State of the Arts/Literary Arts. This third installment in a series of occasional round-table chats on the arts brings together Monitor writer Melvin Maddocks, book editor Thomas D'Evelyn, Home Forum editor Maggie Lewis, and feature editor Roderick Nordell. Pages on performing arts (July 22) and media arts (Aug. 21) appeared earlier. A future page will focus on visual arts.
Boston — Nordell: Some people seem incapable of coming into a literary editor's office without ``har-harring'' and saying, ``Have you read any good books lately?'' Has that ever happened to you, Tom? D'Evelyn: It happens all the time.
Nordell: What do you say?
D'Evelyn: I say, ``Have you read the Monitor lately?'' When you think that something like 90,000 books are published every year, we don't review that many. So we try to select good books. If there's a terrible book that needs to be pointed out, we might run a short review.
Nordell: Among those 90,000 books, the relatively few of general interest seem to put into printed form the very kinds of things that people are enjoying in the competing media -- the TV, radio, and films that were supposed to drive out reading.
Maddocks: I looked at a nonfiction best seller list today. Of the 15 titles, eight of them connect to television. The only tie-in used to be that a book was being made into a movie. But now TV turns itself into a kind of accomplice of books, and you have things like the Jane Fonda exercises coexisting as videocassette and book. Of course, now we have the reading cassettes, too. You read by cassette, so there's a sense in which the old kind of discrete identity of the book having a special audience, as being apart from other audiences, or really having the whole audience, is gone.
Nordell: So we listen to books, and we look at books, but we don't read books?
D'Evelyn: The fact that the number of titles published annually doubled between '80 and '85 is probably explained by the discovery of a new market. Because when the chain booksellers started to build in the malls, they discovered shoppers who had never been in bookstores but who would wander through now, because they had just been buying Levi's or something. So the nonreading book, or the self-help book, or the picture book, I think probably accounts for quite a proportion of that extra market. I think sociologists are saying that reading is becoming an elitist activity.
Nordell: But if it's in shopping malls, that doesn't sound elitist.
D'Evelyn: But we're trying to distinguish between kinds of reading. If you look at numbers, and bottom lines, publishing is not necessarily in a bad way.
But if you look at the kind of product, it certainly has changed, in that the serious book for reading by you alone, with a book in your lap, those kinds of books aren't necessarily selling more than they did five years ago.
Nordell: Maggie, in The Home Forum you're often carrying essays referring to books, or carrying excerpts from books. Do you have any sense of response to those things?
Lewis: Just from the number of essays that come in about reading. Maybe the essayists are people who are writing already, so it's a different group. But there are a lot of people reading and thinking about it, and the back and forth between the writer who's writing about a book and his experience is very alive. The response from the readers when they read that is also alive.
Nordell: Any examples?
Lewis: The most striking example recently is Doris Peel's essay about rereading Alan Paton's novel on his land of South Africa, ``Cry, the Beloved Country.'' And thinking about the response to the book in the '40s when it came out -- the letters from South Africa that were both furiously negative and sort of positive, but shocked at what this book showed them. She goes on and talks about a South African she met who had read that book, an Englishwoman living in South Africa for whom that book had really changed her life. To me, it's a wonderful thing, because it's not just sticking to a book. It's looking at a book, and then looking at the world, and then looking back at the book and her own response. And a reader just told me she read the essay, went out and bought ``Cry, the Beloved Country,'' and read the book that night.
Nordell: Then there were the pieces in The Home Forum by Alan Paton himself, writing now about his experiences in the United States, and seeing that the US as well as South Africa has been working out a problem of race relations.
Lewis: Of course, that was what made her write that essay, seeing Alan Paton's things. It keeps going back and forth.
Maddocks: There's a line from Goethe. He said that the question that a modern reader had to face when he came to a book was: ``Is this really true, and is it true for me?'' I think there's a sense now that the new question is: ``Why do I have to read at all? Isn't there some other way I can get any kind of wisdom or insight that used to be exclusive to the reading process?''
Nordell: Why do I have to read?
Maddocks: I think that's asked more and more. You get the same sense of the question ``Why read?'' that we used to have when I was a boy, when people asked, ``What good is it to learn Latin?'' Now it's sort of become ``Why read English, if you can get the cassette -- or some audio-visual equivalent?''
D'Evelyn: There is confusion among writers as to what they're doing, especially fiction writers. Frequently they're not writing narratives anymore. They're not telling stories. And there is a need, it seems, that is kind of universal for stories. One thing I've been watching is that history as a craft is now practiced as a form of story. There's one coming out from Yale [University Press], which I've started to read. It's called ``The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline,'' by John Elliott. This is a magnificent large book that reads a little like Tolstoy. But it is narrative history, and it's based on documents, and it's not fiction.
Nordell: What about literary history?
D'Evelyn: Some literary history or art history has ended up as a matter of criticism. The art form that's now prevailing is criticism, not art.
Nordell: Is that a little like C. S. Lewis saying that, when you're tempted to read a book about Chaucer, read Chaucer again instead? Are people complaining about discussion of art replacing art itself?
D'Evelyn: Quite the opposite, I think. There's an academic movement that has replaced the primary text, or the object, with criticism itself. So that Arthur C. Danto, who's a very, very famous aesthetician, as aestheticians go, now can argue at length that painting in America in this century has led up to philosophy. It's a Hegelian argument. And he does this without tongue in cheek.
Maddocks: A novel exists to stimulate a good book of criticism?
D'Evelyn: Exactly. I don't think that the general reader is going to buy that, but it's certainly very strong in the learned community.
Lewis: I read this little remark in a book review that said the reason people read mysteries now is that they're yearning for the 19th-century well-made novel, where good triumphs and there's a search and something happens. Also the idea of, instead of looking within, looking around. I think that's what a historical book does.
I was just reading ``A Tale of Two Cities'' for the third time. I could see the whole scene, and it was so much more vivid than if you had seen a movie of it. You can have your own Charles Darnay. You don't have to have somebody else's. You can see the view that Sydney Carton sees at the end as he's looking out over all the people, and then at Paris. As a matter of fact, my husband and I were reading it aloud to each other, so I'm not sure if it really counts as reading, because it was audio.
Maddocks: After arguing that the state of print is in a state of crisis, I'd like to suggest that maybe the crisis is producing a new kind of responsibility, respsonsibility, too. That is, there was the subjective novel, the novel that explored the self and became very inward. Then the novel that thought the largest subject you could discuss was ``What is art?'' The novel that was about the novel.
But I think that the crisis of print -- perhaps combined with the crisis of the world -- has driven writers to somehow see writing as political in a way they wouldn't have before. Nordell: Are we getting near that point that has sometimes been made that writers are given so much freedom in the US because they're not taken seriously?
Maddocks: I don't know about that. But I think they are taking writing seriously as a political act. And they're not taking the freedom to write for granted. The celebration of the anniversary of George Orwell's novel ``1984'' was taken very seriously in terms of the preciousness of the word and the expression of the word, and how the corruption of the word can lead to grave political consequences.
So you have the PEN International conference of writers in New York discussing the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the state, which doesn't seem to me to be a subject you would have conceived of writers discussing 10 years ago.
D'Evelyn: I have a problem with that. There's a lot of cant that goes on now at literary luncheons, etc., where they start talking about freedom of speech in this country, and the politicalization of the word. You now read criticism and find the clich'es strewn about, as if they were newly revealed, something out of Marx, or something that sounds as if it could apply. And it doesn't.
Maddocks: But I think it goes beyond just that kind of ``political.'' I'm thinking of G"unter Grass's notion that Nazism turned the German language into rubble in the same way as the bombed buildings in World War II.
And I think there's some sense -- in John Updike's phrase about writers being the last ones to take words seriously -- that this is the province of the writer, to take words seriously. And that somehow, in taking words seriously, there's an essential integrity that takes life seriously.
D'Evelyn: I want them to take it seriously, but I don't take them seriously when all they do with language is repeat slogans. I don't think that's taking it seriously.
Maddocks: Let me give some examples. Margaret Drabble went through novels about dissolving marriages; she went through novels about feminism. Then she wrote ``The Ice Age,'' which was a political novel, in a sense, and it wasn't regarded as a successful novel. But it was simply that she felt some kind of impetus to expand the range of novels beyond what she had done.
Even somebody like Updike. Again it wasn't his most successful novel, but he wrote ``The Coup'' about foreign aid in Africa.
Mary McCarthy wrote one of the first treatments of terrorism, ``Cannibals and Missionaries,'' which again might not have been a great novel, but I thought it was a remarkable feat of the imagination, and she was way ahead of the times. This was 10 years ago.
These are cases where the novelist is feeling that you have to get beyond some narrow frame of reference in which you could probably write more easily and more masterfully. But it's no longer your privilege. I think that measures something -- that is what I would mean by the expanding of the novel in a political way.
D'Evelyn: Maybe that's what we're saying, that superior entertainment isn't enough anymore.
For a conversation on today's apocalyptic fiction, not to mention the humor in the word ``beige,'' please see today's Ideas section.