Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

Dressed up in the language of academia…
(…or Where’s my Gobbledegook-English dictionary?)

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

failure and the american writerIn recent years, in the fields of history and science, there has been a marked and welcome move towards academics writing books in language that makes them accessible to the wider public, while maintaining high standards of research and scholarship. Sadly, in my limited experience, this trend has not yet spread to the field of literary criticism. This book is so mired and obfuscated in academic gobbledegook language, that large parts of it are well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who only speaks standard English – which is unfortunate, since the glimpses I got into the author’s meaning suggested that the subject could be interesting.

As far as I could gather, the author’s argument seems to consist of three main points: that American literature of the 19th century and beyond tends to deal with the subject of failure; that the great writers of the 19th century struggled to find new literary forms in which to portray this literature of failure; and – it gets very unclear here and I may well be misrepresenting badly – that this struggle for form, combined with failures in the authors’ own lives, led directly or indirectly to their works themselves failing, especially in the eyes of contemporary critics and readers.

“Hawthorne and his Mosses” is Melville’s effort to account for Hawthorne’s relative lack of popularity, by laying blame on a market that purportedly valued literary trash over works of quality. Rather than studying the way to success, however, Melville’s essay offers an explicit theory of failure in a culture whose faltering standards of taste made failure seem a necessity, if not a condition of genius itself.

When I was a student, and even when writing policies in the workplace, I was always taught that you should “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”. If Jones had followed this simplistic but effective device, then his introduction would have made clear what his argument was going to be – unfortunately he leaps straight into his discussion of the works he has chosen to prove his argument without ever clarifying exactly what his argument is. And the conclusion, which I found I was eagerly anticipating, did little to elucidate. The result is that, having finished the book, I wasn’t much closer to getting Jones’ point than I was at the beginning. That’s not to say the book is uninteresting – just unfathomable in parts.

Critics have noted the “subjunctive” reality of Strether’s world, his enabling bewilderment and epistemological provisionalness. Placing this in historical context, Ross Posnock has described Strether’s groping and bewildered contemplation as a form of pragmatic fallibilism, which “emphasizes the self as contingent, inseparable from the process of experimental inquiry and interpretation…”

The first strand – that American authors tend to write about failure – seems clear and fairly indisputable. In each chapter, Jones concentrates on one author and usually on one particular work of that author. So in the chapter on Melville, for instance, while referring to many of his works, Jones concentrates on Moby Dick, while the chapter on Twain deals largely with Pudd’nhead Wilson. In each chapter, Jones sets the work into the context of the author’s life and the wider society of the time. His view is that the 19th century itself was felt to have been a failed century, with recurring economic problems, increasing mechanisation and subsequently urbanisation and the decline of the rural economy, and in particular the failure of the Civil War to lead to the kind of society that its proponents had envisaged.

…in Poe we see the glimmering of an attitude that looks forward to the modernist writers of the twentieth century: not a struggle with failure as a problem to be debated or transcended, but an acceptance of failure as an inevitable condition of identity, one of the necessitating qualities of a style.

The second and third strands are both more complex and less well-argued, in my view – certainly less clearly argued. Jones seems to be suggesting that it was the attempt to find ways to portray this failure that led to these great authors producing often messy books. He uses the authors’ own writings and contemporaneous critical and peer reviews of their works to back up his arguments, and to some degree he convinced me that some at least of the authors were indeed trying to find new literary forms. Where I found his argument completely unconvincing was that it was this that led to the contemporary failure of the books. Now, I have only read a handful of the books discussed, so I am basing my comments purely on Jones’ own analyses of them, but it seemed to me that in fact all he proved was that some of the books were simply badly written, and that the reasons for this varied from case to case. I also felt he proved indirectly that a form of intellectual elitism was creeping into the works of many of these authors which could be summed up as “if people don’t like my books, it’s because they’re stupid”, and that, in that sense, commercial and critical failure was almost seen as an endorsement of literary success (an attitude still very recognisable today, I fear). But his central argument, if I have grasped it at all, that the failure of the books was related to the authors’ attempts to find new forms to portray failure, remained unproven to me. But then maybe that’s not what he was trying to say at all!

In his phenomenological study, Paul Armstrong argues that James’ approach to man is most properly understood as ontic, not ontological: he is concerned with real existence, with experience, rather than with the properties of being.

Overall, I found the analyses of the various books and authors very interesting, but found the arguments so dressed up in the language of academia that they were hard to understand and, perhaps as a result, remained largely unproven, at least to me. I’m sure this book may be of great interest to other academics, but for the casual reader may prove a little disappointing, as ultimately it was for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

24 thoughts on “Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

  1. FictionFan – Your thoughtful and candid review highlights how very important effective communication is. No matter how strong an argument may be, if it’s not expressed clearly, then it hasn’t been communicated effectively. It sounds as though there’s an interesting set of arguments here,though.

    • I felt it was maybe the publisher who was at fault marketing the book as if for the general public. It really read more like an academic book or a text book. But I’d love literary criticism to follow history into accessibility…

  2. I hope you have respite for awhile from such blatherings. Overall, I prefer British literature to American. I have a few exception such as Poe and Twain. I think that British literature tends to a certain depth that is more often left out of American writing than included.

    • To be honest, I agree, although I’ve read very little American literature – hence the Great American Novel quest, which is beginning to change my mind a bit. But there’s no doubt, I think, that a lot of the greatest American literature does tend to concentrate on the misery of life… 😉

  3. Don’t think I’ll be reading this one. Rather arrogantly, the only literary critic for whose opinion I have any regard is me, having overdosed on Leavis and Quiller-Couch when I was young. And criticism which obscures (or obfuscates – love that word!) seems just a waste of the author’s effort and my time.
    By the way, the point about Pudden’head Wilson is that he wasn’t.

    • I agree – as you know, one of the reasons I dropped out of Eng Lit was fed-upness with being told what to think. But I’d enjoy lit-crit even if just to argue with, if only they’d catch up with historians and scientists in making their books readable…

  4. Good heavens! Well done you for continuing. I must admit the second quote produced an interesting reaction – a combination of falling asleep and hysteria. I was probably expressing enabling bewilderment, if not quite reaching the giddy heights of epistemological provisionalness.

    Now MY favourite literary critic was George Orwell, who could always speak plainly

    You have stickability in a much more disciplined manner than I have. I would have started screaming at subjunctive reality and by epistemological provisionalness the screaming would have reached ‘quick, sounds like serious agony, call the ambulance and get this case of whimpering hysteria to A + E fast’

    I appreciate your kindness in not remotely tempting an addtion to the TBR pile with this one..

    • The thing is that when the language gets as silly as this it does make me giggle – thus leading to enjoyment even if not quite as the author intended! That particular quote made me laugh out loud, as did the ontic/ontological one. I go on the basis that if I have to go to the dictionary more than three times in one sentence, either the author or myself has a problem… 😉

      Still, he’s convinced me I’m not the only person who thinks Moby Dick is a bad book, so I gained something…and the other couple of quotes are there to show that when he spoke English, he could be quite interesting…

  5. This book doesn’t sound like a TBR for me. I do think that a certain amount of “literary shenanigans” supplanted the effort to tell a good story (get the reader to turn the page) for some authors. But there’s such a broad range of fiction, it’s hard to say anything meaningful about the entire group. hmmm.

    • Yes, I think that’s true too – which is one of the reasons I felt he should probably have been abe to make the argument stand up better. But in fact he included some books where that clearly didn’t apply, and where the books were messy for other reasons – so either he didn’t prove the argument or I’m completely wrong about what he was trying to prove…which wouldn’t surprise me in the least!

  6. Ok, the very first quote set me on edge! What?! It’s like doctors: perhaps the language of the discipline makes one seem like he knows more about what he’s saying than he might?

    Anyway. :/

    • Indeed! But I’m sure it’ll just put people off reading the book, which is a pity, since I thought the subject was interesting and he clearly knew the books and auhtors inside out.

  7. The quoted passages very much prove your points! Why would anyone talk or write like this? I studied philosophy during my 11-year sojourn through undergrad, and one of my favorite books on philosophy of law and ethics was “Taking Rights Seriously” by Ronald Dworkin. Kind of says it all, and the text was that way, too. Plainspeaking in the matter or philosophy or literary criticism is always at a premium.

    If you ever get the urge to tread into the general field again, you might consider “Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970” by Morris Dickstein. From Mailer and Bellow and Roth, through Ellison and Baldwin, Nabokov and Salinger and Kerouac, to Cheever and Updike and the rest. “Dickstein shows how a daring band of outsiders reshaped the American novel and went on to dominate American fiction for the rest of the century.” So says the jacket copy, and I liked it quite a bit, even dip back into it still whenever I’m in the mood.

    • It’s so counter-productive. I bet loads of non-academic people would read well written lit-crit if more were available, just as there’s a huge market for history, science, philosophy etc. I enjoyed one I read recently on Le Fanu’s Carmilla – four different contributers of whom three wrote very accessibly and therefore interestingly, but the fourth fell into the same category as this one – hard to determine quite what the argument was supposed to be and therefore impossible to know if he had proved it.

      The Dickstein book looks very interesting particularly in view of the GAN quest. I’ll read the PDF you sent (for which much thanks) and see how I get on with his style. Despite my criticisms of this one, the actual analyses of the books were very interesting and as I get round to reading them, I may well find I’m referring back to this one too.

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