Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.
— André Breton
There is something "primitive" in the great issues that have traditionally concerned writers, Lionel Trilling submitted in "The Meaning of a Literary Idea." Questions about the nature of thought and man "match easily in the literary mind with the most primitive human relationships. Love, parenthood, incest, patricide: These are what the great ideas suggest in literature, these are the means by which they express themselves." Completing the thought, Trilling went on to write, "Ideas, if they are large enough and of a certain kind, are not only not hostile to the creative process, as some think, but are virtually inevitable to it. Intellectual power and emotional power go together."
Fully committed to the modernist charter with its complex splicing of aesthetic and historical forces, Trilling also felt the presence of something elemental, something not easily definable or communicable. This feeling probably contributed to the Freudian drift of his later work and almost certainly prompted his own fictional sorties. More broadly, the primitive underpinning of literature also attests to the unavoidable tension between an individual’s need to survive and express himself and the equally powerful need to establish communities that enable, as well as discourage, self-expression.
Without getting bogged down in evolutionary theory, we can infer that the Darwinian struggle to procreate — because it requires some semblance of security — leads to communities that help human beings sustain themselves. Rules of conduct are established that inevitably repress some of those primitive desires, which subsequently appear in literature. Thus the institutions that define civilization also reflect the tensions in our own nature. For just as no society can survive if it allows the darker facets of our nature to surface, no society can truly function if it disowns the human impulses that helped establish it. By imposing order, we compensate for the impulse to create disorder. Fascism, then, is an orderly society governed by those who secretly yearn for disorder; democracy is a disorderly society governed by those who explicitly believe in order. All this is to say that the tension between individual freedom and the society that seeks to protect that freedom is embedded in the moral and legal restraints that, in effect, repress the energies that originally ushered them into existence.
What does this have to do with literature? Quite a lot. Fiction, speaking very generally, is about the individual in society, about the expectations and conflicts that color a life when an obdurate reality stands in the way of one’s self-image or desires. Novels don’t have to be overtly political, but they do, in one guise or another, reflect the civilization that helped shape them, and, as Orwell liked to say, "Inequality [is] the price of civilization." The invisible centerpiece of every great novel is the protagonist’s rebellion or coming to terms with his or her place in the scheme of things.
Novels, of course, communicate a lot more in carrying out their design, but what seems to me beyond dispute is that literature, when undertaken seriously, is a celebration not of life but of awareness, an awareness of the human condition, which is both communal and individual and inevitably strikes a balance, palpable or barely perceptible, between the two. Each of us, then, is a fulcrum where the private and the public meet, where inner and other-directed yearnings sometimes clash. Literature gets written because of this, and what we understand and love in it, as Erich Auerbach wrote, "is a human existence, a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves."
Such modification originally came in the form of catharsis, a building up and purging of emotion, but was eventually, as Greek tragedy gave way to lyric poetry, and poetry to prose, reduced to pleasure and edification. The Romantic poets raised the stakes, opening a direct passage from the subjective to the transcendent, but it was only when novelists deliberately began imbuing fiction with personal, moral, and psychological significance that the individual — independent from but molded by society — came to possess an aesthetic identity. And once that occurred, the foundation of literature subtly and permanently shifted.
Literature, then, does not consist of everything that gets written or published, but is special by reason of the circumstances that produced it, which include the history that led up to it and the history of the person who conceived it. Fixed in time but set free by imagination, it charts our changing relationship to the issues that intrigue us: "Whence and whither, birth and death, fate, free will, and immortality," which Trilling believed "were never far from systematic thought." Literature is where we go to identify ourselves, where we shake off outmoded attitudes and beliefs, where we pause to evaluate our progress.
The only mandate here is one of exploration. Writers have an obligation to interrogate reality, to make sure that our relation to the world is or is not what it appears to be. This sounds rather grand but can be accomplished in a number of ways: through layered Shakespearean rhetoric, nuanced Chekhovian observation, lengthy Proustian ruminations, collagist Joycean soliloquies, or minimalist Carveresque touches. What it boils down to is an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity, which, if we’re honest, contains a good dose of ignorance. What are we or the universe doing here? What is the meaning of existence? In this capacity, literature is, at bottom, a wondering, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, or, at least, a faithful, if oblique, portrayal of how things are. That’s why writers at peace with themselves or who just want to cobble together readable books aren’t going to offer "a possibility of ‘modification’ within ourselves."
Does this mean that every writer has to effect a change in every reader? Not at all. Nor must every writer, as Cyril Connolly urged, produce a masterpiece. Nonetheless, critics should know which books make the grade and which don’t. This needs saying every so often because too many books are given a free pass by readers and reviewers alike. Although Edmund Wilson was griping about the number of fawning reviews 80 years ago, imagine his amazement at a literary culture in which the canon has been toppled, where poets of no particular lyric skill are laureates in the making, and where the distinction between genre and literary has all but disappeared.
But as hard as Wilson was on most books, he was a waffler compared with his ex-friend Nabokov. While Wilson famously scorned the mystery and detective tale, Nabokov ripped into any writer whose prose didn’t measure up to his stringent demands. Middlebrow fiction with intellectual pretensions especially enraged him. He termed such books poshlust, a play on the Russian poshlost, meaning trivial, banal, vulgar, and mediocre. Like Orwell, Nabokov didn’t mind the obviously cheap or superficial (Superman, for example, was OK), but he despaired of those best-selling "stirring, profound and beautiful" novels that get "poshlustily reviewed" and which reinforce and disseminate "the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive." In short, he preferred to sit down with Ross Thomas rather than Thomas Mann, whom he unfairly called "this ponderous conventionalist, this tower of triteness."
What irritated Nabokov was less the product than its critical reception. Too many novels, he thought, were sham that went unrecognized, a facile mimicry of aesthetic and intellectual values that fooled us into thinking we were reading something important. Although Nabokov could be spectacularly intolerant of some very capable writers, he had a point: One shouldn’t confuse the good with the great or pretend that competence is anything more than that. Because what’s at stake is not only how we regard the novel; it’s the regard we have for ourselves and the predicament we find ourselves in.
What that predicament is depends in no small part on who you are and how much significance you allot to those large ideas that Trilling discerned in literature. If words such as "beauty," "meaning," and "morality" seem extraneous or irrelevant, if the prospect of your death and the death of others doesn’t overtrouble you, if the phrasing of a sentence or the parsing of a thought doesn’t interest you, then it’s a good bet that many poems and novels aren’t going to end up in your mental attic. Terry Eagleton, who bravely wrote a book titled The Meaning of Life, naturally considers the meaning of death: "To live in an awareness of our mortality is to live with realism, irony, truthfulness, and a chastening sense of our finitude and fragility. In this respect at least, to keep faith with what is most animal about us is to live authentically." Sounds like a pretty fair definition of the novel to me.
Nonetheless, it’s foolish to think that the human condition troubles everyone or that everyone loves or admires great writing. More-immediate concerns perturb us: the blatant inequities found in many societies, the nasty disruptions that rattle our personal lives, the malapropisms of news anchors. That said, one must also acknowledge those readers who open a book because they, like Eagleton, believe that there is something beyond our troubles and our blessings — and it isn’t God and it isn’t Art. To put it in the starkest terms possible: There’s something both very wrong and very right with just being alive, a feeling that weighs not only on philosophers but also on anyone who looks around and thinks. And it doesn’t need a writer or a philosopher to bring it home. "The world is a hellish place," Tom Waits said, "and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering."
The point is — to repeat — an interrogation of life, one’s own and others’. The interrogation can be dilatory, amusing, nuanced, philosophical, or earnest; it can address love, war, family life, friendship, society, or solitude. It can be driven by fear, loneliness, hatred, despair, ambition, self-loathing, or ennui. It can even be a feeling we don’t recognize or wish to admit to: "The truth is that every intelligent man, as you know, dreams of being a gangster and of ruling over society by force alone," Camus wrote in The Fall. "What does it matter, after all, if by humiliating one’s mind one succeeds in dominating every one? I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression." Whatever the case, literature stems from an existential dissatisfaction with life itself, with that infernal irresolution of observation and meaning, of knowing and truth. And the truth is that a mind at peace is not going to create a masterpiece of literature; it simply won’t feel the need to.
Needless to say, there is more than one kind of literature, but aside from some flagrant and temporary omissions from the canon (Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby were denied entry for decades), we pretty much know a great book when we see it, even if we disagree about its merits. We also, I believe, know which books strive for greatness and which strive for something less. The choice of many writers to tell stories from a cloistered fictive cranny or send their characters into elaborate fantastical realms is as valid as any earnest attempt to write another Brothers Karamazov. The question is: Should their works be judged alongside Dostoyevsky’s?
Literature’s borders have always been porous, but it’s only recently that those borders are being rubbed away. In a piece in The New York Review of Books, Tim Parks makes the point that "for better or worse, almost all distinction between the way different kinds of novels are presented has largely disappeared."
Newspapers review Dan Brown, Alice Munro, J.K. Rowling, and Orhan Pamuk with equal solemnity, attention being driven by the sense that the writer is winning prizes or moving copies or being pushed as the book of the season by a major publisher, not by a lucid curiosity for whatever may be written between the covers. At the same time serious publishing houses have discovered the trick of packaging genre fiction as if it was great literature; one thinks of the prestigious Italian publisher Adelphi, reissuing all seventy-five of Simenon’s Maigret novels in very much the same format and with the same $25 price tag as their editions of Thomas Bernhard, Sándor Márai, or Nabokov.
For Parks, the state of things comes down to this: Book sales drive critical reception, not the other way around, and at the same time, many so-called literary successes are, in fact, not selling as well as one might think. He also professes not to worry about "the blurring of lines between literary and genre fiction." This I find more troublesome, not because genre fiction is necessarily slighter but because "literariness" itself is now being touted as a genre in both the academy and the general press.
Literary work is not a genre. You can’t have bad literary writing in the way that you can have bad mysteries or bad science fiction, because then it wouldn’t be literary. Although any definition of literature will be inconclusive, it doesn’t mean that literature as a category doesn’t exist. At some point in our history, language in the form of poems and stories was harnessed to explain the world to the self and the self to the world. After that, literature could not in good conscience be seen as arbitrary but rather as something that answers a basic human need: It’s part of the civilizing process, it helps us to thrive. Literature may not exactly be indispensable, but, in retrospect, it does seem inevitable.
Like music, drawing, or sculpture, literature makes life more manageable; but unlike the other arts, it speaks to us in the way we speak to one another; it’s the self-conscious repository of consciousness. And though many minor novels, poems, plays, and essays also serve a purpose by distracting and entertaining us, we shouldn’t mistake pleasure for meaningful achievement. It’s simply a matter of making distinctions. The house of books has many rooms, and not all are showcases of wit, wisdom, and nuance. There are very smart writers who don’t write canonical works, and there are literary writers who may state the obvious, sometimes infelicitously.
But behind all memorable work is a presiding literary intelligence, an intelligence that makes Shakespeare and Milton, Chekhov and Kafka, for all their manifest differences, worth studying. It’s what raises their voices above others. As much as serious writers want to attract an audience, they also want to be original. So they dutifully acquaint themselves with tradition, the better to carve out their own unique place in it; and it’s that elusive combination of learning, intelligence, purpose, imagination, phrasing, and rhythm that enables them to do so. What such writers read informs their work, just as the books we read inform our response to that work.
It’s almost no use to peruse certain poems and novels without at least some knowledge of the tradition from which they emerged. To do less is to ignore the reason they exist in the first place. They exist because artists are selfishly intent on creating something that doesn’t look or sound like anything else. Readers, too, are selfish in the sense that we respond to books because they reflect or confirm our own understanding of experience. And because, ultimately, each of us experiences alone, reading a poem or novel is part of the solitude that is ourselves; and solitude, as Philip Larkin observed, is essentially selfish. That’s why I know better than you, and you know better than me. Nonetheless, one of us might be wrong.
Arthur Krystal’s new book, This Thing We Call Literature, is out this month from Oxford University Press.