Zadie Smith, “This is How It Feels To Me”

“THIS IS HOW IT FEELS TO ME” – The Guardian, October 13, 201

The byline of Zadie Smith’s piece, “Last week James Wood blasted modern fiction, calling for a return to feeling from self-conscious cleverness in the wake of the terrorist attacks,” promises a bolder and braver response than the young Smith delivers. Though she explains her point of view, she says later that this interaction shaped and changed her writing – her later novels are far more “modernist” and “realist” in tone (NW is a “London novel” in the olden sense). Here is Smith’s self-effacing beginning:

The critic James Wood appeared in this paper last Saturday aiming a hefty, well-timed kick at what he called “hysterical realism”.It is a painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth and a few others he was sweet enough to mention. These are hysterical times; any novel that aims at hysteria will now be effortlessly outstripped – this was Wood’s point, and I’m with him on it. In fact, I have agreed with him several times before, in public and in private, but I appreciate that he feared I needed extra warning; that I might be sitting in my Kilburn bunker planning some 700-page generational saga set on an incorporated McDonald’s island north of Tonga. Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

At least she’s funny. Here Smith begins to explore with a bit more nuance some of her issues with Wood’s critique:

The first is this: any collective term for a supposed literary movement is always too large a net, catching significant dolphins among so much cannable tuna. You cannot place first-time novelists with literary giants, New York hipsters with Kilburn losers, and some of the writers who got caught up with me are undeserving of the criticism. In particular, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth beast Infinite Jest was heaved in as an exemplum, but it is five years old, and is a world away from his delicate, entirely “human” short stories and essays of the past two years, which shy away from the kind of totalising theoretical and thematic arcs that Wood was gunning for. If anyone has recently learned a lesson about the particularities of human existence and their separation from social systems, it is Wallace. But even if this were not true, frankly, literature is – or should be – a broad church. Whatever the weaknesses of the various writers Wood mentioned, I don’t believe he would wish for a literary landscape missing a book such as Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or DeLillo’s White Noise; the very books, in fact, which have cast such a tremendous shadow over two generations of American and English fiction.

What Smith points to again is a kind of multiplicity at the intertextual level of readership that her own novel seeks to create in a world she has written:

I read Flaubert and Nabokov for the varicoloured intimacies of life; I read Zora Neale Hurston to hear the songs of love and earth, and I read White Noise to experience, yes, a Frankfurt school comedy, in which every boy, girl, man, woman, black, white, lesbian, Jew and Muslim speaks in exactly the same way: like DeLillo.

Here she does the same move as Wood on what writers “can” and “cannot” do, which I don’t love:

We cannot be all the writers all the time. We can only be who we are. Which leads me to my second point: writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.

She discusses the pains of writing, the resistance to encyclopaedic knowledge, the call to arms in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for “a look to power sources.”

Except… er… it turns out that the plot is horrendously simple. It has to do with things like faith. Revenge. Poverty. God. Hatred. So what now? Does anyone want to know the networks behind those seeming simplicities, the paths that lead from September 11 back to Saudi Arabia and Palestine, and then back to Israel, back further to the second world war, back once more to the first? Does anyone care what writers think about that? Does it help? Or shall we sing of love and drawing rooms and earth and children and all that is small and furry and wounded? Must we produce what you want, anyway? I have absolutely no idea.

But still I’m going to write. If only because Wood is right; there are still books that make me hopeful, because they function as human products in the greatest sense. Bellow’s Seize the Day, Melville’s “Bartleby”, Nabokov’s Pnin – works that stubbornly speak and resonate, even in these image-led, speechless times. But it is a trick of the light that makes us suppose these books exist in soulful opposition to more recent examples of “dialectical devilry”. These books are works of high artifice, and there isn’t a decent novel in this world that isn’t; their humanity derives from their reverence for language, their precision, their intellect and, more than anything, from their humour.

It’s all laughter in the dark – the title of a Nabokov novel and still the best term for the kind of writing I aspire to: not a division of head and heart, but the useful employment of both.

But he might see even that question as too intellectual in approach. I think Wood is hinting at an older idea that runs from Plato to the boys booming a car stereo outside my freaking window: soul is soul. It cannot be manufactured or schematised. It cannot be dragged kicking and screaming through improbable plots. It cannot be summoned by a fact or dismissed by a cliché. These are the famous claims made for “soul” and they lead with specious directness to an ancient wrestling match, invoked by Wood: the inviolability of “soul” versus the evils of self-consciousness and wise-assery, otherwise known as sophism.

Thus Wood’s advice to Smith is “be more human… I wonder what to do with that one.” This becomes the strongest part of Smith’s response – how she demonstrates the way in which these novels are working with cultural materials in exciting ways Wood does not see:

I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on pages that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel and what James Wood feels; that is, this fear that has got us all by the throat. He argues against silence and against intellectual obfuscation. He says: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatised (again, in White Noise), it is difficult to discuss feelings when the TV speaks so loudly; cries so operatically; seems always, in everything, one step ahead. Yet people continue to manage this awesome trick of wrestling sentiment away from TV’s colonisation of all things soulful and human, and I would applaud all the youngish Americans – Franzen, Moody, Foster Wallace, Eggers, Moore – for their (supposedly) small but, to me, significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation – brain and heart – present in their fiction.

Even if you find them obtuse, they can rarely be accused of cliché, and that – as Amis has argued so well recently – is the place where everything dies… I truly hope they are not cowed by these renewed assaults on “clever writing”, calls for the “death of irony”, the “return of heart”. There was always a great deal of “heart”, of humanity, in these writers.

Smith seems to give a credit to American tradition, rather than accusing it of corrupting her work: “Sometimes it seems purely an American trick, this ability to draw the universe, as Carver and Fitzgerald did, into a circumscribed artificial, yet human, space.” Smith considers whether the novel itself still has value as a genre, something 9/11 has made her think about:

Most mornings I think: death of the novel? Yeah, sure, why not? The novel is not an immutable fact of human artistic life, after all, just a historically specific phenomenon that came and will go unless there are writers who have the heart, the brain and, crucially, the cojones to keep it alive.

She turns to the shorter novel (reminds me of what Woolf says about women’s writing!): “Personally, I find myself more and more struck by controlled little gasps of prose, as opposed to the baggy novel… Which seems the exact opposite of the American/ English instinct: I must cover the world in my shit immediately.” Her conclusion is uncertain and multiple, for which I am grateful. She speaks to Wood, but she is also speaking back:

Is it this reverence, this care, this suppression of ego that Wood wants to see from us? It is what I want to see from myself, but whether I will manage it is another matter. It will take sympathy – a natural instinct, a sentimental reflex – but it will also take empathy, which I still contend is largely a matter for the intellect. Your brain must be up for it, for making that necessary leap. At the moment, my brain feels like catfood. So I may never prove to be much of a writer – a real writer, the kind I like to read – but then again, maybe I will. I’m not sure how much it matters any more. But we shall see.

 

 

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James Wood, “Human, All Too Inhuman” & “Tell Me How Does it Feel

“HUMAN, ALL TOO INHUMAN” – August 30, 2001 – New Republic

Taking its title from the first work of aphorisms by Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human), James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is most famous for its coinage of the term “hysterical realism” (a term of dubious value in any case, but especially, I think, because he coins it in reviewing a female novelist). Wood begins by diagnosing a “hardening genre” of novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens:

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to describe the contemporary idea of the “big, ambitious novel.” Familial resemblances are asserting themselves, and a parent can be named: he is Dickens. Such recent novels as The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Mason & Dixon, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and now White Teeth overlap rather as the pages of an atlas expire into each other at their edges. A landscape is disclosed–lively and varied and brightly marked, but riven by dead gullies.

(The image of the atlas here would make a fascinating comparison with David Mitchell… It’s so close to the goal of that book that one almost wonders if it was his inspiration!)

The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned.

Creating an imaginary description of a novel culled from many styles, James Wood jokes about improbable names like Toby Awknotuby (perhaps as in Pynchon), twins in Delhi with the same “genital mutilation” (perhaps as in Rushdie), the cult study of Wordsworth by Hell’s Angels (perhaps as in DeLillo), and weird character traits that occurred at specific moments in history (perhaps as in David Foster Wallace). The problem with this for Wood is that it occurs before the character has “done a thing, or thought a thought!”

Zadie Smith is added to this tradition because of her own twins, “silly acronym[s],” and farfetched scientific claptrap. “This is not magical realism,” Wood famously says, “It is hysterical realism.”

“Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked. Appropriately, then, objections [by whom?] are not made at the level of verisimilitude, but at the level of morality [oh dear]: this style of writing is not to be faulted because it lacks reality–the usual charge against botched realism–but because it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cock-up, but a cover-up.

Underworld’s “calm profusion” has “a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added.” This fearful continuity (what I want to consider as vital to seriality and faceting), conceals a sort of mindlessness for Wood, as he reveals when he puns on the “lights are on, but nobody’s home” cliche: “Bright lights are taken as evidence of habitation.”

What are these stories evading? One of the awkwardnesses evaded is precisely an awkwardness about the possibility of novelistic storytelling. This in turn has to do with an awkwardness about character and the representation of character… they clothe real people who could never actually endure the stories that happen to them… they are stories which defy the laws of persuasion… what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness. One cult is convincing; three cults are not.

I find myself rather confused about what it is, for Wood, that distinguishes these recent works from earlier postmodernism, such as White Noise, The Crying of Lot 49, even Pale Fire or The Golden Notebook! This obsession with network and profusion seems to me a hallmark of the fiction of the era, rather than a swerve of the 1990s. Take this description, which is not only a perfect description of The Crying of Lot 49, but also the essence of its genius (which Wood, apparently, does not admit):

An endless web is all they need for meaning. Each of these novels is excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels. (There is something essentially paranoid about the belief that everything is connected to everything else.)

What interests me in Wood’s critique is the way that his critique of these novels seems to me to be their very strength; he seems to want to hold to a model of the novel as a fixed, unchanging genre. And it’s not even so much that this is all new; it is rather its return to 19th century convention with a contemporary twist that irks him:

These novelists proceed like street-planners of old in South London: they can never name a street Ruskin Street without linking a whole block, and filling it with Carlyle Street, and Turner Street, and Morris Street, and so on.

In a mode similar to the social realist novel of the 19th century, these novels emphasize forces or ideas over characters, for Wood:

Life is never experienced with such a fervid intensity of connectedness… real humans disaggregate more often than they congregate. So these novels find themselves in the paradoxical position of enforcing connections that are finally conceptual rather than human. The forms of these novels tell us that we are all connected–by the Bomb (DeLillo), or by myth (Rushdie), or by our natural multiracial multiplicity (Smith); but it is a formal lesson rather an actual enactment.

Paradoxically, this is what I find so formally interesting about the novels Wood criticizes. In fact, I think their multiple characters, which drop in and out of lives, are more like a certain kind of realism (we try to make patterns around characters that disappear), and the emphasis on ideas and forces clearly has something to do with a rising awareness of and interaction with systems, technology, and globalization, which the novel cannot help but assimilate and explore. The novel, as Bakhtin points out, swallows up genres and ideas and modes of parlance. Its form of mimesis must change as the world changes (think of Benjamin’s argument about society, or Stendhahl’s mirror vs faceting…) What if the experiment of David Mitchell is the “Time Passes” section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse taken to its most fecund point for a new age? Wood argues that these characters have no character (I almost think he means morality…):

All these contemporary deformations flow from a crisis that is not only the fault of the writers concerned, but is now of some lineage: the crisis of character, and how to represent it in fiction. Since modernism, many of the finest writers have been offering critique and parody of the idea of character, in the absence of convincing ways to return to an innocent mimesis. Certainly, the characters who inhabit the big, ambitious contemporary novels have a showy liveliness, a theatricality, that almost succeeds in hiding the fact that they are without life: liveliness hangs off them like jewelry.

Smith is ‘not as bad’ as some of the others, like Rushdie. Sometimes we feel sympathy and interest for her characters. “Clearly, Smith does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is that there is too much of it.” What he finally betrays is his distrust of the novels’ surfaces:

As realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward the consciousness of a truly devoted religionist. It is all shiny externality, all caricature.

Wood acknowledges that many great writers used types (I’m yawning at Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as the examples he gives, not only because it’s dull to extol the 19th century Russian writers at the expense of Dickens, etc., but because it’s not even true, especially of Tolstoy. Two writers could not differ more than they do…). The novels he offers as counterexamples include Buddenbrooks, “written by a writer only a year older than Zadie Smith” (yes! by Thomas Mann! In 1901!), as well as the “less great” Nausea by Sartre and Camus’ The Plague. Wood’s praise is that these engage the same “unreal, symbolic vitality” of hysterical realism, but attach it to ‘real’ characters.

Wood’s problem with the style of the contemporary novel seems mainly to lie in its abandonment of the Jamesian ideal of the individual bourgeois ego unfolding in a psychically complex way to the reader over time. The modernist novels he cites are all written this way; thus he implicitly endorses contemporary novels in the vein of Ishiguro and McEwan – replays of realism and modernism, for which I find them far less interesting – rather than the likes of Smith, Mitchell, and the American writers. (Where would Byatt fall, in his view? She does both so expertly…) Of course this is where we arrive at Dickens:

Many of Dickens’s characters are, as Forster [in Aspects of the Novel] rightly put it, flat but vibrating very fast. They are vivid blots of essence. They are souls seen only through thick, gnarled casings. Their vitality is a histrionic one. Dickens has been the overwhelming influence on postwar fiction, especially postwar British fiction [Spark, Naipaul, Smith].

Here again, Wood prioritizes Forster’s ancient idea of “flat” and “round” characters over any new and vital possibilities for the novel (he also folds Bellow and De Lillo in at this juncture). Here’s where it gets really rude:

One obvious reason for the popularity of Dickens among contemporary novelists is that his way of creating and propelling theatrically alive characters offers an easy model for writers unable, or unwilling, to create characters who are fully human… He shows a novelist how to get a character launched, if not how to keep him afloat, and this glittering liveliness is simply easier to copy, easier to figure out, than the recessed and deferred complexities of, say, Henry James’s character-making. Put bluntly, Dickens makes caricature respectable for an age in which, for various reasons, it has become hard to create character.

But it gets worse:

Yet that is not all there is in Dickens, which is why most contemporary novelists are only his morganatic heirs. There is in Dickens also an immediate access to strong feeling, which rips the puppetry of his people, breaks their casings, and lets us enter them.

For Wood, no one cries and has outbursts of feeling in these novels (I feel like we are reading different novels… What of all the tears in Zadie Smith? Or Jack and his wife in White Noise? Oedipa’s tears in Lot 49?) Here again with the priority of the individual psyche:

It is now customary to read 700-page novels, to spend hours and hours within a fictional world, without experiencing anything really affecting, sublime, or beautiful.This is partly because some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.

Wood doesn’t seem to consider that perhaps it isn’t that these authors can’t write a certain way, but that they want to explore the world this way. His horrible dismissal of pop culture and film makes it clearer still that he seems to fall on the aesthetic side of the curmudgeonly Adorno (rather than fun-having Benjamin): “It is this, and the use made of Dickens, that connects DeLillo and the reportorial Tom Wolfe, despite the literary distinction of the former and the cinematic vulgarity of the latter.” Zadie Smith heself, Wood points out, admits that “none of us” have yet gotten the balance of information and character right… yet.

Ironically, the moments of Smith’s novel that “glow” for Wood, that are “better” than Rushdie, are actually the descriptions of “a recognizable English type… receding,” another weird way in which even his valorizations (of an old white dude in a young novel bursting with multiculturalism) seem to completely miss the point of the text at hand.

About her, one is tempted to apply Orwell’s remark that Dickens had rotten architecture but great gargoyles. The architecture is the essential silliness of her lunge for multiplicities–her cults and cloned mice and Jamaican earthquakes. Formally, her book lacks moral seriousness.

Its best moments, for Wood, are again where it regurgitates the formal tropes of modernism:

When Smith is writing well, she seems capable of a great deal. At several moments, for example, she proves herself skilled at interior monologue, and brilliant, in other passages, at free indirect style:

There’s a disturbing way in which the novel seems to be unreal for Wood because he simply refuses to recognize the reality it seeks to portray. He refuses to enter the suspension of belief that fiction invites and entails. Characters “binging in any kind of allusion” might actually be what those characters think, but Wood does not want to be convinced:

Nothing we know about Samad… convinces us that Smith is telling the truth when she tells us that this hot-headed Muslim sat talking about women’s breasts; the topic seems, instead, to have been chosen by Smith from a catalogue of cliches called “Things Men Talk About in Bars”… The language is oddly thick-fingered, and stubs itself into the vernacular: that juvenile verb “squished,” for instance… corrupts… it is bewildering when… she seems to leave Samad’s interior, and watch him from the outside, satirically (and rather crudely).

Wood reduces all of these to the old dialectical binaries, erasing the multiplicity they try to represent: “And so it goes on, in a curious shuffle of sympathy and distance, affiliation and divorce, brilliance and cartoonishness, astonishing maturity and ordinary puerility.” When characters change their minds, there is no Jamesian depth; “It as if the novel were deciding at these moments whether to cast depths on its shallows, and deciding against.” Once more, we’re reminded that this is ‘even worse’ than Dickens:

It is quite clear that a general message about the need to escape roots is more important than Irie’s reality, what she might actually think, her consciousness…This is problem-solving, all right. But at what cost? As Irie disappears under the themes and ideas, the reader perhaps thinks wistfully of Mr. Micawber and David Copperfield, so uncovered by theme and idea, so uninsured, weeping together in an upstairs room.

“Which way will the ambitious contemporary novel go? Will it dare a picture of life, or just shout a spectacle?” For Wood, these are diametrically opposed values, and though the novel he’s reviewing contains both, it shouldn’t, mostly because he refuses to believe that it can.

“TELL ME HOW DOES IT FEEL” – October 5, 2001 – The Guardian

Lambasting Zadie Smith wasn’t enough for James Wood. Two months later, following the 9/11 attacks, in a bizarre rerouting of his theory, James Wood writes another article on the topic of hysterical realism. This time the subheading is “U.S. novelists must now abandon social and theoretical glitter, says James Wood.”

How we swerved from Wood’s first theory, originating in the work of Naipaul, Rushdie, and, above all, Smith in the UK and somewhat well-connected to Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo in the US over to a transparently anti-American theory of national artistic corruption that somehow has something to do with 9/11 – after the fact – is mind-boggling. Wood ironically enacts the same paranoid overconnectedness of facts that he critiques in fictions. The article begins with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis saying they’re shamefully glad they don’t have a book coming out this month. In my mind, Wood should be ashamed he did have a review a month beforehand.

“Will the horrid alteration of America’s greatest city also alter the American novel?” Wood wonders (as if it could not). Stranger still, Wood claims a skepticism about the value of the information fiction he was already preaching before 9/11 even happened: 

“One is naturally suspicious of all the eschatological talk about how the time for trivia has ended, and how only seriousness is now on people’s minds – not least because the people saying it are usually themselves trivial and, as in McInerney’s piece, are thus unwitting arguments against their own new-found seriousness. Doubtless,  trivia and mediocrity will find their own level again, in novel-writing as in everything else. And besides, the “New York novel” – as opposed to the novel set in New York – is a genre of no importance at all. If I live the rest of my life without having to come across another book like Bret Easton Ellis’s New York novel, Glamorama, I will have very happily been what Psalm 81 calls “delivered from the pots”.

He goes on to admit that “there has, of course, been great fiction set or partly set in New York” – thanks, Wood, I really couldn’t figure that out by myself – glad we all have your blessing to agree. These are “already dark books” – how would they accommodate 9/11? Once again, their great value is that “their foci are human and metaphysical before they are social and documentary” – the modernist rises again. “They are stories, above all, about individual consciousness, not about the consciousness of Manhattan.” Once again, too, he attacks the “tentacular” Underworld: 

he DeLilloan idea of the novelist as a kind of Frankfurt School entertainer – a cultural theorist, fighting the culture with dialectical devilry – has been woefully influential, and will take some time to die.

The reviewer, mistaking bright lights for evidence of habitation, praises the novelist who knows about, say, the sonics of volcanoes. Who also knows how to make a fish curry in Fiji! Who also knows about terrorist cults in Kilburn! And about the New Physics! And so on. The result – in America at least – is novels of immense self-consciousness with no selves in them at all, curiously arrested and very “brilliant” books that know a thousand things but do not know a single human being.

This is a lot like the piece on Zadie Smith, and he goes on to attack her next. What’s so bizarre here is the mention of curry and Kilburn even as the insults fly toward specifically American novels – oh, and Zadie Smith. And Rushdie. And… What Wood hopes is that

This idea – that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality – may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the “culture” can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands.

Wood again deploys a modernist image of backward-looking mimesis to claim an “explosion” that the contemporary novel already explores and values, though he doesn’t seem to see it:

Fiction may well be, as Stendhal wrote, a mirror carried down the middle of a road; but the Stendhalian mirror would explode with reflections were it now being walked around Manhattan.

He even takes on a Yeatsian “Surely, the Second Coming” tone as he wishes this change into existence:

Surely, for a while, novelists will be leery of setting themselves up as analysts of society, while society bucks and charges so helplessly. Surely they will tread carefully over their generalisations. It is now very easy to look very dated very fast.

He cites the irony of Franzen’s The Corrections, which ends with the line “disasters of this magnitude no longer seemed to befall the United States.” More death wishes:

he other casualty of recent events may well be – it is to be hoped – what I have called “hysterical realism”. Hysterical realism is not exactly magical realism, but magical realism’s next stop. It is characterised by a fear of silence.

And for the grand finale, Wood’s hopelessly modernism-loving conclusion:

It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted. That may allow a space for the aesthetic, for the contemplative, for novels that tell us not “how the world works” but “how somebody felt about something” – indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings). A space may now open, one hopes, for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain”

1926

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

This article appeared in The Nation in 1926. The first paragraph implicitly refers to Countee Cullen, who used very traditional forms in his work and sometimes seemed to have a more conservative, Booker T. Washington-like approach to reform, as opposed to McKay and Hughes’ more radical ideas, drawn from the tradition of Du Bois.

Hughes blames the poet’s bourgeois background, which effaces the beauty of his race and people in favor of normalization. The racial mountain is the “Nordic world and Episcopal heaven” such a poet tries to reach in spite of himself. He praises instead the low-down folks who are still individual “in the face of American standardizations” (rather an ironic comment for a Marxist!). There is a colorful world of raw material for the Negro artist in black popular culture. Toomer does this: “Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.” Folk music has already arrived, as has Negro literature. Now painting, theater, and dance will take off. Hughes describes his method:

“Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz… But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” [that is, concern himself with race in art… vs Baldwin?]

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk”

1903

DuBois’ famous tract establishes a number of key concepts for American black writers – the “double consciousness,” the “talented tenth,” and a sense of “worlding” that diminishes American power in the duree. Du Bois’ more radical stance on immediate political change clashed with the more conservative tactics of Booker T. Washington. Thus we might posit Du Bois in a tradition with McKay and Hughes, whereas at times it seems Cullen falls more into Washington’s steps.

CHAPTER 1 – Du Bois’ sense of the double consciousness is developed from Hegel (he was a student of William James’). In one sense, it is “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” and is negative, but it is also the power of seeing oneself seeing the world, and it ties in with cosmopolitanism as a virtue for that worldview (disinterestedness?) instead of primitivism.

CHAPTER 3 – Here Du Bois critiques Booker T. Washington’s stance on reform. Washington asks blacks to focus on “industrial education, the accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South,” rather than political power (the vote), civil rights, and higher education. This is disenfranchisement, legal inferiority, and the condemnation of black education for Du Bois.

CHAPTER 9 – the most talented ten percent of blacks and whites are likely not in contact because of segregation, which is a loss to culture (recall what Stendahl and Woolf say about women).

James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel”

1949

The contemporary novel of Negro experience only repeats what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did – a moral rectitude that says “This is terrible! You should be ashamed of yourselves!” The novels of oppression, on the other hand [probably Native Son?] have a raging paranoiac quality that only reinforces the stereotypes they protest. Sentimentality is the enemy of real lived experience. All of Stowe’s black characters are but lovable types – only George, Eliza, and Tom are real people to us, and the first two are “as white as she can make them.” This is only a sort of fear of damnation on the part of the author. But do we really want a novel so didactic, filled with “hardworking ciphers,” rather than real people? In Bigger Thomas’ murder and rape, in his death that is a sort of life because a reclamation of manhood, Baldwin finds the evil twin of the sentimental novel. If Stowe is scolding and exhorting us, Wright is cursing and damning us. The protest novel puts too much on the categories imposed on us – we need not battle for our humanity with the bestial qualities we are told we have (Bigger) – we have only to accept our humanity, and to move towards transcendence.

Ralph Ellison, “The Shadow & the Act

1964

In this short essay, Ellison considers several new films about Negroes. He compares the adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust to the classic D.W. Griffith Birth of a Nation, the racist film of “predigested dramatic experience.” We talk about Griffith’s film as technical advancement, but like naval technology, it was used in the service of degrading Negro life. How did this country square democratic ideals and racism? First by denying the Negro humanity, and now it is by working out white questions about that humanity in films that are ostensibly “about” Negroes, but are not for them at all.

Hollywood is but “the shadow” of “the act” that is real racism. It manipulates what is already an extant cultural image. These recent films make explicit how Hollywood focuses on whether Negroes should ‘pass,’ whether they should intermarry, and whether they have ruined the south – white questions for a white audience which still do not afford black characters full human rights.

One of the special dramatizations is of ‘passing,’ which dramatizes how the black community rejects mulattoes, which is simply not true, Ellison argues. Furthermore, it paints the black community as a locus one is condemned to. It would seem in Hollywood that “only white Negroes suffer – or is it merely the white corpuscles of their blood?”

Ellison is particularly fascinated by how moving these pictures are, especially to whites – they are cathartic, they touch a deep nerve despite “their slickest devices.” As an antidote, Ellison suggests watching the films in Harlem, where audiences laugh with a disjointed experience of how far the characters on screen seem from themselves. “Each of us must become the keeper of his own,” Ellison concludes.

Joan Didion, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

1968

San Francisco for Didion is “the evidence of atomization, the proof that things fall apart” xiii. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests… writers are always selling somebody out” xvi. (see her use of facile, 162)

WHERE THE KISSING NEVER STOPS – On Joan Baez’s school with the boy and his violet marble, and the sky the same color as that marble.

7000 ROMAINE, LOS ANGELES – America is neither about money nor power (like Isherwood, she finds Europeans more materialistic), but “personal freedom, mobility, privacy” 71.

MARRYING ABSURD – the facsimile of tradition in Vegas weddings for “children.”

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM – the long title essay on the very young hippies of the Haight in the summer of love, 1967. It begins, “the center was not holding” 84. It’s mostly about dirty kids doing drugs and watching detergent cut grease and talking about ideas they don’t really feel involved in. At the end, Didion meets a five year old on acid licking her lips and muttering.

ON GOING HOME – her daughter, a birthday, her legacy

NOTES FROM A NATIVE DAUGHTER – CA is 5 hours from NY, but it is “somewhere else” 171. It is “where we run out of continent,” and it is losing its history 186.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT – She leaves NY. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in face irrevocable and that it has counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it” 233. She is a Californian again, with the sunshine and jasmine.

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

1995

Fiction writers like to watch, not be watched. TV is an expedient way of doing this. TV is the medicine-poison by which we watch people trained to take the pressure of millions of gazers. Even those of us who hate it – “graduate school poets” – seem to need to watch it with “weary irony” rather than “rapt credulity.”  TV has stopped pointing outside itself and become “otiose”: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” The metafiction of the sixties came out of readerly taste, and TV just caught on later.

Self-conscious irony is where TV and fiction meet. TV undercuts sight with what’s being said, rather than presenting 2 conflicting images or sayings. Television is low because people have more in common in their low taste than their refined taste. TV can be addictive though, since it can cause problems but “offers itself as relief” for those problems. We are so trained to enjoy trite TV that we discourage variation.

Postmodernism deployed materiality and brand names differently than modernism’s “dirty realism” (Joyce). Mimesis is achieved through these objects, though older writers don’t agree or see it this way. He names Nabokov as the key shift in metafiction, Pynchon as its best example, and DeLillo as its prophet (Murray and the photographed barn he can’t get outside the problem of).

Postmodern fiction is now trying to transfigure a televisual world just as that world is invulnerable to assault. In a genre he names “hyperreal” or “image-fiction,” Wallace argues authors attempt to play out a response to TV culture in their work, rather than just its representation. If realism made the strange familiar, we now need the familiar to be made strange [hysterical realism].

Wallace says, however, that image-fiction is almost always too “surfacey” a jeer at the very surfaces it critiques. TV has robbed ironists of the ability to use irony against it. US pop culture and US serious culture have always engaged the tension of the strong individual and the warm community. Earlier TV was about community, but the individual began to win out in the 80s. TV has become a medium that not only sells us separate commodities but teaches us how to look [Raymond Williams]. Commercials and shows are made to look more alike so the former are seen less as interruption [Mad Men].

TV no longer seeks our rapt attention, but flatters us for being bored by it. TV and postmodern fiction “share roots” that go both ways, Wallace insists. TV was “a hypocritical apologist” for a lost set of values in the 60s – it invited ironic readings. But irony is impossible to pin down, so how do we rebel against “TV’s aesthetic of rebellion?” We could become reactionaries against TV, or we could separate networks and viewers from the problems of the medium. He problematizes this by describing the utopian possibilities of the internet, which are imminent. If in Pynchon and DeLillo the gloom is that the pattern does not inhere, will it be one of terrible efficiency now?

He points to Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as the edge of fiction – it has swallowed not TV, but TV’s whole objective into itself. It challenges the reader to “prove you’re consumer enough” to “absorb me.” But its “ironic genuflection” to TV is just reabsorbed into TV itself. Maybe the new rebels will rebel against “ironic watching,” Wallace suggests [the New Sincerity]. Would this be “too sincere?”

 

E.M. Forster, “Aspects of the Novel”

1927

For Forster, the novel has not been adequately critiqued, partly because the tools we have to critique it are disorganized and problematic.

Forster likens Woolf to Sterne – both are “fantasists” who “start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again.” He does this to undermine chronology in literary study. He refers to Eliot’s tradition but says the novel is spongier and more difficult to pin down. Its seven traits are story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

Story: We live life by two times: actual and valued. The good novel succeeds in creating suspense for us – the desire to know what happens. This is important because life is lived sequentially, by anticipation. War and Peace exhilarates us by extending over space as well as time. (It’s interesting that he and Henry James would disagree on this so completely, given that he critiques James, who called Tolstoy’s novel “a loose baggy monster.”)

People: Characters are not people – they are like people. They spend far too much time in love and far too little time cooking and eating. We can know these people with more perfect clairvoyance and intimacy than our own friends by the author’s words. A character is real when we feel the author knows everything about him. Dickens writes flat characters, but they vibrate with vitality in their environment and against each other. A flat character is marked through the text in the same way by one characteristic and does not change. Round characters (in James and Austen) have the capacity to live outside the pages of the book they are in. They can surprise us.

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.”

Plot: Plot is a sequence of events given causality. The balance between plot and character is difficult, as the first must surprise and the second must run smooth – be believable. The reader must also have intelligence and memory to piece together facets of the reading experience across time.

Fantasy & Prophecy: Fantasy favors writers more interested in the world than the individual. Prophecy is the attendance of intangible infinity to the everyday (not the same as symbolism, with its concrete meanings).

Pattern & Rhythm: A novel’s pattern is its geometric shape – a circle, etc. The hourglass figure of The Ambassadors consists in the two characters switching places (Chad and Strether). For Forster, this pattern is too forced, achieved “at the cost of life,” and therefore “Beautifully done, but not worth doing.” If story satisfies curiosity and plot intelligence, then pattern satisfies aesthetics. Rhythm is a motif, an “almost-agent” in the text that arises at the right moments of the writer writing; rather than being planned, it “stitches the book from the inside.”

“Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that? Is there not something of it [that can bring us to] a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

“The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyze his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.”

“All history, all our experience, teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance like jugglers if it is to remain; if it is constant it is no longer a human relationship but a social habit, the emphasis in it has passed from love to marriage.”

 

Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett & Mrs. Brown”

1924

Woolf likens the pursuit of writing character to the chasing of a phantom “Mr. Brown.” She says “Mr. [Arnold] Bennett” agrees with this assertion.

I will suggest that we range Edwardians and Georgians into two camps; Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy I will call the Edwardians; Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot I will call the Georgians.

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that in or about December, 1910, human character changed [Roger Fry exhibit of Parisian modernism]… All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.

Woolf names “Mrs. Brown” a tidy old lady on the tram who she thinks must care for herself and “Mr. Smith” a flushed middle-aged man near her. She decides the man is rather bullying her. When he leaves,

Mrs. Brown and I were left alone together. She sat in her corner opposite, very clean,very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely. The impression she made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning. What was it composed of—that overwhelming and peculiar impression? Myriads of irrelevant and incongruous ideas crowd into one’s head on such occasions; one sees the person, one sees Mrs. Brown, in the centre of all sorts of different scenes.

And then Mrs. Brown faced the dreadful revelation. She took her heroic decision. Early, before dawn, she packed her bag and carried it herself to the station. She would not let Smith touch it. She was wounded in her pride, unmoored from her anchorage; she came of gentlefolks who kept servants—but details could wait. The important thing was to realize her character, to steep oneself in her atmosphere. I had no time to explain why I felt it somewhat tragic, heroic, yet with a dash of the flighty, and fantastic, before the train stopped, and I watched her disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station. She looked very small, very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic. And I have never seen her again, and I shall never know what became of her.

The story ends without any point to it. But I have not told you this anecdote to illustrate either my own ingenuity or the pleasure of travelling from Richmond to Waterloo. What I want you to see in it is this. Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.

The English writer would make the old lady into a ‘character’; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts. Her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual Mrs. Brown to give a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul—the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finished.

But now let us examine what Mr. Bennett went on to say—he said that there was no great novelist among the Georgian writers because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing. [James Wood and hysterical realism!]

Why, then, is it so hard for novelists at present to create characters which seem real, not only to Mr. Bennett, but to the world at large? Why, when October comes round, do the publishers always fail to supply us with a masterpiece? Surely one reason is that the men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business.

Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians (Bennet, Wells, Galsworthy) were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself. They were interested in something outside. Their books, then, were incomplete as books, and required that the reader should finish them, actively and practically, for himself.

Wells would find no place for a Mrs. Brown of the railway carriage in Utopia and Galsworthy would reduce her to a social stigma. Mr. Bennett would attend to her closely – too closely – with the drudgery of detail.

So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut.

That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.

In view of these facts—with these sounds in my ears and these fancies in my brain—I am not going to deny that Mr. Bennett has some reason when he complains that our Georgian writers are unable to make us believe that our characters are real. I am forced to agree that they do not pour out three immortal masterpieces with Victorian regularity every autumn. But, instead of being gloomy, I am sanguine. For this state of things is, I think, inevitable whenever from hoar old age or callow youth the convention ceases to be a means of communication between writer and reader, and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment. At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit— that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.

Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr. Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! [334] And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest single lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society—respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.

For these reasons, then, we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic conditon. Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock—to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she has made famous lately—is a little [335] pale and dishevelled by the time her rescuers reach her. And it is the sound of their axes that we hear—a vigorous and stimulating sound in my ears—unless of course you wish to sleep, when, in the bounty of his concern, Providence has provided a host of writers anxious and able to satisfy your needs.

It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.

But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.