Thursday, April 17, 2014

Personal criticism - two case studies - Then a chastened being, I began my new intellectual career.

Now, two examples of criticism that blend life and literature, that as Arnold says successfully “create a current of true and fresh ideas” by violating “disinterestedness.”  The authors get in the way of the reader first, then get out of the way.

They’re both essays that I had filed away as exceptions to my skepticism.  I might grumble about excessive memoirism in criticism, but then think “Yeah, but what about…”

Rohan Maitzen’s 2010 essay on racism in Gone with the Wind begins with a 740 word account of her history with the novel over a long period.  It was a favorite book; she had read the book many times;  her life had moved along.  Then what looks like a nostalgic description of her thirty year-old paperback takes a surprising turn:

This is the kind of metadata an e-book can never accumulate—but then, an e-book would also not leave me with quite the dilemma I now face, whether to keep the book on my shelf or to hide it away, to own or disown it.

My reading of Gone with the Wind this summer, my thirty-second, was my first really honest one, the first one during which I unequivocally named what I had always seen.  

The remaining 4,800 words develop a careful argument about the ethical and aesthetic content of the novel based on the usual range of critical tools: close reading, historical context, comparisons with other novels, some theoretical help from Wayne Booth.  The argument is specific yet easily detachable from this particular book in the sense that it provides a useful way of thinking about any ethically problematic text.

Thus the value of the memoir.  Maitzen models not just how to interpret the book but how to live with it.  Interestingly, the memoir also becomes a source of authority, a declaration of credentials, necessary for such a controversial argument.  Certain lines of attack are closed down, others left defiantly open, almost as traps (“You’re not from the South”).  What looks like a biographical preface becomes a support structure for the argument.

Another favorite of mine is Judith Pascoe’s “Before I Read Clarissa I Was Nobody: Aspirational Reading and Samuel Richardson’s Great Novel” from The Hudson Review, Summer 2003, 239-53.  The article used to be online in a PDF, but it is now hidden in JSTOR, sorry.  Clarissa was one of the smash hits of the 18th century, and also possibly the longest novel in English.  The book is a bizarre mix of tedium and tension, moral uplift and depravity, pure stasis and bursts of excitement, or horror, or sorrow.  It is a sad, sad book.

Pascoe loves the novel, has read and taught it frequently (at the University of Iowa), which is madness, and wants the well-read Hudson Review readers to set aside a couple dozen other, easier, faster, lighter books for this “book with the size and heft of a two-pound sack of flour” (239).

Some of the personal history passages (like Pascoe’s  “escape” from high school science teaching) do not do much.  There is some creative non-fiction filler.  “It is January in the Middle West an people are sliding across the iced campus walkways, their faces freezing into death grimaces whenever a stiff wind gusts off the river” (247), although “death grimaces” is funny.  Jokes soften me up for anything.  But Clarissa is such an unusual book.  Pascoe is not just delivering a blast of enthusiasm but also showing, through her own story and that of her students, how a problematic book like this can lead to such enthusiasm, how this unlovable book can be loved, and how you, too can “be initiated into the exclusive coterie of people who have read Clarissa in its entirety” (247).

In moments of honest personal inventory, I realize that I may never distinguish myself among readers of Clarissa, but, still, here we all are: Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Mary Shelley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Henry James, Virginia Woolf – along with Dan from Council Bluffs, Jessica from Cedar Rapids, and me. (253)

Back in 2003, this kind of personal advocacy was not so common.  I remember discussing this article with Rohan Maitzen at some point.  She wondered just how many articles like this a person could write.  It is a good question.  It is not just ordinary reading that make Clarissa or Gone with the Wind so important.  Maitzen has , in fact, written a couple more pieces along these lines, like this one about Josephine Tey, but this well can’t be too deep.  My deeply felt essay about the 14th most important book in my life will likely lack oomph.

To be honest, I doubt I could write even one of these.  But essays like Maitzen’s and Pascoe’s give me an idea about how to use the personal writing to guide me into the book.

Tomorrow: can this work at book-length?

Title from Pascoe, p. 240.


  1. Last night I was surprised to pop open the latest piece by Jeanne of Necromancy Don't Pay and see that she was writing about this exact topic: the mix of personal detail with criticism, strongly on the pro- side.

    She reminds me that much of this has a name, falling under some branch of reader-response criticism. Pascoe's article has an amusing section about having her students write about exactly how they read Clarissa - pure reader-response.

  2. You may be interested in researching the concept of autobiographical criticism. I applied the concept in my thesis on Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, a novel that I cannot read without being constantly reminded of scenes in my own life. Perhaps I will resurrect that thesis by revising it for a series of blog postings. In any case, autobiographical criticism might appeal to you.

  3. "This well can't be too deep": yes, I really do think that's true. I have one, maybe two, other topics I think I might be able to do something personal with -- but even I'm not interested enough in myself to keep it up for long! (Also, that's really not what I'm in this for, writing about myself: I'm only interested in doing that if it does what I'm reassured to find you confirming about the GWTW essay, that is, provide a valuable support structure for the "real" criticism.) Now, I'm a pretty dull ordinary person leading a pretty commonplace life: there might well be critics whose well is much deeper. But my guess is that there are more critics who just imagine that they are more interesting than they actually are to most readers...or at least to readers like you and me, who are happy to take our criticism without a lot of autobiographical dressing.

    1. It doesn't have to be "dressing" though, and I think this is where it becomes magnificent, this is where it has irreplaceable value, when you have an instance like de Quincey in the Macbeth essay, letting the mystery of the knocking (mystery that becomes more important and intense in the essay because he has felt it "from my boyish days" -- this is not a critic, this is a haunted man --) letting it guide him to the solution of the problem, which is also a newly-charged perspective on the play as a whole: "Another world has stept in; and the murderers are taken out of the region of human things."

      Geoffrey Hill gave his audience the same species of discovery in his Legal Fictions lecture when his autobiographical contemplation of the class difference between himself and William Empson (my father, he said, was expected to touch his hat to men of Empson's status) led him to an idea about the "verbal range" of poetry and criticism. So it can be a tool on the way to a detonation.

    2. Rare, though, magnificent but rare. Idiosyncratic. Hard to use as a model. Hard for most of us.

    3. Incredibly hard. I've never seen anyone get there by writing the kind of book that you've looked at in the post after this one. Geoff Dyer's said that he likes de Quincey, and it's possible that he had an image of something Quinceian in his mind when he was writing the Lawrence book, but if the two pages of it that I've read is anything to go by then he's not even close. Ideally you'd look as if you didn't mean to do it. It rose up and came at you and you were borne along.

    4. The whimsical, graceful way De Quincey mixes personal details of his life with his readings and his analytical thought is a thing of beauty:
      There is a story told in the 'Arabian Nights' of a princess who, by overlooking one seed of a pomegranate, precipitated the event which she had laboured to make impossible. She lies in wait for the event which she foresees. The pomegranate swells, opens, splits; the seeds, which she knows to be roots of evil, rapidly she swallows; but one--only one--before it could be arrested, rolls away into a river. It is lost! it is irrecoverable! She has triumphed, but she must perish. Already she feels the flames mounting up which are to consume her, and she calls for water hastily--not to deliver herself (for that is impossible), but, nobly forgetting her own misery, that she may prevent that destruction of her brother mortal which had been the original object for hazarding her own. Yet why go to Arabian fictions? Even in our daily life is exhibited, in proportions far more gigantic, that tendency to swell and amplify itself into mountains of darkness, which exists oftentimes in germs that are imperceptible. An error in human choice, an infirmity in the human will, though it were at first less than a mote, though it should swerve from the right line by an interval less than any thread 'That ever spider twisted from her womb,' sometimes begins to swell, to grow, to widen its distance rapidly, travels off into boundless spaces remote from the true centre, spaces incalculable and irretraceable, until hope seems extinguished and return impossible. Such was the course of my own opium career. Such is the history of human errors every day. Such was the original sin of the Deity on Greek theories.

  4. I do not remember coming across the term "autobiographical criticism," and a search of the internet has left me baffled. Perhaps, RT, when the holiday has passed you can send me a source. A readable source, I beg you. Some of this stuff seems a little theory heavy, and a lot seems specific to Biblical criticism, where I am likely to get lost fast.

    Rohan, I am at least as dull. Duller, says I, duller. So ordinary life stays off the internet, even aside from the risks of egoism and solipsism that I clearly think are much more real than most people do. To get ahead myself, to preview the next post, it is not clear to me why Rebecca Mead wanted to write a memoir at all, since the most interesting thing she has done - which actually is really unusual - is become a New Yorker writer, and that's not in her book. Why she wanted to write about Eliot, well that is easy to understand.

    1. Well, I have at least a theoretical commitment to the value of recognizing and narrating ordinary lives. It's even a crucial principle of Middlemarch, so perhaps that provides some justification for Mead's project? But that's an interesting point that she makes so little of her professional success (which, surely, becoming a staff writer for the New Yorker really is). There's little doubt that her position in the writing world has been important to the reception of her memoir, don't you think? The "bibliomemoir" as a genre does seem to rely on the memoirist's existing claim on our attention. I'm reading the book by the Guardian editor about learning to play Chopin's Ballade: I bet nobody would offer me a contract to write about the time I learned to play a Schubert Impromptu really pretty well!

    2. Consider this:

    3. As for the Intimate Critique book, that is the one most worth reading; there are others, and I remember reading those others, but if you only read one, IC is the one.

    4. her position in the writing world has been important

      Oh yes. Have you read Booth's book about playing the cello? It's actually good. I have considered writing about it here, particularly his thoughts on amateurism.

      RT, you do not really want me to read an article titled "Social Circles: Being a Report on J. Hillis Miller's Campus Visitation." Wait, actually in the right hands that could be hilarious.

  5. It is vital not to stand in the light and cast a shadow. A critic is a refracting medium certainly but try to straighten the stick. Put yourself in the picture if you’re Rembrandt and then only as an anonymous and slightly foolish courtier.

  6. I agree with you and Rohan. The well only goes so deep. Her GWTW piece is fantastic but there are only so many books one can do that with, only a few authors one has had such a long and deep relationship with that there is such a rich personal history to draw from and reflect on and use to move into a critical reading. When pieces like that pop up (I read the piece about Clarissa not long after I had managed to finish that book) it is wonderful and exciting because they have so much passion behind them. But I'm pretty sure I don't want all criticism to be written in that way. I would get so very exhausting.

  7. My deeply felt essay about the 14th most important book in my life will likely lack oomph.

    From Wuthering Expectations? I doubt it, but your point is well taken. Still, while 14 might be a bit much, I am fond of many of those essays about "a book that changed my life," largely because they nearly invariably force one to question just what it is in literature that can prompt such change, and why.

    Thanks to this discussion, darn it, I'm now going to have to scrap a post I have in draft form that contains some personal history with a particular book - either that or take better aim at surmounting a particularly high bar.

    …a valuable support structure for the "real" criticism - that seems a wise and helpful measure for using the personal.

  8. I love ombhurbhuva's metaphor(s). The critic is imperfectly invisible.

    I went to the well when I spent a week - no, more - writing about W. G. Sebald. I was looking at a recent book of his poems, and for some reason thought it was a good time to write about the time I met him and then just kept going. I had not planned to write about Sebald at all, but I had enough history with him to have plenty of stuff salted away. Of course there is almost nothing personal, in a memoiristic sense, in any of those posts. A little bit, but not much. I just don't think about literature that way.

    Pace Scott, did Sebald change my life? He changed some things I thought about literature. He wrote good books.

    I hope you don't scrap anything because of this, although I will not argue against improvement. The whole point of this topic is that I am wrong!

  9. I agree with you and Rohan and Stefanie about going to the well too often. I think reader-response criticism worth reading by those who don't know you is a bit like a first novel--the first time you do it, it can be breathtaking. Possibly you can re-create that effect five or six more times over the course of your life.
    To do it well, the piece of literature you're contemplating has to have been intensely lived. My example is a post I wrote a few years back on Araby, and I'm still not satisfied with the way I tried to write it.
    One day I'd like to be able to write about Othello--not that I know anything about events like in the plot, but have lived for years with those words in my mind, coloring what I saw and felt.

  10. Now that is a central, if hidden, part of my argument, such as it is. An intense engagement with a piece of art does not necessarily have anything to do with my memoir. Intellectual engagement can also be intense, or maybe there is some strange detail that sticks and expands (the De Quincey example). Or maybe the intensity is more purely imaginative, as I think is the case for a lot of fantasy novels or for that matter Hieronymus Bosch.

    It is the Tim Parks position that is the real puzzle, that somehow the memoir is useful for understanding an ordinary, well written book review.