Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Steven Augustine

As far as Zadie goes, though, how much of this was her coded rebuttal to James Wood? (As in many examples of the Poisoners Art, the active ingredient was folded deep in the heart of the vanilla ice cream).

To the topic in general: there was...*ahem* argument about all of this over at The Valve recently.

The OC-like inability to let Art *be* Art (and nothing, *necessarily*, else) is a symptom of the total rightward (materialist) paradigm-shift that has accelerated under the Bush2 junta, but which started long before that. I'm sure many of the practitioners I'm referring to think of themselves as 'lefties' and/or 'liberals', but that's only because they've lost their cultural bearings as good citizens of a Judeo-Christian Militocracy. These guys would have given Edmund Wilson the fantods.

'Fiction' is already suspect (note the preponderance of 'non-fiction' titles on the Best Sellers charts...note the vogue in indulging in exhaustive research to undergird so many novels with 'fact')...and now that the Pilgrim Fathers have come right out with the 'moral' bit, is there any stopping them?

What I blame in the general populace as either credulity or frank boorishness, I see in the Hackademics behind these 'readings' as the simple envy of real talent. Yup: it all goes back to the playground. Nonsense about "morality" (with "interrogations" of "intentionality")is the perfect graffiti to spray all over that Michelangelo one couldn't possibly have sculpted one's fucking it up, one can claim it. Or at least eke a living out of it by teaching one's students to use spray cans.

All that plus the hysterical egalitarianism that most often comes in the same anti-Art-for-Art's-sake package. Vonnegut got it right in "Harrison Bergeron" all those years ago. The perfect parable for this paradigm. Read it (again) if you haven't recently. It's dead-on.


You know, I don't think it really matters to the poem or to the story just how an individual writer spouts off about writing. A poet or novelist or storyteller needs a critical brain just about as much as a wild dog of the plains needs a pearl and diamond collar with an address tag. Even if he or she has a 'good critical brain,' words proclaimed about writing often bear very little relation to the creation of the poem, the story, the novel. That doesn't stop the critical writing from being interesting or provocative, but that particular mode of thinking is of little help when what is wanted is to scoop a pailful of dream from art's fount.

Dan Green

"words proclaimed about writing often bear very little relation to the creation of the poem, the story, the novel."

I agree with that entirely, if you're referring to "creative writers" who also write criticism. My comments on Zadie Smith's essay don't necessarily have any bearing on her fiction.

Jonathan Mayhew

There is that distinctively "personal" "voice" that we associate with a given writer, the way we know that a page is by Coolidge or Faulkner, Wyatt or Donne or Quevedo. The writerly DNA of a great writer that becomes unmistakable. It's a kind of "personality" or "signature." Sorry for all the "scare" quotes." That's different from the Wayne C. Booth idea (which I detest) of the writer as someone whose "company" we want to keep because of his or her moral virtue. Obviously we can be attracted to the personal style of someone who in real life is a scoundrel.

Jenny Davidson

Yes, just to follow up on Jonathan Mayhew's point and also to clarify my own original observation--you may well disagree, in fact I imagine you will, but when I say that my response to style is bound up with questions of character I certainly don't mean that I'm interested in the writer's real-life scoundrelism or otherwise. But certain qualities--sentimentality or self-pity, say, or a certain kind of relentless criticism of others--run like fault-lines through an author's style as through his/her character in the real-world sense. It seems to me cutting ourselves off from one of the most interesting aspects of literary criticism if we refuse the vocabulary of character when we're talking about style: I think sentimentality is the single one I most often see/hear and object to, but qualities like cleverness, ruthlessness, self-deception and wishful thinking seem to me to mar certain fictions (or sentences or paragraphs within those fictions) just as they mar certain people's characters, and similarly another kind of ruthlessness or moral unscrupulousness might be seen as advantageous to a prose style as to a person in certain situations.

Dan Green

Jenny: I do have a hard time understanding what a "morally unscrupulous" prose style would be, but I can perhaps more clearly envision a "ruthless" prose style. If, that is, by using the term you're still referring to word choice, sentence structure, etc. I can imagine a writing that is "ruthless" in this sense. The crime novelist Jim Thompson, for example.


Wow. I've been reading you for a while, but I think you have made an embarrassing misstep here. It is pretty presumptuous for a blogger and his/her minions, people involved in the profession of literary criticism, to dismiss wholesale someone who actually has been writing literature. Who are you? Do you actually know anyone who is a literary artist, not just a scholar? Well, I do. Several. I also graduated from Zadie Smith's university having studied Zadie Smith's field, namely English Literature. And I agree with her 100%. A refinement of consciousness is exactly what announces the work of a literary artist. Or of any artist, for that matter. It's about the process of obtaining a singularity, a definitive sense that one perceives and thinks about the world as an individual. (Not that that sense of individuality, and the expression of it, is not infected by matters of class, race, politics, any grouping that defines people.) But I'll definitely go on record as saying that you've made a misstep, and that this misstep is the division-point between artists and critics. And it's too bad, because the critic needs to rejoin the artist once more at transforming our world. It's time to read Wilde again, ladies and gentlemen.

Dan Green

I'm not aware of having dismissed Zadie Smith "wholesale." I disagree with what she says in this essay.

Jonathan  Mayhew

It's kind of interesting that she cites Roland Barthes, who is not a fiction writer per se (a practiioner) nor a theorist or critic particularly attentive to "personality" in any reductive sense. Then Viriginia Woolf who is also very attentive to style as style. I haven't read criticism by Murdoch so I can't comment there.

I actually agree with the general drift of Smith's argument, which I construe a little differently from the way Dan does. I think it's unfortunate that she evokes a straw man definition of style (who really think about style as icing?) and that she falls into platitudes toward the end of the part Dan quotes here. I think that sort of platitudinous prose is something many novelists are prone to, unfortunately. I thought at the beginning that she was going in a different direction from the one she eventually took. She fell into some false dichotomies and ended with some useless generalities.

John Emerson

"Frankly, I really don't know what any of the declarations made in the above-quoted passage are even supposed to mean."

Her words are forbidden, but they're not unintelligible. I could construct an explanation or interpretation of what she said, but I suspect that that would be a futile endeavor.

"Writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it's worth listening to."

I definitely agree. I've seen interesting things even in writers who I don't even read, for example Somerset Maugham.

I noticed long ago that the most novelists (except for Vladimir Nabakov, James Joyce, and a small handful of others) are much, much stupider than the critics writing about them, and that most critics would have written much, much better novels than the actual novelists did if they had been able to write novels at all.

Talk about parasitism.

Dan Green

"Her words are forbidden"


Steven Augustine

I think we're dealing with English as a second language here ("I noticed long ago that the most novelists...", "I've seen interesting things even in writers who I don't even read...", "small handful"). Either that or a Structuralist. But I like the paradox, "...most critics would have written much, much better novels than the actual novelists did if they had been able to write novels at all."

John Emerson

My, my, the hostility.

Zadie Smith's statements are the kinds of things graduate schools train people not to say, i.e., forbidden. They're not in any way unintelligible.

She started off by humbly saying is that even though novelists may not be good critics, since they write novels, maybe the things they say are of some value. She needn't have bothered.

Books of criticism or biography are always explaining to me where the author went wrong or failed, and what he or she really should have done instead. I always find this presumptuous coming from someone who doesn't write anything.


Would it be presumptuous for "someone who doesn't write anything" (except, perhaps, "criticism"), to praise a book? To attempt to explain where the author went right or succeeded? Or is it only the negative assessment that should be foreclosed?

Dan Green

"Zadie Smith's statements are the kinds of things graduate schools train people not to say, i.e., forbidden."

If this is the case, then perhaps graduate schools are good for something after all.

Steven Augustine

John, to be honest, your comment was so broadly sarcastic that it was almost impossible to tell that it *was*, in fact, sarcasm. The only apparent 'clue' to your intended meaning was the extremity of the position, but critics take intentional and sincerely extreme positions all the time; hard to tell that you weren't among their number. All in all, I think there's a feedback loop of ironies going on between Zadie's essay and your response and the responses to your response (mine included).

My own take on the 'unintelligible' bits of Zadie's essay is that they are deliberately impressionistic or ambiguous in the manner that a lot of Artspeak is. A way to hedge her bets, possibly? To put a finer point on my original comment, I think a lot of what isn't a direct rebut of James Wood (and the school of) here is filler. She's making a case to the general reader in a way that reminds me of Liberal politicians who are careful to touch on God, Our Troops, and the Flag.

I disagree wholeheartedly with the 'hysterical realism' manifesto that, possibly, 'inspired' Zadie to this while at the same time feeling that her essay reads like one of those big-print articles an astrophysicist writes to demystify the science for laypersons. Not 'wrong' in all cases but here and there 'unright'. In my opinion.


Disconcerting as it is to agree with John Emerson, I think you've seriously misread Smith here. The claim she is making is that a writer's style is an expression of how they find the world to be, of how it makes sense - or not - to them. Thus you get the idea of personality as a way of being in the world. Because how the world makes sense - or fails to make sense - to someone inevitably draws on norms of what it is for something to make sense, you then get someone's normatively encoded portrait of the world. For such a portrait to be persuasive, its norms have to be persuasive. If its norms are persuasive, they are ones the reader could apply in their understanding of the world, and so the reader has a kind of expansion of their moral consciousness: they have new ways of understanding the world.

Dan Green

"The claim she is making is that a writer's style is an expression of how they find the world to be, of how it makes sense - or not - to them."

I know that's what she's saying. And I'm saying it's baloney. Style is what a writer does with *language*, not something as nebulous as "someone's normatively encoded portrait of the world."


Perhaps, when put at an abstract level, it is reasonable to think on a piece of fiction as something independent of its author. Some people may even say that such a thing is the ideal of every writer. Juan Rulfo used to say that he spent years of edition work getting rid of "his presence" in Pedro Páramo. He thought he succeeded. However, after you see him a few times giving interviews or talks, you can immediately relate that short, dark, introversive, kinda sad guy, talking about his hard childhood, with his concise book about ghosts. He is all over there. That's a book that could only have been written by such a character.

I believe that's the point of Smith's essay. She feels that Rulfo's effort for erasing himself from the book was vane, he was condemned to be there. I don't think she is suggesting that, as readers, we should now read the books doing some sort of psychological analysis of whoever wrote them. In fact, while reading a book, we can (most of the times) completely forget about its author and whatever intentions he had when he wrote it, and that's OK, but, nonetheless, it could be possible that, as Smith claims, a trace of his persona, whatever that means, is there and it's a essential part of the crafting of the book.

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