair affair:
[T]he Times, as an institution, believes what has been published in its pages. To defend this belief it will go very far. The search, the grail, the motivating principle for individual reporters has become, not the uninflected reporting of news, but something by now almost entirely unrelated: the winning of a Pulitzer Prize. In the interim, some other prize will do. But once won, the Pulitzer turns into both a shield and a weapon — a shield in defense of otherwise indefensible pieces by Pulitzer Prize winning reporters, a weapon in the struggle for advancement within the hierarchy of the Times. The paper still has some fine editors and reporters, with highly honorable concerns. But a five-year moratorium on the awarding of Pulitzer Prizes to journalists at powerful publications might be the greatest service to journalism the Pulitzer Committee could now perform.
In the puncturing of pretensions, this paragraph does double duty, letting some air out of The Times and the Pulitzers both. I suspect that I think more highly of The Times than does Adler; in a media age in which mere talk truly is cheaper than ever before, The Times is still slugging away in Aden and Caracas and Nairobi, trying to do honorable work on beats most journalistic organizations have long abandoned. The fact that a Times staffer may be reporting virtually alone in these places is, however, cause for more editorial vigilance rather than less. Like any other institution at heightened risk of dangerous self-regard, The Times needs critics like Adler, even if it cannot be expected to appreciate them.
“After the Tall Timber” is the kind of writing that ought to speak for itself, and perhaps one day it will. For now, every conversation about Adler’s work will also be a conversation about her controversies, her rages, her silences, and her enemies. Renata Adler has not been clubbable. She has picked fights. She has generally been eager both to take offense and to give it. And once the battle has been joined, she has always had to have the last word. For this, and for the great embarrassment of her irrepressible talent, she has not been forgiven.
Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott’s most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film’s female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel’s zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…[sardonic thumbs-up]…but how do you know?”
This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet’s university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus’s exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas.
Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren’t most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books?
Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read.
Defined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.
Where a historicist critic might investigate Faust’s roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.)
This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens — as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.”
On the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which — like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex — enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that…allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd — whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism — states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.”
Throughout all forms of their analysis, though — from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship — the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products — Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis — as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit’s most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.”
And this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!”
The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people — particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots…Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest…It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.”
Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats’s remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena.
The problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I’m somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams…they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter — “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” — can’t help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There’s no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels…wrong. What’s more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn’t have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky — a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist — was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide?
Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky — to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn’t bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.
The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him — he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay — a meandering paean to biology — McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo…one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”
How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos?
A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.)
Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn’t tell us how — probably he doesn’t know — but somehow, for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.
The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months — science, maths, history, law and all the rest — you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.
In the latest issue of The Boston Review, Elaine Scarry reviews Steven Pinker’s
The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker argues that literature, by bolstering man’s empathy, has lead to huge reductions in worldwide violence, a thesis that sounds dangerously close to the absurd pop-science of Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal.