Saturday, January 22, 2011

John Irving on readers and critics

From the Reader's Guide interview published in the Kindle edition of "A Widow for One Year:"

In terms of understanding the effect of my novels, I learn much more from the letters readers write to me than I do from book reviews. You don't read a book the way a reader reads a book when you know you're going to write about it. I know -- I've been a reviewer, too, after all.

HG: You are often accused of being a sentimentalist…

JI: I've already defined the word by admitting that it is my intention, as a novelist, to move you to laughter and tears, and that I use the language to persuade you emotionally, not intellectually. In Great Expectations, Dickens wrote: "Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts." But we are ashamed of our tears. We live at a time when critical taste tells us that to be soft-hearted is akin to doltishness; we're so influenced by the junk on television and in the movies that even in reacting against it we overreact -- we conclude that any attempt to move an audience to laughter and tears is shameless crowd-pleasing, is akin to sitcom or soap opera or melodrama.

To the modern critic, when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty. But, for a writer, it is craven to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether. To be emotionally inscrutable has become a predictable fingerprint of the "literary" author. I wouldn't want to be married to someone who was C. Who would ever want to be in a relationship like that? Well, I don't want a novelist to be emotionally inscrutable, either. In a novel, sentimental risks are essential; concealing one's emotions is a form of political correctness, which is a kind of cowardice.


Modernism in literature upholds the theory that a novel can be a patternless mess (without a plot) because real life is like that. Well, good novels, in my view, are better made than real life. ... Great stories are constructed -- they have a structure.
"Emotionally inscrutable" is a notion obviously closely related to several versions of the hip and the cool; the roots of which Greil Marcus finds in the "deadpan" tone that defines a lot of American culture. Although "Widow" has three major characters who are novelists, with sections ot eh their work interpolated, Irving is not arch or arms-length enough to qualify as a post-modern writer. But he definitely wants the pipes and girders of his story-building to be a visible part of the experience, and he's not above waving and pointing if he thinks there's a chance we'll miss them. ("A John Irving novel is not subtle," he says.) Not po-mo, then, but perhaps a literary adaptation of the architectural style known as Structural Expressionism, which puts its beams and wiring in plain sight.

Also occurs to me that the controversial innovations in criticism in the 1970s (Kael, Marcus) were partly aimed at persuding critics to be readers (or moviegoers) first.

And of course we also spurn arms-length and/or emotionally inscrutable music.


Tulkinghorn said...

A favorite image: Kingsley Amis used to write "No he didn't" in the margins of novels he was reading when the characters did something unlikely or inconsistent.

I like and admire John Irving but his defensiveness and building of straw men is sad.... Lots of "No they don't in the margins here.

Beware of the use of the unexplained "we". Always. And especially here:

....we overreact -- we conclude that any attempt to move an audience to laughter and tears is shameless crowd-pleasing, is akin to sitcom or soap opera or melodrama.

To the modern critic, when a writer risks being sentimental, the writer is already guilty.

That is, of course, claptrap. What he means to say is that critics react to the overly sentimental with derision -- much the same derision he reserves for the overly intellectual.

There are few living writers as loved and admired as John Irving. He should just get over it.

David Chute said...

The inability to tell the difference between drama and melodrama (usually called "soap opera" in a blanket way) crops up all over, now. In the comments sections of movie blogs, for example -- the leading critics of our age.

Tulkinghorn said...

I've never really understood what people mean by differentiation between drama and melodrama -- I mean I understand what the difference is between Hamlet and East Lyme, but I don't understand how people use the terms other than as short for "I don't like it."

Watched Winter's Bone the other night, which I liked a great deal, but I'd find it hard to argue with anyone who described it as 'melodrama'. I'd find it very easy to argue with someone who said that it was "too melodramatic." -- notwithstanding that the entire enterprise was rife with the sort of things -- withdrawn mothers, orphans losing their homes, fathers who abanadon their children, lost dogs, babies and horses -- that it would be easy to mock.

David Chute said...

"Soap opera" is probably a more common sneer, nowadays.

Could be argued that crime fiction, of which Winter's Bone is an advanced and excellent specimen (actually in plot it's a detective story), is fundamentally melodramatic: issues of human life greatly heightened to life and death conflicts. But perhaps in hardboiled garb it avoids the superior snickers Irving is talking about.

John Hawkes is in Park City, for a movie in which he plays a cult leader. That I would pay to see.

Tulkinghorn said...

Just finished reading a book by Susan Hill -- another writer of high-toned melodrama -- where she argues that the slide from detective fiction to crime fiction was an American invention largely to get beyond the stifling (and politically unfashionable) atmosphere of the golden age British mystery. Or something like that... cf Orwell's evisceration of Chase for more of the same.

Of course, the softness at the heart of the hard boiled is well known. "Down these mean streets.." -- what could be more romantic and less tough-minded? And yet those guys get away with it and have for decades.

Tulkinghorn said...

By the way, the Irving chip-on-the-shoulder thing has been going on for a long time, at least since he got into a mud-slinging match with Tom Wolfe, which is chronicled here:

and here:

Irving on Wolfe:

By the end of the interview, Irving was declaring that he could open a Tom Wolfe book at any page and "read a sentence that would make me gag," and generally sounding more like Stone Cold Steve Austin than a gentleman of letters: "If I were teaching fucking freshman English, I couldn't read that sentence and not just carve it up."

Wolfe on Irving:

"Irving needs to get up off his bottom and leave that farm in Vermont or wherever it is he stays and start living again. It wouldn't be that hard. All he'd have to do is get out and take a deep breath and talk to people and see things and rediscover the fabulous and wonderfully bizarre country around him: America."

I think Irving comes off better here, but YMMV...

David Chute said...

Elsewhere Irving echoes Stophen King's "what make you assume I have a choice?"

If a writer is doing something we like as much as we like this, why isn't that enough?

Tulkinghorn said...

It is.

Implicit in the accusation of self-pity is the notion that it's not necessary or appropriate.

No need to complain about defensiveness if there's reason to be defensive, in other words.

David Chute said...

The Kingsley Amis bit has been cited on HG almost as often as my favorite Robert Warshow quote. Amusing, except when it's used the way it is here: to flick from the cuff an observation that, while overstated, is fundamentally sound.

More people than ever seem to find it impossible to tell the difference between earned emotion and sentimentality. Irving argues against the prevalent choice among image-conscious writers of dodging emotion altogether rather than run the risk of being misunderstood and/or branded uncool -- correctly implying that they are chicken shits.

Tulkinghorn said...

But he does so entirely without a single example of the tendency he decries. (We'll pass by the completely ludicrous notion that a novelist esteemed by the cognoscienti, Don DiLillo, say, manages his career like a college kid wanting to get into a fraternity.) Thus, "no they don't".

What seems to have happened is that Irving more than occasionally crosses a line of sentimentality -- something to which even a lot of his fans will agree -- and is criticised for it.

Rather than react with a shrug, he creates a world in which degrees of taste don't exist -- in which any expression of sentiment is unfashionable and unacceptable by imaginary hipsters, period. This keeps him from having to admit, at least publicly, that he just might have made errors of taste.

Shows a certain lack of self-awareness and a certain paranoia -- especially given the two reviews from the New York Times, daily and Sunday, of "Widow", one of which was a rave and the other a somewhat qualified rave. You can also check out the collection of essays about Irving, edited by Harold Bloom, in which he gets praise from Greil Marcus and Joseph Epstein...

What in God's name does he want? A Nobel Prize?