On Junk and the Common Reader
I submitted an essay to a journal that had previously published two of my essays. In response I received an affectionate rejection letter from the editor. The essay, she said regretfully, had “too much different stuff going on,” and the mess was “pulling it apart.”
In addition to valuing this editor’s opinion and acumen, I also serve as my own most dissatisfied critic, perpetually carping about my abilities and motivations and fussing over my intellectual instability. Thus, though I was melancholic, I saw no reason to disbelieve the editor. Yet as I lay in bed that night, rereading Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady and wondering what I might do with my thirteen pages of unpublishable manuscript, I found myself returning again and again to the problem of “too much different stuff”—if problem it was: because the more I thought about the editor’s difficulty with the piece, the more I realized that the heart of the trouble lay in my avoidance of the stuff issue. Packrat behavior, I’m realizing, may reveal itself in unexpected ways; and though I’ve spent my adult life congratulating myself on having avoided what is unquestionably a family tendency, I begin to see now that I’ve merely fulfilled my genetic destiny in an oddball way.
My grandfather was a more traditional packrat, a careful saver of almost every item that passed through his hands, the kind of collector who conscientiously stacked fifty years’ worth of foam meat trays and Ken-L Ration cans in his back shed just in case they might come in handy. And every once in a while, they did come in handy. Nonetheless, after he died, my mother was left with an untenable mess on her hands—an accumulation not just of cans and meat trays but also of hundreds of neatly folded diocese newspapers that no one had ever dreamed of reading; twenty-five or thirty threadbare work jackets crowded onto five or ten coat hooks; four outbuildings and a two-story house overflowing with broken 1920s-era farm equipment, chipped enamel dishpans, three-legged chairs, and several generations of mouse nests; dresser drawers crammed with every Christmas shirt my mother had ever mailed, most still encased in their original plastic; a dozen Maxwell House cans filled with a remarkable number of nickels; and an accumulation of baling twine from several thousand hay bales—a mountainous headache in itself, which was exacerbated by the discovery that he had also secreted a considerable amount of cash in and among these various collections.
Like my dear inscrutable grandfather, I am also a packrat, though I am not tempted to hoard ancient supermarket trays or empty rusty cans. What I can’t throw out is my reading clutter. Take this week, for instance. Thanks to the disorganized and unpredictable Fate who weaves my book trajectory (her fabric bearing, I imagine, some resemblance to a lumpy kindergarten potholder), I happened to be bobbing between two story collections at the same time: James Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, which compiles stories from the 1940s through the 1960s; and Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, a new selection of stories that were originally published during the same era. I had received an open-ended invitation from the aforementioned affectionate editor to write about the du Maurier collection, but by chance I had recently acquired a remaindered copy of Baldwin’s stories at Marden’s, a strange Maine store that was also selling end tables in the shape of Sammy Davis, Jr. (I settled for the book.)
Being on assignment, I aspired to brisk, intelligent coherence; and before long, my double reading project was giving rise to visions of a tidy comparison-contrast essay. But as one might expect, the collections are very different from one another, so different that I briefly wondered if brevity and date of composition might be their only common traits. Meanwhile, I continued to read—slouched on the sofa with a large poodle wedged uncomfortably between my feet, or coiled over cheese and crackers at the kitchen table, or shivering in the car as I waited for my son’s very late bus to roar into the school parking lot—and soon I found myself alternating between the volumes with a growing curiosity about how and why writers seem to gravitate, almost against their will, to specific techniques and emphases and how those authorial susceptibilities influence the way in which a reader ends up classifying the work. In other words, I got distracted: a fissure opened in my attention; and, as generally happens, that crack began admitting scraps and dust and unidentifiable fluid impressions from the books that are stacked like foam meat trays and dog-food cans in the back shed of my brain.
* * *
In Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is cranky about readers such as myself—
a comprehensive class characterized by reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely, indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy. In addition to novels and tales of chivalry in prose or rhyme, (by which last I mean neither rhythm nor metre), the genus comprises as its species, gaming, swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; tête-à- tête quarrels after dinner between husband and wife; conning word by word all the advertisements of a daily newspaper in a public house on a rainy day, &c. &c. &c.
Yet as Virginia Woolf admitted in her essay “Pure English,” “an irrational element enters into [readers’] liking and disliking of books as certainly as it enters into their feelings for people.” So why can’t a committed reader also enjoy swaying on a gate and spitting over a bridge? I daresay Coleridge himself conned newspaper advertisements in more than one pub over the course of his life, not to mention played the leading part in a fair number of tête-à-tête quarrels after dinner. But for collectors, wrestling with irrationality is not our only trouble. Somehow, as one accumulates more and more items, the individual pieces begin to sort themselves into multiple and anomalous groupings. Everything influences everything else. No longer do we merely have two pink meat trays and one dirty Ken-L Ration can on our hands. The accumulation itself now takes precedence, conquering not only the details of the collection but also that unfortunate host, the back shed. So as I sat on the couch reading du Maurier’s and Baldwin’s stories, I was reading, in a way, not only the books I had open on my lap but all the crumpled, dog-eared stories piled in my head. Like the bent ploughshares and crushed peach baskets cluttering my grandfather’s chicken house, that literary scrap heap does come in handy now and again. But it can also create an untenable mess: which brings me back to the essay I submitted to my friendly, long-suffering editor.
I’d had hopes of composing an intelligent, well-balanced piece about du Maurier and Baldwin; but as I already knew, a book’s ranking within literature’s caste system—what one might call the lightweight-heavyweight scale—frequently influences how a reader thinks she ought to respond to a book. I came to both of these authors with a certain amount of baggage, enough to know that I should be respectful of Baldwin but was not necessarily required to be respectful of du Maurier. Yet I felt that it was my duty, as a writer on assignment, to be open-minded about her work, to consider it seriously as art.
In a way, the two writers could serve as symbols for the mixed-up role that reading plays in my life. I am Baldwinesque in that I take reading seriously. For example, I have no patience with people who tell me they read to relax. Relaxation is practically the furthest thing from my mind. I am a tense, ambitious, and greedy reader, and I don’t want to be lulled; I want to be swallowed up. On the other hand, I am du Maurien insofar as I am democratic about what I choose to read. In other words, if I have a taste for the classics, I also have a taste for trash. Coleridge would not be surprised to learn, for instance, about my louche affection for nineteenth-century women’s pulp fiction, such as the forgotten bestsellers of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (author of, among innumerable others, the alluringly titled A Beautiful Fiend), not to mention the novels of Mary J. Holmes, whose Millbank I found in my grandfather’s aforementioned house of junk when I was ten years old and which I have since reread at least once a year for more than thirty years.
Now, instead of focusing on James and Daphne, my attention, for reasons best known to itself, had begun to wander into the hazy realm of the trash novel, leaving me haplessly affixing pseudo-connectives between du Maurier and Southworth, who soon morphed unexpectedly into novelist and essayist John Fowles. “It was Fowles,” I scribbled (but what is the word for scribbling with a laptop?), “who wrote somewhere that bad novels are a key to their times. Like ‘real literature,’ these books fill some hole in me; they help me understand what it means to be alive. Even though they are not art, they manage, in spite of themselves, to occasionally achieve the goals of art.”
Downstairs, the parakeet squawked, and my husband’s radio emitted distracting and uncongenial tunes. I hunched over my desk and wrote: “I don’t for a moment believe that E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels rival George Eliot’s or Emily Brontë’s.” (Damn. Where did Eliot and Brontë come from?) “Yet in her books I glimpse a particular portrait of the age—a focus, for instance, on the petty sexual distractions of its women—that I don’t necessarily see in Eliot’s or Brontë’s work but that gives me a new angle of vision and thus broadens my comprehensions and my sympathies.”
I blathered on about Southworth for a while longer, evoking her flabby plots, her stock characters, her stilted purple prose, comparing her along the way to both the Steve Miller Band and Velveeta. I dredged up a fake memory of kissing a boy under the bleachers and a real one of eating a grilled-cheese sandwich, then suddenly ended a paragraph with the Romantic realization that “Nobody else is me,” at which point the long-suffering editor must have said, “Thank God.” Finally, after much shuffling and stumbling, I found my way back to Daphne du Maurier, pointing out that her stories may be gothic, formulaic potboilers (my grasp at making Southworth relevant) but are also carefully, often exquisitely, crafted. Always she maintains a clean, efficient control of plot, and her settings are so vividly evoked that even familiar, rather dull places can seem feverishly surreal, as in this scene from the story “Split Second”:
She walked swiftly past the nurses pushing prams, two or three of them in groups chatting together, their charges running ahead. Dogs barked beside the ponds. Solitary men in mackintoshes stared into vacancy. An old woman on a seat threw crumbs to chirping sparrows. The sky took on a darker, olive tone. Mrs. Ellis quickened her steps. The fairground by the Vale of Health looked sombre, the merry-go-round shrouded in its winter wrappings of canvas, and two lean cats stalked each other in and out of the palings. A milkman, whistling, clanked his tray of bottles and, lifting them to his cart, urged the pony to a trot.
There is something altogether beautiful about that passage—a combined effect, I think, of its rhythmic sentence construction and the author’s swift, subtle control of her reader’s eye, which so effectively moves my attention from earth to sky, from near to far, from human to animal. Yes, certainly, du Maurier is not in Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s class, where beauty is reduced to striking “at first sight with an electric thrill.” But as I suddenly verified in the course of my scuffling writing project, she is just as certainly not in James Baldwin’s class. I may not like all of the stories in Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man, but my discomfort is primarily a personal reaction to his protagonists’ cursory cruelty. It has nothing to do with the intensely character-driven energy of his writing, as in “The Outing,” in which even the minor players cohere into furious, vibrating personalities:
Last year Sister McCandless had held an impromptu service in the unbelieving subway car she played the tambourine and sang and exhorted sinners and passed through the train distributing tracts. Not everyone [in the church] had found this admirable, to some it seemed that Sister McCandless was being a little ostentatious. “I praise my Redeemer wherever I go,” she retorted defiantly. “Holy Ghost don’t leave me when I leave the church. I got a every day religion.”
Baldwin is a ferocious writer, very nearly eviscerating himself in his relentless imaginative quest to link vision and word. His pages are stained with blood, though he may speak only of a church picnic or a slow evening in a nightclub. Du Maurier, on the other hand, composes plot after horror-packed plot; yet her authorial voice remains detached, almost indifferent. Reading “The Birds” (which Alfred Hitchcock transformed into a movie I’m too scared to watch but that du Maurier is said to have disliked), I find her dry, ruthless narration far more unnerving than the situation she describes:
As [Nat] jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed. Nat dropped his hoe. The hoe was useless. Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings. The terrible, fluttering wings. He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck. Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh. If only he could keep them from his eyes. Nothing else mattered. He must keep them from his eyes.
It’s so difficult, in that passage, to care about what happens to Nat. Like the rest of the humans in the story, he functions simply as an obstacle to bird domination, although he is a larger obstacle than most. Clearly the author herself was far more interested in the gulls than in Nat’s survival; yet even as she describes their actions, I sense her dispassion. She is not whirling among the birds, beating them out of her hair, but sitting on a remote hillside, studying the flock through her binoculars and taking tidy, careful notes.
Baldwin, in contrast, has no compunction in “The Outing” about hurling himself into the fray:
“Well, glory!” cried Father James. The Holy Ghost touched him and he cried again, “Well, bless Him! Bless his holy name!”
[The congregation] laughed and shouted after him, their joy so great that they laughed as children and some of them cried as children do; in the fullness and assurance of salvation, in the knowledge that the Lord was in their midst and that each heart, swollen to anguish, yearned only to be filled with His glory. Then, in that moment, each of them might have mounted with wings like eagles far past the sordid persistence of the flesh, the depthless iniquity of the heart, the doom of hours and days and weeks; to be received by the Bridegroom where He waited on high in glory; where all tears were wiped away and death had no power; where the wicked ceased from troubling and the weary soul found rest.
Somehow I think I would not have made this particular differentiation between Baldwin and du Maurier if I had not first dug my way through the various side-issues and interfering tangents that so clotted my original essay. Apparently, for whatever reason, my intellectual growth seems to require a certain amount of haphazard meandering through my mental library. But I realize as I write these words that I have absolutely no inkling about how other people figure out what they think. Does anyone else require such a galaxy of literary advisers? I’m not talking about matters of research but something more akin to grasping wildly at straws. For instance, as I worked on the essay, switching back and forth from du Maurier story to Baldwin story to du Maurier story, I became increasingly convinced that some qualitative difference existed in the writers’ approach to character. Searching for advice, I began clanking among the Ken-L Ration cans in my brain and out popped Virginia Woolf, who takes up this very topic in her long essay “Character in Fiction.” “Novelists,” she asserts, “differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes.”
When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession. And this I find very difficult to explain: what novelists mean when they talk about character, what the impulse is that urges them so powerfully every now and then to embody their view in writing.
I was delighted when Woolf leaped so cogently into my essay, but the journal editor took pointed exception to the intrusion: “Woolf turns out to be too heavily woven into the fabric . . . and she is a mistake. She is not always a mistake, but here she is pulling you to far astray, into her thoughts, when what you want to be doing is having your own.” This was rather crushing, for I’d assumed I’d been having my own thoughts. Yet if these unexpected, illuminating collisions weren’t thinking, then what could thinking be? Woolf’s comments about character had reminded me that she certainly would have been aware of du Maurier’s popular novel Rebecca, first published in 1938, which had then led me to wonder how she would have classified a writer whose approach seems to be entirely antithetical to her “belief that men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character which has thus imposed itself upon them.” Baldwin, yes: unquestionably, he was in thrall to the sorrows and ecstasies of his characters. But du Maurier? What a cool fishy she eye had, even as she described horrors. In the story “Don’t Look Now,” for instance, her character John believes he is rescuing a child in distress. But he’s wrong, of course.
“It’s all right,” he panted, “it’s all right,” and held out his hand, trying to smile.
The child struggled to her feet and stood before him, the pixie-hood falling from her head on to the floor. He stared at her, incredulity turning to horror, to fear. It was not a child at all but a little thick-set woman dwarf, about three feet high, with a great square adult head too big for her body, grey locks hanging shoulder-length, and she wasn’t sobbing any more, she was grinning at him, nodding her head up and down.
Then he heard the footsteps on the landing outside and the hammering on the door, and a barking dog, and not one voice but several voices, shouting, “Open up! Police!” The creature fumbled in her sleeve, drawing a knife, and as she threw it at him with hideous strength, piercing his throat, he stumbled and fell, the sticky mess covering his protecting hands.
. . . The hammering and the voices and the barking dog grew fainter, and, “Oh God,” he thought, “what a bloody silly way to die. . . . ”
And there the story ends, trailing off into ellipses.
At this juncture Charles Dickens muscled into the fray: I suddenly remembered the dwarf Miss Mowcher, who plays a bit part in David Copperfield. Miss Mowcher is a somewhat unsavory character, yet her errors and obnoxious behaviors are clarified by her sufferings. But the dwarf in du Maurier’s tale is merely a nasty dénouement personified, while John is nothing more than her accidental victim. The situation is meaningless, trivial, terrible. Moreover, there’s a tinny quality to the shock ending. John’s death is unpleasant, very unpleasant; but to be honest I find it difficult to care. Since I am the sort of squeamish moviegoer who is too afraid to watch Yul Brynner play an out-of-control robot cowboy in Westworld, let alone sit through Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’m startled by my indifference to this gruesome scene. But I think John’s murder would have resonated with me more profoundly if, throughout the rest of the tale, du Maurier had developed him into a character who mattered, one who was mutable and engaging in all his flaws and talents. She chose not to, however . . . and I say chose because clearly du Maurier was a skilled-enough writer to have pressed her characters beyond two-dimensionality. “Don’t Look Now” is fast-moving, plot-driven, and atmospheric; yet its characters are ciphers: we have “the grieving mother,” “the concerned husband,” “the eerie old twins,” “the malignant dwarf,” but no one amazes us character-wise. Only the plot is amazing. So why didn’t this fluent, talented writer push herself to delve further into her characters? Or perhaps I should ask why I, her reader, think she ought to have delved further?
Despite the journal editor’s distaste for her interference, VW’s presence in my essay gave me some clue as to why an ought can be so influential. Toward the end of “Character in Fiction,” Woolf points her exculpatory finger at readers who “allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of [character], which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever.”
In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves. . . . Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.
Woolf is such a good writer, and such a literary patrician, that I almost always humbly go along with whatever she says. But as she herself points out, a reader’s humility gives a writer too much leeway for laziness or error; and in Woolf’s case, my humility makes it too easy for her get away with deriding entire genres and styles that don’t happen to suit her taste. Presumably du Maurier’s fiction would fall into Woolf’s “sleek, smooth” category, a generalization that does, in fact, have some justification. Du Maurier’s dialogues, for instance, feel strangely prefabricated. No matter what plot torments enmesh her characters, they manage to maintain a strange, clipped, artificial style of speaking that barely rises above the clumsy conversations of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth’s novels. For instance, the working-class men in the story “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” speak like no working-class men who have ever lived, although their types have appeared in many a second-rate novel:
“I blame the war for all that’s gone wrong with the women,” said the coffee-stall bloke. . . .
“’Tisn’t that, it’s sport that’s the trouble,” said the conductor.
Similarly, the classier married couple of “Don’t Look Now” woodenly emote to the point of absurdity:
“Laura, darling, of course I believe you,” he said, “only it’s a sort of a shock, and I’m upset because you’re upset. . . . ”
“But I’m not upset,” she interrupted. “I’m happy, so happy that I can’t put the feeling into words.”
But when Woolf summarily dismisses the pantheon of writers who rely on such canned techniques of characterization, she also avoids consideration of why a particular skilled and careful writer might continue to depend on them. And in du Maurier’s case, the choice seems to illustrate how easily we readers and writers learn to discount individual suffering in our pursuit of narrative thrill. Did du Maurier find herself, as a writer, trapped by that pursuit? Did she take a certain malicious or ironic pleasure in proving she could entrap her readers? Did she see her stories as efforts to prove the existence of a terrible immorality? Although such questions may be unanswerable, I think there is no doubt that she was conscious of her methods, if not her motives.
The journal editor saw my excursion into Woolf as a distraction, as indeed it was. Yet if VW had not made her unexpected appearance, I would not have had a chance to puzzle over her assertions and, to my surprise, find myself defending du Maurier, whose books I don’t particularly admire. This process may not be thought per se, but it is a shift in perspective, a way to look at a piece of art more carefully, with a more perplexed vision.
* * *
In a recent article in the Guardian, Ian Sample notes that several evolutionary psychologists claim that nineteenth-century novels “helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society.” While I find it difficult to believe that such influence is measurable, I do see that the opposite claim may also be true: that a writer can subvert social order and discourage altruistic genes . . . or perhaps choose to reveal how easy they are to subvert and discourage. Certainly, as my own literary clutter has shown, information en masse can have a will of its own.
Not long ago, I rented Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which lovingly documents the Third Reich’s 1934 party rally at Nuremberg. As I sat on my couch, drinking tea and watching platoon after platoon of young Germans, old Germans, soldiers, working people, farmers, and flower-decked maidens march past Riefenstahl’s lens, I realized suddenly and viscerally that evil is everywhere, crouching and invisible, infiltrating the air I was breathing, like a spore or a virus. No one is immune. Everyone is vulnerable. And I realized also that the books I was reading were contemporaneous with these horrors. Du Maurier composed her stories alongside them; and in their chill tone and meaningless cruelty, her stories parallel their times. Woolf, too, lived in that era, as did Baldwin. Yet each artist, despite an overlapping history, dealt with characterization personally and idiosyncratically; each struggled with habits and predilections and avoidances and fears. In other words, art, like history, like love, like the back shed of my brain, is confused and complicated.
At the end of “Sonny’s Blues,” probably James Baldwin’s most famous short story, the narrator recalls the night when he went to a jazz club and, for the first time, heard his younger brother Sonny play the piano. “All I know about music,” he muses, “is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air.”
My essay on du Maurier and Baldwin has now melted away into thin air. But if nothing else, my back-shed bits and scraps of cultural memory cohere as a “personal, private, vanishing evocation.” The jumble is clutter, but it speaks to me, teaches me, comforts me. It defines my individuality as a common reader, to borrow yet again from Woolf. Yet as I glance at her brief essay “The Common Reader,” I remember that she herself has borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson:
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. . . . Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole. . . . He never ceases as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of laughter, affection, and argument.
And so I think, Well, all right, Virginia. We’re in the same boat then, aren’t we? Which is, on some days, accomplishment enough.