Fiction Without Emotion, and Other News


On the Shelf

Leslie Caron reads—coolly.


  • As those who’ve taken my expensive, profoundly eye-opening advanced writers’ seminar know, fiction is all about feelings. (I write this on the chalkboard at the start of every lesson—it’s my trademark.) If your short story lacks a rich, gooey emotional center, if it doesn’t ooze verisimilitude and nuance, why, it’s no more effective than the copy on the side of the orange-juice carton, says I. Your professors would like you to believe that this is self-evident, that it’s always been so. But fiction has a secret: it’s only a Johnny-come-lately to the world of emotional depth. A few hundred years ago, literature was a far less psychological enterprise, and people still liked it well enough. No one is quite sure why the medium reoriented itself. Julie Sedivy explains the evolution: “As noted by literary scholar Monika Fludernik, medieval authors represented characters’ mental states mainly through their direct speech and gestures, which were used to convey intense emotions in a stereotypical way—lots of hand-wringing and tearing of hair, but few subtle gestures … This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700, when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays. Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, rereading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”
  • We all text dead people sometimes. It’s easier than texting living people, and it’s the only way our smartphones can help us grieve—a kind of virtual grave-site visitation. It’s probably more effective than anyone cares to admit, except when, as Amelia Tait writes, the dead seem to come back to life: “Using technology to talk to the dead is a behavior we rarely—if ever—hear anything about. If the words ‘texting the dead’ make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist ‘and then they text back!!!!’ Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve … Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months—but sometimes in as little as thirty days—phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to ‘talk’ to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved … Behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of ‘texting back’ is a more mundane—and cruel—reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.”

  • In the seventies, Jeremy Bernstein wrote a profile of Einstein for The New Yorker. Little did he know that the prepublication process would involve the first-ever instance of fact-checking by fireplace: “It went smoothly until we got to Einstein’s aphorism ‘Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht’ (which I would translate as ‘God is sophisticated but not malicious,’ though it’s often rendered ‘subtle’ rather than ‘sophisticated’) … The fact-checker wouldn’t let me quote the aphorism unless I could produce a source he could verify. I didn’t even know when Einstein had said it or why. In desperation I called the Princeton maths department. The secretary who answered the phone told me that the aphorism was inscribed, in German, over the fireplace outside her office in Fine Hall … The mathematician Oswald Veblen, who heard Einstein make the remark, in 1930, got his permission to make it part of the fireplace in Fine Hall. The mathematics department has moved (to a newer building also called Fine Hall) but the aphorism has remained where it was, as well as in my New Yorker profile.”
  • Virginia Woolf got her kicks in all kinds of ways, one of which was, apparently, by flirting with her sister’s husband, Clive Bell. Paul Levy explains, “Virginia began her teasing flirtation with her brother-in-law on a family trip to Cornwall … The unconsummated ‘affair’ continued well after the three years that the Bells’ marriage flourished, and even after Virginia’s own marriage in 1912. Clive had taken up with an old flame, and by 1910 Vanessa was interested in Roger Fry. Among Clive’s unpublished letters to Lytton [Strachey] is his comment on November 22, 1913, about Vanessa giving Roger a hard time: ‘That woman’s a vixen with her lovers you know … I wish Virginia would recover I want to try to have an affair with her’; and, on November 28, 1917: ‘Virginia, unfucked or almost, alas!, grows more charming with the years’ … In 1925 Virginia said to her friend Gwen Raverat, ‘It was my affair with Clive and Nessa … For some reason that turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done.’ ”
  • Andrea K. Scott on the late Vito Acconci, who died last week: “He was an American original, who began his career as a poet—a jittery Beckett … Acconci defies labels—later in his career he transformed his interest in public space into an unorthodox architectural practice, which never attained the transformative power of his art. But, of his great early work, one could say that he made a medium out of menace. It’s impossible to imagine, for example, Jordan Wolfson’s violent provocation at this year’s Whitney Biennial without the precedent of Acconci’s piece Claim Excerpts, from 1971, for which he videotaped himself wielding a metal pipe at the foot of the stairs of a gallery basement and televised his threats on a closed-circuit TV. On Twitter, the late artist’s tag line was, ‘Vito Acconci is now following you,’ a reference to Following Piece, from 1969, for which he tailed a random stranger every day for one autumn month in New York City, until the stranger entered a private domain.”