Time to graduate?

Carol Iannone

In this season of college commencements, are Americans ready for another kind of graduation?  Have we absorbed all we can from the dark aesthetic that has dominated literary life for a generation, and are now ready to move on?  I see signs that readers, theatregoers, and critics are tiring of the empty depressing postmodern prolixity of the contemporary literary scene. 

I put the following in evidence:   

--First, a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor expressed her dismay at coming to New York to see two notable Broadway plays, Tracy Lett's Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County, and Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate, only to find that they are both rehearsals of the wretchedness and selfishness of dysfunctional families, and she questions whether these are accurate views of American life today.  This is notable because ever since the rise of the Angry Young Man plays in Britain and their American counterparts from such authors as Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, theatregoers have been remarkably servile in accepting the torment and torture presented by playwrights as typical and realistic.  (Iris, Fanger, "A New Script for Family Drama," Christian Science Monitor,  December 10, 2008)

--Second, several reviewers of a new biography of fiction writer John Cheever, Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life, questioned the need for the exhaustive and repetitive detail of the subject's personal miseries.  For example, John Updike wrote in the New Yorker

[A]ll this biographer’s zeal makes a heavy, dispiriting read, to the point that even I, a reader often enraptured by Cheever’s prose and an acquaintance who generally enjoyed his lively company, wanted the narrative, pursued in methodical chapters that tick past year after year, to hurry through the menacing miasma of a life which, for all the sparkle of its creative moments, brought so little happiness to its possessor and to those around him.  (“Basically Decent,” New Yorker, March 9, 2009)

And Adam Begley in the New York Observer:

For me, the experience of reading Cheever is not appreciably enhanced by an intimate familiarity with the sordid details of his romps with men (and women), or by learning that his libido remained rampant even when he was terminally ill with cancer (in Mr. Bailey, oddly, this information “excites awe and even a trace of envy”). Nor does it help to have followed day by day the arc of his worsening alcoholism, which reached its nadir in 1975, when he very nearly succeeded in drinking himself into a shabby grave. (“The Wizard of Westchester: Definitive Biography of John Cheever Tells a Dismal Tale,” New York Observer, March 9, 2009)

And Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post remarks that the Cheever biography “constantly teeters at the edge of sensation and voyeurism.”  Yardley continues:   

No doubt it is important to an understanding of Cheever the man that he was sexually promiscuous and a fall-down drunk, and perhaps it tells us a bit about Cheever the writer as well, but it is one thing for the biographer to reach an understanding of these matters and quite another simply to record, over and over and over again, their quotidian details. Cheever interests us not because of who he was but because of what he wrote….Bailey, having been granted full access to everything by Cheever's family and having interviewed zillions of people, cannot let go of his research and puts every detail, however trivial or squalid, into his narrative.

Readers who savor literary gossip may think that all this stuff makes "Cheever: A Life" a juicy romp, but caveat lector: It doesn't. It's as messy as the life it describes.  (“Good Writer, Bad Man,” Washington Post, March 15, 2009)

These reviewers do find other aspects of Bailey’s biography to be worthwhile, but that only makes us lament all the more, why must biographers weigh down what is good in their work with obsessive and prurient detail?  

As Jacques Barzun remarked in his Academic Questions interview:

The valet is now the patron saint of the biographer, whose tell-all doctrine seems to me reprehensible not just because it claims one's attention to trivial and unsightly matters, but because it defeats what seems to be the plain purpose of biography.  I want to ask, Are you writing to show your subject's accomplishments or not?  If so, why bury them in a mass of details that belong to bed, bath, and beyond?  They reduce him or her to the common measure of the mass, who haven't done anything deserving the world's attention.  Besides, they make the book bulky--it's far from impossible to put down, but it's impossible to pick it up.  (Fall 2006)

Indeed.  Cheever: A Life is 770 pages long. 

The modern, doorstop-weight literary biography appears to have had its genesis in academia-- although it afterward grew beyond those confines--with Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography of Henry James (1953-1972), Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce (1959, revised 1982), and Ernest Samuels’s three volume biography of Henry Adams, completed in 1964.  All of these authors were professors and all of them received major prizes for their work.

It has to be said that these and other early efforts were legitimate exercises in something new: exploring at length and in detail the influence of a man’s life on his work, showing how work after work arose out of the life being lived.  (I read Ellmann’s James Joyce years ago and remember being quite absorbed in the narrative.)  Edel set forth a strict standard when he remarked, "A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn't discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible. Without discovering that, you have shapeless happenings and gossip."

And Edel was as good as his word.  According to Wikipedia, “The discovery of impassioned but inconclusive letters written in 1875–1876 by James to the Russian aristocrat Paul Zhukovski, while Edel was deep in the process of finishing his biography caused an ethical crisis; his decision was to continue to ignore what he considered a peripheral aspect of the self-identified ‘celibate’ and sexually diffident James's life.”

But Edel’s standard has long been torn down--along with many literary standards both in academia and without--and the genre has now degenerated into the monotonous accumulation of detail, often of a degrading nature but sometimes just trivial.  Although some good work continues to be written, there has been for the most part a complete reversal of priorities--not how the life illuminates the work, but how the work can be used as an excuse to record everything in the life.  Critic Terry Eagleton observed in reading Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of Thomas Hardy: 

If you are going to record, as Tomalin dutifully does, that Hardy's mother hailed from a part of Dorset well endowed with apple orchards,” Champion quotes Eagleton as writing, “there simply isn't enough space left to come to grips with narrative structure in Tess of the D'Urbervilles. In a sense, the whole point of the writer's enterprise — the writing itself — is consigned to secondary status. It becomes a peg on which to hang the life — a life that often has scant bearing on the literature.  (Quoted in Edward Champion, Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Perils of Literary Biography,” December 21, 2007) 

Perhaps the growing critical recoil from these tedious tomes will coax writers to return to the original purposes of literary biography.  

Finally, and tragically, the novelist David Foster Wallace who committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46 had the hope of making his fiction about living a fulfilled and meaningful life.  "Fiction's about what it is to be a … human being," he said.  He wanted to help readers "become less alone inside."  He wanted to write "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction."  But, according to an article by D.T. Max, "he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles."  He felt realism was "delusive," but he also disdained the prevailing mode of irony as well.  (“The Unfinished,” New Yorker, March 9, 2009)

Wallace’s first novels, The Broom of the System (1987) and Infinite Jest (1996), were marked by the postmodern maximalist style--“endlessly fracturing narratives and … stem-winding sentences adorned with footnotes that were themselves stem-winders,” as Max describes it.  The first novel, we learn, “suggests that the world should not be taken too seriously: life is an intellectual game, and words are the pieces on the board.”  The second “was a vast investigation into America as the land of addictions: to television, to drugs, to loneliness.”  With his third novel, The Pale King, that he had been working on for some years at the time of his death (which will be published even in its unfinished form), Wallace wanted to develop a simpler style.  He seemed to have realized that showy maximalist writing was a distraction from real meaning, yet evidently he could not find a new mode of composition to suit his more mature goals. 

We can infer from Max’s article that the postmodern fiction that Wallace had begun reading in college and that had inspired his early literary style had become a chain around his neck.  Wallace announced in his “Author’s Foreword” to the new novel that he didn’t want the book to be “clever” metafiction, and went on to say that “I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too--at least now that I’m over 30 I do.”  And yet, Max reports, “David Wallace” is a character in the book, which itself is replete with “long, recursive sentences with footnotes.” 

Ironically, Wallace’s Amherst roommate characterized the author’s discovery of Thomas Pynchon in college as being “like Bob Dylan finding Woody Guthrie.”  Would that were so, but the comparison of Pynchon's ultimately unwholesome influence on Wallace to the fruitful and creative influence of Woody Guthrie on Bob Dylan is not apposite. (Think of Dylan's beautiful "Song to Woody" --which uses the melody of a Guthrie song; think of Dylan's hilarious talking blues songs, also inspired by a form Guthrie used.)  Dylan was fortunate to live in the age of Guthrie; but as Wallace grew older, the postmodern novel had become a nightmare from which he could not awaken, and it seems clear that Wallace's suicide was at least partly the result of his artistic frustration.

Interestingly, though, a teaching stint at Emerson College in the early 1990s got Wallace to read authors such as Stephen Crane and Edith Wharton.  “I had no idea they were so good,” he wrote to a friend, but these writers unfortunately did not become literary inspirations.  (Wallace also taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at the time of his death he was Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College in California.)            

While this is sad news, it conveys an important lesson toward doing better.  In the commencement address Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, he said that true freedom “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”  Much of postmodern fiction with its elaborate networks and overstuffed convolutions is a dead end and a violation of fiction’s higher purposes.  Writers would do well to put their attention toward other literary models.   

Virginia Woolf once famously said that “on or about December 1910, human character changed.”  She continued:  “I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless.”  Woolf sensed in her time that “[a]ll human relations have shifted — those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children.”  She offered a “homely” example in the behavior of cooks:  “The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change?”

While most of us will not be dashing off to our larders to check on the disposition of our cooks, we must admit that Woolf’s illustration is apt and telling for her purposes, and she concludes by asserting that “when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”

Woolf was heralding the passage of the Victorian and the arrival of modernism in all areas of life in the early 1900s.  Now that we have had a century of modernism, which has yielded some treasures, and its spawn, postmodernism, whose legacy has become destructive, and are nearing the 100 year mark of Woolf’s designation of 20th century cultural shift, there are signs that we are ready to graduate to something new and better in the 21st. 

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