BOOKS MAKE ME MASTURBATE
When I was in high school I had to write an essay duplicating the manner and subject of Bacon’s “On Reading,” and I remember including all the comfortable clichés. I said nothing about how books made me masturbate.
William Gass, The Tunnel
It may be that the experience of teaching writing and literature offers up an even better explanation for the state of books in the world than the teaching of the craft of creative writing. By the time someone has taken a creative writing class (and decided to take it at least a little bit seriously) they’ve sort of already made it over the hump, and you don’t have to worry about whether that person is ever going to give stories or poems a chance—they already have. The teaching of writing and literature, however—and by this I mean entry level composition courses, entry level English courses, the kinds of classes often handed off to MFA students—is more like the front line of the war: you see students fresh out of high school, and when it comes to the state of books in the world, the typical teacher of this kind of course is probably more like a chicken sexer than anything else. Sure, you give them grades at the end of the semester, but probably by day three or four students have lifted their literary leg, as it were, and a good teacher will have mentally separated those who will get it from those who won’t and dropped them in the appropriate bucket: won’t get it, won’t get it, won’t get it, might get it, won’t get it, won’t get it, won’t get, gets it, won’t get it, won’t get it, won’t get it, and so on.
Of course the problem is that all of these won’t-get-its are people who should really be buying books eventually—or at least they would in a better world than ours. It’s common these days to scoff at any vision like this, any vision that sees literature as anything other than an activity for a select elite. Much better, this theory appears to suggest, is some variation on the perpetual shock that was accidentally delivered to the not-apocryphal dog that forgot how to learn to even attempt to escape its punishment. Modern literature is just like that—modern literature relishes its learned hopelessness, revels in a kind of group depression in exactly the same way it celebrates the clinical tax so often levied on its practitioners, wears its angst like a studded fetish collar connected by short lead to who knows what mysterious and demanding master. The result is even worse than what’s become of opera—at least there are people who can’t sing a lick who still go to the opera.
I, for one, don’t think writers should just sit around and admire one another’s ennui. There is something to be done, there is a solution. And the solution has to do with how we write about literature—the craft of criticism.
To back up a bit: what explains the vast over-representation of won’t-get-its in the lit sexer’s bucket? Can it really be that they’re all just fucking morons? Okay, a lot of them are fucking morons. But some of them aren’t. Some of them—let’s allow that it’s a significant enough number to explain the difference between our world, say, and a Russia whose poets became folk heroes, or a France that made Barthes a bestseller—are not fucking morons. So what happened to those people in our world?
High school. High school happened to those people. Specifically, high school English happened to those people. What happened to those people was the standard five-paragraph essay, a surely well-intentioned but woefully-misguided attempt to introduce students to literature via what is merely the sippy cup version of the great grail of modern literary criticism, that brand of literary response that borrows its style, form, and methodology from uses of language that are not even attempting to be art. In other words, we introduce the idea of literature to people—to children—with an inexplicable contradiction: write about art as though you are writing a brief to a sadistic judge, or as though are delivering the results of a years-long laboratory study about very, very sad dogs.
Not long ago Louis Menand claimed in the highly-esteemed and often well-fact checked magazine The New Yorker that “creative writing” first came into use as a phrase in the 1920s. He was wrong only by about eighty years. The first to use the phrase “creative writing” was Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his speech “The American Scholar,” delivered at Harvard in 1837. If we assume that Emerson wasn’t just coining a synonym for literature, a natural question arises: why did he think that we needed to be told that writing could be “creative?” Why indeed, unless the world had arrived at a moment when it was appearing to opt for a different use of language, when it was already opting for language that was stale, dead, boring, and insipid. For Emerson, “creative writing” wasn’t an allusion to the act of creation, to the grand scheme of two people coupling so as to make something beautiful and alive out of nothing, it was a citation of it. That’s what he meant. The “-ive” part of the word means that. “-ive” is the suffix of similization. In the end, “creative writing” means “writing that is like fucking.” It’s from the Greek. Or the Latin. The phrase actually appears inside a paragraph from Emerson that is more about “creative reading,” which perhaps brings the image home even more fully. And this serves, I’d argue, as a fair starting point for what most writers would accept as a serviceable model for how literature works: the reader and the writer are “co-creators” of the story, the book, the “text,” and if it’s working well, if reader and writer can truly tune into one another, then literature can and should have all the intensity of love, of two people made metaphorically naked by a willed suspension not of disbelief, but of ego, and with only that thin membrane of parchment, paper, the page, between them—like a bedsheet.
But that’s perhaps getting ahead of things. For the moment, a question: did Emerson’s coining of “creative writing” successfully stave off the boring writing that he feared was infecting even his own work? No—it simply became a way of describing a bifurcation between uses of language that were literary and those that were not. Emerson hoped to remind us that many kinds of writing—the kind of writing he was doing in his essays, for example—really needed to remind itself to strive toward artfulness. But that message mostly vanished, and now—as Menand claimed—“creative writing” pretty much just means stories and poems.
Writing about literature – literary criticism – started out on one side of that bifurcation, the creative side, but not long after Emerson’s pivotal fret over language it made the leap to the other side, and that’s why you too, probably, have a kind of cringe reaction in response to that phrase, literary criticism, a tiny yet full-body seizure, the kind of sympathetic spasm that we might experience on witnessing a loved one have a finger broken, or on hearing something—a proclamation, a verdict—that strikes us as very, very unjust.
It’s probably the advent of science that triggers this, and perhaps the smoothing out of the wrinkles in the system of the modern academy. I’m cynical about this—it’s all about dollars and tenure. But whatever happens launches a process of accretion, a slow-motion vault from striving toward art to striving toward what exactly I’m not even sure, and don’t particularly care to know. The result is a whole field of writing with a few central features: a thesis/argument-style of saying what one thinks; the elimination of the self—the “I”—in whatever one says; and the demotion of author from authorship to “channeler” of tangential importance. I’ll address each of these only briefly. The thesis/argument approach borrowed from science strikes me as foolish because the scientific method actually demands that one attempt to disprove a theory (and when was the last time you heard of a literary critic attempting to disprove their own theory?). The elimination of the self, the I, might be appropriate if one is articulating a complicated idea that can be measured against an absolute—a description of string theory, say, to be measured against the laws of physics, or a legal argument to be measured against written law—but striving after objectivity that is impossible in any case can be only frivolous when it comes to the literary endeavor, which is subjective in every case. And the “death of the author,” as it’s sometimes put, is not only a tragic misreading of Barthes, it’s also a veil that disguises the auto-apotheosis of the critic.
To sum up: what you wind up with is two sides. On the one side you have writers who think that writing about literature ought to be art itself, ought to have all of the power and sensuousness of a great piece of literature, ought to be a little bit sexy maybe, or at least feel alive. And on the other side you’ve got a bunch of people who actually spend a whole lot more time writing about literature than writers do—because of course writers are primarily occupied with the writing of the literature that is to be written about—and those people, with various turns of logic that only Orwell or a sophist could admire, have firmly established that A) they can’t write about the author because he or she is not the text—they are dead; and B) they can’t include anything at all about themselves because they are just as irrelevant as the author. In other words, the two things that are absolutely core to the idea of criticism for writers are absolutely verboten to literary critics. This simple insight, for anyone who has ever been associated with a college or university that does not separate its critics and writers, sufficiently explains the tense exercise—a procedure every bit as bizarre to the modern eye as ritualistic reenactments of battles among pagan gods—known as the “departmental meeting.”
And now something else is clear too: the fact that these same literary critics—the critics whose prose Emerson would have derided as stale and boring—have become the model for how students first approach the question of literature fully explains, I think, the state of books in the world, a state to which too many have too enthusiastically become too resigned.
Last year I edited The Story About the Story for Tin House Books, an anthology that collected more than thirty essays that seemed to adhere to what early-twentieth century critic J.E. Spingarn had offered as motto for “creative criticism” (the term he borrowed from Goethe): “To have sensations in the presence of a work of art and to express them.” In my introduction I suggested that a long-frozen gap between writers and critics had perhaps begun to crack or thaw – that Spingarn himself was evidence that critics seemed to be rethinking their position. The title of the anthology came from critic James Wood, who had openly acknowledged that there was something compelling about the way writers approached the critical action. At that point, I argued that writers had always been more or less united in offering up criticism with just a couple main features: emphasis on the self, the reader, as the only truly important context, and an earnest attempt to communicate with the author’s “intended sense of things” (as Henry James put it). But I’ve since decided writers have never been completely shielded from the prevailing winds, and, like Emerson, they too can find themselves susceptible to a sort of drag on language and the literary enterprise.
Which is something that ought to be resisted.
Writing about literature comes in a variety of forms—the book review, the literary essay, the scholarly treatment—but these divisions strike me as a kind of literary apartheid, an artificial segregation of forms in the service of nothing worthwhile. In short, there is no good reason why there should be any writing about literature—be it five-paragraph essays, or dutiful dissertations, or book reviews—that does not strive to be its own art. There is no idea in the study of literature that is so sophisticated or functional that its case would not be made more persuasive, or which would be rendered less useful, were it delivered through an actively passionate sensibility.
A pair of meta-examples—writers writing about writers writing about literature—demonstrates that this is not a particularly new idea, and that there truly is a submerged “school” of the writer’s approach to criticism.
First, Oscar Wilde reviewing a Walter Pater essay about Wordsworth. Wilde introduces a passionate quote from Pater as containing “a truth eminently useful for our age,” and follows it up with his own passionate truth:
Certainly the real secret of Wordsworth has never been better expressed. After having read and re-read Mr. Pater’s essay—for it requires re-reading—one returns to the poet’s work with a new sense of joy and wonder, and with something of eager and impassioned expectation. And perhaps this might be roughly taken as the test or touchstone of the finest criticism.
Second, a lengthier quote from Carlos Fuentes reviewing Donald Fanger’s book on Gogol. Fuentes evokes the original intent of Emerson’s “creative writing:”
Too often, between a writer and the reader of criticism on the writer, a wall of misunderstanding arises. The writer is sometimes reduced to fit a preformed ideologic or aesthetic shoe. Or he is accused by the critic of not writing what the critic wanted to read; he is asked, in other words, to write as the critic would like him to write and about what the critic would want him to write.
Donald Fanger does exactly the opposite: he creates a continuous critical transparency between Gogol’s work and the critical correspondence that this work deserves. In Fanger, Gogol has found his critical correspondence, much as Balzac in Curtius, Kafka in Benjamin, Conrad in Leavis, Proust in Barthes, Neruda in Dámaso Alonso, Fernando de Rojas in Stephen Gilman, Cervantes in Claudio Guillén, Emily Brontë in Georges Bataille, Rabelais in Bakhtin, Faulkner in Cleanth Brooks, Sterne in Shklovsky, Rubén Darí in Paz, or, supremely, Homer in Simon Weil.
This correspondence supposes a reading equivalent, not more, not less, to the creative effort critically considered. It may be a full-length work, such as that devoted by Albert Béguin to the romantics; or an acute theoretical note, such as Bertram Russell’s on Tristam Shandy; or a few pages, as Lawrence’s on Melville; or even a few sentences, as Borges on a thousand and one things. The work has been answered; it has found, like metaphor itself, the other shore of intelligence. It shall never again be an isolated fact, but a continuous event. Thanks to the true critic, the work starts to resemble its readers.
All of which seems to establish a fairly solid trajectory. But what about those writers who have gone astray? To that, two words: Nicholson Baker.
When I edited The Story About the Story I did not consider excerpting Nicholson Baker’s U & I, his book-length “memory criticism” of John Updike. That now seems like a terrible oversight. I suggested then that a debate among critics accounted for what I believed the anthology was measuring: a significant uptick in the occurrence of some modern version of “creative criticism,” the first sense of chill and the faint burbling of an approaching flood. But Nicholson Baker, both in what he said and how he said it, forces me to amend that thinking.
As far as I can tell, U & I is the first recognizable book-length “creative criticism” to be published after a hiatus stretching back perhaps as far as Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Lectures on Literature. There’s a gap, and Updike is inside of it, and Nicholson Baker has sensed this in U & I. At first, Baker thinks that it’s Updike’s novels that draw him in, but this is soon replaced by the discovery what Baker thinks about most in Updike, the thoughts that come to him unbidden about Updike, are all about Updike’s writing on literature. And it’s not because Baker admires Updike’s writing on literature. Just the opposite, in fact. It turns out that Updike’s best writerly advice, offered in observations he made about Nabokov – that one should always write ecstatically (with ecstasy)—was not advice that Updike himself took when writing about literature. Baker criticizes Updike’s writing on literature for lacking passion, for lacking a sense of Updike. The whole point of the ecstatic exercise of U & I is that Updike did not practice what he preached, but Baker did, and in so doing produced an anti-manifesto manifesto that, in just a few years’ time, triggered a significant number of the essays and books that I did excerpt in The Story About the Story.
The trend since then seems clear enough. Further book-length works of “creative criticism” have appeared from Geoff Dyer, Alain de Botton, Janet Malcolm, Azar Nafisi, Phyllis Rose, David Lodge, and probably many others I’m unaware of. In addition to the magazines that have published “creative criticism” for years (Tin House, The Believer, Harper’s, The New Republic, etc.), a number of newer, yet equally widely-distributed print journals like Fourth Genre and Brick and The Pinch have each made room for innovative writing on literature. The advancing wave is perhaps wettest and deepest on the internet, where magazines like The Quarterly Conversation, The Millions, and Bookslut publish a more or less steady stream of creative reactions to books that are, more and more, finding enthusiastic – not to say ecstatic – audiences.
So how do you do this? How, exactly, do you have sensations in the presence of a work of art and express them with ecstatic prose? It’s dangerous to prescribe too much, or the advancing wave will leave in its wake just so many slippery slopes, and even “creative criticism” will wind up trying to tell you how many paragraphs to write. All I’m comfortable saying is this: celebrate the self, emphasize the subjective. The result may range from the quite sober meditations of Benjamin or Arendt to the drunk rants of Baker or Lawrence. If criticism should aspire to the condition of art, then it should be just that daunting to begin, just that torturous to execute, and just that rewarding to have produced. I, for one, don’t think a drive toward art or an ability to produce it is limited to a select few, and if even a sippy cup version of a real reading-and-writing process can be offered up to those who might otherwise find themselves poured into the wrong bucket, then we will have done is stem one leak and open a new spigot, and left the world with better plumbing.