greengang asked: After reading your most recent article, I have a few questions (though I'm having trouble putting them into words). Is highly crafted/symbolically dense plot insincere? Is it possible to judge a piece of writing based on how "sincere" it is and how does one disconnect this from judging how the authors lived their lives? What reason is there to return to a text that eschews density/one that one can conclude is the personal experience of the author?
Thanks for your interest. First, it must be emphasized that symbolism, in itself, was not our writer’s complaint. Symbolism is one element of the obsession with subtext in general (what Saul Bellow refers to as “deep reading”), which also includes themes, ironic discrepancies, authorial intentions and other things. In his essay, Bellow argues that there is a distinction between symbolism and deep reading: one does not necessarily entail the other. With deep reading, as Bellow says, “Things are not what they seem.” Sincerity is the alignment of statement and meaning; and so deep reading (or deep writing) must necessarily be insincere.
This is not the case with what Bellow calls a “true symbol”, such as “the handkerchief from Othello”, and, we presume, the skull of Yorick from Hamlet. Deep reading devalues the surface by making it secondary to subtext, while a true symbol, one might surmise, expands the surface. The symbolism of Yorick’s skull creates no disconnect between the bare facts of the play and their “meaning”, but rather adds a flourish to the surface: Yorick is dead; Hamlet ponders death; Yorick’s skull, in all of its particularity, is a symbol of death.
Ernest Hemingway, another American Nobel laureate, expressed related ideas in a 1954 article published by Time:
In the past, hardly anyone ever suspected Hemingway novels of symbolism. Then, in The Old Man and the Sea, people saw symbols—the old man stood for man’s dignity, the big fish embodied nature, the sharks symbolized evil (or maybe just the critics).
“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.
But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things. The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”
A rich, even exaggerated (“truer than true”) surface is the most meaningful thing. The Old Man and the Sea is meaningful for the very reason that it rejects “meaning”, which is to say the kind of meaning found in subtext.
As for your second question, no connection exists between judging an author’s life and judging the sincerity of their writing. A work of fiction is sincere if its contents are allowed to be themselves. If fiction is about surface, then it is not necessary to refer to subtext—including the author’s intentions—to determine a work’s sincerity. This is because it makes no sense at all to ask what Hemingway, for instance, meant when he wrote about the Old Man. His fiction is about the surface: its ”meaning” is nothing other than the events themselves and the feelings that they inspire in the reader.
Finally, the purpose of “A new beginning for American literature” was not to lobby for the death of density and the revival of autobiographical fiction. Both of these things are happening already. The idea was to ask for a return to true density—the kind offered by particularity. The fiction that relies most on subtext is, in fact, the shallowest. As Bellow writes, “Still the knowledge of even the sophisticated is rather thin, and even the most wised-up devils, stuffed to the ears with arcana, turned out to be fairly simple.” Bellow and Hemingway, not John Updike and those like him, were the ones who wrote dense books.