Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writers who Sit on Your Face

In the brilliant comic novel U.S.!, in which Chris Bachelder imagines what a continually resurrected Upton Sinclair would make of our world, there are many brilliantly hysterical riffs, jokes, and parodies, but my favorite is the review of Pharmaceutical!, the novel our 120 year-old hero would be writing. (I remembered it as a Times review although it's actually not labelled as such, but hey, it's a Times review.)
Sinclair never understood that art and polemic do not mix, that great and lasting art has no authorial agenda. Novels are not tracts or pamphlets; they do not serve to convince readers of anything. A novel may ask questions, but a good one never supplies an answer. In the long history of Western Literature, in the Natural Selection of Great Books, we can clearly see that the survivors are those that aspire to a timeless and organic Beauty and not those that are written to support an autoworker's strike.
Only the Natural Selection bit is a tip off - the rest you could find on any given Sunday. And just like on the editorial page, it's always anyone tainted red, or some progressive variant thereof - who has to answer for the great sin of Ideology against Beauty.

I think of this riff every time I read something like this. Carmen Callil is an Australian-born author who has spent her writing life in England, the founder of Virago Press and the author of a book on Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy's go-to man for aiding the deportations. She made the news recently for resigning as a judge from the Man Booker International Prize because she didn't like the winner they picked. Now, this is perhaps an odd thing to do, but normally you'd expect it to be discussed in terms of how much more contentious the British are about books, something American writers often describe with not a little longing and envy. But because the writer whose book she didn't like is Philip Roth, and because Virago is a feminist press, she had clearly committed the sin of Ideology against Greatness. She was a accused of "ideologically inspired illiteracy" and, of course, "misunderstand[ing] what a novel is" - that by Jonathan Jones who wondered if she was disturbed by "a terrible scar of monotonous male sexuality" - whatever that might possibly be. Laura Miller gamely tries to defend Callil, pointing out what Callil actually said, which was in part
Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist.
This is a pretty straight-forward and non-controversial thing to say - in fact, it's something Roth's alter-ego Zuckerman might have said about himself. Miller tries to argue that these are "legitimate aesthetic reservations" that don't deserve to be branded as ideological. One understands the impulse, but this hard line between the aesthetic and the moral never works. After all, if Roth's only and ultimate topic is the self (and yes, one could argue this is true of every novelist, but leaving that aside for a moment), surely one manifestation of this is that every woman one comes across will likely be a projection of that self, its desires, or its fears. I happen to enjoy all of this - I like listening to a self wind and weave, I like sex, ego, and self-involvement as themes, and I prefer a world in which women are projections to a world like Cormac McCarthy's where they mostly don't exist. But surely this is a matter of taste - and one not unaffected by my own particularities of class, temperament and Jewishness - and not a question of Greatness.

Which is of course the point: it would be much better if, when Callil said "he goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe" - his defenders had said something to the effect of "how interesting! I for one enjoy this topic enough for a hundred books, and in fact, I rather enjoy having my face sat upon." (Because come on, it's a pretty accurate description.) Wouldn't that be a better tribute to the liberation of sex and ego than the usual pap about Transcendent Greatness and Beauty?

Of course, then, how would we know who to give the prizes to? Maybe it's the need to award and rank that's the real ideology here.


  1. Interestingly, I had this exact argument about Roth at the wedding I was at last month. Dude I was talking to made a defense actually quite similar to your hypothetical one here (tho not as colorful).

    Also, did you see this great example of how much can count as art, for the argument that art and feminism don't mix?

  2. So what did you argue, vis a vis Roth?

    Funny link. Such a den of progressives, that Hollywood.

  3. I argued that Algren is better than Roth because of the greater breadth of his sympathies.

  4. Ok, this summer I need to get to Algren. Where should I start?

  5. Interesting post. I actually haven't read any Roth, but my first thought on all this is, if his stuff is sexist, isn't he using his work to promote an ideology as well? But I guess promoting a dominant ideology doesn't count...only those who argue against mainstream ideologies can truly be "ideological," right? ;)

  6. Hi Bridget -

    Yes, that's the way the conversation usually goes with folks like the Times book review. In Roth's case, I don't think he promotes sexism exactly - he just reflects his own confused blend of reactions to the sexual revolution (still all these years later). Which is fine - it's just amusing to me that some one whose writing is so personal, even quirky, gets talked about in such reverential This-Is-The-Human-Condition way.