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

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Finn Harvor

"Is there no pleasure to be found in a "minor" but still accomplished work, nothing to be learned from the flaws in an unsuccessful one?"

Sometimes more. I had this experience very vividly when reading the poetry of Stephen Duck; compare his descriptions of field-labour to the much better known (and sometimes rather contrived) work of Wm. Wordsworth.

D G Myers

Reply is up at A Commonplace Blog.


I think you've quoted Myers out of context, Dan. Having pointed that out, I have to say I don't see at all clearly what Myers' and Kurp's criteria were, or how "criteria" in this instance differs from "taste." (An excellent way of assembling a perfectly good reading list, although I guess "Perfectly Good American Fiction, 1968-1998" doesn't sound quite as authoritative.)

D G Myers


If you don’t see clearly what my criteria were, neither do I. One mistake that Green makes is thinking that I was calling for a critic to announce his criteria. This is what Arnold called the error of Jacobinism or “addiction to an abstract system.” The idea that anyone might draw up his critical doctrine “in black and white for elaborating down to the very smallest details” an exercise of critical judgment is nonsense. You are not wrong, then, in saying that the use of criteria does not always differ from taste, understanding that taste can either be the result of long experience or not.

Sometimes, however, the use of criteria does differ, and the criteria can even be specified. Here are some that I used in drawing up my list. (1.) The works are fiction. (2.) They are American—either written by native-born Americans or by immigrants who were residing in the U.S. when they wrote. (3.) They were published, although not necessarily written, during the period 1968–1998.

Scoff if you must, be these are usable criteria too, and no less important for being distinguishable from “taste.”


DG: You're upset because Myers advocates that what we call literature be comprised of only the best possible works? You my just be looking for things to get indignant about now.

Dan Green

What reason is there for "literature" to be only "the best possible works." Both you and D.G. Meyers are confusing "literature" with the *study* of literature in an academic setting. While it's arguable that it's necessary to draw up lists in the latter--the "syllabus"--there's no other reason for list- and canon-making other than to advance an ideological agenda, of whatever kind.


DGM: Well, it's good of you to provide a partial list of your criteria, although I didn't have any doubt that each of the works listed was properly categorized as American fiction published during the period specified. You are free, of course, to publish such a list without elaboration, although to do so seems to me to rob it of any utility beyond its ability to provoke (indignant, curious, militant, etc.) responses. I am not wondering about the smallest details any more than I was wondering about the broadest ("American," "fiction," "1968-98"). I am not even wondering because I believe the criteria I would apply to the construction of a similar list of my own would be radically different. I am wondering -- just for example -- why a list that you have expressly stated omits "metafiction" (one small detail you set forth in black and white) includes patently metafictional novels like AMERICAN PASTORAL and THE BOOK OF DANIEL. This small observation leads me back to the idea of taste -- that is, you don't "leave off" metafiction, you leave off works of metafiction, or metafiction of a kind, that you don't like. Valid, yes. Categorical and absolute, no. There are more stylistic and strategic similarities between AMERICAN PASTORAL and THE COUNTERLIFE (presumably a work of metafiction that you don't like) than there are between AMERICAN PASTORAL and, say, WHERE I'M CALLING FROM. I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that it might be helpful to know whether you see any common point at which two such books might conjoin; that in a list of works you and Mr. Kurp like that you've slugged as "best," particularly one in which certain types of work have been corralled and thereby excluded, it might also be helpful to know from what criteria, standard, or even crotchet the determination of "best" arises, and how the list might be understood as something other than a reflection of the boundaries of even "long experience."

D G Myers

Daniel Green says, “What reason is there for ‘literature’ to be only ‘the best possible works’?” Those last four words are not mine; don’t know whose they are. At all events, you might read my argument to learn my reason. As E. D. Hirsch says, either literature is what displays some quality that you stipulate, which means that literature is anything you please to call by that name, or it is what the authorities call “literature.” I vary Hirsch slightly. Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is. If the former the problem becomes how to reduce it to manageable proportions, and the only fair tactic—since by definition you are foregoing selectivity—is by means of some arbitrary category. If the latter then you must choose.

Dan Green

I was referring to Daniel's comment about "best possible works."

Dan Green

"Either everything written is literature, or only some of it is."

Or everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature. Many writers of popular fiction, for one, don't. It's already a much more manageable category, from which you could make further distinctions of quality--good poem, bad poem, mediocre poem, etc.

D G Myers

“I was referring to Daniel's comment about ‘best possible works.‘” My mistake. Now, how about replying to my argument?

D G Myers


You need to come over to A Commonplace Blog and pose your challenges to me there. I don’t get over here as regularly.

Two answers, then. First, truth is one thing I look for in fiction. (See my recent post on “Fiction in the Service of Truth.”)

Second, I don’t agree that Doctorow’s “Book of Daniel” and Roth’s “American Pastoral” are examples of metafiction. They use some metafictional techniques to pursue the truth.

D G Myers

“Or everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama is literature, if the author intends it to be taken as literature.”

Right. This is what you stipulate. Only fiction—for poetry and drama are also forms of fiction—is literature. It pleases you to say that. It has not pleased a great many critics other than you.

The second half of your proposition is tautological.

D G Myers

That is, if fiction is literture, and its author intends it to be fiction, then by definition it is literature. And he cannot intend “literature” to refer to some other quality in addition to fiction. Because literature just is fiction. They are interchangeable synonyms.

Except, of course, for you they are not. “Literature” is good fiction—artistic fiction.

Dan Green

Actually I would say that fiction and drama are forms of poetry.

"That is, if fiction is literture, and its author intends it to be fiction, then by definition it is literature. And he cannot intend “literature” to refer to some other quality in addition to fiction."

You'll have to explain this further. I don't understand it. If a writer of fiction intends his work to be judged as "literature," then I don't see why we shouldn't do that.

D G Myers

“If a writer of fiction intends his work to be judged as ‘literature,’ then I don‘t see why we shouldn‘t do that.” But then literature is not fiction, but something else. What, though? What would we be judging?

D G Myers

I am sorry that I have been unclear. As I say, though, your definition of literature is tautological: literature is fiction intended to be literature.

I need a beer.

Dan Green

Literature is fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by "literary" criteria.

D G Myers

“Literature is fiction, poetry, or drama that seeks to be judged by ‘literary’ criteria.”

And cows are mammals that are known as “cows.”

Either your definition is vacuous, or you are using Literature (need to start capitalizing it) as a proper name.

Dan Green

In fact I want to avoid using capital-L literature. Thus my definition is the best I can do, although I can further specify what "literary" criteria I would apply in judging self-described "literature." I've been doing that for years on this blog.

D G Myers

So if you are not using Literature as a proper name then you are defining literature via the petitio principii. That doesn’t bother you? Just a little? Invite you, perhaps, to rethink?

Dan Green

It doesn't beg the question. It simply acknowledges that the question can be answered only by looking at specific cases.

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