Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.”
Biblioklept: You live and work in Missouri, right? Are you from there? Is Missouri the Midwest? The South?
DG: I am from Missouri. I think of Missouri as the Midwest, because I’ve never considered myself a Southerner. I’m from a small town in southeastern Missouri, though, which is certainly the most Southern part of the state. Still, I regard my younger self as having been generic rural hick rather than Southern. We were closest to Illinois, rather than Arkansas or Kentucky.
Biblioklept: I’ll admit to a mild fascination (if you’ll forgive the oxymoron) with literary Missouri. It’s not just the pedigree—Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, William Burroughs, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Maya Angelou, Marianne Moore…Jonathan Franzen—but also the geographical location itself, which, at least in my imagination, seems to mix urban with rural, West with South (and a shot of East, perhaps). Is there a Missouri literature? What is it?
DG: Except for Twain, most of the great Missouri writers were from St. Louis. Eliot and Burroughs were born there (as was Kate Chopin), Tennessee Williams mostly grew up there. Elkin and Gass were imports, but did most of their writing there. I can’t really see much connection among them, except for Gass and Elkin, who were united in their literary sensibilities. Eliot fled and never looked back, Burroughs as well. Williams switched allegiance to the deeper South. There’s not much specifically “Missouri” about their work, although I sometimes think there’s not much “Missouri” in Missouri either. It’s exactly in the middle of the country, and, as you say, other regionalisms sort of converge here. Missouri has produced and continues to produce good writers, but I’m not aware of many in-common themes or preoccupations. Most of the writers I’ve mentioned were pretty cosmopolitan in their concerns. Even Twain, ultimately.
I do have a friend, Steve Wiegenstein, a fellow Missourian who has written a series of novels about Missouri during the Civil War. For fans of historical fiction, they’re well worth reading. I’m sure there are other writers like Steve, interested specifically in writing about Missouri. I’m just not so much aware of them.
Biblioklept: You write a bit in Beyond the Blog about the so-called “New York Intellectuals” who dominated literary criticism in the 1950s and ’60s. To what degree do New York institutions and organs, like The New York Times and The New Yorker, continue to dominate literary culture? What’s at stake for so-called “regional” literatures?
DG: I don’t think the New York crowd dominates literary culture nearly as much as it used to, although they may still think they do. Too much of literary culture is now online, too many important books published by independent presses not in New York. I suppose the literary social scene in New York remains more prominent, but I don’t think serious readers (and increasingly serious writers) regard that as any way relevant. I don’t know about regionalisms, but a great deal of literary activity, and the critical discourse surrounding it, goes on without reference to New York and what it represents. Not to mention the way literature is becoming increasingly internationalized.
Biblioklept: Speaking of international, what do you make of the Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
DG: Putting aside the debate about whether Dylan’s work should be categorized as “literature” or not (I’m on the side that maintains a category error was made—music isn’t literature), the most unfortunate consequence of awarding the Prize to Bob Dylan is that, given the Nobel people’s obvious antipathy to American writers, an American writer won’t be getting it again for a long time. Thus numerous Nobel-worthy writers nearing the end of their careers will almost certainly have been passed by, including William Gass, Stephen Dixon, Ishmael Reed, Ursula Le Guin, Joan Didion, Robert Coover. John Barth, not to mention those that were most often mentioned as possibilities this year—De Lillo, Roth, and Pynchon. Instead the most prestigious literary award in the world went to a popular singer who is already internationally known and celebrated.
The most infuriating thing about this award for me is that it forces me to apparently criticize Bob Dylan in this way, when I in fact love Dylan’s music and always have. But it’s music. Give him an award for music.
Biblioklept: The small, marvelous canon of living writers you list here have all produced work which we might call “experimental” (I prefer a term you use in Beyond the Blurb: “adventurous”). In some cases, their “experiments” have become so integrated into contemporary literature’s conventions that younger readers might even fail to see their stylistic innovations. Why is “experimental” (or “adventurous”) writing important
DG: Experimental literature is important because without it there is no literature. It becomes moldy and convention-encrusted and of no use to anybody, especially readers. Experimental writers show that the form—poetry or fiction—is still alive and harbors still-unexplored possibilities and permutations. Experiments sometimes fail, but even failures can be instructive. Successful experiments presumably inspire other adventurous writers and affirm the artistic vitality of the form.
Biblioklept: What problems or challenges does experimental literature pose for literary critics?
DG: Experimental literature forces critics to abandon the idea there are “rules” that works of literature need to follow, even if these rules are informal, based on the critic’s accumulated reading experiences. It demands that the critic pay respectful attention to what the work at hand is attempting to do and to decide if it successfully accomplishes what seem to be its goals. It requires that this judgment be based on what the text actually does, not on what it doesn’t do according to expectations the work is clearly challenging or just ignoring. Don’t tell me that, for example, Gary Lutz’s work fails because his sentences don’t construct a narrative “flow,” because narrative flow is not what he’s after. He wants you to pay attention to those sentences, not make them disappear into the general rush of the “plot.” If you’re using “plot” in assessing Lutz’s stories, you’ve already disqualified yourself as a reader of those stories who can be taken seriously.
Experimental literature requires that critics have the broadest possible perspective on literature as the creation of verbal art.
Biblioklept: You distinguish between critics and scholars in Beyond the Blurb. What is the distinction, and why is it important?
DG: “Scholars” at one time were the only kind of professor—at least in subjects related to literature. Over the course of the 20th century, “academic critics” began to have more prominence in what became literary study. The New Critics were perhaps the first and most prominent critics—practicing criticism rather than philology or other forms of historical inquiry—to go by this name. In many ways literary study has gone back to the kind of focus on history and context favored by the philologists (“investigation” rather than explication), so it seems appropriate—and important—to take back “literary criticism” as the sort of thing done by critics and not scholars. I have no beef against scholarship—scholarship in the strictest sense of the term is vital for literature to remain relevant. But I do think those who call themselves scholars should also acknowledge that what they do is not really criticism of the kind I’m concerned with in Beyond the Blurb.
Biblioklept: To continue, perhaps, in this line: What distinctions do you make between critics and reviewers? I realize the term “reviewer” is rather broad and nebulous…
DG: Ideally there would be no distinction between critic and reviewer. The reviewer would perceive his/her job to be carefully describing the book under review, coming to a duly considered judgment, and providing the reader with credible support for the judgment. Of course, many reviews don’t accomplish this. Often if not usually this isn’t the reviewer’s fault. He/she has not been given the space to do it and/or is actively discouraged from doing it in favor of up/down verdicts and superficially “lively” writing. Most of these sorts of superficial reviews are to be found in the newspaper book reviews; some print magazines and especially online book review sites (LARB, The Quarterly Conversation, etc.) are more likely to publish reviews with substance. The latter in particular, it seems to me, are providing writers who want to be critics and not just reviewers with an opportunity to examine new books in more depth and at greater length. This is happening on blogs as well, most of which are now more focused on longer-form book discussion than was the case when I started blogging twelve years ago. People post less often on blogs than before, but what is posted is also more substantial.
Biblioklept: Do you retain any optimism about blogging as a format for literary criticism?
DG: Sure. Literary criticism is still occurring on blogs, it’s just that blogs are now not the only online venue available to critics who want to discuss literature in ways still not possible in most newspapers and print magazines. I continue to read lots of blogs, but they are now updated much less regularly. Much of the function many blogs assumed—brief comments and links, etc.—now is fulfilled by Facebook and Twitter. I don’t have a problem with that, since that leaves blogs to do more longform commentary. I still use my blog for longer essays and reviews that don’t really fit anywhere else. Only on The Reading Experience. It has a reduced audience from the initial wave of literary blogging, but that’s ok. Other bloggers, such as yourself, continue more or less to use the miscellany format, which is cool, too. People come to your blog to look around. There’s a lot of stuff there.
Biblioklept: What do you make of sites that aggregate book reviews?
DG: Well, in theory book review aggregators could be a good thing if they helped draw attention to the whole range of available books and publishers. The “Book Marks” thing at Lit Hub certainly doesn’t do this. It’s just another way to reinforce the dominance of the mainstream “book business,” and as such it’s worthless. I’ve looked at Goodreads on and off, and the interaction among readers there strikes me as often interesting and useful. The “grading” part of it is pretty egregious, and mostly works against its potential as a source of serious book discussion among readers, but since all books published can get a hearing at Goodreads, it’s more valuable than something like Book Marks.
I would actually like to see review aggregators that focused on particular subsets of current fiction or that concentrated on less well-publicized books. I’ve thought of doing something like that myself for experimental fiction, but then questions about defining what’s properly “experimental” are raised, so it would then just become something like an aggregation of reviews of “stuff I like.” That could still be worth doing though, if I (or whoever) made the parameters of coverage clear. No conversion into grades, however. Just links to worthwhile reviews.
Biblioklept: Given more time and space, what critics would you have liked to have included in Beyond the Blurb?
DG: Well, I had a piece on John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb that I intended to include, but it seemed that the piece on David Winters’s Infinite Fictions made some of the same points, so I included the Winters rather than the Domini. Not because Domini’s book wasn’t equally worthy, I must emphasize. I desperately wanted to include more women critics, but I didn’t really have many more completed pieces I could use. That’s on me, for sure; I should have been more sensitive to criticism by women all along. I intend to redress this imbalance in my future writing, including giving more attention to African-American/Latino critics as well.
I do think I covered most of the issues I wanted the book to address through the essays I did include. Apart from the above-mentioned omissions, there aren’t too many critics I now feel I just should have included, although there are any number of good critics (maybe a few less good) I could have used to illustrate these same issues.
Biblioklept: Which critics did you especially admire early on?
DG: Probably the New Critics were the first critics I read and studied intensively. Then later academic critics who were focused specifically on contemporary literature, such as Jerome Klinkowitz. I liked John Updike’s criticism, although I frequently didn’t agree with him. As a graduate student I actually became interested in the structuralists/poststructuralists. I recall being one of the first in my department to go there. I wrote a dissertation that leaned heavily on Derrida (but also Richard Poirier and Robert Scholes). I never really considered being a general interest critic until I was well out of graduate school. That’s when I really started reading the newspaper/magazine book pages.
Biblioklept: What advice could you give to a young person who wants to write critically about literature?
DG: Read a lot, both literature and criticism (but especially the former). Identify a critic you admire and try to understand what you admire. Don’t flinch from making a judgment, but be prepared to be wrong.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
DG: I never have. Honest. (Unless you consider accepting review copies you never get around to reviewing stealing books).