I’m a Corrections Fan But I’m Beginning to Understand Why I Shouldn’t Be

Scott Esposito was for Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections before he was against it:

You know, right when I read The Corrections, I really, really liked it too. (And then I read Strong Motion and had a similarly positive reaction.) Both books gave me one of those visceral reactions that I suppose you could compare to falling in love, or perhaps being powerfully smitten after a night of intense conversation.

And then what happened? I got a little perspective. Franzen started looking less and less impressive to me. Other books and authors more so. In other words, I began to embrace that more active part of discernment and taste…

Esposito’s comments follow some earlier comments by Andrew Seal about the Millions’ list of the best fiction of the new millennium. (I haven’t followed the discussion closely, but I gather Seal believes the list is constricted by design—a product of a poll of people with too-alike sensibilities.) The line of thought here is initially a little off-putting, mainly because it reminds me of the kind of arguments you hear poseurs make when they talk about about music. (“You like them? Hey, 2006 called—they want their taste back.”) Nick Hornby explicitly riffed on this notion in his novel High Fidelity. “Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” one of the record-store nerds laments as he introduces his new girlfriend to his buddies. “But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be.”

Esposito isn’t that shallow. But his argument seems to dismiss as fraudulent the pleasure one gets as a reader—as if falling in love with a book makes you a sucker, and you need to fight against that feeling. Critics can interrogate books they like just as easily as ones they don’t. There’s no reason why you can’t study the feelings you get while reading a book, figure out whether that pleasure is a result of some explicit manipulation by the author or something deeper in the text. Indeed, that’s the most basic of divisions between the endless parade of Amazon reviewers (“I loved this book so mcuh!”) and a critic who wants to explain not just what a novel makes him or her feel but how the novel generated that feeling.

Intentionally or not, Esposito argues that pleasure resists discernment, that it can’t be a product of discernment—he once loved The Corrections, he writes, but after his first read he acquired the “more active part of discernment and taste.” Taste evolves, and nobody’s under any obligation to keep on loving the books they loved years back—if I went back to the books I loved 10 years ago, including The Corrections, I’m sure I’ll find reasons to scratch my head over my initial responses and convictions about the book. But our reasons for loving a book can be articulated, even during that first read—we don’t have to be struck dumb by that love.

4 thoughts on “I’m a Corrections Fan But I’m Beginning to Understand Why I Shouldn’t Be

  1. Of course, emotion has to be a crucial, if not the crucial, part of discernment. If fiction didn’t address the emotions, then why do we read it in the first place? One’s tastes do change over the years; presumably they mature, as T.S. Eliot describes in one of his famous essays, until you can embrace works you previously disliked or dismiss. Most works of art don’t age well. But a change in taste does not diminish the original experience of an artwork. I wonder — did his opinion of “The Corrections” ebb because of a change in perception brought on by reading classics, or because noted critics, notably Daniel Mendelsohn, have written against it, and the novel no longer is fashionable?

  2. I agree. Taste obviously changes, but this explanation is a little thin. I loved a lot of books when I was 17 that I would not love now. And I’m sure a lot of books I love now won’t look as good when I’m 50. I wouldn’t take back the experiences, but I (or my tastes or what have you) have definitely changed. On the other hand, if I read a book now and feel strongly about it, that’s usually for some critical reason(s) that can be expounded on after the fact. I think discernment while in the process of reading is important (crucial, in fact), and Scott’s reaction seems to argue that it’s somehow not possible. (I’m not saying this is what he meant, since I doubt it is. It’s just how it comes across.)

    The need for colder, more detached analysis after reading something is perfectly legitimate — it just seems odd to me if that process leads to a strongly different conclusion than the one had while reading.

    I’m not a fan of The Corrections, so I don’t really care to defend the specific book that’s been the cause of all this.

  3. Mark, John, et al.,

    What I was arguing against is a certain kind of reading that feels very personal because something in a book or movie or whatever will make you feel that it connects with you as an individual. I compared it to a crush because it is a little like that feeling–“aha! this person really understands me!”

    I don’t want to discount the importance of this feeling–obviously the art has done something right to evoke this feeling–but I would view it as a lower level of critical discernment. If we are to choose the best books of the last X years, then we should be applying the highest standards, which means going back to them and seeing if they hold up. Yes, we all read differently when 15 years old and then when 25, 50, etc, but good art speaks to the individual regardless of age or circumstance (of course, not always in the same way, which is another pleasure of art).

    I don’t know that this is what those on the panel who liked The Corrections valued in the book, but it sounded similar enough to what Garth was putting forth as an overpowering reaction. Hence my response.

    In regards to that other comment, I haven’t read much mass media coverage of The Corrections, and certainly nothing that Daniel Mendelsohn ever wrote about the book. As should be obvious from my own criticism, I don’t reach my opinions on books by following the pack.

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