Critical Drigressions: Literary Fashion

Ladies and gentlemen,

On an overcast Sunday afternoon in Karachi, we donned a kurta pajama and kola puris and headed towards Chundrigar Road. Every week the streets outside the Arts Council and the Hindu Gymkhana are cordoned off for a book bazaar (which till a year ago was held in the gardens of the Frere Hall). There we surveyed the stalls for books that we might include in our summer reading and picked up Ellison’s American Psycho, Pierre’s Vernon God Little, and Martel’s The Life of Pi – admittedly, a random selection, determined by the amount of rupees in our pocket and also by the contrarian in us who does not have faith in the proverb, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Whether or not book covers betray the substance of a book might be a matter of drunken debate but you might judge a book otherwise: by the quality of the author’s prose – whether its ornate, dense, muscular, Spartan – by character development, by the narrative voice, narrative structure, storytelling, the pathos the narrative generates, or perhaps, by the way a book ends (and so on). Since the inception of the novel not only has it evolved but the critical infrastructure that determines the “value” of a novel has also evolved. Over time, different writers and critics have assigned different values to different components of the novel.

As in art, the ambition of fiction has changed from the time of the horrid eighteenth century novel (Richardson’s Pamela and Aphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister immediately come to mind). Joyce and Nabokov had different ambitions, agendas. They conceived of their novels as constructions, not representations. Moreover, the respective oeuvres of Pynchon, Rushdie and Kundera exemplify that prose has became increasingly self conscious over the span of the last century.

At the same time, critical consensus has marginalized writers who once populated the Pantheon of literary greats. Hemingway’s Spartan style was novel and immensely influential but now seems somewhat dated (especially because a whole generation of writers has interpreted and reinterpreted his variety of minimalism). Once hailed by Sartre as “the greatest living writer of our time,” John Dos Passos – Hemingway’s contemporary and brother in arms in the Spanish civil war – has fallen off the map. His cinematic prose and didacticism no longer fashionable, Passos’ books are neither bought nor taught. There are many others: John O’ Hara, Theoder Dreiser, Robert Musil, that third leg of the modernist enterprise (or something like that.)

Sensibilities are changing again. Contemporary criticism abhors stylistic pyrotechnics and self-consciousness. The thoroughly entertaining but famously venomous critic, Dale Peck, declaims, “I will say it once and for all, straight out: it all went wrong with James Joyce…Ulysses is nothing more than a hoax upon literature…” In one sentence, Peck excises “most of Joyce, half of Faulkner and Nabokov, nearly all of Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo” from the canon. Another critic – B.R. Meyers – unknown before the publication of “A Reader’s Manifesto” in the Atlantic Monthly – attacks others: Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx and Don Delilo. He finds their prose “repetitive…elementary in its syntax, and…numbing in its overuse of wordplay.” And James Wood – probably the finest contemporary literary critic (along with Michiko Kakutani – harkens back to Henry James. He likes Monica Ali and Naipaul but doesn’t care of Zadie Smith and John Updike. These critics may have influenced the PEN/Faulkner committee who has awarded Ha Jin prizes for War Trash and Waiting – two brilliant novels in the tradition of Russian realism, featuring Spartan prose, rich pathos and pathology.

Ultimately, however, critics – no matter how comprehensive their analysis – are the sums of their likes and dislikes, like everybody else. And ultimately, we enjoy critics whose sensibilities cohere with ours.

So which book is worth our while? Considering that high style comes in and out of fashion, like art, like clothes, maybe only good story-telling endures (Gogol’s “The Overcoat Coat” and Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” immediately come to mind). In that case, we may adorn our shelf with our new acquisitions, return to the book fair next week to find some Coetzee, who ranks high on our List of Literature’s Latest and Greatest. This evening we may just watch Bale as Bateman.