Deep Reading (On Sven Birkerts)
Zadie Smith on Style

The Limitations of Clarity

Some critical labor has been expended lately on behalf of the faded reputation of Somerset Maugham, mostly, in my view, as part of a larger effort to identify certain unthreatening modern writers as possible alternatives to the modernists. One such effort in the NewYork Times Book Review by Brooke Allen considers a new biography of Maugham.

After mostly avoiding an assessment of Maugham's fiction (and a voluminous body of work it is), Allen finally concedes that "What characterizes a great writer, perhaps, is what is left out—what must be read between the lines—and on this level Maugham falls short." I have myself read Of Human Bondage and a few of the "South Sea" stories, which I had been advised were his best work. Allen's judgment here seems right to me. There is no "between the lines" at all in these fictions, and very little style.

The most interesting part of Allen's review, however, is this bit of quasi-praise: "But Maugham's strengths, it must be remembered, were very considerable. As William Plomer once felt it necessary to remind highbrow readers, 'To be a man of the world, to be acquainted with all sorts of different people, to be tolerant, to be curious, to have a capacity for enjoyment, to be the master of a clear and unaffected prose style—these are advantages.' "

These are perhaps advantages in the attempt to lead a worthwhile life (and to treat people kindly), but they are advantages of no kind in creating works of literature. They are, in fact, except for the imperative "to be curious," wholly irrelevant to the enterprise of writing fiction.

Surely we can all agree that being a "man of the world" and "to be acquainted with all sorts of different people" are in no way necessary qualifications for the job of fiction writer, and can often enough get in the way of doing the job (as they seem to have in Maugham's case). As we all surely know, there are too many great writers who were not at all "of the world" in this way to think it brings something essential to the act of writing.

Being tolerant is of course a virtue, but in my reading of literary biographies, many great writers are indeed anything but, aside from the tolerance they show in their work for the human frailties we all share.

It is certainly an advantage for the writer to be curious, although one might think that this curiosity would extend as well to the possibilities of literary form, rather than the persistent incuriosity about it to be found in the work of a writer like Maugham. And as to the "capacity for enjoyment," Samuel Beckett, for one, appears to have had very little talent for it, yet he turned out to be perhaps the greatest writer of the twentieth century.

This leaves us with the mastery "of a clear and unaffected prose style." I confess that the demand for this particular quality among certain kinds of readers and critics has always seemed inexplicable to me. For one thing, how many great writers of fiction can actually boast of such a style? Hemingway's style is "clear," but certainly not "unaffected." Dreiser's style is unaffected, but not at all clear. (Personally, I wouldn't want either of them to be otherwise.) I am hard pressed to think of an important British writer of fiction whose style could be described this way. Maybe Austen. But Dickens? Hardy? Lawrence? Conrad? For another, why would a fiction writer want such a style? It is a great advantage if you're sending a telegram, but why would a writer seeking to use the resources of language to explore human motivation and psychology, our frequently mysterious behavior and actions, be interested in such a style? Does Shakespeare have it?

If Allen's list of Maugham's attributes is the best that can be said of him, then he will assuredly continue to fall into obscurity. For that matter, all such attempts to rescue "clear" and "unaffected" writers (such attempts have been made on behalf of writers like James Gould Cozzens and J. P. Marquand, among others) will always fail. In the long run, their "advantages" are just not the sorts of things readers interested in what can be accomplished in fiction are looking for. Perhaps it would have been interesting to meet the likes of Somerset Maugham (if indeed he was the kind of man Allen describes), but his fiction, in almost all ways unremarkable, is another matter entirely.

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