NOVELISTS CONDESCENDING TO THEIR CHARACTERS. I have posted several times about whether certain novelists condescend to their characters. I think they often do, and I usually like their books less when they do. I posted here about novelists as snobs, including Mary McCarthy’s comment that THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is â€œbased on a scheme of exclusiveness.â€ I also expressed the view that I thought Flaubert had contempt for his characters in MADAME BOVARY and happily quoted Lydia Davis in this post (discussing her translation of MADAME BOVARY) that â€œâ€¦he despised everybody in the book, and he despised their way of lifeâ€¦.â€ Jonathan Raban convinced me that Flaubert’s view of his characters, and especially Madame Bovary, was a lot more complicated than Lydia Davis and I thought. See, for example, this post discussing Raban’s analysis of Flaubert’s use of the word “we”.
With this background, you can imagine how pleased I was to find this sentence in Larissa MacFarquhar’s essay about Hilary Mantel in the October 15 New Yorker: “And if a writer writes about historically significant people then she is forced into a respectful posture that depreciates her status still further, since it has become one of the hallmarks of literary fiction that its authors regard their characters with something between affectionate condescension and total contempt.”