Sentences — May 23, 2008, 3:14 pm

An Egg in Return, Part III: “My special islands”

(See: Part I, Part II.)

“I think the worst phenomenon, the most upsetting thing nowadays,” Jonathan Franzen said in conversation with James Wood at Harvard, “is the feeling that there’s no one out there responding intelligently to the text.”

For the sake of argument, strip from that statement the subjectivity of the phrase “the feeling that.” Rather, suppose that Franzen’s feeling is just, and that indeed no one is responding regularly and intelligently to the text—to fiction. In such a scenario, where good books routinely and without remedy are poorly appreciated by the critically insensible, what recourse do fiction writers—here uniformly imagined as dedicatedly-serious, expansively-read, morally-principled, empathically-preoccupied, verbally-gifted, deeply-sensitive beings whose lives revolve tirelessly around the production of stories that fulfill the ancient requirements: to move; to teach; to delight—what recourse, then, beyond waiting, head in hands, for the last dingdong of doom to clang and fade, do fiction writers have?

Well, they could, as Franzen has to the New York Times Book Review, contribute review essays about the work of writers that they would like to see more widely read; or they could, as Franzen has in The New Yorker, contribute personal essays about one’s evolving appreciation for certain writers; or they could, as he has, write introductions to reissues of books they consider exemplary but neglected; or they could, as he has, translate texts they consider imperfectly Englished; or they could perorate, as he has, in these pages and elsewhere, on the state of the novel; and they could, as he has, in the journal n+1, write letters to the editor that rebut essays on how literary criticism—James Wood’s, even—should be undertaken. Such is the recourse a fiction writer can take when beset by the conviction of there being “no one out there responding intelligently”: they might need to (or, as Franzen through his varied endeavors would seem to suggest, must begin to) attempt intelligent responses themselves.

As the culture tends to a louder and more clamorous state, one in which those who care about precise, memorable, meaningful expression in words–a minority in any civilization–are efficiently drowned out by the noise that constitutes most public life, fiction writers should not allow themselves to be complacent, should not expect that critics will honor the critical compact. In the absence of the “true critics” they await, fiction writers should honor that compact themselves.


…But wait! Is it true that we lack a sufficient supply of “true critics”? Cynthia Ozick had that notion last year, a notion with which I took issue in a letter to this magazine and then more fully in an essay for it. My argument was simple: I believe that no such critical dearth exists. Rather, I am sure there is a glut of intelligent, probing criticism of fiction available each month, proof of which glut I can, and will, happily provide.

Taking on faith—for a few more lines—that there is indeed an adequate supply of rigorous literary criticism of imaginative works of prose, I would dismiss as poppycock that “there’s no one out there responding intelligently.” Rather, the problem, and I do see it as one, is that too few serious readers and writers who are upset by the supposed absence of criticism are actually responding intelligently to—much less taking the time to notice—the very good criticism we have in abundance.

I do not mean that there exists a disappointing number of responses to criticism. The web is now fortunately full of blogs that take note—often very keenly—of such views and reviews. But a 50- or even 500-word post, however intelligent, in response to a 5,000-word essay (in response to an 85,000 word novel) can only be, by nature and degree, an inadequate response.

What can be done? To begin, if a novelist should receive a dumb review of his book, my belief is that he should feel not merely at liberty but honor-bound to respond intelligently, in public, in writing. “I cannot imagine myself writing a letter-to-the-editor,” wrote Nabokov, “in reply to an unfavorable review….My inventions, my circles, my special islands are infinitely safe from exasperated readers.” Such safety, though, comes from distance–for when asked, What is your position in the world of letters? Nabokov responded, “Jolly good view from up here.”


For those writers who do not feel that their special islands are similarly safe from tsunamis of critical stupidity; who themselves do not feel Nabakovianly above it all; who feel the culture is drowning what is better in waves of what is worse; who feel hurt and assailed and misread and misunderstood, who feel that a critic has failed to appreciate, failed to feel the full force of, the book the fiction writer believes he has written—I argue that he must engage with these inferior engagements.

And though I would concur with this magazine’s editor that it is already increasingly rare to find artists in our age who let their work speak for itself—and the art that lasts longest tends to speak most clearly and autonomously of all—I would nonetheless distinguish between the artist who tells us what his book is about in a two minute Internet trailer or who tells us how it came to be in a magazine profile and the artist who tells us—as, say, Joyce did of Ulysses—how it works, what it draws upon, what myriad mechanisms went into its working. If Iron Chef and its less combustible doubles can take cookery and make it diverting, the kitchen in which a novel is assembled can, adequately illuminated, offer no less sterling entertainment, though naturally to a more modest demographic—one that takes the same delight in language that other spectators take in wasabi.

“You can’t dispute taste,” said Franzen, and I would not ask him to. I would ask, however, that he and his peers—when confronted with the insensate maunderings of someone they deem a dim bulb in the critical stoplight—respond nonetheless. If a review under-appreciates not merely one’s own book but that of a peer, respond. Not with hurt feelings but with strong arguments that showcase the rigors of construction, of patterning, of metaphor, of the myriad deliberate choices serious writers deploy to the end of making not tasteful works but artful ones. The Corrections, for example, was not a work of taste; rather one of Art. As such, in an era in which there is less shelf space for seriousness, fiction writers must take the responsibility of reprimanding their critics for their stupidity more seriously, more regularly. Naturally, such reprimands run their own risks. And yet, I would suggest that fiction writers today have a communitarian responsibility to take such risks, when the impulse overtakes them, to argue for their art—not its ‘inherent goodness’ but its rigorous madeness. There is no shame, nor undue vanity, nor pride, I think, in showing, from the inside, that something one labored to make well is well-made.

Equally, there is no benefit in denying the mass of intelligent people who are trying, from the outside, to do the same. Thus, and more simply still, I would ask that those who regularly and loudly suppose that we suffer a critical insufficiency briefly pause their bemoaning and instead begin reading—for there is no such intellectual shortfall, as this week’s Weekend Read, “A Critical Mass of Critics,” goes to bearing out. For intelligent critical thinking on fiction actually abounds these days, and in plain sight, a mass of material with which—feelings aside—one might think to engage.

And it appears here.

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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