As you know, I begin most of my emails with apologies. So first of all, I am so sorry for being late getting back to your email, and for being appallingly late with the review of M.’s latest novel. And I apologize most of all for this: I just cannot do it.
This book has been an anchor around my neck ever since you sent me a galley back in the winter. I have finally clawed my way out to page 700-something and still the remaining 300-some pages loom ahead, foreboding and without promise. At some point in the more than six months it’s taken me to get this far into the book, I started forcing myself to read it by taking it to the gym with me. It made sense for the task of reading this book to accompany my trying to lose weight on the stationary cycle: both are joyless, laborious, repetitive chores done in a state of squinty-eyed perspiration and only in the distant hope that, eventually, I will finally get rid of something heavy.
To tell the truth, I’ve never been a huge fan of M., and I’m not all that familiar with his work, aside from some of his early short stories, which I remember liking when I read them in college. Before attempting this book, all I really knew was that he’s associated with all those 1960s and 1970s po-mo heavy-hitters like Pynchon, Gaddis, Gass, maybe Donald Barthelme, too. It’s a school of fiction that I loved in college, when I was an ambitious little shit trying to make himself get smart or seem smart or be smart by reading the books everyone knows are “smart”: Gravity’s Rainbow, The Recognitions, and so on.
Of those guys, Pynchon is nigh-impenetrable but goofy and funny and a lot of fun once you pay the high entry fee. There’s a boyish cantankerousness in his fiction that I love; beneath the cerebral fog is a neighborhood rascal with a slingshot in his back pocket. So much of the racket he makes comes from daring the reader to accept the reality of what’s happening on the page, like that moment in Gravity’s Rainbow when Tyrone Slothrop saves a girl on the beach from being eaten by a giant octopus by beating it back into the sea with a wine bottle. Gaddis is more of a grownup. He writes beautiful sentences, but I find his fiction smug, snide, mean-spirited, and classist. As a fellow technician of sentences, I’m dazzled by his chops, but it frankly turns me off as a human being. William H. Gass I especially adore—I think he really is a genius—but I mostly just adore his criticism. Like Sontag, Gass is a writer whose nonfiction is so much more alive than his fiction. In a recent conversation with a friend on this subject, we concluded that these writers are at their best when they’re writing about other writers, because the subject gives their sentences something to hook onto: left with having to make up their own characters and stories, they falter, because they’re too anxious about looking smart, and they don’t care enough about human beings. Barthelme I like, but never fell in love with. Also, I blame him for being the godfather of influence to George Saunders and the hoards of his imitators who characterize the literary taste of my generation and the one below mine, which is a little irritating.
But M.? M. has the obfuscatory impulses of Pynchon, the snideness of Gaddis, the meanness of Gass, and the hipster cred of Barthelme, but unlike those writers, he is not funny, beautiful, brilliant, or interesting. This book is nothing but tedium. The sentences aren’t beautiful, the story is repetitive and utterly uninteresting, and the characters are impossible to invest any emotion in whatsoever. I’m 700-something pages in, and I can remember the names of only three or four characters. I don’t really know what the hell is happening. But worse, I don’t care. At all.
Novels ought to build on themselves as they go. A novel that doesn’t build on itself as one reads it is not a narrative. I got confused sometimes in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, but I didn’t mind, because I was otherwise riveted. I was fascinated, haunted, horrified; that is, I cared. In psychological, character-driven novels, what builds as you read the book, what interests the reader, I think, is the way in which the characters are changing. In other narratives, like, say, detective novels and Greek tragedies, the characters are flat, but the things that are happening to them (the plot!—that dirty word!) is so interesting that you don’t need to know, say, what kind of relationship Philip Marlowe had with his mother. In very, very rare books, the reader may stay invested merely through beautiful, interesting, funny, or clever language; Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds is one good example. Flann O’Brien could be as opaque as a block of wood, but had a golden ear; I can listen to his silly music all day and not care how much sense it’s making.
I guess M.’s novel is trying to be that last kind of book. But the problem is, the language isn’t beautiful. Reading it is an experience that does not change the reader; it’s like being forced to eat a million meals of bland, laxative-laced food cooked in an institutional kitchen (like those in schools, hospitals, prisons, etc.): you can just barely choke it down and then it all goes right out the other end; it doesn’t taste good; you don’t get much nourishment from it; it doesn’t even make you feel full. It is a pleasureless experience. It doesn’t really matter where you start reading; pick any page at random, it’s all the same. It’s like a faucet that’s been left running all day. I think Nabokov described Finnegans Wake as “a persistent snore in the next room.” Well, that is how I feel about this book.
If reading something “dumb”—like, say, the Clive Cussler thriller the woman sitting behind me on this train is reading—is the literary equivalent of watching TV, then reading this book reminds me of being a kid watching TV with my grandmother, who lived in the middle of nowhere in the Ozarks and got very bad reception: squinting, paying very close attention, trying to watch a show we could just barely see through the static.
I’ve lately been feeling especially wary of this kind of writing since I’ve been teaching undergraduate writing workshops. My attitudes about literature have a way of evolving along with my teaching. As I said, all those postmodern dudes—Pynchon, Gaddis, etc.—were writers I read in college, when I was young, under-read, and hungrily, impatiently trying to improve myself. For me back then, the harder and weirder the book, the better. These are the “smart” books that “smart” guys (especially guys) in college have been forcing themselves to love since the 1970s, and I’m a little amazed (I shouldn’t be) to find that the students in my fiction classes (again, especially the guys) still read and enjoy these books. The same books, for at least the last thirty, nearly forty years. And undergrads in liberal arts schools are still trying to imitate them. I guess maybe it’s a phase one needs to go through or something.
M. has the obfuscatory impulses of Pynchon, the snideness of Gaddis, the meanness of Gass, and the hipster cred of Barthelme, but unlike those writers, he is not funny, beautiful, brilliant, or interesting.
But the fiction students in whom I see the most potential are the ones I admire, even envy a little, for reading without vanity and anxiety: those who genuinely read for pleasure. They don’t read to impress anyone (including themselves). They read for pleasure. This is not to say that they shy away from the difficult, “smart” books—it’s just that their reading is omnivorous, exploratory, widely varying. They don’t just zero in on the books everyone knows are “smart.” They derive pleasure from language and narrative, and want to learn to perform the magic tricks themselves. They don’t care about being the smartest, best-read person in the room.
After all, what is the purpose of narrative? Nabokov wrote, “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” Like Nabokov, the “teacher” part is the one I like the least, but I suppose it’s necessary. Some great writers have a tendency to slip into rapping-the-ruler-on-the-chalkboard mode: Melville pausing the narrative to give us a thorough presentation on whales, Tolstoy pulling the needle off of War and Peace for fifty pages to enlighten us on his “philosophy of history.” There are also plenty of amazing writers who lean heavily on the storyteller part of the triumvirate; skillful storytelling is an incredibly difficult art form, and an underappreciated one, like carpentry—when it’s good, you don’t notice it, and when it’s bad, your house is falling apart. It’s a pleasure to learn something. It’s a pleasure to hear a compelling story. But to be enchanted? That’s the feeling Emily Dickinson describes in her famous definition of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Being enchanted by art is one of the deepest, fullest pleasures possible for a human to experience, isn’t it?
I confess this may be a temperamental thing. When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was that guy banging the drum for weird, difficult fiction, because I was bored by what I perceived as a lot of timid, anodyne fiction about middle-class, domestic characters and situations. At Iowa, the tribal deities were Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, John Cheever. At first I claimed to dislike Cheever because I was an arrogant idiot (I’ve come around on that one); I can’t help finding Munro boring but I gave her an honest try, and I admit in this case that it’s my fault and not hers that I don’t like her fiction; and Carver I still don’t like and I stand behind my dislike. Carver talks, Munro whispers, Cheever sings; at the time I was at Iowa, I was more into screamers like Philip Roth. (Now I’m of the opinion that the best writers are the ones equally capable of talking, whispering, singing, and screaming—whatever the moment calls for. Saul Bellow is one, in my opinion.)
Back in the mid-aughts, when I was in graduate school, everyone (by which I mean: writers) was still talking about that supposed face-off in Harper’s between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus that was provoked by an essay Franzen wrote in which he narrated a trajectory similar to the one I’m describing—essentially, how he became wary and disenchanted with the “smart” books he used to (claim to) love. Marcus’s riposte was titled, “Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it,” and from what I remember, it was mainly bucking against Franzen’s idea that writers have a duty to write compellingly, or risk extinction in our hypermediated world that increasingly seems to have less and less use for literature.
Franzen vs. Marcus was a re-spawned clone of almost the same public argument that happened in the late 1970s between John Gardner and John Barth. This was when Gardner was recklessly alienating himself from the literary world of the time by calling them all a bunch of frauds, hopping up and down and shouting about how fiction should be “moral.” This is not to say didactic, mind you (like late Tolstoy). As he writes in On Moral Fiction, “I argue … for an old-fashioned view of what art is and does … The traditional view is that true art is moral: it seeks to improve life, not debase it.” Reading those sentences in my early twenties felt like being sternly lectured by my grandfather for running with a bad crowd. About eight years ago I wrote an essay inspired by these debates titled “Against Moral Fiction” which should have been titled, “Against Jonathan Franzen and John Gardner.” In it, I quoted the following passage from John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, which he published in 1978:
The generous critic might hold up numerous other writers as important artists—John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, James Purdy, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy Davenport, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, to name a few. How many of them will outlast the century? Perhaps Malamud, certainly a powerful artist at his best; conceivably Guy Davenport, if sheer precision and uncompromising artistry count, but his output is spare and his work goes underadvertized; possibly Eudora Welty, because of one superb novel, Losing Battles, a handful of stories, and her secure position as Southerner and woman in our college American literature courses; possibly Joyce Carol Oates, for a few excellent short stories; possibly Salinger. But I suspect that what I’ve typed above is a list of inflated reputations. Some on the list will die quickly, of pure meanness—Porter, Coover, and Gaddis—and some will die of intellectual blight, academic narrowness, or fakery—Pynchon, Updike (or most of his work), and Barth.
At the time, my joke in quoting that passage was that the yolk was on Gardner’s face now. Almost everyone he threw shade at above is today more widely read than Gardner is. And I think he’s notably wrong about a few people in there—especially John Cheever. And that he’s still at least half-wrong (I think?) about almost everyone else. But I wrote that essay before I actually bothered reading anything by John Gardner other than his books about writing fiction. And then I did. And what did I realize when I finally read them? They are amazing. His novels are fueled by emotion, unashamed, un-ironic. Gardner may, in fact, have been a better writer than anyone on that list. There is nothing in all of Pynchon, Gaddis, or Gass, that cut me so deeply as these three sentences from Grendel:
I can’t breathe, and I claw to get free. She struggles. I smell my mama’s blood, and, alarmed, I hear from the walls and floor of the cave the booming, booming, of her heart.
Although those sentences, I now see, look a bit flat out of context, trust me, at the moment they come in Grendel (the last paragraph of chapter two), you’ll have one of those Dickinsonian head-popping-off moments. The only way to show it, really, is to quote the entire book around it. (Perhaps this is the mark of a great work of art. This issue always makes me think of an anecdote about Franz Liszt playing a new piano sonata for some friends; someone present asked him, “What does it mean?” to which he responded by playing it again.) So why is Gardner less read today than those other names on his shit-list?
There’s an outdated joke about a woman teaching her daughter to make meatloaf; she asks why she cuts the corners off before putting it in the pan. “Because that’s how my mother made it,” she says. So the girl goes to her grandmother and asks why she cut the corners off. “Because that’s how my mother made it,” says the grandmother. So she goes to her great-grandmother, and asks her why she cut the corners off the meatloaf. “Because the pan was too small.”
How do the “smart” books become the “smart” books that get handed down to you?
Some part of me is afraid of the reason why the college kids who want to be writers are still anxiously forcing themselves to slog through The Recognitions: because the accepted knowledge that this is a “smart” book has been handed down to them by their literature professors, who in their time were told this is a “smart” book. And how do the “smart” books become the “smart” books that get handed down to you?
Could it be that the books that become the “smart” books are the ones that are fun to teach? The ones that give the English professor something to do? You can’t say much about a fairly straightforward narrative, but one that requires a lot of critical unpacking is one that will get a lot of play in the classroom, and probably survive in the classrooms of the future. There are some ponderously overrated, heaps of pretentious gobbledygook that have been kept alive for decades this way.
I’m not saying smart is bad. Smart is good … but what about pleasurable? Gardner shouted and banged on the table trying to remind everyone not to forget about morality and the “true purpose” of art, but all I want to do is something much more humble: please do not forget to please. Something about your book must on some level give pleasure. This is not a low virtue.
While occasionally playing hooky from reading this book over the past months, I’ve read some fascinating, brilliant, energetic books by Harold Brodkey, Rebecca Solnit, John Berger, Zadie Smith, and Zoë Heller, among others, books that are very, very smart—and not just “smart” smart, but also capable of warmth, feeling, human brilliance. Books that are smart without reeking of effort; books that don’t mistake inaccessibility for brilliance. Books that might even provide the reader with some genuine pleasure. One does not need to equate what is compelling and pleasurable with stupidity. William H. Gass wrote in his introduction to The Recognitions that sometimes, “when the reader’s forehead collides with the page, it is not necessarily the book that is at fault.” That’s funny, but … well, sometimes it is the book’s fault. The fact that your forehead sometimes collides with the page is not ipso facto proof that it is a good book. A good book is as difficult as it needs to be. Difficulty is not an inherent virtue.
This is no manifesto. Unlike Franzen and Gardner, I do not ever intend to tell people what they should and shouldn’t write. I do not think the fate of literature hangs in the balance. I’m not worried about that. I’m not advocating or decrying “traditionalism” or “experimentalism,” or what-have-you. I don’t care. Go ahead and write your pleasureless fiction, as long as I don’t have to read it. Except when I do, because I agreed to write a review of it.
I do not like this book. I believe that most human beings who are not desperately trying, hoping, wishing to be perceived as smart would not like this book.
I cannot in good faith give this book a good review, and I can’t give it a bad review because I cannot for the life of me finish the damn thing.
Please, please, please! Release me! I am very sorry.
With a million apologies,
Benjamin Hale is the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve, 2011) and a novel and collection of short fiction forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. He teaches at Bard College.
For more on Politics and the Novel, check out our Fall issue.