Let Us No Longer Be 'Intimate' with Our Novelists

The word "intimate" is often used to describe a work of fiction. But what does it mean, exactly? And why should we seek intimacy from literature?

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Alice McDermott's new novel, Someone, is getting a lot praise — but it's a particular word in the novel's reviews that seems to recur with somewhat odd frequency. Like a noisome smell, it must be addressed.

In its review of the novel, NPR says that Someone — essentially, the chronicle of an Irish-American woman's life in Brooklyn — is "a beautifully intimate novel;" meanwhile, the website Bustle says that the work is "intimate, elegant, and beautifully crafted." And in The Washington Post, novelist Roxana Robinson praises the novel's "small, rich, intimate scenes" and the Brooklyn streets that McDermott "knows intimately." Robinson says that "One of the great strengths of the book lies in this sense of tenderness and intimacy."

I haven't read the book yet; it may be excellent, for all I know. But the use of "intimacy" as a term of praise is troubling. That word is hardly confined to McDermott's novel, either. Jhumpa Lahiri's new novel, The Lowland, is written with attention to "intimate detail," according to The Guardian. In The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates says that Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves "provides an intimate, child’s-eye look at a midwestern academic household of the 1980s" — presumably, a vantage point desired by readers. The New York Times Book Review says that Stephen King's Joyland is narrated with an "intimate quality." Kevin Powers's Yellow Birds, about the war in Iraq, is to be praised for its "intimacy," according to The Seattle Times. And, this from the Los Angeles Review of Books: "Krys Lee's stories are resourceful, determined, fragile, intimate, and lonely all at once." Hell, I've used the word myself, to describe the work of Ernest Hemingway, of all writers.

Now, this may be nothing more than the flagrant overuse of a word — and poor overuse at that. After all, how can a novel be anything but intimate? The act of reading is, almost by definition, an act of intimacy between a reader and writer, an exchange of intellectual fluids. As such, James Joyce's Dublin in Ulysses is intimate, even at it most crowded, cacophonous and inscrutable. The same for the London of Zadie Smith, the ruthless England of Hilary Mantel's Wolf HallIntimacy, in the end, is just the transmission of insight from one mind to another mind.

But that's not how the word is used today. "Intimate," as I understand its usage in contemporary criticism, means "small." In fact, Roxana Robinson uses precisely that word to praise Someone, which she contrasts with novels of big scope and huge ambition:

You can dazzle the reader with an intricate narrative, full of clever twists and conundrums. You can set the novel on another planet; you can people it with vampires and time travelers. You can fill it with violence or sex or mathematical theorems. You can dazzle with your arcane knowledge, your vaulting ambition or your extraordinarily inventive voice.

This is an obvious broadside against the fiction of David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon and Donna Tartt — fiction that is smart and ambitious and is afraid to be neither. NPR's Susan Jane Gilman makes much the same point:

There has been a trend in fiction in this millennium that critic James Wood has dubbed "hysterical realism." We all know the books: celebrated, outsized, "genius" novels, outlandish in their cleverness. But Wood has argued — and I would agree — that novels must ultimately be about genuine human beings. Otherwise, all that literary velocity becomes mere pyrotechnics.

Gilman notes that "Nothing spectacular happens" in the novel. That is not, presumably, to the novel's detriment, at least in this estimation.

And, again, Someone could be a fantastic work of fiction, but the frequent reference to "intimacy" does not do the novel any favors, implying, not only a smallness of setting or overall scope, but a far more fatal smallness of ideas.

This, in the end, is the problem with "intimate" fiction — the emphasis, that is, on the novel as a warm blanket to cuddle with instead of a fire that burns clean through you. Intimate reading is reading for comfort, instead of all that good stuff — beauty, truth, wisdom — that we no longer acknowledge seeking without ironic air quotes. Intimacy is too nice for any of that.

In his seminal Reading As Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans, the young literary critic Timothy Aubry argues that we have come to "treat novels less as a source of aesthetic satisfaction than as a...form of therapy." Intimacy, in this context, makes sense, giving us what Aubry calls that "tingle of self-recognition" we want from books today, as opposed to an experience of the alien or the new. One of Aubry's chapters, on Rebecca Wells's novel Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, is simply called "Therapy and Intimacy."

But maybe fiction should be neither. The emphasis on intimacy seems a dangerous path for fiction, fostering a cloistered art form that does not address the issues of the day. Save intimacy for the bedroom. With fiction, please dazzle.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.