How Generous Is Your Favorite Writer?
Classifying writers is problematic but irresistible. In 1939, Philip Rahv spoke of “palefaces and redskins” to explain the main currents in American literature. In 1978, John Gardner created a stir with On Moral Fiction when he separated writers who evinced a serious moral purpose from those who were frivolous (or worse). In 2000, James Wood came out against “hysterical realism” which, as far as I can recollect, had something to do with the pitfalls of mixing hyperventilation and prose.
Of course, these classifications instantly found detractors, and these detractors often went on to propose dubious classifications of their own. Readers, whether foxes or hedgehogs, are often eager to divide writers into sheep and goats. I confess that I’m no exception. Lately I’ve started mentally distinguishing between writers who are good tippers and those who are not. I can’t claim certainty, but sometimes you can just tell.
Does this writer feel generous? Or stingy? The generous writers inspire my affection (hello, William Trevor! what can I get you?) while the stingy ones, however competent or even brilliant, earn only my respect (oh, it’s you again, Mr. DeLillo. The usual?). I believe that this approach, though admittedly lacking in rigor and surely not to everyone’s liking, will be understandable to many readers, as well as to anyone who’s ever tended bar or delivered pizzas.
Of course, I’m not speaking literally; I’m talking about generosity as a critical value. For all I know, Richard Ford routinely leaves forty per cent restaurant tips and inquires after the waiter’s children. It’s only on the page that he seems like a tightass. (Why? I think it has something to do with the implied author’s superiority over so many characters, which feels, to this reader, as somehow unearned.)
Maybe the real Zadie Smith is a jerk and always complains about the risotto, which is just as bad as the last time she ordered it. (I don’t know; I’ve never met Smith.) But, on the page, I have the impression of encountering someone who is trying to listen to characters, including those who are less clever than she is. She’s generous.
Over the years this quality has come to matter to me more than fashions and the ever dubious idea of hip. Being “hip” titillated when I was in my twenties, but now it seems like just another form of parochialism. In academic circles, generosity makes many careerists nervous. (I know this first-hand: I see it at my day job.) Generosity disarms authority, and it doesn’t feel smarter-than-thou. For some calculating souls, generosity is mistakenly viewed as not “subversive” enough to feed a career.
Still, I’m happy to say that my classification system is more than just a personal whim. For instance, George Orwell’s long essay “Charles Dickens” (1939) has plenty to say about Dickens’ faults, his naive politics and excesses of style (“The characters simply go on and on, behaving like idiots, in a kind of eternity”), but the essay concludes with a ringing endorsement of Dickens because he is “generously angry.” This, for Orwell, redeems him and provides a healthy antidote to the “smelly orthodoxies” of modern times.
Note how Orwell doesn’t hesitate to couple generosity with anger. Being generous doesn’t mean that you’re a wuss or a pushover. Nor does it have anything to do with being prolific. T.C. Boyle’s imagination is indisputably fertile (22 books!) and he’s probably cooked up as many characters as Dickens but, when it comes to generosity, can he compare to George Saunders? Saunders has written “only” a few skinny collections of short stories, but in the best of his stories he achieves the peculiar beauty of an autistic Jesus.
(Thank you, George!)
Also: generosity shouldn’t be confused with having one’s heart or head in the right place. As much as I respect Cynthia Ozick’s high seriousness, it cannot make up for a certain pinched quality to her imagination.
Nor should generosity be flaunted, lest it undermine itself and call too much attention to the giver. Jonathan Franzen is, to his credit, a generous writer — exhaustively so, as each character gets his or her due, with a thoroughness that can leave the reader with the sense that someone is trying very hard to keep score. Remember the parable of the widow’s mite? Maybe a less ostentatious form of generosity would be a greater cause for rejoicing.
(Keep working at it, Jonathan.)
Of course, now I’m being churlish. Even perverse. I shouldn’t second-guess the kindness of a stranger. Actually, all the writers that I’ve mentioned in this piece (including the ones I’ve accused of stinginess) are important and worth reading and, in various ways, admirable. I haven’t spoken of any writers who seem to me a waste of time because life is too short to focus on dreck when there are still so many good books to read.
Besides, it would be ungenerous.
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