The Umpire of the Quality Lit Game

Tim Parks
Tim Parks; drawing by David Levine

Author of fifteen novels, nine books of nonfiction, and countless articles and translations, the prodigious Tim Parks is what used to be called a man of letters. He coolly sums up his multivalent reputation:

I am known in England mainly for light, though hopefully thoughtful nonfiction; in Italy for polemical newspaper articles and a controversial book about soccer; in Germany, Holland, and France for what I consider my “serious” novels Europa, Destiny, Cleaver; in the United States for literary criticism; and in a smattering of other countries, but also in various academic communities, for my translations and writing on translation.

His extensive experience as a novelist has given him an insider’s knowledge of the game of fiction: perhaps no one since V.S. Pritchett has turned out so consistently insightful, witty, even-handed, and readable a body of literary criticism.

Recently he has brought out three books, more or less simultaneously, on the entangled enterprise of reading and writing. His stated aim is to shake things up. “It’s time to rethink everything,” he declares. “What it means to write and what it means to write for a public—and which public.” He asks us to set aside our customary assumptions that fiction is necessarily a good thing, along with the rest of our pieties about literature:

Finally, why not try to imagine that there is no justifiable self esteem to be attached to the mere writing and reading of novels, however literary or sophisticated, or brilliantly entertaining they may be, nor any ultimate “need” for their existence, simply an appetite on the part of many for their consumption and a willingness on the part of the few to satisfy that appetite.

While he does not get very far in undermining our (or, indeed, his own) need for fiction, he does manage to poke holes in the self-congratulatory embrace of the form.

“I want to put forth this provocation,” he will start a paragraph. But he is a measured provocateur, and many of his assertions seem commonsense and reasonable, at least to a fellow writer like myself. He points out, for instance, that novelists are addressing not only the anonymous public but their family and friends, with coded messages that might give offense:

Writing offers a way of smuggling a message through a taboo, while leaving the taboo intact, threatening to break it—“this is the truth about our marriage”—but not quite breaking it—“actually this is only a novel and I don’t really think this is the truth about our marriage at all.”

He insists, rightly, that there is no such thing as literary justice; some good books perish while others that are worse prosper. He draws our attention to the grubby careerist aspects of being an author, supplying blurbs in the hope that the favor will be returned. He insists that critics and readers bring their own personal biases, based on family upbringing or…

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