Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Craig Seligman on First Novels: George Eliot, Henry James, William Faulkner, William Burroughs
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Craig Seligman has a long survey of first novels in Bookforum. The essay is more driven by local observations and insights than it is by a strong thesis, but it’s generally pretty agreeable reading to this blogger. Most of Seligman’s comments on the first novels by the authors above seem correct where I’ve read the novels in question, and suggestive where I haven’t. The essay is also pretty modular—you can pretty much just read his take on the authors you’re interested in. I think it’s a strong piece, but not so strong to prevent me from doing a little nitpicking below the fold.
First, an interesting bit on pseudonyms and gender. Here’s Seligman on Eliot, after Scenes from Clerical Life:
Dickens has written to the mysterious author: “The exquisite truth and delicacy, both of the humour and the pathos of those stories, I have never seen the like of”; as for her pseudonym, “I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman." Clever man.
That is clever of Dickens; I’d be curious to know what made him think that. As a side note, maybe we can draw a connection here to the article on gender and anonymity BitchPhD is working on. (It would be interesting to play “guess the gender” with excerpts from lesser known works from non-canonical authors. Anyone interested?)
Seligman has nothing but love for Adam Bede itself:
Adam Bede goes on sale in February 1859 and is not only a tremendous success (the most popular of Eliot’s novels during her lifetime) but something more, something every first novelist aspires to (preposterously, crazily, but why else break your heart locking yourself away for years on such a dubious labor?): one of the glories of the form.
And here he is on the transition to modernism:
Now comes the Great Impatience: a century of putting the novel to uses—sometimes ingenious uses—that had never been envisioned for it, like a pharmaceutical developed to deal with one malady that turns out to have surprising applications in the treatment of another. Eliot and James, poised before the novel at the outset of their careers, are like Mozart and Beethoven before the symphony: The form is ideally suited to what they have to say, and what they have to say is all they really have to think about. Eventually, James, like Beethoven, realizes that what he has to say is about the form By the new century, novelists have begun striking the novel at odd angles to elicit new sounds, ringing ever-stranger notes from it. They are grappling with the form, and the form is either bending to their vision or stiffening, intransigent.
[Update: This post has been de-snarked, so the comments may not make perfect sense. -AS]
Amardeep, this seems a strange, but compelling, example of grading-inflected blogging. I wonder why you chose to address the faults of the language, and whether you think they’re related to the lack of thesis. Are you saying Seligman tried to hard, failed, and his failure lays bear the pretensions of his prose?
(And yes, I’ll play that game. It’ll have to be with ungoogleable texts, though, or the cheaters will always win.)
[In this “comment,” the Troll of Sorrow intimated that Faulkner would beat up contributors to the Valve for having the audicity to speak about his work. Were the Troll of Sorrow a learned man, he’d know that the odds of Faulkner beating anyone down were slim before he started drinking and drifted to null afterwards. The Troll of Sorrow should consider this a lesson in the dangers of alcohol abuse. If he keeps it up, he’ll lose his ability to leg-press 2000 lbs. - The Management]
[Oh, and the gays. The Troll of Sorrow is no fan of the gays. - The Management]
I wonder why you chose to address the faults of the language, and whether you think they’re related to the lack of thesis. Are you saying Seligman tried to hard, failed, and his failure lays bear the pretensions of his prose?
Scott, this is the kind of piece that hangs together just fine loosely. But if one presses too hard on any one part, it begins to fall apart. Why the first novels of these five novelists? What story about the novel do they really tell? (Especially since he’s pretty clear that he thinks Soldier’s Pay kind of sucked.) I’m not convinced there really is a strong story there.
As for my attention to the language, yeah, maybe too much grading (I’m also editing the final manuscript of my book, which is kind of a maddening process).
Amardeep, I share much of the sense of your opening appraisal of Seligman’s article—though I would rather phrase it to say the article is lively and interesting and has more than a few strong points.
I would challenge Seligman most on part of this statement and what seems to be implied in it:
“In the past couple of decades, more and more first-time writers have found that nonfiction, especially memoir, offers them the opportunity to say what they need to say, as plainly or as inventively as they want, without the killing pressure to reinvent the form. Which is exactly what the novel offered George Eliot and the young Henry James.”
I think the notion of “killing pressure to reinvent the form” is largely a myth and partly an actuality in some circles that is a result of unfortunate inculcation. Innovation is great, and the more forms the merrier, but many of the “old” forms still work today just fine, thanks, when handled well—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is one of the most prominent examples, in large part.
Sometimes problems of form are problems of form, problems of the art. However, very often, so-called problems of form are actually problems of (not) having something to say (express, show...). A novel isn’t a long sigh, etc, unless it’s a stupendous sigh. A novel is a big head trip, usually takes more than a few resources of the mind and experience.
It may be thought at least as an exercise that problems of form are largely to art by and large what art is often or largely to life—albeit arguably—a sort of epiphenomena. When most striking, art may equal or in some ways surpass the life that makes it up. When most striking, the phenomena of form may equal or in some ways surpass the elements of art and life that comprise it. In other words, in my view and to my understanding, form is not essentially, not usually the primary problem in creating art, novels.
So, to speak of fundamental problems of form is to speak – as Ben Shahn has pointed out – of fundamental problems of the content of art and of understanding, experience, and relation to life from which that content is drawn. Except in necessarily limited ways, a master craftsperson or aesthetician cannot come along and magically produce tremendous form out of someone else’s limited elements of content and greatly limited or deficient understanding, experience, and relation to life. Of course anyone even minimally skilled can turn weaknesses into strengths, happens all the time, and is a great way to create art, in many ways a necessary way to not only create art but one’s days and life as well.
Still, exceptionally great achievement usually demands exceptionally great input of some sort or another, and often from that input (as described above) more or less naturally may be evolved into form. Thus to speak of form is to greatly speak of content, as Ben Shahn notes, though the implication and belief is often otherwise in certain circles.
Ben Shahn, from The Shape of Content (1957) (and as excerpted in my forthcoming novel Master of Fine Arts):
Some critics consider any mention of content a display of bad taste. Some, more innocent and more modern, have been taught – schooled – to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content.... But again, we must look upon form as the shape of content…
...form is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form would have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude. So when we sit in judgment upon a certain kind of form – and it is usually called lack of form – what we do is to sit in judgment upon a certain type of content.
Answers to the question – Is it possible for an artist to function fully within the university? – must be a series of provisional ones. Ideally, yes, for as an intellectual center, the university can provide background and stimulation to the artist; it can broaden him as an individual; it can conceivably provide new directions for art....
[Unfortunately]...surrounded by abstract and learned discussion, [an art student’s] own vision may waver and its reality grow dim. At the same time I feel that both art history and art theory are of immense value to the creative artist. All such material lends depth and subtlety to art, and it is definitely stimulating to most artists. Only when, in the verbalizing or the teaching process, the original creative necessity is obliterated does art theory or art history tend to suffocate the artist.