In Life, and in our Reading
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
“Well, I never really did think much of him, y’know.”
(Generic line of dialogue)
In literature at large, it serves as staple and lubricant, and in fiction it constitutes the energizing lifeblood—the way people talk about other people. Gossiping, discussing, reflecting on, surmising… how thoroughly enmeshed all such discourse is in our perceptions and judgments, and hence, necessarily, in our system of values!
It’s of course the “choric” function, coming down to us from the drama of antiquity— choric commentary, as it’s known by its fancy name; spectatorship in its most elemental form. That “gossip” derives from the Old English godsibb, “kinsman” (literally, a sibling created by God), tells us how familiar—familial, that is—such breezy talk is, how loose and unguarded, devoid of caution generally and, as often as not, of any serious self-scrutiny. It’s tribal talk, grounded in a sense of assumed prerogative—that “village voice” we hear making blithe pronouncements, so often with devastating literary effects.
But it’s a Janus-faced coin, our talking about others. It enriches and “realizes” as readily as it diminishes. As Father Latour says in Death Comes for the Archbishop,
“Where there is great love there are always miracles… [they] rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perception being made finer, so that for the moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.”
How best to separate “responsible” talk about others from “irresponsible” talk about them? By the rule of the inverse, the more others are talked about, the less likely it is that they will truly be known. In fiction, the consequences run the full gamut: from the hilarious to the appalling, the perplexing to the wounding, the incisive to the endearing. It’s by “weighing in” on others that we revere, memorialize, propagandize, indict, analyze, endorse, acquit—and tell our stories about others.
Central to the function of our talking about others is, as we know, its revelatory quality, its unavoidably divulging as much about the speaker as it does, or can, about the person being spoken of. Irony, of course, has its field day here, eternally ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. It’s doubtful, for instance, that the speaker of my epigraph—“Well, I never really did think much of him, y’know.”—has done much “weighing” of the person being disparaged. The adverb really and the main verb think fold back against the speaker in almost comical indictment, as do the frothy insect wings—the prefatory “Well,” the terminal “y’know”—the utterance seeks to take flight on. One can’t help recalling the “young man carbuncular” in Eliot’s Waste Land, whom Eliot depicts as “One of the low on whom assurance sits/ As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.”
At issue in all these matters, especially as regards the volatility irony plays upon, is the inherent instability of all rendered judgments. Volatility is the food that suspense dines upon, for nothing is truer about us than the limits of our foresight. Chronic under-estimators, all, we shortchange the complexity of everything around us, and fail to see the potency of the forces we unleash on ourselves and on others. Which is why, so often, we find ourselves astonished—taken aback by the discrepancy between what we’ve expected and what has transpired. If volatility is the fare that suspense dines upon, then astonishment is what it enjoys for dessert (i.e., is its outcome.)
The Hazards of Spectatorship: Three Fallacies of Judgment
John Updike once groused that “Spectatorship is a degenerate form of participation,” having grown weary, he said, of the too-frequent shallowness (on the part of reviewers especially) of those who judged his works. Try it for yourself and see how hard it really is! And more recently, this from a jazz musician, Ben Sidran: “Critics! Can’t even float. They just stand on shore. Wave at the Boat,” which echoes Updike’s sentiment. In lieu of arguing either, let’s look at three ways in which spectatorship can run afoul of fair dealing—and consider the basis, too, on which these flawed assessments rest.
The “diagnostic” fallacy. The most prevalent of the three can be summed in a line: “Since I can see what’s wrong here, I could have done better!” How often in observing, say, an athlete or a sports team committing a blunder (this writer, alas, not being free of the vice), we’ll slap our heads and say, “Oh, that was just so stupid!” The unspoken belief being—fantasy, rather—that the indignant spectator, faced with the same situation, would have avoided committing the blunder—would have seen perfectly clearly that tight end wide open, would have known not to yank the starting pitcher at just that moment. Or the reader, say, while nearing conclusion of a thriller, would have known not to forecast as nakedly as that the plot’s dénouement!
Key to this fallacy is the spectator’s confusing the “diagnostic” faculty for the active remedial one. It’s one thing, that is, to witness a flaw or error in the act of being committed, and quite another thing to possess the skills requisite for performing more ably in a similar situation. Naiveté is the principal culprit in this fallacy—a lack of educated awareness as to how truly exacting the given “craft” is, whatever the discipline. Naiveté and, often, some dose of wishful thinking, as in, “I think I could have done that, something like it, anyway… if I’d put my mind to it.”
The fallacy of the “sure bet.” This second fallacy, much like the first, springs mainly from naiveté—naiveté, again, abetted often enough by a margin of wishful thinking. This is the error of believing that great achievements, in whatever domain, were by nature predestined—i.e., were “sure bets.” As in, “Of course Shakespeare’s great! That was never in question!” Or, spoken to an achiever of more recent vintage: “Oh, I always knew you were going to make it.” You did? That’s remarkable! How did you ‘know’?
Plain fact is, there are no sure bets—not ever! Until an ambition is fulfilled, until some dream is pursued and realized, there is nothing foreordained, so liable to miscarriage is all effort-in-progress. We’ll grant that some individuals are highly likely to succeed, given their track-record. But no guarantees. Here again we contend with the effects of sprezzatura, that deceptively beguiling “negligence”—grace, if you will—fostering the illusion that something was “easy.”
The most damaging part of this spectatorial fallacy is its “take-away” quality—its minimizing the heroic component of achievement: the dedication needed, the painful growth demanded, the need for, as Toby Wolff memorably puts it in In Pharaoh’s Army, “stamina and self-mastery and faith”—all in the absence of any firm assurance that the effort will pay off. History is full of artists vocally protesting the blithe perception that they were just “naturally talented,” or that things came easily for them. And at times, the “correction” of that frequent misperception achieves a poignant note: late in Tom Jones, after posturing through many an editorial entr’acte, Fielding comes clean and confides to the reader that, a widower now, he’s been writing in solitude for countless hours as he’s labored to finish his novel. And his one hope is that someday, someday… someone might read it. “Fielding? Tom Jones? Why, of course Tom Jones is great!”
The fallacy of “high standards.” The third and last of these three spectatorial fallacies is significantly different from the first two in spirit. It is also naïve, deeply naïve, but tainted by wishful thinking of a more corrosive sort. At its core lies envy—and blustery self-aggrandizement. Here’s the byline of this fallacy: “I am one for whom only the very best will do.”
This is the lofty posturing on the part of individuals who need to find a way to feel better about themselves. Such fastidious types consider it a badge of their “refinement,” their exquisite taste, that they shun, and contemn, all human achievements below those at the pinnacle. Dvǒrák thus becomes a minor composer next to Bach or Beethoven, and all of modern literature not penned, say, by Faulkner, Hemingway, or Joyce (choose your own top cluster!) is beneath contempt—and, likely as not as well, unworthy of even being read. The broad, rich panoply of meritorious writers gets shrunk to a pinhead, and any generous notion of different plateaus of achievement gets blithely debased.
This “person of high standards” considers their fit company [“Fit company, though few,” Milton, Paradise Lost] to be among, and only among, the fraternity of the immortals. They take snobbery for elitism, the latter of which, yes, is “exclusive” by nature—but needn’t be snobbish, though it often trends that way. What betrays this person’s stance as being rooted in envy is its twofold animosity: toward humility on the one hand, and hard work on the other. Envy is an emotion that, as often as not, wants something for nothing as it rancorously solicits the attention of others. It is cowardly, as well, in its aversion to daring, since daring brings us up against our real-life limitations, revealing the cost to be borne if we’re to bridge the painful gap between what we’ve hoped for and what lies within our powers. And here’s the worst of it: these proponents of “high standards” are often very skillful at intimidating others. They’re not just anti-appreciative; they are anti-communal.
“Fandom:” spectatorship and vicarious pleasure. But such stern observations ought not obscure the coin’s more genial face. Spectatorship has—as how can it not?—its more endearing side. Fandom in particular reminds us how communal spectatorship can be, how socially cohesive. Though it, too, has its downsides, especially when what fuels it becomes combustive, and results in obsession and/or social violence.
“Tribal” is again our operant word here. “Rooting for the home team” has its primitive component in the identification one feels with the entity engendering such enthusiasm, such fervent “commitment,” such deeply personal proprietary feelings. And almost invariably (while exceptions exist, as when a child of one’s own is playing in the game), the feelings of connectedness that fandom thrives on are illusory ones: there is almost never any true reciprocity between the adoring “fan” and the object of passion. What does that mega-rich fellow playing shortstop care, or even know, about you who so ardently follow his career? Or the throng of readers in line at a book-signing, clutching the best-seller, all aglow with adulation for their adored writer—what real connection of any meaningful sort do those readers have with that writer as a person?
We’ll return to this last point shortly; but let’s note, first, that fandom can lead to truly tragic excesses, not just of the collective sort, like the riots at soccer games, but of the deeply personal kind. I think of Irvin Faust’s story, “Roar Lion Roar,” about a young wannabe who, though wholly disenfranchised, so intensely identifies with a university and its sports team that he takes his life over a defeat on the football field.
‘The Way I Love George Eliot’: Friendship as a Neglected Critical Metaphor
Let’s conclude by looking further at the coin’s shinier side—the power of love to “clarify,” to make our vision more acute. And we must return to the question of writers as persons vs. authors.
In a remarkable essay, its title above, Wayne C. Booth (whom I invoked in this series in “Irony Builds Community: Dialogue in Action,” March 24, 2022) addresses the question of the passion readers feel for great works they love, and the characters in them. Suggesting, persuasively, that “friendship” with books has been largely overlooked by the critical community as a key element of readership, he argues—with passion!—that our communion with great works, those works the world calls “classics,” affords us an experience of human enrichment that we in fact do not find among our ordinary acquaintance.
Calling our relationship with books of this sort “friendships of virtue,” Booth proposes that in such friendships we find a degree of reciprocity more fully engaging, more capable of putting us on a level playing-field, than what even our most intimate real-life partners can offer. How “most real,” he observes, for us are the great figures in literature, albeit wholly fictive—most real in speaking to our deepest psychic needs, to the most fundamental yearnings of our thirsty imaginations! Such works, he boldly asserts—the Middlemarches, the King Lears—are superior even to the flesh-and-blood authors who have created them. A contention to ponder!
In “weighing in” on works so massive in stature, we’re invited, we are called upon, to exercise a capacity that, as Michael Polanyi tells us in The Tacit Dimension, goes altogether against the “immemorial scheme of self-preservation,” which capacity goes by no other name than reverence, the ability to see and treasure those things that are greater than oneself. “True admiration always has the option of silence,” a wise writer once observed. I think of those audiences of which I’ve been member, exiting in silence, no single word spoken, immediately after hearing Kent’s poignant lines at the conclusion of King Lear:
“The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…”
“Weighing in” needn’t always involve the use of words. It is in the nature of human genius of the very first order to be, for the rest of us, rather like a star we observe out in the cosmos—as we grow in awareness and mature in appreciation, it recedes away from us, ever more confounding in its mysteriousness and brilliance, ever that much farther, much farther beyond, what we know to be our reach. And in consequence, over our lifetime, to be welcomed ever more richly for what it shows is possible in this human life. It can leave us speechless.