What Matters in the Education of a Writer? Part 1

Should we take a pass on past writing?


April 7, 2013

Read everything or risk missing inspiration.

Read nothing: Who’s got time to read when writing is a jealous taskmaster?

Read self-directedly, like Sartre’s Self-Taught Man. Sign up for college to read what’s prescribed by teachers, since you wouldn’t have thought of the list on your own.

Read world lit in the original. Read world lit written in or translated to English. Read the classics (Greeks and Romans). Read the canonical. Read the marginalized. Read those in your own age group. Read older writers who’ve proven themselves.

Read what turns you on. Read to scourge yourself.

Read widely in all areas—literature, scientific essays, cereal boxes, junk mail—to see the bigger picture. Read deeply in one area to gain perspective. “[R]ead what is truly good or what is frankly bad,” and nothing in-between.


Many in my lit seminar hated Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) last week. You’ll remember it as a novel of manners of New York society, in which poor Lily Bart, a goddess-like beauty, can’t commit to a suitor, makes a couple of bad choices, and ends as so many women (Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Edna Pontellier of The Awakening) in the canonical literature of those decades did—by suicide. (In House, there’s some question about the consciousness of the intention.)

The grad students reacted, as many do, to the novel’s dated style, its portrayal of a class far different from their own, and to something in the omniscient narration they said felt alien.

The prose is, of course, like overheated water; you have to ease into it, and even when you’ve been fully immersed a while it’s still the only thing you can think about. The sentence length, syntactical complexity, and high diction are no longer, if they ever were, easy for even college-educated readers, and one finds, in speaking of the prose, oneself using, as if infected with them, the same slow-making prepositional, qualifying, and appositive phrases:

"It was natural enough, in all conscience, that she should appear anxious: a young woman placed, in the close intimacy of a yachting-cruise, between a couple on the verge of disaster, could hardly, aside from her concern for her friends, be insensible to the awkwardness of her own position."


The narrative also has a way of sounding comically antique and stuffy, like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons every time he gets friendly and tries to relate:

On receiving Lily’s assurance that she much preferred the friendly proximity of the kitchen fire, Mrs. Struther proceeded to prepare a bottle of infantile food, which she tenderly applied to the baby’s impatient lips; and while the ensuing degustation went on, she seated herself with a beaming countenance beside her visitor.

Add to this the portrayal of a way of life that made me write, in the margin of my little Dover Thrift Edition, “Eat the rich”:

"The party had dispersed with the loitering indecision characteristic of social movements at Monte Carlo, where the whole place, and the long gilded hours of the day, seem to offer an infinity of ways of being idle. Lord Hubert Dacey had finally gone off in quest of the Duchess of Beltshire, charged by Mrs. Bry with the delicate negotiation of securing that lady’s presence at dinner, the Stepneys had left for Nice in their motor-car, and Mr. Bry had departed to take his place in the pigeon-shooting match which was at the moment engaging his highest faculties."

Idle rich, Gilded Age: certainly applicable to our time, but who wants to be reminded—by a writer who’s after all a high-society insider? In particular, students’ reactions focused on the spoiled Lily Bart, whom we’re meant to sympathize with enough to see as a tragic figure. But a third of the way through the book, life seen through her third-person lens looks like this:

"They had paused before the table on which the bride’s jewels were displayed, and Lily’s heart gave an envious throb as she caught the refraction of light from their surfaces—the milky gleam of perfectly matched pearls, the flash of rubies relieved against contrasting velvet, the intense blue rays of sapphires kindled into light by surrounding diamonds: all these precious tints enhanced and deepened by the varied art of their setting. The glow of the stones warmed Lily’s veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolized the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting to her own jewel-like rareness."

Even halfway through the book, when she’s beginning to come awake:

"She had always accepted with philosophic calm the fact that such existences as hers were pedestalled on foundations of obscure humanity. The dreary limbo of dinginess lay all around and beneath that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers. All this was in the natural order of things, and the orchid basking in its artificially created atmosphere could round the delicate curves of its petals undisturbed by the ice on the panes."

Note how very similar the imagery is to another Naturalistic writer’s, Willa Cather, in “Paul’s Case,” published the same year:

"When he went down-stairs, Paul took a carriage and drove up Fifth Avenue toward the Park. […] Here and there on the corners were stands, with whole flower gardens blooming under glass cases, against the sides of which the snow-flakes stuck and melted; violets, roses, carnations, lilies of the valley, somehow vastly more lovely and alluring that they blossomed thus unnaturally in the snow.


"The carnations in his coat were drooping with the cold, he noticed, their red glory all over. It occurred to him that all the flowers he had seen in the glass cases that first night must have gone the same way, long before this. It was only one splendid breath they had, in spite of their brave mockery at the winter outside the glass, and it was a losing game in the end, it seemed, this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run. Paul took one of the blossoms carefully from his coat and scooped a little hole in the snow, where he covered it up. Then he dozed a while, from his weak condition, seemingly insensible to the cold."

When I taught “Paul’s Case” to undergrads they hated that too, impatient with this delicate and refined young man from humble origins, who embezzles money to live for a very brief time as he’s always believed he was meant to do. If the term “First-World problems” had been invented then, they would have used it, though I would now call Lily Bart’s struggles “one-percent problems.” House of Mirth itself names her sort: “the helpless rich.”

Yes, I resisted Wharton back then too and felt memory-twinges of that experience on this reading. In addition to students’ hesitancies I might add that there are awkward changes between points of view in the novel, that it mechanically, selectively, and too-obviously shifts from one character’s insights to the next. The machinery of plot clunks like a bad U-joint in a transmission every time characters meet by implausible coincidence in order to talk things out. And then there’s the odd mention that all the gauche arrivistes climb in a train and go to Alaska, of all places, without explanation or consequence, while their social betters stay in New York. It’s hardly mentioned again, as if Wharton herself couldn’t believe it enough to do the work necessary to portray it. What in the world could a contemporary writer say today that would be its equivalent? The Bill Gateses all got in a rocketship and went to the moon, while the Murdochs continued to party in Palm Beach?

But does any of this matter? Yes, the style seems mannered, but many novels published now are mannered in other ways, and we lovingly read them. What if the experience portrayed does feel unfamiliar? Most novels are about experiences uncommon to us. House of Mirth is a strange read, and therefore disturbing. But isn’t our culture famous for wanting novelty and different ways of presentation in all things, including its novels?

Could it be that Wharton, whether we like her or not, is potentially significant to a writer's education?

To be continued….


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