Friday, February 14, 2014

On Fiction I

The role of reading fiction in one's life is something that has intrigued me for many years. When I was growing up, my parents didn't have any interest in literature. My mother read very little and my father, an extremely rapid reader, burned through hundreds of detective novels.  I started reading DC comics in the late 1950's when we moved to the U.S. and continued to read them until my early teens. In junior high, when I was supposed to do a book report, I didn't read anything at all and made up a book. The teacher never noticed.  By high school I realized that I was supposed to read books, and I tried a little science fiction, which didn't impress me much. In late high school we were reading Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy in class, but they didn't engage me at all.  My senior year, my English teacher, who had an M.A. from Harvard, lent me his copy of Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth, which he thought I might like.  I labored on it for some time but found it opaque and pointless.  I later read a couple of Barth's other novels to see whether I had missed something, and now think of him as an idiotic college professor who should never have been published.  Also that year, a friend recommended Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, which I did find very amusing.

Although during the first two years of my undergraduate study I was exposed to a variety of fiction, none of it struck me as interesting.  Then, in the fall of my junior year, I took a class in twentieth century Russian literature, and that was it.  I liked St. Petersburg by Andrei Bely, but was really taken by fiction for the first time with Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. It's really quite a strange novel in that it combines very witty and imaginative social satire with serious themes such as the role of the artist in society, morality and religion.  I think that there are several aspects of Russian literature that differentiate it from American literature.  First, Russia has a much richer literary history than the U.S.  We have nothing like Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  Second, and I feel this deeply, the U.S. has never gone through much pain.  Comparatively speaking, the Russians are experts at it. They had brutal czars, Mongol invasions and the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.  The U.S. and U.K. like to brag about defeating Hitler, but it was the Russians who defeated Hitler, with over 20 million casualties.  The Russians know what suffering is - Americans do not.  Much as I dislike Vladimir Putin, when I see him looking at Barack Obama and thinking to himself "You naive fool," I know he's right.  People who have suffered tend to write with greater urgency and are more likely to engage in serious themes than those who have led pampered lives.  The latter group includes almost all American writers.

After college I read a little when I had time.  Nothing struck me until 1986, when I read the short story "How to Be an Other Woman," by Lorrie Moore. Moore, in those days, was a fresh and witty voice, with plenty of pathos and a modicum of the satire that I appreciate.  I was a Moore fanatic up until the late 90's, at which point I felt she had become a moribund, formulaic writer. Moreover, I lived in Dixon, IL for 10 years, from August, 1987 until January, 1998, and during this period I shored up my readings with European and American classic literature that I had missed previously.  I had no social life in Dixon and spent all of my time working, hiking and reading for several of my years there.  In my readings I came across Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which I thought then and still think is the best novel ever written.  I then became a George Eliot fanatic and read all of her fiction and several biographies.

George Eliot is the kind of person who ought to write novels.  She was steeped in the culture of the English Midlands of the mid-19th century and knew it inside out.  She was also self-taught in multiple languages, literature and science.  She made her way into the highest intellectual circles of London by way of very hard work and talent, yet it was not sheer ambition that drove her, and she thought deeply about the issues of her day, placing herself among the best thinkers of her time.  In all my years of reading literature, I have found no other author with as much wisdom to impart.  Her work is not all stellar, and her style is out of fashion, but I don't think any novel before or after Middlemarch compares favorably.

From the 1990's onward I have occasionally dabbled in contemporary American fiction. I've found all of it completely unsatisfactory, to the point that I am not going to read any more unless someone can convince an extreme skeptic that he ought to read something in particular.  I think there is greater hope in the fiction of other countries.  Through an acquaintance I heard about Julio Ramon Ribeyro, the Peruvian, and read translations of his first novel and some of his short stories.  The novel was good, but obviously a first novel. Some of the short stories are very good - as good or better than the best American short stories.  And I've been reading Michel Houellebecq: The Map and the Territory is the best novel I've read in many years.

A recent article at The Chronicle of Higher Education website critiques the effects of MFA programs on American literature.  I agree generally with the author, Eric Bennett, but he himself is an academic, which I think makes him an inappropriate figure for leading a shakeup.  The academy's stranglehold on fiction in the U.S. ought to be blown up by terrorists, not incrementally changed by insiders.


  1. I read your posts with interest, Paul, but my sole comment here is of a typographical nature. That is, you are clearly of the old school: two spaces after a period. That would be fine, but it means that when a period comes at the end of one line and you publish the post, the left margin is no longer justified. . . .

  2. Yes, Fario, you're correct. I learned that in college by imitating one of my professors. Incidentally, it's the same professor I correspond with now. He is 83 and communicates only with typed letters. Being a printer, I noticed the left-justification problem. I still use two spaces at the end of a sentence, but usually make manual corrections later if the justification is wrong. I'm getting a little fed up with that and may retrain myself to use just one space.

  3. I learned the two-space convention in Mrs. McPherson's typing class (in eighth grade, I think), but once I started using word processors I quickly broke the habit. Anyway, an old dog can sometimes learn new tricks.


    P.S. I deleted a post because I couldn't find another way to correct a typo.