By Colson Whitehead, from “James Root on How to Read,” part of a talk delivered last July at the Tin House Writers Workshop, in Portland, Oregon. Sag Harbor, Whitehead’s fourth novel, will be published in April by Doubleday. His essay “Down in Front” appeared in the February 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
We each come to literature in our own way. For some, the gift is bestowed by a helpful governess who guides our fingers over the letters in a primer. For others, a private tutor first enlightens us to the majesty of the written word. How you arrive is immaterial. What is important now is that you forget all that and learn to read anew. In my literary criticism, I have become known as a champion of the eternal verities and a scold of the trendy and the fashionable. I have essayed to instruct your writers in how to write correctly. Now I will teach you to read correctly.
When we see a word, we must ask ourselves foremost, What does it mean? This is the first step in comprehension. When we have accomplished this, we can proceed to the next, and so on. In due course, we have read the sentence in toto. By returning to the beginning of the sentence to perform a close reading, we unlock its essence. I learned this skill at university. Although born in the States, I journeyed abroad for my education and underwent my intellectual coming of age at Oxford. I remember when the first dispatches of Dirty Realism made their way across the Atlantic. I pored over each latest issue of Granta as if it contained the Holy Word. And perhaps it did. One of my favorites from that time has always been Raymond Carver, in particular his affecting tale “Leave the Porch Light On, It’ll Be Dark.”
There is a line in that story that has remained with me. One might say it left the porch light on—in my psyche. Our protagonist, Gus, has had his shifts at the Uni-Mart cut by half. It’s not clear where the money for Sadie’s dental work will come from this month, and this causes yet another blowout with Doris, who has just been let go by the beauty salon for excessive cussing. A bad week on the new American frontier! We know Gus is thirsty; for pages Carver has created a matrix of connotation, employing such language as “parched,” “dried-up,” and “really frickin’ thirsty” to describe him. In short, Gus needs a drink. Once Doris slams the rickety screen door behind her—as she has done so many times before, but we suspect this time may be the last—Gus goes to the sink. As Carver puts it, channeling the sublime:
He lifted the cup.
Aha! cries the famished reader. This is minimalism at its well-marbled finest. The language is clear, bracing. You do not ask, What did this character do? (He lifted.) We do not wonder, What is he acting upon? (The cup.) So often in today’s fiction, we’re left to make our way through the muddle of the author’s hysterical wordplay. It is a false show. Writers confuse the encyclopedic for the illuminating and the meaningful, mistake the exuberance of frenetic language for that which addresses the higher self. When you return to a master like Carver at the end of a long day, it’s a refreshing tonic. This sentence is short, not because it is brief—which it is—but because it has few words.
The bookstores are too full today of writers who have nothing to say. If there is nothing at stake for the characters, then nothing can be at stake for the reader. The writer of fiction must embrace a moral vision, or else he is little more than a cheap Fleet Street haberdasher. I decided early on that the work of Saul Bellow was an exemplar of this aesthetic imperative. You will recall the famous opening sentence of good old Augie:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted.
There it is in all its Bellovian glory, the bluster and bombast! Can you smell it? The musk of a virile sentence drawing blood into itself? It is about to spread the labia of mediocrity and rut with the ineffable. We could all do worse than to write like Saul Bellow. And when I say write like Saul Bellow, I mean be Saul Bellow. And when I say be Saul Bellow, I mean unzip the skin from his body and wear it as a sort of Saul Bellow suit so that we can get cozy in it and truly inhabit it and understand the Old Macher. Except he is dead. And he was quite short, so your ankles and wrists would poke out of the flesh suit as if you were some ruddy-cheeked schoolboy who has outgrown his uniform, grimly trudging home from the elementary school and dreaming that one day you will write and be free from all these dullards and their cruel jibes—
Where was I?
Compare that sentence with the work of one of our most celebrated young authors, Nelson Todd-Nelson, whose experimental arabesques have earned him praise in all the predictable quarters. (I won’t name names.) Every three years, Nelson and his enablers publish one of his door-stoppers, and the literary establishment falls in a swoon. Be still my heart! Nelson is that species of writer the critic P. G. Wilson described so wonderfully as “a numb-plodder goose” in his amusing taxonomy All the Pretty Numb-Plodder Gooses: Sketches from Literary Life. I pluck a sentence at random from Nelson’s latest “sensation,” The Obfuscations:
Phillips heard someone at the door and went to answer it.
Doubtless Wilson spins in his grave over this quack-quacking! Consider the superfluous words—if someone is at the door, it follows that the door will be answered. Nelson needn’t belabor the point. Why not include that “he breathed” and “his heart beat” as he went to the door? We are not stupid, and yet Nelson treats us as if we were inmates at some lesser asylum. He patronizes us—that is, when he is not playing these tiresome postmodern games. It is all the rage among his ilk to overflow their tomes with pop-culture references and brand names, as if such addled posturing were an adequate substitute for character. Is it really so clever to name your hero (or anti-hero, rightly, for the characters in this kind of book are rarely for anything) after a popular manufacturer of consumer electronics? What exactly is he trying to say, apart from “I am a numb-plodder goose”? Does it enrich our notion of the Exquisite?
What else to add about this deplorable sentence? That is not the musk of potency I sniff here but the bald, undeveloped parts of the JV squad. The caliber of umbrage it rouses in me cannot be contained by my usual disparagements. This is not piffle. Nor is it twaddle. The tragedies of this debased age require a new construction: twiffle, or paddle. This is the sterile language of the navel-gazer, the lotus-eater, the hermetic fiction of he who does not mix with the world. Nelson and his cohort need to get out of their writing-chambers and engage that which lies outside their doorstep—grab their bowlers and walking sticks and perambu late the boulevards to see how people really live today.
Reading sentences such as Nelson’s, one recalls the humorous parable of the squirrel and the worm, wherein the latter mistook the former for a morning bird and cried, “Please don’t eat me!” To which the squirrel replied dryly, “What are you, nuts?” The grand absurdity of it all! What is to be done? Across the breadth of my criticism and my fiction (yes, I scribble—you have found me out!), I have endeavored to be the counterweight to the woeful excesses of contemporary literature and to restore the timeless values.
In closing, I direct your attention to a perfect sentence. Yes, they exist. One of the pleasures of my profession is discovering these elusive unicorns in the books sent for my review. I read half a score of books each week; I am a fast reader, and generally underwhelmed by what passes for good writing these days. But once in a while, among the gaudy offerings, I come across one of those luminous sentences that make the soul vibrate. I share with you a recent find:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
I can’t remember exactly where I read it—it was a busy day, as I was buying a new typewriter and handing in the manuscript of my latest book, The Janus-Faced Chimera: Missives from a Reader—and Writer!—of the Prose Arts. The provenance of the sentence is not the issue; its terse, fierce beauty most assuredly is. Who is this brown fox, and how did he get so fast? To what can we attribute the lethargy of the canine—is it some onerous matter of faith or a vast existential conundrum? Where is the fox headed, into what gaping darkness? Indeed, where are we headed? For we are all of us implicated here. This is a sentence that insists upon itself and at the same time points to the greater mysteries, as if there were some secret order determining every letter. What more can we ask of art?