Just to register something I was thinking about the other week--personal reflections rather than aesthetic judgments in the grand style--prompted by Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece on Alice McDermott (not available online). I've never read McDermott, know virtually nothing about her, but the paragraph Acocella quoted near the beginning of the review seemed to me both very skilled and also quite unappealing to me--on grounds that have everything to do with my own personal preferences as a reader and nothing to do with the author's abilities.
So with no disrespect to McDermott--there's clearly something good about this paragraph or it wouldn't have showed me these things so clearly, the things I want to reflect on below--here's the bit of prose that provoked my shrinking-back and self-examination (it describes a character coming out of lunchtime Mass in New York just after World War Two):
Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks. . . . And all before her, the lunch-hour crowd bent under the April sun and into the bitter April wind, jackets flapping and eyes squinting, or else skirts pressed to the backs of legs and jacket hems pressed to bottoms. And trailing them, outrunning them, skittering along the gutter and the sidewalk and the low gray steps of the church, banging into ankles and knees and one another, scraps of paper, newspapers, candy wrappers, what else?--office memos? shopping lists? The paper detritus that she had somewhere read, or had heard it said, trails armies, or was it (she had seen a photograph) the scraps of letters and wrawppers and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead had fled?
I'm not crazy about the rather grandiose rhetorical gesture in the last part of the passage, but that's neither here nor there. What struck me was that this is a kind of language I primarily associate with the literary short story (though obviously novels are written in this mode as well, this is a novel rather than a story), and that the problem I have with it--the thing that makes it leave me cold--is that it is so much concerned with sensation at the expense of thought or even emotion.
All the things I find interesting in life have to do with thoughts and emotions! Sensation just does not seem interesting to me, I'm not crazy about that aspect of Virginia Woolf for instance--I just think that the whole self-imposed challenge those modernists liked of pushing the things that sentences could do vis-a-vis the more physiological moment-to-moment aspects of experience was not a really fruitful line to pursue in the end--but really, I am not very interested even in my own sensations, and not really at all interested in the sensations and physical observations supposedly filtered through the consciousness of this random character.
I would rather know what she thinks about something interesting or funny or important or minor but pressing, my thoughts just do not take me in the direction of being struck by some abstract quality of this perceptiveness about scraps of paper and skirts pressed to the backs of legs (and I think the word "skittering" is also excessively and self-consciously literary). It's not sensible. (It's not funny, either, and I expect it's really the sensation-freighted-with-weighty-significance thing that alienates me rather than just the sensation in itself--Beckett after all who I love is all about the language of sensation, though of course it's full of ideas as well.) This is always the problem I have reading someone like, oh, what's a good example, Alice Munro or William Trevor. I think those two are both wonderfully good writers, if I am going to read that kind of thing I would take either one of those two over almost anyone else I can think of (oh, and I do love Trevor's branching-out into serial-killer fiction...), and yet I find in myself really no need for that kind of thing.