‘How Real People Think’: Reality in Fiction and the Question of How to Read

Seidel. (Courtesy poetryfoundation.org)

Seidel. (Courtesy poetryfoundation.org)

Frederick Seidel, in an essay on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers in the latest New York Review of Books, makes that assertion you hear so frequently in book reviews: the novel doesn’t seem “real”:

One of the problems of the book is that while lots of people in it have lots to say about many things, important things included, the things they say never sound like what real people might say, like real thoughts or real speech. The book keeps being entertaining (except for the really bad bits) and keeps being unconvincing.

What snags my attention here is not that I think The Flamethrowers is a success and Mr. Seidel doesn’t, but rather that Mr. Seidel’s criticism rests on the novel’s failure to remind him of his own experience of life. It’s most glaring when he takes down Ms. Kushner for her writing about motorcycles:

They are not very convincing motorcycles, nor are the accounts of how it feels to go fast particularly convincing. I like motorcycles. The race bikes I myself have ridden have mostly been Ducatis, made in Bologna.

Critic and author both know their bikes. Ms. Kushner races them, as she explained to The Believer; Mr. Seidel has ridden them for years, as he recounted in Harper’s. On the surface, then, Mr. Seidel would seem to be starting a good-natured pissing match. It’s hard for me to believe that Ms. Kushner would have gotten the nuts and bolts of motorcycles fundamentally wrong—that she would have said “batwing fairing” when she really meant “dolphin fairing,” although of course it’s possible that she did. But Mr. Seidel isn’t talking about details; he’s talking about experience. He doesn’t recognize the way Ms. Kushner’s bikes feel. It’s a subjective complaint, and Mr. Seidel acknowledges as much with his tone—the sweetly self-mocking “I myself” indicates he takes his quibble as seriously as it deserves.

And yet a much larger argument about reading may be hidden between these lines. When Mr. Seidel introduces the idea of a real-seeming motorcycle, or of “real thoughts or real speech,” he raises the question of who real people are, and how they talk. Assuming he considers himself a real person, and assuming that we believe his implications that “real people” are alike and can be described, a real person—a person against whom we could measure the realness of fictional characters—is a person who resembles the 77-year-old Harvard-educated white American poet and critic Frederick Seidel. A real person is always the reader.

Before this becomes an assault on privileged white gentlemen of letters—for which, see pretty much anywhere—I should say that my observations about Mr. Seidel could apply equally to a critic who came from no cultural privilege and dismissed a Henry James novel as un-lifelike. It’s the implications of Mr. Seidel’s criticism—not Mr. Seidel as a figure—that I’m interested in.

If you start from a belief in a “real” human experience, novels can turn into reminders of what you already think. We fall in love like this; we hurt each other like that; political systems have this or that kind of effect on our private lives. Every time you read a book review that praises a novel for “reminding us who we are” or illuminating our “shared humanity,” you are reading an example of this self-consoling type of criticism. You’re also reading something faintly ideological, in the way that any appeal to a “we” always is.

Mr. Seidel again: “None of what’s happening to [Kushner's main character] seems real because it isn’t. It almost is, it wants to be, or wants to seem to be, but isn’t.”

I don’t envy him his certainty about how things are. I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that a novel didn’t resemble the “real,” because I’m not sure I know what that is. However: I suspect that this uncertainty is partly what makes a person a good reader. Whereas Mr. Seidel seems to read to have his suspicions about reality confirmed, it can be nice, at least occasionally, to have one’s suspicions dismantled and rearranged. I am infinitely less certain than Mr. Seidel that I understand what I read. But I do think I’ve read enough to recognize writers through their language, and I know when I’m in the presence of someone who deserves my time and trust.

So I give it to them by reading them. And what I’ve gotten back is an appreciation of two things: that people are different from each other, and that there is no “real life” or any way that “real people talk.” (This is not to say—not even close—that there’s no such thing as objectivity.) When I read the sections of The Flamethrowers that are intended to be mimetic, what I see is that the particular circumstances of the ’70s art world in New York produced and were produced by a particular type of person, and that this type of person is not the type I am. Ms. Kushner’s novel can feel “unreal” to me, just as it does to Mr. Seidel. We’re observing the same thing, I think. But the evidence leads us to different conclusions. What “unrealness” tells me is that my reality, rather than the book’s, might need expanding.

Larissa MacFarquar, in her profile in The New Yorker of Hilary Mantel, argues that an appreciation of the un-likeness between ourselves and others is a pre-req for a good historical novelist. A simple point, but it’s exactly the opposite of what’s more frequently said about historical novels, that they show us how people resemble each other across time. Ms. MacFarquar: “It is necessary to know that the people who lived [in the past] are not the same as people now.”

Humans aren’t constant across time. They’re not even constant across a New York City street.

IN THE MOST RECENT issue of Harper’s—the magazine where I work—there’s an essay by Mark Edmundson that does to contemporary poetry a bit of what Mr. Seidel does to The Flamethrowers. It’s incited the kind of debate that editors and writers hope for, partly because of the forcefulness of its central claim, which is:

Contemporary American poetry speaks its own confined language, not ours…the standard is all for inwardness and evasion, hermeticism and self-regard: beautiful, accomplished, abstract poetry that refuses to be the poetry of our climate.

What I want respectfully to pounce upon is the phrase “not ours.” The contention—shared by many people who are frustrated by the perceived obscurantism of contemporary poetry—is that poetry used to speak for a collective, and now speaks for a few. Mr. Edmundson loves Robert Lowell, for instance, because he “call[ed] things as he believed them to be not only for himself but for all his readers.” Here are his favorite lines from Lowell’s “Walking Early Sunday Morning”:

Pity the planet, all joy gone

from this sweet volcanic cone;

peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

“Poets,” he writes, “almost never do this sort of thing anymore.” My personal opinion is that’s not such a bad thing, but what’s more important is the underlying theory, that poetry has the capability of being universal.

“Adrienne Rich has no little to say and is not without ambition,” Mr. Edmundson observes, I think accurately. Then he criticizes her for being un-Lowell-like: “but except in her love poems and some of the early lyrics, the gift for artful expression is not hers.” Expression is a loaded term in that sentence. I think it means something close to “expressing my thoughts and feelings.” And if it does, then Mr. Edmundson is correct. Adrienne Rich doesn’t speak for him. For me either.

Here’s another example—Mr. Edmundson on an excerpt from Jorie Graham’s “The Dream of the Unified Field”: “The lines are portentous,” he says, “without touching on any fundamental truth of human experience.” The lines:

Gone as they hit the earth. But embellishing.

Flourishing. The road with me on it going on through. In-

scribed with the present. As if it really

were possible to exist, and exist, never to be pulled back

in, given and given never to be received. The music

of the footfalls doesn’t stop, doesn’t

mean. Here are your things, I said.

The poet is bringing her daughter a leotard for ballet practice. So in one sense, these lines are about mothers and daughters. They’re about giving your kid up to the world. Later, Ms. Graham will watch her daughter dancing through the window of the practice studio and think: “Child, / what should I know / to save you that I do not know, hands on this windowpane?” These lines describe an experience that I have never had and will never have. At the same time, Ms. Graham seems to demand that I meet her between my reality and hers.

This is what’s at stake here, what I would genuinely like to learn from critics like Mr. Seidel and Mr. Edmundson. What can I do, as a reader, when I confront work that doesn’t reflect my own experience of life? There may not be a more important question.

Because here’s the thing: our sense of the “real” is a product of our culture. At the same time, any good book, when it first appears, will almost by definition be at a perpendicular angle to our culture – will have to seem, in a word, “unrealistic.” And the irony is that the very same guys who criticize these books for being “unrealistic” will be the first people to acknowledge how revolutionary Robert Lowell was, how surprising Virginia Woolf. Which is not to say that The Flamethrowers is The Waves, and Mr. Seidel missed it—it’s to say that if it were, it might have swum through his net. Critics, like readers, have an obligation to self-doubt.