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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Doing It My Way: Haphazard Lit-Crit

A book review is one thing. Literary criticism is another. I’m guessing, however, that the two might sometimes appear side by side (or end to end) in the pages of, say, The New York Review of Books. At least, that is my surmise after reading two books of criticism of the highest literary quality by two writers whose work I have long loved and admired, Annie Dillard and Alfred Kazin. Serendipity (i.e., dumb luck) led me to reading these two books one almost simultaneously, beginning with Kazin and jumping around from essay to essay, then picking up Dillard and reading it from beginning to end, finally returning to the beginning of the Kazin book and reading every essay I hadn’t yet read. The two go very well together.

Caveat: I have a bookstore, it’s true, but I was never an English major.  In graduate school, studying philosophy, I ran across literary criticism in Philosophy and Literature and then again in Aesthetics, but for me those were painful experiences. I had no taste for dissecting and analyzing poetry (although—or perhaps because--I love it) and no patience for any theory arguing that all artists were aiming at a single goal (although each theory might, I allow, be useful in understanding a certain grouping of artists). The anything-goes postmodern school of criticism I found entertaining, but one must take it as entertainment rather than elucidation: however brilliant the performance of the critic, I will never believe that Nietzsche is a feminist or that Hamlet is a story of a boy and his dog. Son et lumière, and after the fireworks a small pile of ash. That’s what I get from Derrida. 

Kazin and Dillard are different, and I’m no longer in a classroom these days.

We love Alfred Kazin at our house. A Walker in the City is a favorite of mine, while David reads and re-reads the sequel memoir, New York Jew. (It’s on the porch right now, awaiting his after-dinner reading hour.) This explains why I picked up Contemporaries--not for its subject matter but for its author. A collection of over seventy of Kazin’s essays on modern literature (“modern” beginning with Melville), Contemporaries offers a rich buffet, tempting a reader to browse and graze, and in this manner I began, reading first, beginning on page 230, “J. D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite,’” and then, from nearer the end of the book, “Writing for Magazines.” In the first essay I marked several passages. Here is one:

A short story which is not handled with necessary concentration and wit is like a play which does not engage its audience; a story does not exist unless it hits the mark with terrific impact. It is a constant projection of meanings at an audience, and it is a performance minutely made up of the only possible language, as a poem is.


In laying out for readers what it is about Salinger’s stories that makes them exciting, Kazin is also reminding writers of their task:

A short story does not offer room enough for the development of character; it can present only character itself—by gesture.


From the broad claim he goes on to note how remarkably well Salinger fulfills the task, catching each small, telling gesture that gives us, at a momentary glance, the character he is letting us observe. And yet, in the end he finds Salinger’s characters too sensitive, the presentation of them too “cute,” the fiction writer’s sympathy too one-sided. Salinger’s beloved, tortured characters, Kazin says, are in love with the idea of themselves, and when their author sets them up as martyrs, the deeper, exploratory possibilities of fiction are excluded.

The piece called “Writing for Magazines” is a celebration of a kind of older writing for periodicals that did not pretend to claim more than brief public attention. I could not help relating Kazin’s thoughts of that older magazine writing to the current phenomenon of blogging. When Kazin quotes Chekov, for example, I hear my blogger friend Kathy from the U.P.:

“I wrote as a bird sings. I’d sit down and write. Without thinking of how to write or about what. My things wrote themselves. I could write at any time I liked. To write a sketch, a story, a skit cost me no labor. I, like a young calf or a colt let out into the freedom of a green and radiant pasture, leaped, cavorted, kicked up my heels....”

Unlike the light-hearted Chekhovian approach (no one, he says, was fact-checking in those days), Kazin is concerned that the magazine writers of his own day—and here I pose the question of a parallel with many (not Kathy!) of today’s bloggers—take themselves far too seriously and have an influence on public opinion disproportionate to their short, ephemeral pieces. Magazine writers, he says, have become “pompous,” take themselves as “pundits,” and they have left joy behind. Chekhov in his time, on the other hand, was allowed to be “easy,” not required to bundle up his themes in a weighty conclusion. A “slice of life,” for Chekhov, was not painstaking analysis but “the moment seized in its actual and seeming significance.”

Here, you see? The moment seized. Character in a gesture. In these words of praise Kazin the critic tells us what he values in short fiction.

Turning back to a 1959 essay, “The Alone Generation,” I was arrested by the first sentence of the second paragraph: “I am tired of reading for compassion instead of pleasure.” Weary of “psychological man,” the lonely protagonist of 20th-century American fiction, the navel-gazing, self-pitying individual interested in nothing so much as his own social situation and emotions, Kazin the critic finds that his weariness extends from the “quivering novels of sensibility by overconscious stylists” to the “deliberately churned-up noels of the Beat Generation.” There are no large social themes, he laments, and no large action, only small, lonely, self-absorbed individuals.

He has another complaint about the fiction of his age, which is that “novels can now be sent off as quickly as they are written and published immediately afterwards.” What would he say today, with packages of self-published pages flying at the public in both physical and virtual form as quickly as the words fly from the mind to the fingertips? “More and more,” he notes, “we judge novels by their emotional authenticity, not by their creative achievement.” Self-absorbed reader, meet self-absorbed writer:

And here I come to another complaint, the increasing slovenliness, carelessness, and plain cowardice of style in fiction today.

Too many writers, he says, rely on language to do the work of characterization. Well, he says much more besides, but I want to get to what he calls “the heart of my complaint,” for it is at that point that I reached for Annie Dillard’s book and found in it a continuation of the conversation Kazin had begun half a century earlier. The heart of Kazin’s complaint is this:

I complain of the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness, in so many reputable novelists. ... I thought of George Santayana’s complaint that contemporary poets often give the reader the mere suggestion of a poem and expect him to finish the poem for them.

Too many modern novels, in Kazin’s eyes, are “solemnly meaningful in every intention, but without the breath or extension of life,” while he finds the majority of short magazine fiction “only stitchings and joinings and colorings of some original model.” 

So there you have it. Do you think he has too many complaints? The important thing is that this man loved literature and never lost faith in fiction’s capacity to present to all of us (despite the plethora of lonely individuals in novels) a shared world and its possibilities. I was particularly struck by the complaint of “flatness,” in which I couldn’t help hearing a precursive echo (if such a thing can be imagined) of Tom Wolfe’s essay on modern art, The Painted Word (first published as a long magazine piece, subsequently as a book). Is there content, is there a subject, behind “the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness” of the modern novel? Or does the “flatness” itself intentional? Does it have a literary value?

(I am in deep water, probably over my head. Again my caveat: I have never been an English major!)

This is where I changed horses and picked up Dillard’s book—not, I hasten to say, because I was tired of Kazin but because I had been reading his essays in a desultory fashion, skipping about in the book, and thought I would try another on the same general theme—and right away was struck by the way her beginning picked up the thread of his complaint. You see the serendipity in haphazard, unplanned reading?

Dillard’s first chapter, “Fiction in Bits,” addresses the fracturing of time and space in modernist (her preferred term) narrative collage:

Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in orderly progression, and growing in wisdom.  Instead time is a flattened [my emphasis added] landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen by air.

With the arrow of time shattered, different versions of events come from different characters, some of rely entirely on their imaginations rather than interpreting facts, with the result that cause and effect vanish, and reason finds no home. As with time, so with space, “no longer a three-dimensional ‘setting’ it once was, the scene of the action may be “public, random, or temporary,” alien, even extraplanetary. When there is great geographical breadth, with characters appearing all over the globe, there will still generally be “the same narrative distance,” such that the geographical breadth brings with it no emotional depth. Like time, space has been flattened. Events have no meaning, and whatever happens to the novel’s characters appears “jerked, arbitrary, and fundamentally incoherent....”

Dillard in 1982 has described a development in fiction that already seemed to be irritating Kazin in 1959, and she comes right to the salient point before the end of the first chapter of Living by Fiction, asking,

...[M]ay a work of art borrow meaning by being itself meaningless? May it claim thereby to have criticized society? Or to have recreated our experience? May a work claim for itself whole hunks of other people’s thoughts on the flimsy grounds that the work itself, being so fragmented, typifies our experience...?

There are two questions here (though I realize it looks like four!): One has to do with slipshod, dishonest writing. James Joyce fractured the narrative of Ulysses over and over again, but no one—certainly neither Kazin nor Dillard—would dismiss that great work as slipshod. The second question, assuming great care and courage on the part of the writer, remains very serious:

If the writer’s honest intention is to recreate a world he finds meaningless, must his work then be meaningless?

On the way to her answer to this question, Dillard addresses the problem of flatness. In terms that again remind me of The Painted Word, she notes,

A writer may make his aesthetic surfaces very, very good and even appealing, in the hope that those surface excellences will impart to the work enough positive value, as it were, to overwhelm its negativity.

But in the final analysis, attractive surfaces are not enough for Dillard. The flattest, most fractured piece of fiction, however attractive, to succeed as art requires integrity. The “broken, sophisticated” feature of modernist may be reproduced by a writer lacking the effort or skill to finish the job:

He may fool himself into shirking the difficult, heartbreaking task of structuring a work of art on the grounds that art is imitation (all of a sudden) and a slapdash fiction imitates a seriously troubled world.

Style can be imitated. Integrity cannot.


The “flatness” of what Dillard calls modernist fiction, therefore, is not a problem for her, as she sees it, but the “slovenliness” of which Kazin complained definitely is. There is a wide gulf between “art and mere glibness,” and similar surfaces do not always indicate the quality of different works. Narrative unity may be lacking, but without integrity, without artistic coherence, there is only smoke, no fire.

These two books are so deep and rich, as well as so wonderfully, tantalizingly quotable, that it is almost impossible to read either one without dog-earing pages or underlining sentences or writing in margins. Luckily, mine are paperback copies, and so I have been giving myself this rare treat. Here’s what I mean:

Far from being like a receptacle in which you, the artist, drop your ideas, and far from being like a lump of clay which you pummel until it fits your notion of an ashtray, the art object is more like an enthusiastic and ill-trained Labrador retriever which yanks you into traffic. – Annie Dillard 

Actually, if there were more intimate experience of art and less self-conscious use of art, we might see that none of us can fully explain the effect of art, or correct it when it is unsatisfactory, or keep it up as an ecstatic experience all the time. If we in this country had an honest sense of the limits of art, we would have a more grateful sense of its power. – Alfred Kazin 

What shall it be? Do art’s complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know. – Annie Dillard
* * *

P.S. Northport Notes: This Friday evening is high school graduation. There are seven graduates this year. Saturday evening and Sunday morning are lectures at Trinity Congregational by this year's Belko Peace speaker. (See right-hand column for more detail.)

3 comments:

Jerry Dennis said...

Pam -- Thank you for raising these interesting and, I believe, important questions about fiction. As a former English major who for a time at least was on a lit-crit path (before I rediscovered the real world and was saved by rivers and woods -- and thus saved my soul and love of reading for its own sake) I have little patience for criticism that shoehorns a text to fit it into Theory. That's why I think there's another category besides reviews and literary criticism: the literary essay, of which Kazin and Dillard are brilliant practitioners and which appears regularly in the NY Review of Books, Harpers, American Scholar and a few other publications that manage to be both intellectually rigorous and popular. Hooray for Dillard. Her "The Writing Life" has long been a favorite of mine, and with the writers in my workshops. Now I can't wait to pick up Living by Fiction. How did I miss it?

P. J. Grath said...

Jerry, would we have to say literary essays on literature? Your own essays are quite literary, very beautiful, but not usually about fiction. I'm very happy (and relieved) that you make room for Dillard and Kazin in your reading, despite general lit-crit avoidance. LIVING BY FICTION? I stumbled across it by accident. Hadn't heard of it before. It is not a jump-around-in book but one sustained argument. Very rigorous.

Helen said...

Well done. Will add these to my reading list.

Also glad you're writing in your books...