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.