Preface [chapter]

2005 A Mirror in the Roadway  
Why write about literature? Certainly not to be rewarded with money, fame, and love, as Freud suggested about artists, and not from any assurance of being widely read. General readers may dip into reviews of new books but seldom feel compelled to read literary criticism, especially now that books and writers are less central to American culture than they were fifty years ago. Even professors of literature rarely assign critical works to their students, much as they may borrow from them, since
more » ... terature itself rightly fills out the syllabus. Critics confronting the other arts have the bracing challenge of translating paintings or string quartets or jazz performances into another medium; literary critics too often play a losing game of paraphrase as their language competes with the works they are describing. Criticism can do much to illuminate all kinds of art, but few works, even famously difficult ones, actually cry out for criticism. Critics write about literature for the same reasons writers write about anything: for the pleasure of forming graceful sentences that sort out their own reactions to books, or simply to be part of a conversation about the human dilemma that goes back to the beginnings of culture. But why, you might ask, have I written about these writers rather than others, about Günter Grass rather than Alain Robbe-Grillet, about Willa Cather rather than Frank Norris, about Philip Roth rather than William Gaddis? Simply put, these are writers whose way with language or outlook on life mattered deeply to me. They provoked the shock of recognition that, like some magic mirror, offers revealing glimpses of one's half-hidden selves. In reading Roth, for example, I'm always arguing with him, admiring him, feeling outraged by him, and implicitly defining myself through him. Such hotly divided feelings may be the ones most congenial to criticism. There is no writer in this book who is of merely conceptual interest to me. Many of the essays published here were written for occasions not strictly of my own choosing-commissioned reviews, conferences, public lectures, essay collections, introductions to reprints of classic works. But I wrote them out of a strong intuition that they might enlighten readers while enabling me to remain a student, to keep on learning. Critical writing, like teaching or any exchange of ideas, can complete one's own reading experience. I wrote an introduction to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle because I had just been teaching it at the University of Paris in a course on "The City in American Culture," and found it more revealing book than I had expected. I agreed to review difficult works like Grass's The Flounder and Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch because I had been bowled over by The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude and guessed that they could never write anything that wouldn't engage me. I was game to keynote a conference on Céline's impact on American writers because twenty years earlier, recuperating from a strep infection in a small village in Provence, I had read Death on the Installment Plan in a fever of excitement and was struck by some uncanny similarities to a newly published book by Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint. These points of appeal gave me a personal stake in the books I was writing about, which is as much a sine qua non of lively criticism as of any worthwhile writing. But there was also something intrinsic to the books themselves that drew me to them. These were ambitious works that packed a huge emotional charge. They brought a significant chunk of world with them, and drove it home to readers with the unusual intensity that literature can summon. Even when the emotions seemed to have been subtracted, as in the influential short fiction of Raymond Carver, they were no less potent for remaining unspoken. The anesthetized surface of Carver's stories could be as freighted with feeling as the histrionic arias of Céline's or Roth's loquacious protagonists. Moreover, Carver's stories, with their dead-end settings in the blue-collar world of the Pacific Northwest, are rooted in a social location as specific as Sinclair's industrial Chicago, Grass's prewar Danzig, García Márquez's Caribbean lowlands, Céline's shopkeeper Paris, Richard Ford's Montana and Wyoming, or Roth's suburban New Jersey. This keen sense of the writer's relation to a larger world is one theme that led me to bring these essays together, for, despite the Marx-inflected criticism of Georg Lukács and the Frankfurt school, the relation of literature to the world around it-the world recreated inside it-played little role in twentieth-century criticism. The technical innovations of modernism demanded a close attention to the text, while its points of reference to the real world, including the actual lives of writer and reader alike, would fall victim to the epistemological scruples of postmodern theorists. Deconstructionists like Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida insisted that the language of literature was performative and self-referential rather than representational, and neopragmatists like Richard Rorty argued that statements about the world could never correspond to the way things actually are. The referentiality of art, its varied reflections of a world outside itself, became as unfashionable as any sense of objective truth. The essays in this book, on the other hand, belong with what George Orwell described as his own "semi-sociological literary criticism"-semi because they are attuned to aesthetic concerns along with social ones, and are addressed to general readers rather than specialists. Orwell undoubtedly used this qualifier because, like
doi:10.1515/9781400826667-001 fatcat:kvcmgqiuhjbxthynoax47gs6dq