These particular stories suffer from an overwhelming disadvantage (and I don’t care if Julian Barnes is a very skillful writer and gets published in the New Yorker all the time). You can’t condescend to your characters, scorn them even, and expect to leave the reader with much more than a bad taste. A little hauteur goes a very long way.
Although I haven’t read this latest book from Barnes, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how important it is for writers to avoid condescending to their less pleasant characters — or, if they feel it’s necessary to do so, to somehow manage to empathize with them at the same time. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert comes to mind. Nabokov does such a good job of subtly mocking and empathizing with his narrator that the two emotions end up somehow inextricably bound in the reader. Something new, something honest and frightening and amazing happens.
I always think of the — to me, striking — difference between David Foster Wallace’s short stories “The Depressed Person” and “Good Old Neon.” Both stories are explorations of horribly self-absorbed people and both stories are extremely well-written — so well-written they seer themselves into your brain. But Wallace doesn’t have a lick of sympathy for the “depressed person” and so that story, while powerful, becomes somewhat hateful and, what’s much more unfortunate, somehow artistically dishonest. Wallace does seem to empathize with the narrator of “Good Old Neon” and that empathy elevates that story — the story becomes less an indictment of a certain kind of personality and more artfully true. It’s interesting to me that Wallace wrote “The Depressed Person” first. I see “Good Old Neon” almost as a kind of self-correction.
I also think of something Dave Eggers said somewhere, about his decision to switch from writing non-fiction to fiction. He said (and I’m sure I’m misquoting) something to the effect that he’d found it increasingly difficult to bear the responsibility of writing about people who were alive. I’d argue that the author of fiction has the same responsibility to his imaginary characters even if they are unpleasant, perhaps especially when they are unpleasant. The writer must try to understand them, to respect them, and to empathize with them, to consider (and perhaps at least hint at) how they’d choose to present themselves if they could. When that doesn’t happen, there’s a risk that the stories become judgments and pronouncements, a kind of emotional propaganda, rather than works of art. I want to be clear, though — I don’t mean this to be a call for “niceness” toward one’s characters in fiction. Maybe just one for a kind of fullness.