Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Prospect magazine

The myth of the public novelist

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Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on April 8, 2015.

Novelists, by nature, are neurotic types, and never more so than when they’re justifying the pursuit to which they’ve devoted their lives. Looking around at the issues that beset us—social and racial inequality, poverty, terrorism, institutionalized sexism, and much more, all arrayed like a tapestry of woe beneath the gloomy specter of climate change—it’s easy to regard writing novels as an activity of spectacular uselessness. When we do try to rationalize it, we have a few stock answers at our disposal. The art of fiction, we say, is largely the art of empathy, or of training ourselves and our readers to take an interest in the lives of others, and even if the novel has rarely, if ever, changed the course of history, it encourages a habit of thinking outside ourselves that teaches us how to walk in another person’s shoes. (In theory, anyway. But you could also argue that it provides the illusion of empathy, a way of exercising or discharging our emotions that lets us off the hook when it comes to putting those impulses to work in the real world.) And it also turns us into skeptical, even agonistic generalists, capable of grasping complex systems of cause and effect, even if in practice we spend most of our time tackling excruciatingly specific problems of narrative, which often feels like constructing a cathedral out of toothpicks.

Deep down, though, I suspect that a lot of novelists nurture a secret hope. One day, we’ll break through with a major novel or work of nonfiction that will establish us in the sphere of public intellectuals. Glossy magazines and talk shows will solicit our opinions, whatever they are, and our voices will be heard on a range of subjects simply because everything we say is deemed to be interesting. Writing a decent novel, which is undeniably one of the most challenging projects a human being can undertake, is assumed to qualify us to think about other subjects. (Literary novelists, like chess players, have a way of seeing themselves as more intellectually fit than others, as Charles Colton said of mathematicians: “He will be in argument what the ancient Romans were in the field: to them the day of battle was a day of comparative recreation because they were ever accustomed to exercise with arms much heavier than they fought.”) And it can’t be an accident that so many of our most versatile intellectuals—Norman Mailer, Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Jean-Paul Sartre—either started in the novel or devoted a fair amount of attention to it. Thinking hard about reality and about problems of fiction feels like the same skill set directed into two different streams, and an accomplished writer should be able to switch effortlessly between one and the other.

Edmund Wilson

A glance at recent rankings of public intellectuals suggests that this ambition, to put it mildly, is misplaced. The most widely distributed list of this kind, published annually by Foreign Policy, includes just a handful of novelists or imaginative writers: Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, the late Chinua Achebe, J.M. Coetzee, Gao Xingjian, and maybe Michael Ignatieff, an author better known these days as the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. A most recent Prospect Magazine list adds a few more names to the pile: Hilary Mantel, Michel Houellebecq, Marilynne Robinson, and Arundhati Roy, who is returning to fiction after a lengthy sojourn in more political fields. For the most part, though, these lists are composed largely of academics, scientists, economists, and businessmen. You could attribute this partially to the decline of the novel as the central art form of our culture: these days, if an entertainer wanders into a position of punditry, he’s likely to look more like Russell Brand. But there’s also a real sense in which a good novelist might be less equipped than average to deal with the complicated problems of public life. Writing is so solitary, so focused on points of craft that have no application anywhere else, that it turns a serious novelist into a machine who can speak credibly on issues of fiction alone—and maybe not even then. And an ability with words only makes it easier to be convincingly wrong.

Yet the illusion persists. And it’s a useful one, at least to the extent that it allows intelligent people to stick with writing when they might have found a more acceptable outlet for their ambitions. I wouldn’t want to live in a world in which writing novels wasn’t seen as a worthwhile pursuit for raw talent. If I’m honest, though, I also find that part of the reason I was so annoyed with Jonathan Franzen’s attempt two years ago to inject himself into the climate change debate is that he’s one of the few authors who actually got the platform that every writer wants. There isn’t a novelist alive who doesn’t secretly wish that The New Yorker would give him space to speak out on whatever he perceives to be the central issue of our time. And Franzen squandered his chance on an argument that even his editors must have known was insupportable. Yet I have a hunch that most novelists would have responded in the same way. Along with being inherently neurotic, writers are often misguided, even perverse, in their social and political stances: they spend so much time willing themselves into the minds of others that they turn into creatures who aren’t like anyone else. Franzen is part of a proud tradition, stretching back through Mailer and Sontag and beyond, of novelists backing themselves into weird, indefensible positions. Writers aren’t reasonable; if they were, they wouldn’t try to be writers. And it’s good to keep this in mind whenever a writer—including this one—tries to give you advice.

Written by nevalalee

January 17, 2017 at 9:00 am

The Anatomy of Harold Bloom’s Influence

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The release of Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence, a grand summation of a life in letters by a major critic at the age of eighty, gives me a welcome excuse to reflect on the legacy of our leading reader, canonical champion, and defender of the great books. As I’ll point out below, Bloom has severe limitations as a critic of contemporary literature, and he’s often made himself into a figure of fun. His evolution from serious academic into something close to a brand name hasn’t been entirely painless. But there’s no doubt that he’s one of our greatest living intellectuals—his omission from both editions of the Prospect public intellectuals poll is a crime—and his impact on my own life and reading has been surprisingly substantial.

First, the bad news. Bloom has various minor shortcomings as a writer—notably his tendency to repeat himself endlessly, with slight variations, which makes me suspect that his books lack a strong editorial hand—but his real problem is that he no longer seems capable of discussing authors with anything other than unqualified praise or sweeping condemnation. When he’s talking about Shakespeare or Tolstoy, no one is more eloquent or insightful, but he seems incapable of performing nuanced readings of lesser writers. This leads him to brusquely dismiss certain authors of unquestioned canonicity, such as Poe, and into such travesties as his attack on the National Book Awards Medal for Stephen King, in which his only evidence was a critique, also completely nonfactual, of J.K. Rowling. (As I pointed out at the time, this is sort of like saying that Steven Spielberg can’t be a good director because Attack of the Clones was a lousy movie.)

It’s clear, then, that we shouldn’t turn to the current Bloom for credible opinions on contemporary culture, but for deep, almost aspirational readings on authors whose canonical eminence is undisputed. And he remains unmatched in this regard, both for his passion and his readability. At times, it isn’t clear what his point is, except to create in us a state of mind receptive to being changed by literature—which is a worthwhile goal in itself. And his isolated insights are often exceptional. His thoughts on the strangeness of the Yahwist—as in the uncanny moment in Exodus 4:24, for instance, when God tries to kill Moses—and his writings on Joseph Smith, whom he considers a great American prophet, have deeply influenced the novel I’m writing now. And his observations on sexual jealousy in Othello have shaped my understanding not only of that play, but of Eyes Wide Shut:

Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy  is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death. Men imagine that there can never be enough time and space for themselves, and they find in cuckoldry, real or imagined, the image of their own vanishing, the realization that the world will go on without them.

In recent years, Bloom has become less a literary critic than a sort of affable cheerleader, moving past his old polemics on “the age of resentment” to simply extoll the cause of close reading of great books for the pleasure they provide. It’s a simple message, but a necessary one, and one that he is qualified above all other living critics to convey, with his prodigious reading, infinite memory, and nervous, expansive prose. I’ve always been a sucker for canons—I tried to read all fifty-four volumes of the Britannica Great Books series in high school, came close to applying to a similar program at St. John’s College, and finally ended up in the Classics—and Bloom remains my primary gateway into the great books, as he is for many of us. For that, his influence has been incalculable, and I’m glad we still have him around.

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