Literary Kindness

A brief, shoddy manual and some useful reminders.

In 1948, Vladimir Nabokov accepted a position at Cornell University, teaching Russian and European literature.  That same year, he wrote this piece, ostensibly material for his students (though I can find no confirmation of that inference).  Go ahead and read it if you haven’t–this will essentially be a review.

My own experience with this essay goes back to high school.  I read it then for class, found it completely insufferable, moved on with my life, etc., but now I’m returning to the ideas and finding them mostly correct and very relevant to the “reading” I am doing now with Dark Souls and Sekiro.  This is, of course, not psychically painless. Nabokov’s tone is still aneurysmally condescending, and his organizational structures are bizarre, but he’s also One of the Most Important Writers of the 20th Century, so his thoughts are worth a looksee.  Take from the piece what you will, it may not be the same list as mine, but in case it’s at all helpful to you, my thoughts are these:

  • The authors of the classics are smarter than you.

Okay, this isn’t actually one of Nabokov’s points, but it’s a healthy attitude to have and all but prerequisite for digesting the rest of his exegesis.  A more plain way of putting it would be to say that in reading a work, you should assume that there is something there of depth. Ironically, Nabokov himself distinguishes between writers of genius and minor authors, but to assume you can tell the difference is astonishingly arrogant.  Perhaps Nabokov earned his arrogance. You didn’t–be kind to those you read.

  • Read, then evaluate.

This is especially important for works that you’ve heard about.  Everyone knows Beloved is a scathing indictment of the evils of slavery (and it totally is), but to condense it to that, to go in with those expectations sells short the loving detail (sic) with which its characters are rendered and everything else it might say about what it is to be human.  

By the same token, don’t judge a book’s contents by the one who recommended it to you regardless of whether your opinion of (e.g.) Karen is positive or negative.  Sure, take a recommendation as an excuse to eat some tasty, tasty typesetting, but don’t let your knowledge of the recommender’s mind preempt your own capacity to interpret art for yourself.

  • Fiction is not generally not historically accurate.

Uh, yes.  I’m a little confused as to why Nabokov finds this observation uniquely important, but it is correct, and it has some useful implications regarding the role of art.  I’ve alluded to it before, but politics and art have an annoying way of getting tangled up in each other.  This isn’t all bad–politics shapes life, life shapes art, why shouldn’t art sometimes be political?  Things start turning sideways, though, when one uses political art from the past to synthesize political arguments today; worse: when one uses historical fiction depicting politics that might never have existed to draw conclusions about the present.  If the distinction is confusing, let me put it this way: Harry Potter has nothing actionable to say about politics in the 1930s, the 1990s, or the 2010s (I have seen arguments for all three on this lovely internet).  I will not accept disagreement on this point.

  • Attune your reading to the work and not yourself.

Nabokov is much more vehement on this “lowly kind” of imagination, which is a little funny to me.  I wouldn’t begrudge someone emotional involvement in their reading material, and I suspect he wouldn’t either, not truly.  Rather, I’d guess his war, as with many of these points, is against preconception.  If you identify with a character in a story, if you empathize with them, that creates expectations that the author didn’t put there, and expectations cause misinterpretations and distractions.

An example from my own work: If you identify with Le Markhan in this story (and you are not a dangerous sadist), you run the risk of taking the narrative at face value and assuming that his character arc has a distinct turning point.  No doubt being raped traumatized him, but he was also abused physically and psychologically his entire life.  A very salient question is whether, if his grandfather never learned about his homosexuality, he wouldn’t have gone full despot-de-Sade anyway.  Was he on the cusp of acceptance by the common people, a hopeful vector away from his grandfather’s authoritarian rule, or was he just playacting at peasantry?  Answer that how you like, but kindness means recognizing that there is a question.

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The rest of the essay has some ballin’ quotes (“To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth,” fuck yeah), and deals largely with the craftsman on the other side of the printing press.  It’s a beautiful, if not incredibly useful, description of an author’s own responsibility to his work, but that’s appropriate. Art is a remarkably difficult thing to describe, its manufacture more difficult still, and in writing his essay, I hope you realize he was making art himself.  And I hope we can agree that art has minimal mandate toward utility.