Monday 23 August 2021

'The last trustworthy vessel of the inner life'

'Hierarchy, to be sure, is an off-putting notion, invoking high and low; and high smacks of snobbery and anti-egalitarianism. But hierarchy also points to the recognition of distinctions, and – incontrovertibly – the life of intellect is perforce hierarchical: it insists that one thing is not the same as another thing. A novel concerned with English country-house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua. A department of English is not the same as a Marxist tutorial. A rap CD is not the same as academic scholarship. A suicide bomber who blows up a pizzeria crowded with baby carriages is not the same as a nation-builder.'
   That's Cynthia Ozick, in an essay titled 'Highbrow Blues', published in the collection The Din in the Head and written the best part of 20 years ago, but now seeming truer than ever. Her essay takes off from Jonathan Franzen's famous refusal to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about his novel The Corrections. Franzen declared himself to be 'solidly in the high-art literary tradition'. What was it, Ozick asks, that made that assertion seem so strikingly off-key? Well, for one thing, that 'high-art literary tradition' had all but disappeared. Apart from the occasional out-of-nowhere controversy like the one kicked up by Franzen's great refusal, books were no longer stirring up much public interest at all; new publications were rarely, if ever, 'events', still less 'cultural markers'. 
   She cites as evidence the near silence that greeted Philip Roth's Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Works, published in the same year as The Corrections. That silence she contrasts with the furious buzz that surrounded Normal Mailer's similar and much inferior Advertisements for Myself in 1959. In the intervening years, 'a pervasive indifference to serious critical writing' had grown up. And that indifference has only become more marked in the years since Ozick's essay, largely because literary criticism has been taken over by an ever more inturned, obscurantist and ideologically motivated Adademe. 
   And what of the novel? In the next essay, 'The Din in the Head', Ozick wonder if the literary novel is, 'like the personal essay, in danger of obsolescence'. She thinks not, if only because, in Henry James's words, 'It can do simply everything.' She declares that, 'if the novel were to wither – if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels already have – then the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life (apart from our heads) would crumble away'. Which is not to say it could not happen, nor that it might not have happened already. That vessel might have sailed... Has it?


  1. No, not whilst great novels are still being written. Or not while Hilary Mantel is still writing, in any case.

  2. Hope you're right Karen. It's worryingly hard to think of anyone much else, at least on this side of the pond...

    1. In the US there are Marilynne Robinson (77) and Thomas Pynchon (84) (but how long since he wrote a major work?). I like Ozick's (93) essays but of her fiction I've only read 'The Messiah of Stockholm' and I didn't like it.

      John Banville's (75) 'The Sea' is very good, I think. Julian Barnes's (75) 'The Sense of an Ending' was quite good too. Otherwise, since I cannot see what the fuss is about with either Ian McEwan (73) or Kazuo Ishiguro (66), I can't see much to get excited about in the contemporary British and Irish novel (I can't take Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie seriously).

    2. I still read novels, not "the novel" -- if such a thing exists.

      Maybe worrying about "literary culture" is unavoidable for us, but we needn't descend to taking the temperature of hoopla, as if it mattered.