A critic’s perspective

After reading each novel, I refer to a book published in the early 1980s by W. J. Stuckey entitled The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look. Stuckey’s the author/researcher to whom I’m indebted for my account (which is linked to in the sidebar) of how the Pulitzer Prize was awarded to novels (by what standards, etc.).  He offers his own comments on each novel, and the circumstances of its victory, sometimes very briefly, and sometimes at remarkable length.  I’ve largely kept his observations to myself, but I thought tonight (as I take a quick break from the assignment I’m working on) I’d offer a couple of quotations for your amusement.  If you thought I was hard on Margaret Wilson’s novel, well, old W. J. seems to be keeping me company.

There is little that he really likes.  He calls The Age of Innocence (which, you will recall, I adored) an “almost first-rate novel [that] is intelligently and competently written.”  If I ever need an example for what a “back-handed compliment” looks like, I think I’ve got it in that sentence.  He sounds like he’s offering an appraisal of a user manual.  Wharton fares well, though, in comparison to some of her peers (and Margaret Wilson, who hardly qualifies as Wharton’s “peer”).

The first winner, His Family, which I liked but admitted was uneven, is described by Stuckey in this way: “Judged even by the standards of commercial fiction, His Family is not much of a novel.”  Of the author I could not stand, he says “Miss Wilson’s talent cannot be called distinguished or original,” and notes that “when it is judged as a novel, The Able McLaughlins is an amateurish performance.”  In describing So Big, he concludes by hoping that, some 50-75 years hence, historians of American literature will have gained the proper perspective, and that therefore “So Big will have come to signify the low level to which even educated American taste was capable of sinking in the 1920’s.”  Ouch.

Clearly Stuckey thinks there’s a division between these “popular” or “commercial” tastes and “true” literature.  But it seems odd to me to dismiss even such authors as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (One of Ours is labeled an “artistic failure”).  Even when I didn’t like Cather’s choices, I recognized her talent.  Heck, even ol’ Tarkington and I, despite our differences, have a sort of grudging respect—I can see, at least, what he was good at, and I was impressed enough by Alice Adams to give it a higher review than Stuckey did.  What do you think—I know we can draw a line between Harlequin novels and Tolstoy.  But is there a line to be drawn between novelists like Wharton, Cather, Ferber (and presumably Steinbeck, Hemingway, Updike, etc.) and “real” literature that doesn’t appeal to such a wide audience?  What is “literature”, anyway?

2 comments on “A critic’s perspective

  1. Daniel Castro says:

    I am not sure at all what counts as “literature.” In general, I kind of just go with “the older the book, the more literature it must possess.” I know that is silly, because amazing things are being written to this day. But at what point DO they cross over? Perhaps the current society will change how we view literature because the general population is much more educated than past generations. With this in mind, it seems that more people would be able to read more books, and thus more books could be discovered that are literature worthy, as opposed to the past, where less people could read, and, subsequently, less books could be read. What do you think?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      You raise several interesting points, which I’ll try to respond to briefly (lest my words run away with me).

      First of all, I wonder if you’re conflating the term “literature” with the term “classic”. Despite the use of silly phrases like “instant classic”, status as a classic denotes the passage of time–I’d argue that a great book can be literature right out of the box (for example, I think “The Age of Innocence” was literature the moment it showed up) but that it can’t be a classic until it’s survived. For that reason, there is a certain amount of truth in the idea that time correlates to status as a classic–not much has survived from the Middle Ages, and it’s likely that what did has some merit.

      Your comment about the influence of widespread literacy is interesting. I’d argue that little has changed in the last 100 years–that, in the U.S. at least, no greater percentage of the population today reads novels than did in 1909 (and perhaps less do). Not to sound snobbish, but there’s also a significant section of the population for whom reading is a purely idle pursuit of entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that, but these are folks who aren’t likely to “take on” anything resembling “literature”, or to identify something as literary, if they do. I think that the wider audience does expand what gets considered as literature, and certainly it’s very valuable that minority authors are taken more seriously today than in 1909 (which expands our likelihood of seeing their work as “literature”). But I’m skeptical that we’re increasing the amount of literature…I suspect that, in 2100, the percentage of “classics” from the 20th Century will roughly resemble the percentage of classics we identify now from the 19th Century.

      What is literature, though? I have no hard and fast rule (you may recall a discussion on this very topic on the first day of your sophomore year), but I think there are some good indications. Something is literature if the enjoyment derived from it stems more from how it makes us think than from how it entertains us. Something is literature if it uses language in ways that are more decorative than is necessary to communicate meaning. Something is literature if it improves or seems deeper and richer on the second read. None of this is definitive, but it gets close. It’s possible for literature to be bad reading, but not for it to be unserious, unambitious, or unintended. Likewise, it’s possible for a book to be fun and worthwhile but not really literature. People get worked up about this and think it’s snobbish, which is fine, but the whole point of having a word like “literature” is that it excludes things. If literature becomes synonymous with “anything written”, we’ll still need a word that explains why a fun trashy romance novel is in a different category than Wuthering Heights….that even if you like the trashy novel and hate Wuthering Heights, Wuthering Heights needs to be meaningfully distinguished from the trashy novel. In my opinion, it does, anyway. So, tell me what you think of this–maybe between us we can come up with a better definition! 🙂

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