Category Archives: critics

On That Creative Criticism School Thing . . .

At The Valve there's an interesting discussion of J.C. Hallman's essay on launching a school of creative criticism.

Among others, Zak Smith, of Gravity's Rainbow illustration fame, is there in the comments:

If you pick up “The Second Coming” read it and don’t like it, that’s fine. That is an acceptable response to a piece of literature.

If, then, you take a class, learn all about Yeats and meter and symbolism, and then re-read it and then suddenly claim to like it–that’s bad.

That’s posing. That’s like saying you didn’t used to like broccoli but then you took a biology class and a chemistry class and now you know what broccoli is made of and so you like to eat it.

How Critical Movements Are Born

One of the parts of Issue 17 of TQC that I’m most excited about is our serialization of JC Hallman’s adapted intro to his anthology of lit crit, The Story About the Story. The moment I read it, I knew this was just the kind of statement on good criticism I’d been looking for, and, collectively, me and the other editors were so hyped about what Chris wrote that we dedicated our editorial to a response.

Chris is currently blogging about his book at Tin House’s website, where he’s expanding on why he wanted to do this anthology:

I have a bad habit of arguing with critic types. Theory-based critics, folks who go to scholarly conferences to make friends with peers who will peer-review them through the 120-pages of published material—or whatever the standard is—that they need for the tenure that will ensure that they spend the rest of their lives attending more scholarly conferences. It’s hopeless, I know—but I can’t resist picking a fight. I want to fight about authorial intent. I want to believe—as Henry James did—that it is the producer with whom we are attempting to communicate when we consider the art of literature. (I’m paraphrasing “The Art of Fiction.”) That is, when you read, you communicate with the writer. But what seems obvious to me and to all people still in possession of their souls is a blind spot to most critics.

So we squabble. I’ve ruined garden parties, been rude to people in their homes. I don’t care. I want to pen people in, get them to acknowledge that even though critics employ a standard, scientific hypothesis-proof model in their writing, no one actually winds up “proving” anything in lit crit. In fact, their “arguments” tend to be unpersuasive because they are theories born of passion that are then translated into analysis as dry as a corpse and as boring as binary code. In other words, it’s dishonest. Why do this? I ask. The answer is always the same: that’s the way it’s done.

Chris offers the term “creative criticism,” which I think encapsulates a trend toward interesting, well-written criticism for the educated layperson that has been ongoing for some years now and has been waiting for someone to slap the title of “school” on it. If you’re intrigued and want to hear more, then definitely do read his post, and the serialization, and our response.

An Advertisement for Himself

As far as self-promotion disguised as general-theory-of-the-novel goes, Lev Grossman could learn a thing or two from Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, Tom Wolfe [pdf], and David Foster Wallace [also pdf], because his entry in that genre is distinctly lackluster. Actually, before he learns how to write one of those little exercises, he might want to refresh himself on literary history, aesthetic terminology, and logic. His essay "Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard" in The Wall Street Journal is about the literary equivalent of a Glenn Beck broadcast: "I'm sorry, but I love the novel. And I fear for it."
Here's how he actually begins:

A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It's what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it's also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

Straw man? Why stop there? Let's create a straw galaxy. A straw galaxy where smart people look down their nose at you if you watch, say, The Wire, or read Roberto Bolaño. "Oh that Don DeLillo," they say, "he's just too plotty for me. Too many, you know, consecutive related events."

In Grossman's straw galaxy, there is, however, A New Hope: "If there's a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot." And he sees this Hope from his vantage as a critic and semi-lauded novelist, and offers us a valuable lesson for why it must be so: "There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness… Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists." And then he lists a number of Classic Modernist Works, the majority of which are inarguably, unequivocally and extremely self-evidently plot-driven in a classic nineteenth-century sense: "The Age of Innocence,'… 'A Passage to India,'… 'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' 'The Sun Also Rises,' 'A Farewell to Arms'… 'The Professor's House,' 'The Great Gatsby,' 'Arrowsmith' and 'An American Tragedy.'" Oh yes, that Edith Wharton, Patron of the Plot-Slayers.

Continue Reading

“The paradigm of certain disappointments”

When I was in New York last week, I saw Gary Indiana read from his
strange, rebarbative, yet oddly compelling new novel The Shanghai
Gesture
at 192 Books, and in subsequent days I read
through the volume of reviews, essays, and articles that he published
last year, Utopia's Debris. As I read, I found
myself returning again and again to the following collectible line from
its early pages:

Our representations of ourselves are
even more selective and partial than our portraiture of other people.

It comes from an obituary appreciation of
writer Gavin Lambert (1924-2005), and the thought is more than just an
attempt at aphorism: Indiana uses it to begin to describe a type of

peculiarly modern first-person narrator who is not
the principal subject of the narrative, and also the "I" who, like
Proust's Marcel, performs as the author's surrogate, while the question
of whether they are the same person has almost no speculative
importance.

Indiana is writing there of Lambert's
first book, a collection of stories of louche Hollywood types, The Slide Area (1959), but he returns to the
concept in more detail later in the essay, when considering that book
alongside one of Lambert's later novels, The Goodbye
People
(1971). Both books

invite the
close identification of an unnamed "I" with the author but, more
significantly, shift frequently backward and forward in time and
foreground a succession of individuals as the temporary subjects of the
narrative–this portmanteau effect is rarely used in literature, and
even more rarely used effectively. Aside from Proust, whose work
contains multiple structures and whose principal work is a single,
many-chambered novel, the notable examples include Tolstoy's story "The
Forged Coupon," Gide's Caves du Vatican, and
some of Bunuel's late films.

Indiana is modest enough
not to mention his own novels in that mode, the best of which is the
stunning, and sadly neglected, Do Everything in the
Dark
(2003), which I would rank as one of the best novels
of the past decade. As for Lambert, though I knew his name from the
novel Inside Daisy Clover (1966), which was
made into a film starring Natalie Wood and Robert Redford, I'll admit to
having never heard of his other books, for which Indiana makes a
convincing case. Serpent's Tail reprinted The Slide
Area
in 1998–looks like a trip to my local bookstore is in order.

Utopia's
Debris
captures Indiana in all his voices: admiring,
catty, cynical, angry, appreciative, caustic, thoughtful, and–even
when he's wryly piling on viciously well-chosen adjectives–always
fundamentally serious. In the preface, he writes that the pieces in the
book,

in the end, reflect my own tastes, the
seductions to which my own sensibilities have surrendered me, and that
they do not, alas, primarily group themselves under the sign of eros,
but of death. If many of the works and artists examined in these pages
heighten a tonic sense of life, more often they have instilled an acute
and not entirely uncomfortable reminder of my own mortality, the
ephemeral nature of consciousness, and represent something of the
struggle of individuals to wrest from their brief time of existence something of value.

Perhaps more
important, Indiana's essays, like his novels, pulse with empathy; the
following lines from a piece about artist Barbara Kruger could serve as
a pithy summation of Do Everything in the
Dark
:

This is the subtext: The conviction
that empathy can, in fact, change the world–a little at a time, and
not always, and you will only improve things a little bit, anyway, but
if you don't even try, the incurably ugly side of human nature has
already won the war inside us all.

Do
Everything in the Dark
is out of print, but readily available used, Utopia's Debris new; you could certainly do
worse with your book-buying budget this week than picking up the pair.

Levi Discovers an Echo Chamber

Levi gets a little disillusioned about professional book reviewing:

Much about my attitude towards the Book Review has changed since that weekend in May 2005 when I began this pursuit. For one thing, I knew none of the editors or critics who wrote for the Book Review back then, whereas by now I have met or corresponded with many of the NYTBR regulars and staffers. I was completely unaware, back then, of the hyperactive and highly competitive internal world inhabited by professional literary critics, too many of whom (I have now learned) are more concerned with impressing their peers than enriching their readers.

Not much to add to that. Sure, exceptions to the above exist, but not as many as should.

When You’re Belated, Make Lemonade

I've been reading Harold Bloom's classic work The Anxiety of Influence, and I've come upon an odd quote. It's the kind of thing that sounds so right that I really want to like it, but I'm not entirely sure I understand what it means.

So, I'm throwing it out to the crowd. Anyone want to take a shot at unpacking this?

Cultural belatedness is never acceptable to a major writer, though Borges made a career out of exploiting his secondariness.

Conrad on English: Throwing Mud At A Wall

Ever since I read William H. Gass's essay in the most recent Review of Contemporary Fiction, I've wondered about a remark he made:

Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad agreed that writing in English, as contrasted with writing in French, was like throwing mud at a wall, but I think that most words are closets crammed with suits shirts socks and dresses, panties hats and gloves, and I see words dressing themselves in the wardrobes of others, first of all picking out this or that sense and then asking: will this skirt go with that blouse? does this tie match my shirt?

I'm sorry that I'm going to have to disregard the rather interesting remarks Gass makes toward the end of this sentence and stick to what he says about Ford and Conrad, that they "agreed that writing in English, as contrasted with writing in French, was like throwing mud at a wall."

I thought that was a beautiful sentiment, not least because it seems to say so much, but what exactly does it say?

Well, in quoting from an essay Guy Davenport wrote on Joseph Conrad, Wyatt Mason might have given me my answer:

English words, Joseph Conrad complained, say more than you want them to say. Oaken, for instance, has overtones which force one to say in remarking that a table is de chene, that it is also solid and British. Brazen and standing waters are not phrases that a stylist, poet, or prose writer would consider without making certain that he wanted to overtones as well.

As Mason notes, this essay comes from Davenport's collection of literary criticism The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays.

Related Posts

Post-Colonial Criticism: Cherry-Picking Evidence?

At The Valve they're discussing whether post-colonial criticism "assumes its conclusions even before it begins."

The responses so far seem to amount to "yeah, so what?" But lots of interesting variants of that. Several, for instance, are making the valid point that this is what all criticism (and in fact all scholarship) does. There's also the point that:

If *all* postcolonial criticism means is to locate effects of
imperialism in culture, then we clearly have no conclusions to begin
with.  We simply have objects of study.  I don’t think it’s a
controversial idea to be open to possible connections between a major
historical process and the art that emerged during that process.

As a worthwhile offshoot of this conversation, Andrew Seal discusses Said's reading of Austen, from a postcolonial perspective:

It's curious to read Persuasion in the light of the (in)famous Said reading of Mansfield Park in his Culture and Imperialism.
Said pointed out the Bertram family's Antigua plantation was a sort of
enabling fiction, sustaining the family's fortunes and thus making the
action of the novel possible in a very real way. Said focused in
particular on a casual exchange between Fanny Price and Sir Thomas
about the plantation, drawing some fairly broad conclusions. A number
of critics (and likely a number of readers) have taken issue with
Said's rough handling of Austen and with the implication that Austen
was just one more lackey of the slave trade and British imperial
oppression more generally.

Pro Close Reading

The blogosphere is fun for lots and lots of reasons. But one of the best is that occasionally, by virtue of some monkey-pounding-typewriter law of probability, you will encounter two posts on the same day that are almost perfect complements.

Thus, Wyatt Mason opines (quite correctly):

Criticism that doesn’t read closely isn’t literary criticism. If it’s
anything, it’s personal essay—a perfectly admirable category of thing,
and a perfectly reasonable form in which a writer can write about
reading as an experience—but not literary criticism.

And the the Literary Saloon rages (equally correctly):

We like our reviews to be … well, reviews of the books ostensibly under review. Too often, however, in certain periodicals, they tend not to be, especially when they are 'reviews' of non-fiction titles. In fact, it's pretty common practise, so perhaps it's unfair to pick on a specific example (pretty much any edition of The New York Review of Books would yield several …), but Anthony Gottlieb's … review of The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh (see our review-overview) in The New Yorker really annoyed us. Gottlieb offers his take on the subject matter, rather than on how Waugh deals with it and presents it, leaving the reader none the wiser whether or not Waugh's book has anything to it to recommend it. . . .

Rather than Gottlieb's alternate/condensed version of Wittgenstein-history we would have preferred a review of the book.

To all this I can only add my affirmation and my great hopes that reviewers, no matter if they're writing for the local paper or The New Yorker, actually practice the art of reviewing in their reviews.

Related Posts

Women’s Writing

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe offers a good review of Elaine Showalter's new historio-critical volume of women American writers, A Jury of Her Peers.

Roiphe seems concerned that Showalter is a little too caught up in categorizing over critiquing, and she makes some worthwhile points along the way:

As Elizabeth Bishop put it, “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.” Showalter handles these rebels by corralling them into special subchapters with titles like “Dissenters.” One of the dissenters, Cynthia Ozick, argued against expecting “artists who are women . . . to deliver ‘women’s art,’ as if 10,000 other possibilities, preoccupations, obsessions, were inauthentic, for women, or invalid, or worse yet, lyingly evasive.”

Though she refers to “A Jury of Her Peers” as literary history, Showalter is less attentive to artistic merit, to what separates good fiction from bad, than to cultural significance; she is less concerned with the nuances of style or art than with the political ramifications of a book, or the spirited or adventurous behavior of its lady characters. She is not interested in whether the writers she discusses are good, or in the question of how their best writing works, but in whether they are exploring feminist themes. And so she ends up rooting through novels and poems for messages and meanings about women’s position in society, for plots that criticize domesticity or that expound on the narrowness of women’s lives. (She once coined the term “gynocritic” for critics freed “from the linear absolutes of male literary history.”) This exploration of subversive plots and spunky heroines is fruitful from a purely historical point of view, but it doesn’t always feel like literary criticism at its most sophisticated. One thinks of Joan Didion’s line about feminists: “That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.”

Shop though these links = Support this site

Recent Posts

Copyright © 2015. Powered by WordPress & Romangie Theme.