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

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12/10/2008

Comments

J.

Dan,

I see where you're coming from here, but there are some problems. First of all, you oversimplify Deresiewicz's essay. It is true that he grossly overstates the value of the New York Intellectuals, most of whom do seem more preoccupied with social change than literature. Nevertheless, his treatment of Wood is more than fair. He gives ample attention (for a magazine review, mind you) to Wood's literary style. He praises Wood's energetic, rhetorical flourishes, but not without pointing out how Wood's criticism sometimes lacks rigor and logic. This is one of the reasons, for Deresiewicz, Wood's aesthetic ideology, which can be dismissive of anti-realist fiction, is ultimately unpersuasive.

I don't agree with everything Deresiewicz says, but he is clearly a serious critic who knows how to grapple with questions of style. It is therefore not fair to dismiss his review as yet another example of "left wing" hostility to "art for art's sake." What many aesthetes seem unwilling to acknowledge is that formal choices are, in fact, political choices. As one aesthete I greatly admire used to always say: form is content. Clinging to a conservative literary style (in the case of James Wood, that would be realism) is not an act without political implications. It very often reflects conservative thinking and is simply reactionary. It's why William Carlos Williams, an aesthete, mocked T.S. Eliot, another aesthete. Wood is reacting to the avant-garde, beseeching artists and audiences to return to an established tradition. Say no to Thomas Pynchon, he says, and yes to Saul Bellow. While he is not a "conservative" in the Rush Limbaugh sense, he is, nonethless, a conservative critic in the sense that his values reflect those of the literary establishment. That is why his reviews now appear in The New Yorker, which is a nauseating, bourgeois magazine, much like The New Republic.

I enjoy reading Wood. I think he is an excellent critic, but his tastes are extremely narrow and reflect, as I already explained, a conservativism that I occasionally find off-putting. He is a sensitive reader and for that he should be praised. But we should not assume that if a critic is a sensitive reader he eschews politics. I thought Deresiewicz would have had a better example of an exemplary American critic in Leslie Fiedler. Love and Death in the American novel is an example of how enlightening criticism can be.

Daniel E. Pritchard

The posing of this issue as wonderful aesthete vs terrible conceptual critic, regardless of one's inclinations, is extremely narrow-minded. Why must criticism embody only one of these qualities? Or all critics be of only one type? How terribly purblind to ignore one of the central aspects of literature, one on which authors often spend as much intellect and effort as the aesthetic. Critic A is a close-reader, Critic B engages with the concepts, very few do both successfully; but judging one by the standard of the other seems irrationally desperate to find fault.

LML

"What many aesthetes seem unwilling to acknowledge is that formal choices are, in fact, political choices."

J., I think we've been here before, and we seem to be on the same side of the same divide, but the above statement flies in the face of literary history. First of all, it makes me sad to think about, but for centuries there was no such thing as a formal innovator in literature who was not, despite what dissident impulses he or she may have harbored, politically conservative. Prior to mass literacy (mid-1800s in England and France is about right, I believe), and setting aside short periods of revolutionary ferment, there could exist no writer, no matter his or her formal inclinations, who was not either part of or subservient to some aristocracy.

This began to change with mass literacy and the opportunity to make money as a writer, as well as with the rise of the United States, but not much. The great Victorians, their contemporaries in France, and the great Russians were all (again, I wish it weren't so) men and women of the right. Dickens and George Eliot are notable exceptions. It's possible to read Chekhov as a liberal in today's terms, too, if you must read him through a political lens.

As for the modernists, is it even necessary to bring up Ezra Pound's politics versus his literary practice? You mention T.S. Eliot as though the person, a conservative in his politics it is true, did not transform poetry more utterly than Williams or anyone else in the 20th century. Gertrude Stein? Protected by the Vichy government. Borges? A self-described political conservative.

A writer like Joyce may be an even clearer refutation of your statement for being largely unconcerned with politics, for caring ONLY about aesthetic matters. It would be impossible to match one's politics to a document as transcendently strange and indifferently great as Ulysses, let alone Finnegan's Wake.

EC

Dan, I think I can see your point – if I stand about twenty paces away from it and hit myself in the face with a hammer.

First, I think it’s necessary to clear something up. I’ve read several critiques of Deresiewicz’s review that take him to task for preferring the New York critics over JW, and they all completely leave out that he’s walking through a door left open by Cynthia Ozick in her coronation of Wood. Here is how Deresiewicz sets it up:

"For Ozick, Wood recalls the glory days of American criticism during the middle of the last century, the age of Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Indeed, he may surpass these forebears. 'We have not heard a critical mind like this at work,' Ozick declared, 'since Trilling's The Liberal Imagination.' The Liberal Imagination was published in 1950. Everything since includes some of Wilson, most of Trilling himself and nearly all of Kazin and Howe. Perhaps Ozick was only indulging in a bit of polemical hyperbole, but the comparison she urges convinces me that there may be something to the idea of cultural decline after all. Wood may be the best we have, but to set him next to Wilson, Trilling, Kazin and Howe is to see exactly how far we have fallen."

It’s a common enough forensic strategy – “You want to compare JW to the New York critics? OK, fine let’s compare him to the New York critics . . .” I mention it because a kind of “meme” has already gotten started whereby the comparison derives from Deresiewicz himself (cue derisive laughter, etc.).

But on to more important matters: Certainly there are limits to Deresiewicz’s views on criticism and on literature, at least as these are on display in the Nation review. We can see how his emphasis on the “extrinsic” will offend Dan and provoke him to defend the “intrinsic,” etc. It’s a debate I find a little undialectical on both sides – Dan makes the requisite swipes at academic criticism but his own position here is such an absolutist case of “there is nothing outside the text!” that the most arch-poststructuralist (tenured, of course) would smile. Inside! Outside! Inside! Outside! It’s a Punch & Judy show. Deresiewicz bends the stick too far one way in his assault on Wood, Dan bends the stick the other way in his attack on Deresiewicz….

Or wait – it’s also . . . Dan’s defense of Wood? What’s that about? That’s what I don’t get, how the criticism of Deresiewicz should entail, from Dan anyway, a defense of Wood. Wood is continually construing fiction through the lens of ideology, of what should be, according to Dan’s critical protocols, an extrinsic measure. His rejection of DeLillo and Pynchon are political excommunications tout court – their novels are bad because their characters are unfree! Although much of the time he’s a bit more subtle, and revises the novels according to this own agenda so that they become bed-time stories of the soul.

Take a look, for an example, at his recent review of Saramago – whose work is applauded because it ostensibly reflects a belief in Original Sin! Or a few months further back, when he recommends Savage Detectives on the strength of the maturation process the novel supposedly illustrates, in which aesthetic and political radicalisms are put away as the childish preoccupations they so obviously are. Sure, Wood tips his hat at the novels' formal qualities, such as their use of what I call the baroque sentence. But even there he has his axe to grind. For Wood, these sentences are simply one way to depict consciousness (i.e., serve the metaphysical function he assigns them). Writing must always be recuperated by consciousness; by itself, it is never enough.

I fail to see how such an approach reflects an attention to the intrinsic that should merit Dan’s approval. Dan talks about how Nation criticism can have a certain bias. That’s right – and so does the criticism one finds in the New Republic and the New Yorker.

Daniel E. Pritchard

re: Joyce; JJ was a pretty staunch Socialist, actually, and I believe there are several letters in which he makes reference to the way his political views, especially his humanism, informed Ulysses.

LML

Okay, Daniel, I didn't know that about Joyce, but still, socialism wasn't exactly radical in those days, certainly not as politically radical as Ulysses was aesthetically radical, and Finnegan's Wake, well--you get my point. The idea that there's anything approaching a one-to-one equivalence between formal effects and political ideology is what I was contesting.

J.

"First of all, it makes me sad to think about, but for centuries there was no such thing as a formal innovator in literature who was not, despite what dissident impulses he or she may have harbored, politically conservative."

LML: I'm not sure what the point of the above statement is. Even if I were to abide your brief history of Western literary culture, my response would still be, "So what?" I'm not suggesting that a writer who innovates formally is therefore a liberal anymore than I'm suggesting a writer who doesn't innovate is therefore a conservative. James Baldwin, though he was a good writer and a liberal, did not write innovative fiction. Knut Hamsun, a great writer and a Nazi sympathizer, did write innovative fiction.

Of course prior to 1900 there are myriad examples of this sort of thing, but it doesn't matter. Writing a book is a political act. It is not necessarily the defining political act of a person's life, but it is a political act nonetheless. The way you engage with the world around you--whether it is what you publish, what you read, where you shop, what you eat, who you hang out with--is often a reflection of your values, your politics. Your politics do not have to be consistent. You can be a liberal in one respect and a conservative in another.

Thus, what does it matter if Poe happily countenanced slavery? The way he wrote, which radically challenged and reconstituted the prevailing tastes of his day, undermined the values that were frequently called upon to preserve that institution. He just didn't realize it. The same is true for people like Swift, Sterne, even Fielding. Is it any surprise that the earliest novels in English were written by satirists? Even if they did enjoy the support of the aristocracy, who would really doubt that in many ways these men undermined the very institutions and values that, at other times, they drew upon for support?

To innovate is to attempt a radical reevaluation of tastes. That is why, literary innovation has, at times, come at a price. James Joyce, whether he was apolitical or not (he wasn't), found out when he published Ulysses (not that he didn't know this already given his publication trouble with Dubliners) that to innovate is to call into question social values. Hence the obscenity debacle.

Look at this blog. Look at what it comments on: taste. Dan is positioning himself in opposition to certain tastes. The people with those opposing tastes very often determine who gets published, who gets paid, who gets awards--in short, who gets to make a living and feed their family. Still think the way you write has nothing to do with politics?

Dan Green

"Writing a book is a political act."

Well, it's also a psychological act, a sociological act, an historical act, a biological act, and in most cases an economic act. Which is to say a book is something produced by a human being in all of his/her web of influences. Which is to say further that to claim that writing is a "political act" in this context is finally to say nothing significant at all.

Steven Augustine

This blog post itself is a political act. Political acts aren't always overtly polemical. Don't think "Left" or "Right", necessarily (although, to the extent that most recent artifacts of writing/criticism are performances born of pure nostalgia, and nostalgia is the sentimental underpinning of The Right, most current literary activity is Rightist anyway): think of the hive... alliances forged, self-interests served, power-bases extended and so forth. Wood (like any celebrity) is better at that game than some care to admit; after all, he isn't a cloistered, book-mad saint, satisfied with the unremunerated pleasure of forming an argument for argument's sake... he's out in the world: deal-making, sweet-talking, building a brand. *Of course* he's no Edmund Wilson; he's cleverer than that.

LML

J: Can formal innovation have political resonance? Sure. Must it? Of course not. Does it always have the same effect (that of threatening the existing world order)? Are you joking?

Ulysses was not censored because of its formal innovations, which truly did subvert artistic norms; it was censored because of passages of explicitly sexual content, which did not subvert anything but bourgeois standards of decency (upon which, it is perfectly clear today, the economic world order does not depend).

Form is agnostic. I happen to be reading, along with the rest of the world, 2666. The section of the book about the killings of 100s of women makes (among other things) a profoundly feminist case against capitalist/masculinist complacency. Bolano achieves this primarily through form, by describing in clinical detail the condition of each corpse, one after the other, for nearly 300 pages, so that we don't have recourse to our normal readerly strategies. We can't accommodate these deaths; they should not be accommodated; they should disrupt our reading as they should disrupt the world. The form does the disrupting, but this disrupting could be used for any number of purposes. Were Bolano a different kind of person, he could have used the same bludgeoning technique, the same basic content (100s of murders) to suggest, say, that these killings are a function of the declining influence of Christianity, or of Latin America's failure to fully embrace free markets.

Yes, everything we say and do has political content. But that content is not circumscribed by form. Conventional forms can be politically effective as easily as innovative forms. James Baldwin threatened the world order of his time a good deal more effectively, I'd say, than James Joyce threatened that of his time.

Finn Harvor

"James Baldwin threatened the world order of his time a good deal more effectively, I'd say, than James Joyce threatened that of his time."

With all due respect, LML, some examples from the works of each to illustrate your point would be appreciated.

J.

"Ulysses was not censored because of its formal innovations, which truly did subvert artistic norms; it was censored because of passages of explicitly sexual content, which did not subvert anything but bourgeois standards of decency (upon which, it is perfectly clear today, the economic world order does not depend)."

LML: Artistic norms are very often a reflection of social norms as you make abundantly clear in the sentence above. Great artists, like James Joyce, reject those norms and change the way we read. To return to my previous point: form is content. Would anybody have cared if Joyce published straight smut? Doubtful. Joyce is not the first person to write about prostitution, adultery, sex, etc. He is one of the first novelists to write about those subjects in a language--that is, a form--that is free of typical Judeo-Christian moralism. The novel, prior to Ulysses, was seen as a respository for respectful middle-class values, thus when such issues were raised previously in novels they were written about disapprovingly. Joyce, along with a few others, changed this.

That said, I don't expect a book that undermines certain social values to ultimately change the world (as you seem to think I do). That is a silly expectation to have for a novel. Changing the way people read, as Philip Roth once said, is enough. My only point is that the formal techniques of a book have social relevance. Thus to write (or shall we say publish?) a book is a political act. This is not, as Dan seems to think, any less significant than saying that writing a book is an aesthetic act. Language (aesthetics) = values (politics).

Frances Madeson

This election day I was in Buffalo working on a state senate race as part of a Fellows program—the details don’t matter. I got in a car with three guys I didn’t know. It was a long drive, but we had a lot to talk about on the way. Like all campaigns where the outcome genuinely matters, it was a street fight requiring equal parts brawn, stamina and wit. As my candidate told me, “building a 747 and learning to fly it all at the same time.” Before returning to NYC, we detoured to Niagara Falls (my first time there), our arrival exquisitely timed to the sunrise. It’s about the rushing water, yes, absolutely it is. And also who's standing beside you when you finally get to see it. Who are your Fellows?

LML

Finn,

James Baldwin's books have obvious social relevance. A story like "Sonny's Blues" is well-crafted, an artistic success on the terms it sets for itself, while likewise documenting the social situation of midcentury African-Americans in Harlem. As such, the story effectively grounds political action.

Joyce's stories and novels, by contrast, intentionally resist fulfilling this second function. Sure, the narrator in the nighttime pub section of Ulysses is an anti-semite and a political reactionary, and Joyce's attitude toward this character seems clear, but it's one fleck of color in the kaleidoscope, and it's the overall pattern, one small part of which is political, that Joyce is interested in. Joyce is way beyond politics in obvious ways, and his formal approach in Ulysses--this approach might be described as an attempt to demonstrate and fully actualize all existing approaches to narrative perspective--certainly can be read as having political value in a general, humanist way. To reduce his formal achievement to politics is something else, though.

When I said that James Baldwin helped change the world order more than Joyce, I meant that James Baldwin's writing played a measurable role in the Civil Rights movement. Joyce, as people here have informed me, may have been a staunch socialist, but surely he would have been appalled to hear someone argue for reading Ulysses as a demonstration of his political views. (I'm not saying anyone here has argued that.)

J: You say that your "only point is that the formal techniques of a book have social relevance." Okay. This is inarguably correct. But look back at your initial proposition that formal choices are political choices, and that James Wood's aesthetic conservatism is equivalent to political conservatism. It's the equivalence that I'm arguing against. Maybe I mistook your emphasis. My argument is simply that form and politics can have any number of relationships, and that, in the presence of great literature (as opposed to propagandistic writing or satire or something) one would be well-served as a reader or critic in cultivating some political detachment (yes, absolute political detachment is impossible and an absurdity).

I find this mini-essay on Robert Irwin and David Hockney thought-provoking and relevant to what we're arguing past each other about:

http://www.believermag.com/issues/200811/?read=article_weschler

Weschler points out that Irwin and Hockney disagree about "the true significance of the cubist achievement and how one ought to be required to proceed as an artist if one were going to take that achievement seriously." Hockney reads cubism as preserving figuration in painting, Irwin reads cubism as suggesting the obsolescence of figuration. Aesthetically, Hockney's position is the more conservative, in that it preserves a certain kind of richness that only the visual arts can offer, whereas Irwin is willing to abandon any sort of richness that gets in the way of him taking his project seriously. What's interesting is not that one artist takes a forward (progressive) approach and the other takes a backward (conservative) approach. What's interesting is that both can make strong cases that cubism points in only one of these directions, and that vital art can be made by heading in either direction. This opens up multiple fields of aesthetic possibility that didn't exist before. Restricting oneself to a relentlessly forward-facing view of form is to limit oneself.

Reducing form to politics would, in my opinion, impose this sort of restriction. Viewing the work of either artist as an expression or ground for politics is one of the least interesting ways of thinking about the work that I can imagine. It's not even thinking, really. It's bookkeeping. All the data has already been assembled; the political critic need only put each datum in the appropriate slot.

Daniel

LML: I think part and parcel of your notes here is the fact that the opinions which we think of as being "political" in contemporary America are generally simplistic, and that really powerful minds – even Baldwin, whose relationship to Civil Rights was far from uncomplicated – construct less rigid, more Aristotelian conceptions of what politics entails.

Bianca Steele

This is a really interesting discussion and I’m learning things from both sides, but I think it might be helpful to add some analysis with regard to a few historical facts, with a more connected discussion perhaps to come in a later blog post:

- Formally inventive literature in the twentieth century, in the West, is a thing of the left. T.S. Eliot may have been a conservative (and his politics may be reflected in his art), but his readers were not.

- In the middle of the twentieth century, in the United States, part of the left decided that new literature being published ought to emphasize the political, not the aesthetic. John Steinbeck was probably on the edge of what they would consider acceptable. This was in the nature of a purge, rather than a fight against the enemy on the right. The people eventually pushed out included, on the right, those who later tended toward neoconservatism like Irving Howe (see Roth’s attack on Howe’s attack on Portnoy’s Complaint), and on the left, those who later tended toward the Beats and the New Left like Norman Mailer.

- That left had no use for certain kinds of personal radicalism. Meaning: however much James Baldwin meets their criteria for socially useful art, they would have attacked his sexuality as degenerate and politically retrograde.

- Apoliticism combined with aestheticism is almost always conservative. One needs to have money to carry it out, and arguably, in order to learn about it in the first place, one needs to have identified either with the status quo and the socio-cultural elite or with some political position that allows one to defend oneself against such self-identification.

That said, I get very little from Wood’s criticism and I was nonplussed by the fulsome praise he received a few months back when his book appeared. I don’t get much from Ozick either these days as it happens.

Dan Green

"Apoliticism combined with aestheticism is almost always conservative."

Baloney. I'm apolitical where art and criticism are concerned and I am accused of aestheticism, but I am not conservative, if by that you mean politically conservative. I don't have money, and I never indentified with any "status quo" or "socio-cultural elite." If you mean that an apolitical/aesthetic approach to literatuare in general serves conservative interests, that's also baloney. Conservatives are if anything even more hostile to aestheticism than leftists.

J.

LML: Your misunderstanding of my view results from an artificial distinction you set up between certain political acts. I never said that because James Wood had conservative literary tastes he therefore votes Republican. The kind of "equivalence" you are disputing has absolutely nothing to do with my point. As for cultivating "political detachment"--well, that is a chimera invented by conservatives in the artistic establishment to discredit those who do not share their politics. There is no approach to the study or practice of literature that is not informed by an ideology or set of values. Values do not have to be stable or consistent, as I already said. Human beings do not stop being political entities when they read or write books. Politics is not simply some sordid realm reserved strictly for voting booths, rallies, television and radio, blogs, and who knows what else (everything except art).

LML

"LML: I think part and parcel of your notes here is the fact that the opinions which we think of as being "political" in contemporary America are generally simplistic, and that really powerful minds – even Baldwin, whose relationship to Civil Rights was far from uncomplicated – construct less rigid, more Aristotelian conceptions of what politics entails."

Yes, Daniel, I think I agree with your statement. The form of simplistic political thinking I'm impatient with at the moment is the English 101 boilerplate that reduces literary works to symptoms of political realities. One needn't forget that politics exists in order to read with other goals in view. Without the ability to transcend politics, art is just advertising.

Chris

What are the politics of "The Confidence-Man"?

Finn Harvor

LML: Genuine thanks for the examples. They certainly buttress your argument. And whether it's the Canadian in me or the discomfort I feel at the sometimes fervid, yelling-match-in-the-seminar-room tone that can take over in discussions such as this, I want to underline how much interest and pleasure I get from your comments generally. (Not only blogs can have fans, but contributors to comments threads can have fans, too.) Nevertheless, that said I just don't buy that Baldwin's (or Joyce's) interest in social relevance can be boiled down to *only* the Civil Rights movement or socialism of an artistic-Menshevik sort. If we're going to have a discussion of politics and its connections to art, it seems to me that we might as well go the whole, beginnings-of-the-modern-age hog and come up with some coherent categories.

Luther Blissett

Chris: not sure if you're question was meant seriously, but there are obvious political issues raised in Melville's *Confidence Man*. We have a community literally at sea, adrift, unmoored. On board, suspicion spreads, miscommunication is rampant, all embodied by the many manifestations of the Confidence Man himself. Melville questions the transparency of self assumed in certain views of the agora. A young democracy rapidly changing and modernizing, losing the roots of tradition, means a world in which no one can fully trust another.

J.

Luther, your reading of the text is interesting and brings to mind a book with a nice chapter on "The Confidence Man" called "Hawthorne and Melville and the American Character." The Confidence Man has driven critics mad, especially those who think "The Metaphsyics of Indian-Hating" is Melville's defense of genocide. No hope for them. That said, Melville is obviously responding to something in form. The attenuated characters with multiple incarnations, the unsettling mix of tall tale and philosophical dialogue, the circular narrative--all this goes against the central claims of realism, which had gained considerable prominence in Melville's day. Melville's technique refutes the realist claims that the "objective world" can be known, that civilization progresses, and that human nature can be rationally explained. See the chapters on Fiction-writing and Originality. To write a book like The Confidence-Man at a time when American critics were demanding faithful representations of the world from writers is a bold move. Naturally, critics assailed it for being "implausible." Ironic given that the novel embraces sheer, unadulterated skepticism. Of course, it is a radical skepticism that no hack journalist or politician could ever get much out of.

Chris

Actually, I was responding ironically to Bianca Steele's comment about the inherent conservatism of "apoliticism combined with aestheticism." I could talk about "The Confidence-Man" all day, at least today, having just re-read it and taught it as the capstone of my grad seminar this semester, but its politics, if we consider "politics" loosely to be an agglomeration of useful and at least passably cohesive ideas, are nonexistent. And its aesthetics, radical in its time, are still radical. Unassimilable, really, both its despairing "ideas" and its triumphant form.

Daniel E. Pritchard

LML: Yes, any kind of over-simplicity is unfortunate – I'll not open the subject of what goes on in classrooms and why though. What I meant, however, was not the reading of fiction and poetry as political, as is common.

What I intended to point out was that, in the US right now, what we consider "politics" is little more than clanish bickering over differing policies. What Aristotle conceived of as politics was all the interactions that take place between and among people of a city, something Gramsci would go on to further detail as heterologies – interpersonal power relationships.

Trilling writes at great length regarding Henry James on this matter; he felt that James was not only an excellent stylist, but was also exceptionally able to dramatize this type of politics, in which all words and deeds have deeper social and interpersonal (and sometimes "political" as we conceive of it) implications – it is an interpretation that is far removed from the simplistic comparisons between text and "politics" being held up here as examples of why this type of reading is flawed.

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