The other day I was reading about Booth Tarkington. If you haven’t heard of him–as I hadn’t until just recently–he was a novelist in the early 20th-century. Apparently, he was quite famous in his day, but has since been largely forgotten. Wikipedia informs us:
By the later twentieth century, however, he was ignored in academia: no congresses, no society, no journal of Tarkington Studies. In 1985 he was cited as an example of the great discrepancy possible between an author’s fame when alive and oblivion later. According to this view, if an author succeeds at pleasing his or her contemporaries — and Tarkington’s works have not a whiff of social criticism — he or she is not going to please later readers of inevitably different values and concerns.
Think about that second sentence a while. Chew on it. Do you think this is true? (By the way, although Wikipedia doesn’t say so directly, I’m assuming this is a close paraphrase of the cited text.)
I have recently been part of a discussion, started by Mark Paxson, about whether writing needs to have a point. The overwhelming consensus I’ve heard is, “No, it doesn’t. It just needs to tell a good story.” Anyone who subscribes to the theory Wikipedia describes above is implicitly saying that it does need to have a point.
Who would say this? I’ll tell you who: a critic. Critics are always looking for the point in any work of fiction. I should know, being one myself and constantly trying to tease out the hidden deeper meaning in things.
Critics, according to this theory, are who keep books relevant. The thinking goes, in order to preserve an author’s works as significant, there must be something in it for the critics to evaluate and discuss. Naturally, critics are big proponents of this idea. (I like to imagine all the important literary critics gathering to celebrate their control of authors’ legacies, ideally singing a song similar to this Simpsons classic.)
But the problem is that this theory is blatantly wrong. From what little I’ve read of Tarkington, his writing reminds me of Wodehouse. Wodehouse, whose works contain barely any social criticism and unabashedly take place in some sort of eternal “Edwardian never-never land,” is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the English language, exactly because his books transport readers to another world.
I suppose one could write a critical academic analysis of Wodehouse, but I think it would just come across as ridiculous. Such was Wodehouse’s mastery of comedy that you cannot even begin to consider his works in a normal, “serious” fashion. Something in their comic spirit defies it.
If you try hard enough, I suppose you can impose intertextual and social commentary on anything. Again, if I haven’t demonstrated this repeatedly on this blog, I don’t know what more I can do. But is that necessary to ensuring an author’s works live on? Somehow I don’t think it is.
Still, there must be some reason I never heard of the guy until now, despite living in the American Midwest, with which his work is (or was) as closely identified as Twain’s is with the Mississippi or Steinbeck’s with California. I wonder what the reason is.