Why are we doing this—any of this? Reading books, writing books, reading books about books, writing books about books, and here, now, writing and reading reviews of books about books? Presumably, we write and read (and read about writing, and write about reading) because we take these various permutations on the literary endeavor to stand in some meaningful relationship to life. Either literature distills life and concentrates it in a purer, more vital form (“Nothing is more human than a book,” Marilynne Robinson remarked in an interview with The Paris Review); or literature mirrors life and thereby illuminates it; or literature teaches us, by way of example, how to live. The point is that literature enlivens. If not, why write? Why read? Why bother?
In two recent essay collections, the British literary critic, novelist, and translator Tim Parks suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t bother. “It’s time to rethink everything,” he stresses in the introduction to Where I’m Reading From, a series of short reflections published by New York Review Books last spring. “Most book talk is formulaic and has been for decades,” he continues. “Your average review offers a quick value judgment summed up in one-to-five stars at the top of the column. Why read on?” This is a good question—and the answer, I think, is that the best criticism is literature in its own right. (And like any good narrative architect, the best reviewers know to withhold their evaluative conclusions in hopes of prolonging suspense.) In Parks’s case, we read on because his is a worthy and important project. It is refreshing to see a critic attempt to systematically clarify his foundational values, rather than reinventing his commitments anew with each review.
With Life and Work, we have a chance to see Parks’s much-flaunted principles in action. The book unites essays first published in this magazine, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, and it treats authors spanning centuries and continents: Parks begins locally, with his countrymen Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and ends globally, with the unlikely likes of E.L. James and Stieg Larsson. He arrives at this destination by way of Geoff Dyer, Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, Philip Roth, and sundry others.
Diverse as his subjects may be, Parks’s quirks and quibbles are consistent to the point of redundancy. He is abidingly obsessed with the pernicious effects of globalization on local literary traditions, and abidingly critical of homogeneous, stylistically neutered “world literature.” “What seems doomed to disappear,” he frets, “is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture.” How odd, then, that he read seven of the 20 authors surveyed in Life and Work in translation, and that four of the remaining English-speaking authors hail from avowedly non-British contexts. It is difficult to think of an author more quintessentially American than Roth, or more staunchly South African than Coetzee, yet Parks assesses both authors in haughtily authoritative tones.
Another of Parks’s pet themes is the importance of biography. He appeals time and again to the Italian “positioning theorist” Valeria Ugazio, arguing that early encounters with family members induce us to think of ourselves in terms of “semantic polarities” that in turn determine our literary affinities. These jargon-heavy contortions are meant to justify a series of truisms that Parks positions as revolutionary and that no sensible reader is likely to challenge. “What I’m suggesting then is that much of our response to novels may have to do with the kind of ‘system’ or ‘conversation’ we grew up in and within which we had to find a position and establish an identity,” he writes—a simple pronouncement that is preceded by several pages of labored pontification about how “each developing family member…will be looking to find a stable position within the polarized values the family is most concerned with.” All this verbiage, just to show that our milieus might influence our tastes!
Of his own approach to reading—from his own pop-psychologism he is not exempt—Parks writes that “there is a subtle tension in my reading between the desire to free myself from the immediate community with its received ideas, and the desire to share what I read with those around me.” This is a flattering self-assessment, and some of his essays are indeed insightful and welcome attacks on popular assumptions. In “E-books Are for Grown-ups,” for instance, he presents a compelling defense of electronic reading, observing that “once the sequence of words is over and the book closed, what actually remains in our possession is very difficult, wonderfully difficult to pin down, a richness (or sometimes irritation) that has nothing to do with the heavy block of paper on our shelves.” He has a sharp eye and a low tolerance for posturing, and he is relentlessly funny in his deadpan dissections of sloppy plotting. In his discussion of Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, he dismisses the protagonist’s passion for a girl he has seen “only four or five times,” snidely noting that “some counseling is in order.”
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But the dominant note in Life and Work and Where I’m Reading From is Parks’s unbridled disdain for the literary establishment, for literature’s producers and consumers, and perhaps even for literature itself. His urge to “free [himself] from the immediate community with its received ideas” too often manifests as facile contrarianism, and in his haste to differentiate himself from the Kool-Aid-guzzling herd, he makes a series of controversial but lazily argued claims: that we shouldn’t finish the books we read (“it’s only the young, still attached to that sense of achievement inculcated by anxious parents, who hang on doggedly when there is no enjoyment”); that literary events and panels are useless exercises incapable of honoring the complexity of the books they ostensibly celebrate; and that literature is less vibrant than that fabled element, “life,” which eludes cloistered critics and novelists alike.
Parks ridicules everyone but himself for being base, mercenary, and blindly subservient to our era’s safest, trendiest über-villain: capital. (He perceives no tension between his emphasis on individual psychological motivation, on the one hand, and his invocation of a depersonalized, ubiquitous, and all-consuming economic system on the other.) “It’s interesting,” Parks records himself saying to one of the directors of the Edinburgh Book Festival, “that this belief in the universal appeal of fine literature exactly coincides with commercial convenience.” He doesn’t so much as entertain the possibility that his combatant might earnestly believe that literature can transcend its place of origin, or even that she might be doing her best under imperfect circumstances. To everyone he encounters, he ascribes an ulterior and self-interested motive. In “Writing to Win,” he suggests that the writer is driven solely by a “fierce ambition” for prizes and acclaim; in “Fear and Courage,” he maintains that readers use literature as an escape mechanism but hastens to frame their efforts as acts of confrontation, yielding rhetoric that “tends to flatter literature, with everybody overeager to insist on its liveliness and import.” He has no faith in books and even less in criticism: “traditional critical analysis, however brilliant, however much it may help us to understand a novel, rarely alters the color of our initial response.”
Parks is perverse. He demands that we devote ourselves to an endeavor he not only rejects but insults, and the end result is a tract that strives, masochistically, to negate its own conditions of possibility. (Whereof one should not speak, thereof one must complain.) What must Parks think of himself, to keep writing such futilities? What must he think of us, whom he expects to read them? Where I’m Reading From is not without some element of palpable self-loathing, and one gets the sense that Parks takes pleasure in subjecting us bovine readers, so thoughtlessly taken in by the lure of literature, to its utter pointlessness. His joyless writing is our punishment for daring to love what he so venomously hates. He is the Scrooge to our literary Christmas.
But on one count, at least, Parks is right. He predicts that “someone writing somewhere else will castigate me for my cynicism and irresponsibility, since we all know that literature…must always be praised to high heaven.”
Cynicism aside, Life and Work and Where I’m Reading From are philosophically underwhelming. Even the more elegantly argued essays stick to the surface, neglecting to tackle questions of form and content that lurk just below. In “E-books Are for Grown-Ups,” Parks writes that literature consists in “the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end…. It is pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself.” This is an eloquent, provocative start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. What exactly is the relationship between a book and its material instantiation? Under what circumstances can books be said to persist? Are oral compositions literary, or must they be transcribed in order to count as such? And what are we to make of the suggestion that a book is essentially a sequence of words? In this context, what is the relevant sense of “word”? Homonyms are ambiguous when spoken but clear enough when written—a fact with serious implications for the reproduction and translation of literary texts. And what about ideographic character systems, which leave room for spoken but not written puns? Parks glosses over these questions, assuming that a “book” is an isolated artifact, not a confluence of mind (which engages differently with different materials) and matter (which presents different incitations to thought).
These issues are admittedly vexed, but what’s the point of undertaking a foundational examination that doesn’t get at the foundations? The essays in Where I’m Reading From are too cursory for their weighty claims: In Parks’s hands, at least, five or six pages are simply not enough to get to the bottom of anything with a bottom worth getting to. To his credit, he raises interesting questions—but this proves all the worse for his enfeebled answers.
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Parks is ostensibly antipolitics and pro-aesthetics, and he approvingly paraphrases Borges on this point several times. He would like to believe that he follows the Argentine master in thinking that “aesthetics are difficult and require a special sensibility and long reflection while political affiliations are easier and quickly grasped.” But his commitment to aesthetics isn’t borne out in his own essays, which focus more on the grubby architecture of the publishing industry—the emergence of a global market, the skewed workings of prize committees—than they do on questions of pure aesthetic merit. His best insights apply to the systems surrounding the production of literature, rarely if ever to literature itself.
By far the best essay in either collection is about E.L. James and the perplexing appeal of her trashy opus, Fifty Shades of Grey. “This impression of a constant reshuffling of the same limited repertoire is particularly strong in the sex scenes, where Christian finds ‘his release’ on 8 orgasmic occasions and we are reminded of Anastasia’s ‘panties’ on 38,” Parks observes. James’s unerotic prose is like “pornography and indeed sports journalism, or any text that substitutes mere assertion for evocation.” But these clever remarks do not concern the book so much as its undue popularity, which Parks admits frankly: “This is a novel whose extraordinary sales figures are far more interesting than anything to be found between the covers.”
Perhaps Parks’s aversion to the stuff of actual literature explains his mania for broader contextualization—and he is indeed adept at ferreting out thematic continuities across large swaths of material. For him, life and work are one contiguous text with a uniform symbolism. The three brothers in The Brothers Karamazov, for instance, are taken to map tidily onto the three possible routes that Dostoyevsky is said to have laid out for himself at a crucial juncture in his career (“to go east, to Constantinople or Jerusalem and remain there for ever; to go abroad for roulette and give himself up entirely to gambling; or to seek happiness in a second marriage”). But Parks is wont to gloss over specificities in his quest for commonalities. The only categories that can be applied to all of the works under scrutiny are often so vague as to verge on the meaningless. For example, Parks characterizes the more than 500 stories in Chekhov’s oeuvre as fascinated with “the tension between involvement and withdrawal.” Well, what isn’t?
Parks’s philosophical weaknesses could be forgiven were it not for his lack of compassion. In both collections he proves willfully unsympathetic, especially when it comes to financial matters. In “Does Copyright Matter?,” he rightfully observes that copyright law incentivizes authors to pander to the lowest common denominator, but fails to recognize that few writers have the financial resources to produce work without compensation. In “The Writer’s Job,” he deplores the transformation of the literary vocation into a career, lamenting a development that he describes thus:
Since enormous prestige was afforded to writers, and since it was now accepted that nobody needed to be tied to dull careers by such accidents of birth as class, color, sex, or even IQ, large numbers of people (myself included!) began to write.
The self-deprecating parenthetical inclusion doesn’t absolve Parks of his ugly insensitivity. In a handful of abnormally successful cases, writing may prove prestigious, but it can be a notoriously thankless and precarious “career.” Within a highly insular circle, writers of literary fiction are renowned, but they don’t enjoy a great deal of cultural capital within society at large. “Career writers” may be motivated to some degree by a desire for acclaim, but I think it’s safe to suppose that they accept their healthy helping of job insecurity at least in part because they love their subject.
Parks’s denunciations of world literature are similarly callous. Of Swiss novelist Peter Stamm, he wryly remarks: “If you didn’t know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish. Certainly he never tells you anything about Switzerland, or the other countries where his books are set”—as if there were no possible noncommercial justification for this choice. Perhaps Stamm hopes that his work will accurately reflect the increasingly globalized world he lives in. Or perhaps he has any number of aesthetic motivations that Parks, with his narrow fixation on literary systems, stubbornly overlooks.
Parks’s dissatisfaction with many of literature’s accoutrements—its tired social rituals, its endlessly masturbatory conferences, its overreliance on theory-ese—is warranted, but his writing is too passionless to animate his complaints, or even justify his engagement. What’s the point of deflating something that’s already so airless? Where I’m Reading From is mean-spirited seemingly just for the sake of it, the kind of spiteful outburst we might expect from the neighborhood crank who calls the police to complain about block parties.
In an essay that’s brutally dismissive of literary academia, Parks writes that his students, “often in each other’s arms,” are “too busy with life to be bothered about literature. The only musty smells are in the library stacks.” But later, assessing the capers that abound in Geoff Dyer’s writing, he expresses trepidation: “So, carpe diem. But how exactly? Raves? Ecstasy? Is ‘to make the most of life’ sufficient prescription?” What exactly is this “life” with which literature is so unfavorably contrasted?
Parks criticizes Dyer for romanticizing life, apparently without realizing that he’s fallen into the same trap. But the literature/life dichotomy that he appeals to throughout both collections is naive and, uncharacteristically, flabbily sentimental, conjuring up patronizing images of “life” as some primal animal phenomenon accessible only to peasants tending their gardens, or Hemingway types running with the bulls. (Parks is predictably fond of the farming passages in Hardy’s The Return of the Native, with their “flesh, blood, and insect flirtation.”) If anything, the banal bureaucracies—the interminable panels and prize committees and professional rivalries that Parks so bitterly describes—serve to prove just how much closer to life literature draws than life ever draws to itself. At their best, books are Borgesian maps, overlapping with and ultimately absorbing the objects they once meekly sought to represent.
Along with prophets of New Age dogma, Parks eagerly assumes it’s possible to access the pure, vital throb of “life” without passing through any diluting mediations. But it is not altogether clear how we might achieve this, despite our varied attempts. Maybe sometimes, but certainly rarely, we come into direct contact with “life” via those precarious surges: the shudders of sex, the immediate physical raptures of running or dancing, a big, bracing hit of something you hope is MDMA. But in general, it’s art that affords us access to the swelling, urgent stratum of “life” that I can only assume Parks hungers for. “Life” is whatever makes the dreary furniture of the world vital again. If Parks finds his students’ fumbling caresses better suited to the task than literature, then the fault lies with him, not the books.