Tin House Books has just published The Story About the Story, which collects lively discussions of great literature by some of the most prominent authors of all time. With over thirty essays written by authors as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf to Cynthia Ozick and Salman Rushdie, this collection proposes a new “Creative Criticism,” a form of critical essay that involves a personal perspective.
Anthology editor J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2009. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought, and he contributed the following guest essay about the new collection.
THE EXUBERANT SELF
by J.C. Hallman
Editing an anthology that hopes to launch a new school of critical response is a way of looking for trouble, so I suppose I should just admit it: when I wrote the introduction to The Story About the Story I was picking a fight. An age-old debate among writers and critics (I happily characterized it as a “pissing match”) had lain dormant for far too long, I thought. In the years since, the stale strategies and techniques of literary criticism had continued their downward creep into five-paragraph high school essays prohibiting all use of the “I.” Indeed, this insidious infection has spread so well the whole business of teaching literature beyond secondary school now seems to be primarily a task of de-brainwashing. I’d grown tired of explaining to students that there was, in fact, another way to write about reading, and that essays that were both “critical” and personal, exuberant and smart, could find reputable venues. Even better, these pieces were fun—both to read and to write. So, long (and I mean long) story short, I put together The Story About the Story.
Realistically, I figured it would go something like this: the anthology would appear, it would receive modest praise, and maybe a few people would rethink the business of lit crit. I had no idea that a whole new pissing match would flare even before the publication date arrived. Worse, I found myself among the combatants, taking careful aim and squirting away as hard as I could.
Here’s what happened: the blog at Tin House Books published a few observations I made about the anthology in advance of its appearance (the official pub date was Oct. 1). Naturally these caught the attention of critics. Individuals at a few websites (one describing itself as a “literary organ”—a bladder, one presumes) staked out positions in opposition to my own. I took the bait and responded, a few others chimed in, and before long the “argument” had descended not only into thinly-veiled name-calling (the sort of nuggets lobbed politely at scholarly conferences), but also into precisely the kind of debate I was hoping to inspire people to transcend. In other words, I was pissing on (at least part of) my intended audience!
Did anything good come of the match? Not really—and certainly not a winner. The manager of the thread eventually shut it down, and we all went home with laundry to do. But I did learn a couple things. A fair number of critics still believe that their own subjective sense of things is outside that which they are supposed to consider (apparently, they want to strive for a perspective that is neither that of the writer, nor the reader, nor the text—thus, to understand literature you should avoid thinking about people and books), and they view good prose about good writing as something they cannot always “afford” (though they appear unwilling to “unpack” this term).
Anyway, once my pantaloons were cleaned and again in place it occurred to me that these two things—the importance of self as context, and exuberant prose, were really what bonded the essays in The Story About the Story. The book is full of personal, passionate odes to books. Everyone is quite impressed by the table of contents (they better be—I’ll be paying off the credit card for years to come), but what matters more is the collective message delivered by as fine a set of writers as you’ll ever see: the self is maybe the only important context to consider when assessing the effect of a book, and the whole point of writing about books should be to write well about that which we care about deeply.
That we should emphasize the self when we write about literature is a thing the book’s contributors discuss openly:
Charles D’Ambrosio (“Salinger and Sobs”) connects tragic dots between his own life that of the Glass family:
As is always, perhaps inevitably, the case, the unbalanced weight my own life brought to the material gave the work this off-center, wobbly orbit, and even now I can’t seem to read the stuff any differently.
Seamus Heaney (“Learning from Eliot”) describes the initial effect of literature as happening inside the self:
Whatever happened within my reader’s skin was the equivalent of what happens in an otherwise warm and well-wrapped body once a cold wind gets at its ankles.
And Vladimir Nabokov (“‘The Metamorphosis’”) reminds us that no matter how many critical contortions we go on to execute, it is our selves, perhaps even our physiology, that is the essential feature that will determine our reactions:
We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss.
Of course, each of these quotes do more than simply state that the self is important. Each contain the passion, the personality, of the author—you can feel their passion for the work, feel from the good writing whatever it is they are stating. What struck me about the pissing match was that critics deeply embedded in a paradigm of argument appear to have forgotten that writing well is part of what makes you persuasive. Indeed, one critic argued that it was simply impossible to write about why you like a book—so why even try?
The essays in The Story About the Story disagree—as do all writers (and not a few critics, by the way…they’re not all drones, as one of them claimed). That one can and should write from simple exuberance is implied eponymously by Susan Sontag (“Loving Dostoevsky”) and Edward Hirsch (an excerpt from How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry). Others gleefully execute their exuberance:
Dagoberto Gilb (“The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy”) digs deep for language that rises to the occasion of Blood Meridian:
Homeric in both historical scope and literary convention, it was an aorta splash of prose, finely elegiac and gaudily ornate, sumptuous, its blood-and-viscera subject chapping the southwestern-desert frontier, riding hard, surviving implausibly from one end of the West to the other.
Randall Jarrell (“The Humble Animal”) can’t stop the metaphors from crowding into a description of his passion for, and his interpretation of, Marianne Moore:
Miss Moore’s forms have the lazy, mathematical extravagance of snowflakes, seem as arbitrary as the prohibitions in fairy tales; but they work as those work—disregard them and everything goes to pieces. Her forms, tricks and all, are like the aria of the Queen of the Night: the intricate and artificial elaboration not only does not conflict with the emotion but is its vehicle.
And E.B. White (“A Slight Sound at Evening”) lets a somber mood prevail so as to express his final take on Walden:
Now, in the perpetual overcast in which our days are spent, we hear with extra perception and deep gratitude that song, tying century to century.
So why is it (at least some) critics devalue the self and deny the possibility of exuberance when writers have emphasized exactly those things for as long as anyone can remember? Who knows. What concerns me is what effect the resulting strategies have as they trickle down the food chain and become the model we offer to those encountering literature for the first time. I will forever be baffled by talk of “different kinds of writing” for “different kinds of audiences.” What I believe is what these writers chant in concert: there is one kind of writing (good), and one audience (everyone).
One essay in The Story About the Story strikes a meta-note—and perhaps offers something by way of conclusion. Oscar Wilde (“Mr. Pater’s Last Volume”) considers a book of essays by Walter Pater, one of which is about William Wordsworth. Wilde quotes an exuberant passage from Pater, about the poet:
To witness this spectacle with appropriate emotions is the aim of all culture; and of these emotions poetry like Wordsworth’s is a great nourisher and stimulant.
Wilde is exuberant in turn, and calls out to the future—to all those who have forgotten what this business is really about:
After having read and re-read Mr. Pater’s essay—for it requires re-reading—one returns to [Wordsworth’s] work with a new sense of joy and wonder, and with something of eager and impassioned expectation. And perhaps this might be roughly taken as the test or touchstone of the finest criticism.”