Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Whither the Middlebrows?

If, like me, you are in that strange hinterland between desire for intelligent writing and desire for entertainment, between a desire for narratives of danger and excitement and a desire for narratives that don’t insult the intelligence (that‘s right: a desire for both finger-steepling and sharks), you might wonder where your brethren are. You hungrily fall upon the literary criticism of people like Clive James, John Carey, George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, Nick Hornby and Zadie Smith - they’re more well-read than you are, but they have an interest in fiction that entertains. And yet…there’s something odd about the tension between their highbrow and popular tastes. Something that makes it hard to know exactly where they stand.
Let’s consider two interestingly different pieces by Zadie Smith. The first is her introduction to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, available here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/sep/18/classics.grahamgreene
It’s worth reading in full, but this is a triumphant moment:

When Greene died in 1991, Kingsley Amis - a man not given to generous estimations of his peers - gave him a neat, fitting obituary: "He will be missed all over the world. Until today, he was our greatest living novelist." Amis's and Greene's vision of a great novelist was different from the present conception: it was of a working man with a pen. An unpretentious man, in and of the world, who wrote for readers and not critics, and produced as many words per day as a journalist. English writers these days work in spasms, both in quantity and quality, and so keen are they to separate "entertainments" from "literature" that they end up writing neither. This was one of the few distinctions Greene did not concern himself with.

Now there’s a paragraph that left me hungry to read more of those writers (and obviously I include Smith herself), and with a penultimate sentence good enough to become a manifesto for contemporary fiction. However, a very different piece by Smith - “Two Paths for the Novel”, first published in the New York Review of Books and available in her recent collection of essays Changing My Mind as well as here
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/nov/20/two-paths-for-the-novel/?page=1 , presents a very different attitude to contemporary fiction. Ostensibly a review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, it starts off with a lament that “in healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene” but that “these aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked”. It’s immediately striking to see the move from an argument lamenting the shortage of Graham Greenes, to one lamenting the shortage of alternatives. Just as striking is how the article takes it as a given that you understand its references and assumptions: it’s not easy to understand what Smith means by “lyrical realism”, and the way she introduces the concept with the highway metaphor indicates that not only should the reader know what it is, but that it is in such abundance we‘re getting bored with it. The essay also lists authors’ names so frequently - and with such little sense of what they mean to Smith, or how their actual work relates to her argument - that it means little to those who haven’t read all of them.
Another problem for the reader that admired her Greene piece (and indeed Zadie Smith’s novels) is this article’s interest in solipsism, and its assumption that solipsism and philosophical theory are at the heart of the question of fiction. Netherland, Smith states, “colonizes all space by way of voracious image“. Those of us more interested in fiction than in philosophical theories may wonder if this is a problem, but her analysis continues:

It wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good, in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really Realism?

There are a great many words here that remind me of one of Orwell’s symptoms of the decline in writing in his magnificent essay Politics and the English Language: the increasing use of words that mean nothing. Examples that Orwell suggested were “plastic”, “vitality“, “natural“ ,“sentimental”, “Romantic“ and “living quality“; here we have a reliance on the word “self” and the equally tedious “authentic”. It’s hard to ignore the fact that James Wood’s latest piece - a review of David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, uses the words “vital” or “vitality” five times, and Wood is a discernable influence on Smith in her Two Paths article (but not in the Greene introduction). Although in many ways her article is actually a rebuttal of Wood’s views (he’s an admirer of Netherland), the style clearly owes something to him, not least in its assumption that whole swathes of literature can be summed up in a two-word phrase: Wood bemoans “Hysterical Realism”, Smith focuses on “Lyrical Realism“.
Just as the reader wonders if this is the same Zadie Smith that wrote White Teeth and On Beauty, we are presented with this acknowledgement:

I have written in this tradition myself, and cautiously hope for its survival, but if it’s to survive, lyrical Realists will have to push a little harder on their subject.

Smith has just pulled off the extraordinary feat of being patronising towards her own work.
Two pieces written by the same author: one so engaging, and able to reach seasoned readers of Greene and those new to him alike; the other labyrinthine, aimed at those who already share its assumptions and preferences rather than those who might wish to learn of them for the first time - a piece for those who are getting a little tired of lyrical realism, not those interested in finding out what lyrical realism is.
A similar split can be found in a strange piece by Clive James. James has written some imperishably wonderful literary criticism: his pieces on Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin are both the best things written on their subjects, and in their own right wonderfully invigorating encapsulations of what literature can mean to a reader. His article “The Guidebook Detectives” for the New Yorker in 2007 - available on here under a different title
http://www.clivejames.com/crime-fiction - opens with this:

If you’ve spent a couple of years being unable to get past the opening chapter of one of the later novels of Henry James, it’s hard to resist the idea that there might be a more easily enjoyable version of literature: a crime novel, for example.

Anyone unfamiliar with Clive James’s literary criticism would find this a good start to an essay, and if they shared the sentiments expressed there, would naturally assume they’d found a soulmate. However, if you’ve read any of his criticism, you might notice right away that something is not quite right. First of all, Clive James has read and extolled the virtues of far more difficult authors than Henry James (just look at his book Cultural Amnesia, which makes you wonder if it’s by the same critic) - let’s not forget this is the reader that taught himself Russian because he “could no longer bear not to know something about how Pushkin sounded”. Amongst the many indispensable quotes his criticism has provided over the years is the splendid affirmation “Boring you rigid is just what literature sets out not to do” from his 1980 review of a book on the academic study of literature by Wayne Booth, yet this is oddly contradicted by the idea of wondering if there is “a more easily enjoyable form of literature” in the later article. Again, if you’re unaware of this discrepancy, then by the time the suggestion that the appeal of a good crime novel lies in the hope that “we can get the art thrill and the thriller thrill both at once”, your instinct may be to cheer - after all, we all want sharks and finger-steepling in the same book, right? That’s certainly what this blog is for. And James has a point about the tediousness of the first 13 pages of The Wings of the Dove.
However, as the article progresses, it becomes clear an irony not easy to fathom is at work. James talks about his voracious consumption of various crime writers, but suggests that John Banville’s Christine Falls - which unlike Banville’s Booker-friendly novels is published as a crime novel under the name Benjamin Black - “actually does face you with the question of whether you really want your crime writer to have that much literary talent”. He then argues that

As a form for real writers, the detective novel is bound to be a dry well in the end, because a detective novel, no matter how memorable in the detail, is written to be forgotten

and ends by affirming:

But that’s just an adventure holiday. The real adventure, less gripping but far more memorable, is waiting to begin again on page 14 [of The Wings of the Dove].

Adam Mars-Jones was also struck by the strange structure of this article in his review (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jun/07/revolt-pendulum-clive-james) of The Revolt of the Pendulum , a recent collection of Clive James‘s essays which included the piece:

[…] he pulls the rug from under the reader […]Doesn't he also pull the rug from under himself? (Clive) James's antipathy to Henry seems genuine, to judge by a reference to the style of The Awkward Age as "an invitation to suck up a sand dune through a straw". It seems perverse to defend high literary ambition while also rubbishing the book that you've chosen to represent it. […]

Mars-Jones also notes a:

civil war between cultivation and blokeishness inside Clive James, the inner aesthete and the inner mocker. Down-to-earth intellectual is not the easiest role to take on. When one of the competing strains appears in isolation, then the other is sure to be waiting in the wings.

What Mars-Jones has picked up on here is an enigma in James’s writing, and in Smith’s: a split personality between that of the well-read literary personality and that of the popularist. The structure of the article is repressive, as its author starts with one point-of-view and then seems to try and convince himself of its falseness. He starts off with an engaging and convincing attack on Henry James’s soporific prose and an infectious account of a hunger for crime fiction, and then abandons this line, even though his point that “He had not at present come down from his room, which she knew to be above the one they were in…” is a tedious sentence did not deserve to be abandoned - it may be Henry James, but it’s still ghastly writing. Perhaps the canonical figures are hard to criticise: like feudal overlords, they might stir rumbles of discontent, at the start of the article, but their power is reaffirmed in the closing paragraphs.
It’s highly appropriate that Larkin and Amis are strong passions for both the writers I’ve discussed (to complete this quartet, Zadie Smith once named Larkin as her favourite writer), as they pose a similar conundrum. These writers - themselves great friends - felt a profound affinity for populism. Larkin wrote some of the most beautiful and exquisitely crafted poetry of the twentieth century, and yet many of these poems - including some of his finest - are easily appreciable for general readers. Amis made fiction so enjoyable it’s a wonder the literati tolerated it.
They were educated men, but claimed to prefer entertainment to supposedly more cerebral writing. Both were passionate advocates of Dick Francis. Much has been made of Kingsley’s lack of patience with his son Martin’s novels, but it’s forgotten that he had the same problem with all of the novelists of Martin’s generation. There’s nothing wrong with their interest in Ian Fleming and Amis‘s passion for science-fiction (his books on the respective subjects, The James Bond Dossier and New Maps of Hell, remain unsurpassed in the way they combine an unpatronising, infectious love for their subjects with a refusal to abandon intelligent, unsparing analysis), but Amis’s absurd insistence, in an essay on Chandler, Hammett and Mickey Spillane, that Spillane is the best of the three leads one to wonder if what’s going on is some kind of alienation from the cultural scene rather than genuine incomprehension of difficult authors. An even stranger moment (in a review which can be found in the same book, Whatever Became of Jane Austen?) came when he referred to Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Blake, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and numerous others as “all those characters you thought were discredited, or had never read, or (if you are like me) had never heard of”. Of course he had heard of them.
Perhaps, like Clive James’s too-brief rebellion against Henry James, they felt the need for a cultural pressure-valve, a momentary relapse from lives built around studying, reviewing, writing and reading literature. John Carey once wondered if Larkin’s delightful reply, in his Paris Review interview, to a question about Jorge Luis Borges - “Who is Jorge Luis Borges?“ - was mischievous. Anthony Powell, a friend and contemporary of Amis and Larkin, observed that “a wish for non-affectation [in] revolt against Eliot’s saying modern poets must be obscure [is] like a breath of fresh air first of all. Eventually, if carried too far, [it] becomes a sort of tyrannical Puritanism.” James himself understood this very well, suggesting in his Wayne Booth review that due to the overabundance of bad literary theory:

The best route to success for a dull artist might be to create a work that needs interpretation. On the other hand, the bright artist might go out of his way to avoid the attentions of the waiting owls. The result could be a seriously split literary culture, with the dummies pretending to be clever and the clever people masquerading as oafs. We have seen something like this in the determination of Amis and Larkin - both of them deeply cultivated - to sound like philistines rather than co-operate with the kind of academic industrialisation which separates the work of art from the common people.

The final figure to consider in this light is Nick Hornby, whose endeavours in this field gave this blog its name. In his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns for The Believer magazine (collected in The Polysyllabic Spree and its sequels), Hornby offers an alternative to literary criticism, as he breezily discusses the books he has read or tried to read, making perceptive points along the way, and refreshingly discussing the practicalities and difficulties of reading itself as well as the books. Yet again there’s sometimes a tension between the passionate belief expressed that people don’t need to worry about wrestling with books they find tedious and views Hornby has expressed elsewhere, such as his 1991 review of JG Ballard’s The Kindness of Woman, a summary and quotes from which are available at

those who have no time for Ballard's 'weird stuff' (although of course books such as Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are among the most literate, challenging and provocative of the past 30 years) will be perplexed

Again, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are far more difficult and challenging books than the “literary” novels that Hornby assures his readers they are not alone in struggling with. It is of course unfair to label critics: you will never find one that likes all the things you like, and struggles with the same things you struggle with, but it’s hard not to see this as evidence of the same thing James warned of: intelligent writers like Hornby, Smith and James himself are so understandably anxious to break away from the “literary” culture that has dogged postwar literature, that they are overlooking their own indulgences or preferences amongst “literary” writers or texts. To move back a generation or so, the strength of Anthony Burgess as a figure on the literary horizon was that while he was no snob, contributing a delightful celebration of Ian Fleming in the form of his 1990s Preface to the Bond novels and his equally informed championing of Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition, he didn’t feel the need to hide his admiration for supposedly more highbrow figures - happily declaring Finnegan’s Wake one of the world’s most enjoyable books. Perhaps, then, the biggest hero of this piece (for all the people I’ve discussed are cherishable) is AS Byatt. Byatt has won the Booker Prize, and her fiction belongs to the tradition of George Eliot and Iris Murdoch - uncompromising, highly “literary” novels of ideas. And yet she is also the finest critic of Terry Pratchett, championing him as a genuinely original writer of books of rare undiluted imaginative power. She is also the author of the best piece ever written on the Harry Potter books, which was unfairly called snobbish despite championing Pratchett, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Diana Wynn-Jones as superior writers. One is reminded of China Mieville’s praise for Doris Lessing
(available here:
http://www.believermag.com/issues/200504/?read=interview_mieville) as a writer:

who comes from outside genre but understands it and respects it. In the middle of a big literary festival, Doris Lessing, one of the great writers of the twentieth century, fĂȘted by the literary establishment, was talking about this great book she’d read by Greg Bear. This is a woman who really keeps up with genre SF and is not embarrassed to say so.

The value of Byatt and Lessing’s contributions here is that like Burgess they don’t pretend not to be intellectuals, they just understand that there are popular forms of fiction which deserve unpatronising and fully appreciative literary attention.
Is everyone a closet intellectual? Has the lover of stories no-one to turn to? Who can tell. Just don’t get too excited if your favourite writer tells you they find Moby Dick boring - I guarantee you you’ll find them eulogising Conrad before long.

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