What is strangest in Roger Rosenblatt’s “How To Write Great“? Not a question Rosenblatt would like. The essay, which appears in Saturday’s New York Times book review, praises moral, heroic writing and disdains the “weird,” the “self-conscious” and the “strange.” And yet it is an essay bristling with the bizarre, a menagerie of misreadings. Here are three moments that most puzzled me.
1. The citation of Quixote as an example of “Honor, heroism, decency, justice and ‘Ah, love, let us be true to one another’ writing.” But Cervantes, after all, was joking. The “burdens of civilization” in Don Quixote are carried by irony, by the light-hearted but epochal imagined dissolution of feudal heroism into—gasp, invention—that “loose, baggy monster,” the new form of the novel. If you don’t appreciate self-consciousness, irony, cynicism, or invention, then why are you praising Quixote?
2. Arguing that “the great writers use anticipation instead of surprise” in an essay that begins by extolling the virtues of Daniel Deronda. I will pass over the fact that Rosenblatt takes Deronda’s sappy, idealized heroism to be the part of Geroge Eliot’s novel worth praising. I have better things to do than to argue the merits of a character as faultless as to seem preemptively sanitized, as if later canonical commentators had already rubbed away all the interesting bits. The real point is that the unfathomably great accomplishment of Daniel Deronda has always been its surprise-ending.
The novel plots, from its first paragraph, towards Deronda’s marriage to Gwendolen, and then, somehow, confusingly, Deronda marries a bit-character, a gypsy-Jew singer of ethereal and questionable graces. From that surprise springs—for good and for ill—a great conservative revolt against the mixings of modernity: an argument for separation, for difference, for classes, for a sense of place. (Of course, the novel has its counter-strains and contradictions. I don’t want to offer a definitive reading, just to say the surprise is not just a visceral shock. It encodes meaning.) In short, there is no greater monument to surprise—not anticipation—than Daniel Deronda. (And don’t get me started on Dickens and surprise.)
3. Rosenblatt’s confusion of Tennyson’s Odysseus and Homer’s. The former is “wild”; the latter is not. It’s important not to confuse “polymetis”—”many-skilled,” the key epithet for Odysseus—with “Polyphemus,” the hero’s one-eyed, barbaric antagonist in Book 9 of the Odyssey. What makes Odysseus distinct is his cleverness, his eloquence, sophistication, and his trickiness—i.e., all the things Rosenblatt insists are secondary in great literature. What gives?