Phil Klay’s remarks about finding purpose in writing sent me back to some first principles. Why write? Why read? Aside from the utilitarian requirement to impart factual and useful information, what after all is the function of writing, and the use or reading, let us say of literature?
To help me with this question, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, which was to break out the folder I keep of clippings from the London Times Literary Supplement, or TLS. From time to time I try to cull from my ever-increasing pile of old TLS copies clippings of reviews and articles I favor because they were on a subject that interested me, or because they contained some especially good lines, or maybe because I might want to buy a book under review and the clipping would serve as a reminder, usually complete with price and publisher. Of course, it is sometimes an inconvenience if the book is not yet published in the US, but that obstacle can usually be overcome.
One review that I came across is of Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, The Greeks and Us (TLS March 22 2019). Critchley’s book makes the argument that “tragedy is the experience of moral ambiguity.” Reviewer Simon Goldhill writes “Tragedy was there first and continues to haunt philosophy’s claims to the high ground of disciplinary authority.” This is an interesting take on the ethical function of tragedy, one that goes back to the origins of both tragedy and philosophy. A similar claim might be made for the novel, which like tragedy may be said to address the “constitutive ambiguities of moral discourse.” Some novels also bear a formal resemblance to tragedy. In fact this might be said of Missionaries. Not only does the novel end with the stage in effect littered with corpses, but it may also be useful to consider Juan Pablo as a tragic figure. He survives, but he has lost an element of his humanity that we see in development and in decline.
The July 9 2018 TLS reprinted part of a BBC radio lecture by Howard Jacobson titled “Why the novel matters.” Jacobson says that “it’s peculiar to the novel to empower readers …stirring in them intimations of creative energy. The better a novel is, the more we feel it’s been found among the ruins of the language we share.” In Jacobson’s view, the complexity of a great novel’s language and structure is what enables us to navigate the complexities of human motives and interactions. Reading novels can turn you into a novelist. Can it also, to paraphrase Jacobson, activate our best self? Jacobson links creativity energy and our ethical selves. Novels can give us the ability to rise above social conditioning and prejudice to relate to others on a personal, human level. He uses the example of Tolstoy, whose private and creative self was freed to empathize with Anna Karenina in way that his public, evangelical self could not.
Why write? In a review of some books on troubled teens and children in the TLS of July 21 2006, Terri Apter discusses the use of personal narrative as a tool to build emotional intelligence and resilience. Apter writes of the counselors reviewing the narratives of resilient and non-resilient teens –
They came to realize that the significant questions to ask were: does a speaker stick to generalizations, or can she see nuance within a situation? Is a story flexible and inclusive, or closed and static? Does the speaker welcome opportunities for change or resist them? Are relationships tolerated, recruited, or rejected as threats? Can a speaker focus on emotionally taxing experiences or does she respond with vagueness, avoidance, confusion, or by changing the subject?
In other words, the teens capable of telling stories that had some of the traits of good fiction also tended to be more resilient and better at learning lessons and moving on from their mistakes. The review mentions a related study on an aging rather than an adolescent population, drawing some of the same conclusions. The ability to tell good stories reflects and perhaps helps to develop the ability to manage the challenges of our own lives, and the ability to tell stories can be developed by reading them, the better ones especially.
Not all novelists nor all avid readers are wonderful people, of course. Nor can a regimen of healthy diet and exercise ensure long life and good health, but writing, reading, vegetables and exercise all seem to help. I’ll end with two quotations recently found-
I know many books which have bored their readers
But none I know which has done real evil. – Voltaire
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. – Jane Austin