Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Zadie Smith on EM Forster

E.M Forster (painted by Roger Fry)
EM Forster's A Room With A View was my first intimation of the possibilities of fiction: how wholly one might feel for it and through it, how much it could do to you. I felt it was very good and that the reading of it had done me some good. I loved it. I was too young, at 11, to realise serious people don't speak of novels this way. Soon enough, though, I grew up and grew serious; I became intellectually responsive to the text. And as serious young adults, we are thrilled to be able to talk of theme, of the mechanics of plot and the vicissitudes of character. Maybe we continue this interest and take it further, deciding to study novels in earnest, or even teach them, review them, or write them.
A peculiar thing happens at this point. We find that our initial affective responses are no longer of interest to the literary community in which we find ourselves. We are as Heraclitus described us: "Estranged from that which is most familiar." Suddenly this incommensurable "Love", and this other, more vague surmise - that the novel we loved was not simply "good" but even represented a Good in our lives - these ideas grow shameful and, after some time, are forgotten entirely, along with the novel that first inspired them. For no sensation empirical as love can have any importance as a "response" to novels qua novels. Can it?
There is something about love that does not sit well with the literary academy. We are aware that there is an emotive response for which the novel explicitly applies that is not properly requested by an atom or a rock formation or a chemical compound. Sensing the anomalous nature of this emotive quality within the university, we have resolved not to speak of it much. We recall the strategies by which FR Leavis secured the novel's status within the academy, treating the novel with circumspection; as if it were not quite a novel, but rather a piece of social history, or an example of moral philosophy, or a mission statement, or a piece of public policy. It did not matter, really, as long as the novel was seen to be treated rigorously and made relevant. Like Leavis, we are not quite sure that the novel as novel will do. An admission of love, in this context, would only be seen as weakness. And certainly, as an undergraduate, I was suspicious of the subjective affective response. I was suspicious of the Good in all its forms. I suspected the Good as a value that novels might possess; I was as loath to call one novel greater than another as I would be to gauge the relative value of two fossils. I called this canonical bias. I also suspected Good as a concept the novel might interrogate. I called this moralism. And more than anything, I suspected good as an emotional response, that "I love it!" which I had expressed as an 11-year old for A Room With A View . I called this sentimental. I didn't see the relevance of any of these things to my study.
At Cambridge at least, Roland Barthes did not fully convince my generation of readers that the text is a pleasure. We rejected the very idea that novels could either make us feel good or do us good, and along with this bathwater we threw out the baby who wailed that the ethical discussion has any relationship to the literary discussion. Our interest was analytical, not ethical. But I think now that there was, in fact, a sneaky, submerged ethic in our disdain for the novels that made us feel good, which seemed too simple and therefore (we believed) produced too much pleasure. Nietzsche would have considered us pathologically Christian in our literary habits. Oh yes, my generation liked to be in some pain when they read. The harder it was, the more good we believed it was doing us.
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