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Reader Rage, Henry James Hate

Henry and Edith Wharton (seated) at the turn of the century. The man on the right is covering a sign that says, "Don't begrudge them their art."

To start, we have two simmering, searing proclamations:

In A Temple of Texts, William Gass quoted Arnold Bennett’s book, Literary Taste:

…your taste has to pass before the bar of the classics. That is the point, if you differ with a classic, it is you who are wrong, and not the book. (6)

In the comments section of a wonderful article, “Henry James and the Joys of Binge Reading,” by Charles-Adam Foster-Simard at The Millions; a person called Bill had this to say:

Thanks so much, Ward, for explaining why James isn’t really worth reading. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of all those other neurotic feedback-dodgers who write impossibly long sentences, like Faulkner and Woolf. These folks aren’t artists so much as mentally disturbed loners, incapable of engaging in the rich, healthy social contact that Flesch and his short, simple sentences give us. I plan to go to every bookstore now and throw away all the copies of James I can find, since it’s insane that this self-absorbed reader-hater is still in print. I can’t understand it: it’s almost as if bookstores are trying, doubtless because of their own neuroses, to create the illusion that there are people out there who like to read James. But of course that can’t be true, not with someone who suffered from a prolonged lack of feedback.

To put the comment in context; previous commenter “Ward” had said:

In his book HOW TO MAKE SENSE, “readability” expert Rudolf Flesch related a story about Henry James, whom he described as spending “his whole literary life completely disregarding his readers.” The story has it that James and his friend Edith Wharton got lost while out riding in an automobile, and James asked an old man for directions:

“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer–so–…My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently *passed through* Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we are now in relation to High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station.”

When the old man stared at him dazedly, James continued: “In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

“Oh please, do ask him where King’s Road is,” Edith Wharton interjected.

James asked in another unnecessarily convoluted way, and the old man answered, “Ye’re on it.”

Flesch cites James’ style as an example of “neurosis from a prolonged lack of feedback.”

For the record, I would much rather have a Henry James-type spew an august proclamation in the name of help, instead of the tawdry declaration, “Where’s Canal Street?” so often heard  in the no-time big city.

How can such a long-dead expatriate inspire such responses? Why this need to fault the book, the sentences in the book and the author wrote them? Why this incessant need to blame and find fault (and this applies to the Bennett quote as well)? Does man truly hand on misery to man, Mr. Larkin? that misery forever deepening like a coastal shelf? Our society is full of people dodging responsibility, seeking scapegoats, making excuses, and assigning haywire judgments. I wouldn’t argue that books are as innocent as small furry animals, but like a Redwood, a maple, a river, or a butte they have their own nature. If one doesn’t like to swim, one shouldn’t get in the water–or chide the water and the swimmers that thrive there.

I want to end with Gass from his Believer interview. He spoke of teaching MFA students in the late 90’s:

And I made them read Henry James. And some kid said, Well, he must’ve been all right in his time. I wanted to hit him.

17 thoughts on “Reader Rage, Henry James Hate

  1. working my way through james’s “the ivory tower” right now–or what exists of it. it was nearly unreadable in the beginning, but then i settled into the overlap, the comma chunking, and it’s become a real pleasure.

    that final quote reminds me of why i love gass. people should always be honest about wanting to hit other people. that doesn’t mean we should actually hit them. but we should be honest about when we’d like to hit them. impulses explain us to ourselves.

    1. You’ll have to tell me what you thought of the Ivory Tower. Does it just stop? As in, he came this far, or is the end more smogged over by someone else?

      Agreed on the hitting.

      1. Hey Greg,

        It’s slow going right now, and I’m rereading the short stories of Gogol at the same time, but we’ll have us a James talk as soon as I’m done.

        And yes, it just stops. I believe The Ivory Tower was a proposed ten books, and James only finished three. No smogging whatsoever.

    2. The Ivory Tower is an interesting choice, David. I’ve always wanted to do a study of unfinished novels. It’d be interesting, for instance, to compare it, and many others, to The Pale King, DFW’s forthcoming unfinished novel.

      1. Then there is the study of unfinished films. For me, EYES WIDE SHUT would be at the top of the list.

        Apparently the first World War shut James down from continuing work on THE IVORY TOWER. He went to visiting the war wounded. “How can what is going on not be to one as a huge horror of blackness?” he says in one of his letters at the time.

      2. I like the idea of unfinished novels–ever since I read Kafka’s Amerika when I was a teenager–knowing that you’re reading something ragged, it makes the reading experience more interactive, at least from a writerly standpoint. Imagining what they might have done, what you would have done, etc.

        Lily Hoang’s Unfinished project. I thought that was/is a great idea.

        I picked up the Ivory Tower, to be honest, because the NYRB edition has a huge skull on the cover and I thought it looked neat. I kind of like skulls a lot.

  2. Haters, by definition, will hate, especially the kind of hater colloquially defined as a person who disapproves, or is envious of, another person’s success; those haters acting on their hate by slinging mud and other filth, in order to obscure a brightness that blinds them, exposes them, shames them; many of those haters sounding very much like that fox with its soured grapes, that cat with its stinky meat; those haters imagining themselves Davids facing Goliaths, when what they are are ants about to be crushed under a David’s foot; those haters, instead of admitting their defeat at having failed to climb Mount Everest, calling that mountain a molehill.

    1. Marvelous monstrosity (def. 3a in Merriam-Webster’s) of a sentence, complete with biblical reference. Can this be filed under the whole “haters” phenomenon of recent months? filed as a new thesis in the war?

  3. I remember once visiting Lamb House in Rye (which was subsequently the home of E.F. Benson and then Rumer Godden, though you’d hardly know it from the displays there), and they had two pages from one of James’s letter laid out on a table. The first page opened in mid-sentence, and the sentence hadn’t concluded by the end of the second page. I spent ages trying to work my way through it and realised there was no way I could make sense of this partial sentence. And for that I can understand the people who hate his work.

    But at the same time this is the man who wrote ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Aspern Papers’ which are pretty damned close to ideal. You can’t have one without the other.

  4. I don’t think there is any “hate” involved here. “Ward” and Rudolf Flesch don’t particularly like Henry James & his long-windedness, but I don’t think either wants to “hit” Henry (the Gass quote is fxxxxxx hysterical). And the comment from “Bill” is clearly ironical.

    For the record, I adore Henry’s sentences … which are so long and unwieldy they should unquestionably topple over, ass over heels–and yet THEY DON’T. It’s an incredible balancing act, maybe best exhibited by the opening sentences of THE GOLDEN BOWL.

    1. Though the internet is hyperbole central (hence the title to the article), I don’t think Bill’s comment is ironic. I could be wrong. He did call James “a reader hater” and a “mentally disturbed loner.” To my mind, however much disturbance dwells in there, all I have seen and heard in my life leads me to believe when people say they “are just kidding” or “being ironic” about something, they really aren’t. Cutting remarks are cutting remarks. Words as weapons, words enlisted by the ego to insure survival of the fittest ego.

      I wonder if I am “just kidding” as I write this – kidding myself about being able to be kidding about being deeply disturbed.

  5. Greg,
    I’m the guy who wrote The Millions essay on Henry James — thanks for the mention and everything. Of course, I couldn’t agree more with your point. I thought of responding with the hater, but then, what was the point? As we all know, haters will always be haters, and it was clear from his poorly formed and circular (and rather violent) argument that he would never go in for compromise.

    I never can understand why people feel the need to place themselves in such extreme, clear cut positions, rejecting everything else in the spectrum. I quite like Henry James, I think he’s worth reading, but I’m not placing myself in a position when I declare he’s a genius through and through and all of his works are masterpieces and everyone should be forced to read them. Of course not. Some of Henry James is really, truly amazing; some of it is flawed and dreadfully boring. Someone else may argue differently, but rejecting all of James outright sounds like ignorance.

    And I knew about that story where James asks for directions — it’s a great story. But as Al Alvarez mentions in The Writer’s Voice, I think you have to make a distinction between James as a person and James as a writer: “In Life, James’ pathological hesitancy was by turns absurd, hilarious, and frustrating; in his novels, however, pathology becomes a narrative device, a way of creating something a delicate web of insinuation by which he reveals his sly, sidelong intimations of immortality. Adultery, for example, is never exposed, it is merely hinted at.”

    Anyway, I’m happy most of the comments were positive, and that so many people declared their fidelity to the Master. It gives me hope that a handful of people will keep on reading him, despite his apparent un-readability.


    1. Thanks for checking in Charles. I highlighted the comments maybe to rouse those who have the opinions that Gass’s student might espouse. I think that is sometimes the unsaid reasoning behind leaving some things unread.

      Without ever reading James I whipped through “Portrait” furiously. I think that might be one of the most “readable” novels I ever read, but I guess in the bang bang world, a long description of a house in England might not be a cattle call to readability (the first few pages of the novel), though the whole novel is about objects, human and not. Compared to some of the literary fiction today, James almost seems Modernist.

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