“Love, Actually” is the title of a generous, searching new Guardian essay on E.M. Forster and the ethics of fiction by the novelist Zadie Smith. I mean “generous” in the best sense of the word: not that she gives Forster’s work too easy a time, but that she muffles the skeptic in her long enough to own up to, and consider seriously, the pleasure she takes in it.
Smith points out that for a long time now in academic literary studies, it has been compulsory to resist loving literature. She learned to do this all too well as a student at Cambridge, and in this essay her triumph is to unlearn that dubious wisdom and to instead resist dismissing Forster as easy and mawkish. How did she unlearn it? By writing novels herself, mostly:
A few years ago, I agreed to take part in a debate on “Modern British Art” at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Arts]. Two famous young artists rounded on me for what they saw as my “aesthetic fascism” (I’d brought up the topic of value judgments in modern art), arguing that there was no possibility that I could find more value in King Lear than the text printed on the back of a cornflake packet. This is an exceedingly stupid version of a very serious aesthetic and ethical debate that has been raging in the humanities for about 40 years. Once I’d have counted myself on the side of the young artists, and now I don’t. They say when you become a practitioner you become a sentimentalist–maybe that’s what happened. All I know for sure is that I no longer find it impossible to speak of value (not universal value, or even shared value, but value as it concerns this reader), nor to lend my nervous voice to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s strong Aristotelian claims, mainly, that literature is one of the places (when we read attentively) that we can have truly altruistic instincts, “genuine acknowledgement of the otherness of the other.” Ten years ago, the idea that reading fiction might be a valuable ethical activity in its own right was so out of fashion that it took an author of Nussbaum’s hard, philosophical bent to broach it without incurring ridicule. Rather bravely, she climbed the disputed mountain of literary theory and planted her philosophical flag firmly in the dirt. Her flag said: “Great novels show us the worth and richness of plural qualitative thinking and engender in their readers a richly qualitative way of seeing.”
My flag is rather weak in comparison. It says: “When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good).”
This is only a small taste of a long, beautifully written essay, full of insights and feeling, that makes strong claims both for Forster’s contribution to the possibilities of the novel, and for the pleasure of reading as a good in itself. When she writes that “the heart has its own knowledge in Forster, and Love is never quite a rational choice,” Smith is talking equally about love between people and love of literature. Her essay connects these dots admirably and, best of all, humanely.