Thursday, September 03, 2009

Send in the clowns. The sympathetic, empathetic clowns.

Last week, the Millions published a very good interview conducted by Annie K. Yoder with Phillip Lopate about his recent book on Susan Sontag, Notes on Sontag. The whole interview is worth reading--as is the review of Lopate's book published recently by the Quarterly Conversation--but the following description by Lopate of Sontag's failings as a novelist really stood out:
Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Nobel Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things.
That seems almost perfectly accurate. Lopate doesn't rule out the possibility of a great novelist who is essentially humorless (thus leaving us room for most of Thomas Hardy's great works) or unsympathetic (Dostoevsky, perhaps? I'm ready to be corrected here.)--he simply says that it's very hard; and it's true that nearly all my favorite novelists (such as Anthony Powell, Proust, Dickens, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, J. F. Powers, to take the first ones that come to mind) have both qualities in spades.

In Tuesday's post on Anthony Powell, I discussed a feature of friendship that Powell understands as well as any writer I know, the pleasure we take in sharing anecdotes and discoveries with particular friends whom we know will appreciate them, and my reaction to this passage serves as a nice illustration: the moment I read it, I knew I had to send it to Patrick Kurp, as it sounded like lines he might have written himself. He replied,
In the passage you quote, he’s dead right about Sontag and novelists in general. Immediately I tried to find exceptions among great novelists. Tolstoy had a vestigial sense of humor and it’s not central to his vision, but it’s there. Rather than a “deep sympathy for other people,” I might substitute deep interest (though never contempt). James and Faulkner possessed both (by my reading, both are comic writers). So did Sterne, Melville, Dickens, Eliot, Bellow, on and on.
Later in our exchange, Patrick, never one to mince words, wrote, "I have no use for Woolf." Woolf would certainly fall into the humorless category, and while I have to break with Patrick (and thus to some extent with Lopate) here--To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway remain marvels in my view--he is in agreement with our shared favorite, Powell, who disliked Woolf's novels intensely, writing in his journal, for example, that The Waves is "twaddle," having
all the artificiality of a Compton-Burnett background, without any of the wit, willingness to grapple with real human problems, general grasp of novel-writing material.
Elsewhere he writes that Woolf is "so infinitely to be preferred in Diaries and Letters to novels."

Us Woolf fans might argue that Powell was far from Woolf's ideal reader--but no one would argue that he didn't know comedy, and in his infinitely re-readable notebook, among many other thoughts on writing, he astutely noted,
In a novel there is always the risk of something unserious being too serious.
As, I think we can agree, in life itself.


  1. I'm not convinced that the inventor of Mrs Hilbery, whose method of composing a biography is to waft around the room with a duster and polish the spines of books until, in a dizzy ecstasy of inspiration, she writes "twenty pages upon her [father's] taste in hats," can be said to lack humour.

  2. Okay, DKS, that's pretty convincing. I was taking Lopate's word (and my vague memories of flipping through The Volcano Lover) for it; perhaps I shouldn't have.

  3. I think a lot of great genre fiction is written by authors posessing neither quality. Robert E Howard comes to mind; HP Lovecraft as comedian would be a terrible revision. Phillip K Dick? Can raving paranoia be an extension of humor?

  4. You may be right on the larger point of genre fiction--a certain straight-faced seriousness may be required, given that a genre author is asking readers to accept a fair number of rules and conventions that could easily be disrupted by humor--but Dick himself does have a sly, satiric sense of humor, at least in the early novels. I remember several funny moments in Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch--though the horrifying moments in the latter definitely stay with you longer.