I love a good #slatepitch, the contrarian-to-the-point-of-absurdity think pieces for which the online magazine Slate has become notorious. Not for hate-reading either: Sometimes the Slate writer voices an unpopular opinion I happen to agree with, and sometimes not, but regardless, #slatepitches provoke us into reexamining our comfortable assumptions.
Which is why I was so excited when Slate published senior editor Forrest Wickman’s polemic, “Against Subtlety,” this week. “Let me be blunt: Subtlety sucks,” Wickman commenced, ambitiously. “This statement might anger you.” Not the most subtle opening, so let it be said that the guy aims for intellectual consistency.
I don’t agree with Wickman, but the piece fascinated me, prompting me to think about how we talk about narrative art, particularly literature, and what qualities make it resonant. Do we overvalue subtlety, as he argues? “Most of us take for granted that subtlety, in the arts, is a virtue,” he writes. “You can see it in our critical language: It’s common to say that a book or movie lacks subtlety -- the implication being that subtlety is an essential quality.”
Wickman cites great works that supposedly lack subtlety -- Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, even, perhaps Jonathan Franzen's Purity -- though in truth they all interweave moments of sentimentality and obvious symbolism with profound subtlety. His own praise for The Great Gatsby’s obviousness rests on a surface reading that denies the book’s textured moral portrait of the Roaring ‘20s:
The whole book is about the appeal of a man who favors loud colors and bold gestures, bright, monogrammed shirts and great fireworks displays of exuberance and wealth. Jay Gatsby comes out and says what he means, even when it means spelling out the themes of the book. (“Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!”) There’s one character in that book who hates Gatsby’s parties, who thinks he can’t be an Oxford man because of his pink suit. When we demand subtlety, privileging masks and minimalism over on-the-sleeve feeling and on-the-nose meaning, we turn ourselves into a bunch of Tom Buchanans.
But The Great Gatsby isn’t really a celebration of over-the-top parties; Fitzgerald nudges us to realize, slowly, that Gatsby himself only favors these things because he wants to prove himself deserving of acceptance among the wealthy and famous, and to win over a girl who married for money. The Great Gatsby is about a man whose insistence on proving himself successful only draws attention to his desperation and unhappiness. His desire to simply dive back into the past, meanwhile, is fatal, to him and at least one unfortunate bystander. The bold symbolism and overt messaging indeed lack subtlety, but they’re not the whole story of a book that’s so subtle many readers apparently come out believing the message is that opulent displays of wealth are cool and a nostalgia that prevents moving on is romantic.
“Our love for subtlety is an inevitable, and in many ways admirable, value. It means art and its audience is evolving, becoming more sophisticated.”
Meanwhile, many classic authors are known for subtlety. George Eliot, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov wielded it to memorable effect, and few would argue that Hawthorne, with The Scarlet Letter, had more fully mastered the art of novel-writing than any of these.
Our love for subtlety is an inevitable, and in many ways admirable, value. It means art and its audience is evolving and becoming more sophisticated. Simply recycling the same techniques and narrative approaches used by earlier generations of artists will fail to achieve the same engagement from the audience -- call us jaded, but we’ve seen it all before. Earlier works of literature (see Dante’s Inferno and The Odyssey) tended to lean more heavily on thorough exposition, clear symbolism, and telling rather than showing. Over time, authors found new and more subtle ways to convey their meaning to readers who had grown used to and less intrigued by more obvious techniques.
The more familiarity audiences, and budding creators, have with basic methods for generating an emotional reaction, the more suspect those techniques become -- with reason. It’s easy to pack tried-and-true heartstring-tuggers into a book or movie rather than exploring new or more complicated territory, and it’s less interesting to see the same old schmaltz. Corny stuff, like The Scarlet Letter, seemed far less obvious to contemporary readers: One reviewer even accused it of using subtle techniques to disguise its licentious message, saying Hawthorne, “like Mephistopheles, insinuates that the arch-fiend himself is a very tolerable sort of person, if nobody would call him Mr. Devil … The Vicar of Wakefield is sometimes coarsely virtuous, but The Scarlet Letter is delicately immoral.”
By the time we hit Henry James, it’s undeniable that some writers sought to be difficult for the sake of being difficult. Wickman wonders what the point of this is, suggesting classism on the part of Modernists, but as my English professor once said, “sometimes just saying it doesn’t get it quite right.”
The beauty of fiction lies in how it cloaks its messages in non-literal language, creating a more powerful and complex experience than utterly straightforward declarations can ever be. The Great Gatsby could have been a critical essay on consumerism, but Fitzgerald made something far more compelling and thought-provoking by asking us to read a story that conveys his ideas through metaphor, characterization, thematic choices and narrative structure. By its nature, novels will be more subtle than they must be to convey a message; that’s why they’re challenging and fun and can surprise us repeatedly on renewed readings.
Wickman correctly points out that strong, pure emotions feel real and honest. But complex, muddled emotions and thoughts, ones we struggle to understand even if they’re our own, are real and honest as well. Growing older entails learning how much of life resists easy resolution, simple reactions and clear binaries. It also involves plenty of moments of pure emotion, all the more powerful because of their rarity. The rarity allows them to feel special, real. Subtlety can draw us ineluctably into a story, allowing us to be slammed with the blunt force of pure emotion. It can also capture those troublesome moments in life when we feel uncertain of what the right action is, of how something makes us feel, of how we should feel.
Wickman worries that our concern with subtlety and our dislike for “anvils” stems from a desire for entertainment that makes us feel smart. “This is made plain when we complain that something ‘talks down to us’ or ‘insults our intelligence,’ as if the point of a book or TV show is to stroke your ego,” he wrote.
Well … who wants to read a book or show that makes you feel stupid? In actuality, pedantry is just dull; it’s the exact reason many of us prefer to read or watch stories rather than attend lectures. It’s obviousness that actually strokes our egos. That’s why most readers prefer not to struggle through books that make them work hard to understand; most of us would rather feel smart enough to have picked up on everything, even if that entails a book being easier and less subtle.
“Pedantry is dull; it’s the exact reason many of us prefer to read or watch stories rather than attend lectures.”
In short, Wickman had the germ of a great point in there, but then he had to ruin it with all the lack of nuance. (To be fair, he goes out of his way to applaud nuance, though not to address how nuance and subtlety can go hand in hand.) This encapsulates why I love #slatepitch, however: Sometimes, a blunt contradiction can crack open a fascinating, nuanced consideration of why we value what we value, when all too often we fail to question our value structures.
It’s interesting that Wickman applauds lack of subtlety solely through examples of male authors (and directors), when female authors are often criticized for being less “artful,” in works from Jane Eyre to The Goldfinch, than their counterparts. Perhaps white boy geniuses like Jonathan Franzen and F. Scott Fitzgerald coming in for such critiques is just what it takes to get this value structure reexamined, and I only hope critics will take his words to heart the next time they dismiss a purposefully fairy-tale-esque novel from Donna Tartt or Hanya Yanagihara for being too unlikely, too extreme in its emotions, or too unsubtle. As Wickman points out, sometimes writers deploy these techniques judiciously and with calculated intent, yet we prefer to review another book, the one we wish they’d written, out of prejudice against bold choices.
But having thought about it, all the same, let’s keep subtlety, even if we’re not sure whether it makes us smarter. It definitely seems to intrigue us more, and that in itself seems pretty worthwhile.
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