underneath the piss battles


These days, the debate over how to write about reading is a cold affair: a de-militarized zone. I avoid the terms literature and criticism here, and perhaps even debate is too hifalutin a word to describe what has amounted to a decades-long pissing match between creative writers and critics. The current steely silence is evidence only of empty bladders; the combatants have become preoccupied with internal skirmishes. Not long ago, Cynthia Ozick, weighing in on a writers’ spat between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus in Harper’s, announced that there was no good literary criticism happening despite the ongoing deluge from academic presses. Franzen and Marcus, arguing over how far fiction should bend toward publishing’s fickle sun, weren’t good models, either, Ozick said, and her proclamation was as much plea as elegy. Yet Ozick herself (Art & Ardor, Fame & Folly, etc.) is a pioneer of a wholly different kind of writing about reading, work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical. Writers are often reviewers—John Updike produced a smooth-flowing river of work, and Joyce Carol Oates’s hurried affairs appear often enough—but there is as well a kind of personal literary analysis, criticism that contemplates rather than argues, and while it’s never amounted to a formal trend or school, a consistent flow of this kind of response to literature has trickled along like an underground stream all the while the piss battles poisoned the surface.

more from J.C. Hallman at The Quarterly Conversation (my new favorite magazine) here.