Narcissus moments are few and far between, so when you do finally find one you must seize it. There you are, another tepid afternoon reading through the chaff of so many clueless critics—and then suddenly you see your twin bubbling in the current. This guy knows how to write about books! You feel that tinge of excitement. It is a beautiful moment. You are falling in love.
This roughly describes our collective experience when we read J.C. Hallman’s essay serialized in this issue. Quite plainly, we were taken aback by how precisely the author had laid out our own aspirations for criticism in this magazine. The piece, in our humble opinion, points toward an educated, unpretentious form of literary critique that serves both literature and the everyday reader. When people want to know what we’re looking for in this magazine, we’ll point them to Hallman’s essay and those he has collected in the book it prefaces.
Hallman says it so well, and yet there remains so much to be said on this topic that we must reply. And so reply we will. Let start with something simple, obvious, and too-often unobserved: good literary criticism is good literature. It is a literary genre in its own right, and to write it as any less is to fail it. Let us quote Harold Bloom, who places criticism on par with fiction and poetry:
Influence, as I conceive it, means that there are no texts, but only relationships between texts. These relationships depend upon a critical act, a misreading or misprision, that one poet performs upon another, and that does not differ in kind from the necessary critical acts performed by every strong reader upon every text he encounters. (A Map of Misreading)
Bloom then gives us a phrase that is quite possibly the ideal definition of a critic: “the strong reader, whose readings will matter to others as well as to himself.”
Whether those readings take the shape of fiction, poetry, or criticism is of no matter: the important thing is that each jumps off from a base text. The words of a strong reader’s response should sound fresh to the ear, they should be a joy to read, they should carry a reader through to the end. And most of all, like any good work of fiction or poetry, good literary criticism should communicate something that can’t quite be said plainly. In the words of Hallman, drawing on James Wood, good criticism is a “story about a story.”
Stories, we all know, should not be too self-involved. Even in an era as utterly solipsistic as our own, it is not difficult to find warnings against those unrequited literary endeavors that have their nose wedged deep within their navel. If the accusation of solipsism against critics these days is less common than against novelists (perhaps because so many critics still write for captive audiences), solipsism is no less deadly to good criticism than good fiction.
Hallman mentions two celebrated critics who say as much: Susan Sontag in the affirmative (criticism should set out to “serve the work of art, not usurp its place”), and James Wood in the negative (we must not be “the detective [who] writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink”). What Wood and Sontag are both after is a criticism that is first and foremost an attempt to communicate—after that comes elucidation, and if in the process egos are flattered, then it is of no matter to anyone but the shallow.
We can only agree, and to Sontag and Wood we would like to add V. S. Pritchett, who defined good criticism well:
If, as they say, I am a Man of Letters I come, like my fellows, at the tail-end of a long and once esteemed tradition in English and American writing. We have no captive audience. We do not teach. We write to be readable and to engage the interest of what Virginia Woolf called “the common reader.” We do not lay down the law, but we do make a stand for the reflective values of a humane culture. We care for the printed word in a world that nowadays is dominated by the camera and by scientific, technological, sociological doctrine.
So now that we know what we want out of criticism, let us ask, What is a critic? What form does that “strong reader” take?
Sontag, Wood, and Pritchett stick rather closely to the idea that a literary critic is a person who engages literary works in reviews, essays, and even books of varying lengths. That surely is a critic, but the strong reader can and should be so much more.
What else might a critic look like? How about a translator? Insofar as translation attempts to respond to a text by recreating that text in another language, it is a very subtle form of criticism, one that perhaps attempts to “serve” the text more than others. As James Wood has written in n + 1, an out-loud reading of a text can certainly be a form of criticism: depending on how it is done, a performance ranges from an expressive celebration of a text to an ironic, demeaning takedown. A critic might also, as Pope has shown us, take the form of poetry. As Enrique Vila-Matas has lately discovered a critic can adopt the conventions of the novel. A critic might work by simply weaving another author’s words into one’s own fiction, as Perec once did, subtly endorsing and critiquing key authors. Even movies, cartoons, operas, and works of classical and popular music have all been used to critique works of literature.
The point is that criticism need be a creative endeavor: that workhorse of criticism, the critical essay, is just a jumping-off point—a mode to master and then transcend—it is not the muddy dogtrack one dutifully marches around again and again. And in this creative endeavor a critic’s foremost goal should be to engage: a desire to engage one’s reader is the surest mark of passion, and passion always discloses honesty—something, sadly, in too short supply these days—and it always inspires an urge to communicate, be it when explaining how a book operates, when shouting out its virtues, or when winking at its defects.
In short, a good critic will (to draw on Nabokov) be a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter. The critic will tell us a story, the critic will educate us, and the critic will convey some of the enchantment of the reading experience. Thus with every word, sentence, and paragraph the good critic will remind us why we’re spending time discussing a book in the first place.
Hallman closes his essay with the assertion that “a better criticism has come around,” implying that in our own times we have finally crawled out from under the shadow of theory and are ready to write criticism that will not daunt readers but inspire them. Without wading into that self-defeating chore of weighing our own era against those previous, we will simply acknowledge that we do not currently find ourselves at a loss for good literary criticism written by critics working today. Certainly some literary organs are not producing the criticism they can and should, but there are many more who are, either carryovers from before newspapers began giving it all away or upstarts recently built by passionate readers. We surely believe you will find some of this good criticism in our pages, and we hope that as you read it, it lives up to Hallman’s dictum to tell an engaging story about a story.
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