First of all, colossal apologies for taking so long to reply to your last email. It’s been Christmas – you may well have noticed – which necessitated a great deal of cooking, eating, washing up, planning of the next meal, etc, etc. Besides that, an excellent crop of new books and movies has made its way into the house, and I’ve been dipping into those with appetite and glee (Renata Adler’s selected journalism, After the Tall Timber, has been a highlight so far, and a lot of energy’s been poured into clearing my schedule to watch Abel Gance’s five and half hour silent masterpiece Napoleon, which the BFI have just released in a new print)*, a fact which has necessitated ignoring the outside world – or the close approximation of the outside world that the interweb provides, at any rate – for the last couple of weeks. But rest assured! I have not neglected your previous missive, and have been turning its more salient and meaty points over in my mind as best I can between bouts of competitive potato-eating and Harry Potter marathons.
To address some of your concerns: yes, you’re probably right that Woolf’s novels will outlast her diaries and letters, without a doubt. Indeed, the diaries and letters as literary artefacts are explicitly dependent upon the high critical regard in which the novels are held. (This is probably as true of other great literary journal-keepers like John Cheever and James Schuyler and Christopher “I’m . . . a writer” Isherwood, though the picture is greyed and blurred a little by the Goncourt brothers, whose journals are afforded the serious attention and respect which have long been denied their no-longer-read-at-all-by-anyone-anywhere-even-academics novels.) Perhaps it’s simply a matter of particularity, even perversity, on my part: I simply don’t want (or don’t think I want) that sense of finish, of ‘luminosity’, that you’re seeking and finding in Woolf’s work: I’m genuinely more interested in her quotidian thoughts on what she’s reading at any given point, what she had for breakfast on Saturday, the particularities of tiny mundane detail, provided for their own interest and pleasure and nothing more.**
Perhaps, if I were in a less controversial or contrarian mood – but when’s that ever likely to happen? – I might temper my argument, and suggest that my impatience with ‘trad. fic’ – and my concomitant drift towards the fringes (essays, diaries, novels that break apart under the strain of their own construction) – is really in part a reaction to a certain arrogance on the part of Fiction, considered as a monolithic bloc: an arrogance that sees itself as the final arbiter of the ‘literary’, and that views other forms not as important and vital genres in their own right, but rather as little more than jerry-built adjuncts to Fiction’s self-confessed pre-eminence in the field of Wordery.
That’s probably yet another straw man, I’m sure – I should probably start charging by the penny, I’m putting together so many hay-stuffed effigies: at this rate, by the end of the month, I’ll have, well, some pennies, anyway – but I still think I’m raising something resembling a valid point, however grumpily and idiosyncratically I might express it. Why mine Woolf’s diaries for what gems of information they can express about her ‘real’ work? Can’t we treat them as a pre-eminence in and of themselves? Hmm? There was a very good article by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian fairly recently (actually over a year ago now, but by my standards, that’s recent) that touched on this issue. (You can read it here if you wish.) Dyer raises a whole host of other points beside, but one of his observations struck me particularly, pertaining to the differing values one expects, respectively, from fiction and non-fiction: fiction, according to the schema Dyer lays out, is a refuge if you’re after style and joy; non-fiction, however, can be viewed as a rather more austere and utilitarian harbour, providing nought but facts and content. (The French Riviera vs. Portsmouth, basically.) “In a realm where style was often functional,” writes Dyer, “nonfiction books were – are – praised for being “well written”, as though that were an inessential extra, like some optional finish on a reliable car.”
Dyer, of course, is sketching out this clichéd view of non-fiction to provide a semi-ironic backdrop for his advocacy of the more recent advances in the field – and many of the names that get referenced in the article have popped up on my own radar,*** in many instances producing in the process some pretty unforgettable and forthright emerald blips: yes, I am running this metaphor into the ground, thank you for noticing – but I would say that this cliché does still pertain to a certain extent. If I am overzealous in my non-fiction boosterism, I feel it’s somewhat warranted: over-correction is better than the complacency of no correction at all.
This reply, I realise, is already radically breaching the limits of what’s reasonable, both quantitatively and qualitatively, so I should probably sign off soon, but before I go, and as a means of providing a little bit of gravy for the next mind-meal you send my way, one of the books that snuck into the house over the festive break was The Storm (1704) by Daniel Defoe. I’ve only glanced at and dipped into it so far – not least because it’s not actually mine, but my good lady’s, and there’s a whole Byzantine edifice of social etiquette pertaining to the matter of who gets to read books first in any given household, the complexity of which would make a medieval Japanese nobleman’s head spin clean off his shoulders – but what’s notable, aside from its subject matter, is the sense that Defoe is both creating and defining a form, and simultaneously defending it aesthetically, even as he calls it into being. We could probably call that genre ‘long-form journalism’ or ‘literary non-fiction’, depending on our mood, but whatever it is, it feels alarmingly contemporary. Discuss.
Yours, as ever,
PS: Happy New Year, by the way!
*My hope is that there’s a revolution-tinged secular holiday which is celebrated in France some time in the next few weeks with which can coincide my screening of the movie, to really make an event of it. I don’t want to have to wait till Bastille Day, for God’s sake.
**I’m probably the only reader – I’m certainly in a minority of readers, anyway – who gets far more excited by technical details in a writer’s biography than the endless, prurient cataloguing of their turbid emotional lives: how many words got written on August 16th, say?; what kind of pens did they use, and where did they buy them?; had they read Proust before or after they began work on their third novel, etc, etc?
***Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait With Keys, in particular, is now a personal favourite of mine: genuinely one of the best things I have read in some years. I was planning to re-read it, so that I could more properly answer your perfectly reasonable request for some concrete detail regarding my reading habits and preferences, but realised I’d lent the book to a friend – oh, the hubris! – and so can’t fulfil my duties in this instance. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, too, feels like a game-changer, though everyone and their maiden aunt has written about that, and extensively, so I’ll limit my comments to say simply that I enjoyed it immensely. H is for Hawk, if you’ve not read it, should wing its way to your ‘must read’ pile pretty soon, too.