I’m happily reading along in The Story About the Story, an anthology of essays about literature, subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature.” I’m about 3/4 of the way through, and I haven’t fallen in love with the essays I’ve read recently in the same way I did with some of the first ones in the anthology, but still, the selections are very good. Recently I’ve read really excellent pieces by Michael Chabon, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick, all of which left me with a longer list of books I want to read.
There’s a selection from one of my favorite nonfiction books ever, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, but the selection is one I don’t particularly like. Out of Sheer Rage is about how Dyer tried to write a book on D.H. Lawrence and failed, and in this section he writes about coming across a book of literary criticism on Lawrence and hating it so much he throws a temper tantrum and burns the book. I was all set to write a post on this passage, but it turns out I already wrote one. Briefly, my point was that I can’t stand it when people throw temper tantrums about how much they hate literary criticism. Usually when people do this they end up overgeneralizing and misrepresenting criticism and critics, and they often sound foolish and anti-intellectual, and they come across — to me at least — as people who haven’t actually read a whole lot of criticism, or as people who have read some bad things and never bothered to look into the field any further.
But I can’t get too upset at Geoff Dyer, since he does end up admitting that he’s being unreasonable, and it’s also the case that he’s writing a book called Out of Sheer Rage, an obvious signal to the reader that some unreasonableness lies ahead. And the truth is that a part of me finds the temper tantrum touching and amusing. Dyer cares about literature, and although I think he’s wrong to believe that criticism can harm literature somehow, at least his motivation comes from a devotion I can understand.
Really, though, what is it about criticism that bothers people so much? Yes, there is bad criticism out there, but in my experience (and I have read lots of the stuff, believe me), much of it is maybe a little dry and pedestrian but also useful and illuminating. Most critics, in my experience, are working out of a genuine interest in their subject and aren’t out to kill it, as Dyer claims many of them are. Why would critics devote their careers to killing the subject they study?
Perhaps my particular field of study biases my view; I specialize in eighteenth-century British literature, and criticism of that time period hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of controversy. People do fight political and theoretical battles over the literature of the time, but mostly it’s a relatively quiet field, one where trendiness and theoretical jargon aren’t required. A person can be an old-fashioned historicist and do quite well.
But still my point stands — when people lash out at criticism, they tend to focus on only a small part of it and ignore the bulk of what goes on.
This gets to my one quibble with The Story About the Story. The book is introduced and framed as a collection of essays on literature that stands in contrast to the usual dry, dull criticism published by academics. That may be true — these essays certainly are livelier than traditional criticism — but why can’t we have writerly, “creative,” criticism and academic criticism both? These essays are marvelously fun to read; they don’t pretend to do what academics do, and sometimes they attack it. But there is a place for more systematic studies of literature, for essays written by scholars immersed in the history of the time and familiar with the books more general readers haven’t read. It’s great to have people who will read in archives, pore over manuscripts and create definitive editions, study how ideas develop and get represented in novels, poems, and plays, and think carefully about what literature is and what it does. What’s wrong with that?