The Critic as Amateur: immediately one recognizes the prompt, a good idea for an essay, an excellent occasion for a collection of essays, and the time seems right for any number of reasons. For those of us in this volume, though, it’s hard not to notice that we’ve been given a contradictory task. The phrase can’t really apply to us, since we are all professional readers, professional critics, or we wouldn’t be here.
Most of us started as amateurs—at least I have yet to meet the person who decided to become a professional reader the way one might decide to become a stockbroker, or an orthodontist, as a career choice that might marry talent and ability to income and status, as a rational, economic choice. People become tax attorneys for all sorts of reasons, but rarely because they were reading IRS regulations under the covers with a flashlight as children. Radiologists don’t begin their lives in love with reading X-rays, and no one reads X-rays as a hobby, as a pleasure divorced from professional duties. But people almost always love reading novels or poetry long before they have any professional relation to them. We readers are amateurs before we are anything else. We become critics, at least in part, as a result.
They say everyone’s a critic, but they don’t mean everyone writes criticism. Writing criticism, being a critic, is much more like being an orthodontist. We don’t do it without a professional reason. We might have opinions about a book and share them; we might even blog about them, chat about them, bring them up at dinner parties. But criticism—criticism recognized as such by other critics—is something else. It’s not for amateurs.
Even now, as I write this, I find myself wandering away from any love I have for the object—reading, books—toward various professional goals, as if, much as I would like to talk about what I love, the reading I love, the novels I’m reading right now that I love, the novel that, as a boy, made me realize that I loved novels (The Black Stallion)—much as I would like to talk about love, I almost never get to it; I wander away. I’m pulled toward professional business, toward criticism, toward those concerns that have little to do with my life as a lover, pulled toward the thing I do after I have been moved by a piece of writing or after I have failed to be moved by a piece of writing: this, I watch myself thinking, this is your mind on criticism.
Perhaps that notion, that there is a subset of books that are literary, is the first slip down the slide from amateur to critic.
I wander around the net following my Google search of the phrase “the critic as amateur” and see what Saikat Majumdar has to say about it—Majumdar’s essay, “The Critic as Amateur,” is a reading of “Edmund Wilson in Benares,” an autobiographical essay by Pankaj Mishra about his reading life as a young man, published in the New York Review of Books in 1998. I see what Majumdar says that Mishra has to say about it; I read Mishra, see what he feels Edmund Wilson has to say about it; and then back to Majumdar’s piece, where he talks about how Bruce Robbins and Marjorie Garber help us understand Mishra’s postcolonial moment.
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And then, a few Google entries down, I come upon a piece Leslie Fiedler published back in 1950, “Toward an Amateur Criticism,” in The Kenyon Review: “The discrepancy,” he writes there, “between the metaphors typical to the creative mind and those typical to the critical mind in our world (and this is true often in the single individual who practices both as poet and critic) indicate a quietly desperate cleavage.” I begin to feel situated as I read these things, I begin to feel like a critic, I begin to lose the object. I am cleaved, I am whole.
I loved The Black Stallion as much as I loved horses back then, the horses I loved before I read the book, despite the fact that the book was as close to a horse as I had ever been. Conjuring those heady days of first, complicated literary engagement, I remember the taste, the flavor, the rich visuality, the overfull experience of that reading. I loved that beautiful, complicated, brilliant horse, which the boy and the trainer go to pick up halfway around the world; I loved the boy, I loved the world of the book, its density, its artistry, its astounding ability to intertwine its visions with my own desires—none of this, of course, even close to articulable for me at the time.
And ever since, I have fallen in love over and over again, first with my sisters’ Nancy Drew books and Sherlock Holmes and Fail-Safe, then Jack Kerouac, and Joseph Heller and Philip Roth and Grace Paley and Flannery O’Connor, and somehow I began reading Apuleius and Rabelais and Emily Brontë and Borges—all of that and so much more when I was still an amateur, before I had tasted criticism any farther than the New York Times Book Review, before I knew the professional meaning of canon or context or narrative or genre, before I had learned to think like a critic.
Like Mishra in Majumdar’s essay (and maybe I should mention that I found myself, just now, flirting with amateurism, wanting to say not Mishra in Majumdar’s essay but Pankaj in Saikat’s essay, because when I was an amateur, authors and narrators felt real, not like markers, not like ideas, or territories, or stand-ins for critical concepts, but like, well, people, people who “talked” to me, who told me stories)—at any rate, like Pankaj Mishra, I’ll say, I was an autodidact. I was a prickly, rebellious youth: reactive, Oedipal. I knew nothing and knew everything, especially knew that I didn’t need the man to tell me what to read, didn’t need college, didn’t need the establishment. The names and ideas that flashed by me in the pages of the Book Review undoubtedly had some impact, and I had a job in high school as a page at the public library and saw a lot of books go by.
My mother read literary novels, and before I was a page I would see her stack of books sitting on the dryer waiting to be taken back to that library and register the names on the spines. Some would repeat, like Malamud and Bellow, and so I intuited they had value. I remember nothing from my English classes in high school, the high school from which, like Spicoli, I rolled out of in a cloud of marijuana smoke—did we even read books in those classes? I don’t know. But on my own I read rapaciously, insatiably, before and through those years and beyond. I remained wildly undereducated and undisciplined but not unexposed to our field, not entirely lacking some idea, however inchoate, of the literary. And perhaps that notion, that there is a subset of books that are literary, is the first slip down the slide from amateur to critic.
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My evolving canon, during my twenties, was formed by the used bookstore. For a few years I lived near Iowa City, and I bought books from Alandoni’s on South Dubuque Street near the railroad tracks, books that, I surmised later, had been used by students at the Writers Workshop, an institution I hadn’t heard of yet. For fifty cents or a dollar a piece I was thus accidentally introduced to the stuff writers read. Alandoni, long-haired, bearded, and bespectacled, was noticeably proud of his operation, and I understood, although I didn’t have the words or concepts for it yet, that he was proud of his curation. He was a sophisticated reader with strong tastes that ran to the metafictional, so I read Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon, and wow, was I in over my head, and wow, did I love it. I appreciated the parodic mimicry of The Sot-Weed Factor somehow, despite never having read a single word written in the eighteenth century.
I loved thinking of myself as the kind of person who one day could really read the book I was reading.
I spent some of this time speed-dating authors, some of it as a serial monogamist—reading all of Hesse in a row, then all of Nabokov—and I reached new levels of ecstatic bewilderment reading Ada. The French and Russian and German sprinkled through that book was thrilling, and now it makes me wonder: how much reading pleasure is like that, aspirational, aloft in the cloud of unknowing, full of the promise of some future self that might read a book like that and understand it, a future self that could read French, German, and Russian?—after all, this guy, this Vladimir, he could read and write them all, it was possible, it was doable, it was within reach. I loved thinking of myself as the kind of person who one day could really read the book I was reading.
So, an amateur. A lover. Very much not a professional. And as I write about that time in my life I find myself having little flashes of dread—my readers here, that is, the readers of this essay, are all critics, all careful analysts, all alert to my missteps. They will immediately know that I’m just wandering around, drifting, meandering around the subject, not getting anywhere, not scoring any points, hardly professional even now. So, in a panic, I look for a citation, something that will justify me, something to shore against my ruins. I grab this from Leslie Fiedler’s essay, as he tries to explain why criticism will never be a science:
The primary act of faith which makes criticism possible compels the critic under any circumstances to speak as if to men and not to specialists. The compulsory comprehensibility of the critic is not a matter of pandering to indolence, prejudice or ignorance, but of resisting the impulse to talk to himself or a congeries of reasonable facsimiles of himself. In an age of declining sociability and the widespread failure of love, it is difficult to be an amateur.
I love that, but it doesn’t help my cause much. Even Fielder, in defense of the amateur, tells me not to do what I’m doing: I’m writing as if to readers, yes, but very much to congeries of myself, too. Maybe I can’t be a critic and an amateur at the same time?
Perhaps it’s impossible, and perhaps that means this whole premise is a problem, not a proposition? I wonder if what I should do is act like a critic, write like a critic, think like a critic as I praise the amateur, elevate the amateur, pretend that a critic can—despite the widespread failure of love—indeed love the amateur, appreciate the amateur, explain the amateur. Because at least, if nothing else, we can be the amateur’s critic; schooled in the tools of appreciation, we can perhaps appreciate the amateur.
Mishra’s cosmopolitan dream was my dream, the achievement of it promising to lift me out of my witlessness.
Majumdar’s piece on Mishra, Saikat’s on Pankaj, is this, in part: an appreciation. He reads Mishra’s amateurism as a lack of professionalism, which, to be fair, is how Pankaj presents it himself. But Saikat’s essay is not just about amateurism, not just about reading; it is about the world and about the relation of reading to the world. He makes us feel the oddity, the fish-out-of-water tentativeness of Pankaj, this provincial autodidact, sneaking into the library of a quasi-provincial university in what Mishra would go on, years later, to call “the ruins of empire,” fueled by, in Majumdar’s words, a “vague but ineluctable” desire to read, a desire that is always also a yearning for an achieved cosmopolitanism, reading being, it turns out, for Pankaj, for me, for so many, the sweet price of acquiring cosmopolitan identity.
My own provincialism at the age of 18 was intense, despite how physically close I was to the center of empire, growing up an hour outside of New York City. Pankaj, 8,000 miles away, was reading the TLS, Partisan Review, and New York Review of Books, none of which I had ever heard of, even though the latter two were published within 30 miles of my house. The shadow of empire is cast very close to its center, cast there perhaps not dissimilarly to the way it shades its outposts; that is, as I read Majumdar’s piece, I felt an absolute kinship with Pankaj. We both read compulsively, both felt our provincial stain, both consorted with desperate and criminal characters in our reading and our lives, both craved an arrival that was textual—we weren’t looking for money (except to eat) or careers, we were looking for some transcendence we had endowed literature with the power to bestow.
The boy in The Black Stallion was not me, really—he had a horse, he traveled to “Arabia”—but Pankaj, the boy with the cosmopolitan longing in Varanasi, trying to quench that thirst by reading, yes, c’est moi. “The dream of cosmopolitanism conceived in the provincial periphery”? Yes, that was my dream, the offstage prize I fumbled toward, marooned in my own ignorance on the suburban periphery, then on the Midwestern periphery, working with my hands at building sites, at farms, at restaurants—Mishra’s cosmopolitan dream was my dream, the achievement of it promising to lift me not out of my socioeconomic position, but out of my witlessness.
Mishra, as we know, quickly became a professional: no amateurs publish regularly in the New York Review of Books. Mishra’s route to professional reading was, again like my own, circuitous, though he had several years of college under his belt by the time he was having trouble understanding Edmund Wilson. Among my odd jobs in my amateur years was one cooking breakfast and lunch for students at a small college in Dubuque, Iowa. I was an anomaly there, the one young man working with a half dozen middle-aged women, and they quite religiously enforced our coffee and lunch breaks on the precise right minute each day, at which point I would pull out a book and read while they talked about their lives, lives of husbands and kids that had very little overlap with my own countercultural debauchery. They thought I was an oddball, but we were all quite friendly.
The used bookstores in Dubuque were not as strenuously curated as Alandoni’s, but most used bookstores result in a coherent curriculum of sorts: a combination of the shopowner’s taste, the books that ended up in someone’s library before death caused their boxing up and dropping off, the books that sold enough copies that at least some were likely to survive the ravages of time, the books that were assigned in courses so had a better than average chance of still being on a shelf.
I very quickly realized that there were people, called professors, who talked about books for a living.
And we used bookstore buyers develop a keen sense of our own. Certain bindings draw the aficionado of beach reads, certain trim sizes stand out to the avant-gardist, and since shopping often means wandering down uncategorized shelf after haphazard shelf, taste culture becomes physicalized, the shopper becoming like a gold panner, sifting through stacks to spy the ore. I had gone on a Freud and Nietzsche kick, and when the school’s financial aid director saw me reading Beyond Good and Evil during one of the kitchen staff’s coffee breaks, he stopped and asked me what my story was. Not sure what he was asking, I just said: Story? Yes, he said, I see what you’re reading every day. Are you a college graduate? No, I said and laughed, no, never went to college, and I wondered how much of my complex emotions about that I betrayed—it was both the chip on my shoulder and the self-conferred epaulet that covered it. He said, well, you could go here for free if you wanted.
College after all. It turned out, I realized later, he was just looking for warm bodies to attach Pell Grants to, another camel to transport Pell Grants across the small college desert, but at the time I was, well, honored, flattered, and I agreed. For the next couple years I cooked from 5:00 AM to 1:00 PM and then went to classes in the afternoons and evenings. I very quickly realized that there were people, called professors, who talked about books for a living, read books for a paycheck. I wanted a job like that, a job that involved no piles of grilled cheese sandwiches, a job where reading was not just lunch-break enthrallment but work, a calling, a living. I started to become a professional, almost from my first day as long-in-the-tooth undergraduate; I started to become a critic.
Of course now this chapter has devolved into a somewhat boring story, which would probably be told much better by someone else and would no doubt be much more captivating if it was about somebody else, preferably a famous writer. I worry that, so far, the story is not particularly compelling, however to the point it might be, and we know that, as Fiedler says, “The critic’s unforgivable sin is to be dull.” My professional self put that line in, again suddenly desperate for a citation, a source, an authority, and it’s a paltry offering, since Fiedler was such a disreputable professional, such a renegade figure, writing against professionalism and in favor of pornography, so committed to being a maverick it appeared contrived.
Still, I feel the need to buttress this all with some critical concepts and references, and he’s better than nothing. I need to demonstrate my fealty to the archive, as Majumdar says the professional must, even as I try to understand how I came to read without one. I find myself wondering, as I muck about in the residue of those years, why Nietzsche? Freud made sense—he was the world’s most famous psychologist; I was screwed up and needed help. But Nietzsche? How did I come upon him? Then I realize: someone must have talked about him in another book—yes, that’s it; my syllabus was generated intertextually. Aha! A concept. An archive! I’m making some progress!
My amateur reading was being transformed, retroactively, by professional categories.
Until I started taking courses in my late twenties, the closest I came to having an archive I recognized as such was the board-and-cinder-block shelf full of books I had read and about which I was overweeningly proud. It was possible, I was told as I registered for classes, to get credit for outside learning and skip some requirements; I needed just to bring a list of books to a professor, who would examine me on them and give me credit for a corresponding course. I put together a list of all the novels I had read and was again quite pleased with myself. It was a long list, a hundred books or more. I asked to be given credit for a survey of English literature. The professor looked at it and smiled. All but three or four of these books were published in the last 50 years, he said. Okay, I thought, wondering why he thought that might be worth saying and also marveling that I had never noticed it. Very few of them are British, he added, and many are translations. He smiled again, finding me an interesting specimen. I’m very glad you’ve read all these books, he added, it’s all very impressive, but it is not a survey of English literature; it’s a survey of the mid-20th-century American novel with some translations and random texts thrown in. There is no poetry, no nonfiction, nothing between Beowulf and Virginia Woolf. (There was no Beowulf or Virginia Woolf, either, he just couldn’t resist the joke, which I filed away to understand later.) I’m afraid, he said, I can’t exempt you from the survey course for this.
And so my reading started to be professionalized, even in retrospect. I understood there were historical periods, and that they mattered. There were national boundaries, and they mattered. There were original languages, and that mattered. Everything in my little archive shifted. Marjorie Garber claims that the terms amateur and professional “produce each other and they define each other,” but that doesn’t feel exactly right. The professional simply redefines the amateur object. My amateur reading was being transformed, retroactively, by professional categories.
My self-image was fictional, full of contradictions: how can a kid who didn’t go to college have a PhD?
But perhaps not completely transformed. I remained undisciplined (and remain so yet). I managed to find a new university that allowed me to design my own major and then went on to a do-it-yourself, interdisciplinary PhD program that allowed me to continue my amateur recklessness. Mishra writes, in the original NYRB essay (how it eases my professional panic to call on him to say what I want to say): “I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small-town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding, the larger world.” And Majumdar (ditto, what a relief to have him pitch in here) understands the autodidactic impulse and its frustration with curricula, and that frustration’s relation to provincial self-fashioning and provincial self-loathing. I spent my time in these schools never losing my sense of being a rube, my self-identification as the working-class kid who didn’t go to college—and, indeed, I emerged from that decade of immersion with a Stanford PhD feeling as unsophisticated and frightfully undereducated as ever, with no field to call my own, no sense of mastery, no worldliness, no sense of arrival, the yearning and desire to be at home in the world as fresh as it had ever been.
My self-image was fictional, full of contradictions: how can a kid who didn’t go to college have a PhD? Well, as it turns out, it is easy to hold such contradictions—it’s just me; it’s me in my own deepest story. How can someone still feel like an outsider after four years at Stanford as a TA, however transient that position is? And then I spent three years in the belly of that institution as a full-time lecturer. But in my story, I remained unschooled, and being inside did nothing to alleviate the feeling of being outside. Even these many years later, officially a Distinguished Professor, I still feel like I don’t belong, that I am not like the other Distinguished Professors, that I am an autodidactic, undereducated, not-very-well-brought-up, etiquette-challenged, insufficiently professionalized poseur, an imposter in academic regalia.
But this chapter can’t go on being about me and my little quandaries, can it? Where’s the central idea? Where’s the disciplinary context? What is the critical theory validating this excursus? Like the idea that Shakespeare is the greatest writer because he never appears in his text (Iris Murdoch: “He’s the most invisible of writers”), most forms of criticism shun the personal, certainly the confessional, the anecdotal, because we understand the paucity of the personal, the fallacy of the affective, and so we mostly ignore the feeling of what happens when we read—unless, of course, we happen to be writing about “the reader,” which, in critical discourse, always means the amateur reader, not the professional. In any case, if so many authorities agree, it must be right: the author should disappear. Flaubert: “The artist must make posterity believe he never lived.” And so should the critic. Kundera: “The archive’s ideal: the sweet equality that reigns in an enormous common grave.” I hope it is clear I am upping the RPM now, the references per minute, as a defense against the eruption of personal feeling, a defense against the anecdote. And I hope it is clear that I mean it to be a little funny.
Why do we love what we love, whatever our profession?
Because all of this is always already (wink) personal, always situated in experience, as Majumdar reminds us. Like Mishra, Nirad C. Chaudhuri was a provincial autodidact, and also a “polymath,” a label that is an honorific form of “undisciplined.” Chaudhuri’s distaste for specialization and the curricular structure of the university, according to Majumdar, was a form of active resistance to the colonial project, which it very well may have been, and yet, Chaudhuri, c’est moi, aussi. His “absurdly utopian desire to become a polymath scholar”? Everything I’ve done, from the motley assortment of books I’ve written, all of which manage to slip through multiple disciplinary cracks, to Los Angeles Review of Books—all my work has been wayward and resistant to specialization, all of it displays utopian polymathic tendencies. I am, if anything, a hopeless encyclopediac, and this undoubtedly is, again, a cosmopolitan desire. Perhaps it is also a very understandable méconnaissance: the archive as crooked mirror.
C. L. R. James, V. S. Naipaul, Chaudhuri, Mishra—all these postcolonial writers of the former British empire teach themselves a polymathic relation to the archive rather than a specialized one, and for Majumdar this is central to their resistance. I suppose that, since America housed some of the earliest postcolonial subjects, it is not surprising that we have consistently sprouted autodidact polymaths (Benjamin Franklin, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Thomas Edison, Emma Goldman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Malcolm X, Steve Jobs) and autodidact writers (Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Laura Ingalls Wilder, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou). Autodidacticism can be the result of a desire lacking means of fulfillment—that is a lack of educational opportunity— or it can be a quirk, a choice, a resistance. What determines the idiosyncrasies of our méconnaissance? Why do some of us allow our amateur lives to be erased by professionalism? Why do some resist the very professionalism that pays our rent?
Perhaps it is a bit like asking why some of us love Gertrude Stein while she leaves others cold. Why do some of us, never having met a horse, fall in love with horses? Why do some of us embrace nationalism, or a region, or a race, while others desire cosmopolitanism, the more tenuously rooted the better? Why do we love what we love, whatever our profession? And of whom should we ask these questions? The amateur, the scholar, the critic? The rootless cosmopolitan in me says: all three.
We wandering cosmopolitans in the shadow of the archive desire nothing more than to devour it, piece by piece, to assimilate the object of our enrapturement. The scholar and the critic pretend to have already ingested it all, pretend to a comprehension that we know—that we even explicitly argue—is unachievable. The black stallion glistens in the morning light; the Arabian desert stretches out, consumes my life, my bed, my world, my night, as the bright low rising Middle Eastern sun makes of me a different boy, a boy who has left New Jersey forever, who lives in some larger world, who partakes of so much more than my little postage stamp of soil can offer. The stallion is afraid of the boat that will take him across the sea, afraid of the storm. The horse’s trainer, the professional, tries to calm him, to help him venture into new worlds, help him cross the immeasurable ocean to his new home, but the stallion is inconsolable. Can it be that only the boy knows how to touch the animal, that only he knows how to caress the sleek beast’s wildness?
Yes: only the untutored boy, it turns out, in his boundless yearning, knows how to become one with the steed, how to bring him home, how to allow for the squalls and waves smashing and shuddering the hull (they are not real! he tells the horse), how to allow for the messiness, for glorious incomprehension, for incommensurability, for love, under the covers, falling into a dream.
This essay will appear in The Critic as Amateur, edited and with an introduction by Saikat Majumdar and Aarthi Vadde. The volume will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in September 2019, with essays by Derek Attridge, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, Peter D. McDonald, Christopher Hilliard, Rasik Rosinka Chaudhuri, Mimi Winick, Emily Bloom, Melanie Micir, Kara Wittman, Zlatina Nikolova and Chris Townsend.