Sheer Fiction

Paul West is a lively and imaginative writer, and his erudition permeates every page of this offbeat collection of writings about the novel. As a literary critic he is unhappily subjective, however, and his biases at times endanger the credibility of his judgments. West is an advocate of the baroque and the elaborate in prose, and an opponent of the spare and unornamented post-Hemingway style known as minimalism. Though he never really identifies the minimalist writers of whom he disapproves, one can surmise that such writers as Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie head his list.

To West, minimalism is both unimaginative and dishonest, seeking as it does to oversimplify reality through the use of short words, simple sentences, and uncluttered syntax. One of the best essays in the collection, “In Defense of Purple Prose,” details his position and cites as evidence those “purple” writers favored by West: William Gass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, and other writers whose work is distinguished by verbal daring and experimentation. Here as elsewhere, however, West quotes from his own fiction, implicitly classing himself with such giants as Marquez and Thomas Mann and thus damaging his argument and his credibility.

The shadow of Virginia Woolf hangs heavy over this book, and the longest essay in it is “The Jazz of Consciousness,” an extended appreciation of Woolf’s novel ORLANDO and several of her other works. Starting out from the wrongheaded position that Woolf is underrated and misunderstood, West nevertheless makes any number of excellent observations about her work, comparing her importance to history with that of such great scientists as Albert Einstein. In this essay and in the many short reviews that close the book, West proves himself a careful if idiosyncratic reader of texts.

Readers interested in the “magical realist” writers of Latin America will find in West an enthusiastic kindred spirit and a sensitive reader of those often-neglected writers. Indeed, one cannot doubt for a moment West’s devotion to and love of the novel, a literary form about whose future he is optimistic.