Parks v. Sacks: Can A Novelist Make Magic?

Tim Parks is a novelist and critic. (The distinction is important.) Recently he wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books blog about the current state of novels, and what it means for today’s novelist.

Parks’s essay, worth reading in its entirety, starts out slowly. Parks apparently feels compelled to describe (only to dismiss) other current critics of the novel, who are loud and not all that persuasive. But the gist of his essay, once he arrives at it, is compelling:

My problem with the grand traditional novel—or rather traditional narrative in general, short stories included—is the vision of character, the constant reinforcement of a fictional selfhood that accumulates meaning through suffering and the overcoming of suffering. At once a palace built of words and a trajectory propelled by syntax, the self connects effortlessly with the past and launches bravely into the future. Challenged, perhaps thwarted by circumstance, it nevertheless survives, with its harvest of bittersweet consolation, and newly acquired knowledge.

He admits this may be somewhat “reductive,” but as a general statement of a certain type of novel, it rings true to me. And then – in the heart of the essay – Parks describes his own lack of success with his recent Buddhist-themed novel:

In my own small way I tried to do this in my recent novel Sex is Forbidden, where a young woman in a Buddhist meditation center is seeking to move away from mental habits—ambition, regret, unhappy love—which have entrapped and humiliated her. I don’t think I succeeded.

What Parks seems to regret is his own lack of courage, or ability, or both. Instead of following the Buddhist themes of the novel and embedding them into the structure of the book itself, he fell back into the conventional trappings of the novel, which he felt did not quite fit:

Buddhism, as a set of teachings and practices that invite the dissipation of the “fiction” of self and a quite different idea of social involvement and personal trajectory, became in the end simply a stark contrast that exposed the extent to which the girl was trapped in the Western obsession of creating one’s own successful life story. Most readers, I’m sure, were eager for her to avoid the seductions of nirvana. More generally, the tale’s literary nature, its very presentation of itself as a novel—perhaps I just mean my own ambitions—inevitably dragged it back toward the old familiar ploys, the little climaxes, the obligatory ironies.

It wasn’t enough to make this tension explicit within the book – “set them up and then retreat from them, prepare and not deliver, encourage the reader to see how wearisomely novels do go in a certain direction.” That would be trying too hard (the opposite of Buddhism!). In the end, he went with conventional forms and was left feeling as though he had failed:

But the whole endeavor was like sailing against a strong wind: however hard you point to the open sea you are constantly blown back on the familiar coast. When the moment comes to discuss the blurb with the publisher you know that you haven’t done anything new.

Sam Sacks of the New Yorker replies with what is likely to be one of the more thoughtful responses, calling Parks “genial” but summarizing his essay as “honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded.”

Sacks’s main point is that all good novels take their own form. His objection to Parks’s characterization of the “conventional” forms of certain novels is that those forms often work very well for what that particular novel is setting out to do. Whatever trouble Parks may have had with his own novel, Sacks argues, it’s unfair to spin that frustration into a wider condemnation of novels.

Sacks’s rebuttal strikes me as being unassailably correct except for being exactly wrong in one big way. We can see this in the sort of jujitsu he pulls in his definition of Parks. He acknowledges and praises Parks’s essay for being diaristic (in that Parks refers to his own struggles with fiction). But he also pulls Parks, as a sometimes critic, into the world where what one says about novels matters.

You can see how Sacks tips his hand by contrasting the titles of the two pieces. Sacks uses the title “Against the “Death of the Novel.”” But Parks’s title is quite different: “Trapped Inside the Novel.”

To be fair, Parks perhaps invites this shift by closing with a story of a former teacher of his who later in life confessed he found most great novels empty. In doing so, Parks does commit the probably unnecessary minor sin of expanding his own experience into the world of novels in general.

To me, though, the point of Parks being “trapped by novels” is not that interesting or persuasive as a reflection on novels by Parks-the-critic. What’s much more fascinating – and in its way, revealing – is to view the essay as a cry for help from Parks-the-novelist. While Sacks’s defense of all types of novels is (of course!) the right one, that is a critic’s take, not an author’s.

In other words, Parks is telling us what it was like to make decisions as a novelist, and what it felt like to be pushing his boulder down a path different from the one he wanted to be on. He felt like his book should be presenting something different, in a different way – he wanted this to happen, and he couldn’t make it work. Why? Not because he didn’t know how to write a novel, but because he did know how to write a novel – a certain type of novel – only too well. That fascinating tale tells us only a little about novels from a reader’s or critic’s perspective, but a great deal more about the struggles of at least one contemporary novelist to bring the novel’s form in line with the author’s ambition. The magician wanted magic, and found only props.

Image Credit: Visceral Intricacy

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