14 February 2005

The Way Out Is In

On the psychological novel

The exteriorizing of literature (in public performances, readings, photographs) may be a necessary promotional means by which publishers, increasingly uncertain about what will sell, try to perplex the judgment of readers with extraneous selling points. The truly dangerous thing is when writers take these values up for themselves and internalize them.

Writers always read work to their friends. Kafka read outloud to Max Brod and pals in the cafes of Prague, laughing all the way through The Trial; and Flaubert’s two best friends, after a marathon reading of several days, told him not to publish the first Temptation of St. Anthony, because it sucked.

The peril of current practices is that a guild mentality emerges. This is distinct from literary friendship, and it’s no friend to literature. As soon as you hear behind the bookish chatter, “We’re all writers here, what’s to disagree about?” you know we’re sunk, intellectually. Everybody thinks, but there’s no consensus among thinkers; everybody can write, so why should there be a vocational solidarity among writers? The essence of writing is that it’s expressive of ideas and technique—and the primary truth about other people’s ideas and other people’s art is that mostly they will be distinct from and opposed to your own. The guild mentality reinforces a sense that writers don’t do anything threatening, either to the general public or one another. Already guildishness has nearly strangled poetry, and its hands are at fiction’s neck. PEN exists to make sure nobody is being tortured or imprisoned for writing; that’s all the solidarity that’s good for literature.

The guild mentality may start as a defense against a brutal economy trading in celebrity and publicity. Finally it collaborates with these exteriorizing trends. The eagerness to be liked, the need to be noticed, the meretricious desire for gasps and chuckles, gradually infect the writing itself.

It’s natural that writers think in terms of celebrity and notoriety—they belong to our society, they can’t help it. But what can justify that flourishing parasitism, the historical celebrity novel? Bad enough that our coevals write about frontier America, the belle Èpoque, and the old-fashioned freak show, since all historical fiction deprives the author of his sole expertise: the contemporary. But what’s really disgraceful is the novel about Lewis and Clark, or Henry James, or Chang and Eng. (Several years ago there were twin novels about these Siamese twins.) The strong novel creates and releases Anna Karenina or Alexander Portnoy, nonexistent persons who deserve surpassing fame. The weak novel clamps its mouth to the already famous and ekes out a life from borrowed blood. The dizzy publisher encourages this because he knows that Fatty Arbuckle or Fyodor Dostoevsky have already got a fan base.

The novel’s anxiety to have a ready-made public makes it less and less deserving of one. The novel needs to get over the 19th century. For about a hundred years it was the dominant art form of bourgeois civilization. Since then, as if unwilling to resign its old position, it’s tried to contend with the movies and TV, not to mention long nonfiction articles in the New Yorker. Now it tries to rival the stand-up routine and, in novel-memoir, the daytime talk show. How absurd was the effort of Robbe-Grillet to make writing into a kind of film! How silly of Tom Wolfe to think the novel should compete with journalism on the one ground—information-gathering—where it can’t! Someone should tell the novel that it is not and never was dying; those death throes were just the feeling of a monopoly ending, the shortness of breath that comes with loss of market share. Let the comedians, the lip-gloss models, the movie directors, the journalists and historians be. Their work may be inferior to the novelist’s, but they do it better than he does.

The novel is unexcelled at one thing only: the creation of interiority, or inwardness. How does life look and sound from the inside, where no public observes it and not even a friend listens in? No better instrument than prose fiction was ever developed for answering this question. Beside the novel at its best, even Wallace Stevens is a bumbling simile-monger and Tarkovsky a crude footage-purveyor. That’s not the half of it, you say, that’s just rococo phenomenology, that’s pantheistic camera work. You want “the one bright book of life,” as Lawrence called it. Lawrence had the novelist’s proper arrogance: “I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of man alive, but never get the whole hog.”

But to deliver up the whole interior hog, the writer needs to forget even the small sympathetic public seated attentively on gray metal folding chairs. The writer fails if he tries to become a useful tool, a hot commodity, even an objet d’art. He has to be something more like a set of passive measuring devices: perceptual calipers, emotional wristwatch, barometer of manners, historical astrolabe, social Richter scale. The measuring device never thinks about how it comes across—the question is absurd. What comes into the mind, what comes through the living person? Answer these questions with precision, and actual art has a chance.

It would be tragic to think of inwardness as an artifact of modernism, a trip that started in Flaubert’s Yonville, passed through Musil’s Kakania and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, and came to an end in Beckett’s glass jar. Inwardness does not confine itself to Axel’s castle or reside exclusively in the long-winded periods of Proust. The sharp sigh you hear in one of Fitzgerald’s disappointed aperçus is as interior a thing as Proust’s most byzantine reminiscence. Fitzgerald, come to think of it, was as corrupt as any of us: vain, covetous, in need of fame. But he possessed the vital discipline of seeing what happens when you’re alone. A novelist who isn’t truly alone when he writes will never provide a reader worthwhile company.

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