The figure of Rip Van Winkle presides over the birth of the American imagination; and it is fitting that our first successful homegrown legend should memorialize, however playfully, the flight of the dreamer from the shrew—into the mountains and out of time, away from the drab duties of home and town toward the good companions and the magic keg of beer. Ever since, the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid “civilization,” which is to say, the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility. One of the factors that determine theme and form in our great books is the strategy of evasion, this retreat to nature and childhood which makes our literature (and life!) so charmingly and infuriatingly “boyish.”
From the introduction of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.
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.
Roland Barthes on labyrinth-as-metaphor. From The Preparation of the Novel—
. . . let’s imagine a Labyrinth without a central quid (neither Monster nor Treasure), so one that’s a-centric, which basically means a labyrinth without a final signified to discover → Now, that might be the Metaphor for Meaning, in that it disappoints → Interpretation (detours, investigations, orientations) like a kind of mortal game, possibly with nothing at the center; here, again, the path would be equivalent to the goal–but only if you manage to get out (Rosenstiehl: the only mathematical problem presented by the labyrinth is how to find a way out). Imagine Theseus not finding the Minotaur at the center and yet sill turning back in the direction of . . . Ariadne, Love, Infidelity, “Life to no avail.”
Michael Holquist’s Dialogism, a highly approachable introduction to the theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, is the most enjoyable book of literary theory I’ve wrapped my head around in quite a while. Bakhtin’s dialogism is–and I’m drastically paraphrasing here–a way of interpreting texts in terms of the way that they “speak” to other texts. In Bakhtinian dialogism, language exists in an endless play of call and response, of modulation and echo of all language that has come before and all language that is to come after. Written in short, concise bursts of information, Holquist’s Dialogism illuminates Bakhtin’s complex ideas; additionally, Holquist reads Bakhtin against heavyweights like Roman Jakobson, Kant, Saussure, and, uh, Albert Einstein. Most useful and enlightening of all are Holquist’s own dialogical readings, particularly his reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Dialogism is an essential introduction to an important philosopher, and, more importantly, a pretty good read.