Wednesday, September 24, 2014

`A Kind of Eccentric Attraction'

Three cheers for the “minor” writer. Major status has more to do with marketing than enduring literary worth. The first readers of Tolstoy and Henry James may have suspected their men were major, but as contemporaries they were in no position to say so categorically. Time is the judge. I’ll cite one of David Myers’ diktats: “Read no book before it is ten years old (in order not to be influenced by the buzz).” 

Matt Hunte told me he learned of Henry Green’s novels from something I had written. I referred him to Isaac Rosenfeld’s withering 1950 review of Nothing in which he insists that Green “…is not a major novelist, that he does not have a major sensibility, and that his work, granting its excellence, is nevertheless quite small.” My instinctive reaction is to accuse Rosenfeld of snobbery, perhaps reverse-snobbery because Green wielded a snobbish English club of his own. 

I would suggest that to call a writer “minor” is not necessarily to damn him. Green and Rosenfeld both are minor if that means neither of them is Proust. But literary judgments are not mutually exclusive. I’ll go on happily rereading Rosenfeld and Green – especially Green – without jeopardizing my love of Proust or any of the other bona fide major-leaguers. Matt replied, interestingly: “Yes, Rosenfeld described Green as a minor writer, which I suppose is fair if we're using the definition Guy Davenport did here.” Asked by the interviewer how he would situate himself “in American (and other) literature,” Davenport replies: “As a minor prose stylist.” He goes on: 

“A major work takes its art to a high perfection and is usually innovative (Dante and Shakespeare would be the great examples here). More importantly, the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying. `Of inexhaustible interest,’ said Pound. 

“Minor writers may have charm, a polished finish, and a kind of eccentric attraction. Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, Michael Gilbert -- fine fellows and impeccable stylists, but when compared to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, or Proust, minor. I would place Poe and Borges among the minors, splendid as they are. They are narrow. A Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them. 

“I am a minor writer because I deal in mere frissons and adventitious insights, and with things peripheral.” 

This shouldn’t be mistaken for false modesty or the ersatz humility of an artificially bloated ego. Davenport rightly weighs his worth. Only the broadly read can make such judgments and stand by them convincingly. I love Colette but feel no impulse to burden her with superlatives. She doesn’t need my help, and hype only hurts. Here is Joseph Epstein on a favorite from the minor leagues: “Max Beerbohm was the world's greatest minor writer, with the full oxymoronic quality behind that epithet entirely intended.”

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