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Austerism

August 20th, 2007 · 5 Comments

“You know my methods in such cases, Watson. I put myself in the man’s place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances. In this case the matter was simplified by Brunton’s intelligence being quite first-rate, so that it was unnecessary to make any allowance for the personal equation, as the astronomers have dubbed it.”

—Sherlock Holmes in “The Musgrave Ritual”


Since I’m on a bit of a word-coining jag of late, I should note that the scintillating Laure has improved upon my tag for a literary phenomenon I’d long dubbed “Paul Auster Syndrome,” offering the far more concise Austerism. Paul Auster, at least as I’ve gathered from what little I’ve read of his ouvre, tends to populate his stories with characters who are all precisely as smart as Paul Auster. By extension, Austerism is an affliction suffered by witty and erudite writers who are so good at creating equally witty and erudite characters that they make all their characters equally witty and erudite, even when the character’s personal history and the implied bell curve for the novel as a whole make this both individually and statistically implausible.

Update: To copy my clarification from the comments—I don’t regard this as a flaw because I particularly care about “realism” in the sense of “correspondence to real life,” but only because and when it ruins the internal credibility of the narrative. I have nothing as such against a novel in which all the characters are incredibly brilliant. but they shouldn’t be inappropriately brilliant. If you’ve established that character is a rough-and-tumble sort with little formal education, you can make him insightful or wise or what have you, but he had better not sound like an Oxford don and pepper his conversation with casual allusions to Ovid, or the thing will ring false.

Tags: Language and Literature


       

 

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 S. Tarzan // Aug 20, 2007 at 6:21 pm

    How is that a bad thing? It might make a novel less realistic, but so what?

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Aug 20, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Well, I think that’s quite enough. Not because I particularly care about “realism” in the sense of “correspondence to real life” but because it ruins the internal credibility of the narrative. I have nothing as such against a novel in which all the characters are incredibly brilliant, but they shouldn’t be *inappropriately* brilliant. If you’ve established that character is a rough-and-tumble sort with little formal education, you can make him insightful or wise or what have you, but he had better not sound like an Oxford don and pepper his conversation with casual allusions to Ovid, or the thing will ring false.

  • 3 Mike // Aug 21, 2007 at 10:14 am

    Not only are Paul Auster’s characters exactly as smart as Paul Auster, but often they *are* Paul Auster.

    But actually, the best Paul Auster book of all is _Hand to Mouth_, his memoir. Like his best books, the main character is “Paul Auster”, except instead of being brilliant, he’s almost entirely a failure.

  • 4 student // Aug 25, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Unless you’re Donald Bartheleme, in which case it’s pretty damn funny. Or completely incomprehensible. Probably 60/40 odds.

  • 5 Viktor Kaparov // Nov 28, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Interesting, but did you know that Austerism is also a political ideology?

    A variation of original Fascism that has a higher emphasis on religion and law.

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