Thursday, March 30, 2023

'Down With the Serious and Sincere Reader'

“What is the importance of sincerity in literature,” asks Theodore Dalrymple in These Spindrift Pages (Mirabeau Press, 2023), “(assuming that it can be gauged with anything like accuracy)?”


Sincerity is no virtue. Art, after all, is a lie that tells the truth. Even sociopaths can be sincere. No talent required. In literature it’s usually camouflage for mediocrity. When all else fails – imagination, precise observation, learning, memorable language – be sincere. Was the librarian-poet Philip Larkin being sincere when he wrote that “Books are a load of crap”? Was Max Beerbohm when he said “to die of laughter—that, too, seems to me a great euthanasia”? And what of Jonathan Swift’s sincerity when he noted that Irish babies are “a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout”? Dalrymple is just getting warmed up:

“[S]incerity in the service of something abominable is frightening, and makes the abominable all the more abominable. I think in particular of the writer and soi-disant philosopher, Ayn Rand, who oozed monomaniac sincerity like a secretion and who, mysteriously to me (given her deeply unattractive character) became the leader of a powerful cult. Her fiction is wooden, humourless, simplistic and interminable. She must have been one of the very few modern authors to have written an apology for rape; and her philosophy, with its worship of size, power and ruthlessness, is repellent. But she was sincere all right.”


One remembers Whittaker Chambers’ famous evisceration of Rand and her stillborn novel Atlas Shrugged in “Big Sister Is Watching You”: “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.”


Back to sincerity in literature: In his note to line 172 in the poem “Pale Fire” in his novel of the same name, Nabokov has the mad Charles Kinbote quote the poet John Shade, who is criticizing the less imaginative among his students: “I am also in the habit of lowering a student’s mark catastrophically if he uses ‘simple’ and ‘sincere’ in a commendatory sense. . . . When I hear a critic speaking of an author’s sincerity I know that either the critic or the author is a fool.”


In a 1962 interview with Jacob Bronowski, Nabokov echoed his fictional poet: “Another special aversion of mine is the epithet ‘sincere.’ How can a conjuror be serious or sincere—and a good artist is always a conjuror. . . . Down with the serious and sincere reader. After all, not all readers are children who ask if the story is true.”


Let’s leave sincerity to the authors of greeting cards and ransom notes.


[The Bronowski interview can be found in Nabokov’s Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (Knopf, 2019).] 

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

And I though having a "deeply unattractive character" was a positive requirement for leading a powerful cult.