Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How can you know anything about literature if all you've done is read books?




There used to be, for many years, an ingenious radio personality in Boston, Larry Glick, who always asked (the italics were slyly implicit): “What’s the story behind the story?”  I think it was he who made it a catch phrase.  He wasn’t a journalist, but he did have an inquiring mind, the kind I think good readers and writers always have.  I keep thinking of that little phrase while I read J.C. Hallman’s handy new anthology, The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature.  (I love how brazenly and justly that subtitle ignores questions about what constitutes greatness or whether such a thing exists.  Phew!)  Well, I’ve already blogged about Charles D'Ambrosio's essay on Salinger, which gave me a lot to think about, but here are a few more of my favorite things from the book:

Virginia Woolf kicking Hemingway in the pants: “At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?’”

William Gass looking at fiction “in terms of the toenail.”

Vladimir Nabokov, surely the Alfred Hitchcock of literary criticism, retelling with ghoulish and excruciatingly embellished delight (along with diagrams) the whole of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

Seamus Heaney concluding that the poems of T.S. Eliot didn’t help him to write so much as to learn what it means to read.

Factoids in Salman Rushdie’s essay on The Wizard of Oz that even an experienced moviegoer might not know, e.g., that the cloak worn by the Wizard in the film was bought at a second-hand shop… and in fact once belonged to  L. Frank Baum himself, whose name had been stitched into it; or that there weren’t any ruby slippers in the original novel.

A brief but very sharp piece by Hallman himself in which he accuses Edmund Wilson (“you sly old bat”) of murdering Henry James’s Turn of the Screw.

James Wood, lucid and arresting as ever, likening Chekhov’s notebook to “a mattress in which he stuffed his stolen money.”

Michael Chabon writing about “the other James,” M.R. James, whose story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” begins: “’I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor on Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St. James’s College.”

Cynthia Ozick, revisiting Truman Capote’s first book with this chastening observation:

“A century, even a quarter century, dies around a book; and then the book lies there, a shaming thing because it shows us how much worse we once were to have liked it; and something else too: it demonstrates exactly how the world seems to shake off what it does not need, old books, old notions of aesthetics, old mind-forms, our own included.  The world to the eager eye is a tree constantly pruning itself, and writers are the first to be lopped off.” 

And D.H. Lawrence on Moby Dick:

“He is warm-blooded, he is loveable.  He is lonely Leviathan, not a Hobbes sort.  Or is he?

But he is warm-blooded and loveable.  The South Sea Islanders, and Polynesians, and Malays, who worship shark, or crocodile, or weave endless frigate-bird distortions, why did they never worship the whale?  So big!”

Geoff Dyer performs an act of deconstruction on a book of "criticism":

"How could it have happened? How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it? I should have stopped there, should have avoided looking at it any more, but I didn't because telling myself to stop always has the effect of egging me on. Instead, I kept looking at this group of wankers huddled in a circle, backs turned to the world so that no one would see them pulling each other off....Then I looked around for the means to destroy his vile, filthy book. In the end it took a whole box of matches and some risk of personal injury before I succeeded in deconstructing it... I burned it in self-defence.  It was the book or me because writing like that kills everything it touches.  This is the hallmark of academic criticism: it kills everything it touches....  I thought to myself the following morning when I had calmed down, the general point stands: how can you know anything about literature if all you've done is read books?"

Pictured:  Leviathan and friends

6 comments:

Bobby said...

Academics as masturbators? Book burning as the answer to bad criticism? Writers who don't get out enough?

I've heard that Geoff Dyer is a fine novelist, but that seems a pretty impressive collection of clichéd nonsense.

Jordan said...

Dyer's the Bernhard we deserve.

Don Share said...

Burn harder, then, I'd say.

Anonymous said...

I get it! Fight hyperbole with more hyperbole: it's mimesis!

mongibeddu said...

I love Ozick, but her teleology is woefully wrongheaded, as she herself would agree if it were pointed out to her that Christianity shook off Judaism in just the same way. What's killed off in the present always retains the power to haunt the future. And isn't always dead anyway.

Ben F.

mgushuedc said...

I caught Mr. Hallman here in DC at the Arts League of Washington. Smart guy and the S about the S looks great.

Also his book of stories is called
The Hospital for Bad Poets. If I had insurance I'd be there.