This morning I looked at the Saturday Review, read a few notices of recent books, not mine, and came up with the usual sense of horror. One should be a reviewer or better a critic, these curious sucker fish who live with joyous vicariousness on other men’s work and discipline with dreary words the thing which feeds them. I don’t say that writers should not be disciplined, but I could wish that the people who appoint themselves to do it were not quite so much of a pattern both physically and mentally.
I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic.
Time is the only critic without ambition.
Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.
From John Steinbeck’s 1969 interview in The Paris Review.
Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.
From D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Chapter VII, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter“—
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE writes romance.
And what’s romance? Usually, a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose and it’s always daisy- time. As You Like It and Forest Lovers, etc. Morte D’Arthur.
Hawthorne obviously isn’t this kind of romanticist: though nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter, either.
But there is more to it. The Scarlet Letter isn’t a pleasant, pretty romance. It is a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning.
All the time there is this split in the American art and art- consciousness. On the top it is as nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey. Like Hawthorne being such a blue-eyed darling, in life, and Longfellow and the rest such sucking- doves. Hawthorne’s wife said she ‘never saw him in time’, which doesn’t mean she saw him too late. But always in the ‘frail effulgence of eternity’.
Serpents they were. Look at the inner meaning of their art and see what demons they were.
You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness.
That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.
Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and- produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction under- neath. Until such time as it will have to hear.
The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he’s got to do it secretly. As the growing of a dragon-fly inside a chrysalis or cocoon destroys the larva grub, secretly.
Though many a dragon-fly never gets out of the chrysalis case: dies inside. As America might.
So the secret chrysalis of The Scarlet Letter, diabolically destroying the old psyche inside.
Be good! Be good! warbles Nathaniel. Be good, and never sin! Be sure your sins will find you out..
So convincingly that his wife never saw him ‘as in time’.
Then listen to the diabolic undertone of The Scarlet Letter.
In his new book, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley talks about death in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (you can read Critchley’s earlier essay “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line” here)—
So, the hero of The Thin Red Line is this character Witt. And we meet him for the first time on the beach meditating about his mother’s death, imagining that he could meet death with the same calm that his mother seemed to meet it. We then get this romantic flashback: it’s somewhere in the Midwest; he’s touching his mother’s hand; then the hand is pulled away and she’s gone. That’s the fantasy of the authentic death. And Witt, according to Malick, fulfills the fantasy: approaching death with calm — this is Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza. Interestingly, when I was looking at the sources — he’s very faithful to Jim Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line — he inserts the word ‘calm’ into the passage, it’ s not there in the novel. It might or might not be an allusion to Heidegger, where Heidegger, where Heidegger talks about anxiety as an anxiety towards death as an experience of calm, or peace: the German is Ruhe. This is a Romantic ideas of death. For Heidegger, if human beings are authentic they’re heading towards death; if they’re inauthentic they experience demise, which means that we just pass out of existence. But only animals and plants perish, and that just seems to be ridiculous. Human beings perish all the time, can perish, and there are examples like in Kafka’s Trial where one dies like a dog. Human beings die in all sorts of ways, in a permanent vegetative state or whatever.
Will Self‘s recent hatchet job on the Coen brothers for The Guardian is the kind of calculated contrarianism that poses for meaningful criticism far too often on the internet. Let me offer his smarmy lede–
Sometimes it occurs to me that the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions – on films, on books, on all manner of widgets, gadgets and even the latest electronic fidgets – simply aren’t up to scratch. It’s a dirty, thankless task, but someone has to do it; someone has to point out that, no, Inception wasn’t the last word in sci-fi meta-sophistication, but rather a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like. And by the same token, as the Coen brothers’ True Grit comes galloping into our multiplexes surrounded by dust clouds of Stateside approbation, someone has to take a bead on the whole sweep of their careers, squint, and then if not exactly shoot them down, at any rate cold-cock the notion that the Coens are the great American auteurs of their generation, when, sadly, they are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.
I’ll set aside for a moment puzzling out whether Self sees himself as a serious cultural critic or a critic of serious culture (whatever that means) — there are too many inaccuracies, unsupported judgments, and logical fallacies in his essay to waste time with this detail for the moment. Let’s start with his premise that the Coens “are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.” Self links this premise to Inception for some reason, perhaps, I imagine, to trot out his zinger that Nolan’s blockbuster is “a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like.” This is a clever bit of sophistry that ultimately means nothing, an argument rooted in arrogance alone. Imagine a stupid person. Now, ask this imaginary stupid person what his or her idea of “great literature” is. He or she may reply “Stephen King” or he or she may just as easily reply “Shakespeare.” The perceived intelligence of the person has absolutely nothing to do with the aesthetic merit of the literary work he or she ultimately names. I might just as easily suggest that Will Self is a self-satisfied snob’s idea of a clever critic. But what would that actually say about Self’s brand of criticism? Nothing. Self’s claims about the Coens (and Inception) is simply an ad hominem attack that relies on a perceived (yet never justified) superiority of aesthetic sensibility over the middlebrow masses.
Self tries to take on the Coens’ oeuvre, yet couldn’t even stay awake during Fargo–
Fargo, I’ve always fallen asleep in – all that snow, and Frances McDormand’s mien of winsome determination, why, it’s enough to make anyone nod-off. But now I realise that my failure to stay awake during a film many consider to be among the Coens’ finest, was probably telling me something.
So the film fails the critic, who cannot bother to account for it (Self never even mentions Miller’s Crossing, for the record). Must be all that snow. Even worse, the film doesn’t do what Self wishes for it to do–
Fargo is a film that seems to be a genre noir picture, while never quite committing itself. This capacity the Coens have had to flirt with genre rather than ever wholly embracing it is something that – until someone like me comes along to tell you otherwise – people find particularly engaging.
The arrogance of this line is stunning. Who does Self think “someone like me” might be? Does he seriously see himself as some kind of aesthetic revelator? Self ends by writing that,
the Coens’ central problem [is] their reflexivity as directors, making films of films rather than films tout court. Still, in our benighted age, when films about amusement park rides and electronic fidgets scoop the honours, perhaps Hollywood redux is the best we can hope for.
I still don’t really understand Self’s argument. He seems to think that the Coens make decent Hollywood films, but they don’t make art. He’s upset because he thinks people are falling for two guys who are merely ironizing classic Hollywood structures. And yet he utterly fails to engage those structures, to actually analyze the Coens’ films in any meaningful way. Here’s a sample of Self’s facile criticism–
With O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) you even get another overlay: this isn’t just a retro-style depression-era chain-gang jailbreak movie, but a retelling of the Odyssey to boot. It’s James Joyce with a catchy country soundtrack instead of all that brain-ache wordplay.
How fucking glib is that? O Brother is a musical where every single song intrinsically connects to the particular scene in which it appears. It’s not merely a retelling of the Odyssey, but also an allusive reworking of much of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. At its core, it’s a film about the rise of modernism and the changing cultural scope of the South. And, for what it’s worth, it’s full of brainy wordplay.
O Brother also reworks a 1941 Preston Sturges film called Sullivan’s Travels. This film is a film about a film-maker — this is exactly the kind of ironic self-reflexivity that bothers Self for reasons he fails to account for beyond the notion that such self-reflexivity leads to the dangers of people who think that they are smart but who are really not smart believing that they are seeing a smart film — hang on, that was a long clause, sorry; okay, Sullivan’s Travels is a film about a film-maker who wants to make a film of social commentary, a film of meaningful art, a film he will call O Brother, Where Art Thou? As the director makes his way through the mean mean world, he comes to realize that the average person — the middlebrow viewers that Self holds so much contempt for — would really rather have their pains relieved in some way than experience them again through an art film.
But I get the feeling that Self has little capacity for an emotional response to film — he’s likely far too concerned that the film is trying to like, trick him or something. (It is. That’s the job of all storytelling). And yes, I haven’t bothered to say why the Coens’ films are great, are marvelous, are fantastic films, but this rant has already grown too long, and besides, I think that all one has to do is watch them. (And if you don’t like them, that’s fine. Doesn’t make you “stupid” or “middlebrow”). Finally — and this is just pure meanness — Will Self’s novel Great Apes was so singularly gross, gnarly, and devoid of meaningful insight that it ensured I would never read another word of his literature. His essay on the Coens ensures that I’ll ignore his criticism as well.
American critic John Leonard died of lung cancer last Wednesday. From The New York Times obituary:
John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .
As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.
Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.
I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.