Monday, February 29, 2016

Dickstein contra Wood: rescuing a 10 year-old letter to the NYT

This morning, while reading Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence (a highly readable and interesting grab-bag of that estimable novelist's occasional nonfictions), my eyes caught upon a lengthy quotation from critic Morris Dickstein that impressed me with its almost metaphysical right-headedness. (And that's surely just a roundabout way of saying I agreed with it.) Seeking context, I keyed a few of Dickstein's words into the Googlemonster and discovered that Lethem lifted them from a 2006 New York Times letter to the editor. Here is the original--and admirably concise--letter in full:

The House of Fiction

 To the Editor:

 I very much appreciated James Wood's insightful account of Flaubert's technique (April 16), as I always enjoy his fine essays. But does Flaubert's impersonal narrative manner, with its camera eye for visual detail, really make him "the originator of the modern novel"? There's no question of his influence, but Flaubert's ambition to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style," is scarcely typical of novelists of any era. His obsession with form, with finding le mot juste, drove the author to frenzies of self-flagellating, lifedenying effort, and it would prove sterile to the few who tried to emulate it. Tolerant of inconsistency, the best novelists have always remained more open to memory and experience. Flaubertians like Joyce and Nabokov outdid themselves and transcended their concern with style when they found real subjects, as Flaubert himself did only in "Madame Bovary" and "Sentimental Education."

The house of fiction, as Henry James once said, has "not one window, but a million," and hence no single aperture gives access to what James called "the need of the individual vision and the pressure of the individual will." Different novelists look to different models. Fielding, Sterne and Stendhal set the pattern for the ironic or self-conscious novel, flaunting its own narrative devices. Balzac became the great exemplar of the social novel, as Scott and Manzoni did for the historical novel. Tolstoy's deceptive simplicity transformed style into a transparent window on the real. Kafka's metaphorical novels and stories turned fiction into fable or parable. Each of these writers depends on exact circumstantial detail, but the strength of their fiction comes not from the phrase, the sentence, the metaphor, as critics like Wood would have it, but from how they actualize larger units of scene and theme, plot and character. It can be misleading to approach fiction primarily through its language, a technique better suited to the study of poetry.

The 20th century is full of major novelists, beginning with Dreiser, who wrote "badly" on the sentence level, as well as others who wrote elegant sentences but whose fiction lacks vitality, narrative energy or any real purchase on experience. Sophisticated writers and critics long patronized Dickens as a popular entertainer, though his stylized characters positively leap off the page, just as James denigrated the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as "loose baggy monsters" and "fluid puddings." But James's systematic pursuit of a more rigorous technique did not make him the greater writer. It's part of the eclectic nature of fiction that it tolerates contradictions and discontinuities, and resists being hemmed in by form. Its slapdash qualities, which Flaubert and James tried to cure, are part of its opening to the chaotic and fluid abundance of life itself.

New York
The writer is a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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