So I’ve begun reading The Story about the Story, and although I’ve only read the introduction and the first two essays, those first two essays are really wonderful, and I suspect the rest of the book will be too. The idea behind the book is to gather essays that discuss literature from a personal perspective (it’s subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature”), and as I read through the first two essays, I was reminded of how much I love this form of writing. I love any kind of good writing about literature, whether it’s criticism, theory, book reviews, or blog posts — as long as it’s really good — but writing that combines intelligence about literature with a personal perspective and tone is really the best.
The first essay is by Charles D’Ambrosio, and it’s about how his experience of reading Salinger was shaped by the circumstances of his life. One of D’Ambrosio’s brothers committed suicide and another brother attempted it, and so when he came to read Salinger, he was acutely sensitive to everything Salinger had to say on the subject. The essay combines a number of strands beautifully — D’Ambrosio’s personal experience, academic theories of suicide, how suicide functions in Salinger’s fiction, and Salinger’s mysterious reclusiveness and silence. It’s a very smart, very moving essay.
The second essay is by Virginia Woolf, and in it she tells us what she thinks of Hemingway, and, even more interestingly, she takes a look at her own prejudices and biases along the way. She makes the argument that knowing a critic’s biases may make his or her conclusions seem less conclusive, but also more truthful. She starts off by describing what it’s like to read a piece of criticism. Surely we can all recognize the feelings she describes?
But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say … They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves ‘we’, for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible. Wigs grow on their heads. Robes cover their limbs. No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity. And, like most miracles, this one, too, has had a weakening effect upon the mind of the believer. He begins to think that critics, because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees.
But, she goes on to argue, critics — at least those who review recently-published books — aren’t necessarily the best readers of literature. They have to review new books without much time to think about them, and they have to deliver a verdict about them, which requires hiding uncertainties they may be feeling and questions that may linger. The rest of us are allowed to have a more complicated response and to let some of our questions go fruitfully unanswered.
And so she will conduct an experiment: she will write about Hemingway and talk about her hesitations, questions, and biases along the way, so we can get a glimpse of the thought process that goes into producing a review, rather than, as usually happens, being left with only the conclusions.
This is really what I love about criticism that is personal — it gives us a chance to see how readers come to their conclusions. Probably it’s only an illusion that we can get into Virginia Woolf’s mind as she decides that Hemingway doesn’t do character very well, but still, I can’t help but trust that Woolf is trying to be honest, and I wish that her openness and honesty (even the illusion of it) were more common.