Sharing Anne Tyler

by Chris Bertram on September 28, 2011

The latest Financial Times weekend had “a piece”: by Simon Kuper about how studying English literature had spoilt the experience of reading for him. Whereas once, as a child or an adolescent, he could immerse himself in a novel, the academic study of them had taught him to read as a critic. That second-order relationship to the text, just made the whole thing much less fun than it had been. I see what he means. Relatedly, one of the problems about writing for a blog like Crooked Timber with so many readers who know more than I do on just about any topic is the the difficulty in sharing books, films, or music that you’ve enjoyed because I’m scanning the horizon (or the potential comments thread) for the dorsal fin of the Great White Critic for whom the immediate pleasure taken is a symptom of hopeless naivety and a failure to adopt the necessary critical distance. But to hell with that. Sometimes some discovery is so fantastic that I just want to share, and that’s how I feel about reading Anne Tyler. Since reading “a post about her”: on Norman Geras’s blog (Norman is great for that stuff, just ignore the politics) I’ve made my way through The Accidental Tourist, A Patchwork Planet, The Amateur Marriage, Noah’s Compass, Celestial Navigation, Earthly Possessions, Ladder of Years, The Tin Can Tree, Digging to America, Back When We Were Grownups, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, and I feel blessed that I still have (by my count) seven to go.

For those who don’t know, Tyler’s novels, nearly all set in Baltimore, are mostly quiet dramas of family life and relationships. The wider world of politics and economics doesn’t intrude much, so we’re a long way from the grand themes of Jonathan Franzen and the like. Many of the books are somewhat similar, in that a person has their habits and their conception of who they are turned upside down by an encounter with someone utterly unlike themselves. Sometimes they are changed; sometimes they revert. Her male characters are often stiff, calculating and habit bound; women more open and spontaneous, but she manages to achieve a sympathetic engagement with all of them. And all of her families conform to the Tolstoyan cliché. Her writing is also extraordinary. Highly economic and unfussy and yet she has an ear to capture a scene or a moment in a phrase that sticks in the memory – “By now he was looking seriously undermedicated” from A Patchwork Planet, for example.

The novels are about you, and me and our relationships and difficulties with spouses, parents, children, in-laws and colleagues. Since I became enthusiastic about Tyler, I’ve given some of her books as presents and then been asked if I was “making a point” about the recipient’s relationship. Well no I wasn’t, but I take this as good evidence that Tyler sees and captures the universal in all of our peculiar cases. I mentioned Tyler to a bookblogger friend, Kate, recently, and she asked me which are the best. I’m hard pushed to say. The Tin Can Tree was a bit of a struggle and some of the others disclosed themselves slowly but turned out to be among the best. Perhaps Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant would be a good place to start.



bob mcmanus 09.28.11 at 3:44 pm

Yeah, I loved Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant back when I was reading fiction.

Don’t worry about the academics. I learned back when I was doing Joyce that their lack of emotional involvement, need to be approved, and failure to read holistically meant that they simply didn’t and couldn’t understand the books. They’re talking to each other about nothing.

This applies to more than litcrit. Check out yet another discussion this week about economics, with Krugman et al dissing Lucas, and Mike Konczal (and sometimes Rowe) telling the New Keynesians to move away from their picture windows.


ajay 09.28.11 at 4:04 pm

I wonder if this holds for other areas of study; I haven’t noticed Paul Krugman complaining that he can’t just enjoy an afternoon’s shopping any more.


Bloix 09.28.11 at 4:09 pm

Chris, I haven’t read Tyler in years and years, in spite of all her merits, because I felt that her novels resembled the old Mr. Bill skits on Saturday Night Live – Remember him? That inoffensive, passive little man who got smashed up for no particular reason? “Ohh, NOOOO!” But I have been looking for a novelist to listen to in the car (there are only so many times I can re-listen to Patrick O’Brian) and my libary has six Anne Tylers on cd, so I will give her a try –


Bloix 09.28.11 at 4:13 pm

#2 – the classic statement of the phenomenon, from Life on the Mississippi:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the sombre shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.
I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?”


Matt 09.28.11 at 4:13 pm

Anne Tyler? Simpleton.
(Joking, of course) Really, I know nothing about her and am glad for the recommendation. I’ve ordered a book. I don’t know if I agree about the study of a subject making it hard to enjoy, though. Maybe that’s more the case when one does, say PhD level study, but I’ve often found that I enjoy, say, looking at paintings or watching movies or the like when I’ve learned something about art history or theory, and understand them more. As I’ve learned more philosophy, it’s made me enjoy good philosophy more and more, too, even stuff that’s not in areas I work in or that I’m likely to use.


ajay 09.28.11 at 4:16 pm

3: there’s a similar anecdote about Wellington (possibly?), out on a ride in the English countryside and calling his companion’s attention to a particularly impressive view; only to make a remark along the lines of “Now, if we were on that ridge down there, and the French were on the other side of that river, how would we deploy ourselves?”


Tom Hurka 09.28.11 at 4:40 pm

Great that you’re reading Anne Tyler, Chris. I started with Breathing Lessons years ago and have read all the newer ones as they came out, plus some older ones. I think I’m with Geras in liking A Patchwork Planet best, though it’s partly for a moral philosopher’s reason: that it makes a morally good person interesting and attractive, whereas the cliche is that in fiction the evil characters get the best lines.

About a decade ago there was a very good survey article about Tyler in The Atlantic, actually a review of Back When We Were Grownups that expands into a survey article — you could google it. It has doubts about Back When We Were Grownups but gives a spirited defence of the other novels against higher-brow critics. It rates Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant as a masterpiece and Saint Maybe and The Accidental Tourist as just behind it. I myself didn’t like The Accidental Tourist as much as the other books. It has an un-Tyleresque upbeat Hollywood ending; it’s no surprise that it’s the one of her novels that was made into a Hollywood movie.

But you’re right to love the writing and the deep sympathy her novels have for their very ordinary characters — no showy stylistic tricks or grandiose themes, just fiction that I at least get absorbed and even humanized by.


William Timberman 09.28.11 at 4:41 pm

Twain’s example is a good one, but gives the lie to its own conclusion; Twain did, after all, write the description which precedes the moral point. My own favorite example is the description of a Victorian gentleman at the strand, from Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Not having the book at hand, I can’t quote it, but I remember vividly the image of the determined naturalist with his notebooks and specimen jars, his nets and his digging tools. Fowles was bemused, but also respectful, as I think he ought to have been. Those determined, focused, serious types bequeathed to us a very precious ease in the natural world, and in the process, granted us the permission we now have to go down to the edge of the water with nothing in our minds but the pleasant sensation of digging our bare toes into the sand.


Tom Hurka 09.28.11 at 4:47 pm

On the larger theme: sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. Is the appreciation of music lessened when you know something about what’s making the music work? When I learned that the key to the driving rhythm of “In the Midnight Hour” work is the delayed backbeat — the slight pause before the two and the four — that didn’t make me any less eager to get out on the dance floor when I heard the song.


Nose in a book 09.28.11 at 4:58 pm

Interesting. I’ve read one Tyler so far (Ladder of Years) and really liked it. Completely agree about the sparse but memorable language. As for studying literature killing the joy in reading, well, hasn’t worked for me! In fact, at the book club I go to, three of us are literature graduates and remain avid readers.

So, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, eh? Will check it out.


Steve LaBonne 09.28.11 at 4:59 pm

Is the appreciation of music lessened when you know something about what’s making the music work?

Quite the contrary in my experience. Being a serious amateur (classical) musician, and knowing a fair amount about how the music I love works, greatly enhances the experience of listening to music for me- I’m getting emotional, aesthetic and intellectual impacts all at once, for a total experience that’s more than the sum of its parts. I find it hard to believe that something similar wouldn’t be true of literature, but I’m not in a position to know.


delagar 09.28.11 at 5:02 pm

Speaking only for myself, of course, my years studying literature (doctorate in comparative lit, 26 years plus teaching the stuff, about the same writing it, Middlemarch is my favorite novel next to Eleanor Arnason’s Women of the Iron People, etc) have only given me a wider appreciation for what’s possible.

It’s true I don’t like very much of what Anne Tyler or John Grisham is doing anymore. But what I have lost in the field of pop lit (and I do still like some popular literature, because some of it is excellent — see China Mieville, for instance) I have gained by finding a wider range of other works available to me, and in learning to read that wide range of works.

And this ability is what I try to pass on to my students.


ajay 09.28.11 at 5:04 pm

10: I don’t think my musical skill rises to that level but I can say it’s definitely the case for knowledge of the natural world. If you know, in depth, what the stars are, you are no less awed by the night sky than if you think they’re just little twinkling lights.

And I will always remember the experience of finishing one of Richard Dawkins’ books – the Blind Watchmaker, with its tremendous evocation of the complexity of living organisms – and being completely dumbstruck by the sight of an empty meadow because for the first time I knew how much information and mechanism it constituted.


Chris Bertram 09.28.11 at 5:43 pm

Of course it may be that Kuper’s experience of the effect of reading as a critic is very much shaped by having read English at _Cambridge_ . So if you’ve learnt to read as a Leavisite, maybe that’s no fun. Others who know more might want to comment.

delagar: Anne Tyler and John Grisham, in the same sentence? WTF! Tyler is imho a serious writer with a claim to be discussed along with, say, Franzen, whereas Grisham is a hack who writes the formula novel-of-the-movie ahead-of-time. He isn’t even good as an exponent of his genre, except in business terms.


Barry Freed 09.28.11 at 5:51 pm

Martin Wisse had a good post the other week on the very same topic.

@ajay, that Wellington anecdote. Very schlachtenbummlerig.


Anderson 09.28.11 at 5:54 pm

I used to like the (perhaps dubious) etymology of theory as that which helps you see something in a work of art that you might’ve missed otherwise. The test for lit crit’s value is as stated by Pater:

Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

What typically happens instead — and I was actually going to write a bitter, twisted dissertation on this, before I came to my senses and went to law school instead — is that instead of using his craft to find something new in a book, the critic or theorist uses his box of cookie-cutters to reduce the work to something familiar. There’s a fascinating sadistic dynamic of wanting to be the one acting on the book, rather than vice-versa. At all costs, this commoner sort of critic seeks to avoid the experience Rilke describes in the famous sonnet, of being challenged by a work to change oneself.


Kaveh 09.28.11 at 6:10 pm

My interest in novels dropped off a lot after I became a serious student in the humanities (history, mostly), but I always thought that had less to do with cold-blooded criticalness and more to do with the huge amount of narrative a historian has to read for their work. In that situation novels are still fun, but I already read too much as it is. Unless I’m in a period of writing or working on manuscripts or epic poetry–stuff that doesn’t involve hours of sitting and reading and trying to assimilate narrative, I don’t have patience for yet more sitting and reading.


eRobin 09.28.11 at 6:22 pm

Ladder of Years is one of my favorites – reminded me of Winter of Our Discontent, which is my favorite novel at the moment.


Bloix 09.28.11 at 6:46 pm

#15- a shorter version of what you’re saying (and sticking to the Mississippi metaphor, me at #4):

The study of literature, in graduate school, is not about reading novels, it’s about criticism and scholarship and that’s a very different kettle of fish. Like the difference between Huck Finn and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
– Garrison Keillor


John Quiggin 09.28.11 at 7:28 pm

I’m visiting Johns Hopkins in Baltimore this semester and, following a tip from Chris, read and enjoyed Ladder of Years. I’ll have to read more, if I ever get a free moment to read a book – things are pretty hectic for me here, though mostly in a good way.


Harold Stoddard 09.28.11 at 7:30 pm

No mention of Tyler’s sense of humor? Best since Jane Austen.

My favorite is Searching for Caleb. Not that it’s got more humor than the others, more a matter of an author finding a story perfectly matched to her talent.


Pan 09.28.11 at 8:10 pm

Thanks for this, Chris. I remember Geras’ appreciation of Tyler but, regretfully, never acted on it. I will, now.

And, contrary to your aside, I find Geras’ politics congenial; he’s a shrewd deconstructor of bien pensant cant and I find his arguments clear if not always compelling. His politics are a bit like his taste in literature (he’s a great fan of Austen), a marriage of sense and sensibility.


Don't Quote Me on That 09.28.11 at 8:46 pm

Agreed, Chris: delagar@12, despite the comp lit PhD, the 26 years, and the fondness for Middlemarch, must be a Person of the Iron Ear to think that John Grisham and Anne Tyler should be lumped together as “pop lit.”


Doug K 09.28.11 at 10:06 pm

on reading as a critic, the Twain quote is what I first thought of, too.. from earlier in that passage,
“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book.. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal. ”
I read rivers for pleasure only, canoeing, fishing and swimming (the first two readings are quite similar, since the canoeist is looking for many of the same things in the river as a fish). Of course as William points out, Twain’s unraptured reading does not preclude the joyous ones. When guiding a trip of novice canoeists down the river, I do read it more as a catalog of dangers to be avoided, but still the primary pleasures are always there. Not that I have any training in lit crit, but in other areas I find the pleasures of understanding are accretive rather than reductionary.

Anne Tyler, yes indeed. Quietly funny, fine prose, and always kind to her characters. My mother bought the novels as they came out, so I read them up until moving away.. time to reread.


dave 09.28.11 at 10:12 pm

Grad school in English wrecked my ability to care about academia, but I still appreciate literature.


Wax Banks 09.28.11 at 10:12 pm

The old saying about knowing just enough to be a danger to oneself springs to mind: when you’re interested in ‘criticism’ as such, you go looking for chances to ‘do criticism’ or ‘be critical’ – and the difference between, say, economics and lit-crit in this regard is that a beginning-‘critical’ (let’s just say ‘joyless’ and be done with it) view of literature cuts right into the very reason one got into literary academia in the first place, namely love of stories. Beginning ‘critics’ tend not to feel confident talking about their emotional experiences of stories, and that’s precisely the problem: for humans and other mammals, emotions are the important bit.

My grad work in the humanities sucked away much of my joy in reading; it took a long time to return. Having accepted my merely human relationship to what I’m reading, I’m more-than-ever able to speak freely and joyfully (i.e. correctly) about the actual experience of literature, instead of just blahblah formal features (or worse, blahblah political subtext).

Carry on then!


Wax Banks 09.28.11 at 10:14 pm

I’d offer David Milch as an example of a deep thinker whose relationship to texts encompasses both analytical understanding and desperate joy – not to mention mastery of the storyteller’s craft, which is (of course) the thing that liberates his critical language. Once you can walk the walk, you needn’t be defensive about the talk. Hence the number of great author-critics…


delagar 09.28.11 at 10:34 pm

Well, I’ve read a lot of Anne Tyler, less Grisham. Some of her books I like — Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was nice. But lots of them leave me cold these days. Not enough there there. I’ll agree with you that her style is better than Grisham’s, if that’s what you mean.


McSmack 09.29.11 at 1:33 am

Thanks for this! I remember loving Anne Tyler when I was young and then I completely forgot about her books. (Like a lot of overscheduled people, I don’t read novels like I used to.)

It’s so lovely just to have genuinely good novels to read. I have this habit of looking backward to Trollope or Cheever or what have you when I want something for a plane ride–those rare moments when I can read for pleasure–simply because I want something human and real. It’s so precious given how my life is, I want to save my pennies and time for a sure bet. But I get the feeling money and time spent on Tyler would not be wasted.


novakant 09.29.11 at 11:13 am

Whereas once, as a child or an adolescent, he could immerse himself in a novel, the academic study of them had taught him to read as a critic.

My problem is the opposite: though I have read a ton of literary and film theory, I instantly suspend disbelief and immerse myself in the work if it’s any good (for me). If I actually want to analyse the rhetoric of an author or the editing of a film, I constantly have to make a huge effort to maintain a critical distance. That’s probably why theory was never a threat to my enjoyment of reading a book or watching a film, instead it has broadened my horizon in a more general way.


nigel holmes 09.29.11 at 11:48 am

I wonder if the loss of enjoyment in literature that some people detect really comes from learning an overly analytical approach. There’s a (for me) very interesting passage in Darwin’s autobiography, where he links his loss of appreciation for much art to his approach to his work:

” My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.”

(The passage immediately before this describes in detail the change of tastes).

I think that a loss of enjoyment of much literature can come with long concentration on scholarly problems of whatever kind (I’ve certainly had similar feelings myself, without having done much scholarly work recently on literature as literature).


jstheater 09.29.11 at 6:41 pm

@Matt, the great philosopher John Dewey wrote a wonderful book, entitled Art as Experience, about this. In it he explores your point about greater knowledge about artworks, sometimes through practicing them ourselves (though perhaps not always through theoretical or thetic approaches, which seems to me to be what the original post is suggesting ruined reading for Simon Kuper) deepening our experience of them.


Dustin 09.29.11 at 9:03 pm

I just can’t see how this is a controversy here. The debate about literary theory is over, and the anwer is more nuanced than this bewildered thread seems to realize. Since when does this wonderful blog advocate for anti-intellectualism? I don’t think anyone here really believes that ignorance is the only path to bliss.

Literary study didn’t kill Kuper’s ability to enjoy reading; it was a formulaic approach that, honestly, has nothing to do with creative inquiry.

Thank you for the reading recommendation.


John Williams 09.30.11 at 3:41 am

I add my voice to the chorus for Homesick Restaurant, which is a great book. I also enjoyed Accidental Tourist, but not as much. Norman Geras reviewed Tyler’s last novel, Noah’s Compass, for my online book review:


Bloix 09.30.11 at 6:01 pm

And just to keep this dying thread going a bit longer:

I didn’t take any literary theory in college or anywhere else. Sometime in my 40’s I read David Lodge’s wonderful little book, The Art of Fiction,
and it has been the greatest addition to the pleasure I gain from fiction since I learned to sound out letters on my own.


novakant 09.30.11 at 6:25 pm

“The Art of Fiction” is great, I also liked “How Fiction Works” by James Wood.

David Lodge also has a great reader Modern Criticism and Theory if you’re interested in literary theory.


Dick Mulliken 10.05.11 at 2:28 am

For those who appreciate Tyler, let me stick in an enthusiastic reminder for Margaret Drabble. But then, I adore Mrs. Gaskell too. I’ve found that reading criticism has only enhanced my enjoyment of literature. Whether it’s James or Eliot or Mathew Arnold, the thing to keep in mind is however formidably bright they seem they are just fellow readers. And for God’s sake steer clear of any ideology of criticism.


heebie-geebie 10.05.11 at 10:44 pm

Relatedly, one of the problems about writing for a blog like Crooked Timber with so many readers who know more than I do on just about any topic is the the difficulty in sharing books, films, or music that you’ve enjoyed because I’m scanning the horizon (or the potential comments thread) for the dorsal fin of the Great White Critic for whom the immediate pleasure taken is a symptom of hopeless naivety and a failure to adopt the necessary critical distance.

Ain’t this the truth.

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