Dear Jane…

Jane Sullivan is a professional novelist whose weekly column, ‘Turning Pages,’ is a fixture of the weekend literary supplements in Australia’s Fairfax broadsheets, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age. What usually makes ‘Turning Pages’ stand out from the more news-oriented literary coverage that surrounds it is the spirit of contemplation in which it is written. Sullivan rarely takes as her subject the new releases of the week just gone and rarely exhorts her readers to immediately make a beeline for whichever book has recently won her over. Instead, she uses ‘Turning Pages’ as a space in which to think out loud about literary issues of a less transient nature, to meditate on the difficulties and the triumphs of literary creativity in a voice of exacting calm and serenity.

This week, however, Sullivan’s column is one of the more incredible things I have ever encountered in a literary supplement — incredible in the sense that I find it literally beyond credibility. Equal parts infantile and insidious, it is impossible for me to believe that anyone who even aspires to being a novelist could have ever written it in the hope or the expectation that it would be taken seriously. Earlier this month, Alan Gribben, “a well-meaning professor of English at an Alabama university,” announced his intention to publish a version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced throughout with the word “slave.” Since then, Sullivan writes in this week’s ‘Turning Pages,’ “[t]he media and blogosphere have erupted with comments, almost all negative. How dare anyone, even an eminent Twain scholar such as Professor Alan Gribben, monkey about with Huck Finn?” Continue reading

A New Year’s Eve Addendum

I’m a longtime fan of the fiction podcast presented monthly by The New Yorker. In each podcast, Deborah Triesman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, asks writers who have recently published fiction in the magazine to select a short story from the magazine’s archives and to read it aloud and consider their reasons for admiring it. Not every podcast is a gem, of course, but more often than not the stories are great, the readings are exceptional, and the discussions are quietly appreciative in a way that I think is all too rare in contemporary literary discourse. Among my favourites: Louise Erdrich reading Lorrie Moore, Jeffrey Eugenides reading Harold Brodkey, Tobias Wolff reading Stephanie Vaughn, T.C. Boyle reading Tobias Wolff, Aleksandar Hemon reading Bernard Malamud, and Richard Ford reading John Cheever.

This month, though, the podcast has completely outdone itself with Cynthia Ozick offering a beautiful reading and impassioned discussion of Steven Millhauser’s ‘In the Reign of Harad IV.’ The story must be one of the best ever to appear in The New Yorker, and Ozick’s vocalisation of it perfectly conveys the otherworldliness of its metafictional monomania. But what really sets this podcast apart from the others is the discussion between Ozick and Deborah Triesman before and after the reading. Triesman usually remains aloof or politely inquisitive, offering very little of her own thoughts on a given story while prompting the writer in the studio to disclose theirs in detail. This time, however, she lays out her own views on the story alongside Ozick’s views, revealing, to my surprise, a palpable appreciation of the story that matches Ozick’s appreciation of it even as she challenges Ozick on points of literary interpretation. Their discussion won’t revolutionise current thinking on Millhauser’s work, of course, but it’s still great to be able to hear such careful and intelligent readers give serious consideration to a fiction that — despite the faux whimsy of its premise — wants and deserves to be taken seriously.

Howling Into the Silence, Yearning for a Reply

In 1972, Dale Edmonds of Tulane University published what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first and still the longest of only a handful of scholarly studies of Carson McCullers’ “Correspondence.” Entitled “‘Correspondence’: A ‘Forgotten’ Carson McCullers Short Story,” Edmonds’ study runs to a scant 2,200 words at the end of which he declares:

I would be reluctant to say as much as I have about “Correspondence,” since the story succeeds so well on the immediate level, except for the fact that it has been virtually forgotten. “Correspondence” is no stunning achievement, but it is a unified and effective minor work of short fiction. It deserves to be redeemed from the obscurity of the pages of an early wartime New Yorker to amuse — perhaps delight — readers who are still capable of being touched by the universal plight of adolescence.

There are three things to say in response to these comments. Continue reading

Adventures

A few months ago I picked up a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005. I had been meaning to purchase the book ever since it was published in 2007 because I think Coetzee is one of the best contemporary literary critics. By and large, he is generous in his sentiments towards the activity of writing but unsparing in his assessment of the words that make it onto the printed page; and I find that he also has the rare ability to make me want to pick up and read or re-read whatever book he is discussing even if he does not hold it in high esteem. So, in addition to reading Coetzee’s essays over the last few months, I have also been returning to some of what already sits on my shelves, especially the great American texts: Leaves of Grass, Go Down, Moses, and, most recently, The Adventures of Augie March.

The point of Coetzee’s essay on Augie March, however, is that the novel is far from “great.” While the essay, available online, opens with a sense of reverence — “Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant” — it doesn’t take long for a to frost settle over the pleasantries: Continue reading

On Narrative Voice (3): Not Alone or Adrift

Unlike The Road, and unlike virtually any first-person narrative you might care to name, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea seems to provide a textbook example of strictly naturalist third-person omniscient narration. The narrative voice is plain and simple, lacking any obvious narratorial interjections as well as any stylistic peculiarities that would imply a narrative history for the controlling intelligence behind the narrative voice. And yet, there are moments at which it becomes clear that someone, some entity with a particular personality, narrates — or at least thinksThe Old Man and the Sea. A little under halfway into the story, it is remarked that the old man “knew no man was ever alone on the sea,” and the remark itself demonstrates the truth of what is remarked upon. Who makes the remark? Who is out there at sea with the old man, and close enough to him to know what he knows? Whose is the controlling intelligence of the narrative, of which the narrative voice is the intelligible mask? Continue reading

On Narrative Voice (2): For the Record

During the audience question time at the end of the lecture I gave last week, a questioner contended that, with regard to the narrative voice in The Road, my entire argument was fatally flawed. The narrator, she said, cannot be some omniscient entity wounded by the apocalypse because the narrator is plainly and obviously the boy at the heart of the narrative, looking back as a grown man on his survival ordeal and retelling it in a faux third-person voice: a displacement technique that suggests ongoing psychological trauma.

That contention seemed to me to be unjustifiably speculative, but the questioner insisted that it was the case and cited as evidence a passage from The Road in which the third-person narrator inexplicably slips into the first-person voice. Continue reading

On Narrative Voice (1): The Wounded God

A couple of days ago, I gave a brief public lecture on the narrative voice in two recent and highly-acclaimed works of post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming. Beginning with Henry James’ assertion that a work of fiction can only be credible in a way that induces the reader to suspend disbelief if it filters its fictional events through the eyes of an embodied first-person narrator, I argued that McCarthy’s third-person narrator in The Road actually generated that sort of credibility with far more sophistication than did Amsterdam’s first-person narrator in Things We Didn’t See Coming. In that novel, the narrator ostensibly endures a series of episodic disasters — an apocalypse that unfolds by degrees — but because he discusses his experiences in an entirely coherent and colloquial voice, his voice itself fails to suggest that he has actually experienced those events and thus robs his words of their truth. In McCarthy’s novel, by contrast, the narrator speaks in a voice that does not undermine the truth of what he says but instead augments it. Continue reading