The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel — James Wood

James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is about comedy, yes, and the meaning that stands behind comedy, and the comedy that stands behind meaning, and so on in a potentially infinite loop. Like all his work, it is also about paradox: how words can become how real, and how the interior shows the exterior and vice-versa, and others discussed below. At one point, he says, “What seems to be a fleeting triviality is actually very important—this is both Verga’s subject and his mode of writing his banalities, like those of his characters, are never unimportant.” The seemingly trivial and banal become important, and the seemingly unimportant becomes exalted and majestic. Wood asks, and makes us ask, “why?”, searching for an answer that can never be had and yet also never seems futile. It’s a neat trick—call it the paradox of criticism, to go along with the paradoxes of the novel. If what we read isn’t significant in and of itself, perhaps we imbue it with significance through the nature of our interaction with the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the character, the story. Wood does, and in the process he sees what is too often missed.

What I like about Wood is how he doesn’t feel researched—he feels organic, inevitable, so natural that most critics and academics are closer to the harsh screams of heavy metal than to Moonlight Sonata. Not even Amis’ Wagnerian bombast compares. This organic-ness can only come, I suspect, from long and deep engagement with a narrow body of reference texts—for Wood, they seem to include Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry Green, Shakespeare, and a few others—complemented by wide breadth and an extraordinary comparative faculty. Once such conditions are in place, one has the potential for great criticism. Converting potential to actuality is hard. Few accomplish it, and few have the sight to discover what is so obviously there and yet that I have so often missed. It is a puzzle almost as significant as the many paradoxes of realism and idea in the novel itself, or in any form of representational art. The simultaneous merging and yet standing outside a character, discussed in Wood’s introduction, is one such example too long to quote at length and all the more incredible for the inability of one to slice a part out; this is a pie that can’t be cut without destroying the whole. This might be part of the organic effect I tried to describe above.

In contrast to Wood, consider a section from Geoffrey Hartman’s essay called “Christopher Smart’s ‘Magnificat:’ Toward a Theory of Representation,” which I began immediately after The Irresponsible Self. Smart writes writes:

What if someone cannot be presented [from one person to another]? The sense of distance has been thrown out of balance: either the self feels defective vis-a-vis the other, or the other appears magnified, unapproachable. The someone can be a something: certain subjects may not be introduced into discourse, certain taboos restrict or delimit the kinds of words used.
I introduce the example of words early, because word commonly help present us.

The idea Smart is trying to present is a reasonably good one: the psychology of social order, or interactions among people, and the individual voice addressing itself might be limited by our thoughts (incidentally, Paul Graham writes about both in What You Can’t Say). But the metaphor isn’t a very good one: how could a person not “be presented” to another real person? If I’m in the room with someone and wish to introduce them, there isn’t some way that such a person “can’t” be presented. If the “someone” is a “something,” that makes more sense, as some forms of social convention discourage contentious topics, although it’s also worth noting that some forms, like graduate student parties, encourage superficially contentious topics. And if we’re aware of taboo topics, or make an effort to become aware of them, then we’re no longer not mentioning them to ourselves because we’re aware of them. Notice too Hartman’s use of the term “vis-a-vis,” which seems showy and ostentatious; it’s a struggle and brings his sentence to a halt. It feels like the slash of a sword instead of the stroke of a brush: forced, not inevitable. If Smart’s essay hadn’t been assigned, I might’ve discarded it after that false note in the second paragraph, but I’ve continued, and though I might buy parts of his argument, that argument as a whole is so hard to follow that I mostly want to give up the attempt.

Now, back to Wood; in “How Shakespeare’s ‘Irresponsibility’ Saved Coleridge,” he writes:

Kant offered Coleridge a way of making the self both passive and active. One the one hand, the world was phenomenal: we gather and order the phenomena of perception. Coleridge called this the faculty of understanding, and in the Biographia it becomes, roughly, the “primary imagination.” On the other hand, said Kant, the world was noumenal: there were transcendent things-in-themselves, unknowable, and this domain is grasped by the practical reason or will. This practical reason asserts itself not by argument but by command and precept; it is how we believe in God. Coleridge bent and expanded Kant’s category, stripping it of its philosophical restraint and making it something closer to free will, and at other times closer to the decisive and controlling activity of the imagination.

Seldom have I read a better concise explanation of sophisticated, important ideas with as few sampling or compression errors. The passage moves according to its own logic, graceful as a dancer and yet purposeful, an economy of precision that Orwell could envy. Ideas I hadn’t perceived as connected I suddenly do, and in that moment something happens—a sense of distant has been thrown out of balance, maybe, but if so, it’s only to be regained better and stronger than before. And if it is a sense of distance, it is the distance between Coleridge, Shakespeare, and myself. I’ll happily be thrown out of balance by someone who knows how to pick me back up.

It’s not entirely fair to hold up these two passages, each on tremendously different topics, as comparisons, and yet I think they do demonstrate the difference between the two writers and the larger difference between Wood, who works so hard for intellectual depth and engagement, and many other critics, who sacrifice the latter in phantom pursuit of the former. Wood has a nearly perfect power curve, and even where I disagree, as with Tom Wolfe, I’m still dazzled by the clarity of his thinking and writing, to the extent those can be separated.

How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken — Daniel Mendelsohn

After reading enough fiction—although how much constitutes “enough” probably varies by person—it seems natural to search for deeper meanings and connections in what you’ve read. Although I can’t pinpoint where I crossed that threshold, somewhere I did—hence Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworlds, most of James Wood’s books, including How Fiction Works, Milan Kundera’s criticism, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Add to that stack Daniel Mendelsohn’s How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken. Most pieces hail from “The New York Review of Books,” and they reflect the trade-offs inherent in that magazine’s style, including lengthy introductions so elliptical relative to the main point that one can sometimes start at the first paragraph break, which is often a couple pages in, and miss something, but perhaps not much. It’s a bit like a politician whose great ideas don’t get quite entirely heard because an overly long disquisition looses his audience. Willie Stark suffered from that malady, and Barack Obama was criticized for the same tendency. Readers of criticism should and probably do have considerably longer attention spans than a voter’s, but even that can be stretched only so far. It’s not that a particular essay of Mendelsohn’s suffers from excessively from it, but rather that the overall effect is one of such relentless prep that one becomes weary by the time dinner is actually to be served. This sense of weariness is what led me to allow my subscription to lapse. But keep going through those introductions: the digging brings intellectual gold, and that goal is worth the pursuit.

This is especially true because How Beautiful It Is is tied together better than the average “New York Review of Books,” and its consistent interest in classics and their continuing interpretation and impact give it a sense of building, of constructedness, that helps alleviate the occasional sense of tediousness. As Mendelsohn says of some of the first “9/11 movies,” “The problem with all this realness is that [United 93] itself—like reality—has no structure: and without structure, without shaping, the events can have no large meaning.” So too with criticism, and his larger structure rotates around Greek and Latin classics. When Mendelsohn is on, he’s fantastic, and his impressive knowledge of classics lets him bring seemingly disparate works together, like a metaphysical poet yoking two images that at first appear opposites. They obviously play into some of the sword and sandal epics he mentions, and less obviously into say, Jeffrey Eugenides’ excellent The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. I wish he’d written more about novels and less about theater, novels being my great interest, but what he does include is richer than many longer works of criticism and helps direct my own reading; Mendelsohn’s argument against The Lovely Bones, one briefly hot book, inspires me to avoid it with more diligence than I do Mitch Albom, another sentimental, schlocky, and vastly overrated bestseller who appeals to the Hallmark card reader in all of us. The Hours, however, is now on the list; one danger of reading How Beautiful It Is and James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel is the perpetual extension of one’s reading list, practically giving you the tools to better perceive recent and ancient culture. And, perhaps more importantly, yourself.

Mendelsohn never abandons the critic’s ultimate purpose of judicious judgment, and one impressive thing is the way he manages to be unsparing but not mean, rooted in culture but not pedantic, and conveys his sense of joy, history, and sagacity. The three together are not easy. Some of his pieces seem like overkill, and so many words on the movies Troy, Alexander, 300, and Kill Bill seem wasted, as they’re not worth the skill Mendelsohn lavishes on them. A great critic can only reach his highest level when pitted against great works, and none of those reveal much about much of anything because they lack the depth necessary for the highest level of engagement. Still, Mendelsohn improves imperfect material, demonstrating the possibility better material gives us when he discusses writers, especially Virginia Woolf. The primary thing holding him back is the aforementioned habit of endless introduction and circling needlessly around the main point before he hits it: with James Wood’s criticism, you get the idea that every idea is essential to the argument. With Mendelsohn, you get the idea virtually every one is, but not quite every one: “Nailed!”, about the “Hatchet Jobs” of the writer Dale Peck, doesn’t nail the reader till three pages in. The habit isn’t fatal, and Mendelsohn is still worth reading, but he gets just a tad stuffy as he goes. Still, this is the worse thing I can repeat about Mendelsohn, and his essays convey so much insight that they’re worth reading even if you occasionally skim, because the wonderfully strong justify the others.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream — Steven Watts

The standard for general nonfiction books these days is Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which reaches astonishing depth in its use of music to explore history and culture as much as vice-versa. A book need not be as sophisticated as that one to still be worth reading, but less ambitious ones still ought to at least strive toward that standard. Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream doesn’t, or at least doesn’t obviously. It starts with a promising enough subject—a cultural symbol for much of the last 50 years—and an equally promising premise—that he will illuminate society based on one symbol. Alas, neither occurs, and we’re left with a book that does neither particularly well.

The reasons why a decent book that could be good isn’t aren’t always obvious, even if symptoms of its problems are. I keep coming back to James Fallows’ comment:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Ross normally writes for the New Yorker, as his book is impeccably edited. Before discussing the content of Mr. Playboy, its noxious style and innumerable mistakes have to be noted because they so distract from the reading of it. In Charlie Wilson’s War, such problems were relatively minor but noticeable. In Mr. Playboy, they’re glaring and enormous. We learn that: “[...] Hefner also emerged as a serious shaper of, and commentator on, modern American values.” He was also a “serious, influential figure in modern culture,” who “played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes” (all on 3). Hefner and Playboy shaped rather than just reflecting “American values” (4). He also helped transform “sexual values” (4). He personified “the mass-culture overhaul of modern society” and “he was a child of popular culture” (both on 5). The magazine became a “cultural litmus test [... for ....] modern American culture” (6). Playboy became a “cultural trendsetter” (6, again). Hefner positioned himself “as a dissenter in modern America” but “expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream American culture [... appearing on] the cultural skyline [...]” (7). And he “presented a compelling vision of the good life in modern America” (7). I don’t know how often “modern” is used and in how many different ways and contexts, but the author or editor should do a “find” using a word processor and figure it out.

Enough of the introduction. The first chapter tells us Hefner’s boyhood fantasies “mirrored larger patterns in America’s emerging culture of self-fulfillment [...]” (12). “The popular culture milieu of Depression-era America” helped shape Hefner (18). The Hefner family was susceptible to “modernizing influences” and “American popular culture” (19). “In certain ways they had embraced modernity.” Hefner’s mother “displayed a modern side” (both 21). Her modernity is mentioned again on page 26, where we also learn “American popular culture molded Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character,” and it’s mentioned one more time on 32. On 27, we learn more about “Popular culture.” After college, “Hefner’s emotional and ideological maturation received an added boost from American popular culture” (56). “Playboy’s appeal was rooted more deeply in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America” (72). You don’t say? I had no idea popular culture affected Hefner or Playboy.

On page 35, Hefner was dating a girl but “met someone else.” Two lines down, he “met a young woman who had been a classmate.” On page 40, “He became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences.” Why not just describe the circle and experiences? Further, we find out that “Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was struck by [Hefner's] candor in talking about sex” (46). Really? I had no idea this Bob guy existed.

On the consumer end, he advocated “consumer efflorescence” and “consumer products” and gave a model for the “stylish consumer” (all on 4). The early 1900s saw “the explosive growth of a consumer economy” (this phrase combining a cliche and repetition on 19). Alfred Kinsey’s findings shocked a society “committed to consumer conformity” (45). We learn about “an economy of abundance” and “material abundance” (the latter twice) on 73). On 74 we find the Cold War “molded these elements of abundance [...]“, and that Life magazine ran photos showing “consumer amenities.” And on 75, we hear more of “people intoxicated with abundance.” Playboy encouraged “young men into a fuller enjoyment of American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions” (80). On page 83, we learn of “a climate of [...] widespread abundance.” On page 104, we learn that postwar American has “consumer abundance.” Chapter seven is titled “An Abundant Life.” Mr. Playboy has an abundance of abundance.

On page 86, Playboy begins through “working in the small Superior Street town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and camaraderie [...],” and we find out below that “A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere.” At the top of the next page, “An early staffer observed, ‘There was a closeness there [...]‘” followed by, “Amid this warm atmosphere [....]“. Did anyone edit this book in a modestly serious fashion? If that weren’t enough, cliches occur too frequently, as when Hefner and Playboy “had taken the country by storm” (3). His first wife “scarred him for life” (48). “Everything seemed possible” (61). Something “captures [Hefner's] imagination” (62). “It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of traditional Victorian morality [...]” (121).

Watts chronically makes the kind of mistakes I mark in freshmen papers. He says, “[Consumer society] was intimately connected to a larger ethos of pleasure, leisure and entertainment” (129). How is it connected? He says “important elements of fantasy went into the presentation of these “real” young women.” That sentence isn’t needed because he goes into those element later in the paragraph. He says of one Playboy staffer who feels superior to the organization, “The reasons were complex” (92). Don’t say the reasons are complex—show why they are complex.

There’s more, but I don’t have the heart or, more importantly, the interest to observe every problem that could’ve come out of a student essay. Most of my examples came from the first half of the book because I didn’t read the second as carefully. Mr Playboy also shows why magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic are so good, aside from their editing: either might’ve taken the 70,000 or so words in this book, compressed them a 6,000 word article, and lost little if any meaning while giving the virtues of compression. If Watts had hired me, many of these problems could’ve been avoided. The above barrage is free, however, and if anyone (like his publicist, for example) knows how to forward said advice to Watts before the paperback edition, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It might alleviate some of the book’s problems. There is an inherent danger in studying a person wittier and deeper than you are in that quotes and jokes from one’s subject will upstage the writer. On page 106, surrounded by banal commentary, Watts quotes Hefner saying:

There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to be able to enjoy [...] It is the sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex.

It’s the kind of elegant stylistic and intellectual formulation Watts seldom gets to. Perhaps the most self-referential part of Mr. Playboy and its author comes amid a discussion of Hefner’s enormous and apparently misguided effort to write a piece called “the Playboy philosophy” every month. Watts says, “While [Hefner's] unadorned prose could be crisp and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was turgid and repetitive.” This sentences applies to Mr. Playboy, and Watts shows no sense of the irony in his committing of the same sins he projects on Hefner.

Still, occasional passages, if not redemptive, do convey signifance. Watts likes the amusingly sophomoric through phrases about how “a new commitment to pleasure penetrated [tee-hee] into the most intimate, personal realm of human life…” Bits have surprising pathos, like a quote from one of Hefner’s former girlfriends described on page 205. He also reveals an original thought about Playboy and its creator on page 53 when he says:

Hefner also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohesive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popular cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan.

Such random influences can’t be so unusual given American pop culture, and this section helps show some of the internal contradictions of Playboy’s later philosophy, or faux-philosophy. Such moments are too rare in Mr. Playboy, and I don’t think they’re the fault of the subject—they’re the fault of the writer. Maybe if Watts better connected the facets of Hefner’s life to anything besides themselves, the book would have been improved. As it was, the ten or so girlfriends listed through the latter half of the book only demonstrate that Hefner famously likes to date young. If there’s a better known facet of his life, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps one day a better biographer will come along and show us what’s really new.

Walter Scott's Waverley, the intrusive narrator, and showing, not telling

In Walter Scott’s Waverley, a representative passage states:

Now I protest to thee, gentle reader […] and hold it the most useful quality of my pen, that it can speedily change from grave to gay, and from description and dialogue to narrative and character. So that, if my quill display no other properties of its mother-goose than her mutability, truly I shall be well pleased; and I conceive that you, my worthy friend, will have not occasion for discontent. From the jargon, therefore, of the Highland gillies, I pass to the character of their Chief. It is an appropriate examination, and therefore, like Dogberry, we must spare no wisdom.

I would have preferred to be spared much wisdom, and perhaps all of Scott’s wisdom regarding the character of Fergus Mac-Ivor save that which is imparted through action and dialog. Among fiction writers, the cliché goes, “Show, don’t tell,” and though, like all such rules it should be broken when the need arises, Scott violates it doubly here: first he tells us that he’s going to tell us the character of Fergus, and then he tells us instead of showing us what that character is. We don’t need to pass “From the jargon […] of the Highland gillies […]” to Fergus, but for him simply to do so without announcing it, and his quill’s output doesn’t have the attributes of a goose, but of whatever use its author puts it to. By protesting that I should have no reason for discontent, Scott makes me discontent; he cannot control my content or dis-, and as such, he need merely tell the story, not tell me of its telling. Such protests are not cause for me to be well pleased, but cause for my own displeasure. To quote the advertising slogan of a national athletic apparel company, he should “just do it.” Basketball players can speak of their skill on the court as much as they wish, but the results we care about are on the scorecard, and authors can trumpet what they’ll do as much as they wish, but the results we care about are the stories, not the explanations. In sparring no wisdom, Scott spares us much of the novelistic wisdom of the last two hundred years.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood attributes the small-m modern novel to Flaubert in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him. There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him. Flaubert decisively established what most readers and writers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible. We hardly remark of good prose that it favours the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary […]

This is the standard by which Andrew Hook, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Waverley, probably judges the novel when he says that it “[…] may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century.” Scholarly introductions normally extol a book’s literary as well social/political merit, but in this case the first point is conceded in order to strengthen the second. Perhaps this is in part because of the kind of thing quoted above or what appears to be Scott’s direct address in the first chapter / introduction—the two have not been fully separated yet—when he writes that he tries to avoid writing what we would now call a period piece by “[…] throwing the force of my narrative upon the characters and passions of the actors; – those passions common to men in all stages of society […]” The same issue debated today, but within criticism rather than novels. In a recent New Yorker article titled “Regrets Only: Lionel Trilling and his Discontents,” Louis Menand says that “[Lionel Trilling] was a humanist who believe that works of literature can speak to us across time […]” before describing Trilling’s steady abandonment of that position, or at least that position in its strongest form. But Trilling argued it in nonfiction, not in fiction, and Menand argues about Trilling argues in nonfiction. Scott gives many of his theories within Waverley in a way that seems paternalistic to this post-Flaubert reader.

Wood probably overstates the case for Flaubert, but my quarrel with him is one of degree rather than fundamental alignment. One thing Flaubert accomplished in his endless quest for realism, which is itself a kind of artificial representation no matter how real, is to at least somewhat relegate the most odious and intrusive passages in Waverley into books like How Fiction Works, or Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, or the innumerable other works by author/critics who save their explicit theorizing for nonfiction studying fiction, rather than fiction itself. This can be avoided, as many contemporary authors do by using writers and critics as characters. Philip Roth did so in his Zuckerman novels and Michael Chabon does so in Wonder Boys. The protagonist, Grady Tripp, reads a troubled student’s first novel and says that

… like most good first novels it possessed an imperturbable, mistaken confidence that all the shocking incidents and extremes of human behavior it dished up would strike new chords of outrage and amazement in the reader. It was a brazen, ridiculous, thrilling performance, with a ballast of genuine sadness that kept the whole thing from keeling over in the gale-force winds of melodrama.

Although I’m not certain I would agree with the generalities expressed in Tripp’s commentary, it does at the very least hearken back to older novels like Don Quixote or Waverley. The difference is that in Wonder Boys, the digression is organic and part of the characterization of the novel itself, rather than a cutting and intrusive digression. The action for the characters themselves doesn’t freeze as a lecture gets dropped in, and the literary theory expressed has some resonance for the novel’s story. Tripp and his agent, Terry Crabtree, are going to decide what to do with Leer based in part on his novel, which they evaluate in part by their own aesthetic criteria. In Waverley, the didactic tone interrupts the action instead of being part of it and focuses on the reader themself, not the characters through the reader. Both are accomplished with layers—in Waverley, with the historian, and in Wonder Boys, with Tripp—but Wonder Boys has that additional facet of integration rather than separation.

Wonder Boys also assumes at least some familiarity with novels and novel theory; notice that Tripp is critical of “the gale-force winds of melodrama,” which simplifies and flattens characters in a way that strikes sophisticated readers as weak. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 4th Edition, sneers that 19th Century melodrama “[…] produced a kind of naively sensational entertainment in which the main characters were excessively virtuous or exceptionally evil.” Waverley succumbs to this trap in part, with characters like Edward and Colonel Talbot, but also escapes from it with Fergus and Flora, as the former is willing to turn against Edward while the latter doesn’t swoon like a stereotypical maiden as soon as the light hero arrives. In this respect, Scott is being more modern than I might want to give him credit for, but he’s still a long way from the evolution of a novel like Wonder Boys, whether in terms of plot, characterization, or, as discussed here, knowledge of literary theory and ideas. Later in the same passage, Tripp approvingly notes that Leer has “largely abandoned his silly experiments with syntax and punctuation,” giving us further theory of what makes a good novel as stated by the character of the novel, who would probably not care for stylistically ostentatious writers who are ostentatious for its own sake, like Alain Robbe-Grillet, or, in some novels, Percival Everett.

It’s possible that novels simply can’t avoid commenting on the form to some extent, just as novels can’t seem to avoid some aspect of epistemology and mystery—even the basic mystery of “what happens next,” though a similar drive might propel readers of essays or other nonfiction. Elmore Leonard is the literary novelist I’m familiar with who gets furthest from the recursive structure of novelists on novels within novels, but even he succumbs to that urge in The Hot Kid. Before starting this response, these ideas were rolling around my mind, and I began editing the novel I’m working on, and found a passage that could be about the ability to read a character in the novel:

I looked over my notes from the previous night and found Cassie’s Facebook profile—she was the keg-stand girl—which had a note about her hangover. Otherwise, her profile contained a long list of favorite music and TV shows, but no books, and also had many semi-literate wall notes. Some from DGs empathized regarding hangovers.

The difference between Chabon, Leonard, and others, versus Scott, however, is the difference between a death metal band and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata: subtlety and composition.

None of this essay depreciates Scott’s historical importance to the development of the novel as a genre or of Romance, which was Hook’s initial point. Scott remains historically important, however, chiefly because of influence. Some of his sins might sins of a new form without boundary, and thus Scott might have felt the need to explain the form so that it can be properly enjoyed. Two hundred years since, however, the form is much understood, and an ocean of reading exists beyond what any mortal given present expected longevity can expect to achieve. If Scott caused anxiety in through that influence, it has long been cast off because he, like any pioneer, did not reach the maximum potential of the form he helped establish. Perhaps no artist does, but others have reached further than Scott, and now the dust of archives clings to his prose, which too often offers justification when it doesn’t need to: that his “pen can speedily change from grave to gay,” and many other passages I want to strike with my own pen and write in the margins, “We know!”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,332 other followers

%d bloggers like this: