Friday, October 30, 2009

The Company I Keep - the objects of my sympathy

My experience of a novel depends as much on a sympathetic response as anyone else's.  The question is: with whom, exactly, do I need to sympathize?  Readers of Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988) know where I'm going, even though I was well aware of everything I'm about to say before I read Booth, I swear.

When I read Wuthering Heights, I encounter a fine assembly of weirdos, misfits, idiots, and monsters, a few of whom deserve my pity, but none of whom deserve much more. Yet there is one character with whom I sympathize strongly: I care about what happens to her, and I wish her well in her goals.  She's not much like me, so there's little identification with her, but I appreciate and benefit from the offer of friendship she makes me, and enjoy the opportunity to get to know her better. 

Her name, of course, is Emily Brontë.  She is not the real Emily Brontë, but one I have invented in collaboration with the actual author.  Booth calls her the "implied author."  When "EB" and I get together, she offers to show me this wonderful thing she made, this novel, or perhaps one of her poems.  We look at it together.  She points out the bits she's particularly proud of.  We have a good laugh whenever a book is abused, or when Catherine is bit by a bulldog.  We hunt for fairies and ogres.  We perhaps discuss why Heathcliff is the way he is, and why Catherine is like she is.  I ask her if she has read John Galt.  She unfortunately does not answer. 

It's kind of a one-sided friendship.  But as Booth says (I'm in Chapter 6, "Implied Authors as Friends"), we have many different kinds of friends, some close and wide-ranging, some best met on specific occasions.  Lunch-every-week friends, lunch-every-year friends, and lunch-every-decade friends.  The analogy with books is clear enough, so I'll move on.

Maybe what I do want to emphasize is that before I can really accept or reject an implied author's friendship, I have to have some sense of what she's trying to do.  Emily Brontë did not botch her attempt to create a genial romance.  Her goals were entirely otherwise, and quite interesting; she achieved them admirably, mostly; and her book allows me certain emotional and artistic experiences that I still don't think can be found anywhere else.

Booth never discusses one case: what if the author is not my friend, but my enemy?  Sometimes that relationship is valuable, too.  Emily Brontë (my Brontë, the one I made up) is weird enough that I understand how plenty of people will not be able to accept her friendship so easily, and may even want to fight it out with her.  They should.

So, OK.  That's Sympathetic Character Week.  That's why I don't particularly care about sympathetic characters.  They're a literary device useful for achieving specific goals.  Other devices are useful for achieving other goals.  Sympathetic attention to the book will point us in the right direction.  Then we can puzzle over whether the goals were achieved, or whether they were worth trying in the first place.

Thanks for all of the useful comments.  I thought this all worked pretty well, for such a misguided idea.  For the next two weeks, another bad idea: Who is John Galt?

18 comments:

  1. I thought it was a good idea--a theme for discussion for a week. I like it. Hope you do it again.

    I also am intrigued by the idea of the implied author being a sympathetic character. I suspect that may answer a few questions I have had in the past about some books that I enjoyed but could never figure out why--perhaps it was the narrative voice of the implied author.

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  2. This is such a lovely entry! It kind of made me tear up. :-) It also got me thinking - when I read Blood Meridian recently, all my thoughts about McCarthy (the Cormac McCarthy I was creating in my head) were...admiring, but definitely not friendly. Things along the lines of "Wow, this guy writes an amazing sentence, but good lord am I glad I don't have to eat dinner with him." Which seems like a third category: the imaginary McCarthy is not my friend but not my enemy - I admire his depiction of unsympathetic characters, but I still don't want to hang out with him (even in my head). An interesting conundrum. But YES, there are so many authors about whom I feel as you describe re: Emily Bronte. And you write about that feeling so well!

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    1. From the April 1st issue of this year's Paris Review:

      MCCARTHY
      [...] By early afternoon I have to quit.

      INTERVIEWER
      Do you find that the intensity of the material makes it difficult to continue beyond a certain point?

      MCCARTHY
      No, it’s not that. I entertain most nights. In the afternoon you wear the mud mask of your being. And then the guests arrive and you are a new thing. It is the unspoken promise of nightfall. It takes time. Time that hunts you, time that is calamity.

      INTERVIEWER
      These are dinner parties.

      MCCARTHY
      Barbecues, mainly. And this is part of it. Calling the dogs in, all limbs and sinew, the vermicular homebound patterns they weave in the scorch of the grass. The glint of the grill in the sun’s fire ellipse, its entirety as it bends toward hyphenate unyielding horizon. I like to soak the mesquite chips for at least half an hour. Then there’s the marinade for the brisket, or the dry rub, the laying on of hands. A replication of primeval violence. In your fingertips the harm of generations, the wish to make right, the failure to cleanse and absturge. Raw matter. Chile ancho, dried chipotles, paprika and salt, pulverized plant and rock, the sad spice and crumble of the earth’s red crust. I put the beef in a plastic bag for two hours before my guests come.

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    2. I had forgotten the context of the post - I wasn't the one who brought up Cormac - so I was really hoping this would somehow turn out to be an interview with Mary McCarthy.

      Still, that's pretty good. If only, if only. "[T]he sad spice and crumble of the earth’s red crust," magnificent.

      I had not seen that, so thanks. Several good laughs there. But I have long been an admirer of McCarthy's restaurant reviews on Yelp.

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  3. I am going to look for that Booth book! Thanks!

    This was a very interesting week. I hope you do another topic soon. This was fun and I learned a few new ways to look at my reading. Who could ask for more?

    Lezlie

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  4. What a wonderful series of posts you've done. I will keep them in mind the next time (and it will be soon) when I hear somebody say "I didn't like any of the characters".

    Thank you for a enchanting and thorough glimpse.

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  5. This has been a fascinating week, both educational and interesting. A heartfelt hat tip in your direction and a request for more themed discussions of this sort.

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  6. I too have enjoyed reading on the sympathetic characters topic, even when I didn't have something to comment on.

    I personally would love to know who is John Galt.

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  7. Great discussion this week - now I'll be looking for a copy of the Booth book.

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  8. So, as a friend of Emily, I have a question for you. Did Emily commit suicide by refusing to see a doctor until it was too late? Or, was she just so stoic that she wanted to tough it out? Or, was she too much like Hamlet (i.e., "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.")? Maybe she just had no faith in the medical profession.

    I know what you mean about feeling that affinity for the author as if she/he were a character. Sometimes it's dangerous though. I still haven't forgiven Dickens for his treatment of his wife, and haven't read one of his novels since I read the Ackroyd bio.

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  9. What are your Galt plans? Well I guess I'm about to find out pretty soon. Maybe we can have a party. I should go finish up The Ayrshire Legatees now.

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  10. Thanks a lot for all of this. The comments were all so helpful, and really helped carry things along.

    One reason this exact sort of week won't happen too often is that it was, for one reason and another, more work than usual. But I do encourage other people to give it a try. It's so well suited to the blog format. And I learned so much.

    The Booth book, The Company We Keep, is a classic and is easy to recommend. I found it highly readable. Booth uses exactly one real jargon word. I'll read the related The Rhetoric of Fiction soon, I hope.

    Emily, I considered mentioning McCarthy. In the one McCarthy novel I've read (Child of God) McCarthy was my enemy. But the implied author of a different McCarthy novel may be a quite different fellow. There can be a range across the same real author as much as across different authors.

    Jane - I know little about the actual Emily Brontë, and not much more about the actual Dickens. But I do know that "implied author Dickens" agrees with you: fathers who neglect their families (e.g., Skimpole) are some of the worst villains around.

    nicole - the John Galt Clishmaclaver starts tomorrow, two weeks of it. Although two weeks is beginning to sound - no, no second thoughts. Starting tomorrow!

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  11. That's a nice way of looking at it. Never thought it that way. Yet, I know evil happens and the circumstances in Wuthering Heights isn't far-fetched. It does happen in different forms.

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  12. I would argue that the evnets in WH are incredibly far-fetched. It's a fantasy novel.

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  13. I also think the story is far-fetched, even if you don't take into consideration the ghosts.

    By the way, I also sometimes think of authors in terms of "I'd like to have coffee with him" or not.

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  14. Coffee with the implied author! The real author, who needs 'em.

    By the way, I mean "far-fetched" as a good thing. Who would want to read an Emily Brontë story about ordinary life?

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  15. @Amateur Reader: Exactly! Especially because chats with real authors can be disappointing!

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