Where did all the great writing go? We have enough competent writing; we have enough good and very good writing. What’s missing is great writing.
According to Roger Rosenblatt we have, for a century or so, been suffering a deficiency of great writing. Has any novelist in the past century matched Jane Austen or Henry James?
One might say that Proust and Thomas Mann are great writers, but I think that Rosenblatt is limiting himself to the English language.
Take Ulysses, by James Joyce. We have all been told that it’s a great book, a virtuoso writing performance. If anyone asks you to name the greatest English language novel of the twentieth century you would probably cite it.
Then again, have you read it? I would venture that you haven’t. I have. For reasons that defy reason, I have read it more than once.
Despite what everyone thinks and what we have all been trained to believe, it is not a great book.
It isn’t interesting; it isn’t engaging; it doesn’t really address any great questions. If you have not been forced to read it for an English course you will never pick it.
The fact that authorities tried to censor it does not make it a great book.
Rosenblatt compares it to the original, Homer’s Odyssey, and states that it does not compare.
To the point where you start asking yourself why Joyce would have invited comparison with a book that was so far superior to anything he could write himself.
Rosenblatt explains his idea:
When I start thinking this way, I wonder if I’m just growing old, and tired of modernity. Yet even when modernity was young, I was dazzled more often by clarity than by calculated difficulty, and pleased simply by someone doing a far, far better thing. It is always thus. Whatever brief delights it provides, mere strangeness in poetry and prose eventually leaves us cold, especially when we suspect the writer is stretching for effect to avoid the actual life before his eyes.
Ulysses is a virtuoso performance. Yet, Rosenblatt is correct; it feels more like a contrivance than an illuminating work of fiction. You might say that it tells a story, but it would be more accurate that it refers to an epic that tells a story.
Joyce does not much care about his readers. He does not much care about reaching them or moving them. He has indulged his own taste for “calculated difficulty” but that, in itself, does not make him a great writer.
It makes him barely readable. But even that did not suffice James Joyce. With Finnegans Wake he wrote a book that is completely unreadable.
Rosenblatt is contending that in Ulysses Joyce has little to nothing to say that is very interesting. It is all so self-absorbed, self-indulgent, show-offy that it does not engage the reader, does not make us care about the characters, and does not achieve greatness.
I think it fair to say that Joyce was trying to be great. Perhaps, he was trying too hard.
It’s like an athlete who is so full of himself that he takes his eye off the ball. Or who thinks that it’s all about him.
An artist whose sole message is: look at me, look at how smart I am, look at what I can do… will bore you to tears.
More recently, a novelist named Jonathan Franzen has been proclaimed one of our great novelists. For my part I find his books boring, tedious, and uninteresting. I recognize that Franzen writes good sentences, but compared to another writer whose greatness Ronsenblatt properly extols, Charles Dickens, Franzen is a pompous mediocrity, a triumph of marketing, a testimony to the gullibility of the reading public.
Great writers don’t show off. They move their readers. They present characters we care about facing dilemmas that are familiar.
Great writers do not indulge their impulse toward self-expression. As Rosenblatt puts it, they tell us something worth knowing.
Modernist writers, of the kind that Rosenblatt is criticizing, are merely trying to provide an aesthetic experience, a perfectly beautiful object whose sole value is aesthetic.
Pretty, well-crafted sentences… lacking substance, failing to engage the characters in a moral dilemma, offering nothing of interest beyond the writer’s awesome talent.
If that’s all there is, it’s eventually going to cloy.
Art for the sake of art has become, in Rosenblatt’s words, weirdness for the sake of weirdness. As I see it, these writers are lazy and slothful.
Great writers work very, very hard. They do not take shortcuts. They do not try to compensate for their inability to tell a story by throwing in weird events or twists.
If the plot does not work a great writer will redo it until it works. A mediocre writer will let an incoherent plot lay there like a beached whale. Once his books get picked up by literature courses dutiful students will be incited to do his work for him, to reveal the meaning hidden behind the writer's sloppiness.