Over the last few months, at the blog of the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has been posting a succession of lighthearded but provocative musings on the norms and nature of reading and writing. In February, he questioned the transformation of writing from a personal vocation into a profession. “[W]hen did being a writer become a career choice,” he asked, “with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?” In early March, he wondered under what circumstances it becomes acceptable to abandon reading a book. “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish?” he asked. “Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?”
Now, in his most recent post, Parks sets out to “tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on.” The orthodoxy in question is the notion that “the world ‘needs stories.'” To illustrate just how orthodox this notion has become among the members of ‘the literary set,’ Parks quotes Jonathan Franzen as one of its major proponents. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” After unpacking Franzen’s self-serving motivations for expressing such a view, Parks goes on to catalogue several variants of the same position and then to relate an anecdote which illustrates the institutionalisation of that position:
“This is an excellent novel,” I remember a fellow judge for a literary prize repeatedly telling the rest of the jury every time he encouraged us to vote for a book, “because it offers complex moral situations that help us get a sense of how to live and behave.” The argument here is that the world has become immensely complicated and the complex stories of our novels help us to see our way through it, to shape a trajectory for ourselves in the increasingly fragmented and ill-defined social world we move in.
Surprisingly, and disappointingly, Parks concedes that “[t]here’s something to be said for this idea.” Is that really the case? What sort of person would seriously take their moral and social cues from a novel? What sort of person would turn to a work of imaginative literature in order to adjust their behaviour in the real world? Of course, the idea that we should do so is only a slight variation on the idea that we should read literature for this purpose — but even the proponents of the latter idea, with Matthew Arnold and Harold Bloom being exemplars, are not so myopic as to contend that that purpose can be better served by novels than by any other type of literature. Parks, however, proceeds to defend the exceptionalism of the novel.
“[T]he political, sports, and crime pages of the newspapers are full of fascinating stories,” he writes, “many of them extremely challenging and complex. [But w]hat the novel offers… is a tale mediated by the individual writer who (alone, away from Facebook and Twitter) works hard to shape it and deliver it in a way that he or she feels is especially attractive, compelling, and right.” As well, he suggests that the best sort of “tale mediated by the individual writer” — and the sort best suited to the artform of the novel — is itself a tale of the intensification of individualism, a tale that allows its readers to “believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes. Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves. They reinforce a process we are engaged in every moment of the day, self creation.”
So, if the world does indeed ‘need stories,’ the need arises within a world of individualists who feel that the world itself threatens their individualism. And, if novels are at all able to address this need, they do so insofar as each novel is itself the product of an individual consciousness and is designed to tell a complex story which depicts the triumph of individualist sentiments.
That strikes me as a pretty bleak view of what novels should do and why we should read them. Perhaps in an effort to ramp up the provocative nature of his post, Parks issues the last-ditch contention that, after all, “we” don’t actually need “this intensification of self that novels provide.” “I love an engaging novel,” he adds, “I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it.” At this point, however, what is already expressed can’t be diluted. What Parks advances is a view of the novel that impoverishes the artform in two ways. First it impoverishes the artform by locating the value of the novel in its capacity for expressing and celebrating individualism, which entails severely restricting one’s view of the novel’s other capabilities. Then it impoverishes the artform by construing the reading of novels as an impulsive act carried out in the absence of a ‘need’ to read them and in denial of that absence, rather than construing it as an act carried out in awareness of that absence and therefore in deliberate defiance of it.
No, we don’t need to read novels. With the hierarchy of human needs dominated by the imperatives for material wellbeing and socialisation, the reading of novels is relegated to the outermost ranks. But the needlessness of reading novels is the essence of reading them. Maybe that’s just a more elaborate way of arguing the value of art for art’s sake, but I struggle to say any other way of arguing it. No doubt it’s possible to draw moral and social lessons from novels, no doubt those things are elements of many novels, but whatever such lessons a novel may provide do not amount to reasons to read it. To read a novel in search of moral and social cues is essentially to strip away its aesthetic particularities and boil it down to nothing more than the dramatisation of a dilemma. It is to discard the novel’s stylistic details and structural complexities and to elide so much of what makes it a novel that it might as well not be one at all. It is also to adopt a reactionary stance towards the marginalisation of the novel in a culture dominated by economic rationalism, to tacitly concede the minimal economic value of reading novels while casting about for some other sort of value that lies beyond the realm of economics and that is difficult to tarnish with accusations of self-service. But why is it not enough for novels to do what only novels can do? Why should there be something insufficient about reading novels for the particular type of experience that novels in general provide, and for the variations on that type of experience provided by each individual novel?