Thomas Sutcliffe: The clever writer flatters the reader

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The Independent Online

She wanted to contrast an analytical, academic intelligence with something more instinctive and gut-felt. And it's possible that it wasn't self-deprecatory at all, because the sentiment is consistent with the storyline of her latest novel, On Beauty, which has (among a lot of other things) some sharp things to say about the deficiencies of academic intellect as against emotional nous. Anyway, between them the remark and the novel got me thinking about the question of how clever, as readers, we want a novel to be.

Another way of putting this would be to ask whether we want a novel to leave us feeling a little more intelligent than we normally are, or a little more stupid. And though the answer to this might seem obvious (nobody likes to feel dumb) I'm not sure that it's as simple as it might first appear. For one thing either outcome can take one of two forms, good and bad. A novel may leave you with an enhanced sense of your own intellectual capabilities because it has falsely flattered you (I'm sure you can think of your own candidates) or because it has genuinely enlarged your vision. Similarly it can leave you feeling stupid because of its own meretricious display of mental prowess or because it usefully alerts you to a gap in your own apprehension of the world.

Of course, knowing precisely how stupid you are is a valuable kind of intelligence, but it doesn't always feel like that at the moment when the news comes in. And even within these alternatives there are further choices to make. Do you relish going after a novel's intelligence like a greyhound after a rabbit, every muscle straining to catch up? Or do you prefer the exhilarating sensation of being carried along with it effortlessly, of riding pillion on the writer's imagination?

For readers of serious novels you could argue that the prejudice has broadly been in favour of novels that make us feel more stupid - in admonitory and corrective ways. Indeed, one definition of a "serious novel" was just that; one that left you feeling a little dim-witted and slow. Zadie Smith referred to this herself in a lecture she gave a while ago about EM Forster. "My generation", she said, "like to be in some pain when they read. The harder it was, the more good we believed it was doing us". The readers she had in mind are those who thrill to Kafka's celebrated dictum that a book "should be an ice-axe, to break the frozen sea within us". That sounds respectably painful, doesn't it? We arrive with congealed sensibilities and should close the final page shattered. One of the characters in On Beauty has a different way of putting it, referring to her husband's "evisceration theory" of art - by which she means his belief that great art should attack the viewer's value system, rather than reinforce it.

In both cases the sense that you've failed to grasp something which is now obvious is an integral part of the experience. The measure of a book is not whether you like it or not (since truly great novels couldn't care less about your feelings) but whether it awes and astounds you by its superiority.

In her lecture Zadie Smith suggested that it might be time for the pendulum to swing back to a more old-fashioned, less rigorous kind of relationship - one in which we fantasise about a kind of reciprocal affection and a pooling of intelligence. On Beauty reads as if it's an attempt to produce just such a thing. It's one of those novels that regularly appeals to common knowledge - by which I mean not banal truisms, but the shared truths of human experience. It implicitly says "you know how it is" - rather than, as quite a few novels do, "you haven't a clue and need to wise up quickly", and it does this with sufficient tact that it would be easy to overlook how nicely calculated it is, and how gracefully it juggles an apparently miscellaneous collection of themes into a single, controlled, flight path. Even easier, given readers' vanity, would be for them to overlook the fact that the ideas aren't theirs at all, but have been conjured up as a magician pulls coins from an audience member's ear. "How did that come out of there?", one asks, and the answer is that it didn't. On Beauty is very clever - and wise enough not to flaunt it.

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