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.
There’s a piece today in Salon about Michiko Kakutani taking up her favorite verb “limn” again. Thrilling stuff, I know, but it recalled to me this list compiled in Harper’s eight years ago by Christian Lorentzen of Kakutanis’ use of “limn” (the Harper’s bit is not mentioned in the Salon article) —
Limn an entire life in a couple of pages
Limn the trajectory of an entire life in a handful of pages
Limn the suffocating atmosphere of small-town life and the alienation experienced by those who defy its provincial mores
Limn the last days of an alcoholic frontierswoman living in a small western town
Limn a man’s sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss–all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor
Limn his inner life or probe the sources of his equipoise
Limn the inner life of people, surprised by the deceptions of time
Limn, with tenderness, wisdom, and humor, a vast array of human relationships, both straight and gay
Limn the rituals of hunting, trapping, planting, and canning with a wry mixture of amusement and respect
Limn the daily minutiae of life
Limn the human condition
Limn the complicated emotional geometry
Limn the delicate geometry of emotions
Limn a marriage of enduring passion and shared ideals
Limn Willy’s fears of losing Biff’s love and his own longings for immortality
Limn the brutal, perilous, and harrowing art of killing a forty-ton creature with a hand-thrown weapon
Limn some of its burgeoning manifestations
Limn the social and geopolitical fallout
Limn the surrealness of contemporary life
Limn the rhythms of the universe and an artist’s inner state of mind
Limn a future in which Pop Art gives way to Poll Art
Limn the nervous, almost flirtatious banter
Limn a hero’s efforts to achieve self-understanding
Limn girls’ secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual-revolution world
Limn the dangers posed by emerging diseases
Limn the spiritual yearnings and dislocations of an entire nation as it lurched from the certainties of the World War II years toward the confusions of the 1970s
Limn the irrationalities of history
Limn the impermanence–and emotional chaos–that threatens to overwhelm ordinary people
Limn the fabulous
Limn the ordinary with seeming nonchalance
Limn this deeply felt, if somewhat limited, theme with clarity and moral vigor
From Roberto Bolaño’s July, 2003 interview with Mexican Playboy, collected in The Last Interview and Other Conversations—
Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.
James Wood, writing about Virginia Woolf in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” (collected in The Broken Estate)–
Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a “great reviewer.” The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.
Wood’s description of Woolf is really Wood’s description of Wood.
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.