Guest Columns

Dumb Enough to Try: Some Notes on Aesthetic Rules


Daniel Torday

      “You can take what I know about love,” Father John Misty sings in my favorite song on his most recent record, “and drown it in the sink.” If you replace “love” with “aesthetic theory,” you’d pretty much be describing me. I was an undergraduate philosophy minor mainly because when you walked through the philosophy department at the small liberal arts college I attended, there you’d nd the photographs of the major nov- elists who’d gone there. I took courses in ancient and modern continental philosophy and then almost exclusively 20th century phenomenology, and it is possible—even easy—to read a massive chunk of Plato, Heidegger and Kierkegaard without hearing the word beauty. I can’t say what E.L. Doctorow or William Gass knew about aesthetics except as creators of novels and stories. But they were heroes, and I wanted to know what they knew.

I have on the other hand always been partial to a contrarian nov- elist’s view of the formality of setting down rules for what a novel or story or painting can and can’t do. “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold the novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary,” Henry James wrote in “The Art of the Novel,” “is that it be interesting.” I like the way this de nition plays chicken with tautology before veering off into the bushes. The opposite is probably true of a wonderful Harold Brodkey essay entitled “Fiction is Fictional.” The title of that one pretty much tells you what you need to know about what’s inside. Are these examples of aesthetic theory? If so, I’m awfully glad to have focused exclusively on phenomenologists. I suspect an aloofness around these ideas allows the writer to write without worrying overmuch about what’s possible. “There may never be anything new to say,” Flannery O’Connor once told a group of co-eds, “but there is always a new way to say it.”

There’s an attendant aloofness towards the history of aesthetics baked into Francine Prose’s “Ten Things Art Can Do,” an essay that appeared in the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa organization, and subse- quently appears at the opening of her new non ction book What to Read and Why, and which is the ostensible reason for the existence of the essay you’re currently reading. I’ve always loved the fact that the occasion of James’s “Art of the Novel” was his using the ideas of a theorist of the novel named Besant as a jumping-off point for simply stating a bunch of his own ideas, and with respect to Francine Prose, a writer I admire and even revere, I’m tempted by the idea of just running with it here.

The title of that Father John Misty song I quote at the outset is “Just Dumb Enough To Try.” That’ll be the operative tone for what’s to come here. I’ve made it far in life without articulating a personal aesthetics or spending too much time drinking alone, but here we go with the former.

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I suspect I’d better at least say that Francine Prose’s “Ten Things” irts with tautology not unlike the various irtations of Brodkey and James. “Art can be beautiful,” she tells us, before going on to make truth claims like “Art can shock us” (#2); “Art can give us pleasure” (#8); and “Art can move us” (#5). I seem to remember learning in symbolic logic that the easiest way to test a truth claim is to consider the usefulness of the claim’s opposite (I tell my freshmen writing students this, anyway).1 Maybe what I do still like about capacious James is that the counterclaim, “the one thing we can’t hold the novel to… is that it be interesting,” does surprisingly get us somewhere. And come to think of it it does some good for Brodkey as well—if the counterclaim to his essay is “ fiction isn’t fictional,” maybe it’s not entirely tautological after all. Maybe instead it coyly says something about what we mean by “ fiction,” and says something about fiction’s broad capacity.

As a fellow practitioner of the novel, also attendant to my own ignorance of aesthetic theory, I have always been drawn to an area Prose takes up in her #3: “Can art make you a better person.” Landing on one of Chekhov’s endlessly useful letters to his editor Suvorin, Prose quotes from a moment when he claims that “it might be nice to combine art with preaching, but for me personally this is exceptionally dif cult and technically next to impossible.” It strikes me that in some ways this is the central aesthetic question of our current moment: the extent to which the novel, or story, or poem, must directly grapple with the political. “What’s your politics,” Father John Misty sings over and over again in “Hangout at the Gallows,” “what’s your religion?” My own feeling has always been that Chekhov’s aesthetics are often misunderstood. In a more frequently quoted letter to Suvorin, the Russian master writes: “It seems to me it is not for writers of ction to decide questions as that of God, pessimism, etc. The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God, pessimism, how, and in what circumstances.” It would be easy enough to read this as a Chekhovian principle that ction isn’t meant to approach what we think of as topicality or the political.

But I take Chekhov to have meant something more like: just show us characters. If you can get your reader to believe in a person as a person, a human as a human, it will be harder for her to be evil. Which isn’t apolitical. It’s both speci c and universal. So… is that an aesthetic principle I believe, then? Good ction should be both speci c and uni- versal? It seems hard to believe its opposite: “Good ction shouldn’t be both speci c and universal.” So OK. Dumb enough to try. Let’s see what this looks like:


“Good fiction should be both special and universal.”


Jump back! Let it stand. It may not be useful, but it would be hard to argue that it’s wrong. It sounds a little like advice I often nd myself giving students in writing classes: If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. “You can do anything you can get away with,” Flannery told those same co-eds, “but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

It occurs to me we’re awfully late in this essay without having spoken of any actual good ction, so I’m going to use this moment to take at random a very good book I read recently. It’s called The Vegetarian. It’s by a South Korean novelist named Han Kang. The book takes a simple premise: a woman in her early thirties decides to stop eating meat. The people close to her—her imperious husband, her imperious father, even her not-entirely-imperious sister— ip their lids when they nd out. At a family dinner her father tries to force meat into her mouth. She responds by slashing her wrist in front of them. She is institutionalized. She escapes into the woods and stands naked in the rain and sun, apparently believing herself to be a heliotrope. By the end of the book she is close to death. She refuses food. She tears out of her nose a forced feeding tube. She stands on her head attempting to become a tree. The book is told through three points of view of equal length: Yeong-hye’s husband, who divorces her; her brother-in-law, a video artist, who paints owers on her naked body and then lms himself having sex with her; and her sister, who leaves the brother-in-law after catching him having sex with her.

So what does this specific example of a very good book come to tell us about aesthetics? The first is that I’m not sure this synopsis does the book much justice. The Vegetarian is decidedly Kafka-in uenced. When I teach Kafka I frequently find myself saying to students, The thing about a novella like “The Metamorphosis” is that the premise is a bad idea! A man wakes up one morning to discover he’s become a large dung beetle. It’s a bad idea. Terrible. Audacious even. But it’s a bad terrible audacious idea well executed. It’s in its execution that it becomes a major work of the 20th century. So… is that an aesthetic principle? Let’s give it a try:


“Great fiction comes when a writer has a bad idea and executes it well.”


I have always been plagued by an innate penchant for rule-fol- lowing. Much of what excited me early as a reader were books that set out rules, then broke them only for a purpose. Every chapter of Anna Karenina is basically exactly ten pages long— until we reach the iconic Levin-scything-grass sections, which go on for dozens of pages. Gatsby dies oating face-down in the swimming pool and sure enough Fitzgerald describes that pool in chapter one. But Fitzgerald also has to nd all kinds of ways for Nick Carraway to bear out Gatsby’s life on the page while only knowing what he knows. Gregor Samsa wakes up a dung beetle and stays a dung beetle, but he also has to help his mother with the lodgers who stay at their house and then gets an apple stuck in his back and dies a dung beetle. John Gardner called this the “vivid and continuous dream,” one the writer is ostensibly meant to maintain while attending to the zigs and zags of dream logic.

What excites me most in The Vegetarian is that Han Kang upends the dream early and often. The vivid dream of the novel comes from the main character, Yeong-hye, herself—she claims to have decided to stop eating meat as the result of a dream. In the rst of the three sections of the book, Kang interpolates italicized sections of the dream from Yeong-hye’s point of view: “Dark Woods,” the first section begins. “No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the tree, my torn feet.” The voice is so stark, so marked in contrast to Yeong-hye’s husband’s voice, it is almost literally intoxicating. There’s no clear narrative principle that allows us access to the dream, unless you count Faulkner’s use of italics as a rule.2 The writing is so vivid and access to the dream so desired and the zigs and zags so compelling, it just works. In the second and third sections we don’t get any more of the dream, though in principle Yeong-hye’s artist brother-in-law and essentially loving sister might give them greater access to her. And yet somehow it just works. We’re left wanting more. Wanting an explanation. Somehow we’re still satis ed. It strikes me that it would be easy enough here to state as I do for students:


“What works works.”


I know I’ve stated just that to students. I suspect a strong belief in that claim held me back a good bit early on as a novelist. The opposite of that claim quickly muddles everything—“what works doesn’t work” doesn’t get us far. I’m tempted to make a very different kind of claim, something more like:


“Every great work of art contains an inconsistency/ flaw that can only be explained by character.”


That one I’ll embrace. I suspect it’s actually intimately tied to the bad idea idea. Humans are inherently inconsistent. They’re awed. If “literary fiction” retains a meaningful de nition as late as 2019, I suspect it’s as simple as, Stories and novels that privilege attention to language and character rst and foremost—a de nition that sounds capacious at rst, but which narrows the more we attempt to apply it to actual works. Part of the reason The Vegetarian is so successful is that it executes so deftly an ultimately bad idea: people get mad at a woman they should love because she wants to be a vegetarian. It’s not hard to imagine the self-aggrandizing, self-pitying, American-suburban version of this, the teenage-rebellion-memoir version of this story, the plaintive plaint. The polemic, even.

What elevates Han Kang’s novel so quickly to the highest art is its quickly placing all the weight on Yeong-hye’s decision on her dream, the freedom of her own choice. She makes no real ethical or logical claims to her choice. “I had a dream” is her sole claim to causation or motivation. It’s a really bad dream, but still. There’s an absurdity to how dogged she is—soon after being institutionalized Yeong-hye strips herself to the waist in public. “My wife was sitting on a bench by the fountain,” her husband narrates:


She had removed her hospital gown and placed it on her knees, leaving her gaunt collarbones, emaciated breasts and brown nipples completely exposed. The bandage had been unwound from her left wrist, and the blood that was leaking out seemed to be slowly licking at the sutured area. Sunbeams bathed her face and naked body.

The only recourse to explain her behavior is vivid descriptive language, and our comprehension—or alongside the book’s other characters, our miscomprehension— of her as a person. The content of the novel must be matched by the precision of its language, and by “content” we almost exclusively mean “the main character being a awed knowable human.” Yeong-hye is depicted as as much an individual as any I know of in liter- ature, akin perhaps to Melville’s Bartleby and few others. She is speci c, and yet there is a massive abiding universality to her. While we might have interest in her being Korean, in the way a kind of feminist cri-de-Coeur informs the narrative, the capacity here is far broader.

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If there’s a parochialism in all the observations above, it re- ects my only having taken novels into consideration. I could claim an exemption, in that the parish I attend is the novelist’s parish. But given that Father John Misty made more than a cameo at top, why not return to him? At a minimum it’ll be fun. Famous rst as the drummer of the band Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty has become an almost cartoonishly vili ed/beloved singer/songwriter/performer since leaving the band. I haven’t seen him play live, but a poet friend who recently saw him in Birmingham describes the event as being a little like seeing Mick Jagger when all his fans had come expecting to see Taylor Swift. His vocals can approach in their delivery a kind of chuchy beauty—often when I play him around my wife she says, Maybe we should just be listening to the real Elton John, not an imitation. Which incidentally has led me to take Elton John more seriously for the rst time—turns out “Border Song” is a masterpiece.

But where Elton John’s songwriting and performance betray an almost painful sentimentalism and literalness—“Candle in the Wind” is after all a song imagining the life of a princess as being like… wait for it… a candle, in the wind— Father John Misty’s aesthetics are far harder to pin down. In his breakout song, “Bored in the USA,” FJM pushes hard on American ennui while also pushing hard on irony:

Oh, they gave me a useless education

And a subprime loan

On a craftsman home

Keep my prescriptions filled

And now I can’t get off

But I can kind of deal
  FJM performs the song on piano and vocals. The Elton-John-ishness of his singing comes to have the effect of being, well, just plain funny. My rst year of listening to FJM was done entirely on my own, not in conversation with other listeners, and I assumed it was, again, just plain funny. Sometime after his second-to-last record came out, I discovered that Father John Misty is in fact hated by large numbers of people; the musician Ryan Adams has attacked him particularly viciously on Twitter. He’s big and handsome and famous and a provocateur, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. But it is the effect of his songwriting tone. No one ever got in a Twitter war with Elliott Smith.

It strikes me that each of the rules we’ve tested out above comes to clarify something of the effect of FJM’s art:


“Good writing should be both speci c and universal.”


“Great writing comes when a writer has a bad idea and executes it well.”


“Every great work of art contains an inconsistency/ aw that can only be explained by character.”


This might be the right time to mention that the “Father John Misty” moniker is itself a kind of joke, as Father John Misty’s given name is Josh Tillman, a fact he plays with in almost all his records—to the greatest effect in a song on his new record called “Mr. Tillman,” which contains some of his nest writing. It’s a kind of confessional account of FJM’s time at a hotel before a music festival, but told entirely from the point of view of the hotel proprietor:


Ah Mr. Tillman, good to see you again There’s a few outstanding charges just before we check you in Let’s see here, you left your passport in the mini fridge And the message with the desk says here the picture isn’t his

That’s how it starts, and it lands on a series of very funny moments, including the fact that singer-songwriter “Jason Isbell’s here as well/and he seemed a little worried about you,” and the observation that FJM has complained repeatedly but that “Mr. Tillman for the seventh time/we have no knowledge of a lm being shot outside/those aren’t extras in a movie/ they’re our clientele.” So there it is: the speci city of scene. The univer- sality of alienation, embarrassment. The bad idea—an almost hip-hop-ish burning of other talented musicians—well-executed. And at bottom, resting it all on the character of “Father John Misty” whom Tillman has created.

It’s a good song.

There are no rules, but it’s following them.

At the end of “Mr. Tillman,” Father John Misty lands on his best, simplest line: “Is there someone we can call,” the hotel manager says, “perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone.” I’d love to test that one as its own aesthetic rule: “In art as in life perhaps you shouldn’t drink alone.” But in the end I fear that in attempting its counterclaim, we might open up a whole new set of problems. “In art as in life, perhaps you shouldn’t not drink alone” just seems like, well, a bad idea, poorly executed.

1. OK, and now I remember I took a symbolic logic class, too, though I suspect the only other thing it did for me was allow me to understand what the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s” refers to.
2. You shouldn’t.