September 3, 2016
You may begin because someone says you’ve got to read this. Or because it’s assigned. Or because everyone or a few people or even one person you respect seems to think you should. Or maybe you’ve run across an intriguing reference, a compelling review (“compelling”–a reviewer’s and copywriter’s word, once “fascinating” and “intriguing” have gone out of fashion). It’s in the canon. It’s the hot new thing. But once you’ve begun, made the investment of time, money, effort, what makes you stick with the book?
When the Claire Messud kerfuffle over likable characters came to my attention, I was in the middle of reviewing Frederick Barthelme’s There Must Be Some Mistake. Messud had gotten shirty about an interviewer’s question about whether the angry narrator of her novel, The Woman Upstairs, was someone she’d want to be friends with. To be precise, Messud had said, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov?” Etc., putting herself in very good company, by the way. This answer was roundly applauded. Messud was interviewed about the perniciousness of the likability imperative (and the probable component of gender in the question–would a male author have been asked?), and panels sprang up to debate the issue (in the New Yorker, for instance, where Messud’s husband, James Wood, is a critic of fiction). So many writers had just had it with readers who wanted to like characters, it seemed, that a pent-up wish to be free of such constraints finally found an opportunity for passionate expression, the most immediate of which, of course, were the comments responding to the interview itself, in Publishers Weekly. “Amen and well done, Messud,” and “Love how she shoots the interviewer down,” and the like. The interviewer herself (Annasue McCleave Wilson) quickly demurred: “Don’t worry about the ‘poor reporter,'” she said, ” The fact of the matter is that Messud and I had a much more expansive conversation about why readers read and why writers write, and it came down to the deep desire of both to explore literature in order to learn how to live.” Messud had in fact earlier said this very thing, in biblical terms: “If I had to summarize, most broadly, my concerns as a writer, I’d say the question ‘how then must we live?’ is at the heart of it, for me.”
I have been on both sides of painful interviews and have nothing but admiration for the fierce intelligence of Claire Messud, but the question of whether a reader might want to be friends with a character, however reductive, is not one that can be so easily dismissed. If Messud as a writer asks “How then must we live?” mightn’t the reader ask the same question? If a novel, in some form, however oblique, proposes an answer, then isn’t a model for living implied? And isn’t the answer, and that model, one that must somehow appeal to, connect with, elicit sympathy or better yet empathy from a reader? What else, in whatever terms, do we ask of a friend? Nora Eldridge, Messud’s narrator in The Woman Upstairs, is frustrated, betrayed, angry, yes, but for this to mean anything at all a reader must care about her and her plight.
This especially struck me at the moment, because the greatest virtue of the book I was reviewing just then was, I thought, its congeniality. It was oddly reassuring to curl up with a book by Frederick Barthelme, I said in my review, “because in his world we seem to be near the stultifying dead end of normality, a suburban condo development where we find all the noise and kitsch and detritus of our day awash in a soft pastel twilight” and yet, “the light’s lovely, and we’re in good company.” I was reminded of John Cheever, one writer I love among many, but the only one whose death brought me to tears. Even when this happened, I wondered at it, at how the sensibility of this writer, known to me only through his novels and stories, made the world a friendlier, more habitable place.
I was reminded of this more recently by the death of another writer, Jenny Diski, whose copious, intensely revealing, and marvelously spiky writing about her troubled youth and the cancer that ultimately killed her was taken very personally by any number of readers. Too personally, as Robert Hanks, writing in The Guardian, recalled: “People write to me sometimes, and they say that they know me. And of course I know they don’t know me,” Diski told him. “‘There is a need for readers to have a sort of personal relationship with writers, which is why you get so much shit’ – she spits the word out – ‘about whether a book is good. Are the characters believable? Or is the plot good? The mediocrity of fiction is really to do with feeling cosy, and that you’ve got a nice friend sitting in your lap telling you a nice story. I’ve never been a nice friend sitting in anyone’s lap. I just wanted to write stuff down in shapes, really.’”
Just so, the artist Mark Rothko, whose paintings are an immersive experience without overt narrative, writes in The Artist’s Reality: “The artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of the canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space, entering into mysterious recesses. . . . That the artist will have the spectator pause at certain points and will regale him with especial seductions at others is an additional factor helping to maintain interest. In fact, the journey might not be undertaken at all were it not for the promise of these especial favors.”
In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West recalls crying out to her nurse, on October 9, 1934: “‘Switch on the telephone. I must speak to my husband at once. A most terrible thing has happened. The King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.’ ‘Oh, dear!’ she replied. ‘Did you know him?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Then why,’ she asked, ‘do you think it’s so terrible?'” Her question, West goes on in her mordant way, “made me remember that the word ‘idiot’ comes from a Greek root meaning private person.”
It seems to me that it is in the nature of fiction that the “privateness” of the person is penetrated, that the murder of the King of Yugoslavia is made personal, that just as the standard bearer runs forward for the sake of his comrades at Borodin, in War and Peace and no doubt in real-life battle, the reader keeps pace with the writer because of a fellow feeling. In his introduction to one edition, Geoff Dyer says of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that it is a “vast, ambitious and complex book which repeatedly stresses the kinship between homely and universal truths. By making a cake for friends, West insists, ‘one is striking a low note on a scale that is struck higher up by Beethoven and Mozart’.”
James Joyce spent seventeen years writing Finnegan’s Wake and is reported to have said that he expected people to spend seventeen years reading it. That’s one kind of novel, but then there are those novelists who are making cake for friends. There are those who are issuing an invitation. Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, speaking at Concordia College about reading for pleasure, recalled a favorite English professor, a tiny white haired woman who arrived at school on her bike every day, even in January (this in Minnesota) who, when her class was embarking upon reading a difficult book (she taught early British literature, daunting for many of her undergrads) reminded them that they were not reading, they were traveling. And when you travel, she reminded them, what do you do? Keep your head down, your eyes open, and listen. Because you barely know the language, and the customs and conventions are different–and your own customs and conventions mean nothing here, so leave them aside and look around. And if you really give yourself up to the experience, as with travel, when you emerge at the end, your world will be a bigger place.