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Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review: Tim Parks, The Novel: a Survival Skill

In 1970, aged 16, Tim Parks wrote a school essay for which he expected an A grade. Instead he got a D with the explanatory comment “Biographical fallacy!” He had used the writer’s life to explain the writer’s work. Parks tells us this at page 75 of this very interesting 2015 book. The book might be regarded as his riposte or revenge for that remembered comment because it defends an approach which argues that novels are inter-textual with the lives of their authors and – equally so – with the lives of their readers. Authors inevitably write things which are meaningful for them as living, breathing human beings and readers involve themselves with novels because they are (mostly) about human beings and their relationships – albeit, wholly or partly imagined ones.

Parks is more specific in his theorising than my generic paraphrase allows. In chapter 2 he commits himself to a version of  systemic (or systems) psychology as a way of understanding family dynamics and argues that novelists (at least characteristically) are marked by their families of origin to later understand human relationships in the terms they have been most familiar with. Those terms can often be expressed as simple binaries: freedom/ dependence; winning / losing; fear / courage; loyalty / betrayal; belonging / excluded. Readers are marked in the same way and will sometimes run into difficulties with an author if the author privileges a binary with which they are unfamiliar. Someone who positions themself as independent of ties may struggle to see why a character in a novel whose self-worth and happiness depends on belonging is so upset – devastated even – by exclusion. If you like, the value system offered us is completely different to our own. Parks might add: that’s one of the things novels are for.

He follows up the initial theoretical positioning with chapters in which the works (or some selected works) of Joyce, Beckett, Hardy, Lawrence and Dickens are read inter-textually with their own lives, rather than with the works of other writers. Parks himself stands in for the reader and the reader’s variable responses. These chapters are all very well done, and very well written; I suspect they have grown out of many years teaching fairly advanced English literature classes. In many ways, they don’t need the apparatus of systemic psychology, though that may have taught Parks what to look for or what to privilege.

Parks takes pot shots at what he often calls “academe” by which he means ways of reading which are essentially anodyne and avoid what human lives are often or always about, even when novels go to great lengths to show varieties of what that life is about. Academe is one bloodless pole of a binary the other pole of which might be blooded human desires and emotions. Parks’s father lived in a study lined with bible concordances; his brother, living in the same house, played guitar and fucked girls. Parks does not want to be his brother’s double – that’s not his family position – but he does agree that life is about fear and loathing, blood and guts, success and failure – and that what bible concordances say about those things (but which aren't indexed in that way, I guess) is unlikely to be terribly illuminating.

This is an enjoyable book to read. The question I suppose I ought to try to focus is this: What would someone living in pot-shot academe say about it by way of riposte? I find it hard to answer that, no doubt because I share many of Parks’s prejudices – much of his positioning , if you prefer. But if I was forced, I would start this way: systemic psychology is less systematic than you imagine, even in relation to its home base of family dynamics. Its weakness is that it is general (vague) enough to allow you to pick things out of the life and the text which fit. In this it ends up not being so different in method and result to Marxist criticism, which can always find things to fit, or to such things as archetypal symbolic reading, which ditto. So these methods are always self-validating. We in academe want to find methods which allow for falsification. 

The trouble is, of course, that in relation to literary academe that last sentence can only be ironic or, probably, just sarcastic.