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“But can a novelist, or any writer for that matter, really notice too much or dwell too much on what he notices?” The question was posed a few weeks back by Sam Tanenhaus, on the New York Times Book Review‘s Papercuts blog. The question served as a pivot in Tanenhaus’s presentation of rival readings of a passage that appears in John Updike‘s novella “Of the Farm”:
Its panes were strewn with drops that as if by amoebic decision would abruptly merge and break and jerkily run downward, and the window screen, like a sampler half-stitched, or a crossword puzzle invisibly solved, was inlaid erratically with minute, translucent tesserae of rain.
First, Tanenhaus offered James Wood’s distrust of the passage, from his new book How Fiction Works (FSG): “Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye.” A little later he presented Nicholson Baker’s appreciation of the same passage, from Baker’s Updikeophiliac U & I (1991):
I cried at the aforementioned description of the raindrops on the window screen like a crossword puzzle or a “sampler half-stitched”: it killed for the time being a patch of screen description of my own, but that didn’t matter, because Updike’s paragraph was so fine that my competitiveness went away; and when I found that Elizabeth Bishop’s 1948 New Yorker short story called “The Housekeeper” also had a screen whose clinging raindrops “fill[ed] the squares with cross-stitch effects that came and went,” this parallel only demonstrated to me how much more Updike could do with the same piece of reality: he had lifted it from the status of incidental setting and made its qualities part of the moral power and permanency of his mother’s house…. What I liked so much about “Of the Farm” was that Updike’s terror was under control; the proportion between consumed and unconsumed holes was just right; you could still see through the mesh of the screen, but the clinging metaphorical figures, such as the droplet-needlework image itself, were there in cross-eyed, painstaking abundance.
Tanenhaus’s question is useful, for it serves to remind readers of the precise function of criticism: answering fully such questions as “can a novelist, or any writer for that matter, really notice too much or dwell too much on what he notices?” As a form of argumentation, literary criticism is charged with making defensible cases for indefensible positions. “Defensible” in the sense that one must marshal proof, in the form of quotations from a work of literary art, that make a case for the integrity or incoherence of such a work. “Indefensible” in the sense that however much proof one marshals, one is only offering a fleeting thinking-through of a thing–not its destruction, much less its salvation.
More from Wyatt Mason:
Acres of hemp grown by “patriotic‚” U.S. farmers in 1942 at the behest of the U.S. government:
A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.
Greenpeace apologized after activists accidentally defaced the site of Peru’s 2,000-year-old Nazca Lines when they unfurled cloth letters reading “time for change” near the ancient sand drawings. “We fully understand,” the group wrote in a statement, “that this looks bad.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”