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J.C. Hallman Interview

A Craft in Its Own Right

Amy Wright: In your essay, “The Disciplined Soul,” you say that “what’s at stake in the writing life is more than just chat.” Like what?

J.C. Hallman: I’m currently pretty deeply immersed in the correspondence of Henry and William James.  Henry James is always complaining about people at parties who can offer up no further assessment of a book or a person than that they are “immensely clever.”  He wants something more in how people communicate with one another.  The truth is that most human discourse is small talk.  Writing was not invented for the purpose of literature, but literature is the most profound use of the “tool” of written language.  Civilization does not exist so that people can sit around, drink Diet Coke, and talk about whatever strikes them as immensely clever.  A certain brand of person will not be satisfied with that.  The writing life is the attempt to put language to its best possible use, to ensure that civilization troubles itself with more than trifling matters.

AW: In the introduction to The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature, you consolidate the aesthetic of contributor Walter Kirn by his claim that the mark of a great book is not the staying power of its imprint, but its dissolution into the waft of curtains when the scenes change. I wonder if you know the work of poet Tan Lin, who, says “Time passes inordinately or not at all. What is it like to eat an idea or its suggestion? As anyone who has eaten can tell you, the most beautiful memories are memories that one has forgotten how to have.” What authors do you remember too well? And which have you forgotten best?

JCH: We often say that every time we read an admired book we find something new in it.  If in saying this we’re not suggesting that somehow new material has crept into the book since the last time we looked at it, then the implication is that somehow when we read we are imperfect receivers, and we don’t get “all” of it each time we read it.  But what if this is wrong?  What if it’s wrong to think of meaning quantitatively like that?  What seems more likely is that the thing that has changed is us – the reader of books.  We see “new” things because we, in fact, are new when we return to a book.  I think this is what Kirn – and, I’m guessing, Tan Lin, whom I’ve not read – is getting at.  In a sense, as we grow and learn, we “forget” our old selves.  The new self, then, can enjoy old pleasures – food, stories – on more the one level: as a recollection, a rereading, and as a fresh experience for the new self, a self that is now equipped to appreciate that experience differently.

As to which authors I’ve remembered and/or forgotten, this also is a bit like food – it’s precisely the books and/or meals we feel compelled to describe as “forgettable” that we don’t, in fact, forget.  They stay there.  Better books, as Kirn suggests, recede – and perhaps it’s only the inkling of their quality that draws us back to them, as the memory of a delicate taste draws us to a meal we can’t quite describe.

AW: You refer to the writers assembled in The Story About the Story as “disciplined souls.” Have you ever disciplined the soul? How so, or what happens?

JCH: The business of dedicating yourself to something other than chat is hard work.  “Disciplined” comes from Seamus Heaney’s contribution to The Story About the Story – he pointed out that such discipline would affect the conduct of one’s whole life.  (There can be no better example of this than Henry James.)  I like the way you ask this question, though, because it meshes two definitions of “discipline” – philosophy and punishment.  It may be that the acquisition of a discipline feels a bit like punishment.  I guess that’s the history of self-flagellation – of Thomas More smacking himself in the back in the hours before he was beheaded.  Anyway, yes, I remember that moment when I decided to take writing and literature more seriously than a job, as a passionate avocation.  It did feel like punishment – or sacrifice.  At the same time, it brought a sense of equanimity, a confidence.

AW: In your short story, “Autopoiesis for the Common Man,” the narrator is dating two nurses, who are passing through the jets of humility that is the aging process. Through them he comes to realize that “to err is more than human, it is biological.” You are a proponent of criticism that makes room for self-interrogation, with its biases and limitations. Do you have guidelines when writing to bear responsibility for the tweaks and draw of subjectivity?

JCH: I was just reading a book the other day that discussed Whitehead’s critique of science.  Basically, Whitehead said that science had forgotten that theories were theories.  In other words, science got to the point where theory equaled fact.  Something similar can be said about literary criticism, which a hundred and fifty years ago began an inexorable creep toward science.  Critics too forgot that their theories were not facts.  The only guidelines I would propose for a more self-based criticism would be that one should not merely acknowledge the “biases and limitations” of self, but celebrate them.  That’s not license for a reader to lack rigor.  Rather, it acknowledges that whatever reaction we have to a work of art is itself a creative function, and comes from the same mysterious place that created the art we are attempting to understand.

AW: Your reluctance to define “creative criticism” in your introduction to The Story About the Story reminds me of the restraint Hélène Cixous exercises in “Le Rire de la Méduse,” by refusing to bind and fence the “dark, impregnable continent” of a feminine mode of writing. Published in translation in the first volume of the feminist journal Signs in 1976, her conscientiousness respects the voice she calls and advocates. Cixous was also a creative writer, and it may be one of the assets writers bring to readings—if not graciousness at least reluctance to restrict a wild frontier even as one crosses it. There must be other unspoken rules of decorum writers bring to the literary conversation. Which ones have you noticed?

JCH: I guess I would think of it less as a reluctance to define than as a questioning of the tendency to equate analysis with that desire to fix, to name, to pinpoint.  Even very good literary critics these days – those who don’t feel compelled to adhere to old strategies – find it hard to leave behind the impulse to argue, hypothesize, compartmentalize, and define.  The quote from Cixous and your characterization of it suggests something else completely – that writing can explore a “continent,” a “frontier.”  Put somewhat less metaphorically, a more “creative criticism” reserves the right to mull a work, to meditate on it, to contemplate it, or simply to register whatever impressions it makes – impressions made in an individual reader, “dents” in our consciousness.

As to decorum, one might be able to identify trends.  For example, writers will often consider another writer’s biography to shed further light on their work, but cringe at critics who perform the operation the other way around.  I’d hesitate to call these “rules,” however, and I can think immediately of exceptions to what I just said.

AW: There is privacy in writing, guarded and hoarded or raided. What is privacy in criticism?

JCH: Literature, I think, must be an attempt to expose and explore that which will not be considered in any other precinct of human discourse.  It is always an attempt to get us past our shields, our fears – and the very best of writers, I’d say, are those who seem to have mastered the trick of escaping a kind of self-privacy, an instinct to remain hidden, even from ourselves.  In other words, introspection is an acquired skill, a craft in its own right.  Traditional literary criticism tends to not be particularly introspective – that is, there’s always a subjective, passionate author behind objective, dispassionate criticism, but somehow we’ve come to accept the idea that that the “critical self” should remain hidden, private.  Does it need to be that way?  I don’t think so.  Criticism too can strain against that instinct to hide the self.

AW: Your entrance into the forum of “the critic-writer debate,” you say in “Toward a Fusion,” was finding a hundred-year interpretation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw inadequate. Thus, part of your interest in the growing field of creative criticism is traditionally scholarly—that is, corrective or argumentative of our understanding of texts, and part is hopeful of generation in this fresh loam. What has been a result of the quest for fusion that you did not know to look for when you began?

JCH: I was most surprised at the depth and consistency of the “creative criticism” trajectory.  I thought I had coined the term, then I found it in the work of J.E. Spingarn, from 1911.  Then I read a Geoff Dyer interview in which he used the term, ignorant of me and Spingarn both.  So really all I was doing – am doing – is pointing at something already at work.  And that seems to be finding some traction.  In January, the New York Times published essays by six young literary critics on the role of criticism today.  There’s still work to be done – the Times did not ask for essays on the subject from Dyer, Gass, Ozick, and a range of other living writer-critics – but the soul-searching seems to have begun.  Or re-begun.

AW: I am certain The Story About the Story will prove seminal in the field of “creative criticism”—a term I would perhaps alternate or subdivide with the one I had been using of “lyric scholarship,” as so many writers of it are also poets who bear their prose along on the wings of rhythm—but I do notice the volume contains an oversight, which is that of the thirty-one essays it contains, only six are by or about women. And yet, this mode of writing has the potential to partner the opposition of gender as well as introspection and conversation, cerebellum and physiology, craftsman/woman and scholar. Is it a result of the readers and bookstore owners you canvassed that the bias we might hesitate to celebrate is masculine?

JCH: I like “lyric scholarship,” too – and that language itself can be a meaning-containing dimension of an act of criticism is central to this core idea.  And you’re right about the gender disparity, though it’s perhaps worth pointing out that some of the very best essays in the book are by women.  In fact, Woolf’s wonderfully ironic and playful take on Hemingway in the book is about this very thing – how the structure of criticism and even language is bent in exactly that way.  That said, the book is not entirely balanced – and if I’m able to do another volume, I intend to include pieces by a range of women: Wendy Lesser, Janet Malcolm, Azar Nafisi, Katherine Anne Porter, Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Hardwick, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Vivian Gornick, Patricia Hempl, Susan Cheever, Ilana Simons, Heather McHugh, Rivka Galchen, etc.

AW: I’d like you to speak to the idea of corrective dialogue. There is emendation at work in assigning regency to writers about literature by and through and with literature, as there is re-vision in reading—a potentially ecstatic act you allude to in “Books Make Me Masturbate.” In her essay, “Decreation,” Anne Carson studies Sappho’s entrance into ekstasis, a condition Carson explains etymologically means to stand “outside oneself.” An advantage of creative criticism is perhaps that step to the side an author  takes when presenting another author—a silent gesture that has, as Woolf points out, historically been accompanied by the “trumpet blasts of critical opinion.”  If this field has the potential I believe it does, to embody and embolden the lyric thrust in prose, to stand among and beside the originals through generative reading—what or how do you imagine it (re)constructing?

JCH: As standing “outside oneself” suggests, ecstatic writing I think offers the possibility of perspective on the self as a “context” (to state it rather unecstatically). And that’s perhaps the first “wrong” I was trying to address in editing The Story About the Story. What I see it trying to reconstruct is the value of the self, the critic’s perspective – warts and all, as writer or editor – in the execution of criticism. And this really is a reconstruction. Just yesterday, I came across this passage from an 1891 Henry James essay: “For in literature assuredly criticism is the critic, just as art is the artist; it being assuredly the artist who invented art and the critic who invented criticism, and not the other way around.”


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