On Authenticity Considered as a Standard of Literary Value

Tim Parks, whose essays tend to bemuse me, as if he and I were not living in the same universe, nevertheless says much that I agree with and find refreshing in his latest, “In Search of Authenticity.” There he defends authenticity—”Are these real concerns?”—as a standard of literary value. But at the risk of becoming a figure of tedious reasonableness (I am really not), I think Parks is running together several distinct issues: 1. the question of intensity (textual evidence of obsession); 2. the question of ambivalence and ambiguity (textual evidence of conflict); 3. the role of the author in the reading of the text (if we have textual evidence, why do we need biographical evidence?).

But first, let me laud Parks for praising authorial obsession. I have never understood complaints about writers who revisit and rework material. First of all, it is a charge only ever leveled at fiction writers; even poets and filmmakers seem to escape censure, to say nothing of painters. Did anyone ever ask Cézanne, “How many times are you going to paint that fucking fruit?” Theme-and-variation is half the pleasure of art. I have always welcomed new reports from my favorite living authors on their long nights’ struggle with what haunts them: before his retirement, I wanted Philip Roth to tell me even more about the decay of the intelligent male’s body, and now I want Toni Morrison to bring new secrets from the collision of male pride with female will, and I look forward to Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest vision of the buried emotional life, and—since Parks wants to talk about genre fiction too—I wish to see Alan Moore’s newest picture of mastery struggling against chaos.

But obsession cannot really be a qualitative standard, it seems to me. Any old jerk can be obsessed with something without those obsessions issuing in great fiction. I am interested in the obsessions of great writers because they are great writers: they transform their obsessions into a beautiful and fascinating and intelligent experience we both can have. Obsession without aesthetic merit is exhibited throughout the Internet, no doubt in the porn above all.

Parks seems to recognize the above, so he shifts the argument a bit, making the claim that literary greatness is defined as an unresolved or conflictual element manifested within texts. He gives his own examples, and I could use the authors I named above to provide others: is not Alan Moore, for instance, invested at the level of literary form in just the types of airless mastery (think of all those nine-panel grids) that he condemns as fascistic at the level of his works’ political content? and do Toni Morrison’s novels not apologize for and sometimes glamorize abusive and even murderous male figures in a way that would seem to belie those novels’ ostensible feminist commitments? Yes and yes, and that is why their work fascinates more than merely propositional or propagandistic texts ever could. We all want conflicting things, often harmful or unethical things; none of us has discovered the right way to live. Such a defense of textual ambiguity and ambivalence will be derided, I suppose, as Cold War liberalism or bourgeois weakness, but it has a longer and less PC pedigree than that—I am only repeating Nietzsche, himself adapting Schopenhauer, for whom art arrested into momentarily fixed images the primal and roiling flux at the heart of life.

But if conflict internal to the text becomes our qualitative standard, then why does the author have to be brought into it? If we lost the name and biography of Dickens, to use one of Parks’s examples, but retained his novels, we would still have a set of riven meditations on alienation and belonging. That is, those “concerns” would be there on the page to read, even if the author’s biography were unknown. There are great works, on Parks’s terms, without definitely named authors (from the possibly collective Homeric epics to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) as well as great novels that stand more or less alone in their authors’ oeuvres (Wuthering Heights, Invisible Man); and then there is Shakespeare, famously everyone and no one, about whom we do not even know enough to establish beyond doubt his political and religious convictions.

In the end, the authenticity Parks seeks—a manifest sign within a novel that conflict remains the essence of existence, and that nothing has been settled or finalized—is to be found in the work of great writers, not in their biographies. Likewise its lack: Parks cites WIlliam Giraldi’s first novel, Busy Monsters, as an inauthentic book, an example of empty virtuosity, a piece of fine writing without urgency. I would not put it quite so strongly, but the judgment is ultimately not wrong. Giraldi’s second novel, however, is a far more formidable affair, not to be casually dismissed: Hold the Dark is a fine and powerful novel by anyone’s standards. Looking at Giraldi’s two novels together will help us see that the two works share themes and concerns—that Giraldi is in fact obsessed with the tensions between a settled and orderly and ethical domestic life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the amoral and even rapacious claims of wildness and nature. But only the second novel treats these themes with the “authenticity” Parks demands. Giraldi’s concerns need concern only him; from the point of view of art, his second novel matters much more than his first because of how beautifully and richly it bodies forth those concerns, so compellingly that they become my own. Focusing on the author’s life rather than the work may in fact be an evasion of art’s ability to make claims on us; we can say, “Well, that is just his concern,” even when the concern has leapt off the page and shown itself in our own lives through fiction’s power to disclose more reality. For instance: I have never read Eugene O’Neill, but he must have been on to something to inspire John Lahr’s rebarbative snideness.

The authenticity of art, then, has little to do with the authenticity of the artist. To confuse the two categories is to invite a moral evaluation of persons rather than an aesthetic evaluation of texts—and I believe that we writers have enough problems (no money, for one) without having to carry that burden too.