Leon Wieseltier opens his essay on Philip Roth’s The Humbling at the New Republic‘s new book-review site with this bit of throat-clearing:
So much contemporary American fiction also seems researched, worked up, instrumentalized, by skillful minds eager to display their skills. Writers go prowling through eras of history or fields of science in search of their next project, disguising the absence of a calling as curiosity. They become experts. (And critics call the results of their expertise “richly imagined.”) A subject is needed and one is discovered, something fascinating, something exotic, something cool, and with a plentitude of information, of natty and newly acquired knowledge, it is mastered, and settled, and the career moves on.
Wieseltier doesn’t call out any specific examples to make this case, but it’s not to hard to figure out what kind of book he means to indict. It’s probably one like Samantha Hunt‘s 2008 novel The Invention of Everything Else, which foregrounded plenty of detail about the life of Nikola Tesla; it might also include what Marco Roth recently dubbed the “neuronovel” in n+1 magazine, covering books like Richard Powers‘ The Echo Maker or Jonathan Lethem‘s Motherless Brooklyn, both of which reflect a lot of time spent studying up on psychological disorders.
Point being, the argument goes, that we’re living in an age where too much information has swallowed up novelists’ capacity to cut through all the noise and get at something “poetical and spiritual.” Fair enough, even if you acknowledge that (contrary to Wieseltier’s suggestion) that the problem isn’t a new one—it’s hard to find readers wholeheartedly in love with novels like The Grapes of Wrath and Arrowsmith, where research and the spiritual don’t connect especially well. If only any of this actually applied to The Humbling. Wieseltier calls out Roth’s mention of the make and model of a shotgun and some medical patter as evidence that Roth has lapsed into “noisy details.” Roth also has his hero, despairing actor Simon Axler, ponder a long list of roles in which he’s triumphed, and to Wieseltier this is evidence of a “preening writer.” Why couldn’t it be evidence of a preening actor?
If it takes this little “research” for Wieseltier to damn The Humbling, I wondered what he made of Roth’s 1993 novel, Operation Shylock, which was built on plenty of homework on John Demjanjuk. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s not a fan, but the reason for his distaste is his feeling that the book is, to one important degree, actually underresearched. The Roth of the novel confesses and ignorance of Hebrew, prompting Wieseltier to retort:
Roth’s confession, if that is what it is, perfectly illustrates the complacence of American Jews, their bad faith toward their own identity. For the vast majority of American Jews, the sight of Hebrew will suffice. Its opacity does not interfere with the sensation of authenticity that it provides. Roth’s talk about this particular obsession of his consciousness is empty, because this particular obsession does not seem to impose any obligation upon him.
This writer whose novels sometimes suffer from a surfeit of smartness is, in this matter, quite content with an admission of stupidity. As usual with American Jewry, ignorance is no impediment to pride. Quite the contrary. Pride will make up for ignorance, and hide it behind the ferocity of tribal expression. The ignorance of his tradition leaves the writer not ashamed, it leaves him sentimental.
I won’t even pretend to feel qualified to address the question of how much Hebrew Roth ought to know and how it might improve his fiction. But Wieseltier’s outrage does suggest that he knows detail has its uses, even if it risks the occasional “surfeit of smartness.” To describe a shotgun as a pump-action Remington instead of just a shotgun is no crime—especially if, adhering to that old rule about introducing firearms in a play, it gets used.