Loser Lit

Sabbath Says: Philip Roth and the Dilemmas of Ideological Castration

            Sabbath’s Theater is the type of book you lose friends over. Mickey Sabbath, the adulterous title character who follows in the long literary line of defiantly self-destructive, excruciatingly vulnerable, and offputtingly but eloquently lustful leading males like Holden Caulfield and Humbert Humbert, strains the moral bounds of fiction and compels us to contemplate the nature of our own voyeuristic impulse to see him through to the end of the story—and not only contemplate it but defend it, as if in admitting we enjoy the book, find its irreverences amusing, and think that in spite of how repulsive he often is there still might be something to be said for poor old Sabbath we’re confessing to no minor offense of our own. Fans and admiring critics alike can’t resist rushing to qualify their acclaim by insisting they don’t condone his cheating on both of his wives, the seduction of a handful of his students, his habit of casually violating others’ privacy, his theft, his betrayal of his lone friend, his manipulations, his racism, his caustic, often cruelly precise provocations—but by the time they get to the end of Sabbath’s debt column it’s a near certainty any list of mitigating considerations will fall short of getting him out of the red. Sabbath, once a puppeteer who now suffers crippling arthritis, doesn’t seem like a very sympathetic character, and yet we sympathize with him nonetheless. In his wanton disregard for his own reputation and his embrace, principled in a way, of his own appetites, intuitions, and human nastiness, he inspires a fascination none of the literary nice guys can compete with. So much for the argument that the novel is a morally edifying art form.

            Thus, in Sabbath, Philip Roth has created a character both convincing and compelling who challenges a fundamental—we may even say natural—assumption about readers’ (or viewers’) role in relation to fictional protagonists, one made by everyone from the snarky authors of even the least sophisticated Amazon.com reviews to the theoreticians behind the most highfalutin academic criticism—the assumption that characters in fiction serve as vehicles for some message the author created them to convey, or which some chimerical mechanism within the “dominant culture” created to serve as agents of its own proliferation. The corollary is that the task of audience members is to try to decipher what the author is trying to say with the work, or what element of the culture is striving to perpetuate itself through it. If you happen to like the message the story conveys, or agree with it at some level, then you recommend the book and thus endorse the statement. Only rarely does a reviewer realize or acknowledge that the purpose of fiction is not simply to encourage readers to behave as the protagonists behave or, if the tale is a cautionary one, to expect the same undesirable consequences should they choose to behave similarly. Sabbath does in fact suffer quite a bit over the course of the novel, and much of that suffering comes as a result of his multifarious offenses, so a case can be made on behalf of Roth’s morality. Still, we must wonder if he really needed to write a story in which the cheating husband is abandoned by both of his wives to make the message sink in that adultery is wrong—especially since Sabbath doesn’t come anywhere near to learning that lesson himself. “All the great thoughts he had not reached,” Sabbath muses in the final pages, “were beyond enumeration; there was no bottom to what he did not have to say about the meaning of his life” (779).

           Part of the reason we can’t help falling back on the notions that fiction serves a straightforward didactic purpose and that characters should be taken as models, positive or negative, for moral behavior is that our moral emotions are invariably and automatically engaged by stories; indeed, what we usually mean when we say we got into a story is that we were in suspense as we anticipated whether the characters ultimately met with the fates we felt they deserved. We reflexively size up any character the author introduces the same way we assess the character of a person we’re meeting for the first time in real life. For many readers, the question of whether a novel is any good is interchangeable with the question of whether they liked the main characters, assuming they fare reasonably well in the culmination of the plot. If an author like Roth evinces an attitude drastically different from ours toward a character of his own creation like Sabbath, then we feel that in failing to condemn him, in holding him up as a model, the author is just as culpable as his character. In a recent edition of PBS’s American Masters devoted to Roth, for example, Jonathan Franzen, a novelist himself, describes how even he couldn’t resist responding to his great forebear’s work in just this way. “As a young writer,” Franzen recalls, “I had this kind of moralistic response of ‘Oh, you bad person, Philip Roth’” (54:56).

Jonathan Franzen
            That fiction’s charge is to strengthen our preset convictions through a process of narrative tempering, thus catering to our desire for an orderly calculus of just deserts, serves as the basis for a contract between storytellers and audiences, a kind of promise on which most commercial fiction delivers with a bang. And how many of us have wanted to throw a book out of the window when we felt that promise had been broken? The goal of professional and academic critics, we may imagine, might be to ease their charges into an appreciation of more complex narrative scenarios enacted by characters who escape easy categorization. But since scholarship in the humanities, and in literary criticism especially, has been in a century-long sulk over the greater success of science and the greater renown of scientists, professors of literature have scarcely even begun to ponder what anything resembling a valid answer to the questions of how fiction works and what the best strategies for experiencing it might look like. Those who aren’t pouting in a corner about the ascendancy of science—but the Holocaust!—are stuck in the muck of the century-old pseudoscience of psychoanalysis. But the real travesty is that the most popular, politically inspired schools of literary criticism—feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism—actively preach the need to ignore, neglect, and deny the very existence of moral complexity in literature, violently displacing any appreciation of difficult dilemmas with crudely tribal formulations of good and evil.

            For those inculcated with a need to take a political stance with regard to fiction, the only important dynamics in stories involve the interplay of society’s privileged oppressors and their marginalized victims. In 1976, nearly twenty years before the publication of Sabbath’s Theater, the feminist critic Vivian Gornick lumped Roth together with Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer in an essay asking “Why Do These Men Hate Women?” because she took issue with the way women are portrayed in their novels. Gornick, following the methods standard to academic criticism, doesn’t bother devoting any space in her essay to inconvenient questions about how much we can glean about these authors from their fictional works or what it means that the case for her prosecution rests by necessity on a highly selective approach to quoting from those works. And this slapdash approach to scholarship is supposedly justified because she and her fellow feminist critics believe women are in desperate need of protection from the incalculable harm they assume must follow from such allegedly negative portrayals. In this concern for how women, or minorities, or some other victims are portrayed and how they’re treated by their notional oppressors—rich white guys—Gornick and other critics who make of literature a battleground for their political activism are making the same assumption about fiction’s straightforward didacticism as the most unschooled consumers of commercial pulp. The only difference is that the academics believe the message received by audiences is all that’s important, not the message intended by the author. The basis of this belief probably boils down to its obvious convenience.

Gornick
            In Sabbath’s Theater, the idea that literature, or art of any kind, is reducible to so many simple messages, and that these messages must be measured against political agendas, is dashed in the most spectacularly gratifying fashion. Unfortunately, the idea is so seldom scrutinized, and the political agendas are insisted on so inclemently, clung to and broadcast with such indignant and prosecutorial zeal, that it seems not one of the critics, nor any of the authors, who were seduced by Sabbath were able to fully reckon with the implications of that seduction. Franzen, for instance, in a New Yorker article about fictional anti-heroes, dodges the issue as he puzzles over the phenomenon that “Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat,” but he’s somehow still sympathetic. The explanation Franzen lights on is that

the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own. (63)

If Franzen is right—and this chestnut is a staple of fiction workshops—then the political activists are justified in their urgency. For if we’re powerless to resist adopting the protagonist’s desires as our own, however fleetingly, then any impulse to victimize women or minorities must invade readers’ psyches at some level, conscious or otherwise. The simple fact, however, is that Sabbath has not one powerful desire but many competing desires, ones that shift as the novel progresses, and it’s seldom clear even to Sabbath himself what those desires are. (And is he really as self-involved as Franzen suggests? It seems to me rather that he compulsively tries to get into other people’s heads, reflexively imagining elaborate stories for them.)

            While we undeniably respond to virtuous characters in fiction by feeling anxiety on their behalf as we read about or watch them undergo the ordeals of the plot, and we just as undeniably enjoy seeing virtue rewarded alongside cruelty being punished—the goodies prevailing over the baddies—these natural responses do not necessarily imply that stories compel our interest and engage our emotions by providing us with models and messages of virtue. Stories aren’t sermons. In his interview for American Masters, Roth explained what a writer’s role is vis-à-vis social issues.

My job isn’t to be enraged. My job is what Chekhov said the job of an artist was, which is the proper presentation of the problem. The obligation of the writer is not to provide the solution to a problem. That’s the obligation of a legislator, a leader, a crusader, a revolutionary, a warrior, and so on. That’s not the goal or aim of a writer. You’re not selling it, and you’re not inviting condemnation. You’re inviting understanding. (59:41)

Chekhov
The crucial but overlooked distinction that characters like Sabbath—but none so well as Sabbath—bring into stark relief is the one between declarative knowledge on the one hand and moment-by-moment experience on the other. Consider for a moment how many books and movies we’ve all been thoroughly engrossed in for however long it took to read or watch them, only to discover a month or so later that we can’t remember even the broadest strokes of how their plots resolved themselves—much less what their morals might have been.

            The answer to the question of what the author is trying to say is that he or she is trying to give readers a sense of what it would be like to go through what the characters are going through—or what it would be like to go through it with them. In other words, authors are not trying to say anything; they’re offering us an experience, once-removed and simulated though it may be. This isn’t to say that these simulated experiences don’t engage our moral emotions; indeed, we’re usually only as engaged in a story as our moral emotions are engaged by it. The problem is that in real-time, in real life, political ideologies, psychoanalytic theories, and rigid ethical principles are too often the farthest thing from helpful. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” Sabbath helpfully insists: “Shallow, shallow, shallow!” Living in a complicated society with other living, breathing, sick, cruel, saintly, conniving, venal, altruistic, deceitful, noble, horny humans demands not so much a knowledge of the rules as a finely honed body of skills—and our need to develop and hone these skills is precisely why we evolved to find the simulated experiences of fictional narratives both irresistibly fascinating and endlessly pleasurable. Franzen was right that desires are important, the desire to be a good person, the desire to do things others may condemn, the desire to get along with our families and friends and coworkers, the desire to tell them all to fuck off so we can be free, even if just for an hour, to breathe… or to fuck an intern, as the case may be. Grand principles offer little guidance when it comes to balancing these competing desires. This is because, as Sabbath explains, “The law of living: fluctuation. For every thought a counterthought, for every urge a counterurge” (518).

            Fiction then is not a conveyance for coded messages—how tedious that would be (how tedious it really is when writers make this mistake); it is rather a simulated experience of moral dilemmas arising from scenarios which pit desire against desire, conviction against reality, desire against conviction, reality against desire, in any and all permutations. Because these experiences are once-removed and, after all, merely fictional, and because they require our sustained attention, the dilemmas tend to play out in the vicinity of life’s extremes. Here’s how Sabbath’s Theater opens:

                        Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.
            This was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforeseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness—and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret—for thirteen years. But now with hormonal infusions ebbing, with the prostate enlarging, with probably no more than another few years of semi-dependable potency still his—with perhaps not that much more life remaining—here at the approach of the end of everything, he was being charged, on pain of losing her, to turn himself inside out. (373)

The ethical proposition that normally applies in situations like this is that adultery is wrong, so don’t commit adultery. But these two have been committing adultery with each other for thirteen years already—do we just stop reading? And if we keep reading, maybe nodding once in a while as we proceed, cracking a few wicked grins along the way, does that mean we too must be guilty?
                               *****
Updike
            Much of the fiction written by male literary figures of the past generation, guys like Roth, Mailer, Bellow, and Updike, focuses on the morally charged dilemmas instanced by infidelity, while their gen-x and millennial successors, led by guys like Franzen and David Foster Wallace, have responded to shifting mores—and a greater exposure to academic literary theorizing—by completely overhauling how these dilemmas are framed. Whereas the older generation framed the question as how can we balance the intense physical and spiritual—even existential—gratification of sexual adventure on the one hand with our family obligations on the other, for their successors the question has become how can we males curb our disgusting, immoral, intrinsically oppressive lusting after young women inequitably blessed with time-stamped and overwhelmingly alluring physical attributes. “The younger writers are so self-conscious,” Katie Roiphe writes in a 2009 New York Times essay, “so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are, in short, too cool for sex.” Roiphe’s essay, “The Naked and the Confused,” stands alongside a 2012 essay in The New York Review of Books by Elaine Blair, “Great American Losers,” as the best descriptions of the new literary trend toward sexually repressed and pathetically timid male leads. The typical character in this vein, Blair writes, “is the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.”

Katie Roiphe
            The writers in the new hipster cohort create characters who bury their longings layers-deep in irony because they’ve been assured the failure on the part of men of previous generations to properly check these same impulses played some unspecified role in the abysmal standing of women in society. College students can’t make it past their first semester without hearing about the evils of so-called objectification, but it’s nearly impossible to get a straight answer from anyone, anywhere, to the question of how objectification can be distinguished from normal, non-oppressive male attraction and arousal. Even Roiphe, in her essay lamenting the demise of male sexual virility in literature, relies on a definition of male oppression so broad that it encompasses even the most innocuous space-filling lines in the books of even the most pathetically diffident authors, writing that “the sexism in the work of the heirs apparent” of writers like Roth and Updike,

is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in “The Corrections”: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.” To the esteemed ladies of the movement I would suggest this is not how our great male novelists would write in the feminist utopia.

How, we may ask, did it get to the point where acknowledging that age influences how attractive a woman is qualifies a man for designation as a sexist? Blair, in her otherwise remarkably trenchant essay, lays the blame for our oversensitivity—though paranoia is probably a better word—at the feet of none other than those great male novelists themselves, or, as David Foster Wallace calls them, the Great Male Narcissists. She writes,

Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

That Roth et al were sexist, condescending, disgusting, narcissistic—these are articles of faith for feminist critics. Yet when we consider how expansive the definition of terms like sexism and misogyny have become—in practical terms, they both translate to: not as radically feminist as me—and the laughably low standard of evidence required to convince scholars of the accusations, female empowerment starts to look like little more than a reserved right to stand in self-righteous judgment of men for giving voice to and acting on desires anyone but the most hardened ideologue will agree are only natural.

             The effect on writers of this ever-looming threat of condemnation is that they either allow themselves to be silenced or they opt to participate in the most undignified of spectacles, peevishly sniping their colleagues, falling all over themselves to be granted recognition as champions for the cause. Franzen, at least early in his career, was more the silenced type. Discussing Roth, he wistfully endeavors to give the appearance of having moved beyond his initial moralistic responses. “Eventually,” he says, “I came to feel as if that was coming out of an envy: like, wow, I wish I could be as liberated of worry about other’s people’s opinion of me as Roth is” (55:18). We have to wonder if his espousal of the reductive theory that sympathy for fictional characters is based solely on the strength of their desires derives from this same longing for freedom to express his own. David Foster Wallace, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as enlightened or forgiving when it came to his predecessors. Here’s how he explains his distaste for a character in one of Updike’s novels, openly intimating the author’s complicity:

D.F. Wallace
It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike—he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.

So the character is an asshole because he wants to have sex outside of marriage, and he’s unhappy because he’s an asshole, and it all traces back to the idea that having sex with whomever one wants is a source of happiness? Sounds like quite the dilemma—and one that pronouncing the main player an asshole does nothing to solve. This passage is the conclusion to a review in which Wallace tries to square his admiration for Updike’s writing with his desire to please a cohort of women readers infuriated by the way Updike writes about—portrays—women (which begs the question of why they’d read so many of his books). The troubling implication of his compromise is that if Wallace were himself to freely express his sexual feelings, he’d be open to the charge of sexism too—he’d be an asshole. Better to insist he simply doesn’t “get” why indulging his sexual desires might alleviate his “ontological despair.” What would Mickey Sabbath make of the fact that Wallace hanged himself when he was only forty-six, eleven years after publishing that review? (This isn’t just a nasty rhetorical point; Sabbath has a fascination with artists who commit suicide.)

The inadequacy of moral codes and dehumanizing ideologies when it comes to guiding real humans through life’s dilemmas, along with their corrosive effects on art, is the abiding theme of Sabbath’s Theater. One of the pivotal moments in Sabbath’s life is when a twenty-year-old student he’s in the process of seducing leaves a tape recorder out to be discovered in a lady’s room at the university. The student, Kathy Goolsbee, has recorded a phone sex session between her and Sabbath, and when the tape finds its way into the hands of the dean, it becomes grounds for the formation of a committee of activists against the abuse of women. At first, Kathy doesn’t realize how bad things are about to get for Sabbath. She even offers to give him a blow job as he berates her for her carelessness. Trying to impress on her the situation’s seriousness, he says,

Your people have on tape my voice giving reality to all the worst things they want the world to know about men. They have a hundred times more proof of my criminality than could be required by even the most lenient of deans to drive me out of every decent antiphallic educational institution in America. (586)

The committee against Sabbath proceeds to make the full recorded conversation available through a call-in line (the nineties equivalent of posting the podcast online). But the conversation itself isn’t enough; one of the activists gives a long introduction, which concludes,

The listener will quickly recognize how by this point in his psychological assault on an inexperienced young woman, Professor Sabbath has been able to manipulate her into thinking that she is a willing participant. (567-8)

Sabbath knows full well that even consensual phone sex can be construed as a crime if doing so furthers the agenda of those “esteemed ladies of the movement” Roiphe addresses. 

Reading through the lens of a tribal ideology ineluctably leads to the refraction of reality beyond recognizability, and any aspiring male writer quickly learns in all his courses in literary theory that the criteria for designation as an enemy to the cause of women are pretty much whatever the feminist critics fucking say they are. Wallace wasn’t alone in acquiescing to feminist rage by denying his own boorish instincts. Roiphe describes the havoc this opportunistic antipathy toward male sexuality wreaks in the minds of male writers and their literary creations:

Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing. Compare [Benjamin] Kunkel’s tentative and guilt-ridden masturbation scene in “Indecision” with Roth’s famous onanistic exuberance with apple cores, liver and candy wrappers in “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Kunkel: “Feeling extremely uncouth, I put my penis away. I might have thrown it away if I could.” Roth also writes about guilt, of course, but a guilt overridden and swept away, joyously subsumed in the sheer energy of taboo smashing: “How insane whipping out my joint like that! Imagine what would have been had I been caught red-handed! Imagine if I had gone ahead.” In other words, one rarely gets the sense in Roth that he would throw away his penis if he could.

And what good comes of an ideology that encourages the psychological torture of bookish young men? It’s hard to distinguish the effects of these so-called literary theories from the hellfire scoldings delivered from the pulpits of the most draconian and anti-humanist religious patriarchs. Do we really need to ideologically castrate all our male scholars to protect women from abuse and further the cause of equality?
*****
The experience of sexual relations between older teacher and younger student in Sabbath’s Theater is described much differently when the gender activists have yet to get involved—and not just by Sabbath but by Kathy as well. “I’m of age!” she protests as he chastises her for endangering his job and opening him up to public scorn; “I do what I want” (586). Absent the committee against him, Sabbath’s impression of how his affairs with his students impact them reflects the nuance of feeling inspired by these experimental entanglements, the kind of nuance that the “laudable ideologies” can’t even begin to capture.

There was a kind of art in his providing an illicit adventure not with a boy of their own age but with someone three times their age—the very repugnance that his aging body inspired in them had to make their adventure with him feel a little like a crime and thereby give free play to their budding perversity and to the confused exhilaration that comes of flirting with disgrace. Yes, despite everything, he had the artistry still to open up to them the lurid interstices of life, often for the first time since they’d given their debut “b.j.” in junior high. As Kathy told him in that language which they all used and which made him want to cut their heads off, through coming to know him she felt “empowered.” (566)

Opening up “the lurid interstices of life” is precisely what Roth and the other great male writers—all great writers—are about. If there are easy answers to the questions of what characters should do, or if the plot entails no more than a simple conflict between a blandly good character and a blandly bad one, then the story, however virtuous its message, will go unattended.

            But might there be too much at stake for us impressionable readers to be allowed free reign to play around in imaginary spheres peopled by morally dubious specters? After all, if denouncing the dreamworlds of privileged white men, however unfairly, redounds to the benefit of women and children and minorities, then perhaps it’s to the greater good. In fact, though, right alongside the trends of increasing availability for increasingly graphic media portrayals of sex and violence have occurred marked decreases in actual violence and the abuse of women. And does anyone really believe it’s the least literate, least media-saturated societies that are the kindest to women? The simple fact is that the theory of literature subtly encouraging oppression can’t be valid. But the problem is once ideologies are institutionalized, once a threshold number of people depend on their perpetuation for their livelihoods, people whose scholarly work and reputations are staked on them, then victims of oppression will be found, their existence insisted on, regardless of whether they truly exist or not.

In another scandal Sabbath was embroiled in long before his flirtation with Kathy Goolsbee, he was brought up on charges of indecency because in the course of a street performance he’d exposed a woman’s nipple. The woman herself, Helen Trumbull, maintains from the outset of the imbroglio that whatever Sabbath had done, he’d done it with her consent—just as will be the case with his “psychological assault” on Kathy. But even as Sabbath sits assured that the case against him will collapse once the jury hears the supposed victim testify on his behalf, the prosecution takes a bizarre twist:
  
In fact, the victim, if there even is one, is coming this way, but the prosecutor says no, the victim is the public. The poor public, getting the shaft from this fucking drifter, this artist. If this guy can walk along a street, he says, and do this, then little kids think it’s permissible to do this, and if little kids think it’s permissible to do this, then they think it’s permissible to blah blah banks, rape women, use knives. If seven-year-old kids—the seven nonexistent kids are now seven seven-year-old kids—are going to see that this is fun and permissible with strange women… (663-4)

Here we have Roth’s dramatization of the fundamental conflict between artists and moralists. Even if no one is directly hurt by playful scenarios, that they carry a message, one that threatens to corrupt susceptible minds, is so seemingly obvious it’s all but impossible to refute. Since the audience for art is “the public,” the acts of depravity and degradation it depicts are, if anything, even more fraught with moral and political peril than any offense against an individual victim, real or imagined.  

            This theme of the oppressive nature of ideologies devised to combat oppression, the victimizing proclivity of movements originally fomented to protect and empower victims, is most directly articulated by a young man named Donald, dressed in all black and sitting atop a file cabinet in a nurse’s station when Sabbath happens across him at a rehab clinic. Donald “vaguely resembled the Sabbath of some thirty years ago,” and Sabbath will go on to apologize for interrupting him, referring to him as “a man whose aversions I wholeheartedly endorse.” What he was saying before the interruption:

“Ideological idiots!” proclaimed the young man in black. “The third great ideological failure of the twentieth century. The same stuff. Fascism. Communism. Feminism. All designed to turn one group of people against another group of people. The good Aryans against the bad others who oppress them. The good poor against the bad rich who oppress them. The good women against the bad men who oppress them. The holder of ideology is pure and good and clean and the other wicked. But do you know who is wicked? Whoever imagines himself to be pure is wicked! I am pure, you are wicked… There is no human purity! It does not exist! It cannot exist!” he said, kicking the file cabinet for emphasis. “It must not and should not exist! Because it’s a lie. … Ideological tyranny. It’s the disease of the century. The ideology institutionalizes the pathology. In twenty years there will be a new ideology. People against dogs. The dogs are to blame for our lives as people. Then after dogs there will be what? Who will be to blame for corrupting our purity?” (620-1)

It’s noteworthy that this rant is made by a character other than Sabbath. By this point in the novel, we know Sabbath wouldn’t speak so artlessly—unless he was really frightened or angry. As effective and entertaining an indictment of “Ideological tyranny” as Sabbath’s Theater is, we shouldn’t expect to encounter anywhere in a novel by a storyteller as masterful as Roth a character operating as a mere mouthpiece for some argument. Even Donald himself, Sabbath quickly gleans, isn’t simply spouting off; he’s trying to impress one of the nurses.

            And it’s not just the political ideologies that conscript complicated human beings into simple roles as oppressors and victims. The pseudoscientific psychological theories that both inform literary scholarship and guide many non-scholars through life crises and relationship difficulties function according to the same fundamental dynamic of tribalism; they simply substitute abusive family members for more generalized societal oppression and distorted or fabricated crimes committed in the victim’s childhood for broader social injustices. Sabbath is forced to contend with this particular brand of depersonalizing ideology because his second wife, Roseanna, picks it up through her AA meetings, and then becomes further enmeshed in it through individual treatment with a therapist named Barbara. Sabbath, who considers himself a failure, and who is carrying on an affair with the woman we meet in the opening lines of the novel, is baffled as to why Roseanna would stay with him. Her therapist provides an answer of sorts.

But then her problem with Sabbath, the “enslavement,” stemmed, according to Barbara, from her disastrous history with an emotionally irresponsible mother and a violent alcoholic father for both of whom Sabbath was the sadistic doppelganger. (454)

Roseanna’s father was a geology professor who hanged himself when she was a young teenager. Sabbath is a former puppeteer with crippling arthritis. Naturally, he’s confused by the purported identity of roles.

These connections—between the mother, the father, and him—were far clearer to Barbara than they were to Sabbath; if there was, as she liked to put it, a “pattern” in it all, the pattern eluded him.

In the midst of a shouting match, Sabbath tells his wife, “As for the ‘pattern’ governing a life, tell Barbara it’s commonly called chaos” (455). When she protests, “You are shouting at me like my father,” Sabbath asserts his individuality: “The fuck that’s who I’m shouting at you like! I’m shouting at you like myself!” (459). Whether you see his resistance as heroic or not probably depends on how much credence you give to those psychological theories.

            From the opening lines of Sabbath’s Theater when we’re presented with the dilemma of the teary-eyed mistress demanding monogamy in their adulterous relationship, the simple response would be to stand in easy judgment of Sabbath, and like Wallace did to Updike’s character, declare him an asshole. It’s clear that he loves this woman, a Croatian immigrant named Drenka, a character who at points steals the show even from the larger-than-life protagonist. And it’s clear his fidelity would mean a lot to her. Is his freedom to fuck other women really so important? Isn’t he just being selfish? But only a few pages later our easy judgment suddenly gets more complicated:

As it happened, since picking up Christa several years back Sabbath had not really been the adventurous libertine Drenka claimed she could no longer endure, and consequently she already had the monogamous man she wanted, even if she didn’t know it. To women other than her, Sabbath was by now quite unalluring, not just because he was absurdly bearded and obstinately peculiar and overweight and aging in every obvious way but because, in the aftermath of the scandal four years earlier with Kathy Goolsbee, he’s become more dedicated than ever to marshaling the antipathy of just about everyone as though he were, in fact, battling for his rights. (394)

Christa was a young woman who participated in a threesome with Sabbath and Drenka, an encounter to which Sabbath’s only tangible contribution was to hand the younger woman a dildo.

            One of the central dilemmas for a character who loves the thrill of sex, who seeks in it a rekindling of youthful vigor—“the word’s rejuvenation,” Sabbath muses at one point (517)—the adrenaline boost borne of being in the wrong and the threat of getting caught, what Roiphe calls “the sheer energy of taboo smashing,” becomes ever more indispensable as libido wanes with age. Even before Sabbath ever had to contend with the ravages of aging, he reveled in this added exhilaration that attends any expedition into forbidden realms. What makes Drenka so perfect for him is that she has not just a similarly voracious appetite but a similar fondness for outrageous sex and the smashing of taboo. And it’s this mutual celebration of the verboten that Sabbath is so reluctant to relinquish. Of Drenka, he thinks,

The secret realm of thrills and concealment, this was the poetry of her existence. Her crudeness was the most distinguishing force in her life, lent her life its distinction. What was she otherwise? What was he otherwise? She was his last link with another world, she and her great taste for the impermissible. As a teacher of estrangement from the ordinary, he had never trained a more gifted pupil; instead of being joined by the contractual they were interconnected by the instinctual and together could eroticize anything (except their spouses). Each of their marriages cried out for a countermarriage in which the adulterers attack their feelings of captivity. (395)

Those feelings of captivity, the yearnings to experience the flow of the old juices, are anything but adolescent, as Wallace suggests of them; adolescents have a few decades before they have to worry about dwindling arousal. Most of them have the opposite problem.

            The question of how readers are supposed to feel about a character like Sabbath doesn’t have any simple answers. He’s an asshole at several points in the novel, but at several points he’s not. One of the reasons he’s so compelling is that working out what our response to him should be poses a moral dilemma of its own. Whether or not we ultimately decide that adultery is always and everywhere wrong, the experience of being privy to Sabbath’s perspective can help us prepare ourselves for our own feelings of captivity, lusting nostalgia, and sexual temptation. Most of us will never find ourselves in a dilemma like Sabbath gets himself tangled in with his friend Norman’s wife, for instance, but it would be to our detriment to automatically discount the old hornball’s insights.

He could discern in her, whenever her husband spoke, the desire to be just a little cruel to Norman, saw her sneering at the best of him, at the very best things in him. If you don’t go crazy because of your husband’s vices, you go crazy because of his virtues. He’s on Prozac because he can’t win. Everything is leaving her except for her behind, which her wardrobe informs her is broadening by the season—and except for this steadfast prince of a man marked by reasonableness and ethical obligation the way others are marked by insanity or illness. Sabbath understood her state of mind, her state of life, her state of suffering: dusk is descending, and sex, our greatest luxury, is racing away at a tremendous speed, everything is racing off at a tremendous speed and you wonder at your folly in having ever turned down a single squalid fuck. You’d give your right arm for one if you are a babe like this. It’s not unlike the Great Depression, not unlike going broke overnight after years of raking it in. “Nothing unforeseen that happens,” the hot flashes inform her, “is likely ever again going to be good.” Hot flashes mockingly mimicking the sexual ecstasies. Dipped, she is, in the very fire of fleeting time. (651)

Welcome to messy, chaotic, complicated life.

            Sabbath’s Theater is, in part, Philip Roth’s raised middle finger to the academic moralists whose idiotic and dehumanizing ideologies have spread like a cancer into all the venues where literature is discussed and all the avenues through which it’s produced. Unfortunately, the unrecognized need for culture-wide chemotherapy hasn’t gotten any less dire in the nearly two decades since the novel was published. With literature now drowning in the devouring tide of new media, the tragic course set by the academic custodians of art toward bloodless prudery and impotent sterility in the name of misguided political activism promises to do nothing but ensure the ever greater obsolescence of epistemologically doomed and resoundingly pointless theorizing, making of college courses the places where you go to become, at best, profoundly confused about where you should stand with relation to fiction and fictional characters, and, at worst, a self-righteous demagogue denouncing the chimerical evils allegedly encoded into every text or cultural artifact. All the conspiracy theorizing about the latent evil urgings of literature has amounted to little more than another reason not to read, another reason to tune in to Breaking Bad or Mad Men instead. But the only reason Roth’s novel makes such a successful case is that it at no point allows itself to be reducible to a mere case, just as Sabbath at no point allows himself to be conscripted as a mere argument. We don’t love or hate him; we love and hate him. But we sort of just love him because he leaves us free to do both as we experience his antics, once removed and simulated, but still just as complicatedly eloquent in their message of “Fuck the laudable ideologies”—or not, as the case may be. 


Also read Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game.

And Stories, Social Proof, and Our Two Selves.

And Can't Win for Losing: Why There Are So Many Losers in Literature and Why It Has to Change.

The Imp of the Underground and the Literature of Low Status

Image courtesy of Block Magazine
The one overarching theme in literature, and I mean all literature since there’s been any to speak of, is injustice. Does the girl get the guy she deserves? If so, the work is probably commercial, as opposed to literary, fiction. If not, then the reason begs pondering. Maybe she isn’t pretty enough, despite her wit and aesthetic sophistication, so we’re left lamenting the shallowness of our society’s males. Maybe she’s of a lower caste, despite her unassailable virtue, in which case we’re forced to question our complacency before morally arbitrary class distinctions. Or maybe the timing was just off—cursed fate in all her fickleness. Another literary work might be about the woman who ends up without the fulfilling career she longed for and worked hard to get, in which case we may blame society’s narrow conception of femininity, as evidenced by all those damn does-the-girl-get-the-guy stories.

            The prevailing theory of what arouses our interest in narratives focuses on the characters’ goals, which magically, by some as yet undiscovered cognitive mechanism, become our own. But plots often catch us up before any clear goals are presented to us, and our partisanship on behalf of a character easily endures shifting purposes. We as readers and viewers are not swept into stories through the transubstantiation of someone else’s striving into our own, with the protagonist serving as our avatar as we traverse the virtual setting and experience the pre-orchestrated plot. Rather, we reflexively monitor the character for signs of virtue and for a capacity to contribute something of value to his or her community, the same way we, in our nonvirtual existence, would monitor and assess a new coworker, classmate, or potential date. While suspense in commercial fiction hinges on high-stakes struggles between characters easily recognizable as good and those easily recognizable as bad, and comfortably condemnable as such, forward momentum in literary fiction—such as it is—depends on scenes in which the protagonist is faced with temptations, tests of virtue, moral dilemmas.

The strain and complexity of coming to some sort of resolution to these dilemmas often serves as a theme in itself, a comment on the mad world we live in, where it’s all but impossible to discern between right and wrong. Indeed, the most common emotional struggle depicted in literature is that between the informal, even intimate handling of moral evaluation—which comes natural to us owing to our evolutionary heritage as a group-living species—and the official, systematized, legal or institutional channels for determining merit and culpability that became unavoidable as societies scaled up exponentially after the advent of agriculture. These burgeoning impersonal bureaucracies are all too often ill-equipped to properly weigh messy mitigating factors, and they’re all too vulnerable to subversion by unscrupulous individuals who know how to game them. Psychopaths who ought to be in prison instead become CEOs of multinational investment firms, while sensitive and compassionate artists and humanitarians wind up taking lowly day jobs at schools or used book stores. But the feature of institutions and bureaucracies—and of complex societies more generally—that takes the biggest toll on our Pleistocene psyches, the one that strikes us as the most glaring injustice, is their stratification, their arrangement into steeply graded hierarchies.

Unlike our hierarchical ape cousins, all present-day societies still living in small groups as nomadic foragers, like those our ancestors lived in throughout the epoch that gave rise to the suite of traits we recognize as uniquely human, collectively enforce an ethos of egalitarianism. As anthropologist Christopher Boehm explains in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarianism,

Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him. (105)

Since humans evolved from a species that was ancestral to both chimpanzees and gorillas, we carry in us many of the emotional and behavioral capacities that support hierarchies. But, during all those millennia of egalitarianism, we also developed an instinctive distaste for behaviors that undermine an individual’s personal sovereignty. “On their list of serious moral transgressions,” Boehm explains,

hunter-gathers regularly proscribe the enactment of behavior that is politically overbearing. They are aiming at upstarts who threaten the autonomy of other group members, and upstartism takes various forms. An upstart may act the bully simply because he is disposed to dominate others, or he may become selfishly greedy when it is time to share meat, or he may want to make off with another man’s wife by threat or by force. He (or sometimes she) may also be a respected leader who suddenly begins to issue direct orders… An upstart may simply take on airs of superiority, or may aggressively put others down and thereby violate the group’s idea of how its main political actors should be treating one another. (43)

In a band of thirty people, it’s possible to keep a vigilant eye on everyone and head off potential problems. But, as populations grow, encounters with strangers in settings where no one knows one another open the way for threats to individual autonomy and casual insults to personal dignity. And, as professional specialization and institutional complexity increase in pace with technological advancement, power structures become necessary for efficient decision-making. Economic inequality then takes hold as a corollary of professional inequality.

None of this is to suggest that the advance of civilization inevitably leads to increasing injustice. In fact, per capita murder rates are much higher in hunter-gatherer societies. Nevertheless, the impersonal nature of our dealings with others in the modern world often strikes us as overly conducive to perverse incentives and unfair outcomes. And even the most mundane signals of superior status or the most subtle expressions of power, though officially sanctioned, can be maddening. Compare this famous moment in literary history to Boehm’s account of hunter-gatherer political philosophy:

I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently—with no warning or explanation—moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me. (49)

The billiard player's failure to acknowledge his autonomy outrages the narrator, who then considers attacking the man who has treated him with such disrespect. But he can’t bring himself to do it. He explains,

I turned coward not from cowardice, but from the most boundless vanity. I was afraid, not of six-foot-tallness, nor of being badly beaten and chucked out the window; I really would have had physical courage enough; what I lacked was sufficient moral courage. I was afraid that none of those present—from the insolent marker to the last putrid and blackhead-covered clerk with a collar of lard who was hanging about there—would understand, and that they would all deride me if I started protesting and talking to them in literary language. Because among us to this day it is impossible to speak of a point of honor—that is, not honor, but a point of honor (point d’honneur) otherwise than in literary language. (50)

The languages of law and practicality are the only ones whose legitimacy is recognized in modern societies. The language of morality used to describe sentiments like honor has been consigned to literature. This man wants to exact his revenge for the slight he suffered, but that would require his revenge to be understood by witnesses as such. The derision he can count on from all the bystanders would just compound the slight. In place of a close-knit moral community, there is only a loose assortment of strangers. And so he has no recourse.

            The character in this scene could be anyone. Males may be more keyed into the physical dimension of domination and more prone to react with physical violence, but females likewise suffer from slights and belittlements, and react aggressively, often by attacking their tormenter's reputation through gossip. Treating a person of either gender as an insensate obstacle is easier when that person is a stranger you’re unlikely ever to encounter again. But another dynamic is at play in the scene which makes it still easier—almost inevitable. After being unceremoniously moved aside, the narrator becomes obsessed with the man who treated him so dismissively. Desperate to even the score, he ends up stalking the man, stewing resentfully, trying to come up with a plan. He writes,

And suddenly… suddenly I got my revenge in the simplest, the most brilliant way! The brightest idea suddenly dawned on me. Sometimes on holidays I would go to Nevsky Prospect between three and four, and stroll along the sunny side. That is, I by no means went strolling there, but experienced countless torments, humiliations and risings of bile: that must have been just what I needed. I darted like an eel among the passers-by, in a most uncomely fashion, ceaselessly giving way now to generals, now to cavalry officers and hussars, now to ladies; in those moments I felt convulsive pains in my heart and a hotness in my spine at the mere thought of the measliness of my attire and the measliness and triteness of my darting little figure. This was a torment of torments, a ceaseless, unbearable humiliation from the thought, which would turn into a ceaseless and immediate sensation, of my being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly—more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else—that went without saying—but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone. (52)

So the indignity, it seems, was not borne of being moved aside like a piece of furniture so much as it was of being afforded absolutely no status. That’s why being beaten would have been preferable; a beating implies a modicum of worthiness in that it demands recognition, effort, even risk, no matter how slight.

            The idea that occurs to the narrator for the perfect revenge requires that he first remedy the outward signals of his lower social status, “the measliness of my attire and the measliness… of my darting little figure,” as he calls them. The catch is that to don the proper attire for leveling a challenge, he has to borrow money from a man he works with—which only adds to his daily feelings of humiliation. Psychologists Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky have conducted experiments demonstrating that people display a disturbing readiness to compensate for feelings of powerlessness and low status by making pricy purchases, even though in the long run such expenditures only serve to perpetuate their lowly economic and social straits. The irony is heightened in the story when the actual revenge itself, the trappings for which were so dearly purchased, turns out to be so bathetic.

Suddenly, within three steps of my enemy, I unexpectedly decided, closed my eyes, and—we bumped solidly shoulder against shoulder! I did not yield an inch and passed by on perfectly equal footing! He did not even look back and pretended not to notice: but he only pretended, I’m sure of that. To this day I’m sure of it! Of course, I got the worst of it; he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had achieved my purpose, preserved my dignity, yielded not a step, and placed myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home perfectly avenged for everything. (55)

But this perfect vengeance has cost him not only the price of a new coat and hat; it has cost him a full two years of obsession, anguish, and insomnia as well. The implication is that being of lowly status is a constant psychological burden, one that makes people so crazy they become incapable of making rational decisions.

Dostoevsky
            Literature buffs will have recognized these scenes from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (as translated by Richard Prevear and Larissa Volokhnosky), which satirizes the idea of a society based on the principle of “rational egotism” as symbolized by N.G. Chernyshevsky’s image of a “crystal palace” (25), a well-ordered utopia in which every citizen pursues his or her own rational self-interests. Dostoevsky’s underground man hates the idea because regardless of how effectively such a society may satisfy people’s individual needs the rigid conformity it would demand would be intolerable. The supposed utopia, then, could never satisfy people’s true interests. He argues,

That’s just the thing, gentlemen, that there may well exist something that is dearer for almost every man than his very best profit, or (so as not to violate logic) that there is this one most profitable profit (precisely the omitted one, the one we were just talking about), which is chiefer and more profitable than all other profits, and for which a man is ready, if need be, to go against all laws, that is, against reason, honor, peace, prosperity—in short, against all these beautiful and useful things—only so as to attain this primary, most profitable profit which is dearer to him than anything else. (22)

The underground man cites examples of people behaving against their own best interests in this section, which serves as a preface to the story of his revenge against the billiard player who so blithely moves him aside. The way he explains this “very best profit” which makes people like himself behave in counterproductive, even self-destructive ways is to suggest that nothing else matters unless everyone’s freedom to choose how to behave is held inviolate. He writes,

One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil… Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead. (25-6)
Arthur Rackham's Imp of Perverse Illustration

Notes from Underground was originally published in 1864. But the underground man echoes, wittingly or not, the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s story from almost twenty years earlier, "The Imp of the Perverse," who posits an innate drive to perversity, explaining,

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object. Or if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say that through its promptings we act for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but in reality there is none so strong. With certain minds, under certain circumstances, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more sure that I breathe, than that the conviction of the wrong or impolicy of an action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us, to its prosecution. Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution to ulterior elements. (403)

This narrator’s suggestion of the irreducibility of the impulse notwithstanding, it’s noteworthy how often the circumstances that induce its expression include the presence of an individual of higher status.
Dov Cohen

            The famous shoulder bump in Notes from Underground has an uncanny parallel in experimental psychology. In 1996, Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, and their colleagues published the research article, “Insult, Aggression, and the Southern Culture of Honor: An ‘Experimental Ethnography’,” in which they report the results of a comparison between the cognitive and physiological responses of southern males to being bumped in a hallway and casually called an asshole to those of northern males. The study showed that whereas men from northern regions were usually amused by the run-in, southern males were much more likely to see it as an insult and a threat to their manhood, and they were much more likely to respond violently. The cortisol and testosterone levels of southern males spiked—the clever experimental setup allowed meaures before and after—and these men reported believing physical confrontation was the appropriate way to redress the insult. The way Cohen and Nisbett explain the difference is that the “culture of honor” that emerges in southern regions originally developed as a safeguard for men who lived as herders. Cultures that arise in farming regions place less emphasis on manly honor because farmland is difficult to steal. But if word gets out that a herder is soft then his livelihood is at risk. Cohen and Nisbett write,
Richard Nisbett

Such concerns might appear outdated for southern participants now that the South is no longer a lawless frontier based on a herding economy. However, we believe these experiments may also hint at how the culture of honor has sustained itself in the South. It is possible that the culture-of-honor stance has become “functionally autonomous” from the material circumstances that created it. Culture of honor norms are now socially enforced and perpetuated because they have become embedded in social roles, expectations, and shared definitions of manhood. (958)

            More recently, in a 2009 article titled “Low-Status Compensation: A Theory for Understanding the Role of Status in Cultures of Honor,” psychologist P.J. Henry takes another look at Cohen and Nisbett’s findings and offers another interpretation based on his own further experimentation. Henry’s key insight is that herding peoples are often considered to be of lower status than people with other professions and lifestyles. After establishing that the southern communities with a culture of honor are often stigmatized with negative stereotypes—drawling accents signaling low intelligence, high incidence of incest and drug use, etc.—both in the minds of outsiders and those of the people themselves, Henry suggests that a readiness to resort to violence probably isn’t now and may not ever have been adaptive in terms of material benefits.
P.J. Henry

An important perspective of low-status compensation theory is that low status is a stigma that brings with it lower psychological worth and value. While it is true that stigma also often accompanies lower economic worth and, as in the studies presented here, is sometimes defined by it (i.e., those who have lower incomes in a society have more of a social stigma compared with those who have higher incomes), low-status compensation theory assumes that it is psychological worth that is being protected, not economic or financial worth. In other words, the compensation strategies used by members of low-status groups are used in the service of psychological self-protection, not as a means of gaining higher status, higher income, more resources, etc. (453)

And this conception of honor brings us closer to the observations of the underground man and Poe’s boastful murderer. If psychological worth is what’s being defended, then economic considerations fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, since our financial standing tends to be so closely tied to our social standing, our efforts to protect our sense of psychological worth have a nasty tendency to backfire in the long run.

            Henry found evidence for the importance of psychological reactance, as opposed to cultural norms, in causing violence when he divided participants of his study into either high or low status categories and then had them respond to questions about how likely they would be to respond to insults with physical aggression. But before being asked about the propriety of violent reprisals half of the members of each group were asked to recall as vividly as they could a time in their lives when they felt valued by their community. Henry describes the findings thus:

When lower status participants were given the opportunity to validate their worth, they were less likely to endorse lashing out aggressively when insulted or disrespected. Higher status participants were unaffected by the manipulation. (463)

The implication is that people who feel less valuable than others, a condition that tends to be associated with low socioeconomic status, are quicker to retaliate because they are almost constantly on-edge, preoccupied at almost every moment with assessments of their standing in relation to others. Aside from a readiness to engage in violence, this type of obsessive vigilance for possible slights, and the feeling of powerlessness that attends it, can be counted on to keep people in a constant state of stress. The massive longitudinal study of British Civil Service employees called the Whitehall Study, which tracks the health outcomes of people at the various levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy, has found that the stress associated with low status also has profound effects on our physical well-being.  
When Americans are asked to imagine an ideal distribution of
wealth, the results show far less stratification than actually
exists.

            Though it may seem that violence-prone poor people occupying lowly positions on societal and professional totem poles are responsible for aggravating and prolonging their own misery because they tend to spend extravagantly and lash out at their perceived overlords with nary a concern for the consequences, the regularity with which low status leads to self-defeating behavior suggests the impulses are much more deeply rooted than some lazily executed weighing of pros and cons. If the type of wealth or status inequality the underground man finds himself on the short end of would have begun to take root in societies like the ones Christopher Boehm describes, a high-risk attempt at leveling the playing field would not only have been understandable—it would have been morally imperative. In a group of nomadic foragers, though, a man endeavoring to knock a would-be alpha down a few pegs would be able to count on the endorsement of most of the other group members. And the success rate for re-establishing and maintaining egalitarianism would have been heartening. Today, we are forced to live with inequality, even though beyond a certain point most people (regardless of political affiliation) see it as an injustice. 

            Some of the functions of literature, then, are to help us imagine just how intolerable life on the bottom can be, sympathize with those who get trapped in downward spirals of self-defeat, and begin to imagine what a more just and equitable society might look like. The catch is that we will be put off by characters who mistreat others or simply show a dearth of redeeming qualities.



Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

and Can't Win for Losing: Why there are So Many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change

Why Shakespeare Nauseated Darwin: A Review of Keith Oatley's "Such Stuff as Dreams"

Review of Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction by Keith Oatley
            Late in his life, Charles Darwin lost his taste for music and poetry. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he laments in his autobiography, and for many of us the temptation to place all men and women of science into a category of individuals whose minds resemble machines more than living and emotionally attuned organs of feeling and perceiving is overwhelming. In the 21st century, we even have a convenient psychiatric diagnosis for people of this sort. Don’t we just assume Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory has autism, or at least the milder version of it known as Asperger’s? It’s probably even safe to assume the show’s writers had the diagnostic criteria for the disorder in mind when they first developed his character. Likewise, Dr. Watson in the BBC’s new and obscenely entertaining Sherlock series can’t resist a reference to the quintessential evidence-crunching genius’s own supposed Asperger’s. In Darwin’s case, however, the move away from the arts couldn’t have been due to any congenital deficiency in his finer human sentiments because it occurred only in adulthood. He writes,

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure.

We could interpret Darwin here as suggesting that casting his mind too doggedly into his scientific work somehow ruined his capacity to appreciate Shakespeare. But, like all thinkers and writers of great nuance and sophistication, his ideas are easy to mischaracterize through selective quotation (or, if you’re Ben Stein or any of the other unscrupulous writers behind creationist propaganda like the pseudo-documentary Expelled, you can just lie about what he actually wrote). One of the most charming things about Darwin is that his writing is often more exploratory than merely informative. He writes in search of answers he has yet to discover. In a wider context, the quote about his mind becoming a machine, for instance, reads,

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

His concern for his lost aestheticism notwithstanding, Darwin’s humanism, his humanity, radiates in his writing with a warmth that belies any claim about thinking like a machine, just as the intelligence that shows through it gainsays his humble deprecations about the organization of his mind.

           In this excerpt, Darwin, perhaps inadvertently, even manages to put forth a theory of the function of art. Somehow, poetry and music not only give us pleasure and make us happy—enjoying them actually constitutes a type of mental exercise that strengthens our intellect, our emotional awareness, and even our moral character. Novelist and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley explores this idea of human betterment through aesthetic experience in his book Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. This subtitle is notably underwhelming given the long history of psychoanalytic theorizing about the meaning and role of literature. However, whereas psychoanalysis has fallen into disrepute among scientists because of its multiple empirical failures and a general methodological hubris common among its practitioners, the work of Oatley and his team at the University of Toronto relies on much more modest, and at the same time much more sophisticated, scientific protocols. One of the tools these researchers use, The Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test, was in fact first developed to research our new category of people with machine-like minds. What the researchers find bolsters Darwin’s impression that art, at least literary art, functions as a kind of exercise for our faculty of understanding and relating to others.
Keith Oatley

           Reasoning that “fiction is a kind of simulation of selves and their vicissitudes in the social world” (159), Oatley and his colleague Raymond Mar hypothesized that people who spent more time trying to understand fictional characters would be better at recognizing and reasoning about other, real-world people’s states of mind. So they devised a test to assess how much fiction participants in their study read based on how well they could categorize a long list of names according to which ones belonged to authors of fiction, which to authors of nonfiction, and which to non-authors. They then had participants take the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test, which consists of matching close-up pictures of peoples’ eyes with terms describing their emotional state at the time they were taken. The researchers also had participants take the Interpersonal Perception Test, which has them answer questions about the relationships of people in short video clips featuring social interactions. An example question might be “Which of the two children, or both, or neither, are offspring of the two adults in the clip?”  (Imagine Sherlock Holmes taking this test.) As hypothesized, Oatley writes, “We found that the more fiction people read, the better they were at the Mind-in-the-Eyes Test. A similar relationship held, though less strongly, for reading fiction and the Interpersonal Perception Test” (159).
Raymond Mar

            One major shortcoming of this study is that it fails to establish causality; people who are naturally better at reading emotions and making sound inferences about social interactions may gravitate to fiction for some reason. So Mar set up an experiment in which he had participants read either a nonfiction article from an issue of the New Yorker or a work of short fiction chosen to be the same length and require the same level of reading skills. When the two groups then took a test of social reasoning, the ones who had read the short story outperformed the control group. Both groups also took a test of analytic reasoning as a further control; on this variable there was no difference in performance between the groups. The outcome of this experiment, Oatley stresses, shouldn’t be interpreted as evidence that reading one story will increase your social skills in any meaningful and lasting way. But reading habits established over long periods likely explain the more significant differences between individuals found in the earlier study. As Oatley explains,

Readers of fiction tend to become more expert at making models of others and themselves, and at navigating the social world, and readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading. Raymond Mar’s experimental study on reading pieces from the New Yorker is probably best explained by priming. Reading a fictional piece puts people into a frame of mind of thinking about the social world, and this is probably why they did better at the test of social reasoning. (160)

Connecting these findings to real-world outcomes, Oatley and his team also found that “reading fiction was not associated with loneliness,” as the stereotype suggests, “but was associated with what psychologists call high social support, being in a circle of people whom participants saw a lot, and who were available to them practically and emotionally” (160).

            These studies by the University of Toronto team have received wide publicity, but the people who should be the most interested in them have little or no idea how to go about making sense of them. Most people simply either read fiction or they don’t. If you happen to be of the tribe who studies fiction, then you were probably educated in a way that engendered mixed feelings—profound confusion really—about science and how it works. In his review of The Storytelling Animal, a book in which Jonathan Gottschall incorporates the Toronto team’s findings into the theory that narrative serves the adaptive function of making human social groups more cooperative and cohesive, Adam Gopnik sneers,

Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

Oatley himself is well aware of the strange case of university English departments. He cites a report by Willie van Peer on a small study he did comparing students in the natural sciences to students in the humanities. Oatley explains,

There was considerable scatter, but on average the science students had higher emotional intelligence than the humanities students, the opposite of what was expected; van Peer indicts teaching in the humanities for often turning people away from human understanding towards technical analyses of details. (160)

Oatley suggests in a footnote that an earlier study corroborates van Peer’s indictment. It found that high school students who show more emotional involvement with short stories—the type of connection that would engender greater empathy—did proportionally worse on standard academic assessments of English proficiency. The clear implication of these findings is that the way literature is taught in universities and high schools is long overdue for an in-depth critical analysis.

            The idea that literature has the power to make us better people is not new; indeed, it was the very idea on which the humanities were originally founded. We have to wonder what people like Gopnik believe the point of celebrating literature is if not to foster greater understanding and empathy. If you either enjoy it or you don’t, and it has no beneficial effects on individuals or on society in general, why bother encouraging anyone to read? Why bother writing essays about it in the New Yorker? Tellingly, many scholars in the humanities began doubting the power of art to inspire greater humanity around the same time they began questioning the value and promise of scientific progress. Oatley writes,

Part of the devastation of World War II was the failure of German citizens, one of the world’s most highly educated populations, to prevent their nation’s slide into Nazism. George Steiner has famously asserted: “We know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.” (164)
Willie van Peer

Postwar literary theory and criticism has, perversely, tended toward the view that literature and language in general serve as a vessel for passing on all the evils inherent in our western, patriarchal, racist, imperialist culture. The purpose of literary analysis then becomes to shift out these elements and resist them. Unfortunately, such accusatory theories leave unanswered the question of why, if literature inculcates oppressive ideologies, we should bother reading it at all. As van Peer muses in the report Oatley cites, “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,”

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

           Oatley and van Peer point out, moreover, that the evidence for concentration camp workers having any degree of literary or aesthetic sophistication is nonexistent. According to the best available evidence, most of the greatest atrocities were committed by soldiers who never graduated high school. The suggestion that some type of cozy relationship existed between Nazism and an enthusiasm for Goethe runs afoul of recorded history. As Oatley points out,

Apart from propensity to violence, nationalism, and anti-Semitism, Nazism was marked by hostility to humanitarian values in education. From 1933 onwards, the Nazis replaced the idea of self-betterment through education and reading by practices designed to induce as many as possible into willing conformity, and to coerce the unwilling remainder by justified fear. (165)
Lynn Hunt

Oatley also cites the work of historian Lynn Hunt, whose book Inventing Human Rights traces the original social movement for the recognition of universal human rights to the mid-1700s, when what we recognize today as novels were first being written. Other scholars like Steven Pinker have pointed out too that, while it’s hard not to dwell on tragedies like the Holocaust, even atrocities of that magnitude are resoundingly overmatched by the much larger post-Enlightenment trend toward peace, freedom, and the wider recognition of human rights. It’s sad that one of the lasting legacies of all the great catastrophes of the 20th Century is a tradition in humanities scholarship that has the people who are supposed to be the custodians of our literary heritage hell-bent on teaching us all the ways that literature makes us evil.

            Because Oatley is a central figure in what we can only hope is a movement to end the current reign of self-righteous insanity in literary studies, it pains me not to be able to recommend Such Stuff as Dreams to anyone but dedicated specialists. Oatley writes in the preface that he has “imagined the book as having some of the qualities of fiction. That is to say I have designed it to have a narrative flow” (x), and it may simply be that this suggestion set my expectations too high. But the book is poorly edited, the prose is bland and often roles over itself into graceless tangles, and a couple of the chapters seem like little more than haphazardly collated reports of studies and theories, none exactly off-topic, none completely without interest, but all lacking any central progression or theme. The book often reads more like an annotated bibliography than a story. Oatley’s scholarly range is impressive, however, bearing not just on cognitive science and literature through the centuries but extending as well to the work of important literary theorists. The book is never unreadable, never opaque, but it’s not exactly a work of art in its own right.

            Insofar as Such Stuff as Dreams is organized around a central idea, it is that fiction ought be thought of not as “a direct impression of life,” as Henry James suggests in his famous essay “The Art of Fiction,” and as many contemporary critics—notably James Wood—seem to think of it. Rather, Oatley agrees with Robert Louis Stevenson’s response to James’s essay, “A Humble Remonstrance,” in which he writes that

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician. (qtd on pg 8)

Oatley theorizes that stories are simulations, much like dreams, that go beyond mere reflections of life to highlight through defamiliarization particular aspects of life, to cast them in a new light so as to deepen our understanding and experience of them. He writes,

Every true artistic expression, I think, is not just about the surface of things. It always has some aspect of the abstract. The issue is whether, by a change of perspective or by a making the familiar strange, by means of an artistically depicted world, we can see our everyday world in a deeper way. (15)

Critics of high-brow literature like Wood appreciate defamiliarization at the level of description; Oatley is suggesting here though that the story as a whole functions as a “metaphor-in-the-large” (17), a way of not just making us experience as strange some object or isolated feeling, but of reconceptualizing entire relationships, careers, encounters, biographies—what we recognize in fiction as plots. This is an important insight, and it topples verisimilitude from its ascendant position atop the hierarchy of literary values while rendering complaints about clichéd plots potentially moot. Didn’t Shakespeare recycle plots after all?

            The theory of fiction as a type of simulation to improve social skills and possibly to facilitate group cooperation is emerging as the frontrunner in attempts to explain narrative interest in the context of human evolution. It is to date, however, impossible to rule out the possibility that our interest in stories is not directly adaptive but instead emerges as a byproduct of other traits that confer more immediate biological advantages. The finding that readers track actions in stories with the same brain regions that activate when they witness similar actions in reality, or when they engage in them themselves, is important support for the simulation theory. But the function of mirror neurons isn’t well enough understood yet for us to determine from this study how much engagement with fictional stories depends on the reader's identifying with the protagonist. Oatley’s theory is more consonant with direct and straightforward identification. He writes,

A very basic emotional process engages the reader with plans and fortunes of a protagonist. This is what often drives the plot and, perhaps, keeps us turning the pages, or keeps us in our seat at the movies or at the theater. It can be enjoyable. In art we experience the emotion, but with it the possibility of something else, too. The way we see the world can change, and we ourselves can change. Art is not simply taking a ride on preoccupations and prejudices, using a schema that runs as usual. Art enables us to experience some emotions in contexts that we would not ordinarily encounter, and to think of ourselves in ways that usually we do not. (118)

Much of this change, Oatley suggests, comes from realizing that we too are capable of behaving in ways that we might not like. “I am capable of this too: selfishness, lack of sympathy” (193), is what he believes we think in response to witnessing good characters behave badly.

            Oatley’s theory has a lot to recommend it, but William Flesch’s theory of narrative interest, which suggests we don’t identify with fictional characters directly but rather track them and anxiously hope for them to get whatever we feel they deserve, seems much more plausible in the context of our response to protagonists behaving in surprisingly selfish or antisocial ways. When I see Ed Norton as Tyler Durden beating Angel Face half to death in Fight Club, for instance, I don’t think, hey, that’s me smashing that poor guy’s face with my fists. Instead, I think, what the hell are you doing? I had you pegged as a good guy. I know you’re trying not to be as much of a pushover as you used to be but this is getting scary. I’m anxious that Angel Face doesn’t get too damaged—partly because I imagine that would be devastating to Tyler. And I’m anxious lest this incident be a harbinger of worse behavior to come.

            The issue of identification is just one of several interesting questions that can lend itself to further research. Oatley and Mar’s studies are not enormous in terms of sample size, and their subjects were mostly young college students. What types of fiction work the best to foster empathy? What types of reading strategies might we encourage students to apply to reading literature—apart from trying to remove obstacles to emotional connections with characters? But, aside from the Big-Bad-Western Empire myth that currently has humanities scholars grooming successive generations of deluded ideologues to be little more than culture vultures presiding over the creation and celebration of Loser Lit, the other main challenge to transporting literary theory onto firmer empirical grounds is the assumption that the arts in general and literature in particular demand a wholly different type of thinking to create and appreciate than the type that goes into the intricate mechanics and intensely disciplined practices of science.
Simon Baron-Cohen

As Oatley and the Toronto team have shown, people who enjoy fiction tend to have the opposite of autism. And people who do science are, well, Sheldon. Interestingly, though, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, for whatever reason, included some contraindications for a diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s in Sheldon’s character. Like the other scientists in the show, he’s obsessed with comic books, which require at least some understanding of facial expression and body language to follow. As Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher who designed the Mind-in-the-Eyes test, explains, “Autism is an empathy disorder: those with autism have major difficulties in 'mindreading' or putting themselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining the world through someone else’s feelings” (137). Baron-Cohen has coined the term “mindblindness” to describe the central feature of the disorder, and many have posited that the underlying cause is abnormal development of the brain regions devoted to perspective taking and understanding others, what cognitive psychologists refer to as our Theory of Mind.

            To follow comic book plotlines, Sheldon would have to make ample use of his own Theory of Mind. He’s also given to absorption in various science fiction shows on TV. If he were only interested in futuristic gadgets, as an autistic would be, he could just as easily get more scientifically plausible versions of them in any number of nonfiction venues. By Baron-Cohen’s definition, Sherlock Holmes can’t possibly have Asperger’s either because his ability to get into other people’s heads is vastly superior to pretty much everyone else’s. As he explains in “The Musgrave Ritual,” “You know my methods in such cases, Watson: I put myself in the man’s place, and having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances.”

            What about Darwin, though, that demigod of science who openly professed to being nauseated by Shakespeare? Isn’t he a prime candidate for entry into the surprisingly unpopulated ranks of heartless, data-crunching scientists whose thinking lends itself so conveniently to cooptation by oppressors and committers of wartime atrocities? It turns out that though Darwin held many of the same racist views as nearly all educated men of his time, his ability to empathize across racial and class divides was extraordinary. Darwin was not himself a Social Darwinist, a theory devised by Herbert Spencer to justify inequality (which has currency still today among political conservatives). And Darwin was also a passionate abolitionist, as is clear in the following excerpts from The Voyage of the Beagle:

On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate.

Darwin is responding to cruelty in a way no one around him at the time would have. And note how deeply it pains him, how profound and keenly felt his sympathy is.

I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.

            The question arises, not whether Darwin had sacrificed his humanity to science, but why he had so much more humanity than many other intellectuals of his day.

It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease.

And finally we come to the matter of Darwin’s Theory of Mind, which was quite clearly in no way deficient.

Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin. (530-31)

            I suspect that Darwin’s distaste for Shakespeare was borne of oversensitivity. He doesn't say music failed to move him; he didn’t like it because it made him think “too energetically.” And as aesthetically pleasing as Shakespeare is, existentially speaking, his plays tend to be pretty harsh, even the comedies. When Prospero says, "We are such stuff / as dreams are made on" in Act 4 of The Tempest, he's actually talking not about characters in stories, but about how ephemeral and insignificant real human lives are. But why, beyond some likely nudge from his inherited temperament, was Darwin so sensitive? Why was he so empathetic even to those so vastly different from him? After admitting he’d lost his taste for Shakespeare, paintings, and music, he goes to say,

On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily—against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.
[Check out the Toronto group's blog at onfiction.ca]


Can’t Win for Losing: Why There Are So Many Losers in Literature and Why It Has to Change

Doris Lessing
            Ironically, the author of The Golden Notebook, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and considered by many a “feminist bible,” happens to be an outspoken critic of feminism. When asked in a 1982 interview with Lesley Hazelton about her response to readers who felt some of her later works were betrayals of the women whose cause she once championed, Doris Lessing replied,

What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion.

Lessing has also been accused of being overly harsh—“castrating”—to men, too many of whom she believes roll over a bit too easily when challenged by women aspiring to empowerment. As a famous novelist, however, who would go on to win the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, she got to visit a lot of schools, and it gradually dawned on her that it wasn’t so much that men were rolling over but rather that they were being trained from childhood to be ashamed of their maleness. In a lecture she gave to the Edinburgh book festival in 2001, she said,

Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation. We have many wonderful, clever, powerful women everywhere, but what is happening to men? Why did this have to be at the cost of men? I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men. You could see the little girls, fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologising for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives.

Lessing describes how the teacher kept casting glances expectant of her approval as she excoriated these impressionable children. 

           Elaine Blair, in “Great American Losers,” an essay that’s equal parts trenchant and infuriatingly obtuse, describes a dynamic in contemporary fiction that’s similar to the one Lessing saw playing out in the classroom.

The man who feels himself unloved and unlovable—this is a character that we know well from the latest generation or two of American novels. His trials are often played for sympathetic laughs. His loserdom is total: it extends to his stunted career, his squalid living quarters, his deep unease in the world.

At the heart of this loserdom is his auto-manifesting knowledge that women don’t like him. As opposed to men of earlier generations who felt entitled to a woman’s respect and admiration, Blair sees this modern male character as being “the opposite of entitled: he approaches women cringingly, bracing for a slap.” This desperation on the part of male characters to avoid offending women, to prove themselves capable of sublimating their own masculinity so they can be worthy of them, finds its source in the authors themselves. Blair writes,

Our American male novelists, I suspect, are worried about being unloved as writers—specifically by the female reader. This is the larger humiliation looming behind the many smaller fictional humiliations of their heroes, and we can see it in the way the characters’ rituals of self-loathing are tacitly performed for the benefit of an imagined female audience.
D.F. Wallace courtesy of
infinitesummer.org

           Blair quotes a review David Foster Wallace wrote of a John Updike novel to illustrate how conscious males writing literature today are of their female readers’ hostility toward men who write about sex and women without apologizing for liking sex and women—sometimes even outside the bounds of caring, committed relationships. Labeling Updike as a “Great Male Narcissist,” a distinction he shares with writers like Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, Wallace writes,

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under forty, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs. But it’s John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:
“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”
“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”
“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Rush 
[Limbaugh] makes fascism seem funny.”
And trust me: these are actual quotations, and I’ve heard even
worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of
facial expressions where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in appealing to the intentional fallacy or talking about the sheer aesthetic pleasure of Updike’s prose.

Since Wallace is ready to “jump back” at the mere mention of Updike’s name, it’s no wonder he’s given to writing about characters who approach women “cringingly, bracing for a slap.”

Blair goes on to quote from Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, painting a plausible picture of male writers who fear not only that their books will be condemned if too misogynistic—a relative term which has come to mean "not as radically feminist as me"—but they themselves will be rejected. In Franzen’s novel, Chip Lambert has written a screenplay and asked his girlfriend Julia to give him her opinion. She holds off doing so, however, until after she breaks up with him and is on her way out the door. “For a woman reading it,” she says, “it’s sort of like the poultry department. Breast, breast, breast, thigh, leg” (26). Franzen describes his character’s response to the critique:

It seemed to Chip that Julia was leaving him because “The Academy Purple” had too many breast references and a draggy opening, and that if he could correct these few obvious problems, both on Julia’s copy of the script and, more important, on the copy he’d specially laser-printed on 24-pound ivory bond paper for [the film producer] Eden Procuro, there might be hope not only for his finances but also for his chances of ever again unfettering and fondling Julia’s own guileless, milk-white breasts. Which by this point in the day, as by late morning of almost every day in recent months, was one of the last activities on earth in which he could still reasonably expect to take solace for his failures. (28)

If you’re reading a literary work like The Corrections, chances are you’ve at some point sat in a literature class—or even a sociology or culture studies class—and been instructed that the proper way to fulfill your function as a reader is to critically assess the work in terms of how women (or minorities) are portrayed. Both Chip and Julia have sat through such classes. And you’re encouraged to express disapproval, even outrage if something like a traditional role is enacted—or, gasp, objectification occurs. Blair explains how this affects male novelists:

When you see the loser-figure in a novel, what you are seeing is a complicated bargain that goes something like this: yes, it is kind of immature and boorish to be thinking about sex all the time and ogling and objectifying women, but this is what we men sometimes do and we have to write about it. We fervently promise, however, to avoid the mistake of the late Updike novels: we will always, always, call our characters out when they’re being self-absorbed jerks and louts. We will make them comically pathetic, and punish them for their infractions a priori by making them undesirable to women, thus anticipating what we imagine will be your judgments, female reader. Then you and I, female reader, can share a laugh at the characters’ expense, and this will bring us closer together and forestall the dreaded possibility of your leaving me.

In other words, these male authors are the grownup versions of those poor school boys Lessing saw forced to apologize for their own existence. Indeed, you can feel this dynamic, this bargain, playing out when you’re reading these guys’ books. Blair’s description of the problem is spot on. Her theory of what caused it, however, is laughable.

Because of the GMNs, these two tendencies—heroic virility and sexist condescension—have lingered in our minds as somehow yoked together, and the succeeding generations of American male novelists have to some degree accepted the dyad as truth. Behind their skittishness is a fearful suspicion that if a man gets what he wants, sexually speaking, he is probably exploiting someone.

The dread of slipping down the slope from attraction to exploitation has nothing to do with John Updike. Rather, it is embedded in terms at the very core of feminist ideology. Misogyny, for instance, is frequently deemed an appropriate label for men who indulge in lustful gazing, even in private. And the term objectification implies that the female whose subjectivity isn’t being properly revered is the victim of oppression. The main problem with this idea—and there are several—is that the term objectification is synonymous with attraction. The deluge of details about the female body in fiction by male authors can just as easily be seen as a type of confession, an unburdening of guilt by the offering up of sins. The female readers respond by assigning the writers some form of penance, like never writing, never thinking like that again without flagellating themselves.

           The conflict between healthy male desire and disapproving feminist prudery doesn’t just play out in the tortured psyches of geeky American male novelists. A.S. Byatt, in her Booker prize-winning novel Possession, satirizes the plight of scholars steeped in literary theories for being “papery” and sterile. But the novel ends with a male scholar named Roland overcoming his theory-induced self-consciousness to initiate sex with another scholar named Maud. Byatt describes the encounter:

And very slowly and with infinite gentle delays and delicate diversions and variations of indirect assault Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him, so that there seemed to be no boundaries, and he heard, towards dawn, from a long way off, her clear voice crying out, uninhibited, unashamed, in pleasure and triumph. (551)

The literary critic Monica Flegel cites this passage as an example of how Byatt’s old-fashioned novel features “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by how “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” in the sex scene. “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her.’” How, we may wonder, did a man assuring a woman he would take care of her become an act of misogyny?
Martin Amis

            Perhaps critics like Flegel occupy some radical fringe; Byatt’s book was after all a huge success with audiences and critics alike, and it did win Byatt the Booker. The novelist Martin Amis, however, isn’t one to describe his assaults as indirect. He routinely dares to feature men who actually do treat women poorly in his novels—without any authorial condemnation. Martin Goff, the non-intervening director of the Booker Prize committee, tells the story of the 1989 controversy over whether or not Amis’s London Fields should be on the shortlist. Maggie Gee, a novelist, and Helen McNeil, a professor, simply couldn’t abide Amis’s treatment of his women characters. “It was an incredible row,” says Goff.

Maggie and Helen felt that Amis treated women appallingly in the book. That is not to say they thought books which treated women badly couldn't be good, they simply felt that the author should make it clear he didn't favour or bless that sort of treatment. Really, there was only two of them and they should have been outnumbered as the other three were in agreement, but such was the sheer force of their argument and passion that they won. David [Lodge] has told me he regrets it to this day, he feels he failed somehow by not saying, “It's two against three, Martin's on the list”.

In 2010, Amis explained his career-spanning failure to win a major literary award, despite enjoying robust book sales, thus:

There was a great fashion in the last century, and it's still with us, of the unenjoyable novel. And these are the novels which win prizes, because the committee thinks, “Well it's not at all enjoyable, and it isn't funny, therefore it must be very serious.”

Brits like Hilary Mantel, and especially Ian McEwan are working to turn this dreadful trend around. But when McEwan dared to write a novel about a neurosurgeon who prevails in the end over an afflicted, less privileged tormenter he was condemned by critic Jennifer Szalai in the pages of Harper’s Magazine for his “blithe, bourgeois sentiments.” If you’ve read Saturday, you know the sentiments are anything but blithe, and if you read Szalai’s review you’ll be taken aback by her articulate blindness.

           Amis is probably right in suggesting that critics and award committees have a tendency to mistake misery for profundity. But his own case, along with several others like it, hint at something even more disturbing, a shift in the very idea of what role fictional narratives play in our lives. The sad new reality is that, owing to the growing influence of ideologically extreme and idiotically self-righteous activist professors, literature is no longer read for pleasure and enrichment—it’s no longer even read as a challenging exercise in outgroup empathy. Instead, reading literature is supposed by many to be a ritual of male western penance. Prior to taking an interest in literary fiction, you must first be converted to the proper ideologies, made to feel sufficiently undeserving yet privileged, the beneficiary of a long history of theft and population displacement, the scion and gene-carrier of rapists and genocidaires—the horror, the horror. And you must be taught to systematically overlook and remain woefully oblivious of all the evidence that the Enlightenment was the best fucking thing that ever happened to the human species. Once you’re brainwashed into believing that so-called western culture is evil and that you’ve committed the original sin of having been born into it, you’re ready to perform your acts of contrition by reading horrendously boring fiction that forces you to acknowledge and reflect upon your own fallen state.
"In his new self-lacerating 'Memoir', J.M. Coetzee portrays
himself as a loser with no sexual presence." Here he is at the
Nobel ceremony.

           Fittingly, the apotheosis of this new literary tradition won the Booker in 1999, and its author, like Lessing, is a Nobel laureate. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace chronicles in exquisite free indirect discourse the degradation of David Lurie, a white professor in Cape Town, South Africa, beginning with his somewhat pathetic seduction of black student, a crime for which he pays with the loss of his job, his pension, and his reputation, and moving on to the aftermath of his daughter’s rape at the hands of three black men who proceed to rob her, steal his car, douse him with spirits and light him on fire. What’s unsettling about the novel—and it is a profoundly unsettling novel—is that its structure implies that everything that David and Lucy suffer flows from his original offense of lusting after a young black woman. This woman, Melanie, is twenty years old, and though she is clearly reluctant at first to have sex with her teacher there’s never any force involved. At one point, she shows up at David’s house and asks to stay with him. It turns out she has a boyfriend who is refusing to let her leave him without a fight. It’s only after David unheroically tries to wash his hands of the affair to avoid further harassment from this boyfriend—while stooping so low as to insist that Melanie make up a test she missed in his class—that she files a complaint against him.

            David immediately comes clean to university officials and admits to taking advantage of his position of authority. But he stalwartly refuses to apologize for his lust, or even for his seduction of the young woman. This refusal makes him complicit, the novel suggests, in all the atrocities of colonialism. As he’s awaiting a hearing to address Melanie’s complaint, David gets a message:

On campus it is Rape Awareness Week. Women Against Rape, WAR, announces a twenty-four-hour vigil in solidarity with “recent victims”. A pamphlet is slipped under his door: ‘WOMEN SPEAK OUT.’ Scrawled in pencil at the bottom is a message: ‘YOUR DAYS ARE OVER, CASANOVA.’ (43)

During the hearing, David confesses to doctoring the attendance ledgers and entering a false grade for Melanie. As the attendees become increasingly frustrated with what they take to be evasions, he goes on to confess to becoming “a servant of Eros” (52). But this confession only enrages the social sciences professor Farodia Rassool:

Yes, he says, he is guilty; but when we try to get specificity, all of a sudden it is not abuse of a young woman he is confessing to, just an impulse he could not resist, with no mention of the pain he has caused, no mention of the long history of exploitation of which this is part. (53)

There’s also no mention, of course, of the fact that already David has gone through more suffering than Melanie has, or that her boyfriend deserves a great deal of the blame, or that David is an individual, not a representative of his entire race who should be made to answer for the sins of his forefathers.
From the movie version of Disgrace

            After resigning from his position in disgrace, David moves out to the country to live with his daughter on a small plot of land. The attack occurs only days after he’s arrived. David wants Lucy to pursue some sort of justice, but she refuses. He wants her to move away because she’s clearly not safe, but she refuses. She even goes so far as to accuse him of being in the wrong for believing he has any right to pronounce what happened an injustice—and for thinking it is his place to protect his daughter. And if there’s any doubt about the implication of David’s complicity she clears it up. As he’s pleading with her to move away, they begin talking about the rapists’ motivation. Lucy says to her father,

When it comes to men and sex, David, nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange—when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her—isn’t it a bit like killing? Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood—doesn’t it feel like murder, like getting away with murder? (158)

The novel is so engrossing and so disturbing that it’s difficult to tell what the author’s position is vis à vis his protagonist’s degradation or complicity. You can’t help sympathizing with him and feeling his treatment at the hands of Melanie, Farodia, and Lucy is an injustice. But are you supposed to question that feeling in light of the violence Melanie is threatened with and Lucy is subjected to? Are you supposed to reappraise altogether your thinking about the very concept of justice in light of the atrocities of history? Are we to see David Lurie as an individual or as a representative of western male colonialism, deserving of whatever he’s made to suffer and more?
From the Crucible

            Personally, I think David Lurie’s position in Disgrace is similar to that of John Proctor in The Crucible (although this doesn’t come out nearly as much in the movie version). And it’s hard not to see feminism in its current manifestations—along with Marxism and postcolonialism—as a pernicious new breed of McCarthyism infecting academia and wreaking havoc with men and literature alike. It’s really no surprise at all that the most significant developments in the realm of narratives lately haven’t occurred in novels at all. Insofar as the cable series contributing to the new golden age of television can be said to adhere to a formula, it’s this: begin with a bad ass male lead who doesn’t apologize for his own existence and has no qualms about expressing his feelings toward women. As far as I know, these shows are just as popular with women viewers as they are with the guys.

            When David first arrives at Lucy’s house, they take a walk and he tells her a story about a dog he remembers from a time when they lived in a neighborhood called Kenilworth.

It was a male. Whenever there was a bitch in the vicinity it would get excited and unmanageable, and with Pavlovian regularity the owners would beat it. This went on until the poor dog didn’t know what to do. At the smell of a bitch it would chase around the garden with its ears flat and its tail between its legs, whining, trying to hide…There was something so ignoble in the spectacle that I despaired. One can punish a dog, it seems to me, for an offence like chewing a slipper. A dog will accept the justice of that: a beating for a chewing. But desire is another story. No animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.

Lucy breaks in, “So males must be allowed to follow their instincts unchecked? Is that the moral?” David answers,

No, that is not the moral. What was ignoble about the Kenilworth spectacle was that the poor dog had begun to hate its own nature. It no longer needed to be beaten. It was ready to punish itself. At that point it would be better to shoot it.

“Or have it fixed,” Lucy offers. (90)

Also read The Adaptive Appeal of Bad Boys

Life's White Machine: James Wood and What Doesn't Happen in Fiction

            No one is a better reader of literary language than James Wood. In his reviews, he conveys with grace and precision his uncanny feel for what authors set out to say, what they actually end up saying, and what any discrepancy might mean for their larger literary endeavor. He effortlessly and convincingly infers from the lurch of faulty lines the confusions and pretentions and lacuna in understanding of struggling writers. Some take steady aim at starkly circumscribed targets, his analysis suggests, while others, desperate to achieve some greater, more devastating impact, shoot wistfully into the clouds. He can even listen to the likes of republican presidential nominee Rick Santorum and explain, with his seemingly eidetic knowledge of biblical history, what is really meant when the supposed Catholic uses the word steward.

            As a critic, Wood’s ability to see character in narration and to find the author, with all his conceits and difficulties, in the character is often downright unsettling. For him there exists no divide between language and psychology—literature is the struggle of conflicted minds to capture the essence of experiences, their own and others’.

When Robert Browning describes the sound of a bird singing its song twice over, in order to ‘recapture/ The first fine careless rapture,’ he is being a poet, trying to find the best poetic image; but when Chekhov, in his story ‘Peasants,’ says that a bird’s cry sounded as if a cow had been locked up in a shed all night, he is being a fiction writer: he is thinking like one of his peasants. (24)

This is from Wood’s How Fiction Works. In the midst of a long paean to the power of free indirect style, the technique that allows the language of the narrator to bend toward and blend with the thoughts and linguistic style of characters—moving in and out of their minds—he deigns to mention, in a footnote, an actual literary theory, or rather Literary Theory. Wood likes Nabokov’s scene in the novel Pnin that has the eponymous professor trying to grasp a nutcracker in a sink full of dishes. The narrator awkwardly calls it a “leggy thing” as it slips through his grasp. “Leggy” conveys the image. “But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’?” (25) The vagueness makes of the psychological drama a contagion. There could be no symbol more immediately felt.

            The Russian Formalists come into Wood’s discussion here. Their theory focused on metaphors that bring about an “estranging” or “defamiliarizing” effect. Wood would press them to acknowledge that this making strange of familiar objects and experiences works in the service of connecting the minds of the reader with the mind of the character—it’s anything but random:

But whereas the Russian Formalists see this metaphorical habit as emblematic of the way that fiction does not refer to reality, is a self-enclosed machine (such metaphors are the jewels of the author’s freakish, solipsistic art), I prefer the way that such metaphors, as in Pnin’s “leggy thing,” refer deeply to reality: because they emanate from the characters themselves, and are fruits of free indirect style. (26)

Language and words and metaphors, Wood points out, by their nature carry us toward something that is diametrically opposed to collapsing in ourselves. Indeed, there is something perverse about the insistence of so many professional scholars devoted to the study of literature that the main thrust of language is toward some unacknowledged agenda of preserving an unjust status quo—with the implication that the only way to change the world is to torture our modes of expression, beginning with literature (even though only a tiny portion of most first world populations bother to read any).

I'm not a Rick Moody fan, so here's a pic of Hank Moody,
who famously said, "Literary theory? None for me thanks."
            For Wood, fiction is communion. This view has implications about what constitutes the best literature—all the elements from description to dialogue should work to further the dramatic development of the connection between reader and character. Wood even believes that the emphasis on “round” characters is overstated, pointing out that many of the most memorable—Jean Brodie, Mr. Biswas—are one-dimensional and unchanging. Nowhere in the table of contents of How Fiction Works, or even in the index, does the word plot appear. He does, however, discuss plot in his response to postmodernists’ complaints about realism. Wood quotes author Rick Moody:

It’s quaint to say so, but the realistic novel still needs a kick in the ass. The genre, with its epiphanies, its rising action, its predictable movement, its conventional humanisms, can still entertain and move us on occasion, but for me it’s politically and philosophically dubious and often dull. Therefore, it needs a kick in the ass.

Moody is known for a type of fiction that intentionally sabotages the sacred communion Wood sees as essential to the experience of reading fiction. He begins his response by unpacking some of the claims in Moody’s fussy pronouncement:

Moody’s three sentences efficiently compact the reigning assumptions. Realism is a “genre” (rather than, say, a central impulse in fiction-making); it is taken to be mere dead convention, and to be related to a certain kind of traditional plot, with predictable beginnings and endings; it deals in “round” characters, but softly and piously (“conventional humanisms”); it assumes that the world can be described, with a naively stable link between word and referent (“philosophically dubious”); and all this will tend toward a conservative or even oppressive politics (“politically… dubious”).

Wood begins the section following this analysis with a one-sentence paragraph: “This is all more or less nonsense” (224-5) (thus winning my devoted readership).
Ben Lerner
            That “more or less” refers to Wood’s own frustrations with modern fiction. Conventions, he concedes, tend toward ossification, though a trope’s status as a trope, he maintains, doesn’t make it untrue. “I love you,” is the most clichéd sentence in English. That doesn’t nullify the experience of falling in love (236). Wood does believe, however, that realistic fiction is too eventful to live up to the label. Reviewing Ben Lerner’s exquisite short novel Leaving the Atocha Station, Wood lavishes praise on the postmodernist poet’s first work of fiction. He writes of the author and his main character Adam Gordon,

Lerner is attempting to capture something that most conventional novels, with their cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and "conflict," fail to do: the drift of thought, the unmomentous passage of undramatic life. Several times in the book, he describes this as "that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance… the texture of et cetera itself." Reading Tolstoy, Adam reflects that even that great master of the texture of et cetera itself was too dramatic, too tidy, too momentous: "Not the little miracles and luminous branching injuries, but the other thing, whatever it was, was life, and was falsified by any way of talking or writing or thinking that emphasized sharply localized occurrences in time." (98)

Wood is suspicious of plot, and even of those epiphanies whereby characters are rendered dynamic or three-dimensional or “round,” because he seeks in fiction new ways of seeing the world he inhabits according to how it might be seen by lyrically gifted fellow inhabitants. Those “cumbersome caravans of plot and scene and ‘conflict’" tend to be implausible distractions,
forcing the communion into narrow confessionals, breaking the spell.

            As a critic who has garnered wide acclaim from august corners conferring a modicum of actual authority, and one who's achieved something quite rare for public intellectuals, a popular following, Wood is (too) often criticized for his narrow aestheticism. Once he closes the door on goofy postmodern gimcrack, it remains closed to other potentially relevant, potentially illuminating cultural considerations—or so his detractors maintain. That popular following of his is, however, comprised of a small subset of fiction readers. And the disconnect between consumers of popular fiction and the more literary New Yorker subscribers speaks not just to the cultural issue of declining literacy or growing apathy toward fictional writing but to the more fundamental question of why people seek out narratives, along with the question Wood proposes to address in the title of his book, how does fiction work?  

            While Wood communes with synesthetic flaneurs, many readers are looking to have their curiosity piqued, their questing childhood adventurousness revived, their romantic and nightmare imaginings played out before them. “If you look at the best of literary fiction," Benjamin Percy said in an interview with Joe Fassler,

you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany.

The scene Percy describes is even more eventful than what Lerner describes as “life’s white machine”—it features one of those damn epiphanies. But Percy is frustrated with heavy-handed plots too.

In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next.
Benjamin Percy
The interview is part of Fessler’s post on the Atlantic website, “How Zombies and Superheroes Conquered Highbrow Fiction.” Percy is explaining the appeal of a new class of novel.

So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.

Is it possible to balance the two impulses: the urge to represent and defamiliarize, to commune, on the one hand, and the urge to create and experience suspense on the other? Obviously, if the theme you’re taking on is the struggle with boredom or the meaningless wash of time—white machine reminds me of a washer—then an incident-rich plot can only be ironic.
Ian McEwan
            The solution to the conundrum is that no life is without incident. Fiction’s subject has always been births, deaths, comings-of-age, marriages, battles. I’d imagine Wood himself is often in the mood for something other than idle reflection. Ian McEwan, whose Atonement provides Wood an illustrative example of how narration brilliantly captures character, is often taken to task for overplotting his novels. Citing Henry James in a New Yorker interview with Daniel Zalewski to the effect that novels have an obligation to “be interesting,” McEwan admits finding “most novels incredibly boring. It’s amazing how the form endures. Not being boring is quite a challenge.” And if he thinks most novels are boring he should definitely stay away from the short fiction that gets published in the New Yorker nowadays.
Scene from Atonement that never took place

A further implication of Wood’s observation about narration’s capacity for connecting reader to character is that characters who live eventful lives should inhabit eventful narratives. This shifts the issue of plot back to the issue of character, so the question is not what types of things should or shouldn’t happen in fiction but rather what type of characters do we want to read about? And there’s no question that literary fiction over the last century has been dominated by a bunch of passive losers, men and women flailing desperately about before succumbing to societal or biological forces. In commercial fiction, the protagonists beat the odds; in literature, the odds beat the protagonists.

There’s a philosophy at play in this dynamic. Heroes are thought to lend themselves to a certain view of the world, where overcoming sickness and poverty and cultural impoverishment is more of a rite of passage than a real gauge of how intractable those impediments are for nearly everyone who faces them. If audiences are exposed to too many tales of heroism, then hardship becomes a prop in personal development. Characters overcoming difficulties trivializes those difficulties. Winston Smith can’t escape O’Brien and Room 101 or readers won’t appreciate the true threat posed by Big Brother. The problem is that the ascent of the passive loser and the fiction of acquiescence don’t exactly inspire reform-minded action either.

Adam Gordon, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is definitely a loser. He worries all day that he’s some kind of impostor. He’s whiny and wracked with self-doubt. But even he doesn’t sit around doing nothing. The novel is about his trip to Spain. He pursues women with mixed success. He does readings of his poetry. He witnesses a terrorist attack. And these activities and events are interesting, as James insisted they must be. Capturing the feel of uneventful passages of time may be a worthy literary ambition, but most people seek out fiction to break up periods of nothingness. It’s never the case in real life that nothing is happening anyway—we’re at every instance getting older. I for one don’t find the prospect of spending time with people or characters who just sit passively by as that happens all that appealing.
In a remarkably lame failure of a lampoon in Harper's Colson Whitehead targets Wood's enthusiasm for Saul Bellow. And Bellow was indeed one of those impossibly good writers who could describe eating Corn Flakes and make it profound and amusing. Still, I'm a little suspicious of anyone who claims to enjoy (though enjoyment shouldn't be the only measure of literary merit) reading about the Bellow characters who wander around Chicago as much as reading about Henderson wandering around Africa. 

  Henderson: I'm actually looking forward to the next opportunity I get to hang out with that crazy bastard.

Read "Can't Win for Losing: Why there are so many Losers in Literature and Why it has to Change"