Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Mission

The April issue of Harper's arrived this afternoon, and it has, as usual, lots of thought-provoking reading, including an essay by Cynthia Ozick on the current state of the American novel and its readership. Her survey contains some reflections on the inclinations of younger Americans to resist reading entirely. Here she cites and comments on a passage from Dennis Donoghue's New Criterion essay "Defeating the Poem" laying forth the now-familiar indictment:

In class, many students are ready to talk, but they want to talk either about themselves or about large-scale public themes, independent of the books they are supposedly reading. They are happy to denounce imperialism and colonialism rather than read Heart of Darkness, Kim, and A Passage to India in which imperialism and colonialism are held up to complex judgment. They are voluble in giving you their opinions on race and its injustices, but nearly tongue-tied when it is a question of submitting themselves to the languages of The Sound and the Fury, Things Fall Apart, and A Bend in the River. They find it arduous to engage with the styles of Hard Times and The Wings of the Dove, but easy to say what they think about industrialism, adultery, and greed.
So is that where the readers of the next generation are going: to the perdition of egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness? The case can be made...that these students will never evolve into discriminating readers. Then where are they going, if not to Faulkner and Achebe and Naipaul? The answer is almost too hackneyed. To the movies, to television (hours and hours); to Googling obsessively (hours and hours); to blogging and emailing and text-messaging; and, undoubtedly, also to People magazine, where the celebrity photos outnumber the words... The audience, or most of it, has gone the way of the typewriter and the television booth and fedoras and stockings with seams.

Ozick frames her entire essay, and the response to the question of What Is To Be Done, in terms of the alternative points of view represented by Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, who represent what might be called the populist school and the elitist school of literary standard-setting. But having considered both of them, she essentially calls for a pox on both their houses, arguing for the continued viability of the novel as a form, and shifting her focus to what she sees as the real problem, which lies with the novel's "ghostly twin," criticism:

The "fate of the novel," that overmasticated, flavorless wad of old chewing gum, is not in question. Novels, however they may manifest themselves, will never be lacking. What is missing is a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how they are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era. A novel, it goes without saying, is an idiosyncracy; it stands alone, it intends originality—and if it is commandeered by genius, it will shout originality. Yet the novels that crop up in any given period are like the individual nerves that make up a distinct but variegated sensation, or act in chorus to catch a face or a tone. What is missing is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism.
Ozick goes on to distinguish between reviewers, various categories of which she skewers with great accuracy and amusement, and critics, which she laments are members of "a phylum, that, at present, hardly exists..." The one critic she does hold up as an example of what others might aspire to is James Wood. I was taken both with the passage she chose to quote from Wood, and with her comment:

Our indebtedness, whether we like it or not, extends to, among other things: the fetishizing of visual detail; the inverted relation between background and foreground detail (or habitual and dynamic detail); the sacralization of art; the privileging of the music of style over the recalcitrance of 'unmusical' subject matter (Flaubert's famous desire to write a book about nothing); the agonizing over aesthetic labor—all this looks pretty new, and different in many ways from Balzac's great achievements and solutions, not least because these new Flaubertian anxieties cannot be solutions. You might say that Flaubert founds realism and simultaneously destroys it, by making it so aesthetic: fiction is real and artificial at once. And I could have added two other elements of modernity: the refinement of 'free indirect style'; and the relative plotlessness of Flaubert's novels. All this is why different writers—realists, modernists and postmodernists— from Stephen Crane to Ian McEwan, from Kafka to Nabokov to Robbe-Grillet, all owe so much to Flaubert, and have been so keen to lay claim to different novels of his.

Surely we have not heard a critical mind like this at work since Trilling's The Liberal Imagination. The key is indebtedness. The key is connectedness. If Wood cannot read Flaubert without thinking of McEwan, neither can he read McEwan without thinking of Flaubert. In this single densely packed paragraph (though he is not usually so compact), Wood reflects on how scenes are constructed; how art imitates faith; how aesthetics can either combine with or annihilate what passes for the actual world. And also: the relation of story to the language that consumes it, and the descent of literature not only from one nation to another but from one writer to another—all the while clinging to a unitary theme, the origin and nature of the modern.

All of the above is of more than marginal relevance to my sense of who I am as a reader, writer, and teacher. There's no question in my mind that the challenge of teaching students to become "discriminating readers" has gotten harder over time. And as a result, I feel like the stakes are higher: I've got to try to be better at what I do in order to compensate for the fact that the students may very well be not as well-prepared or as culturally inclined to do what I would like to try to help them do. Donoghue talks, earlier in the same essay, somewhat wistfully about what he used to try to do as a teacher:

I urged students to believe that the merit of reading a great poem, play, or novel consisted in the pleasure of gaining access to deeply imagined lives other than their own. Over the years, that opinion, still cogent to me, seems to have lost much of its persuasive force. Students seem to be convinced that their own lives are the primary and sufficient incentive. They report that reading literature is mainly a burden. Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in "creative writing" to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the idea that one learns to write by reading good writers.
Well, then, that's the dilemma. And that's what's going to get me up in tomorrow morning and back into the classroom, to see what I can do to get at least my own students to consider the possibility that they might be mistaken about that.

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