16 June 2010

In Praise of the Literary Hit Piece

I am no fan of nineteenth-century novels. I dislike nineteenth-century prose styles; I dislike moralizing; I dislike pastorals and novels of manners. Accordingly, I'd never read anything by George Eliot until this afternoon.

I came to Eliot not because of some latent yearning for proto-feminist writing but because I needed to know whether "B.C." should be small-capped. (Yes.) In what is surely an example of wood in popular culture, the Wikipedia article linked to "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists", an Eliot essay condemning, well, silly novels by lady novelists.

It is one of the finest essays I have ever read--vituperative and tempered, cutting and measured. I'm not much for literary criticism, and haven't been since a terrible high school English course which left me feeling much abused by littery men. (Is it telling that I have read more biographies of Philip K. Dick than novels by Jane Austen?) One of the things that the aging hippie who taught the course failed to impart to us was that literature could be mean, angry, and rebellious without sacrificing artistic integrity; it may have been the only such lit course taught by a self-proclaimed liberal that didn't even have us read "Invisible Man" or "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." Instead, we got Barbara Kingsolver. Twice. So I turned instead to history, economics, and Vonnegut, Thompson, and PKD, and I haven't really looked back since.

I can't shake the feeling, though, that if I'd instead read Eliot's jeremiad that I might have ended up reading more quality writing, and possibly even coming to a point where I could read, say, the short stories in the New Yorker without wincing. Consider that Eliot invented the critique of the Mary Sue character almost 150 years before the invention of fanfic:
The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers .... Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. ... Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs, which, on appropriate occasions, rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric; indeed, there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. ... [H]er superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men have only to set their clocks and watches, and all will go well.
This lover, we read, though "wonderfully similar" to her "in powers and capacity," was "infinitely superior to her in faith and development," and she saw in him the "'Agape'–so rare to find –of which she had read and admired the meaning in her Greek Testament; having, from her great facility in learning languages, read the Scriptures in their original tongues." Of course! Greek and Hebrew are mere play to a heroine; Sanscrit is no more than abc to her; and she can talk with perfect correctness in any language except English. She is a polking polyglott, a Creuzer in crinoline. Poor men! There are so few of you who know even Hebrew; you think it something to boast of if, like Bolingbroke, you only "understand that sort of learning, and what is writ about it;" and you are perhaps adoring women who can think slightingly of you in all the Semitic languages successively.
The "lady novelists" that Eliot condemns are pointedly not women novelists; we know, as Eliot's readers did not, that Eliot has a vested interest in assuming that women are essentially able to be authors. No, the lady novelists are vain, high-born if not high-bred, and so innocent of the world that they believe themselves sophisticated. Their works are to writing what the emissions of Thomas Kinkade are to painting. Their narrators and their characters alike speak only in elegant variations; their affairs (both romantic and mundane) are trivial and unreal; and their only saving grace is that one of their literary descendants was Madeleine Bassett, who by her presence made Bertie Wooster seem profound.

It is fitting that Eliot's fisking of the genus of the lady novelist is matched by one of my other favorite essays, one I have enjoyed since long before my disenchantment with literature: Mark Twain's "Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper". Cooper, of course, was the progenitor of the line that has come into the possession of Dan Brown and the like: the ubermensch novel (although it is surely telling that the backwoodsmen of the Jacksonian period have become the symbologists of the Information Age). Twain was a Westerner, if not quite as savage as his stage and authorial personae implied, and like a good frontiersman he knew how to fight. There is none of the subtlety or the Ruskinesque filigrees of Eliot's critique in his leveling of Cooper. But from his opening ("in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.") to his conclusion ("in truth, it seems to me that "Deerslayer" is just simply a literary delirium tremens.") there is no respite.

It strikes me that these are the sorts of writings that ought to be assigned in school next to their targets. Students, or at least a great many of them, will hate what they are assigned anyway; that natural antipathy should be turned toward a productive end.

Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Post a Comment