The poet W.H. Auden once proclaimed, “Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind.  All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbors, especially the ugly ones.”

Those dullards who read novels and short stories, but “can’t understand poetry,” are no better than the stereotypical bon-bon eating housewives watching their soaps. Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of poetry which cannot be understood, and many poets today intentionally write their poetry so it cannot be understood.  I refer to the dullards who will always choose fiction over poetry, no matter how good the poetry happens to be.  It’s time to point out an unspoken truth: many fiction readers are driven by what W.H. Auden calls “idle curiosity.”

With the greatest forethought and care do I speak this uncomfortable truth:  Fiction generally has little to do with “art,” and far more to do with “idle curiosity.”  Despite the stamp of legitimacy given to “fiction,” as opposed to, let’s say, “daytime drama,” the educated who lavish attention on “works of fiction” are simply satisfying an urge, a vulgar craving for gossip and “ugly secrets of our neighbors” in a safe, socially legitimate way.

Reading “fiction” is assumed to be healthy, virtuous, and intelligent, and, no doubt, these things do apply on a certain level, but what’s the overriding attraction that makes “fiction” more popular than poetry?

Despite the educated, bookish milieu, the denotation “literary,” the studious pose in the lamplight of quiet women with long hair reading  novels, the intricate artwork on the covers, the authoritative blurbs in distinguished address, the thoughtful reviews in the press, fiction is nothing but vulgar gossip by other means.

True, so-called “literary fiction” has a certain anthropological interest: as we learn the gossip of other lives not our own—the 200 page encapsulations of marriage, divorce, adultery, nervous breakdowns, crime, jealousy, betrayal, and lust—with the more observant authors tossing in second and third hand descriptions of other times and places, “learning,” in a random manner, is taking place.  And we all know that reading an educated author will tend to increase our vocabulary, to some extent.  True.

But is anthropology art?

No, the central feature of reading fiction is that “ineradicable vice” which Auden puts his finger on, when, in his introduction, he dismisses the vulgar who only want to read (and study) Shakespeare’s Sonnets for the “dirt.”

Auden glories in a lucky circumstance of purity: “Shakespeare,” Auden says, “is in the singularly fortunate position of being, to all intents and purposes, anonymous.”

The other notable position Auden establishes in his famous introduction to The Sonnets is that he makes a distinction between the poet and the “man of action”:

The political interests of a king’s mistress, for example, may influence his decisions on national policy. Consequently, the historian, in his search for truth, is justified in investigating the private life of a man of action to the degree that such discoveries throw light upon the history of his times which he had a share in shaping, even if the victim would prefer such secrets not to be known.

So the historian’s interest in gossip is justified.  Even so, history is not considered art—so why, then, should mere fiction, where interest in gossip is not justified, be considered art?  The historian takes raw life and puts an order to it, but is still not considered an artist; so why should the fiction writer, who does what the historian does, but on a more trivial level, be considered one?

Auden scolds:

It so happens that we know almost nothing about the historical circumstances under which Shakespeare wrote these sonnets…This has not prevented many very learned gentlemen from displaying their scholarship and ingenuity in conjecture.  Though it seems to me rather silly to spend much time upon conjectures which cannot be proven true or false, that is not my real objection to their efforts. What I really object to is their illusion that, if they were successful, if the identity of the Friend, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet, etc, could be established beyond doubt, this would in any way illuminate our understanding of the sonnets themselves.

Their illusion seems to me to betray either a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the relation  between art and life or an attempt to rationalize and justify plain vulgar idle curiosity.

According to Auden, it’s a wonderful thing that we don’t know the biography of the poet.  (Likewise, if we knew nothing about a novelist, it would be less evident that the novelist is merely writing an embellished memoir.) In Shakespeare’s case, there is no chance the Bard will be a “victim” of “idle curiosity,” marring the pure enjoyment of the poetry.

But Auden has forgotten something, hasn’t he?  What if Shakespeare presented himself  in his poems? What if Shakespeare’s “biography” were clearly in the poems?

Fiction, of course, is autobiography, with the occasional, added historical research, or embroidered fantasy.  Fiction is voyeurism, thinly disguised.  The movement known as “Realism” has long been touted as a vital “literary” movement, but “Realism” is nothing more than the moment when the Trojan Horse of Letters broke open to an army of gossip-mongers; 19th century “Realism” saw Idle Curiosity conquer literature; True Art was stabbed by crass democracy in the chest (think soap operas) and snobby elitism in the back. (think Henry James).

According to Auden, knowing the gossip of kings, their mistresses, and other “men of action” is useful because of its political and historical context.

But Auden doesn’t finally resolve his own argument.

1. Shakespeare’s sonnets themselves make the biography of their author irrelevant—Auden implies it’s the other way around: By accident of history, we know almost nothing of Shakespeare; hence we can enjoy Shakespeare’s poems purely, without indulging in “idle curiosity.”

2. Auden’s implication is that without historical or scholarly context, which is produced by the “man of action” who “shapes history,” we getgossip for gossip’s sake; we get what is at heart, idle curiosity.  In other words, fiction.   The literary term “fiction” means two things: First, whatever is not true, but secondly, and just as important, whatever we take to be truthful on some other level, to varying degrees.  “Realism” is essentially saying of “fiction:” oh hell, you know what?  This may be fiction, but it’s true!  Auden, because he is a man of high learning, of classical learning, of exquisite sensibility and good sense, puts it very truthfully: if we spy on the intimate dealings of men of action, we are gathering useful knowledge, but if we spy on the intimate dealilngs of our neighbors, we are vulgar and near-criminal; we are indulging a “vice.”  Depending on the context, then, literary fiction’s apparent strength of being ‘otherwise true,’ is, in fact, nothing but the “vice of idle curiosity.”  Shakespeare’s Sonnets, howeverare not the news or gossip of a king, or a “man of action.”  And secondly, they are not a work of “Realism.”   Yet Shakespeare has “shaped the world” far more than Auden’s “men of action,” and Shakespeare’s Sonnets present a far more intimate story than any work of “Realism.”

Can it be possible that the great Auden is blind to the significance of The Sonnets? 

It really makes one wonder, for in taking great pains to dismiss the “idle curiosity” that would read biography into the poems, Auden allows himself this observation:

So far as the date of their composition is concerned, all we know for certain is that the relation between Shakespeare and the Friend lasted at least three years:

‘Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.

Auden here is doing precisley what he chided everyone else for doing.  Auden is certain (!) there is “a Friend” with whom Shakespeare had a “three year relationship,” based on his reading of one line in one of the poems.  This is even more startling, given the fact that Auden writes:

The first thing which is obvious after reading through the one hundred fifty- four sonnets as we have them, is that they are not in any kind of planned sequence.

Auden finds no internal order in the sequence of The Sonnets, even though there is quite a substantial one (we shall talk about this later)—but he does find in The Sonnets a Platonic “vision of eros”—which shows Auden is on the right track.  For Auden, Shakespeare’s unerring ear, his confessional writing (permissible, we assume, because of Shakespeare’s fortunate anonymity), and his “vision of eros” combine to make The Sonnets a far greater work of art than any mere story with a chronological plot.

Auden several times falls into the error he condemns, imagining Shakespeare’s relationship with a “young man” and a “dark-haired woman,” and their behavior with each other, over a “three year” period, even as he explains to us that The Sonnets expresses a Platonic vision of life, not a soap opera one.

Auden fails to pin down the essence of Shakespeare’s famous work, but at least gets things generally right.

But then Auden got it somewhat right—because he was a poet.

Like Hawthorne and Poe, the last great American fiction writers before Realism reared its ugly head, Auden, who died in 1973, burned with a certain integrity as American poetry was dwindling into irrelevance.

And so we end with Shakespeare’s Sonnet Number 25, as it refers to Auden’s “man of action.”  Here is a drop of honey from Shakespeare, the golden honey bee, a poem worth ten-thousand Realist novels, at least:

Let those who are in favour with their stars
Of public honour and proud titles boast,
Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars
Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.
The painful warrior famoused for fight,
After a thousand victories once foiled,
Is from the book of honour razed quite,
And all the rest forgot for which he toiled:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved,
  Where I may not remove nor be removed.


  1. July 17, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Here’s a found poem,
    Since you’re dissing the novel,
    From Roth’s Operation Shylock
    Mazeltov-El !

    Dear Philip,

    I enraged you/
    you blitzed me.
    Every word I spoke—
    Had to be.
    Been dreading/
    dreaming this meeting since 1959.
    Saw your photo on Goodbye, Columbus/
    knew that my life would never be the same.
    Explained to everyone we were two different people/
    had no desire to be anyone but myself/
    wanted my fate/
    hoped your first book would be your last/
    wanted you to fail and disappear/
    thought constantly about your dying.

    Do not destroy me to preserve your good name.
    I am only spending the renown you hoard.
    You hide yourself/
    in lonely rooms/
    country recluse/
    anonymous expatriate/
    garreted monk.
    Never spent it as you should/
    Allow me to be the public instrument through which
    you express the love for the Jews/
    the hatred for their enemies/
    that is in every word you ever wrote.
    Without legal intervention.

    Judge me not by words but by the woman who bears this letter.
    To you I say everything stupidly.
    Judge me not by awkward words which falsify everything I feel/
    Around you I will never be a smith with words.
    See beyond words.
    I am not the writer/
    I am something else.

    Philip Roth

  2. Bill said,

    July 18, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    What are you talking about, Tom? Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are more interesting, fun, and valuable than 99% of the poetry written in the 20th century.

    Support: Shylock is one of Roth’s best. Have you read American Pastoral?

  3. July 18, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Haven’t read Pastoral,
    They say it’s one to remember—
    The Library of America edition
    Comes out at the end of September!

  4. thomasbrady said,

    July 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Doesn’t late Roth just have a political axe to grind?

    Maybe someone could quote some of his best prose here?

    I’ve tried to read Roth, and never been impressed.

    Patrick O’Brian—was he responsible for that film ‘Master and Commander?’

  5. Bill said,

    July 18, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    True of late Roth, after Pastoral. I read a few that came after but had to quit.

    M&C is a composite of several of the novels, the first of which is entitled M&C. Russell Crowe at his best.

  6. Bill said,

    July 18, 2011 at 11:23 pm

    PS. We had a great time reading O’Brian aloud–all 20 volumes. I couldn’t get going reading him to myself. Bill

  7. July 19, 2011 at 11:22 am

    “I read fiction to be freed from my own suffocatingly narrow perspective on life and to be lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view not my own. It’s the same reason that I write.” — Philip Roth in a 1981 interview

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 19, 2011 at 1:27 pm

      But Mr. Roth, if you have a suffocatingly narrow perspective on life, fiction will not cure this. It will only make it worse. Mr. Roth talks like a murderer who slinks into a church now and then to remind himself there is more to the universe than his own vile self. Let me know when you expand your suffocatingly narrow perspective on life, Mr. Roth. Then, we’ll talk.

      The early idea of Thomas Mann seems more and more correct: the modern artist is diseased. Autobiographical fiction is the symptom of a suffocating illness. There are two things worth writing: Historical truth and beautiful poetry. Fiction is a distressed stranger talking to you on the bus. Fiction is misanthropic bar-talk. The successful novelist, at best, wins our pity. We might feel sorry for Mr. Roth, as if he were bird fallen from a tree, or someone’s former pet, hungry and abandoned.

      • Nooch said,

        July 19, 2011 at 4:03 pm

        Although I doubt you’ll be appeased,
        Is’t not modern man who is diseased?

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 19, 2011 at 5:21 pm

          No, because if we say ‘modern man’s’ diseased,
          It only makes the Philip Roths of the world more pleased–
          It justifies their art of misanthropic pain,
          And makes the sordid practice wax, instead of wane.

  8. Nooch said,

    July 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    And what, pray tell, of Dickens?—
    Who gave us Jarndyce v. Jarndyce—
    To show us that suing for pickings—
    Will bring us results that aren’t nice.

    And speaking of fictional cases
    Invented to put smiles on faces:

    • noochinator said,

      May 24, 2018 at 12:17 pm

      Philly Roth, RIP —
      (No link to the obituary)

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