By Kevin Carey
Blogging about a novel means wading into issues that are a long way from public policy and other things about which I normally write. E.g., I know bubkes about literary criticism and its various attendant debates. So I found this post at A League of Ordinary Gentlemen to be worthwhile. Freddie says:
Conor Clarke of the Atlantic writes, prefacing a negative review of David Foster Wallace’s work from James Wood: “Wood likes aesthetics — fine phrasing the precise language and unobvious ways of describing an obvious world.”
This is something you hear so often in literary criticism that it almost goes unnoticed, and certainly I wouldn’t want to scold anyone working on A Supposedly Fun Blog about it for that reason. But despite its ubiquity, it’s actually incredibly destructive, and a symptom of a really pernicious attitude that pervades our appreciation of literature. Careful: James Wood likes James Wood’s aesthetics. “Aesthetics”, in literary criticism, has become as question-begging a term as “realism”. Both assume a narrow vision of important concepts, like what constitutes aesthetic pleasure and what exactly realistic representation entails. The traditionalist tells the punk rocker that he prefers music which “sounds good.” For those of us who are interested in novels which continue to push up against the walls of our expectations and heave away– for those of us who have read “Daisy Miller” and like it fine but don’t need to read yet another author rehash its style, voice and structure– ceding the definition of the word aesthetics is to give up the game. What constitutes beautiful and moving art is precisely what we are arguing about when we argue about literary greatness.
Again, this is so prevalent an attitude, that one and only one set of evaluative criteria carries the pride of place that comes from representing aesthetics, that you can’t blame anyone for thinking that it’s true– particularly for those who aren’t academically or professionally involved in literary criticism. But it’s a constricting and arrogant attitude, full of a noxious combination of elitism and faux-populism, and it’s one that we should push back against. The right to define aesthetic pleasure is part of a private contract between reader and writer. Don’t be fooled into thinking anyone, even someone of James Wood’s institutional authority, has the ability to usurp that interchange.
all of this, the aggrieved and distrustful critical reaction to any novel that comes within a quarter mile of what we might call the postmodern, has been established for years. It was well established, I mean to say, when David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Which means that he, like all authors today, wrote in the knowledge that the literary world would be filled with exactly those kinds of readers and critics who would dismiss his work out of hand for its artiness and pretension. And yet Foster Wallace wrote on, like a lot of writers do, in the stubborn belief in the good faith of his audience.
I actually find much of Infinite Jest to be very pleasing on purely aesthetic grounds–Wallace had a finely-tuned ear for cadence and rhythm as well as a knack for deploying obscure, melodic words. As Dave Eggers notes in the introduction, the sentences may be challenging but they’re never flabby. And when the language isn’t beautiful there’s almost always a pretty clear reason why. It’s interesting, the use of words and phrases that gratify the senses in describing ideas, emotions and circumstances that are often full of pain and degradation. What does it mean to write with beauty and clarity about ugliness?