Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some encouragement from William Pritchard - a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly

William Pritchard is, I think, my favorite living critic.* I can't guess why he's not better known, except that one of his specialties is modern poetry (not such a big audience), and another is John Updike (a fading audience). Pritchard, a longtime English professor at Amherst College, made the deliberate decision early in his career to write for a larger audience, an audience that includes me.

His newest collections of book reviews and essays is titled On Poets & Poetry (2009). I've read some of it already - appreciations of John Dryden and of Johnson's Lives of the Poets - and most of the rest concerns moderns and Modernists. Pound, Eliot, Frost through Bishop, Lowell, Larkin. Someday, I will, inshallah, read those poets more seriously, and then I'll return to this book. For now, I actually just want it for a couple of pieces on Tennyson.

I wanted to mention a couple of lines from the book's preface, one today, one tomorrow.

Pritchard mentions the example of T. S. Eliot, who wrote hundreds of book reviews "most of which have never been available in book form":

"At the peril of inviting comparison with Eliot, it appears to me that, unlike the scholarly essay which must justify itself by bringing out a new aspect of a writer's work or correcting the inadequate interpretation of earlier critics, reviews are bound by no such rules. The reviewer is not only free but expected to take the book at hand as a chance to direct attention to central issues. As a critic he may speak to large matters of a poet's achievement, comparing the writer with contemporaries and predecessors in an effort to capture his or her distinctness. Under the confines of a thousand-word limit - or in more spacious situations double or treble that length** - he can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out, sometimes doubtless recklessly, in order to elicit something essential about his subject." (p. x)

He follows with a famous bit of Randall Jarrell, from "The Age of Criticism," in which Jarrell writes that the responsibility of the critic is "taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself."

Now that last part, I have that covered. Chance, taken; fool, made. That reckless freedom is a great part of why I keep writing here. When something does not work, I can try something else, with no costs at all. I guess I could damage my ability to "Monetize" Wuthering Expectations. Ha ha ha ha ha!

Prof. Myers expresses disappointment that so few bloggers are "committed to argument" (although he clearly understands why they are not). My Appreciationist temperament is all wrong for that task (mostly). But I think Pritchard is absolutely right. There are different kinds of provocation, different breeds of recklessness. Anyone who writes about books should discover the kind that works for him and cultivate it. If Pritchard, writing for professional publication, is free, think of the liberty possessed by we book bloggers.

I didn't set out to write anything related to Book Blogger Appreciation Week, but I obviously just did. And there's a bit more tomorrow.
* Along with Joseph Epstein. And Christopher Benfey. Ruth Franklin's good. Frank Kermode. Ingrid Rowland could hardly be better. Enough of this.

** Gotta say, any blogger going over three thousand words maybe ought to consider if anyone will read that much. I am being very generous allowing three thousand words.


  1. My "reviews" are more thoughts about the books and I tend to write 750-1500 words. I'm wordy.

    I was rather argumentative when I first started blogging. At least, very negative. (I know it is not the same thing.) Problem is, I got/get comments on those posts still (thanks to google searches) and it embarrasses me because I don't care so much about those particular books anymore. And I really hate arguments, especially with cyber-strangers.

    So I'll stay less argumentative. Can't we all just get along?

  2. I really liked the two posts on this topic at A Commonplace Blog, but my problem is: I am willing to make a fool out of myself in a standalone post of my own, but not actively tangle with someone and look like a fool. Well, that sure sounds like a moral failing or something when I say it that way. I guess I am only willing to look like so much of an idiot.

    But sometimes I do wish we were more argumentative, because I'm not nicey-nice and I don't think it's actually very good to be nicey-nice. More qualified people will just have to do it, say, Prof. Myers. He's much better at it than I would be anyway.

    Re: 3,000 words. I wonder how long my posts are...yeah okay, more like 500-1,500. If we want to monetize we are going to have to cut down by orders of magnitude of course, to, say, 140 chars. Way less room to make fools of ourselves that way, too!

  3. He has a good point about avoiding argument. It seems to be the norm at all but a very limited set of blogs. I think it has to do with this being a labor of love for most of us.

    Personally, I'd much rather find a new book than argue about one. I look for bloggers who are reading stuff I might find interesting.

    I do wish there was a way to monetize...oh how I wiish there was.

  4. No plans to monetize, I take it? Sometimes people ask me about that myth and I laugh too.

    I'm trying to be more, not argumentative, but critical. The thing is, I want to write about the good things I come across. Certainly there enough less than stellar things out there but are they worth focusing on?

    Anyhow, nice to catch up a bit over here.

  5. I've been thinking lately that there are things I really love about the "review" format - I agree with Pritchard that it's freeing to be able to draw attention to central issues, of either intent or appreciation, instead of ferreting around for some obscure aspect of a book that no one else has yet documented. And I've also been thinking that there are things I really miss about writing more in-depth academic papers. I enjoy critical theory, and I like taking an idea I picked up somewhere, applying it to a book I've been reading, and spending a few hundred or a few thousand words exploring where that takes me. I also sometimes enjoy focusing on a tiny part of a novel, to the exclusion of "major themes," and thinking about how that interacts with other tiny parts. So I find I'm often hovering somewhere between "review" and "critical interpretation" - I like to lump it all together and call it an essay, which takes some of the pressure off! :-)

    As for Myers...I disagree with him on so many levels I can hardly articulate them all. I'll just say, I'd rather ally myself with Montaigne than with Matthew Arnold, and leave it at that.

  6. I also find the blog to be immensely freeing for I now have no one's expectations to meet, except for my own.

    I don't have a specific format for my blog. I write about a book I've recently read, or a film I've seen within the past few days, or perhaps a comparison of the film and book (if a film has been made from it).

    Sometimes, my posts look like reviews, and sometimes I take only a small part of it which I find interesting. The post really is about the way I respond to that book or that film.

    And that can take me far afield. For example, one of my favorite films is _Rashomon_. I decided to dig a bit and read the short stories the film was based on. I ended up with several posts, tracing its lineage from two medieval Japanese tales, through stories by Ambrose Bierce and Akutagawa to the film, and finally to its Hollywood remake.

    I have no idea about the length of my posts, but they probably are on the long side, as you may have noticed.

  7. Blogging is best equated to conversation rather than publication. Conversations happen to be a lot more interesting and useful when there is a certain amount of recklessness thrown in. There are places to go for inspiration and places to go for education. Arguments? I sort of prefer people focusing upon what they enjoy instead.

  8. Ah, Rebecca, the old posts. Best not to think about those. There are special problems in arguing with the cyber-strangers which probably does shut down a certain kind of argument. Example: Some of them are nutcases. Others are bullies. Who needs the grief?

    Nicole, I have seen a twitter or two where the writer's foolishness comes through loud and clear. So, no hiding there.

    I wonder if the Professional Readers are more suited for this kind of thing. The best ones have gone through the trial-by-seminar and really now how to punch back without making it personal. Everyone is playing the same game in the seminar room. Not out here.

    Welcome back, Art - I've been enjoying your gallery visits.

    Emily, which Montaigne, which Arnold? I would love to know. An essay, that's right - here's something by Prof. Myers with which you might agree more.

    That following of paths that Fred describes is clearly a way that short serial writing is different than anything else. The results are less polished or focused, but the thinking process is more visible.

    Brian - I believe I just wrote about that today. Although I did not think of the value of recklessness in conversation, clearly true.

  9. Haha, excellent point. I'm talkin' the Montaigne of "Of experience" ("It is impossible to find two opinions exactly alike, not only in different men, but in the same man at different times...I study myself more than any other subject.") versus the Arnold of "The Function of Criticism at the Current Time" ("a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world"). I just don't believe in the kind of Victorian absolutism that Myers seems to want us to be arguing about - the "limits of literature," and all that. Call me po-mo! :-)

    But yes, I did enjoy the entry you linked to, and chuckled at this line: "I am not sure how these five secrets distinguish bloggers from anyone else, including those who write books. They are worth remembering, though."

  10. Argh, make that "Present" time - I always mess up the title of that essay!

  11. Emily, thanks much. I must read that Arnold piece.