Thoughts on novels and novelists, from TLS issues old(ish) and new(ish). First, from Stephen Henighan, “On the Literary Oblivion of James Agee,” from August 2, 2006 (full-text online):
It is difficult to imagine a novel as remarkable as A Death in the Family slipping into its present obscurity had Agee made a career of writing novels. The earlier work’s self-questioning distance from the characters is abolished; the modernist techniques, notably a restrained version of stream-of-consciousness writing, are employed with great skill. Morrison mentions Proust, Joyce, Kafka and T. S. Eliot as models for the work, but the obvious model, already acknowledged as a source of detail—of gesture, landscape, costume, air, action, mystery, and incident—in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is William Faulkner. A Death in the Family, which was on the verge of completion at the time of Agee’ death and won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957, opens with a blatantly Faulknerian evocation of suburban fathers watering their lawns on a summer evening in Knoxville, Tennessee.
And from Robert Folkenflik, “Deviations,” a review of Patricia Meyer Spacks’s, Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction, March 9, 2007 (not online):
Why should [Ian] Watt’s major criterion, “Realism,” — which was used in medieval times as a philosophical description of the reality of universal ideas, and in the nineteenth centry to describe the novels of Balzac and the art of Courbet — have been taken up so fully for the British eighteenth-century novel? The paradoxes it entails are many. The writers usually put forward as the major eighteenth-century English novelists — Daniel Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne — rarely or never claim that they are writing novels at all, unlike earlier writers such as Aphra Behn and Eliza Haywood, who often call their works novels. The word “novel” is not in Sterne’s vocabulary. Why, to take a few other paradoxes, are the most “realistic” novelists of the period (Defoe and Richardson) also the most didactic, and how is it that the most self-conscious of fictions (Tristram Shandy) can also be seen as the most realistic? Spacks asserts that Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson are not “realistic.” And she counters that last paradox by noting that although Tristram Shandy is not usually considered “realistic,” “the attempt to perform and represent the disorder of consciousness … suggests a principle or realism more profound than any previously established.” I would only add that this paradox was operative already in Don Quixote.
And I would only add that “realistic” has often been applied to any work that takes ordinary people as its subject, so some of these apparent paradoxes are not so paradoxical after all.
There must be a term for words like these, which can describe two very different characteristics. Such as, for example, “outsider,” which in relation to artists can mean either “unschooled” or “insane.”
I still love Spacks’s Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, in which I learned a piece of literary trivia I often repeat: Johnson considered it sinful to be bored; Boswell considered boredom something that other people imposed on him.
I build on both Johnson and Boswell. I consider it sinful for other people to bore me.