In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:
So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.
The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.
In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.
I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is. In some sense literature is a coping mechanism. I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside. It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.
On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is? Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do. Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding. There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.
This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)
I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!” Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution. Well. The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.
Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects. It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living. Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life. Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera. Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps. It would be better to ask what we would do without them. The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves. It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched. It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.
Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter. The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.