Tuesday, April 19, 2011

True stories about people's lives, and fiction

Still (for some reason) on the subject of David Foster Wallace, self-help, and literature, I very much enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's "Farther Away: 'Robinson Crusoe,' David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude" in the recent New Yorker.

It strikes me yet again that this is a very different kind of literary criticism than I was trained to produce as a grad student. Back in my day, literary study was an utterly sterile environment, an ICU where we hooked books up to large, wheezing theory machines and then watched them slowly die. (I'm sorry. I guess I'm still a little sad about the whole business.) There was literally no place to discuss the work in the context of lived experience. You could, by way of disclosing the position from which you spoke (i.e. your implied authority and/or biases on the subject), mention your race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, but only in the manner in which you would check these off on a form: permission to speak, plus plausible deniability. Check.

Actual personal narratives, however, had no place; and there could certainly be no discussion of the role the work in question played in your own life. Why should there be? In fact, it played no role. It was an object of study. Study was not life. As to how one was supposed to navigate one's non-studying hours--well, those hours or minutes were so brief anyway, why even wonder? One thing was clear: you would never turn to the poems or novels or treatises you were working on for solace or advice or reflection. That would be misuse, and stupid besides.

But now I'm noticing, both inside the academy and outside, a real turn toward lived experience as a central aspect of criticism. Critics are not necessarily exposing their innermost secrets with every piece (and thank god), but there's a sense of literature as part of life, as a pattern of rich threads woven throughout life's fabric. Elif Batuman's The Possessed is one example. Franzen's article is another. What we see in this kind of writing is the process of literature and life enhancing each other. We look through one at the other, and then back again, gaining new insights with every turn. We take literature with us on our journeys, not to pass the time, but to make it.

Franzen does this literally in "Farther Away," traveling to remote Masafuera Island with a copy of Robinson Crusoe and a small box of Wallace's ashes. The resulting article touches on ecology (especially birdwatching), technology, the perils of hiking in fog and rain, the history of the novel, the resonance of Robinson Crusoe today, and Wallace's complex life and cruel death. This last entails the cruelty he showed to others in killing himself, especially at home, where those he loved most would find him. The suicide is not just the delicate artist bidding adieu to the harsh world he can't handle. He added to that harshness in a big way, and his survivors have to deal with that. No wonder the pull of isolation is as strong for those left behind as it was for Wallace.

Franzen's grief expands the meaning of Robinson Crusoe, instead of reducing it, as the hermetically trained critic might fear. And vice versa: Crusoe enhances (which does not mean "worsens") the grief. Pieces like this show the most illuminating way to read cannot be in a library cubicle, surrounded by white walls and buzzing lights and the unrelenting fear of failure. Instead, we could try reading a little, walking a little, nearly falling off a rock, building a campfire, reading some more, crying, sleeping, reading, scattering ashes. Now what does the book have to say to us--and vice versa?

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