James Wood: What is at Stake When We Write Literary Criticism?

On Deconstructing Texts and Our Understanding of Literature

I was taught how to read novels and poems by a brilliant poststructuralist critic called Stephen Heath. I have an image in my mind of Dr. Heath holding a sheet of paper—the hallowed “text”—very close to his eyes, the physical proximity somehow the symbolic embodiment of his scrutinizing avidity, while he threw out his favorite question about a paragraph or stanza: “what’s at stake in this passage?” He meant something more specific, professionalized and narrow than the colloquial usage would generally imply. He meant something like: what is the dilemma of meaning in this passage? What is at stake in maintaining the appearance of coherent meaning, in this performance we call literature? How is meaning wobbling, threatening to collapse into its repressions? Dr. Heath was appraising literature as Freud might have studied one of his patients, where “What is at stake for you in being here?” did not mean “What is at stake for you in wanting to get healthy or happy?” but almost the opposite: “What is at stake for you in maintaining your chronic unhappiness?” The enquiry is suspicious, though not necessarily hostile.

This way of reading could broadly be called deconstructive. Put simply, deconstruction proceeds on the assumption that literary texts, like people, have an unconscious that frequently betrays them: they say one thing but mean another thing. Their own figures of speech (metaphors, images, figurative turns of phrase) are the slightly bent keys to their unlocking. The critic can unravel—deconstruct—a text by reading it as one might read a Freudian slip. And just as an awareness of how people unconsciously defend and betray themselves enriches our ability to comprehend them, so a similar awareness enriches our comprehension of a piece of literature. Instead of agreeing with people’s self-assessments, we learn how to read them in a stealthy and contrary manner, brushing them against their own grain.

At university, I began to understand that a poem or novel might be self-divided, that its intentions might be beautifully lucid but its deepest motivations helplessly contradictory. Indeed, deconstruction tends to specialize in—perhaps over-emphasize—the ways in which texts contradict themselves: how, say, The Tempest is at once anti-colonialist in aspiration and colonialist in assumption; or how Jane Austen’s novels are both proto-feminist and patriarchally structured; or how the great novels of adultery, like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Effi Briest, dream of female transgression but simultaneously enforce punishment for that transgression. Critical intelligence is made more complex and sophisticated by an awareness that literature is an always-frail ideological achievement, only ever a sentence away from dissolution. My own reading of literature was permanently altered by this new understanding, and my critical instincts (especially when teaching) are still often deconstructive.

But alongside Dr. Heath’s question lies the looser, perhaps more generous usage preferred by writers and interested readers. When a book reviewer, or someone in a creative writing workshop, or a fellow author complains, “I just couldn’t see what was at stake in the book,” or “I see that this issue matters to the writer, but she didn’t manage to make me feel that it was at stake in the novel,” a different statement is also being made about meaning. The common implication here is that meaning has to be earned, that a novel or poem creates the aesthetic environment of its importance. A novel in which the stakes are felt to be too low is one that has failed to make a case for its seriousness. Writers are fond of the idea of earned stakes and unearned stakes; a book that hasn’t earned its effects doesn’t deserve any success.

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A novel in which the stakes are felt to be too low is one that has failed to make a case for its seriousness. Writers are fond of the idea of earned stakes and unearned stakes; a book that hasn’t earned its effects doesn’t deserve any success.

I’m struck by the differences between these two usages. Both are central to their relative critical discourses; each is close to the other and yet also quite far apart. In Stakes¹ (let’s call it), the text’s success is suspiciously scanned, with the expectation, perhaps hope, that the piece of literature under scrutiny will turn out to be productively unsuccessful. In Stakes², the text’s success is anxiously searched for, with the assumption that the piece of literature’s lack of success cannot be productive for reading, but simply renders the book not worth picking up. The first way of reading is non-evaluative, at least at the level of craft or technique; the second is only evaluative, and wagers everything on technical success, on questions of craft and aesthetic achievement. Stakes¹ presumes incoherence; Stakes² roots for coherence. Both modes are interestingly narrow, and their narrowness mirrors each other.

Not to think about literature evaluatively is not to think like a writer—it cuts literature off from the instincts and ambitions of the very people who created it. But to think only in terms of evaluation, in terms of craft and technique—to think only of literature as a settled achievement—favors those categories at the expense of many different kinds of reading (chiefly, the great interest of reading literature as an always unsettled achievement). To read only suspiciously (Stakes¹) is to risk becoming a cynical detective of the word; to read only evaluatively (Stakes²) is to risk becoming a naïf of meaning, a connoisseur of local effects, someone who brings the standards of a professional guild to bear on the wide, unprofessional drama of meaning.

Alas, each kind of reading tends to exclude the other. Formal academic study of modern literature began around the start of the twentieth century. But of course, for centuries before that, literary criticism existed outside the academy, practiced as literature by writers. In English alone, that tradition is a very rich one, and includes—to name just a few—Johnson, De Quincey, Hazlitt, Coleridge, Emerson, Arnold, Ruskin, Woolf, Lawrence, Eliot, Orwell, Jarrell, Hardwick, Pritchett, Sontag. One of the moving things about Coleridge’s extraordinary book Biographia Literaria (the book that coins the term “practical criticism,” which in turn became the watchword of academic close reading) is that what he is most earnestly trying to do—amidst the crazy theorizing and neologising and channelling of Fichte—is to convince his readers, through a series of passionately detailed close readings, that his friend and literary competitor William Wordsworth is England’s greatest poet. That is what is at stake for Coleridge. It’s one writer speaking about and to another.

This writerly critical tradition continues to flourish, both in and outside the academy. Of course, nowadays even nonacademic literary criticism (I mean criticism written for a general audience) has been shaped and influenced by formal literary study. Many writers have studied literature at university, academics and writers teach together, attend conferences and festivals together, and sometimes almost speak the same language (think of Coetzee’s fiction and academic post-colonialist discourse, Don DeLillo’s fiction and academic postmodern critique, Toni Morrison’s fiction and academic critiques of race). The rise and steady institutionalisation of academic literary criticism means that the long tradition of literary criticism is now really two traditions, the academic (Stakes¹) and the literary-journalistic (Stakes²), which sometimes flow into each other but more often away from each other. Too often, Stakes¹ imagines itself in competition with, disdainful of, or simply inhabiting a different realm from Stakes², and vice versa.

Serious Noticing gathers essays and reviews written over the last twenty years. Most of them are long book reviews, published for a general audience in general-interest magazines or literary journals (The New Republic, The New Yorker and the London Review of Books). These pieces belong to the journalistic or writerly critical tradition that comes before and comes after the academic critical tradition; they are marked by that academic tradition but are also trying to do something distinct from it. I like the idea of a criticism that tries to do three things at once: speaks about fiction as writers speak about their craft; writes criticism journalistically, with verve and appeal, for a common reader; and bends this criticism back towards the academy in the hope of influencing the kind of writing that is done there, mindful that the traffic between inside and outside the academy naturally goes both ways.

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Edmund Wilson stole the phrase “triple thinker” from one of Flaubert’s letters, and I want to steal it from Wilson. Such a threefold critic—writerly, journalistic, scholarly—would ideally be doing this kind of triple thinking; that, at least, has been my aspiration over the last twenty years, and probably since 1988, when I wrote my first review for the Guardian. Which is to say, in this book you’ll encounter a criticism interested in both kinds of “what’s at stake?” questions; I think that Stakes¹ and Stakes² have no need to look down their noses at each other.

I like the idea of a criticism that tries to do three things at once: speaks about fiction as writers speak about their craft; writes criticism journalistically, with verve and appeal, for a common reader; and bends this criticism back towards the academy in the hope of influencing the kind of writing that is done there.

What, ideally, does this kind of triple thinking look like? In his essay “Music Discomposed,” the philosopher Stanley Cavell says that the critic’s first gesture is: “You have to hear it.” Why, he asks, do you have to hear it? Because, he says, with a deliberate risk of tautology, “if I don’t hear it, I don’t know it,” and works of art are “objects of the sort that can only be known in sensing.” And again, at the further risk of excessive simplicity and tautology, Cavell writes: “what I see is that (pointing to the object). But for that to communicate you have to see it too. Describing one’s experience of art is itself a form of art; the burden of describing it is like the burden of producing it.” I like this emphasis. When I write about a novel or a writer, I am essentially bearing witness. I’m describing an experience and trying to stimulate in the reader an experience of that experience. Henry James called the critic’s task “heroically vicarious.”

Most of the time it feels pretty unheroic, to be honest; but it certainly feels vicarious. It’s like playing, to a friend, a piece of music you really love. There is that moment when you stand next to this person, hopeful and intense as you anxiously scan your friend’s face, to see if he or she is hearing the same thing you heard. How thrilling it is when the confirmation arrives; and how easily disappointed one can be (though we all learn to hide it) when the friend turns after a minute or two and says, “You can turn it off, this isn’t doing much for me.”

You are trying to get the listener to hear (or see) the same thing as you, to have the same kind of experience. Criticism is just such an adventure in sameness. The journalistic review-essay differs from the academic essay in the amount and quality of this sameness, the amount and quality of Cavellian “pointing at the artwork” that has to be done. After all, the review-essay involves not just pointing at something, but pointing at t while re-describing it. The analogy is less “You have to hear it” than “Listen, I have to play it for you on the piano.” This re-voicing takes the form, overwhelmingly in book reviews, of paraphrase and quotation. It’s disdained as “plot summary” and often it’s done carelessly, so poorly that it is no re-voicing at all. But quotation and re-description are at the heart of the book review and at the heart of that experience that Cavell calls “creative.”

This passionate re-description is, in fact, pedagogical in nature. It happens in classrooms whenever the teacher stops to read out, to re-voice, the passage under scrutiny. Sometimes all we remember of a teacher is a voice, and that is as it should be. Academic criticism is wary of what used to be called “the heresy of paraphrase.” The very thing that makes a review or essay into a vital narrative is discouraged in academic writing. We warn students—for perfectly good reasons—to avoid merely retelling or rephrasing the contents of a book. If you catch yourself doing that, we tell them, you’re probably not doing criticism, you’re not being analytical enough. But we should encourage students to do it better, for there is a quality of implicit intelligence in subtle paraphrase that is itself an act of analysis.

And besides, doesn’t much academic avoidance of paraphrase have to do, really, with anxiety or snobbery? Scholars don’t want to be caught in the act of primacy when they are supposed to have read the book a thousand times; God forbid that anyone should think we are encountering a text for the first time! Of course we all remember the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the twists and turns of Waverley or Vanity Fair or Under the Volcano! Don’t we? Yet the journalistic review is an act of primacy; to paraphrase is to dare a kind of innocence; subtle paraphrase is a kind of wise unlearning. And paraphrase is witness.

I have called this kind of critical re-telling a way of writing through books, not just about them. This writing-through is often achieved by using the language of metaphor and simile that literature itself uses. It involves a recognition that literary criticism is unique because one has the privilege of performing it in the same medium one is describing. When Coleridge writes of Swift that “he had the soul of Rabelais but dwelling in a dry place,” or when Henry James says that Balzac was so devoted to his work that he became a kind of “Benedictine of the actual” (a phrase he liked so much he plagiarized himself and also applied to Flaubert); when Pritchett laments that Ford Madox Ford never fell into that “determined stupor” out of which great artistic work comes; when Woolf complains that E. M. Forster is too anxious a narrator, too keen to interrupt his characters, “like a light sleeper who is always being woken by something in the room”—these writers are producing images that are qualitatively indistinguishable from the metaphors and similes in their so-called “creative” work. They are speaking to literature in its own language, a large part of which is metaphorical.

So we perform. And we perform in proximity, exulting in the fact that, dolphin-like, we are swimming in the element that nourishes us. Our prose is our connection to the work of art we are re-voicing. Art critics, music critics, dance critics— to change the metaphor—have to board the boat unnaturally or a little awkwardly, from the front or the bow; we get to board the boat ideally, as one should, from the side, amidships. We write as if we expect to be read; we write like the roses Eliot describes in “Burnt Norton”—roses ‘that had the look of flowers that are looked at.”

The philosopher Ted Cohen, in his book Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor, quotes from a paper written in 1949, by another philosopher, Arnold Isenberg. That paper was called “Critical Communication.” According to Cohen, Isenberg undermines the common notion that by describing an artwork, the critic is producing a reason in support of his or her value judgement. It’s not about producing reasons, says Isenberg. All the critic can hope to do is, by drawing attention to certain elements of the artwork—by re-describing that artwork—induce in his or her audience a similar view of that work. This way, in Isenberg’s phrase, the critic can achieve a “sameness of vision” in his or her audience (i.e. a sameness of vision between audience and critic). Ted Cohen goes on to point out that this is actually a brilliant description of the use of metaphor: “When your metaphor is ‘X is Y’ you are hoping that I will see X as you do, namely as Y, and, most likely, although your proximate aim is to get me to see X in this way, your ultimate wish is that I will feel about X as you do.” So the critical act is a metaphorical act.

For Cohen, identification with someone or something else is essentially metaphorical. The critic says, in effect, “I will work to enable you to see the text as I do,” and does so by enacting a sameness of vision, which is an act of figurative identification—because it is as if the critic were saying, “I will get you to agree with me that the tiles on that roof over there look just like an armadillo’s back; I will get you to see those roof tiles as I see them” (or whatever simile one has in mind). All I would add to Cohen’s commentary is that if this “sameness of vision” is effectively metaphorical, then the language of metaphor—the writer-critic’s own use of metaphor—must be the embodied language of that process, the very enactment of it: a sameness of vision which is in some ways a sameness of writing.

All the critic can hope to do is, by drawing attention to certain elements of the artwork—by re-describing that artwork—induce in his or her audience a similar view of that work.

In that spirit, I’ll close with two examples of sameness of vision, sameness of writing. The first is from Virginia Woolf’s biography of the art critic and curator Roger Fry; the other from my own experience. Woolf describes hearing Roger Fry give a public lecture in London—a stiff, formal affair, with the critic in evening dress and holding a long pointer.

All that he had done again and again in his books. But here there was a difference. As the next slide slid over the sheet there was a pause. He gazed afresh at the picture. And then in a flash he found the word he wanted; he added on the spur of the moment what he had just seen as if for the first time. That, perhaps, was the secret of his hold over his audience. They could see the sensation strike and form; he could lay bare the very moment of perception. So with pauses and spurts the world of spiritual reality emerged in slide after slide—in Poussin, in Chardin, in Rembrandt, in Cézanne—in its uplands and its lowlands, all connected, all somehow made whole and entire, upon the great screen in the Queen’s Hall. And finally the lecturer, after looking long through his spectacles, came to a pause. He was pointing to a late work by Cézanne, and he was baffled. He shook his head; his stick rested on the floor. It went, he said, far beyond any analysis of which he was capable. And so instead of saying, “Next slide,” he bowed, and the audience emptied itself into Langham Place.

For two hours they had been looking at pictures. But they had seen one of which the lecturer himself was unconscious—the outline of the man against the screen, an ascetic figure in evening dress who paused and pondered, and then raised his stick and pointed. That was a picture that would remain in memory together with the rest, a rough sketch that would serve many of the audience in years to come as the portrait of a great critic, a man of profound sensibility but of exacting honesty, who, when reason could penetrate no further, broke off; but was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there.

It is all here, in this beautiful passage: criticism as passionate creation (“as if for the first time”); criticism as modesty, as the mind putting the “understanding” into abeyance (“he was baffled”); criticism as simplicity and near-silence (“It went, he said, far beyond any analysis of which he was capable”); criticism as sameness of vision and re-description (“was convinced, and convinced others, that what he saw was there”). Fry “found the word he wanted,” but Woolf, using narrative much as she does in To the Lighthouse, withholds from us what that word exactly was; slowly, gradually, “found the word he wanted” cedes to wordless humility and the fierce but unuttered conviction that “what he saw was there”: a movement whereby the audience began to experience what Fry saw.

A few years ago, I was in Edinburgh, and went with my father to hear the pianist Alfred Brendel give an illustrated talk about Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. We were late, and arrived at the hall breathless and sweaty. But all was serene inside. Brendel sat at a table, with a concert grand piano behind him. He talked—or mumbled, rather—from his lecture notes, peering down at his text through thick spectacles. He had a strong Austrian accent, unaffected by decades of living in England. Every so often he would turn to the piano to play a few bars, as illustration. But something remarkable occurred when he quoted: even to play a short phrase, he became not a quoter but a performer, not merely a critic but an artist-critic: physically, he had to enter the trance-like state in which he performs whole concerts (his customary shudderings, phantom mastication, closed eyes, swooning and tilting); he could not blandly quote the music, in the way that you might read a line from French without bothering to put on the “proper” French accent. He had to become, as it were, French.

In this sense, he could not quote. He could only recreate; which is to say, he could only create. It was intensely frustrating to hear, again and again, three bars of the most beautiful Beethoven, perfectly performed, only to have them break off and be replaced by the pianist’s inaudible Viennese mumbling. Play on, play on, don’t talk! I soundlessly urged. The mumbling quickly became of no interest or importance; I was living for the next pianistic performance, I wanted to swing from beauty to beauty, high above the dun currents of the prosaic. His “quotes” overwhelmed his commentary; he was approaching Walter Benjamin’s idea of a book entirely made of quotations.

Perhaps the analogy with literary criticism is not quite perfect, because the literary critic lacks this precise ability to inflect his chosen quotes as the musician performs his. But let Brendel’s wordy mumbling stand for a kind of literary criticism condemned to exteriority, a writing-about rather than a writing-through the text, a flat commentary, banished from the heart of the creative. And let Brendel’s performance on the piano, his inability to quote without also recreating, stand for the kind of criticism that is a writing through a text, the kind of criticism that is at once critique and re-description: sameness.

Listen, I have to play it for you on the piano.

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serious noticing james wood

Excerpted from SERIOUS NOTICING: Selected Essays, 1997-2019 by James Wood. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux January 14th 2020. Copyright © James Wood 1999, 2004, 2013, 2015, 2019.

James Wood
James Wood
James Wood is a staff writer at The New Yorker and Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University. He is the author of How Fiction Works, as well as the essay collections, The Broken Estate and The Irresponsible Self, and the novels, The Book Against God and Upstate. His collection of essays Serious Noticing is out now from FSG.





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