My first consideration for putting The House of Mirth on my lit-seminar reading list was that it fit the “politics of poverty” theme. Should it matter that it’s a century old?
That is, why not read a canonical novel? Such a work provides history and context for the genre, and though it’s written in response to a particular time, place, and culture, literature is always a living art, not an entombment—right? Poets seem to acknowledge this more readily than prose writers do, another thing I admire about poets.
Raised in a society that shaped her and expected her to serve certain roles, Mirth’s protagonist tries to meet those obligations and to break free of them. Drama fulfilled. Besides, the novel is often bitchy, funny, with the smart banter that predates great film comedies like His Girl Friday. One well-established professor will probably leave something on my Facebook wall that says I look a little like Wharton in the picture shown here, insinuating that's why I chose the book for the class, but then he's a dick.
Students who dislike Wharton’s prose style, setting, and characters enough not to finish the book might ask instead: Why read a canonical novel? There are more contemporary, easier, sexier books that also fit the theme, even in a graduate literary seminar, not a creative writing Forms class.
You might think “this is a novel that’s lasted” would be attractive for young writers hoping to make their own permanent marks, but you know what else has lasted? Herpes and Coca-Cola. And isn’t there something dangerous anyway about musty old influences? When Gertrude Stein, experimental even for an experimental era, wanted to condemn her protégé Hemingway, she always went after his supposed conservatism: “[H]e looks like a modern and smells of the museums," she said.
You read the book because it’s lasted, and it’s lasted because you read it: a deadly-dull tautology. Face it, Churm: The thing is difficult and strange. Not worth it.
But aren’t we in a time that professes to value the novelty of strangeness above all? Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Powers, and Murakami are all strange and textural, and it’s why we love them. The NewPages listing for the venerable journal AGNI calls it a “workshop of literature where wonderful, audacious and strange things come into being.”
So what are the limits of that reading urge? Would suburban norteamericanos happily finish a Mayan writer’s novel on symbolic systems and mythology they’d never heard of? What about a 600-page novel about an Irish Jew, structured on ancient Greek epic, along with 600 more pages of annotations? What then if many considered that novel the originator of much that’s considered fresh ever since in our tradition?
A thought experiment: Click through and have a look at this. I knew of it as a kid, but seeing it now is like crash-landing on another planet and being alien witness to a highly intentional art form with inscrutable rules.
Watch the compilation all the way through in one sitting. Take special note when the two men start using it as a language (at one point discussing mortality over a skeleton?) and are assaulted for it as if being transgressive in whatever it is they’re doing. Think about whether Edith Wharton is all that hard to figure out.
If you don’t come back to this post, I’ll have accomplished something today. But just so you know, my boys, who insisted they watch too, claim they’re terrified of these guys. The one who vocalizes, they call him The Demon of the Abyss. Kids and art, right?
I have to go cautiously. I was steered by my teacher mother to read books she believed well-written and important to an understanding of the human condition, regardless of publication date, nationality, race, gender, original language, or even my own interest and experience. I was an English major and philosophy minor in college, and my grad education was with writers who believed the past was not past, that you locate yourself in the flow of the form to give you more tools, allow for more conscious rule-breaking, and limit the embarrassing surprises when a friend calls you experimental and an unfriend says, Yeah, if a 100-year experiment is still daring.
It’s wonderful to hear Etgar Keret cite Vonnegut, Cheever, Kafka, Isaac Babel, and Gogol as influences. But it’s not really surprising.
“How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.”
--Hemingway, in his Nobel speech
Dan Chaon says to read mostly contemporary fiction to be a rock-star writer.
“Life’s too short to read tedious books,” says The Spectator.
“Reading a certain book doesn't make you more intelligent any more than drinking absinthe makes you Van Gogh. It's how you read, as much as what you read.”
On the other hand:
J. Robert Lennon says, “Most Contemporary Literary Fiction Is Terrible.”
Padgett Powell: “Then I discovered there was an off-TV stratum: behind a Mailer was a Bellow, a Roth, and behind Vidal and Capote was a Faulkner and an O’Connor. In a sense I came to think these behind-the-scenes fellows were real writers, or more real, because they were less celebrated; they were harder, quieter, and so forth. It’s just how a boy discovers the terrain. Of course it keeps going: behind all these is Shakespeare, behind him Chaucer, and so forth.” (See the flaring angers in the comments of this craft piece, also by Padgett Powell.)
Ezra Pound: “To begin with, consider the three propositions (demanding direct treatment, economy of words, and the sequence of the musical phrase), not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration."
What’s it mean for a book to last? A bunch of things, I suppose, many of them expressed too firmly. But it doesn’t mean nothing.
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