The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman. Tin House Books. $18.95. 420 pp. October 2009.
When we discovered the purpose of J.C. Hallman’s anthology of literary criticism we were thrilled. And then when we read Hallman’s own introduction to it, we realized that someone had just explained exactly the kind of literary criticism we aspire to in these pages.
What follows is a version of Hallman’s introductory essay that he has adapted for The Quarterly Conversation. We hope you find it thought-provoking—we certainly did, so much that we’ve dedicated this issue’s editorial to a response to it.
— The Editors of The Quarterly Conversation
These days, the debate over how to write about reading is a cold affair: a de-militarized zone. I avoid the terms literature and criticism here, and perhaps even debate is too hifalutin a word to describe what has amounted to a decades-long pissing match between creative writers and critics. The current steely silence is evidence only of empty bladders; the combatants have become preoccupied with internal skirmishes.
Not long ago, Cynthia Ozick, weighing in on a writers’ spat between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in Harper’s, announced that there was no good literary criticism happening despite the ongoing deluge from academic presses. Franzen and Marcus, arguing over how far fiction should bend toward publishing’s fickle sun, weren’t good models, either, Ozick said, and her proclamation was as much plea as elegy.
Yet Ozick herself (Art and Ardor, Fame & Folly, etc.) is a pioneer of a wholly different kind of writing about reading, work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical. Writers are often reviewers—John Updike produced a smooth-flowing river of work, and Joyce Carol Oates’s hurried affairs appear often enough—but there is as well a kind of personal literary analysis, criticism that contemplates rather than argues, and while it’s never amounted to a formal trend or school, a consistent flow of this kind of response to literature has trickled along like an underground stream all the while the piss battles poisoned the surface.
My assertion is this: a writer’s model for how to write about reading is now in ascension, and it’s largely the upshot of a debate conducted on the other side of the aisle.
I’m not a scholar and I don’t claim to be able to cite all the battles in the history of literary criticism, but there have been a few important moments. In 1910, the critic J. E. Springarn fired off “The New Criticism,” an essay that used an offhand remark from Goethe to argue that criticism should limit its concerns to what a writer has attempted to express and how she has attempted to express it. T. S. Eliot lashed out at Spingarn, claiming that his treatment of dogmatic criticism was dogma itself and that “new criticism” was a misnomer precisely because it followed in the footsteps of all those Spingarn had cited: Benedetto Croce, Carlyle, Arnold, and Goethe. H. L. Mencken weighed in as well with “Criticism of Criticism of Criticism,” in which he agreed with Spingarn and dubbed him “Major Springarn,” true to the martial character of the debate.
It wasn’t until decades later that people began to bat around the term “reader response” to describe what Spingarn ultimately called “creative criticism.” But this flew far beneath the radar of theory-based criticism, which ruled the day until criticism sank into a period of soul-searching. Susan Sontag’s clarion call “Against Interpretation” (1963) had asked what criticism would look like if it set out to “serve the work of art, not usurp its place,” and almost twenty years later, Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels offered the blunt force trauma “Against Theory” (1982), in which they questioned assumptions about meaning and text that had come about in the post–World War II years and eventually suggested that the “theoretical enterprise should therefore come to an end.” A year later, Terry Eagleton attempted to rechampion theory in Literary Theory (1983), but recanted in After Theory (2004). James Wood’s The Broken Estate (1999) honed in on what was wrong. He noted the tendency of critics to regard themselves as sleuths and texts as criminals: “Having been caught out, the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink.”
But Wood had even more to say. In 2005, in an essay in n+1, he gave voice to what writers had understood all along: the no-man’s-land between creative writing and criticism is fertile ground:
Writers also properly remind us that a great deal of criticism is not in fact especially analytical but a kind of persuasive redescription. Sometimes to hear a poet or a fine critic read a poem aloud is to have been party to a critical act; there is a good reason after all, why writers have always been very interested in actors and acting—there is a sense in which the actor is the purest, the first critic. The written equivalent of the reading of a poem or a play aloud is the retelling of the literature one is talking about; the good critic has an awareness that criticism means, in part, telling a good story about the story you are criticizing.
How to achieve that retelling? There is a kind of writing through books rather than about them that we recognize in the greatest writer-critics. This writing-through is often achieved by using the language of metaphor and simile that art itself uses.
And that’s about where I come back into the story. A few years back—as a result of a set of circumstances not relevant here—I set out to design a course based on “creative criticism,” a class that asked students to emulate the writers’ rather than the critics’ model for writing about reading. I needed examples, so I set out on a quest for creative criticism. I canvassed fellow writers, readers, bookstore owners. Many had a favorite piece—some essay that had helped cement the idea of literature for them. I spent hours in libraries paging through the collected essays of notable authors: often there was one unique piece in which a writer approached literature from some kind of personal angle (Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Salinger and Sobs”) or attempted to resuscitate a text critics had left on the autopsy table (Wallace Stegner’s “On Steinbeck’s Story ‘Flight’”). There were older book-length treatments (D. H. Lawrence’s unclassifiable Studies in Classic American Literature) and newer book-length treatments (Alain De Botton’s equally difficult to categorize How Proust Can Change Your Life).
Almost invariably, the essays touched on subjects that would have been verboten in a critical context: Walter Kirn stabbed a stern finger at his high school English teacher’s rotten take on Salinger (“Good-bye, Holden Caulfield. I mean it. Go! Good-bye!”); E. B. White, despite The Elements of Style, acknowledged that in Thoreau the “quality of the ramble” is more important than grammar (“A Slight Sound at Evening”); and Seamus Heaney admitted that, for him, the sound of Eliot was more important than the content (“Learning from Eliot”).
Writers, I noticed, often stressed the tactile sensation of books. They rejected the “literary pilgrimage” (some even as they executed one), and they were perfectly comfortable saying that they simply liked a book—or disliked it. While critics tend to use literature to expose writers’ biographies, writers used biography to shed additional light onto the work. They were also comfortable with inconvenient realities, like the fact that we forget stories, or that a book means something different if you read it at eighteen and again at fifty. Writers set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it, and all the essays I found, in keeping with Wood, amounted to a story about a story. It was impossible to identify a common thread among them, but they were all part of a movement—not a movement based on some critic’s theory, but one that emerged organically out of a common love and creative insight.
The anthology that resulted from my class—which Tin House Books is soon to publish—offers a whole range of evidence of the power of the “writing-through” that Wood described. Out of the carnage of the critics’ battle a new fusion has emerged. Or reemerged. Whichever. I see no way to examine the essays in The Story About the Story—kin on a broad spectrum—and find anything like a common denominator. You cannot tell me that Lawrence’s stream-of-consciousness (“Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick“) has any direct connection with Robert Hass’s far more sober consideration (“Lowell’s Graveyard”). But you would be even harder pressed to link either to the dry, tenure-desperate prose of critics, who already have far too much say over how literature is perceived in the world. A better criticism has come around. And if this temporal splatter of essays does indeed indicate the emergence of a trend, then Spingarn’s old advice “to have sensations in the presence of a work of art and express them” was a prophetic art in and of itself.
J.C. Hallman studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. His most recent book is The Hospital for Bad Poets, a collection of short stories that explores the ways in which philosophy, scholarship, and pop culture inform ordinary lives.
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