I’ve been devouring novels all my life. I discovered Louisa May Alcott in third or fourth grade, and, having inhaled Little Women and Little Men, would quietly slip library copies of her lesser-known books into my backback, knowing that the Texas bullies who kept an eye on me would declare open season if they caught me carrying femmy-looking titles like Rose in Bloom or Jack and Jill. I remember that I was reading The House of the Seven Gables in July, 1969, because my mother dragged me away from it to come watch the moon landing. It’s kind of a victory for literature, I think, that all I remember about the moon landing was what book I was reading at the time.
In the last few months, though, I think I’ve read more novels than in any other recent five-year period. It’s partly because I’m not pushing myself to work so much, but also because I discovered a wonderful little book store in my area: The Spotty Dog in Hudson, NY (pictured). There are other independent bookstores in the Hudson Valley, but their selections seem superficial and predictable, whereas The Spotty Dog’s are interestingly curated and not at all obvious. I stand there in the stacks reading the beginnings of novels to plan out my purchases for the coming months, and I’ve discovered a whole raft of recent or at least modern great novelists I didn’t know existed: Italo Svevo, Knut Hamsun, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Markson, Dave Eggars, plus authors I knew about but had never read like Doris Lessing, Charles Bukowski (knew his poems, didn’t know he wrote novels), Christopher Isherwood. Svevo, in particular, is so delightful that I’m resentful toward the world for never having brought him to my attention; I picked up his Zeno’s Conscience just because the pre-Socratic Zeno has always intrigued me. I feel like almost every book on The Spotty Dog’s shelves is worth my attention, just because it’s there. It’s as though, in mid-life, I stepped through a door to an alternate universe with its own parallel literary canon.
It makes me feel better to be more in touch with the recent art of the novel, because when it comes to literature, I have always felt like a Philistine. The core of my reading has always been Victorian English lit, and I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more lately Francine Prose, but I couldn’t begin to count the post-WWII novels I’ve started and stopped reading. I am as cynically dubious about the modern novel, especially those by particularly celebrated novelists, as most non-composers are about modern music, and for parallel reasons. I won’t list here the novels I’ve slammed shut in disgust, because I don’t want their fans writing in to defend them, but I will offer as Exhibit A one novel that I remember perfectly well why I quit reading: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon. Most of the recent novels I have given up on, Vineland exemplary among them, I have disliked for one and the same reason: the author put all his or her energy into writing beautiful, interesting, circuitous, surprising sentences, and never bothered to make me give a damn what would happen next.
There’s a really simple formula to make a person want to read a novel to the end: have the main character want something and have trouble getting it. I can get absorbed in the most mediocre Trollope novel (and I’ve read three dozen of his) just because a young girl wants to marry some guy, and she can’t because of financial problems, or because she’s been misinformed as to his character. Trollope can spend 300 pages edging closer in tiny increments to sorting out the happy ending, and I’m right there hanging on every word. But I remember, with Vineland, being constantly amazed at how beautiful the writing was, how much imagination had gone into every sentence, how surprising the word choices kept being, and then reflecting on page 50 that if I turned the page and the entire dramatis personnae were blown up in an atomic blast, I would have considered that an acceptable turn of plot. I wanted to care about the characters, to yearn for what they were yearning for, and Pynchon just wanted me to marvel at his dexterity with a thesaurus. Having paid due obeisance to Pynchon’s magisterial genius for wordplay, I considered page 50 just as good a place to stop as page 450 would have been.
I don’t think it’s because I have no patience for “difficult” novels, either. I just read Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, which is a really peculiar novel with little space-time consistency and the most unreliable narrator imaginable. But Ishiguro sets up an expectation in the opening pages (it concerns a classical concert, and having started out as a musician Ishiguro is really good at writing realistically about musicians), and after a difficult stretch in the middle I got more and more eager to know what would happen and couldn’t put it down. (Every musician, especially studio giggers, should read Ishiguro’s lovely book of short stories called Nocturnes.) And I relished Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a long, ambiguous, repetitive monologue that I ate up like ice cream. I can have a blast with fiction a lot more experimental than Trollope.
I get the impression, though, that a lot of recent novelists – and especially those who get championed by our literary intelligentsia – are treasured for, to put it in sparest terms, the sophistication of their language and not their ability or desire to tell a story. And, sure enough, in the New Yorker this week, novelist Michael Cunningham wrote about the experience of being on the most recent Pulitzer committee, and explained his criteria thusly:
I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years. I tended to balk if a book contained some good lines but also some indifferent ones. I insisted that every line should be a good one. I was—and am—a bit fanatical on the subject.
I thank the defense for so expertly framing the prosecution’s argument. Every sentence should be a good one: that’s how you get boring crap like Vineland. Excuse me: beautiful, arresting, technically distinguished boring crap. And to illustrate his thesis, Cunningham quotes the opening sentence of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which he claims was, by itself, better than all the other Pulitzer-submitted books put together:
Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.
That is a sentence which, had I read it in a bookstore, would have made me drop the book like a flaming marshmellow. I defy anyone to read it the first time without their eyes starting to skim across it. I’ve actually read a lot of Wallace, though only about 50 pages of Infinite Jest, and I find him sometimes an amazing ton of fun, though even at his best he can be so self-conscious about trying to be the world’s most original writer that I want to hand him a valium and beg him to calm down. I’ve been wanting to get The Pale King, and still might, because I know that Wallace warms up wonderfully when he can make himself quit trying so hard. But the intent of the above sentence is clearly not to pull you into the book, but to show off.
Now, I’ve quoted Cunningham approvingly in this blog before, to the effect that the writer’s responsibility to to make the reader want to keep reading, and I have trouble squaring the opinions I quoted of his earlier with this fetishization of the sentence, which, for me, is probably the most devastating disease of modern fiction. (Personally, I think my sentences are pretty good, but I put far more thought into the flow and variety of sentences than into any individual one.) Imagine, dismissing a novel because it contains sentences as undistinguished as: “Yes, it was settled; his career was determined. He would run away from home and enter upon it. He would start the very next morning. Therefore he must now begin to get ready.” I took those from Tom Sawyer. They’re wonderful because they do not impede the flow of the story; one need not pause to admire them. They get swept up into what Tom wants, because, by this time, it’s what we want as well.
Why am I launching into amateur literary criticism like this? Because I have no authority in that world at all – and thus am the perfect audience member. I love novels, want to read them, and especially would love to discover modern novels I like. But my reaction to novels is
absolutely functionally objective, because I have no literary pretensions at all, hardly know any novelists, don’t teach fiction, and I don’t care who gets famous, or what style gains ascendency – I just want a book that, when I have to put it down, I can’t wait to get back to reading. Therefore, my relation to novels reminds me what non-musicians’ relation to new music is like. It reminds me that, as a composer, my responsibility to the listener is precisely analogous to the novelist’s responsibility to me.
And I sense a collective blindness among our literary elites that exactly matches the collective deafness I find among our composing elites. I think the fawning sentimentality over perfect sentences must mirror the “professional” composer’s love of ornate notation. Putting a sforzando, a fluttertongue, a couple of harmonics, and a descrescendo “al niente” within just two or three beats must be the composer’s version of trying to name twenty types of weed in a single sentence. I hear a lot of music by celebrated composers whose music is played by first-rate orchestras, in which I can’t help but be dazzled by the variety of timbral and textural detail – but that I have no desire to continue listening to. In both fiction and music our elites have fetishized the idea of surface sophistication, raising it up pre-eminent above all other possible virtues, and forgotten completely, at times, why people read books and listen to music. Spoiler alert: It’s NOT in order to be impressed with the artist’s sophistication. I’ve seen a lot of people on their way to new-music concerts, and I have yet to hear one say, “Oooh, I hope it’ll be sophisticated!”
I have had several experiences, lately, of watching career-successful, high-profile composers proudly play recordings of what they think are their best works, and just feeling tremendously sad that anyone could be so deluded as to think anyone would ever want to listen to that. That, meaning beautiful, arresting, technically distinguished boring crap. And I am following with much interest a meme that seems to be running through the culture lately that we have reached some sort of crisis because our elites have misled us, and what was presented as a meritocracy turned out to be no such thing. (In fact, I’m thrilled that we’re talking about the elites rather than the concept of elitism, because elitism arguments inevitably run aground on the word’s ambiguous conflation of “the best,” “appealing to the upper classes,” and “deliberately obscure.” The elites, by comparison, are a fairly easily specified group of people.) The elites of our composing culture, as far as I’m concerned, are living in a fantasy world circumscribed by groupthink.
At The Spotty Dog I have found an alternate canon of thoroughly engaging modern novels. Likewise, I know of a canon of engaging recent music, but you needn’t look for it among the prize-winners and on the orchestra programs. In retrospect I consider David Foster Wallace’s essay on growing up as a tennis star phenomenal because I enjoyed reading it so much. Reading Infinite Jest, I consciously recognized that it was phenomenal, and got bored with it. Our elites so often seem to think that only the latter experience indicates the kind of art worthy of support.
Beyond that, I try to imagine, for myself, what the musical analogue of a novel’s character wanting something is. Fiction and music do not work the same way. I don’t think I can say that I love listening to Bruckner or Feldman because they introduce some desire or tendency at the beginning that doesn’t get fulfilled until the end – although there is something like that in there, some tension that keeps one’s interest in the music going. But where is that tension in Einstein on the Beach? Or Monteverdi’s Vespers? There is no one-to-one correspondence between novels and pieces of music, and one can love listening to music because it continues being fulfilling, not simply because it puts off some implied fulfillment into the future. “Finding out how it ends” is not the same pull in music that it is in fiction. But I do know, at least, that I owe it to the listener to keep the entire overall thread of the music in mind, that he or she will not be impressed that I can throw a lot of details into every phrase and every moment, and that any such details need to be swept up, liquidated, into the large-scale flow, not distract from it. And I try very hard to make music that will give pleasure and interest to people who have the same involved but disinterested relation to music as I do to literature. Presumably that’s why Cunningham’s on the Pulitzer committee, while I will never be one of the elites.