Conversations with Robertson Davies

I’m tempted to summarize Conversations with Robertson Davies, a collection of interviews with the great author, but I can’t, and even if I could I’d probably do better to give a few thoughts stemming from a comment Davies made about reading. As you can probably surmise, I like Davies’s work, so I find his comments without a fictional scrim interesting too. One exchange particularly resonates:

Robert Fulford: Books are things to be studied, judged rather than experienced. I think you once said that the heresy of the critic is that he is a judge rather than experiencer of literature.
Davies: Yes. […] As for my own books, I hope that the readers will have to use their heads and be collaborators, which is a thing I stressed in that earlier book. They should be collaborators in creating the work of art which is the book.

I tend toward judgement, and my chief criterion for greatness is met when a book causes me to spontaneously stop judging and start experiencing. To be fair, I can’t fully stop judging, but to the extent that my reading becomes more experience and less judgment I am inclined to like and love the book that induces this sensation. The best of Davies’s books—The Deptford Trilogy, The Cornish Trilogy, The Cunning Man—all accomplish this goal. Cryptonomicon and Straight Man and Lord of the Rings achieve the same effect. I wish I could fully explain how and why they do, but part of writing about books is writing about the inexplicable. Criticism is an effort to reveal more of the mystery that can’t ever be fully revealed.

To intersperse Elmore Leonard:

[Q:] There’s this presumption that a book is somehow a higher form of art, of a higher form of expression, than a movie. Do you agree?
[Leonard:] I don’t think the book is a higher form at all. Because most books are not very good. They’re a chore to read.

Occasionally a worthwhile book is also a chore, but only very seldom, and usually because I don’t understand it at first, as I didn’t Romeo and Juliet when reading it as a high school freshman. Recently I described The Bad Girl with language that brings to mind duty. I think Davies felt similar to Leonard regarding bad books, or even books that aren’t essential (essential meaning different things to different people, of course, which might make the debate more a semantic than one getting at underlying truth). Elsewhere in Conversations, Davies recommends reading fewer books but reading them with more depth and feeling.

I hope to read with more depth and feeling, and part of the reason I write is to find both. Paul Graham explains the process well:

Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That’s why I write them.

Wow! I started the post writing about Robertson Davies, but along the way became more interested in the diversions than the original topic. And that is a good thing: one idea bumps into another, reminding me of something else, and off I go. I hope that is reading with feeling and intellect. The Elegant Variation, in discussing the maladies affecting book reporting, says “Too many reviews are dull, workmanlike book reports.” I agree, and think that many books are dull and workmanlike, so perhaps the reviews reflect them. That’s why I felt a sense of wonder at Davies’ books, as well as Conversations: they are not dull and workmanlike, and I hope my writing isn’t. After reading Mark Sarvas’s comments, I’ve tried harder not to write dull, workmanlike book reports. Is it working?

I hope so. Davies wrote many reviews of varying quality, but he was also a man who knew good work when he saw it. Conversations is filled with criticism (in the bad sense) of academic criticism (in the sense of commentary). I’ve heard James Wood (a TEV favorite) and others I know I’ve read but can’t think to cite at the moment say or write the same. So here’s to them, and to Davies, and to reading, and to experience.

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