Curtesy of reading Susan Johnson’s fine and latest novel The Landing and then following her on Twitter, I came to read this review. It’s an interesting read, but I was intensely irritated with its preoccupation with the category of ‘middlebrow’. It’s not a question completely without interest of course but it’s such an academic question. It’s also a question about the politics of literary works, rather than their literary content – again something that makes me want academics to #GetALife.
Who cares what market you’re fitted into?
Anyway, the three women whose books were thus reviewed all took issue with the review and wrote responses. But whereas the first two are in the form of spirited critiques of the original review (largely justified IMO – score responses 3 – original article 0), Susan Johnson’s response is a magnificent personal and literary meditation. It is the only contribution of reviewer or reviewed marked by its generosity (albeit a wounded and resigned generosity) – itself the natural product of its depth of feeling and reflection. It stands largely independent of the review that provoked it and I reproduce it below the fold.
I’VE LONG KNOWN that excellence in writing is linked to intelligence, that you only get the genius writing of Saul Bellow because of the genius of Saul Bellow. The fact that Bellow was an anthropology scholar, familiar with Hebrew and Hebrew texts, well acquainted with the works of Heidegger, Shakespeare and Schopenhauer – combined with being born Jewish at a particular moment in history – seemed designed to deliver him into the fullness of his own talent.
I believe too, as Hilary Mantel once wrote of JM Coetzee in the New York Review of Books, that some writers – especially those born under the regimes of the old Soviet Union and in South Africa under apartheid – are automatically cut a ‘slice of moral grandeur’ because of their place of birth, theirs for nothing as soon as they take up their pen. ‘Committed to seriousness, and bound either to emigration or delicate evasion of the censor, they need perhaps feel no obligation to entertain,’ she wrote.
I believe Conrad is Conrad because he was multi-lingual, gifted with an innate intellectual facility that allowed him not only to write in his native Polish but to write books of genius in English, as Russian-born Nabokov later did, and as Beckett later came to write only in French.
And yet – here’s the paradox – creativity is not measured by one’s quota of intelligence. The muscle of the brain is closely twinned with the muscle of the imagination but births something infinitely more mysterious – what is consciousness? What is creativity? Indeed, what is a person? What is this unique business that was once called a soul – and how indivisible, yet how enigmatic, the relationship between the smallness or vastness of the intellect with its imaginative creations!
For years and years – for all the almost-thirty years of my writing life in fact – I’ve known about this twinning, and yet I’ve worked on. Do good intentions, good will and good effort turn the struggle for apprehension into an artistic creation that succeeds in penetrating the reality of this everyday world? If my thirty years of work fails to rate a mention in, say, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literaturecan that work be said to exist? It seems to me that any debate between highbrow and middlebrow fiction is essentially one about reputation, and in the face of the building of a literary reputation the author is defenceless.
Roethke wrote ‘We think by feeling. What is there to know?’ The writer’s task is to navigate by feeling: facts, even history or what passes for it, or indeed all the thinking and cleverness in the world will not write our books for us. I’m a white, middle-class woman, with my own unchangeable portion of intelligence, born into the safety of the middle of the twentieth century. What stories can I tell? What is the narrative I can spin into the night of my life here on earth, compelling enough to keep your eyes open, to entertain you, a woman writer without a war, without an oppressive government, without a single slice of moral grandeur? I’m not even an Indigenous Australian.
What I do know is this: simplicity is not the enemy of intelligence. Feeling is not the enemy of thought. In the realm of the imagination, the moral duty of the writer is to uphold her own truth. I thank Beth Driscoll for taking my work seriously – middlebrow or high – for noticing that it exists at all in the reality of the impenetrable everyday world.