On Literary Criticism and the Cult of Author Worship
There are some books you wish would never end (and in fact one reviewer of Bridge Across the Ocean wrote those same words) and some books you just can’t wait until they end. You finish reading them out of respect for the author but keep fanning the remaining pages, wishing they would hurry along. Such was my feeling reading Hermione Hoby’s novel, Virtue.
If I had to choose one word to characterize this narrative, I would have to say it’s maudlin. There is no plot to speak of; the characters drift and wander through the days and seasons of life as if the first-person narrative by Luca Lewis was nothing more than entries in his diary. Luca is utterly maudlin; he is boring, self-absorbed, and lacks any semblance of self-esteem or purpose in life. The author may have intentionally made him a pitiful (but not pitiable) example of a certain type of millennial male. Or perhaps she is a misandrist. I don’t know. Was Luca an archetypal literary anti-hero in the vein of Ihab Hassan’s classic definition? “If the antihero seems to be enjoying just now something of an estime d’insuccès, it is probably because we have seen him often enough in the ambience of Zen, jazz, junk, and copulation.” He wrote that in 1959.
I didn’t like Luca, nor did I root for him, nor did I for any of the other characters; and perhaps this was the author’s intent, to write a shiftless novel about shiftless, unenviable people – with the possible exception of Luca’s misguided doppelganger, Zara. None were virtuous, so we are left assuming Hoby was intent on deconstructing virtue as a human trait as well, as Luca himself says:
“I was a thing that had to fuck Paula, because my no was louder than hers, my no was a bigger fury, all the nos I hadn’t said in my life seeming for this moment fused into a single mass. No to being a babysitter. No to having a gift corrupted and stolen. No to a lanyard around my neck. No to every dish I washed and every sock I balled. No to being supposed to apologize for being a man.”
If Ms. Hoby’s intent was writing a snarky, scathing work of deconstructionism, she has certainly succeeded.
It seems that Ms. Hoby has a stunning vocabulary, which she sports and preens throughout the book to the point of exhausting this reviewer. Whenever a simple word would do (think Strunk & White), she uses one which is obscure and quite often incomprehensible. I recently listened to a podcast with several experts on the Italian author Elena Ferrante in which one of the commentators praised the author’s writing for being “void of pretension.” That certainly could not be said of Ms. Hoby:
“. . . Paula’s redoubtable voice, all her irrepressible vivacity in full saturation . . .”
“Her ebullient cursive, some sprezzatura of haste, irrepressible and hers, looking like no one else’s with those greedy ligatures ladling up scoops of space beneath, all appetite.”
What are we to make of this? Is Hoby attempting to communicate Luca’s highbrow intellect, or is this her own writing style? Curious, I found an essay she had published in The Paris Review and sure enough:
“There’s a reassuringly obdurate quality of repetition to cliché; it produces the same quieting effect as hearing the jolly theme to a long-running TV show, that credit music you’ve heard hundreds of times before. The French word, in fact, is onomatopoeic, meant to conjure the sound of a metal printing plate, a term which suggests identical copies turned out, ad infinitum. Second, and this is more germane to the moment, clichés provide comfort in being sites of consensus.”
Hoby fancies herself a “culture critic,” but to my mind, is that not true of every author writing fiction or nonfiction? How can we separate our perceptions and opinions of what – and whom – we write about from the stories we tell? Well, we cannot. And while each of us is free to express our views and feelings, our observations and opinions, in whatever shape and/or form we wish, does that mean one must read your book with a dictionary in the other hand?
Some books deserve a place on my library shelves. Some do not. I’ll be donating my copy of Virtue to the library on Monday.