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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:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”