“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tibor Fischer on Parallel Stories

Over the weekend, Tibor Fischer published what could certainly be called a scathing review of Nadas's Parallel Stories. Although I have major concerns about the review, we are agreed on the unnecessarily repetitive scatology of the book:

"Every time a new male character appears you fear he's going to be wanking or investigating his foreskin in a line or two (and he will be). The only relief from cocks is the occasional intervention of some labia or a clitoris. Doubtless, Nádas has some artful justification for this, but it's like having your face jammed in someone's crotch – it gets exasperating very quickly, and there's still 900 pages to go."

Fischer is right about this, but, at heart, this review is an attack on an intellectualized continental aesthetics and an assertion of pretty typical Anglophone aesthetics--that books should appeal to everyone, serve as an entertainment, and not, God forbid, challenge a reader in any way:

"And the Germans, it seems to me, have encouraged the Teutonic notion that anything entertaining or exciting must be lightweight or pulp. Serious writing has to be … serious, and hard work. If you're not straining, it ain't literature. László Krasznahorkai and Peter Nádas seem to be particular exponents of this attitude."

This is the same sort of "common sense" aesthetics that English reviewers used to assail Coleridge back when he incorporated Kant's philosophy in his literary criticism. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now. I don't recall any reviews of Atonement complaining that McEwan's book wasn't a 900-page experimental novel, but it appears that every experimental novel is expected to justify its existence, as if the mere publication of such a work is an insult to the mythical figure of the "average reader." It's about time that reviewers who should know better stop pretending that wilful philistinism is some kind of enlightened or democratic position. Sadly, in most popular literary criticism, this soft form of anti-intellectualism appears to be the dominant paradigm.

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