Tim Parks’ The Novel: A Survival Skill is part of Oxford University Press’ “The Literary Agenda” series, which has a rather wonderful aim: “to start reinvigorated work into the meaning and value of literary reading.” Parks’ monograph steps up to these aims with a fresh and unique perspective on the novel that cuts against current trends in literary criticism, and even against the cosy arguments we have grown accustomed to in defence of “the literary.”
Parks’ revolutionary ‘Forward’ invites us to put aside notions of the literary as something intrinsically worthwhile that fulfils some indefinite but superior human need, and to instead ground the literary more firmly in a basic communication between writer and reader. He takes aim at the status of the writer and the status of literature, and hits the mark with the simple idea that ‘[t]he novel, then, is not some magically separate art object entire unto itself, but something plucked from the flow of a life.’
Parks begins the monograph proper with “Four Imagined Meetings”, wherein he offers a quartet of humorous, and more importantly, humanising portraits of revered literary figures; the charismatic Joyce, or “Jim”, always in need of a friendly loan; the philanthropic Dickens, too flawed for his own high ideals; the shy but passionate Hardy, simmering beneath a conformist reserve; and finally, the tempestuous D.H. Lawrence, quick to anger and quicker to calm. These vignettes are all based on existing biographies of the authors, but their strength is not in any accuracy of representation, but in setting up in the most enjoyable and imaginative way the premise that there is a connection between the life and the work.
In the second chapter, Parks begins his engagement with systemic psychology by explaining Gregory Bateson’s idea of schismogenesis; the influence of the social/group dynamic on individual behaviour patterns, as observed in the dynamics of the Iatmul tribe:
Among the Iatmul men the process is symmetrical: they are involved in a dynamic of escalating competition, each seeking to outdo the other […] Between the men and the women of the tribe, however, the process is complementary, each sex becoming ever more opposite of the other.
He goes on to explain further developments in the field, namely Valeria Ugazio’s notion that the polarities emphasised by schismogenesis have ‘semantic content’; a judgement of value or importance within the group. Parks briefly but illuminatingly applies some of these ideas to the personal family dynamics of both Dickens and Dostoyevsky and to their works, offering a taste of what this way of reading can offer. One of the underlying ideas at play here is that values are linked to personal experience, and that as such, there is ‘a fertile limitation in the works of most storytellers; their stories will tend to be of a certain kind, whatever the setting or genre, to revolve around the same values.’ This further establishes the life/works connection that Parks is trying to build.
These values are also important to the relationship between writer and reader. Parks explains the likes and dislikes of the reading public through Ugazio’s notion of “enigmatic episodes”; moments of disconnect where different value systems collide. In likening the reader/ writer relationship to real-life personal relationships, Parks removes the liking or disliking of a novel from moral discourse or questions of quality, into the realm of personal experience. We like something because it in some way speaks to our personal values, we dislike something because it doesn’t. At this point we may raise the issue of race, of gender, and of other factors important to determining life experience (and therefore personal values), and ask how Parks sees the phenomenon of reading diversely in relation to his assessment. He answers us with the following:
So far I have presented the idea of the enigmatic episode as an experience that is invariably negative, as if what we wanted was always to find confirmation that the world is as we believe it is. This is not the case, and particularly not the case when we’re reading; some incomprehension can be exciting […] On the page, we can afford to linger over ideas and relationships and reactions that seems quite disorienting to us.
In opening up encounters with new or different values systems in a ‘safe’ place, Parks believes that literature can be a means through which to overcome prejudice, though he is careful not to return to the discourse of innate literary goodness he rallied against in his forward, by stating that encounters with literature aren’t always necessarily positive, but, like real-life encounters, depend on the reader’s relationship to the writing. For better or worse, good writing, in Parks’ view, is never innocuous, and will inevitably reach the reader on a personal level. For this reason, Parks rallies against literary critics and academics who write about literature with detachment, exclaiming: ‘A critic who excludes from his work any reflection of how the texts he considers affect him, personally, of how he stands in relation to thempersonally, is, as I see it, living in denial of the very experience he is looking to for a meal ticket.’ Underneath some of the posturing is the point that, like biographical readings, the personal experience of reading needs to be brought back into literary criticism: a point with which I am cautiously inclined to agree. Parks returns to this idea in Chapter 5 “The Reader’s Address” where he offers an extended argument, and a clear example of his ideas through his own personal reading of J.M.Coetzee’s Disgrace.
The third chapter proceeds with a fascinating and well-argued explication of Joyce’s works in relation to his personal biography, utilising the terminology and ideas discussed in the previous chapter. In these few pages, Parks really showcases the use of biography in criticism, producing not just a simple drawing of correlatives between real and fictional characters and events, but elucidating the underlying structures and values at play in various works. Parks offers a convincing narrative of Joyce’s growth as a writer, as well as an in depth analysis of his enduring preoccupations. While the Joyce chapter is perhaps the star attraction of this book, it does not overshadow later chapters, which go on to apply the same methods to considerations of his own work, and to the works of Thomas Hardy, D.H.Lawrence, and Charles Dickens. The joy of Parks’ method of analysis is in the variety that is inevitably drawn from it. Focussing on biography and personal responses to works allows for critiques that seem much less formulaic than what we have come to think of as “literary criticism”. The personal and biographical elements are interesting to read, and importantly, they offer something in service of a deeper understanding of the literature under consideration.
The Novel: A Survival Skill is part polemic against the “authoritative” readings of texts offered by literary critics, and part manifesto for subjective readings through the inclusion of author biography, and the personal experience of readers. Parks’ monograph shakes up our ideas of what the novel is, offering a radical reassessment of its value in society, and an interrogation of the cult of the literary that has grown up around it. At the heart of this book is the idea that the novel belongs to everyone. That it is a form of communication, of connection, and that to detach the novel from the everyday lives of writers and readers is to drain it of its most important function. If author biography has been a little out of vogue in the literary criticism of more recent years, Parks’ monograph raises some brilliant arguments for why it is worth reincorporating into the mainstream. Yet for all its big ideas, this book is written in a highly accessible, conversational way, and, as we might expect, with a lot of personality.