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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

What Was Mark Twain’s Real Target?

Discussion with Bertil Falk, Gary Inbinder, and Don Webb

Bertil Falk: When I read The Deerslayer, The Pathfinder and The Leatherstocking books, I did not observe anything at all of what Mark Twain found in James Fenimore Cooper’s prose. I was just about eight years old, and since I was something like the third or fourth generation of young Swedes reading Cooper in Swedish, some of the faults Mark Twain found may have been lost in translation.

At the age of eight you don’t analyse; you read, experience and enjoy. Mark Twain the Ripper is very funny, and I laughed when reading this essay of his; but of course he is in company with such as G.K. Chesterton, one of the most well developed literary Besserwissers I know of, a real wiseacre.

He is telling us rules for writing. Who has decided the rules? Who has the right to decide literary rules? A parliament? A literary academy? A minister of Education? Not at all. Mark Twain’s rules are obsolete. So many writers have turned them upside down. An essay on Finnegan’s Wake by Mark Twain would have been something to enjoy reading, but at the same time we know that James Joyce created his own rules, rules that are not compatible with Mark Twain’s private ideas of what is right and wrong.

I had never read this essay on Cooper before, and I am glad that it has been reprinted at Bewildering Stories.

Gary Inbinder: The essay is funny, like most of Twain’s work. But it’s really little more than an example of one artist’s self-serving trashing of another. After all, if one engages in self-promotion — and to a greater or lesser extent all artists do — it makes sense to beat down the competition.

Moreover, if you want editors, critics, instructors, and other taste-makers to adopt new “rules,” then you want your “rules” to be the fashionable marketplace paradigm.

Don Webb: You both make good points, of course. But I think it’s important to add that all literature — indeed, all art — engages two dialogues: first between the artist and the work, in composition, and then between the reader and the work.

Twain’s essay is his personal dialogue with J. Fenimore Cooper’s novels. And of course everyone is free to start his own dialogue. In fact you have to; otherwise you’re not reading at all.

The form of Twain’s essay is the “critique from hell.” Anyone who, like Bertil, actually enjoyed Cooper’s novels will be taken aback: “I certainly didn’t see that when I read the books when I was a child,” they may say. And rightly so: one does not read the same way at age 8 as at, say, age 18 or 58.

Is Twain a “wisacre” engaged in shameless self-promotion by launching his weapon of mass destruction? No, I can’t agree, at least not fully. Consider the epigraphs: they quote putative authorities’ adulation of Cooper. And that, rather than Cooper’s novels, is Mark Twain’s real target.

Mark Twain is royally pissed off. In fact, he’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it any more. Why? Two reasons:

  1. The first is stated up front. Twain accuses the professors of intellectual dishonesty: they praise Cooper’s novels without actually having read them. Or, if we want to stretch at fairness, they’re fobbing off a child’s viewpoint as a professor’s.

  2. The other reason we can infer, as Gary implies with a touch of playful cynicism: if anybody is going to lavish such praise on J. Fenimore Cooper, who has not earned it, what will they have left for Mark Twain, who has earned it?

Taking a larger view, Bertil raises the question of authority: “Who has the right to decide literary rules? A parliament? A literary academy?” Bertil’s answer is categorical: nobody has that right.

But things aren’t as simple as that. “Right” is not the issue. Rather, rules — be they Bewildering Stories’ Submissions guidelines, divine commandments, laws, or friendly advice (listed in no particular order) — are solutions to problems that have arisen in the past. Creativity consists in breaking or reshaping rules to deal with new problems. And this will come as a shock to rugged individualists: creativity requires knowing first what the rules are; otherwise one doesn’t learn from experience and endlessly reinvents wheels, most of them flat.

Bertil’s question and answer are also culture-bound. As I’ve just implied, all authors must make their own rules — even James Joyce makes his own — if they’re going to be able to write anything at all. But Americans, especially, make it a rule that no one shall impose rules.

The French, for example, take a different view and see unbridled individualism as anarchy. That’s why they have the French Academy, an institution incomprehensible to Americans. In the early 17th century, France was not yet a modern nation-state; it was a collection of feudal provinces. And what was the French language? Who knew, in a country full of mutually unintelligible dialects? The French Academy was conceived as a political and cultural institution designed to bring order out of post-medieval chaos. North America has no equivalent historical experience.

The Academy did go overboard in imposing esthetic rules in literature. The famous debate over Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid is the prime example. But in a way, the Academy was right. Corneille was more at home in the Baroque than in the Classical style: his play is a masterpiece of poetry, but its plot structure is marred by irrelevance. The Academy — like Mark Twain — was really asking: How much disorder are we willing to tolerate in order to appreciate the good stuff?

The question can’t be answered absolutely; that would be counter-creative. Rather, what we do have and are always engaged in is a dialogue between work and audience. Authors know their side of the dialogue; at Bewildering Stories we try to help them hear the readers’ side. Some writers listen, some don’t; but the dialogue between work and reader is always there.

Copyright © 2009 by Bewildering Stories

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