The title essay's thesis is that Love, like the defining capitalized abstractions of previous eras (God, Nature), can no longer be taken seriously as the goal toward which a novel's characters should be steered, so as to achieve transcendence. Not so long ago, the rigors of bourgeois society meant dire consequences for those who pursued love as opposed to simply settling down: to marry someone from the wrong side of the tracks, or to get divorced, meant an earthquake not just for the people involved but for society in general. Now, divorce is just a plot point, without any revelatory power. Here's Gornick:
Love... like food or air, is necessary but insufficient: it cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle. Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness. Knowing this to be the larger truth, as many of us do, the idea of love as a means of illuminationin literature as in lifenow comes as something of an anticlimax.Gornick sometimes seems to imply that "the deliberate pursuit of consciousness," which I would join with her in rating as one of the highest human goals, can and should be achieved through analytics aloneI am not so sure as she seems to be that something along the line of Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses" might not be a necessary tool for achieving such consciousness (I think too of Kafka's famous remark that "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us"). I also believe that love and relationships are a necessary foundation for true independence, for full livingand that this idea is not as obvious as it appearsso that there might in fact be some undisclosed social truth to be found in the novel of love and marriage. But what really grabs me about Gornick is her ability to put her finger on what most dissatisfies me about most writing:
In great novels we always feel that the writer, at the time of the writing, knows as much as anyone around can know, and is struggling to make sense of what is perceived somewhere in the nerve endings if not yet in clarified consciousness. When a novel gives us less than many of us knowand is content with what is being givenwe have middlebrow writing. Such writinghowever intelligent its author, however excellent its proseis closer to the sentimental than the real. The reader senses that the work is sentimental because the metaphors are inaccurate: approximate, not exact. To get to those nerve endings a metaphor must be exact, not approximate. The exact metaphor is writer's gold.When I read this paragraph I sat bolt upright in my seat and muttered, "Finally!" Finally someone has succinctly summarized what I find so awful and deadening about most fiction (and, increasingly, much of the poetry I read): the writers aren't giving us everything they've got, but instead labor to conceal their knowledge of what they don't know. If more is dreamt of than can be found in your philosophy and there's no Hamlet there to tell you, well, perhaps that's not the writer's fault, but in any case their minority is assured. But the writer who knows there are things he or she doesn't know, and who isn't willing to risk breaking him or herself on the reef of that unknowingwho settles for pieties or mysticismis contemptible.
Exact metaphors: here I think Gornick's complaint is close to that of Simon DeDeo's in his blog post "the defeasible pause," which critiques one of the lazier techniques in the post-avant poet's bag of tricks. The "defeasible pause" is a (dis)juncture in a poem, a deliberate gap into which the reader's interpretive powers are meant to rush:
The defeasible pause, at first pass, means whatever you want it to mean: it means "fill in the reading", it means "work for free." It is an invitation to a kind of complicity with the author, a kind of strict liability of language in which to read a defeasible pause is to already be committed to its relevance. The language poets never used it, but perhaps they can be blamed, à la Marx, for the conceptual ground they laid for its current day prominence.Absent a larger rhetorical strategy (such as that of the Language poets and their intention to critique the politics encoded in normative language), the defeasible pause is a mere tac-tic, a shrug, an abdication. If minor novelists sin by writing less than they know, minor poets sin by disavowing all knowledge of their own language's activities, like parents who don't know where their children are.
The test of poetry, then, like the test of fiction, comes down to something hard to quantify, something akin to sincerity. I use these Zukofskyan terms in part because Zukofsky seems like the limit case of a writer who demonstrably knows everything, or who at least has read everything, and whose work can't be valued without an estimation of the author's sincerity. If you believe, as I do, that Zukofsky's finical mania adds up to a meaningful excessa straining up against the bounds of what's possible with the language of his time, an agon with what he doesn't know about language and lifehis poetry is of immense value. But if you think him a charlatan, then there's no reason to work through his bewildering textthe whole of "A" becomes a defeasible pause, a permanent, seemingly unmotivated hesitation between syntaxes. It's similarly difficult to evaluate a poem or storyto judge whether the writer's reach is properly exceeding his or her graspwithout knowing something of the context from which it emerges. What did the writer risk? This sounds a lot like the workshop question, "What's at stake here?", but because it's centered on the writer's own spiritual education, her Bildung if you like, it's difficult to quantify without actually knowing the writer. Yet most of us have better bullshit detectors than we admit to. When we read a poem or story and it happens to be "the real thing," we recognize that. It's much harder to judge whether or not something that's not real is nonetheless the product of sincerity, or whether the writer's primary desire is to conceal his or her own ignorance.
I've hinted here that excess can be one indicator of "the real thing," the overflowing of the Real that the writer refuses to blind himself to, but is minimally protected by his ability to ride the flood, as a surfer protects himself from the wave. That's the egoless, unarmored way of writing. There must be other paths to what I'm talking about: risk, sincerity, commitment (even and especially the trickster's risk, sincerity, commitment). It's what I demand from writing, and finding iteven a shredis enough to lure me back.