The Vast Universe

I posted most of this as a comment already, but it was rushed, so I want to do a better job of it here. Lydia Millet reviews Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s a favourable review, but Millet also says:

And yet—and yet—given that what Munro does, she does with immaculate precision—why always, with such a richness of skill, this insistent choice on the purely personal, the proximate world of the self and its near relations? In the cosmology of this world, the personal, social world, the individual is seen delicately negotiating a balance with friends and family: Her journey is the steady sun around which all planets revolve.

Surely the vast universe beyond the minutely personal is also of some little interest. There is, of course, often a backdrop. Munro, for instance, loves the land, loves her region within it, and comes to the land in her prose with knowledge, deliberation and devotion. Still, the land is a setting primarily for a specific subset of us, for the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self. And in the broader, dominant literary culture of realistic and personal fictions, a culture where Munro tends to lead and others to follow, the land often drops away entirely in favour of a massive foreground of people with problems.

Dan Green takes exception:

I’m glad [Munro] writes about “the proximate world of the self and its near relations,” because this is what presumably provokes her to write in the first place. Perhaps one day I will read a Munro story “about the foibles and discoveries and preoccupations of the social self” that rises to the level of great art, that shows me how this subject can be the catalyst for creating fiction of sufficient “beauty” and aesthetic depth that its putative subject becomes irrelevant—indeed, a story in which only that subject could have inspired the author to plumb such depths. I haven’t read that story yet, but I’m pretty sure that if I do come to see the merit in Alice Munro’s fiction it won’t be because I’ve stumbled upon a story about “corrupt churches and governments.”

I assume that Lydia Millett takes herself to be a writer capable of conveying “meaning,” of discerning “right and wrong,” of analyzing “our philosophies or propensity for atrocities,” but I’m not sure where she’s acquired this wisdom and these talents, and in general I’m not going to turn to novels for insight into these issues. (That Millett’s own most recent novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart could be described as about “nuclear disarmament” was enough to make me stay away from it.) I also assume that Alice Munro has never considered herself qualified to pronounce on such subjects, and that she considers it the fiction writer’s job to stick to the mundane realities of individual lives (“people with problems”). This approach in itself does not guarantee the result will be aesthetically accomplished work (although it may gain a certain amount of admiration for the subtleties of “craft” involved), but it stands a better chance of keeping the aesthetic in sight as a desirable goal than the attempt to grapple with war and famine, or the “environment” as an abstract concept.

To which my immediate question, of course, is: why?

Clearly, assuming that Munro is writing about what provokes her to write in the first place (I hope it’s unlikely that she’s writing about particular subjects because she feels those are “the writer’s job”), then continuing to write about those subjects is more likely to enable her to produce great art than falsely raising her gaze and trying to address other subjects. And while I’m slightly confused by Green’s definition of great art, I agree with the version he eventually seems to settle on, more or less. The idea of “fiction of sufficient “beauty” and aesthetic depth that its putative subject becomes irrelevant” seems to be immediately contradicted by the idea that great art would be “a story in which only that subject could have inspired the author to plumb such depths”. I’m not touching the former statement with a bargepole, but the latter seems a fair working definition of greatness to me—although surely the subject in such cases isn’t irrelevant, it’s essential, in that if the subject were anything else the story wouldn’t work.

But I would cheerfully say that Primo Levi’s “Carbon” meets this definition, despite the fact that it’s a story that’s utterly removed from the personal. Which is another way of saying that, basically, I’m in sympathy with Millet: while I don’t think it’s fair to criticise Munro for doing what she does, I see no particular reason why one group of subjects (intimate, personal) should stand “a better chance of keeping the aesthetic in sight as a desirable goal” than another group of subjects (what we might call cultural or or moral or philosophical). In fact, the potential value of fiction that addresses this latter group well seems self-evident to me.

Yet Green also states that he’s not usually going to turn to novels for insights into “these issues”: again, why? Assuming that a writer is not going to be able to offer you a perspective you haven’t considered yourself strikes me as somewhat hubristic, and assuming that a writer is not going to have “acquired such insight” so as to be able to talk intelligently about cultural or philosophical issues strikes me as somewhat patronising. More to the point, I see no particular reason why a writer will be more likely to offer me insight into a personal experience than into a moral question. I don’t expect any writer to provide definitive “answers” in either case, after all; they may argue for one answer or another, but the important thing, to me, is that they raise the questions and frame them in a useful way.

Perhaps, if we’re accepting that great literature is literature that could only be facilitated by its specific subject, then it’s just a matter of perception. Maybe where I would admire a novel like, say, The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman because of the portrait it paints of past and present Cambodian society, Green would admire it (if he did) for the richness of the portrayal of a character like Map, and the vividness of his specific experiences. Similarly for books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. We might admire different aspects of the whole. But it strikes me that a lot of books are going to privilege one aspect over another, and I can’t help thinking that as readers we should be open to that. We should let writers take us where they please, and decide afterwards if the journey was worth it. Clearly this is shaped by my background as a science fiction reader, which stereotypically does privilege the general over the personal; but even allowing for that, I can’t shake the feeling that insisting that literature is better at addressing some subjects than others is sadly limiting.

One thought on “The Vast Universe

  1. …I think many kinds of subjects are necessary to address, especially in a society that (in my opinion) is falling apart.

    I’ve never understood the attitude that “large stories” are automatically more important than “small stories.” The roots of large things usually lay in the small things. For example, people normally don’t start wars because they suddenly wake up newly born as a warmonger one day and say, “I wanna start a war!” in a social vacuum without any context. And sometimes the most important context roots lay in their personal pasts, their upbringings, the stuff that happened in their homes. The larger stuff really isn’t separate from the smaller stuff; it often grows from the smaller stuff. I think that if more people worked harder on their personal lives and therefore had better personal lives, they’d be happier, better-behaving people with respect to society too. But then maybe I’m too much of an idealist….

    At the same time, some readers wanting writers to avoid exploring things like environmental destruction in fiction–um, I think awareness of that should be spread to as many places as possible because it’s an extremely urgent problem. I’d rather read (and write, I have) about that than yet another analysis of past historical wars. While their effects may have lingered on, those historical days are over in specific. But environmental degradation not only can be immediately dangerous to life, it tends to fuel more wars, especially if populations are still increasing while resources are dwindling. Some people should step out of the past already and start addressing what the hell is going on NOW because there probably won’t be much if any future if they don’t. Not doing this is like an “avoidance” psychological problem…that unfortunately seems to have become a species-wide affliction. Maybe many people do sense what’s happening and are psychologically overwhelmed by it all–I don’t know. But I think this planet’s systems have probably already passed certain environmental/ecological critical masses, and that should have been addressed by lots of ACTION years ago. If people think addressing this stuff theoretically is so overwhelming, wait till they’re forced to suddenly address it in all its lovely physicality.

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