Beware of literature!

by Emrys Westacott

“Beware of literature!” This warning occurs in Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea as an entry in the diary of the narrator, Antoine Roquentin. In context, it concerns the way that literary narratives falsify our experience of events by investing them with an organization and structure that our experiences in themselves, as we live them, do not have. When Bilbo Baggins finds the ring in The Hobbit, Tolkein tells us that although Bilbo didn’t realize it at the time, this would turn out to be a turning point in his life. When married couples recall their first meeting, their account inevitably packages the event as a “beginning,” even though they may have had no inkling of this at the time.

There is, of course, some self-conscious irony in the fact that the warning to “beware of literature” appears in the middle of a literary work. Shades of the liar paradox, in fact. If we should be suspicious of literature, then we must be suspicious of the work that tells us to beware of literature: in which case we should perhaps trust literature, including works that advise us not to…..and so on.

The warning goes against an idea often touted that literature is a vehicle for expressing and revealing Truth. Perhaps not truth of the scientific variety, but some sort of insight, wisdom, or moral lesson concerning human nature, human relationships, and the human condition, that is best communicated through art rather than by means of discursive argument, and which resists reduction to a simple formula. This idea is naturally appealing to the literati, especially at a time when the onus seems to be on anyone not working in STEM fields to justify their existence, or at least their salary.

Recently, though, I have been struck by a particular problem with such claims, at least insofar as they pertain to fiction.

Simply put, the characters that populate contemporary novels tend to be much less pleasant than most of the people that the readers of these novels interact with on a daily basis. This is rather obvious in the case of novels like Martin Amis’ Money, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, or Cormac Mccarthy’s Blood Meridian. And in such cases, the reasons are not hard to discern. Novels like these deliberately focus on people and places where crude self-interest and conflict are the order of the day. In Amis’ case, unpleasantness is exaggerated for comic purposes; in Mccarthy’s work, it reflects and underscores the generally hostile environment in which his characters move.

But I think it is also true in the work of many other authors whose outlook one would not consider especially cynical or harsh. The novels of Richard Russo illustrate my thesis fairly well. In works like Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs, and Everybody’s Fool, Russo offers gently humorous, down-to-earth depictions of working class life in economically depressed small towns in the North Eastern United States. These novels could be classified as instances of gritty realism, albeit with a fair dose of humour thrown in to make things less bleak and more entertaining. Readers and critics praise Russo’s “masterly depiction of the workings of an inbred small-town society,” and the way he “captures the dynamics of small town life.” I am not saying these critics are hopelessly mistaken. And I am certainly not criticizing Russo’s fiction, which I enjoy and admire as much as anyone. But I do find it interesting to reflect on the discrepancy between my own experience of small town life in rural New York and what goes on in Russo’s novels.

Here’s a snippet of dialogue from Everybody’s Fool:

“I’m not talking to you, Roy,” Ruth told him. “I’m talking to my dimwit daughter.”

“Right,” Janey said. “I’m stupid. You’re smart; I’m stupid.”

“What would you call it? You take out a restraining order against this man, then invite him into your bedroom?”

“That’s right, Ma. I did,” Janey said, the bit in her teeth now. “And you know what? I fucked him, too.”

“She sure did,” Roy corroborated. “Like old times, right, babe?”

Ruth turned on him. “Which ones, Roy? When you punched her in the face? Banged her head into the wall and gave her a concussion? Those the old times you’re talking about?”

Now, I understand that the art of writing dialogue is not to replicate exactly real-life speech patterns. I am also aware that many families are seriously dysfunctional. And I count myself fortunate in not having had to deal either with a seriously dysfunctional family or with the anxieties of dire poverty. Still, what strikes me about the above piece of dialogue is how far removed it is from my own daily experience or from that of most people I’m acquainted with.

Of course, one might say this is because I live a cosseted existence. And perhaps I do. But I ask any reader to ask themselves how many of their friends and acquaintances would be likely to call their son or daughter (and not in a teasing manner) a “dimwit”? How many talk to their parents about whom they “fucked” last night? We all know that things sometimes go on behind closed doors that are shocking and surprising given the public image of the people involved. Even so, whether I am thinking of my colleagues at the university where I work, or the non-academic community members with whom I interact in the small town where I live–the hairdresser, the pharmacist’s assistants, the post office staff, the dairy farmer and his family who live up the hill­–I find it hard to imagine many of them participating in such a harsh exchange.

Anna Karenina opens with the famous aphorism: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The proposition is surely false–there are many varieties of family happiness, and certain patterns of misery are distressingly common. But it is understandable why this thought might occur to a novelist. The proposition would perhaps be more accurate if it read: To the fiction writer, unhappy families offer many more dramatic possibilities than happy families.

So if fiction tends to represent people as less pleasant and the world in general as more miserable than it actually is, the reason is not hard to fathom. Creative Writing 101, Lesson One, establishes that the essence of a good story is conflict. This is why people will go to see Punch and Judy scrapping but not to watch them happily conversing over tea and toast. And it’s why so many films and TV shows are rife with violence. Ask yourself this question: how many times in the last ten years have you seen real guns being pointed threateningly at real people? Now compare that number to the number of times you’ve seen this on the screen. As with the passage from Russo quoted above, it is revealing to compare the dramatic representation with one’s experienced reality.

Obviously, I am not saying that bad stuff doesn’t happen in the real world. Aggression, spousal abuse, street violence, damaged families, poverty and myriad other causes of misery are real enough. Their scale and extent in many countries is a scandal. But it is a mistake to think that they constitute the “true reality” of the modern world, and that people who are fortunate enough not to be dealing with such problems in their own lives on a daily basis are therefore hopelessly out of touch, or living with their head stuffed under a pillow.

Bad news tends to be more interesting news; at least that’s what editors and producers believe. Hence the slogan, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And conflict-ridden drama makes for more entertaining reading and viewing. These are considerations we should keep in mind when reflecting on how “true” our popular representations of the world are.

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