LIDIA VIANU -- THOMAS WRIGHT
Criticism is not a Science but rather a matter of preferences, passions and opinions
Interview with THOMAS WRIGHT (born 1973), British critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: You strike me as a critic who worships clarity and would not sacrifice his style to contorted intricacies. You state that ‘Borges was able to transform criticism into a kind of personal performance.’ This sounds very much like what I call the Desperado critic’s goal. Criticism is literature, not just a marginal explanation. On the other hand, it is not more important than the text, it cannot afford alienating the text. What is your position versus Deconstruction, Structuralism, and other –isms which confuse the reader, while claiming they clarify the text?
THOMAS WRIGHT: Let me say at the very beginning that I want this interview to be like a casual conversation in which both of us take an active role. It would be very boring for everyone concerned if you simply asked the questions and I then gave my long and rambling answers. And so, if you don’t mind, I too would like to ask some questions as we go along. Also, please feel free to interrupt me when you think that I am becoming either incoherent or dull or both. Of course, everyone will know that this is a written ‘e-mail interview’ but still I would like to try to give it an oral flavour. I imagine that we are sitting in a café in Prague (this would be a good venue as it is about half-way between Bucharest and London), drinking coffee (with a dash of brandy) and chatting away.
Borges is my favorite critic, although I feel a bit guilty towards the ghost of Oscar Wilde for saying so. The extraordinary breadth of his culture makes his writing very stimulating; he also wrote with a real intellectual passion and an almost childlike sense of wonder. As a stylist too, he is absolutely magnificent, maybe incomparable: he combines the bookishness of pre-modern writers such as Erasmus or Chaucer with the humour of an eighteenth century wit. Most of all, he is an intensely idiosyncratic writer: there is a strong and, to me at least, a very engaging and seductive personality behind his work. And this is what I meant when I wrote that he was able to transform criticism into a kind of personal performance. In reading Borges’ critical works you are presented with the spectacle of an extremely agile mind in the act of thinking: you are brought within the magic circle of his personality. I don’t know if you have a similar figure in Romanian literature. If you do not then maybe someone should try to become the Romanian Borges.
I like Borges’ criticism because it is so enjoyable to read (at heart I am a hedonist) and also because it is unashamedly subjective. It does not pretend to be ‘scientific’ in any way as its starting point is the existing individual (This phrase, by the way, was invented by Søren Kierkegaard, who is another of my favourite critics. Although he is more famous for his other writings he wrote marvelous essays on Hans Anderson, Sardou and a novel called Two Ages). Well, as I was saying, when you read Borges you think of a very ordinary and a very real experience: that of someone sitting down (or maybe lying down) somewhere and reading a book. You think of a person meditating on what they have read, relating it to the other books in their mental library and to the world, or simply using their reading to dream. Borges’s criticism is thus intimate and personal, like a form (a very unvulgar and unegotistical form) of autobiography. And so, although you might be able to discover within it certain intellectual habits or mental ‘ticks’, you could not ever reduce it to a set of objective principles or rules.
Now, more theoretical approaches to literature – and ‘Structuralism’ is a good example of one – seem to me to aspire to the status of science. I must say here, however, that I have never examined any of these ‘isms’ you speak of in any depth. At university I studied Modern History which in England is still based on empiricism and rhetoric (style, rather than theory, remains the essential). My knowledge of modern literary theory comes almost entirely from introductory studies such as Terry Eagleton’s excellent work ‘Literary Theory’ and a few books by Roland Barthes.
Anyway, as far as I can remember from Eagleton’s book, Structuralists believed that the ‘structure’ was the ‘real content’ of a story or myth and they sought to discover and elucidate universal narrative structures. Such an approach, apart from any of the other defects it may have, seems to me to remove criticism from the sphere of the individual and from the sphere of everyday life. The language used by Structuralists was, I seem to recall, as ‘objective’ and as esoteric as the language of mathematics: it did not assist the individual in the process of reading a book, nor could it be understood by non-Structuralists. Is this summary of Structuralism roughly correct or am I being unfair to them? I suppose that to most of the readers I must sound like a prematurely aged old-man – a sort of Harold Bloom or a Borges without the genius.
Anyway, Post-Structuralism, at least as it was practiced by Roland Barthes, appears to introduce the existing individual into the Structuralist equation. Barthes showed how the reader could play with a piece of literature; in Mythologies, his autobiography, and in The Lover’s Discourse, he also applied structuralism and semiotics to real human situations. In this respect I think that he was like Camus or Kierkegaard because, in his works, he dramatized philosophy in the context of everyday life. Of course, his idea of the individual was very different from the so-called bourgeois individual and I suppose that he would laugh at me for speaking of him as an ‘individual’ at all. Nevertheless, I think that some kind of individual (maybe we could refer to it as the post-structuralist individual) is present in his work and because of this he is able, in some of his books, to bring structuralism down from an abstract and Scientific world to the everyday world – the world, as Mallarmé once said, which ‘smells of cooking’. In many of his books he also wrote in an intimate, lucid and witty style that is neither scientific nor ostentatiously obscure. Maybe you will disagree with me but I really do feel that it is possible to derive some pleasure from Barthes’ books. Perhaps we can say that he is a good critic because there is a strong and fascinating personality behind his writings. What do you think?
LV. I am fascinated by Barthes and enjoy every line he wrote.
TW. Ah, I have not read every line he wrote – that Elements of Semiology for example is unreadable to me. Also, I have not read much Post-structuralist criticism apart from Barthes and so you must excuse my ignorance. What I have read of it, however, suggests to me that, like all great writers, Barthes has suffered at the hands of people who call themselves his disciples. Lacking his wide culture, his wit and his irony, they have tended to take him too literally and, I think, also a bit too seriously. (and I should say at this point that taking things, and themselves, far to seriously is for me the cardinal sin of many academic critics – I mean, really, reading them or listening to them sometimes you would think that they were Puritan ministers.) Anyway, back to Barthes. Let us take the example of his famous essay ‘The Death of the Author’, which was originally published, if I remember correctly, in an avant-garde issue of a magazine entirely dedicated to Mallarmé. It was, therefore, intended for other intellectuals and poets; the idea that it would become the introduction to text books of criticism that would be used throughout American and English universities was very far from Barthes’ mind. And yet this is exactly what has happened. Phrases such as ‘The Death of the Author’ and ‘the Birth of the Reader’ have become the doctrines, or the slogans, of a critical faith. I am not saying that Barthes was joking when he said these things (although he was obviously being provocative) rather that, taken out of their context, and applied by people who do not have the culture to know what an author was before he or she ‘died’, they are of absolutely no value whatsoever. There is also the larger issue of Barthes’ heterodoxy: he was, in my opinion, a Socratic gadfly who wanted to fight everything he regarded as orthodox. The idea that his work would one day become a ‘doxa’ terrified him and yet this is exactly what has happened. Maybe you think I am exaggerating here but I promise you that Americans and, to a lesser extent, English academics prostrate themselves before the altars of French literary theory. I think it is part of an Anglo-Saxon inferiority complex and I hope that Romanians do not suffer from something similar. Do they?
LV. I am afraid they do, but a superiority complex overrules it in many critics and academics.
TW. I am very pleased to hear it! But, to come back to your question (which I seem to have forgotten again), I think that Scientific and objective approaches to criticism ignore the existing individual and are, for that reason, inadequate. At least that’s what I think that I think. Also, I think that, in employing a language that is inaccessible to general readers, these Scientific critics fail to fulfil the function of criticism – which is to provide readers with a useful context in which to a read a book and to enrich their experience of reading. There, I am starting to sound like Moses or one of those people who go to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London on Sunday afternoons to make speeches to the bewildered tourists.
Now I know that this is neither a complete nor a very satisfying answer to your question (I, for one, am not satisfied with it) and I wonder what you think about the issues that I have dealt with in my very unsubtle and insensitive way – an editor at a newspaper once asked me if I wrote my book reviews in public bars. Have you anything to add (subtract) from what I have just said?
LV. I fully agree, so far.
While talking about Borges, you also state that he raises ‘criticism to the power of poetry.’ We live in the age of hybridization, when literary genres, as Martin Amis put it, ‘bleed’ into one another. What is your ideal book of criticism, the book you dream to write one day?
TW. My ideal book of criticism, the book that already exists in the Platonic library in the sky and whose pages I glimpse only in dreams (this could be, and in fact probably is, a line in Borges), has, unfortunately, already been written by someone else. It is called Intentions and it was written by Oscar Wilde. I am sure that you and all the readers who have stayed with us up to this point (let me say that I admire your powers of endurance) will have read it.
Intentions contains The Decay of Lying, a Platonic dialogue in which the autonomy of art celebrated and Pen, Pencil and Poison, an article about a Regency critic, painter, forger and poisoner, which is at once a brilliant biographical essay and a witty parody of that genre. It also includes The Critic as Artist, Wilde’s long Platonic dialogue, in which he adumbrates his idea of the perfect critic. For Wilde, the ideal critic is someone who uses the work they are criticizing as the starting-point for their own creation. The book ends with a disappointing essay called The Truth of Masks which was probably put in as ‘padding’. This reminds me of something Wilde once said in a book review: ‘the proof of the padding is in the reading’. (I wonder if you will be able to understand this joke, which is an inversion of an English cliché? I would explain it but then it would no longer be funny.)
It seems that Wilde later wanted to substitute for The Truth either his story The Portrait of Mr W.H. or his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. The first of these is an exciting tale of literary detection in the manner of Borges and an essay in which a brilliant theory concerning Mr W.H., the mysterious dedicatee of Shakespeare’s sonnets, is put forward. Wilde suggests that Mr W.H. was Willie Hughes, a beautiful boy-actor who took the female parts in Shakespeare’s plays and who became the Bard’s great love and muse. As the story concerns forgery and literary crime it is both very funny and very appropriate that Wilde stole the Willie Hughes theory from an eighteenth century scholar called Thomas Thyrwhitt who was the editor and defender of Thomas Chatterton’s forged ‘Rowley Poems’. Chatterton can in fact be described as the presiding genius of this story: he is there somewhere, behind every line.
In The Soul of Man, Wilde develops the social and political dimension of his aestheticism and describes a Wildean utopia in which everyone, not just the rich, will be able to lie around in the long grass discussing Dante and the Phaedrus. This essay tends to shock most people as they regard Wilde simply as a kind of aristocratic dilettante or flaneur. My ideal book of criticism would therefore be a revised edition of Intentions in which The Truth was cut and replaced by both Mr W.H. and The Soul of Man.
Why is this my favorite work of criticism? Well, in the first place it is the most characteristic and brilliant work of my favorite author. For me Oscar Wilde was a kind of dandy of the intellect, a man who played gracefully with ideas and who made a game or a toy of thought. And, of course, he is extremely funny. The dialogue form was thus perfectly suited to him. It allowed him to explore an idea from every point of view and to delicately trace its development and its movement. And it was this movement, rather than the notion of arriving at a particular conclusion, that fascinated Wilde: he regarded ideas as notes in a marvellous symphony that he was composing. By this I do not mean that Wilde was not a ‘serious’ thinker: his very refusal to take ideas seriously is a serious philosophical position. It is just that Wilde was never earnest or ponderous and, regrettably, it is these qualities (if they can be called qualities) that people still expect from philosophers and critics. As I said before, I find a lot of academic criticism too solemn these days – it suffers from the fact that critics take themselves far too seriously. Maybe this explains why no one else takes them seriously.
Intentions is animated by Wilde’s remarkable personality: it is audacious, it is funny and it is irresponsible. Many people have compared Wilde’s works to champagne or to music and these analogies are accurate. Intentions is that very rare thing: a book in which, to go back to your question, criticism really is raised to the power of poetry. As I have said, in The Critic as Artist Wilde described a kind of criticism that was subjective, creative and completely independent. In that dialogue, and in the other contents of my hypothetical edition of Intentions, Wilde is both prophet and messiah: he exemplifies and demonstrates this kind of criticism even as he describes it.
Mr W.H., for example, is an extraordinary story and in The Decay of Lying Wilde’s mastery of the dialogue form is absolute. Recently I had to write something about The Decay for an American encyclopaedia and in my criticism I suggested that it was the finest dialogue ever to have been written in the English language. This may seem an outlandish claim to people who think of Wilde as a lightweight author – a kind of aesthetic Groucho Marx without the moustache – but if you compare The Decay with one of Walter Savage Landor’s ‘Imaginary Conversations’ or to one of Thomas Love Peacock’s satires you will see what I mean. What I really wanted to say in my article was that this dialogue is one of the greatest ever written in any language: honestly, I think that it bears comparison with the work of Lucian, Erasmus or Plato. Anyway, the point, which I will come back to in my answer to your next question, is that Wilde really did succeed in writing criticism that is also art: the holy grail of twentieth century critics.
There are many other reasons why I love Intentions. As Terry Eagleton once said to me while we were playing cards (this is a joke, as I don’t believe that he ever plays cards), in Wilde’s notion of ‘Language as self-referential, truth as a convenient fiction, the human subject as contradictory and ‘deconstructed’ and criticism as a form of ‘creative’ writing he looms up for us more and more as the Irish Roland Barthes’ and anticipates a great deal of twentieth century theory. Wilde criticism is, in other words, still very much part of our intellectual and historical horizon: it has a freshness and a contemporary resonance that the work of a critic such as Walter Pater lacks.
The fact that my ideal work of criticism has already been written of course presents me with a great problem. How can I write something better, how can I, in Bloom’s (Harold’s not Leopold’s) phrase, overcome my anxiety of influence? Now I turn to you for some advice because you surely must have already written your ideal work of criticism. Have you?
LV. Not really. I am dreaming of my perfect work of fiction, but in criticism I could not be farther from perfection.
TW. I am very glad to hear that you are not quite perfect yet. That would leave no room for development.
LV. You say that a novel (House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski) is ‘far more interesting to talk about than it is to actually read.’ This is a Wildean way of handling puns half-innocently, half-wickedly. It also shows that you do enjoy a good pretext for criticism, even at the expense of fiction. Your creative joy is obvious. You seem to be the new critic who drags criticism into the field of imagination, and gives rigour a break. How rigorous do you think a critical text should be, and how far can it stray in the other – so much more interesting – direction?
TW. This boy Danielewski drove me to distraction, largely because his tedious novel is the literary equivalent of conceptual art. In other words, the ideas ‘behind’ it were of greater importance than its form or style and he could have saved the reader the extremely arduous task of wading through the 700 pages of his book by simply publishing a short list of the banal things he wanted to ‘say’. This reminds me of something a girl once said to me at a party. She was talking about Heidegger. ‘Martin’, she said (I do not know what had given her the right to address Heidegger by his first name), ‘was an arse-face [I should say at this point that she was from Naples and that the phrase she used was ‘faccia di culo’]. He started out with a perfectly clear idea of what he wanted to communicate: being-in-time, being-in-the world and all the rest of it. But when he actually came to write he used such an obscure style that it is impossible for anyone to understand what he wanted to say. Why, I want to know, didn’t he just publish the plans of his books: a list of things he wished to communicate, instead of writing them out?’
I am certain that you have you read Heidegger. I have not had that particular pleasure. They tell me that even the Germans have to read it in translation. I could, however, sympathize with the girl because I once tried (and failed) to read Kant’s bewildering Critique of Pure Reason (this title seems to me to be in some way ironic – as though the whole of that unreadable book really is a ‘Critique’ or satire on reason). But while I think that the girl’s idea may be valid in relation to the work of certain (well, let us be frank, generally German) philosophers, I do not think it is valid for literature or for anything that aspires to the status of art. I think it only fair to warn you that here I will start to sound a bit like Harold Bloom again, a man who is like an Old Testament prophet born out of time.
For a piece of writing to be classed as literature I think that the reader must derive some pleasure from the actual experience of reading it. The style of the writing must contribute to its overall effect: in fact it must be inseparable from its ‘content’. Perhaps you can tell me whether it is the Greek or the Latin word for ‘poet’ that can be literally translated as ‘maker’ (I did not, alas, receive a Classical education as my family could not afford to give me one).
Well this reveals a simple but important truth about literature – that a writer is someone who makes something out of words in a more accomplished way than someone who isn’t an artist. The value of their work does not necessarily derive from the abstract Platonic idea behind it but from the way in which the idea is embodied, the intention executed. All of this has, of course, been said many times, and much better, before now: Mallarmé remarked, for example, that poems were not made out of ideas but out of words.
This may seem to you a very simple and a very unnecessary thing to say but at the moment conceptual art and conceptual literature are very fashionable in England. I don’t know if this is also the case in Romania but here artists and writers always think that it is necessary to have something interesting and original to ‘say’. Who told these people they ought to be thinkers? Who told them that their ‘ideas’ matter to anyone apart from their mothers and, in some cases I hear, not even to their mothers? Ultimately the Romantics are to blame, I suppose … but why don’t you tell me your thoughts about this and why don’t you tell me who you think is responsible.
LV. It is much more fun to watch you say exactly what I dare not, not in my Romanian present context.
TW. Ok. But when you start to get ear-ache from hearing me go on for such a long time please tell me and I will shut up. Now, to talk about the stylistic or ‘aesthetic’ value of a piece of writing is very unpopular in academic circles in England. I am sure that things are different in Romania because, in my limited experience, people in continental Europe are much more aware of their culture than people in England and America. No one in Italy, for example, would question the importance of studying canonical writers such as Dante or Leopardi and no one would feel the need to justify doing so. In England and in America it is otherwise.
And this brings me around, in a very circumlocutory (this is a really Dickensian word) way, to the question of ‘creative criticism’ or, in Wilde’s phrase, to the idea of ‘The critic as artist’. Many commentators have spoken about this in the last fifty years – Barthes, Said, Bloom, Alan Bun, Frye to name a few people – but I wonder how many of them actually wrote criticism that achieved the status of art. Barthes is a great stylist and Bloom is certainly readable but neither of them have written works that display the mastery of language and form that we find in say, the writings of Wilde or Borges. (Well maybe you would disagree about Barthes, and maybe, on reflection, I do too). Now, I have to say that my reading and my culture are not as wide as yours so you must tell me if you think I am wrong. Have I been unjust to some of our modern critics?
LV. You have been just to criticism as literature, and that is delightfully refreshing. I could not agree more.
TW. But I wonder, if I may be a bit polemical and self-contradictory for a moment, why there has been this recent interest in the idea of ‘creative criticism’. Is it because critics, and in particular academic scholars, have tried to use the idea to maintain and augment their positions of power? Barthes’ idea of the ‘birth of the reader’ seems very liberating at first, but one consequence of it has been that critics have come to be regarded, in some quarters, as equal, or even superior, to creative writers. Academic criticism has been one of the great boom industries of the latter half of the twentieth century: here and in America, for example, academic publishing is thriving. I wonder then if the idea of ‘creative criticism’ and the ‘critic as artist’ is, in the hands of academics, really as disinterested as it first appears.
Also, and again what I am saying is very polemical, I wonder whether or not the idea of creative criticism is an attempt on the part of academics to justify the very practice of literary criticism. It seems to me that, in England and America at least, literary criticism has gone, and is still going through, a kind of crisis in which questions such as ‘What the hell are we doing this for?’ have been asked. ‘Creative criticism’ is one answer to this overwhelming question. But I think it is only a valid answer if critics really do produce work of artistic worth: it is one thing to talk about it and another to actually do it.
And so if we critics are not genuine artists – if we are not, that is to say, as great as Wilde or Borges – I really think – and I suppose that you will disagree with me – that we should be a bit more humble about what it is that we are doing. And what is it that we should be doing? Well, for me, criticism is primarily a question of trying to provide readers with a context – historical, aesthetic, biographical – in which to read. We ought to be, in Pushkin’s vivid phrase, the messenger who takes the letter from the writer to the reader: no more and no less – except, of course, if we really are artists. For most of us to imagine that we are actually Pushkin (or more important than Pushkin) is, I think, absurd. An English commentator once suggested the following distinction between the artist and the critic which, in most cases, seems to me to hold true. The artist, he said, has the capacity to discover America, while the critic can only hope to discover Columbus. I now expect you to enter into this debate with a whole cavalry of arguments behind you. Do you think I am talking nonsense?
LV. It all makes sense. I would like you to allow a better part to critics, though, in case they also want to be creative and discover something else besides Columbus. A hill? A river? Eliot was a very good advocate of this, when he talked about his favourite critical approach as workshop criticism.
TW. Yes, I think that you are right and Eliot is certainly a good example of a creative critic – a writer who used criticism to try out new ideas and who, through it, attempted to create the kind of critical atmosphere in which his own ‘creative’ work would be favorably judged. Although he often sounds like a preacher – as something of an outsider in England he assumed an authoritative tone in order, I think, to sound more English than the English – I like essays such as ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ and the pieces on Baudelaire and Lancelot Andrewes very much. Speaking of Columbus, however, I was reminded of the words of the great American detective ‘Columbo’ – that there is ‘just one more thing’ I would like to say on the subject of creative criticism. In the interests of both you and the small group of masochistic and eccentric readers who have continued reading, I will try to be brief.
When ‘Literature’ became an important University subject in England (in around the 1920s and 30s) it started to exercise an influence on the creative work of the period. For instance (and as an Eliot scholar you will know much more about this than I do) Eliot’s The Waste Land was full of allusions and obscure literary references partly because he wanted to make his work interesting to scholars who, in that period, were concerned with things like source-hunting and the relationship of individual talent to the tradition. Joyce’s famous comment about Ulysses (viz. that it would keep the academics busy for centuries) might also be mentioned in this context. I think that Joyce was a very shrewd Irishman who knew that, if he was to convince the world of his genius, the academics had to be won over first.
In the last thirty or so years the relationship between ‘creative’ and academic writing has become even closer still. The very idea of ‘creative criticism’ that we have spoken about is evidence of this but also, if you look at some of the novels that have been written in this period, it is obvious that their authors have an academic audience in mind. Think, for example, of the novels of John Barth or David Lodge, which draw upon and dramatize certain kinds of academic criticism. These novels do not really need to be ‘translated’ into a critical language as they are actually written in a style that is immediately accessible to academics. It is no coincidence, of course, that some of the novels of these writers are set in English and American universities and that they are both professors of literature. I also believe that Barth and Lodge teach ‘creative’ writing courses: another example of the close link between academia and what used to be known as ‘literature’. Nowadays, these writing courses produce many English novelists.
As usual I am probably exaggerating but I think there is a kind of Swiftian lunacy about this situation. Writers, who are themselves either academics or who have been ‘taught’ to write by them or for them, are currently producing works that can be easily taught and ‘criticized’ and which thus feed and sustain the academic industry. Gore Vidal, who has written very incisively and wittily about all of this, calls this type of literature ‘school-teacher writing’. Vidal argues (and I must say that I agree with him on this, and indeed on nearly all matters) that the university has become the place in which literature is created and dissected and that the distinction between creating and dissecting has become blurred. Now these universities are entirely removed from the everyday world (where, you will ask, is this imaginary place? For the sake of my argument I need you to believe in it for a second). They are like factories located on the outskirts of a town (which is, in fact, exactly the location of many English and American Universities). The analogy between the university and the factory is accurate except in one sense: the university makes products that are consumed only by its own factory workers. There is no market for this literature in the ‘outside’ world, except the part of that world which includes people who studied literature at university.
It could be argued, of course, that there is no need to worry about this situation and that great literature can be produced under these conditions. Reading contemporary fiction, however, I am not so sure. And this brings me right back to Danielewski whose book is typical of the kind of academically orientated writing I have been talking about. When I said that the novel was more interesting to talk about than it is to read I was being imprecise. I should have said that it was more interesting to teach than it is to read. Now, after this rant, I must lie down.
LV. In this contemporary multitude of critical approaches, and surrounded by this crazy compulsion of sticking to one and using it mathematically, you seem to be closer to commonsensical thematic criticism. You might prefer the critic to be the universal man, the Renaissance painter who saw the anatomy in the body, not stripped of it. Do you ever use a special critical jargon in your criticism? Do you approve of a specialized style, which requires the reader to learn it as if it were a foreign language?
TW. I like very much this idea of seeing anatomy in the body and you are quite right to say that my approach to criticism is commonsensical and thematic. I think that the reason for this is that I was born and I grew up in England, a country that is famous for its pragmatism and anti-intellectualism (as well – and you will know all about this from your recent trip to London – as its appalling weather and its awful cooking). It is no coincidence that the most important English philosophers of the last three hundred years have been associated with empiricism and utilitarianism because the English are a very practical and, so far as ideas and theories are concerned, a very philistine people. It is also because I am not an academic (I do not have a PhD. and my M.A. was purchased from Oxford University for 10 pounds – the price of two average bottles of wine).
But my approach is also due to the fact that my main critical work consists of writing book reviews for the daily newspapers in England. Now these are read by that non-academic group of people who used to be called ‘general readers’. Does this group of people still exist? I think that they must do because I class myself as one of them but I suppose that we are a dying breed.
Anyway, as I see it, the purpose of a book review is to give the reader an idea of the particular qualities of a book, to place it in some kind of context, and, ultimately to tell them if it’s worth spending £10 on or not. Book reviewers are not really critics and they are certainly not artists. In fact both academic critics and authors tend to dismiss them as ‘hacks’ (people who churn out newspaper copy for money) and amateurs. Some book reviewing is truly abysmal (particularly the variety that is autobiographical and which reads like an entry from the reviewer’s diary) but, at its best, I think that it continues an ancient genre of critical writing that was practiced by authors such as Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt. I mean of course the ‘essay’ form that flourished in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Essayist-critics can be related to those men of the Renaissance who ranged over a number of intellectual disciplines. The essay is a genre that is urbane (and usually urban – we think of the essayist as scribbling away in a coffee house in Piccadilly), digressive and chatty: behind the essay there must be a recognizable voice. Essays were usually written by people with a wide culture who were recognized as sage-like figures or as arbiters of literary taste in their society. The authority of such figures derived not from the institutions they represented (in most cases they represented no one but themselves) but from the depth of their culture and the magnificence of their style. Some other examples that come to mind are Carlyle, Emerson, Virginia Woolf and, today, Peter Ackroyd or Gore Vidal.
The antithesis of such figures is of course the professional, specialized academic who, since the end of the nineteenth century has dominated literary criticism and effectively, though maybe unintentionally, killed off the essayist-sage, the ‘man of letters’. In direct contrast to the essayist, the style of many academics seems to consist of unreadable jargon that is, quite frankly, not really worth the trouble of deciphering. Of course there are many exceptions to this (Terry Eagleton and Frank Kermode for example write clearly and accessibly). I realize too that economic and social conditions are such that it is now virtually impossible to be an essayist in England in the way that a writer like Ezra Pound was a century ago. I am sure that, were things not as they are, many professors would leave academia and write solely for newspapers and periodicals such as the TLS and the London Review of Books. But it is impossible to live by journalistic work nowadays (it is even harder to survive on creative or pure literary work) and most people are forced to become academics. I imagine this is also the case in Romania. But tell me honestly if you became an academic through choice or through necessity? If you could earn enough money to survive from your creative work would you continue to write academic criticism?
LV. I am afraid what I do is not exactly academic criticism. You are the literary secretary of Peter Ackroyd, and you have written about him. You see in his books ‘games’ which the readers ‘must try to play as best they can.’ This is my idea of a Desperado writer. At the same time, the Desperado critic is quite disappointed if the games are not there. Are you like that? Could you go back to the old Dickensian convention and be happy with what you read?
TW. You mention the fact that I am Peter Ackroyd’s literary secretary – that is, his researcher and general assistant. Let me say at once that I am incredibly fortunate to have this job as it is this that has given me the money and the spare time that I need to write for myself. Since my family has no money without this job I would have had to study for a PhD six years ago or, like many of my university friends, I would have been forced to take up a useful profession such as accountancy or soliciting. I am, therefore, conscious of the fact that my attitude to criticism and, in particular, my hostility towards academia is made possible by my privileged social and economic position. This is entirely due to the fact that I work for Peter Ackroyd.
The playfulness that I discern in Peter Ackroyd’s work and which you refer to as being characteristic of the ‘Desperado’ writer is, as you say, very common nowadays. I also agree that, after reading authors such as Umberto Eco or Leonardo Sciascia (an amazing writer I have only just discovered), it is very hard to go back to novelists such as Dickens. The main difference between Dickens and say Eco, is I suppose, that Dickens does not allow the reader to take an active part in his stories (in academic jargon they are ‘readerly’ or ‘closed’ works). He is not interested in creating a space between the reader and the book, a space in which the reader has the freedom to think and to play. Rather like the film director Steven Spielberg, he demands passivity from readers and our relationship with his books tends to be emotional (through empathy and identification with the characters) rather than intellectual.
I am sure that you would agree with me however, when I say that the kind of playfulness we are talking about can also be found in the work of novelists of the past. Cervantes, Sterne, and Carroll are only the most obvious examples. But is the playfulness that you are concerned with something altogether different from the playfulness of these writers? Would it, for example, be impossible to define Sterne as a ‘Desperado’ author?
LV. No. On the other hand, some bitter authors I have interviewed told me the very same thing as a reproach, an attempt to snub, show me I was on the wrong track. The difference from what went before is in quantity, in recurrence. It is a common feature now, while it was just isolated avant la lettre before.
TW. Yes. I see what you mean. Italo Calvino, in fact, makes this point in an essay he wrote about Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste. He says that Diderot’s self-reflexive style was a challenge to the conventional literature and the philosophy of his period but that nowadays this style is common. And of course, no one exemplified the truth of this better than Calvino himself. But, as to going back to writers such as Dickens, I must confess to secretly enjoying his works. I feel quite guilty about this for exactly the reasons that I have mentioned – that is, that there is very little intellectual engagement when you read him. I could be disingenuous and say that I admire Dickens as a stylist or that I approach him in the ironic spirit that informs Oscar Wilde’s famous comment ‘One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.’ The fact is though that I find Dickens very funny and, although the sentimentality and the moralizing can get a bit annoying, his gifts as a comic writer, as a painter of London street scenes and as a caricaturist make him eminently readable. On my mother’s bookshelves there is a complete edition of Dickens’ works and I know that, when I am old and in my anecdotage (in, that is, a couple of years), I will slowly read my way through them all. Maybe if I have children or grandchildren I will make them read Dickens to me. This would be a dreadful thing to do and it reminds me of that terrifying story by Evelyn Waugh in which a prisoner is forced to read Dickens to his captor for a period of several years. But, tell me, do you enjoy reading Dickens?
LV. Yes. But I enjoy more tearing him down from his pedestal for the sake of argument, in order to show my students (I teach 20th century British literature) how we differ, what it means to step into a new millennium with new tricks (I hope you won’t mind this word which makes most academic-poets in your country rave).
TW. No. I love the word ‘trick’ and I think it perfect in this context. It reminds me of the artfulness and mischievousness of Shakespearean Fools or of the great Till Eulenspeigel or of Loci, the Scandinavian God. It captures the craftiness and the wit and also the nihilism of much modern writing. According to my dictionary, it comes from the old French word for treachery.
Now, perhaps you will disagree with me here, but I think that certain kinds of ‘Desperado’ writing (if I have understood this term correctly) can become a bit dull or, more accurately, a bit sterile after a while precisely because, sometimes, they deny the reader the possibility of emotional engagement. I could mention something like Italo Calvino’s boring If on a winter’s night a traveller in this context. Now this book is too relentlessly intellectual and ‘arch’ or ‘ironic’ for my humble taste. I prefer works that combine the virtues of traditional writing – strong narratives, exciting situations, sharply defined characters, emotional appeal – with the kind of playfulness that we are talking about. Great modern historical novelists, such as Suskind, Sciascia, Fowles, Eco or Peter Ackroyd seem to me, for instance, to satisfy the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of readers. I suppose this is why I am drawn to the historical novel – it is a potent mixture of traditional and modern writing.
LV. In my opinion, Desperadoes do resort to emotional involvement (see Ishiguro) but hide it under mock-heroic irony.
You write about Chatterton: ‘if you pricked the characters they would bleed quotations.’ This is just one example of the vividness of your style. You enjoy writing, and your text, though highly analytical and very much to the point, could not be farther from dry research. Do you also write fiction, or poetry? Is criticism your only way into creation?
TW. I think that it is absolutely necessary for critics to enjoy their work, not only because joy is infectious but also because criticism is not, as I have said, a Science but rather a matter of preferences, passions and opinions. Without these things it is impossible, in my opinion, to write criticism or anything else. ‘A thinker without passion’, wrote Kierkegaard, ‘is like a lover without love – a paltry, mediocre thing’.
I could also mention Oscar Wilde here (I apologize by the way for always bringing him into the conversation but the fact is that I literally think sometimes in quotations from his work – this very sentence in fact is a half-quotation from him) who said that an unbiased critical opinion was meaningless: it is, of course, also an impossibility. Because of this, the criticism that is valuable and the criticism that tends to survive (maybe these are not always the same things), is coloured by the prejudices and the character of the person who has written it. Think, for example, of the criticism of Johnson, Pound or Hazlitt. But I do not want to bore you by repeating things that I have already said and that other people have said before me.
Up to the present I have mainly written criticism. But (and this probably contradicts everything I have previously said against creative criticism) I have always believed (and hoped) that the transition from criticism to creative work would be a smooth one. This certainly proved to be the case with a story that I wrote about Oscar Wilde recently which was composed concurrently with a scholarly article on the same subject. To my relief I found that the two kinds of writing animated each other and, to some extent, overlapped. In fact, when I think about it, it was somehow easier for me to introduce and to explore critical ideas indirectly in the story than it was to do so directly in my article.
This may demonstrate, in a very small and insignificant way, the general possibility of creative criticism. However, it may also have something specifically to do with Oscar Wilde. Wilde, as you know, was a great stylist and also a very pithy writer (think of his prose poems or his epigrams). Because of this, it is very difficult to translate his writing into a form that does not destroy its essential quality (which resides in its style). Wilde’s writing resists summary or dilution: it can only be repeated or, in some way, reperformed. This is why, when not quoting Wilde, many of his critics (i.e. me) end up trying to write like him. Authors such as Peter Ackroyd, Terry Eagleton or C. Robert Holloway, take this a stage further by writing criticism that takes the form of plays and novels in which they parody Wilde’s style. And this is what I also tried to do in my short story. Perhaps what I have just said about the difficulty of translating literature into the terms of content analysis is true with regard to any great writer.
Anyway, my story has encouraged me to try to write other fictional works and, at the moment, I have a novel in mind that may well turn out to be a creative-critical book. I am encouraged in this endeavour by my favorite authors, all of whom have been great critics and also great creative writers. The relationship between criticism and creative writing in the work of Borges is obviously a symbiotic one, for example, and I hope that this will also be true in my case. I think, however, that you should be the one to speak on this subject as you have written about 100 times more than I have. Do you distinguish, I wonder, between your critical and creative work?
LV. I do, and it does not make the former any more appealing. You are almost happy when you conclude an essay on Ackroyd by saying, ‘Ackroyd’s oeuvre cannot be closed: we cannot attribute to it an ultimate meaning.’ It is my theory that this is the major feature of a Desperado writer, and that no Desperado reader could do without it, because the reader has changed so much that old fashioned clarity and stability would bore him. I wonder if you would accept being called a Desperado critic, one that cannot enjoy a piece of literature unless there is a part in it for him, too, namely that of proclaiming the beauty of uncertainty, of ingenuity, of inconclusiveness?
TW. I am very happy to accept this title because I like your idea of the ‘Desperado critic’ and also because I have been called many far worse things in my time. In your book, or rather your ‘reading diary’, British Desperadoes at the turn of the millennium you say that ‘Desperado literature’ has created ‘Desperado Readers’ and ‘Critics’. I think that this is quite true in my case – in fact sometimes I feel as though I am Borges’ creation and that I am living out, with unnecessary footnotes and interpolations, something that he has written. I also like the fact that, instead of enumerating the attributes of a ‘Desperado Critic’ and discussing the subject on an abstract level, you dramatize and exemplify the role of the ‘Desperado Critic’ in your own criticism, which I find delightfully rambling and very readable. I hope that the same could be said of this interview.
And now, I really must stop talking – I have, alas, neither the energy nor the linguistic resourcefulness of a character in Joyce or Woolf. Before I go, I want to thank you very much for our conversation and to tell you what a pleasure it has been to chat with you. I think that one of the best things in the world is to sit down and talk about literature even if we have to use the internet to do so. I have always believed (maybe mistakenly) that the café culture of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris – the culture of poetry readings, alcohol, talk, alcohol, artistic movements, and alcohol – created the atmosphere in which great works of art could be conceived and born. Maybe with the internet it will be possible to create one enormous European café in which people can chat and exchange ideas as we have done today. I hope so.