When I used to study novels, one of the things that annoyed me most was the idea that I was supposed to take moral instruction from them, as though the writers has somehow seen deeply into the nature of human life and had a wealth of profound wisdom to impart in the form of a story about men marrying their servants or discovering their true aristocratic heritage. I had a hard time believing that artists magically secure some special insight into the way ordinary people get along in society or that they were in anyway morally superior and were in a position to dispense lessons about what it means to be human. The humanistic mumbo jumbo about exposing oneself to the great works and getting in touch with the extent of human possibility seemed like self-serving bullshit meant to allow the instructor teaching the “great works” to shine in the halo of the nominated geniuses. Sometimes, if the writers themselves and their works weren’t held up as moral exemplars, the art of novel reading would be put forward as a morally edifying activity, one that taught readers how to be empathetic or more tolerant or more aware of the universal nature of suffering and joy and our potential as a species—another convenient and flattering trope for literature instructors, who can dress up close reading as a kind of casuistry that improves students’ moral calculation while setting teachers up as arbiters of what is most human. (Some of the ideas Hermione Lee surveys in this NYRB review of recent books about the grand enterprise of novel-reading echoes this theme, which is what suggested this topic to me.)
As much as I liked to have believe it was true, and as many insights about human life as I’ve been able to glean from novels, I remain skeptical of novel reading as an inherently moral activity. It seems to me that if you want to learn to be tolerant and empathetic, you probably need to actually spend time with other people learning about their ways firsthand and listening to what they have to say. Conducting a social life is a much more humanistic project than reading or writing novels—novel consumption seems a way to escape social life if the prospect of it frightens you. Novel reading seems a convenient substitute for conversation, a hassle-free way to indulge in the pleasures of society without having to actually listen when you don’t feel like it or come up with anything interesting to say yourself. When I was younger, I started reading novels out of loneliness and shyness, and if anything I tried to mask that fact from myself by dressing it up with the promise of edification. I read novels looking for those ideal interlocutors I was too tentative to search for in the real world.
The conclusion of Lee’s review seems to suggest something similar about writers, that they write in order to conjure up the perfect listener, to fulfill a social need. Far from being a crusade, novel writing is better considered an inward, compensatory discipline. Lee quotes a passage from Edith Wharton’s the Buccaneers to illustrate her point, setting it up thus:
The passage (in Chapter 28 of The Buccaneers, one of the last things she wrote) could also suggest the old novelist’s sense of having been on a long road of storytelling, a road stretching on beyond the last unfinished page of her books, speaking as if to the faithful reader of the novel, who will continue to exist after her own journey is over:
In this great lonely desert of life stretching out before her she had a friend—a friend who understood not only all she said, but everything she could not say. At the end of the long road on which the regular tap of the horses’ feet was beating out the hours, she saw him standing, waiting for her, watching for her through the night.