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.


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Interesting thought, but also one that encourages a stifled, circumscribed approach to literature. I read Gravity’s Rainbow as a sophomore in high school; I thought particular scenes and images were great, but the “big picture” eluded me, and consequently I thought the novel over-hyped. I read it again during a graduate school seminar devoted entirely to Pynchon, and this time all the various nuances, allusions and structural pivots became clear(er). I felt, instead of indifference, something akin to awe.
Learning more about how a piece of literature works is not falsifying the experience. Nor does it negate your initial response. Being satisfied with your first impressions is a good start on the path to hubris.

I disagree with Zak on this point, but I think I agree with him on almost all the others he makes in the debate thread Scott links to here. It seems central to the idea of writing about books, or making any kind of art about any other kind of art, that we can reach one another, move one another, persuade one another, and, in the end, grow one another such that our ability to perceive what might be beautiful is expanded. True, it’s not facts that will do this, or contexts, or theories, but those are not the only tools we have — even as “critics.”

What really strikes me about a lot of academic criticism is that it sees critical methods as nothing more than tools for unlocking a text. Granted, they’re well aware of the assumptions that lie behind those tools and they can be very passionate about advocating for a methodology that fits their world view, but I do think that this emphasis on seeing method in such a way takes away from the communicative and artistic aspects of criticism.
Also, might as well say that I think the people who are reading your remarks as a blanket criticism of academic crit are missing the boat.
And in closing, I thought it was fairly interesting how many academics on the thread over at The Valve tried to invoke “the system” in a sort of quasi-defense of their writing. Obviously that’s a part of the question that can’t be ignored, but it did seem to be a little bit of a doth-protest-too-much kind of situation. Fundamentally, if you are using “the system” as both an explanation and a defense (as many over there seem to be doing), then your argument is incoherent.

What the Hell? Is this Zak Smith person nuts? What, so we’re all frozen forever in our first, visceral reactions to everything we read? So if you take the time and make the effort to learn enough to increase your appreciation of what your author was trying to do, you’re ‘posing’? Yeesh. If that were true, I’d love only Superman and Prince Valiant comics and would have no use for Horace, Ariosto, Erasmus, or Shakespeare – or Pynchon either!

Yes, there’s been a lot of circular reasoning over on that thread — from people who have, presumably, devoted so much of their lives and careers to that particular vicious cycle that they no longer recognize either the spiral or their own vertigo.
Ironically, a fairly characteristic strategy for academics — launching ad hominem attacks under the guise of niggling details of history or precision of citation — hit such a fevered pitch that it actually became a pretty good demonstration of the pissing match I described at the beginning of the piece you reprinted. Funny and sad! But without the bittersweet twang of poignancy. Rather, something you’d prefer to simply spit out than swallow.
Anyway, here’s hoping there’s a conscientious majority listening in silently…

I think the people who are reading your remarks as a blanket criticism of academic crit are missing the boat.
It must have been comments like these that confused us:
“The essays collected in The Story About the Story assault the institution of literary criticism.”
“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.”
Or maybe these just “niggling details”. Anyway, it has certainly been a lively discussion.

Rohan,
You’re diminishing yourself with this defensive kind of response. Anyone can pull quotes from Hallman’s writing on this topic and paint him as an anti-academic person. Obviously since he is writing in a polemical mode, this is easy to do.
If you look at the substance of his remarks, he’s clearly not for tossing out the academy with the bathwater. But don’t take my word for it: in the table of contents to his book you’ll see plenty of critics who clearly qualify as academics.

I’m amazed how people seem to be going out of their way to take offense at this. I never said:
“[you should be] satisfied with your first impressions”
I never said:
“we’re all [or should be] frozen forever in our first, visceral reactions to everything we read”
I merely said that “claiming” (falsely–that’s implied) that you like something just because you “understand” the allusions or the context or the devices used is bullshit.
You have your whole life to re-read a book and change your mind.

Forgive me, but wouldn’t taking such a course broaden one’s capacity for appreciation, or at least help reveal art and beauty and greatness in a text that one might not before have known how to see?

I used to hate jazz. I thought it was dull and boring and that it all sounded the same. A friend of mine persuaded me to take an introductory course in the genre, and by the end of the few weeks, I had an entirely different perspective: it was as though I learned how to ‘hear’ something I hadn’t been able to prior.

I agree that claiming you like something because you now (imagine) you understand it is absurd. Still, I think that being introduced to the nuances and intricacies of a work is a different story, and that it’s possible to get a great deal of aesthetic enjoyment as a result of certain forms of education.

Your example is a good one, though. What kind of existentially-illiterate fool wouldn’t like The Second Coming upon the first read? The poem is soul-wrenching, and its strength comes from the gut, not symbolism and meter. Or so it seems to me.

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