The romantic image of the writer is of someone who goes to his desk and struggles with the blank page until blood comes out of his forehead. I find the process of romanticizing, extolling, and criticizing of writers and writing to be tedious. The problem is that writing as such matters very little, to me. It is what the writer says that counts.
I just read an interesting piece on the minor late Victorian writer and caricaturist Max Beerbohm in the New Yorker. Adam Gopnik, author of the piece, manages more serious thought and fine distinctions of feeling in his essay on Beerbohm than I could ever summon in myself, and I am led to wonder, is it me? Do I suffer from some metaphorical colour blindness that leaves me largely unmoved by these purely literary concerns?
Probably. I devour histories, I tear through popular science, I enjoy biographies. Yet through all my critical faculties are asking: is the amount of information, including information about information, which is being conveyed worth the attention I am giving the book?
Here is an example of what I mean. Suppose you want to read about the US Civil War (1861-1865). What is the most efficient way to inform yourself? I would suggest you start with MacPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, one of the Oxford University series on the history of the United States. If you wanted to know more, then I would suggest Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the same struggle, which is the best history in my view since Thucydides’ The Pelopponesian War. But there comes a point of diminishing returns on the investment of attention. By the time you are plowing through a history of the US Union Fifth Army Corps in the same war, you have reached the point of futility. No further amount of detail will explain for you the importance of the Civil War.
Thus, I am unable to take interest in a piece of writing that describes the impressions in a six year old’s mind of the Christmas stocking hanging at the end of his sister’s bed, no matter how finely written. It seems that most of the people who take literature seriously are far more concerned with such writing than with accounts of real-world events. Hence the pages of newspapers and book review magazines are filled with reviews of books in which I can summon no interest whatever. Most women’s writing falls into this category.
Books like Proust’s A la recherhce du temps perdu, and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, will remain forever unread, and if their every copy were destroyed and forgotten, I do not think the world would be much poorer.
For those novels that I do manage to read, such as by John Updike and Philip Roth, their virtues for me consist in:
a) they are readable (this is the primary criterion)
b) the author has a viewpoint in which I can participate;
c) the book appears to be about something;
d) the author leaves me with the feeling that he is not concerned with whether I hold him in the highest regard; he is happy with the royalty payments, and if I toss the book, or pass it on to a friend, it is of little concern to him, or her.
Thus authors like Margaret Atwood always annoy because they seem to make the matter of whether you like their writing or not, an issue of your patriotism, whereas genuine geniuses like Alice Munro ask no such thing of the reader. They only ask that you read the book, and hope you like it.
I do not wish to convey a snobbery about entertainment literature. A lot of reading is pure escapism: police procedurals, mystery writers, science fiction, and the like. They have a humble purpose, and are much appreciated by those who read them, such as me.
What bugs me is this idolatry of the author and of Good Writing, Higher Literature, and Significant Purpose. I once read Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was all the rage back in 1988 and is considered a modern classic of writing. Information content: zero. Value to me: zero. Value to the literary crowd: near infinite. Degree of self reference: total – the book is about writing. To which I say: “It is just writing, people”. By the same token, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is not just writing, it is about something more than the act of writing itself, it is about life, and love and family and the ravages of war, and we are made to care deeply about the people involved. Same with The Lord of the Rings, which will be read for as long as Thucydides has been and may, in some distant future time, after a cataclysm or two, be taken for an early history of the planet earth.
Finally, a last word on books that are information about information. The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable, comes to mind. Nassim Nicolas Taleb wrote a book that not merely adds to one’s knowledge, it reorganizes the content of one’s mind. The division of the world into the known, the known unknown, and the unknown unknown causes a reorganization of all that one knows, and allows for one to prepare to face the future as if it were really the open book it is.