(This list is by J.C. Hallman, the author of numerous books and the editor of The Story About the Story. I asked him to compile this list because The Story About the Story is an ideal guide to “creative criticism.” It contains 31 “occasional” criticisms by both old and new writers-–examples from classic texts, and hard to find masterpieces. There are selections from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature. Other contributors span the twentieth century: Woolf, Stegner, White, Ozick, Rushdie, Gass, Heaney, Kirn, Chabon, and D’Ambrosio. A range of subjects, attitudes, and styles demonstrate the robust variety that can be brought to the critical endeavor. The book takes its name from James Wood (also a contributor), who argued that creative writers remind critics that the best criticism is “a good story about the story you are criticizing.”)
In 1910 critic J.E. Spingarn proposed the term “creative criticism” to describe what he (borrowing from Goethe) thought criticism should do: “Have emotions in the presence of a work of art and express them.” The proclamation kicked off a minor kerfuffle—Eliot and Mencken weighed in—and for a while critics considered approaching their task the way writers always had. Now, the spirit of Spingarn threatens to live again. Critics and writers have become impatient with the dry rigor of theory, and a slew of books have of late emerged with a new approach to writing about reading. Emphasizing the self as context, indulging in subjectivity, and celebrating literature instead of dissecting it, these books are a new school—or an anti-school—of literary response.
U & I by Nicholson Baker
Baker, I think, helped to resuscitate a trend in writing about literature. It begins as a study of Updike’s novels, but quickly becomes a consideration of Updike’s writing about books. However, it does not laud Updike’s writing about literature, it criticizes it. Updike, writing about Pale File (which might also belong on this list), said that all prose should be written ecstatically, but Baker points out that Updike’s writing about literature is, well, kind of dry. Of course, Baker says this ecstatically.
Lectures on Literature: Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s lectures are half “close reads” in a critical sense, half retellings of the stories they consider. The piece on Kafka, “‘The Metamorphosis,’” was once redone as a film–Christopher Plummer played Kafka and the whole thing was shot at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. This may mark the only occasion when a work of literary criticism was turned into a movie. In his introduction, Nabokov says that readers should “fondle” details. Indeed.
Out of Sheer Rage Geoff Dyer
Dyer has made a career of listening to his subjects for the best way to approach them critically. This study on D.H. Lawrence borrows the fretting voice of Lawrence’s letters. The result is a book-length embodiment of Lawrence, a liberating indulgence in self that reveals that the very best way to approach writing about reading is not with a thesis and an argument, but with abandon.
Studies in Classic American Literature: D.H. Lawrence
This collection of essays on classic literature–itself now a classic–is dubiously titled. The effect the book tries to achieve is not studiousness at all: it is stream of consciousness criticism. In other words, only forty years or so after William James coined “stream of consciousness,” the term jumped to his brother Henry, and then into Joyce, Woolf, and others. Lawrence, in letting the reader peek over his shoulder as he reads, applies it to the critical enterprise, reminding us that any writing about literature that does not communicate the raw emotions of it, the struggle toward meaning, lacks what is essential about it.
How Proust Can Change Your Life: Alain de Botton
De Botton’s study of Proust reveals almost nothing of its author, but brings a playful spirit to what can be considered essential in regard to a consideration of the text. Incidentally, it defies Proust on this very point. How Proust Can Change Your Life is useful both as an introduction to Proust and as an introduction to the way modern literature works–and what it’s ultimately for. Traditional criticism does literature a disservice by dodging this fundamental question.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: Azar Nafisi
Nafisi is a much better critic than she is a memoirist, but it’s the blend of the two here that illustrates her central point: when literature seems to matter least, it matters most. Precisely because literature strives after universal theme, young women trapped inside a totalitarian regime can still find a way to make use of The Great Gatsby.
The Year of Reading Proust: Phyllis Rose
Rose aligns Proust’s circle of aristocrats with her own life among the sparkling literati of Key West. She comes to embody the way literature feels aimed at us–that it is about us even if it has been written at a distance and with little knowledge as to how it might apply in the future. The Year of Reading Proust is brutally honest about the difficulty of reading itself, and about the way–when it’s done well–it can leave you feeling cleaved. The book dissects you; not the other way around.
The Roads Taken: Fred Setterberg
Setterberg won the AWP award for Creative Nonfiction with this book in 1993. Each essay is an examination of biography and text–delivered in narrative context. For decades the critical community insisted that the text must be divorced from anything outside of it, but Setterberg offers a reminder that love of literature does not stop with the book. You seek out the source, the inspiration, the artifacts–and all become added to the text in turn.
How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read: Pierre Bayard
Bayard’s title says it all–and none of it. This series of essays considers the fate of modern literature, charting a gradual movement away from the active reading life and quietly considering problems of canonization. But even that makes a fun book sound boring. Just about all of the books on this list strive to defy a basic conceit in literary criticism: that “serious” criticism can’t afford to be interesting. Pssht! Bayard is fun, smart, and extremely well-read.
Rereadings: ed. Anne Fadiman
A great number of magazines-–Fourth Genre, The Believer, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and many others–are making a point these days to reserve room for “creative criticism,” though it goes by a number of names. Fadiman’s collection of pieces that first appeared in The American Scholar went mostly unnoticed when it appeared a few years ago. Standouts in Rereadings include Jamie James rereading Conrad, Allegra Goodman rereading Austen, and Phillip Lopate rereading Stendhal.
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