He Wrote, She Wrote 

When writers write about writing, have they anything to say?

Apologies are due to Oscar Wilde for the imminent theft of his dialogue "The Critic as Artist -- With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Discussing Everything." In shorthand, everyone is a critic of something: the actor of the playwright; the singer and musician of the composer; the reader of the novelist; the novelist, in the role of philosopher, of life. What needs no explanation need not claim to be art. Criticism is an impression of art as art is an impression of life. The critic is equally an artist.

Were he here to read it, Wilde would be aghast at what goes on in the neatly conceived The Genius of Language, a collection of essays commissioned and edited by Berkeley's Wendy Lesser about what it means to forsake your mother tongue to write in English. Lesser, who cofounded The Threepenny Review, borrowed the book's title from Joseph Conrad, who once said he gave up his native Polish for English because he was "adopted by the genius of the language." In her introduction, she says that she hoped the writers she chose would use their genius to express the peculiarities of their mother tongues.

As is to be expected, the essayists meet with varying degrees of success. This book should not be read cover to cover. Doing so robs the best pieces of their distinctiveness, for all but one of them ends the same way, with the writer choosing to maintain his or her career in English. The reasons are what matter, but lined up shoulder to shoulder the exiles all begin to sound alike, and thus fall victim to the lineup, struggling to sound original.

Bharati Mukherjee, who teaches English at UC Berkeley, gets to go first, and so sounds best on the dichotomy facing the language-adoptee. "To my inner Bengali I remain constant, as it does for me," she writes, but to all Bengalis as for Mukherjee herself, "a second language, a school language, was necessary to liberate their minds from their bodies, their self from their community."

It is a constant balance of freedom against loss. Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o provides the collection's best piece if only for its uniqueness, his realization of his larger role as an artist, and the freedom of turning away from the political freedom of English. In 1977, Thiong'o was imprisoned in Africa for writing in an African tongue, this after a writing career performed in an "English-language mask." In prison, he writes, "I had to find a way of connecting with the language for which I was incarcerated. It was not a matter of nostalgia. I was not being sentimental. I needed to make that contact in order to survive. It was an act of resistance. So I wrote the first novel ever written in Gikuyu, on toilet paper, in a room provided for 'free' by the post-colonial state."

Whatever their individual reasons, the fourteen other writers chose to write in English because it is the tongue that best lets them tell their stories. It is then both strange and expected that the language isn't good enough for its native speakers. The history of the English-language novel begins and ends with Dickens, with Bellow and Philip Roth as celebrated footnotes. Our tradition is otherwise one of writers taking words of which everyone knows the meaning and arranging them in ways they hope no one will understand.

Lesser says of her exiles that it is "the crossing of a boundary, the alienation from the original tongue, which made writers of them." The urge among some contemporary writers is to contrive their own boundaries, to affect alienation from the mother tongue that the rest of the world speaks with so much more color. The early moderns maintained a dual role as critics of both society and language, but their descendants are too often critics of nothing but their own storytelling.

The eminent literary critic James Wood calls this movement "hysterical realism," work that has been tossed into a "perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity."

Wood calls out the usual suspects as its practitioners (DeLillo, Rushdie, Foster Wallace, etc.), and says of their novels that storytelling is a kind of grammar. "It is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished, but on the contrary, exhausted, overworked. ... It seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself. It is not a cockup but a cover-up."

Hysterical realism figures in The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, a collection of Wood's recent critical pieces, mostly from The New Republic and The London Review of Books. The idea at work here is invisible without the introductory essay, so there are at least two ways to read this book. You can dive in blind and hop around a mostly trenchant survey of two hundred years of literature with an eye to the comedy therein, or read the introduction and become critic to the theorist.

The "irresponsible self" is the unreliability of character that stems from the modern novel's relentless plunge into its inhabitants' inner lives. As Wood writes, "The novelistic idea that we have bottomless interiors which may only be partially disclosed to us must create a new form of comedy, based on the management of our incomprehension rather than on the victory of our complete knowledge."

Although Wood describes the change in part as a function of modernity, the divide is sharpest along religious and secular lines. Rather than sit in imperial judgment, the modern author, all too aware of his own weakness, asks the reader without fault to cast the first stone. And humor with its roots in religiosity, what Wood refers to as the comedy of "fault-finding, reprehension, and correction," is leavened by sympathy and becomes the "comedy of forgiveness," of which "irresponsibility" is a subset.

You can now begin to understand why a book about funny books includes essays on Tolstoy, Babel, and the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, why Wood's prose isn't humorous, and why his own novel, The Book Against God, is perhaps the gentlest satire in print.

It's fair to say then that neither Wilde nor Wood nor anyone with a belief in the heightened responsibility of the artist as social critic would be much impressed with Thomas Keneally's The Tyrant's Novel. The Australian Schindler's List author cribbed his story from an Atlantic Monthly piece about Saddam Hussein's wildly successful publishing career, and the resulting novel has the feel of a product rushed into print to exploit the headlines. It is set in a fictional Iraq, a desert country ruled through intimidation and fear by a megalomaniac. The names have been Westernized, presumably in a critique of our own political culture and to head off any reactionary criticism.

The narrator is a successful writer recruited by "Great Uncle" to produce a sympathetic and heroic novel to improve the dictator's standing in the international community and ease the sanctions that are choking the country. He is given a month for the task. It happens that he has a finished manuscript that needs only a few changes to fit the bill, but he has buried it with his newly dead wife.

The morality plays in The Tyrant's Novel are telegraphed at the rate of about one per page, but to Keneally's credit the book is never heavy-handed. However, it is lightweight throughout, never provocative. The narrator claims that the story is the "saddest and silliest" you will ever hear, but it is wholly unmoving and forces you to consider nothing but the author's motivation, for Keneally has taken up the dominant issue of our time and told us a story without fulfilling his duties as either artist or critic.

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