Link: Arthur Krystal and I outgrow fiction

Today, with the arrival of the first issue of my new Harper’s subscription (and with it, permission to access the paywalled archive), I have finally been able to read the essay I’ve been wanting to reread for years: “Closing the Books” by Arthur Krystal. I remember first reading it came out in March 1996, and I’ve wanted to reread it in the last couple years, as I have found myself — as I remembered Krystal having found himself — less interested in reading fiction as I age. I was still in college, and already becoming disenchanted by fiction (and maybe fiction does require the “enchantment” we also refer to as “willing suspension of disbelief” — why else would I read 200-plus pages of lies?) when I read this essay, and perhaps this essay both made me feel OK about liking fiction less and perhaps also influenced me to like fiction less. Who knows?

Rereading the essay today, I was glad to find out that I hadn’t wrongly remembered Krystal’s main assertion: that he really just wasn’t diggin’ books anymore, and this bothered him.

I still believe that Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Keats, and Joyce deflate every theorist, multiculturalist, or product of a creative writing workshop now forcing his attentions on us. At the same time, however, I feel little desire to reread the Great Books. And that is what’s baffling, because it was not supposed to turn out this way. When I was young it was axiomatic that a deeper appreciation of books came with age. I remember my parents telling me that Dostoevsky could not really be understood until one was forty, a figure that was amended upward as they got older. And Henry James was always spoken of as someone who improves with age, the reader’s age, that is. I’ve never doubted this, not until now. [Page 57]

He seems to have had an expectation that he would not tire of literature, and now that he has, he seems to want to explain it. Maybe he can’t explain why he feels the way he does, though there may be some value to the idea he sketches, that he just is more interested in his own mind than others’ minds, at a certain point of mental maturity.

Once we have come to appreciate the difficulty of writing, once we have been duly impressed by the poet’s or the novelist’s genius, once we have read the salient criticism, we are left alone with our thoughts–thoughts unlike those we had when books themselves were tantamount to experiences, part of what formed us. At fifteen or twenty, the books
we read–or rather the minds behind them–are far more interesting than our own. But as we experience for ourselves the rites of passage that were previously only read about, and as we mature and reflect on what those experiences mean, novelists and poets begin to lose an important advantage–at some point we’ve all been down the same road. And what may happen is this: we begin to find that most writers are less interesting than we think ourselves to be. [Page 57]

… I still maintain there comes a point when one “outgrows” novels, at least in the sense that the words no longer speak to one’s experience in a way that reveals new depth about that experience. [58]

And “new depth” may be the key idea there–at least, that’s the term that resonates with me. Meaning must be fresh if it is to be meaningful at all, and so too, new experiences must be really new. Sure, as a teacher, I have learned some new things each semester that I’ve repeated teaching a text, and yet, those learnings aren’t quite the same as discovering a brand-new idea or a brand-new form. Reading selections from “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” with my high-school sophomore English class this semester, I found new appreciation for the language use and imagery of these texts, and yet, I guess I don’t feel I got any personally useful insight here. I can see how these texts are constructed, and how the thematic arguments are made, and so I can take these texts as fodder for analysis, but such analysis points my attention toward the seams, the construction, rather than toward the magic — I felt admiration for the work, but no enchantment. Fighting for honor and glory, as Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus do, just seems kinda empty to me now — I feel no desire to emulate them, as I remember feeling for some of the heroes and/or authors of novels I read before I was age 20. (And yet, as an older may, I can appreciate the qualities of these works that make them classic better than I could as a high schooler myself. But the novels I loved back then were not the ones I was assigned to read, but the ones I read by choice.)

Krystal still tries to find a reason why it’s not merely his changing tastes that led him to read less, but that there be some fault in the books themselves. I’m not sure he’s right, but I appreciate his theory as a point to consider: that, because we know so much more about how others live now than people used to, we don’t need novels to clue us in to how others live.

When matters fit for private contemplation or family discussion are thrust in our faces, we lose sight of the fact that morality is ultimately an individual concern, not a sideshow disguised as a public forum. This is where the novelist once held sway, in the depiction of the individual’s struggle with familial and societal values and the resulting emotional turmoil when conventional morality was flouted. To a large extent, the great novels of the past were morality plays spun into art through characters whose souls and minds wrestled with concepts such as “sin,” “duty,” “pride,” “propriety,” “virtue,” “ambition,” and “honor.” These words were not used to entertain, and they were not fodder for morning talk shows; they were the stuff of conscience, with enough resonance to power a plot for three hundred pages. No more. Morality is no longer part of the novelist’s stock-in-trade–it seems more the province of PC militants, evangelists, and right-wing bigots–and when manners and morals lose relevance for the greater community, the power of novels to move us is similarly diminished. [58-9] …

I don’t mean simply that literature is being shouted down by the media but that poets and novelists somehow know deep in their bones that their work no longer possesses the cultural resonance that writers could once take for granted. [60]

I’m much more skeptical now than I was 17 years ago about anyone’s claims about the culture at large or “cultural resonance.” I’m not saying that Krystal’s wrong, but that maybe he doesn’t need to find reasons for what is just a feeling. He doesn’t like fiction as he once did, and that’s OK.

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