By now, those of you who read me on a regular basis must know I’m not extremely fond of literary criticism. I’m pretty sure this sort of criticism can be blamed for the fact that despite the two things I’ve always loved most in the world – reading and writing – I didn’t have my heart set on studying English as an undergraduate, and I entered college determined to major in accounting. Accounting! Can you imagine? Well, I’d be making a lot more money at this point in my life. I also might be dead by now, having hung myself from boredom about four years into it.
Luckily, my first semester courses and a strict school that required all sorts of unappealing classes and then two years in its undergraduate business school in order to be an accountant discouraged me. I’d spent my first semester taking things like an introductory writing class, a class on the history of
And then I ended up minoring in English. This minor was somewhat of an accidental one. What happened is that midway through my third year, I suddenly realized that I’d taken so many English courses, I wouldn’t have to take too many more in order to get a minor. Thus, I decided to go ahead and take the couple of required courses I had yet to take and a couple more electives to get my minor. I can only say that the fact I’d taken all these English courses had more to do with my absolute love of reading and some fantastic professors than it did with any of the critical essays and texts we read alongside the likes of Shakespeare (whom I finally learned to love in college), Wordsworth, Bronte, Faulkner, and Woolf (to name just a few).
I so often felt that these critical analyses just didn’t get it. Either the critics were trying so hard to prove they knew something no one else did – they had the one, true brilliant insight into this author or this particular piece of work – or else I had a hard time believing they’d read the same thing I’d just read and enjoyed, because they so often seemed determined to make it un-enjoyable, to make it as difficult as possible. Or worse, it was something I’d hated, and they were in complete awe over its brilliance.
I find I haven’t changed much since I was in college. Maybe I’m not very good at paying attention while I’m reading, but I’ll read a book and then go back to read the Introduction or search online for some academic’s commentary on it, and find myself thinking, “What the …?” I’d be tempted to believe that I’m just extraordinarily dense if not for the fact that I’ve had the experience of reading quite a few texts, texts typically defined as “difficult,” and have found myself marveling at their beauty and genius.
One of these was Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I absolutely, positively did not want to read this book chosen for a book discussion group to which I belonged years ago. Sometimes, I’ve discovered, that’s the best way to come at a book, because then I can be pleasantly surprised rather than bitterly disappointed. What I most remember about it, once I sat down to read it, was finishing it. I immediately returned to Macbeth’s soliloquy printed at the opening of the book, and read it over and over again in complete awe. Faulkner hadn’t missed a single detail from Shakespeare in writing his novel. How had he done that? I went to that book discussion group, completely fired up, certain everyone else would be, as well, only to discover that most of my friends were fired up, but fired up about how much they’d hated it. (And by the way, I’ve never read any literary criticism for that book, too afraid it would ruin the book for me. I have, however, listened to a sound recording of Faulkner reading some of it aloud – such music to my ears!)
That book discussion meeting was when I discovered I couldn’t really articulate my thoughts much beyond “Faulkner was a flat-out genius!” This, in turn, led me to realize that my reactions to books are almost always somewhat dreamlike. Like my dreams, I will know exactly what a particular book looks, tastes, sounds, feels, and smells like, but trying to describe it to others, putting it into words that others can understand, almost immediately causes it to lose something. And, just like a dream, often something I know is profound, comes off sounding like so much jumbled nonsense to the person who is listening to me babble on about how profound it is.
Literary critics (at least those I seem to read) lose this sensuality when describing books and their meanings. They stay in their heads, never asking the fingers what they felt, the tongue what it tasted. Now, I love to wander around spending countless numbers of hours in my own head, but the head is not always a great place to be, especially when it comes to books. The head loves to look for meaning in places where the eyes would say, “No, it really is just a black wall and nothing more. The author didn’t mean death, or loss of innocence, or anything here. She just wanted you to see that odd black wall exactly the way her character saw it.” Or perhaps the head starts thinking that this particular protagonist was torn from his mother’s breast when he wasn’t ready, because throughout the book, he’s drawn to the fresh milk he gets from his neighbor’s dairy farm. Meanwhile, the critic’s tongue is screaming at him, “Have you ever tasted really fresh milk? I mean real milk, not that pasteurized and homogenized watery crap most people call ‘milk?’ I’d be drinking up that dairy farmer’s supply, too, if I could.”
Part of the problem, of course, is reading critics and wondering what on earth they’d do with my own writing. I can’t imagine what they might have to say about a ghost who haunts a fancy gas grill, say. My guess is some critic possibly surmising about my character’s (or, God forbid, maybe even my own) pyromaniac tendencies. Truth be told, though, that ghost appeared in my imagination while reading a friend’s email account concerning assholic NYC neighbors. Maybe it had something to do with pyromania – maybe I ought to revisit the story and write that into it – but my guess is that he was nothing more than what many of my characters are: a product of the interesting and out-of-the-way places my muse likes to explore and/or frequent.
But let’s forget my own writing. So often I find myself reading an Introduction and thinking “Oh, if only [fill in the blank] were here to respond to that!” I’m reminded of some of the interview footage I’ve seen of Bob Dylan in which he’s basically telling the critics they’re full of shit. I’ve now read two Introductions (yes, I did get a copy, so you can cross that off my Christmas list) and an academic blog post for L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda, and I don’t feel any of the critics got Eustace’s character right. I want Hartley to come back from the grave to defend himself. I want to hear him say, “Boy, were you all reading the book I wrote?”
However, I think Hartley might be quite pleased with Anita Brookner’s conclusion in the copy Bob – a “gift,” to him from me, but I swear he’s going to love it as much as I did – and I now own. She says:
One closes the book with a feeling of profound sadness, of regret not only for Eustace and Hilda but for the beautiful literary undertaking that is now ended. Few modern novels impose high standards. This one unquestioningly does.” (L.P. Hartley, Eustace andOkay, maybe Brookner did read the same book I read after all. And maybe critics do sometimes manage to feel rather than to think a book. Then again, Brookner is a novelist herself. Perhaps she wonders sometimes about the things the critics say concerning her own works.
: Hilda, New York New YorkReview of Books, 2001, p. xiii)