Friday, June 27, 2008

Who Are You to Criticize?

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 England, and an introductory psychology class. I took a look at what was going to be required of me from then on and thought “ugh,” realizing my most fascinating class had been that introductory psychology one. I wanted to keep pursuing that rather than public speaking and economics and more calculus courses. Thus, I became a psychology major.

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 and Hilda, New York: New York Review of Books, 2001, p. xiii)

Okay, 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.


Anonymous said...

I feel exactly the same way you do about people ("critics") who write about art. I start getting Dylan's song "Ballad of a Thin Man" in my head. linser

Bitterly Indifferent said...

I find it either suspect or comic when I read reviews and criticism done by authors when their subject is either a friend of theirs or publishing a competing title. I wish I could find the article I was reading the other day about authors who would write glowing reviews of their friends' work, so that those friends would return the favor.

Eva said...

This is such a great post Emily!! And I never, ever took a literature class in college (I did take Beginning Creative Nonfic Writing when I was thinking about a journalism minor, and Beginning Poetry Writing for my art credit) for exactly that reason. And you've made Faulkner a tiny, tiny, tiny bit less scary to me. :p

Emily Barton said...

Linser, oh, I bet it's even worse with art.

PMJG, never even thought of critics getting their friends to write about their work. The really mature part of me wants to scream, "No fair!"

Eva, thanks! Don't be afraid of Faulkner. A reader like you should have no problem at all with him.

Anonymous said...

Who's to say that writing bout a book from a sensual point of view isn't as valid as writing about it only from the head? Ideally there would be a combination of both. When I run across that kind of criticism I fall in love with the critic and the book being written about. I think you write marvelously about books. And as to what the critics would make of your writing? It doesn't matter, really, though the ones that try to psychoanalyze your could provide some great entertainment :)

Rebecca H. said...

I've read a lot of criticism and hated some and enjoyed quite a lot -- I suppose, for me, if I know what I'm in for, that is, if I know I'm going to read a fairly dry but probably illuminating piece of criticism, I don't mind the absence of emotion, even though I do love criticism with a personal, emotional element to it (I wrote a post on that recently, about the George Saunders collection of essays). There's a place for the dryer sort of criticism, and the trick is to find the good stuff that actually does help you read the text better (easier said than done, I'm sure). But if a person isn't planning on being a scholar and isn't interested in criticism, then there is no reason to seek it out.

Anonymous said...

Emily, I agree. I think it would be great if people responded with their hearts and their heads to books they are reviewing, which is one of the reasons I'm enjoying these book blogs. I don't think I've read Faulkner (I'm sure I would remember, even with my bad memory) so will look out for him. Thanks.

Emily Barton said...

Everyone, after all your comments, I'm feeling I could write a whole nother post on this. I wish we could all sit around and have a conversation.

Stef, yes, a combination of both is what I like best. I think that's what the blogosphere is providing that has been missing in traditional reviews and criticism. And you're right: the psychoanalysis might be amusing or interesting. And there's another plus: it would be free.

Dorr, your take is interesting, because you, of course, have to read criticism for your job. You can't really get around it, and thus, that probably makes you more well-versed, which leads to a tolerance level that's higher than mine. And, of course, I'm definitely simplifying and generalizing here. I do like to read criticism that gives me lots of background information and that helps me understand something better.

Pete, as I said to Stefanie, you're right: book blogs do a nice job of combining both. Meanwhile, give Faulkner a try (she says, very timidly, always afraid she's leading someone to something he'll hate).

Susan said...

Because I majored in English at university, I of course had to learn how to criticize books. Look for the characters, setting, structure, themes, blah blah. It got to the point that when I finished, I had to undo reading books that way. I couldn't enjoy any, because I saw all the flaws! and then the writer part of me would jump in with ideas of how to make it better - I still do that, but fortunately I've undone the LIterary Critic part of me - most of the time. whenever i read 'literature' it pops up again. I like your idea of responding to a book from the heart, which is what I try to do on my blog. I am very aware - as I think you are, because we are both writers - that the writer has poured their blood into their book, so unless it's really dreadful (and we wouldn't finish reading it then anyway!), I try to find something good to say. Slicing and dicing like literary critics do, kills the creative spirit, and i don't want to be part of that. and yet, what i want most of all is an honest response to a book, not a learned distant response - I want that heart response, from myself, and also to anything I write, because it means a real connection was made.

Susan said...

PS I'm awful with describing book plots - I always have been. so it means I sometimes pick 'the wrong thing' to criticize - I used to get in trouble in university with this. I know the plot, I just can't describe it clearly. So even though you suffer from this too, I was glad to see it! and I want to see your pyromaniac/ghost story!! lol cool...lots could be done with that...

Emily Barton said...

Susan, it's so hard to get rid of that inner literary critic once she's been trained, isn't it? And when I finish the final draft of the pyromaniac ghost story, I'll send you a copy.