As for politics, ‘the author’s portrayal of the parties of the period lacks moderation.’ This is a key phrase; it always signals a defender of the status quo in society as well as in the realm of thought. Moderation may be a virtue in action, because the consequences of action are irreversible and can rarely be modified, but when we read, what we require from an author is that he should make his point, sharply and clearly; we can modify it ourselves if need be. But Sainte-Beuve wants moderation in thinking: he doesn’t want an author to write vigorously about important matters that touch everyone. He wants everything said with so many qualifications that when he closes the book he will find his brain in exactly the same state as when he started reading. He doesn’t want his mind tampered with while relaxing with a book, and he wants you to be left similarly undisturbed: at most you may acquire new ideas about unimportant subjects which do not reflect on how things are arranged in the world. In short, he doesn’t want you to think at all.
Great realistic fiction is liberating because it portrays individuals in the light of their abilities and actions and ranks them according to their intrinsic worth rather than their position in society. In this sense all true fiction is subversive.
—Stephen Vizinczey, Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews (1986)
From the section of the title essay dealing with a 1984 reedition of Proust’s By Way of Sainte-Beuve (Contre Sainte-Beuve). (msodradek)