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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
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03/19/2007

Comments

Scott Eric Kaufman

I think there's a reason most historicist studies don't focus on canonical literature: I'm working on Jack London and Silas Weir Mitchell; McCann wrote about pulp novels; Benn Michaels (back when he was an historicist) wrote about Dreiser and Gilman, &c. I don't want to press this point too hard, however, because some of the best historicist work has been on decidedly literary figures like Stein. What makes such work brilliant is the way it distills the ordinary from literary, the way it tracks the artistry to discover what the material being molded is. Granted, a lot of this comes from already having a familiarity with the period in which a work was written.

To follow on the Freeman, while a scholar who only read the Ferris novel might come to a skewed conclusion about contemporary American life. But one who read more than the Ferris -- who dove into the newspaper and magazine archives; who read the popular dross published by mainstream houses; who went back and read blogs and the comments upon them -- such a scholar would know that the average American spent three-fourths of his or her life in a car, slept with his or her spouse with some degree of regularity, &c. The problem with Freeman's assumptions is all too familiar to late Nineteenth Century folk: namely, that he expects every novel to contain the culture in its totality. (Or in miniature, such that the world could, a la Ulysses, be reconstructed from it.) It's an unreasonable expectation on the part of the critic, as well as any scholar who expected any more out of a novel than its author was prepared to offer.

Mike M.

I take exception with the comment "Only bad writers, writers who think of fiction as a more 'dramatic' way of recording history or who imagine themselves as 'saying something' about The Way We Live Now, take themselves to be providing a 'window' for future readers."
Considering that this is what many fine writers, Stendhal comes to mind, have set out to do. Why should writers of fiction not try to convey the world they live in? This doesn't mean that every author should attempt to encompass the entirety of modern civilization into their work, but as you say every novel offers a window from which to view the world, and it will inevitably be skewed, but why shouldn't future generations read modern novels to understand how our world operates? While we may not learn the ins and outs of, say, Victorian society from Dickens or Eliot we still learn enough to inhabit (to some extent) the mindset of the period.
This turned into more of a rant than I'd wanted, but I still say that you shouldn't discredit writers who attempt to describe their world, just as you shouldn't shrug off those who create characters that couldn't exist beyond the realms of the imagination. At least, that's how I see it.

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