This is the column I wrote about Zadie Smith’s short story from the New Yorker. The column first appeared in Vector 273, Autumn 2013. Continue reading
On Friday 19th November, as part of its 25th Anniversary celebrations, the London Review of Books staged a debate on the topic: ‘What is literary criticism for?’ The panellists represented four generations of literary critics. Frank Kermode, now an emeritus professor but still sharp and with a waspish sense of humour, handicapped, for me, by the fact that I have worked for several years with his son, Mark (not the film critic of the same name), who does not, so far as I know, read anything but whose mannerisms and features I kept seeing in Frank. Terry Eagleton, the aging enfant terrible of left-wing criticism with a gift for comedy and possibly the most acute critical brain in Britain today. James Wood, younger than I thought (and younger than he looks), who is not part of academe but who seems to make his living through writing criticism and, more recently, novels. Zadie Smith, smart, chic and razor-like, I went in expecting the over-acclaimed new literary darling and left respecting a very acute literary critic. All this was moderated by Andrew O’Hagan, who, to be fair, did a good job of keeping the panel discussion focussed and moving forward, but who seemed nonetheless out of his depth on that stage.
At one point, fairly late in the discussion, James Wood and Zadie Smith went off on a private discussion about the intended audience for criticism. Kermode and Eagleton took no part in this digression, for them, I suspect, it wasn’t an issue. They know who they are writing for: primarily their students and their fellow academics; what they are doing is taking part in the ongoing discussion of literature that has been part and parcel of university studies for over a century. But for Wood and Smith, and for any of us not part of academe, this is a more problematic issue. Both considered, for a moment, that criticism is aimed at the author, but then drew back from that position. Smith remarked that although many authors announce that they never read reviews, she couldn’t imagine any of them being able to resist the temptation to open a paper and find out what people were saying about them. This is probably true, but irrelevant. Wood finally concluded that they were writing above the heads of the authors at the eventual readers of the books. For a while I was prepared to agree with him, then I had second thoughts.
For a start we need to go back to that ancient debate about the difference between reviewing and criticism. I was relieved to notice that, while Kermode and Eagleton returned to this issue more than once during the debate, even they were unable to resolve it. My feeling is that it is unresolvable, that reviewing and criticism both occupy a broad band on a spectrum of responses to art, so that it is impossible to point to one defining characteristic and say: that is a review, or that is criticism. And I suspect that those broad bands actually overlap to a considerable extent, muddying the waters even further.
Let us say, therefore, that some types of reviewing provide an immediate response to newly-published works. It is possible that such reviews address the author; but unless the review discusses systemic faults in the author’s basic approach to writing, it is unlikely that someone who has moved on already to another book, another subject, another idea, is necessarily going to be greatly affected by the dialogue. Let us say, also, that certain types of criticism discuss works by long-dead authors. In other words, if the addressee of criticism (using the term in its broadest sense) is the author it is at best a sterile discussion, and probably a pointless one.
It is, therefore, very tempting to go along with Wood and assume that the audience for criticism is the reader. Certainly the reader is anticipating some form of communication when they read a review, even if it is no more than an injunction to buy, or not to buy, a particular book. And the reader is also anticipating some form of communication in a work of extended literary criticism, be it the provision of context, the analysis of themes, the evaluation of artistry. We have, in other words, at least one side of the dialogue in place. But I am less and less convinced that we have the other side.
A piece of literary criticism, whatever else it might be, is a piece of creative writing. It is an imaginative and analytical response to another piece of writing, true, but it involves the working out of themes and ideas and the expression of them in a way that is sufficiently aesthetically pleasing for a reader to spend the necessary time reading. I have certainly read criticism that is dull, turgid, unspeakably badly written; but then, I have read fiction that is the same. The very fact that we are prepared to recognise in criticism the faults of dullness, turgidity, bad writing suggests that we are applying to it the standards we apply to any piece of prose. And there are undoubtedly works of criticism that are, indeed, vivacious and exciting; Terry Eagleton, a case in point, is often wonderfully, scabrously funny. So, if we measure criticism as creative writing, then we must also acknowledge that any interpretation of criticism is subject to the same caveats and uncertainties as our interpretations of prose fiction.
One such caveat which came up several times during the course of the panel discussion was intentionality. This is the issue of deciding what an author meant to say. Unless you are privy to the workings of the author’s mind at the precise point of writing – and Zadie Smith was quick to point out that even the author isn’t always fully cognisant of their own intentions – you cannot do this. You can analyse what was said, and close reading lies at the heart of all criticism (and as Eagleton noted, even the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida was based on incredibly close reading); you can query what was meant (‘did the author really mean to say X?’); but you cannot judge a book based on your assumption of the author’s intentions. Therefore, you cannot judge criticism based on an assumption of the critic’s intentions (one corollary of this is that it is incumbent upon the critic to make sure that her views of the work under discussion are absolutely clear; can you imagine the blurb: ‘John Clute meant to say …’?).
In the case of criticism, one of those unknowable intentions is the intended audience. This is not an issue that affects our readings of fiction greatly (except, sometimes, in such broad terms as whether a book was written for children or for adults), we don’t in the main question who Dickens or James or Asimov saw as their audience because it does not affect how we read the book (there are exceptions to this, I know, but not enough to affect the general point). But it is a question that fundamentally affects our considerations of criticism because it goes to the heart of the question: what is literary criticism for? I think this is because we see the process of communication differently. Fiction is largely a one-way communication: we are told a story, and though we might respond to it, we don’t normally expect to reply to it. Criticism, on the other hand, is (at least perceived to be) a multi-way communication: because it is already responding to something else, it is instantly part of a dialogue. Identifying the intended audience, therefore, is an essential part of understanding the nature of the dialogue. But identifying the intended audience involves that old bugbear intentionality, and we’re right back where we started.
The closest I can come to this (and with Zadie Smith’s warning firmly in mind) is some glimpse of my own intentions in writing criticism. This is not totally satisfactory, of course, you the reader cannot know my intentions in writing about intentionality, and therefore cannot make any assumptions about whether my thoughts on intentionality can actually be used in reading the intentions behind any of my criticism. There are times when exploring the philosophical underpinnings of criticism and of theory seems to lead us ever closer to solipsism. Nevertheless, let us make a Wittgensteinian assumption that my private language has some public understanding.
Most of the criticism I write is commissioned. That is, some editor has asked me to write it. Therefore, what I write is initially for that editor, in the hope that it might appear in their publication and therefore earn me money, or respect, or at least the egotistical pleasure of seeing my name in print. Does that mean that my intended audience is the editor, since I am primarily writing to please him or her? In a very simplistic sense, yes; but in a more meaningful way, no. It explains why I write, but it does not explain who I write to.
I write for a number of different books and journals, and I tend to write differently for each one. Does that imply that I am addressing different audiences? To be honest, I don’t see them as different audiences. Sometimes the difference in how I write is traceable to the fine print of the commission: I will address an author or a work one particular way because that is what I have been asked to do. More often the difference is more straightforwardly down to word length. A 500-word review and a 5,000-word essay necessarily require different approaches, different focus, different modes of analysis. A piece on science fiction for a journal whose readership is likely to be unfamiliar with the genre is likely to require rather more explanation, more provision of context, than the same piece written for Extrapolation or Vector. But these are contingent differences, they say nothing about the nature of the dialogue in which I am engaged as a critic.
If I say of M. John Harrison, as I did recently: ‘I am sure that Harrison was inspired by the mad genius of William Blake, but his aesthetic is entirely other, his refrain is the glory of decay, defeat and failure, the petty achievements that mark our going down, the mordant compromises we laud as victory’ it is irrelevant whether it was written for Vector (as it was) or for the Times Literary Supplement. The audience as some definable group of individuals played absolutely no part in the analytical and aesthetic process that produced that statement. Similarly, it is irrelevant that Harrison is not only alive but active as a writer and those words were written in response to his most recent book. The thoughts so expressed were not addressed to Harrison, and whether that most self-conscious of writers reacts to the ideas in a way that impinges upon his subsequent work can have nothing to do with either the formulation or the expression of those ideas.
In a world where more books are published than any of us could possibly hope to read, then a review which says read this book or don’t read this book is clearly addressed to the reader. But except in some exceptionally short or exceptionally badly written reviews, that is not all they do. To some extent the meat of a review is the offering of an argument that supports the final read/don’t read judgement, and hence offers a mechanism by which the reader might be able to make her own mind up about whether to accept that judgement or not. But I’m not sure that’s all it is, and I’m not sure that the supporting argument is all addressed to the hypothetical reader.
In the case of extended criticism, which often has no read/don’t read function, even that level of address to the reader is absent. The whole piece then becomes the construction of an argument about how to read the work, or how to read various aspects of the work, or how to read certain things into the work. I think the supporting argument in a review is often doing exactly the same thing, though usually on a smaller scale. Remember, reviewing and criticism occupy overlapping places on a spectrum of responses to art.
The question, therefore, the axis about which this ramble continues to turn, is who is being argued with? When I am writing a piece about how and why I read a certain work in a certain way, who am I trying to convince?
The answer, I think, is me.
That seems pathetic, and I come to the conclusion reluctantly. After all, am I suggesting that all those thousands of books, those millions of words, by the likes of F.R. Leavis and William Empson, and Harold Bloom and Roland Barthes and Brian Stableford and me are all just masturbation? We are back in that solipsistic universe. But yes, in an important sense that is precisely what I am saying.
Every time you read a book you enter upon a journey of exploration. If you have never read the book before, regardless of whether you have read about it, you are in a trackless waste attempting to cut a trail through to find out what the book has to offer. If you are reading a book for a second or third or thirtieth time, no matter how familiar it may be to you, you will find freshness in it. The very best books repay repeated re-readings because of the new worlds they disclose every time you embark upon that journey. Criticism is the record of that exploration, it is the account of what you found there and, more importantly, how you found it. If all things are equal and you have done a good job with your exploration and your account, it might open the book up to other explorers, it might help them see things in it from a different perspective to how they originally saw it. That is a by-product of criticism, if you like that is its commercial value, the reason there is still a market place for criticism. But that is not necessarily what the criticism was written for.
I think criticism is written for the reader, but it is written to the critic. The process of analysis involved in the creation of criticism is a way of discovering why you responded to the book the way you did. If you put the plot of a novel into a review it is not simply to tell the story, you could not do so without reproducing the whole book. When you put the plot into a review it involves abstraction, you pick those key elements which seem to you to explicate the book, and in so doing you are identifying those bits of the story that you responded to. When you devote an essay to examining themes of good or evil that recur throughout a writer’s work, you are not engaged in cataloguing every instance where the theme is used. You are abstracting those instances which seem to build into something to which you respond. You may not even be aware of it the first time you encounter it, but sometime while reading a later work you might recognise something you’ve come across in that author’s work before. That, in turn, might help you identify patterns which are themselves things you’ve been responding to, often unconsciously, as you read the books. The process of criticism often involves a moment of recognition, and then an exploration of how far that insight might extend.
The response to the work might be positive or negative, it might hinge on a big theme or a small issue, but the criticism is the argument with yourself about why your particular exploration of the work generate that particular response.
So, in the end, I come to the conclusion that when I write criticism I am addressing myself before anybody else. I am explaining or more often discovering why I responded to a work the way I did, and I am thereafter exploring what that might say for the work (and indeed what it might say about me and my relationship to the author, the rest of her books, the genre, literature in general, and so forth). If that exploration results in insights for the author or for other readers that is good, I always hope that that happens and clearly so do the editors who commission the reviews, but they are still not the people I am primarily addressing in my criticism.
What is literary criticism for, the panel asked. My answer: the reason is the same both as reader and as critic, it is to help me explore the books I read.