Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I know a young man who is currently doing his doctoral dissertation examining the nature of characters in novels who die. What does it mean to create a character whose fate is predestined to such doom? This is potentially an interesting question, potentially because it will be so only insofar as this fellow remembers – and makes manifestly clear in his dissertation – that a character is, by definition, a literary device. If he gets caught up in the deep weeds of characters as persons, well, then he might as well have done his dissertation on the uses of narrative in Surreal Life.

I thought of this young man, the son of close friends, on my way back from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, pulling out of my computer bag an old copy of The Nation that I’d brought along with me to read, the December 4th issue to be exact. In it, William Deresiewicz has what can only be termed an appalling review of Franco Moretti’s two volume anthology of essays on The Novel, which he goes after with the tenacity of a pit bull for all of the perceived sins of “distant reading” and quantitative analysis. But that’s not what’s appalling – while I’ve made use of quantitative analysis myself from time to time, I see no particular reason to defend Moretti, whose work I’ve read in New Left Review on occasion, but which I’ve never found either memorable or useful.

Rather it’s the grounds on which Deresiewicz predicates what he imagines – hallucinates – to be a defense of the literary that I find shocking. Here is one such passage:

Fictionality enables the identification, the chief of readerly pleasures, because it frees us from moral responsibility toward those about whom we read, but it also enables self-reflection, the chief of readerly virtues. Fictionality allows us to imagine (not fantasize) – an act that is not only not anti-intellectual but is in fact supra-intellectual, for it integrates intellect with feeling. The truths that the reading of fiction brings us are not factual and specific but general and philosophical – what earlier ages called wisdom.

This crude formula is patently crap. Not only is it not true – as I shall demonstrate shortly – but it reveals precisely why the novel and literature have been largely displaced by the “reading” of bric-a-brac and the popular culture of different ages. I would go further to argue that what Deresiewicz describes here is not reading at all, but rather a pre-literate response to writing. I see no evidence here that I should even call him literate, tho in fact he teaches English at Yale and “is working on a cultural history of modern friendship.”

Identification with characters is what the novel has in common with cinema, what it has in common with Desperate Housewife and My Name is Earl, what in fact it ultimately has in common with reality TV shows like Top Chef or Surreal Life. Empathic identification is possible, perhaps even plausible in all these forms. The questions of race, class, national background & gender when, in Surreal Life, Flavor Flav & Brigitte Nielsen got together are hardly less real, nor less fully envisioned, just because as characters they inhabited a reality show than because, say, Thomas Hardy didn’t imagine them first.

One does not read Ulysses because one is interested, “chief of readerly pleasures,” in the lives of an ad salesman & a self-important fop. One does not read Gravity’s Rainbow out of a concern for Tyrone Slothrop & his curious anatomical anomaly. One may, in fact, read what Deresiewicz calls “weepies” or what Jonathan Franzen imagined (with horror) as the “Oprah novel” that his own book was being lumped together with, on such terms. But this would be no different than reading a Robert Parker Spenser novel because the detective is “sensitive,” and his black sidekick Hawk, inscrutable and lethal, makes a virtue of the worst racist stereotypes. When Deresiewicz frets that

I don’t just want the students of tomorrow reading Dan Brown and John Grisham and Jackie Collins for what those authors might show them about our culture. I want them reading Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy for what those authors will teach them about ourselves.

he finds himself arguing not in terms of what makes these two sets of authors different, but rather that which makes them the same. No wonder Deresiewicz finds himself having to defend this version of reading and the texts it privileges from the likes of Moretti. It’s not, in fact, reading at all.

What separates James Joyce, say, from Robert Parker is not that one writes deeply of the human condition & the other not. Indeed, from a character-centric perspective, one could probably make a credible case that it is Parker, not Joyce, who offers us greater depth. But what Parker doesn’t do, has no hope of doing, is not to offer us greater depth not into Spenser the detective or Leopold Bloom, but of himself. What separates mediocre literature from the great is the access the latter affords into great thinking – how it perceives, how it shapes, what it hears, how it sounds. We can, if we wish, think of this process as identification, tho it is not that of identifying with a character, but with the author. It is the author’s mind that Wordsworth confronts crossing the alps in The Prelude, and it is the author’s mind we greet in Beloved, or even, for that matter, in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, that’s exactly what’s wrong with Dan Brown & John Grisham – they are shallow human beings who have very limited experience of the world. Not because they haven’t done or seen things, but because of the very real limits of their imagination. There is no particular reason for a reader to focus on the same dimensions of their work as we might find in Faulkner (or Gertrude Stein) simply because, at that level, not much is going on.

One could say much the same about Deresiewicz. When he writes that

what distinguishes fiction that’s worth reading closely from fiction that isn’t is precisely what [Catherine] Gallagher might call representativeness. Literary power is the power to tell stories in a way that makes you feel like the author is talking about you.

Deresiewicz is presenting, almost point for point, Althusser’s definition of ideology as that which appears to call your name. The sort of pre-literate narcissistic identification he’s talking about isn’t even reading – that’s why this level of literature has proven so readily drainable into other forms, whether it be the comic book or TV sitcom. It is not unique to either the novel or even to the book.

Reading begins – literacy begins – only at the point where the reader understands enough about the text not to get trapped by a subdomain like the author’s characters and actually starts to read the author. The same is true with watching movies, or even, dare I say, The Sopranos or West Wing. There’s a reason why the latter tanked when writer Aaron Sorkin stalked off into the sunset, and it wasn’t because Josh and Donna finally slept together, or because Jimmy Smits is a wooden actor. Just as there are many reasons why the “Two Cathedrals” episode of West Wing remains the finest single hour of fictional TV ever – choosing, for example, to run the final six minutes of action over Dire Straits’ recording of “Band of Brothers,” as the president stands in the rain outside the West Wing before driving past the National Cathedral to address a press conference in which he must announce, having just admitted keeping his MS a secret from voters & even colleagues, whether or not he’ll seek re-election, is not about the characters – you can’t even call it writing in the strict sense. Yet it is clearly part of what any intelligent viewer “reads” when they watch the episode. As the late John Spencer says among the final words of the episode: Watch this.

This should be so obvious as to be required information for a degree from any high school in this country. That is what makes an article like this so embarrassing, even in a midcult rag like The Nation. When critics complain about the “difficulty” of modern poetry (or the so-called postmodern novel), it’s stuff like this piece in that makes you realize just how very simple literature is going to have to be to reach a pre-reader like William Deresiewicz.


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