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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

III. Esthétiques de la lecture/The Aesthetics of Reading

Paul Ouest or The Vicissitudes of Literary Reception

Thomas B. Byers

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1There is a moment in his lovely memoir, My Mother’s Music, when Paul West lets slip a hint of dismay regarding the question of the relation of many serious writers including, I take it, himself, to the public in his adopted land. On the one hand, he tells how, when he begins to despair as to whether anyone “will ever take to” what he is writing, he hears an admonition from his mother: “do not try to write within the expectations of the reading public; give it your best shot, then leave it at that.” West continues, “She knew an author’s ultimate fidelity is to the language, not to any school of appreciation, any band of admirers” (113-14). On the other hand, he indicates the somewhat depressing consequences of a lifetime spent trying to contribute to a culture that simply does not pay attention:

[…] there comes to be a ghost literature behind the accepted one, similar to the one the Soviets expunged from their encyclopedias: a literature of the untouted, one that slid unrecognized by, of enormous interest to cultural and aesthetic historians, of course, but relegated to the background and ultimately invisible because out of print. Civilization so called races onward with the merest cursory backward glance at the horn of plenty it has chosen to call its cultural heritage. Some years ago, at a talk at the Spanish Institute, New York City, I saluted the Lost Tribe of America and was gratified to find many reputable creative persons in the audience wanted to join that tribe. This is a nation whose novelists and poets feels overlooked, have nowhere near the standing and clout they do in France, whereas entertainers, poisonalities, hosts and compères and anchorpersons, rule the roost. (114)

2There is an ambiguity here as to whether those who “have the standing and clout […] in France” are “The Lost Tribe of America” themselves, or their counterpart poets and novelists among the French. If it is the latter, the point is really a truism: literature and literary writers certainly have a higher standing in a nation where talk shows about books are a staple of mainstream television, where a laundry-truck driver who kills Roland Barthes actually recognizes him, and so on. But the more interesting notion is that of a coterie of American writers, going all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe (at least to Poe the poet) who are more highly recognized in France than “aux Etats-Unis.” Indeed, the distance between French and American tastes seems almost to be a natural history of dissensus.

3This notion intrigues me because, from a very early point in my study of him, I have thought that Paul West is one of the US’s finest French writers. I first heard of him from a French critic—none other than Anne-Laure Tissut—and quickly became aware that he had been made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters which, at least to the untutored ear of a backwoods American, sounds durn impressive. Moreover, there are as many books about West by French authors (Tissut) as there are by Americans (Madden). (Whether West gets any attention at all in his pays natal, England, I have been unable to determine—though he certainly doesn’t have much good to say about the English guardians of culture in The Women of Whitechapel).

4But it is not just these details of the vita that make one think of West as Ouest. It is the quality of the writing and the way people respond to it. What follows will essay first to interrogate that quality and that response, then to suggest why these make West’s stock perhaps somewhat higher in France than in the US (that is, basically, to examine differing canons of taste in the two national traditions), and then to close with some brief remarks on the limitations of the American assessment of West.

5Beside me as I write, I have copies of five of West’s books with jacket blurbs. The books are Lord Byron’s Doctor, My Mother’s Music, The Tent of Orange Mist, The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, and Terrestrials. All together, they have 20 blurbs. Among the 20, we find the following statements: “The rest of us […] will despair of ever being able to write a prose so immaculate as that of Paul West” (this one is used twice); “Possibly our finest living stylist in English”; “one of the most consistently brilliant lyrical writers in America”; “graceful prose”; “a brilliant, indeed dazzling, stylist”; “verbally exquisite”; “richness of expression”; “beautifully written”; “Reading his novels we remember that style wedded to imagination is a nitroglycerine compound.” In short, of the 20 blurbs, half include at least one phrase that focuses on West as a stylist, a writer of beautiful prose. As a point of comparison, in 22 blurbs from Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star, The Names, Running Dog, Mao II, Libra, and Underworld, neither the word “style” nor any of its derivatives (“stylist,” “stylistic,” and so on) ever appears. Only one of these blurbs (on The Names) really emphasizes this element, referring to the novel’s “glorious prose that in its freshness, precision and eloquence is continuously exciting to read.” A couple of the other blurbs do praise DeLillo’s creation of “voice” in one of his first-person narratives, but in general his blurbs are more likely to focus on his subject matter and/or on his “comment[ary] on life in present-day America,” his “acute observation of the textures of American life,” his “accurate and devastating portrait of how we live,” his “very accurate reflection of a contemporary mood,” his “accurate and telling account of pop culture,” or how his work “reflects our era’s nightmares and hallucinations” and “contains multitudes.”

6Observation, accuracy and reflection, portraiture: these are the kinds of words most often used to praise DeLillo’s “novel of ideas […] novel of politics.” While there are moments where West’s blurbs, too, focus on such matters, they are far less frequent, except in the case of The Tent of Orange Mist. In sum, DeLillo is seen as a novelist of culture, tending toward mimesis; West as a novelist of style, tending toward music.

7The difference is important because, for now, at least, DeLillo seems to have risen, in both academic and public response, above “The Lost Tribe of America.” Indeed, in my judgment, he is one of the great trinity of contemporary US fiction, in terms of the attraction of widespread, serious literary attention. The other two are Thomas Pynchon and Toni Morrison. While all three are terrific writers, I would argue that they are all recognized more as novelists of historical interrogation and cultural commentary than as stylists. Now, while the US has produced many great stylists—Melville, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, for instance—they are not, in general, admired primarily as stylists. In a tradition that probably begins with the Puritan mentality, the US has long been a bit suspicious of the writer as aesthete or as language experimenter, and has celebrated instead the writer as cultural mythographer. In this context to label a writer a stylist is to damn with faint praise, and to assure his or her relegation to the second rank, at best. It is to say that he or she is more interested in language than in the world—as if language were something inherently alien. We have no Mallarmé, no Proust; and many educated readers, and even a surprising number of critics and teachers of literature dislike James—especially the later James. Many US readers (certainly many of my students) have a tendency to respond to this sort of writing much as Miss Daisy Miller’s younger brother Randolph responds when he bites with his rotten teeth into a lump of sugar—by exclaiming, “Oh, blazes; it’s har-r-d!” As West himself observes, in his oft quoted essay “In Defense of Purple Prose,” “Most folks are lazy, especially when confronted with a book, and some writers are lazy too, writing in the same anonymous style as everyone else” (49).

8But aside from this traditional and rather shopworn opposition of the cultivation (or decadence) of French aesthetic sensibility to the crudity (or forthrightness) of the American “barbaric yawp,” there are some excellent historical reasons why the French might have an affinity for West that he misses at home. The first is his own affinity for them—his well documented love, from an early age, of French literature, and his sharing with the French of the notion that one way for literature to be great is for it to approach the condition of music. The second is a shift, in US literary tastes and sensibilities, from the modern to the postmodern. In his seminal essay on postmodernism as “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson points to “[t]he disappearance of the individual subject, along with its formal consequence, the increasing unavailability of the personal style” (16) which, in his view, has been replaced by pastiche, “the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a new global culture” (18). Perhaps most important here is “the collapse [at least in the US] of the high modernist ideology of style—what is as unique and unmistakable as your own fingerprints, as incomparable as your own body” (17). Does any American novelist, in our time, have the stylistic distinctiveness, the clear fingerprint of diction and rhythm, that marked Hemingway on the one hand, or Faulkner on the other? Increasingly, in fact, attempts to create such a style have begun to seem somewhat bombastic, as well as more than a little long in the tooth (think, for instance, of how Norman Mailer’s stock has fallen since the 1970s). Now, Paul West is by no means bombastic, and his prose does not present itself as trying to call attention to a uniqueness and idiosyncracy that would be an “advertisement for himself.” But along with the passage of the ideology of style has come, in the US, a devaluation of the craft of beauty and the beauty of craft.

9This devaluation is greatly intensified by a kind of seismic shift in critical assumptions, approaches, and values. In professional literary study in the US, the formalism of the New Criticism ended long ago. Though we may lament the loss of certain skills that came with it, the passing of this school of criticism is certainly no cause for mourning. But it is also the case that what was called “the linguistic turn,” which brought structuralist, post-structuralist, and Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to bear, is also now residual. And here is more cause for grief. For what is lost with the passage of these is a sensitivity to the multiplicity, the often joyous slipperiness of language. Historical and cultural studies have largely won the field. They bring with them many correctives and many benefits; indeed, I am proud to consider much of my own work to be something like cultural studies, in the broad sense of that term. But these modes of criticism bring with them an anti-aesthetic ideology. They tend to see the category of “high art” as at best élitist and irrelevant, and at worst a cultural conspiracy against the people. Again, this is not a position that is devoid of merit, and moreover it is simply, in one way, a critical reflection of the artists’ own tendency to deconstruct or demolish the distinction between high and popular art. We have gained much in the understanding of art, its relation to its context, its ethical and political dimensions in all this.

10But we have begun to lose our capacity for the rich pleasures of complex music. I confess that I find myself falling prey to this tendency, and collaborating with it. I started my career working on poetry; now most of my writing is on Hollywood films, many of them starring the newly elected “governator” of California. I would insist, too, that this loss is not only one of certain rather rarefied pleasures. It is a loss of our capacity to “get” language. Even the most political analysis of texts must, I would insist, be textual as well as contextual. We can’t even recognize our enemies if we don’t hear them.

11It may well be that this paper has simplemindedly bought into certain national stereotypes. Maybe the lost tribe of America does have its French cousins and cousines, laboring anonymously in the vineyards of literature while the new generation in France sticks to the textual equivalents of Budweiser. And certainly the readers and the conditions of readership in my country are much more complex than any neat binaries can suggest. But one way of resisting stereotypes is to attend to the particular, and it seems time, now, to turn attention to West’s work itself—and to the problems with the constant pigeon-holing of him as a stylist.

12I don’t find myself particularly capable of or particularly drawn to performing a detailed stylistic analysis, or to mounting a defense of West’s fictions on those terms. Perhaps this is more evidence for my own loss of sensitivity in this area. But in any case, the critical emphasis on this aspect of his work only partially answers to what is to be found there. The opposition suggested above between West and DeLillo needs re-examination, for Paul West is, in certain subtle but powerful ways, a significantly political writer, one who is highly engaged with history not only as subject matter and as subject of play, but as something that matters to living subjects. He is engaged not only with the pressure of mind on time, but also with the pressure of time on mind.

13The “historical” novel is imbedded in complex relations to three different times: the time or times to which the tale refers, the time in which it is produced, and the time in which it is consumed. Although in West’s case the latter two times are still generally close enough that their differences do not signify, that will not be the case in 50 or 100 years. Readers then will attend to West as himself history, with at least some interest in the difference between their time and ours—as we read Faulkner, for instance, both for his representation of the Civil War period and for his status as representative of the period in which he was writing, a period markedly different from our own in ways both political and literary or aesthetic. What will be the differences between now and the time of those future readers is of course impossible to predict. But we can at this point read, for instance, Jack the Ripper and The Women of Whitechapel both for its depiction of Victorian London (a setting that seems endlessly interesting), and for what it reveals about our own time and its preoccupations. West has avowed that he “constantly entertain[s] the yearning to peer long and deep, getting down what it feels like to be all sorts and conditions of humans” (qtd. in, emphasis added). Thus in The Women of Whitechapel West, dramatising a scenario that could have been dreamed by Michel Foucault, gives a profound feel for the way, in one very sophisticated model, our time imagines how power circulated—and circulates. He images the strange involvements, imbrications, and compulsions of those who, in the Victorian period, were officially supposed to remain divided by hierarchies of class and gender. He also shows how violence—even violence that may seem random and mad—serves the interest of reinforcing power differentials that are threatened by intimate contact between society’s “higher” (dominant) and “lower” (oppressed) orders. Moreover, he interestingly positions both the scientist or knowledge worker and the artist or culture worker between these two orders.

14Three characters from Whitechapel are of special interest, particularly in a contemporary academic/literary context. The first is the scientist/physician/psychotic killer, Dr. Gull, who can be usefully read as an allegorical figure for those other vivisectionists, professors of literature. In this light the Masons figure something like the Modern Language Association— a collective disciplinary order to which one has voluntarily chosen allegiance, and whose praise for one’s designs is more important to one’s sense of self than is the approval of one’s employer. In a broader sense, Gull represents the entire professional-managerial class, who imagine themselves as more or less independent professionals working within larger institutions of power toward which their feelings are highly ambivalent. They desire institutional success, but tend to hold those above them in the power structure in some contempt, and to value most the approval of their peers. Often they are technocrats who feel no particular obligation to consider their overall place in or effect on society because of the particular “set of norms, values, and attitudes towards work” (Pfeil, 105) which they have internalized. They think of questions of values and ethics as settled by their guild-like group’s self-regarding affirmation of the importance of what they do and the skill with which they do it. One fears that sometimes the activities that provoke these affirmations may be as arbitrary as the Masonic designs Gwull imposes on his serial killings, and for which he seeks approval and admiration from his secret society.

  • 1 For a useful analysis of this class and their social and cultural position, see Pfeil.

15The second character is Walter Sickert, who is as much a lesson for the artist as Gull is for the scientist, professional, or critic. In his dilemmas and turmoils, revulsions and attractions, so many important questions of the ethics of aesthetics, past and present, are posed. Consider, for instance, his ability to1

reduce the intensity of his nights out with Gull and Netley [nights when he witnesses and even participates in the Ripper murders], transferring energy from them to metaphors that, while echoing what had really happened, took him gently far afield, away from Whitechapel to Liverpool, Cardiff, Calcutta, Sierra Leone. Marie Kelly, having been mutilated until she resembled a mastiff, facially at least, came to be a mutilated mastiff and so vanished, much as Annie Crook, bit by bit degraded until she still had a face but no longer her own, became a piece of a conglomerate mask. (Women of Whitechapel, 379, emphasis in original)

16Here the power of art is not sublimation, but displacement, and to the degree that the making of metaphors is a way of making mutilation tolerable, aestheticizing is murderous.

17Consider also Sickert’s summary of his position, in which he self consciously calls into question the dark side of bohemia at least since Baudelaire, and then tries to let himself off the hook with a typical expression of the bohemian’s liberal self congratulation for his ostensible classlessness:

18He subscribed, he saw, to the pornography of evil: reluctantly stimulated, insufficiently repelled, secretly enthralled, so long as someone else did the slaying and slashing. He half-liked having been henchman to a Ripper, and he realized he enjoyed the Netleys, the Gulls, as creatures who dared to make love to their own depravity, spending their seed in empty and rotten eye sockets because it was the spirited thing to do. He went along. He sucked up. He paid lip service. And then he recoiled, protesting that he was still the honnête homme he used to be, the spry almost sacerdotal friend of the down and out, the classless hail fellow well met of Cleveland Street, as close to Fletcher the greengrocer as to Whistler. (Women of Whitechapel, 387)

19It is difficult to say whether Sickert’s status as fellow traveler to the “spiritedness” of the serial killer, or his self deceptive lip service to “the down and out” in whose murders he is implicated, is a more damning indictment of the ideology of bohemia. Moreover, both elements suggest, among other things, an authorial willingness to scrutinize his own position that places West’s fiction squarely within the tradition of “inwardness and cosmic place related to man-in-society” for which, as he says, “we still have to go to the novel or to what the novel has now become.” (Modern Novel I, XI, emphasis in original).

  • 2 For a useful analysis of this class and their social and cultural position, see Pfeil.

20The third particularly interesting character in The Women of Whitechapel is Marie Kelly, a heroine who, in herself, offers more than adequate reason for contemporary feminists and their male fellow travelers to read West with significant interest. She is the most interesting, most dynamic, and most thoroughly developed of a whole collection of remarkable portraits of the Ripper’s victims, of whom West says “It struck me that nobody had ever written about the[m] […] or regarded them as anything more than pawns, and that was worth doing” (Madden 1991, 11). Surely one of the truly noteworthy achievements of imagination and empathy in contemporary fiction is West’s representation of the social and inner lives of these women, his differentiation of them in terms of attitudes, position, history, and speech, his making their story at least as interesting as, and far more sympathetic than, those of the murderer(s) or the investigators. Doomed though she may be, West’s Marie Kelly refuses to be either the simple object of exchange among men, or the simple sentimental victim, that are the usual positions of the murdered prostitutes of fiction. Perhaps it is only fitting that this essay on the vicissitudes of literary reception has slid from a discussion of why the author in question is “really” French to why he “really” fulfills this moment’s criteria for interest in fiction in the USA. Perhaps it is also quite revealing that in trying to “place” him nationally, I have almost completely repressed or forgotten his country of origin. Perhaps in the end, he is everywhere the étranger; indeed that may be the inevitable fate of the artist whose very calling is defamiliarization. But the other side of that coin, I would like to believe, is that such a stranger can find a welcome anywhere, among readers whose intensity of attention may in part compensate for their unhappily small numbers. Such should be the fate of those, like Paul West, who make writing, as Maxine Hong Kingston once put it, their “own only land” (The Woman Warrior, 49)2.



Madden, David W. “An Interview with Paul West.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, nº 1 (Spring 1991). <>


1 For a useful analysis of this class and their social and cultural position, see Pfeil.

2 For a useful analysis of this class and their social and cultural position, see Pfeil.


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