A longtime reader in Glasgow, Scotland, alerted me to an essay by a contemporary American novelist I had never heard of, Mary Gaitskill, who dithers a bit before finally settling on her theme: the loss of attentiveness and its impact on the way we read and write. She recalls a comment by another writer I don’t know, George Saunders, who sounds foolish when he objects to her positing a character in fiction “look[ing] out the window. The entire world is out the window, what does it look like to the character, the sky, the trees, the buildings[?]” She quotes Saunders saying: “Like anybody does that? Who looks out the window and thinks about trees? Only people in books do that.” Mr. Saunders doesn’t get around much. I smell a whiff of blind, probably academic snobbery.
Gaitskill then recounts the time she was speaking of John Updike’s penchant for adjective-heavy description: “[H]e described his worlds very, very densely.” Sharp as ever, Joyce Carol Oates responded, “People have moved on.” Gaitskill writes: “We’ve moved on from the world we live in? How is that possible?” Then she backtracks:
“Perhaps — let’s face it, probably — literature has moved on. We don’t look at the physical world as we once did, and so we don’t write about it as we once did. And that is just one way it is being taken for granted and abused to the point of destruction.”
Here she sounds inane. There’s an apologetic silliness to Gaitskill’s words, an adolescent quality. She’s afraid to defend the truth and offend people who say ridiculous things. We don’t want grownups to be strident or dogmatic but neither do we wish them to be so uncertain, so self-questioning as to be wishy-washy. And yet, she’s right, at least in part. Literature is in jeopardy, both its study and its creation. The threats are obvious – the digital world, the erosion of education at all levels, political busybodyism, etc.
After forty years, Gaitskill recalls the “natural reverence” of a group of boys on a train watching the “track flashing and going dark” as the engine accelerates. Today, those boys would likely be staring at their smartphones, not seeing wonder in the passing scene. Her example is sentimental but I buy it. She concludes:
“[T]he deep nature of stories can be revealed through descriptive imagery of small things irrelevant to the obvious narrative — unexpectedly poignant things we notice intensely or just out the corner of our eye, glimpsed patterns outside the spectrum of our daily lives.”
Literature is mortally dependent on attentiveness to the grand scene and the intimate detail. That’s not the same as Updike’s filigree, the adjectival gush. One of the wisest things Guy Davenport ever wrote comes in the final section of his Eudora Welty essay, “That Faire Field of Enna” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981):
“Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world. Ancient intuition went foraging after consistency. Religion, science, and art are alike rooted in the faith that the world is of a piece, that something is common to all its diversity, and that if we knew enough we could see and give a name to its harmony.”