Thursday, June 05, 2008

Nick Hornby & the Insular Novel

We’ve been enjoying Housekeeping vs. The Dirt, a collection of critical essays that Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer. In these essays, Hornby writes about the books he read, and lists the books he bought, each month. If you’ve read High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down, or any of Hornby’s novels, you know that his voice is fun and welcoming. He also makes some sharp observations about literature. We don’t always agree with him, but since this site says nothing nasty ’bout nobody, we’ll focus on what we like.

Hornby is concerned that not only is the average Joe reading less and less, but novelists are making matters worse by writing too much about writers and book nerds—that, in short, “the world of books seems to be getting more bookish.” He names a few novels to make his case, focusing particularly on Ian McEwan’s Saturday, whose narrator is a successful neurosurgeon with a daughter and father-in-law who both won the prestigious Newdigate Poetry award while students at Oxford. Hornby writes:

There are, I think, two reasons to be a little queasy about this trend. The first is, quite simply, that it excludes readers; the woman in the barber’s is not the only one who wouldn't want to read about the Newdigate Prize. And yes, maybe great art shouldn’t be afraid of being elitist, but there’s plenty of great art that isn’t, and I don’t want bright people who don’t happen to have a degree in literature to give up on the contemporary novel; I want them to believe there’s a point to it all, that fiction has a purpose visible to anyone capable of reading a book intended for grown-ups. Taken as a group, these novels seem to raise the white flag: we give in! We don't know what those people out there want! Pull up the drawbridges!

And the second cause for concern is that writing exclusively about highly articulate people….Well, isn’t it cheating a little? McEwan’s hero, Henry Perowne, the father and son-in-law of the poets, is a neurosurgeon, and his wife is a corporate lawyer; like many highly educated middle-class [they seemed more like upper-class to me] people, they have access to and a facility with language, a facility that enables them to speak very directly and lucidly about their lives…, and there’s a sense in which McEwan is wasted on them. They don’t need his help. What I’ve always loved about fiction is its ability to be smart about people who aren’t themselves smart, or at least don’t necessarily have the resources to describe their own emotional states. That was the way Twain was smart, and Dickens; and that is surely one of the reasons why Roddy Doyle is adored by all sorts of people, many of whom are infrequent book-buyers. It seems to me a more remarkable gift than the ability to let extremely literate people say extremely literate things.

Right on—and this isn’t much different from what Tom Wolfe writes in “My Three Stooges.” Not only does this trend suggest a lack of imagination, it also flatters the writer. If we remember right, McEwan’s novel [SPOILER ALERT] ends with Robert Browning crashing through the skylight to pummel an armed intruder who threatens the hero’s family. Ah, poets—the unacknowledged superheroes of the world!

Let’s face it: reciting “Dover Beach” isn’t going to dissuade anyone from kicking your ass. (Playing Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” might.) Of course literature is important, but the more novelists and poets write about novelists, poets, and the people who love them—that is, people like themselves—the less average people will read quality literature. Writers should not dumb-down their craft, but must recognize that they may not be quite as interesting as they think.


Joe Hemmerling said...

Hey guys, checking in after a long silence. This is a very poignant observation. I think that when writers tend to make other writers or bookish types their main characters, it's a sign that they just flat out cannot relate to people with a different world-view. When the main thrust of your life has been dedicated to the study and appreciation of literature, it's hard to figure out how other people who don't share their passion manage to make it through the day.

R. Bufton said...

That sounds about right, Joe. I'd just add that there's nothing inherently wrong with dedicating yourself to the study and appreciation of literature, as long as you're able to make the necessary imaginative move outward into the non-literary world.

That said, I'm not convinced that C. Seamus and Hornby are fair to McEwan, who devotes much of his novel to the details of his main character's career. And Perowne himself isn't particularly fond of literature or poetry, so to that extent McEwan is trying to engage with people very different from himself.