A Short Shelf of Writers Writing on Writers

In Oranges and Peanuts for Sale, Eliot Weinberger writes, “The writing of writers tends to last longer than standard literary criticism, and not only because it is better written. Critics explain their subjects; in writer’s books, the subject is explaining the author.”

A short shelf of writers writing on writers that forever changed how I read those writers:

  1. Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force
  2. Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book
  3. André Gide’s Dostoevsky
  4. Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Hélène Cixous’ Reading with Clarice Lispector
  6. John Cowper Powys’ Dorothy Richardson
  7. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson
  8. H. D.’s Tribute to Freud
  9. T. S. Eliot’s Dante
  10. Hélène Cixous’s Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett
  11. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Papers on Dante

I’ve been particular with definition here, choosing only single study books written by writers  with an accomplished body of their own work. Michael Wood’s On Empson didn’t quite make the cut, nor any of Cynthia Ozick’s writing on Henry James, nor André Bernold’s delightfully odd memoir Beckett’s Friendship. It’s a very personal list; please let me know in the Comments section of any of your favourites.

 

Uncommon Readers

A genuine interest in criticism is an achievement in creation.

Marianne Moore

In selecting the title for this post, I should point out that it in no way refers to that dreadful Alan Bennett novel, but is a term that Christopher Knight uses to single out three especially perceptive readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, and George Steiner. In his book Uncommon Readers, Knight describes these as critics “who bring to their reviews less a position (though positions they have) than an acute intelligence, prepared to be provoked by the last book they have read and to place it at the centre of a discussion that ripples outward.”

Donoghue, Kermode, and Steiner are generally considered rather conservative, anti-theory critics, but such labels are unnecessarily reductive. James Wood is the contemporary public critic placed in a similar pigeon-hole. All three of the former are touchstone critics that I’ll read for their insight into literature, but also because of the lucidity and elegance of their work.

Virginia Woolf in How It Strikes a Contemporary wrote that any common reader possesses the capacity to interpret a text, providing they are willing to be intellectually challenged. Her goal was to create a system in which a common reader is also a common critic. My Links list on the right of this blog connects to several common readers and critics who would fit into Knight’s definition as uncommonly perceptive readers.

Criticism is rewarding when it confirms my perspective, but thrilling when it changes the way I see a book (or film or whatever). These are the critics I turn to repeatedly, not just for their insight into literature, but also for the sheer headiness of their writing: Christopher Ricks, Virginia Woolf, Hugh Kenner, Susan Sontag, Joseph Brodsky, Martha Nussbaum, Gabriel Josipovici, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Guy Davenport, Marjorie Perloff, Zadie Smith, and Helen Vendler.

No doubt there is someone significant that I’ve forgotten from this list. Please feel free to remind me, or let me know of the critics you read for sheer pleasure.

 

Thoughts on 2010 and 2011 Reading

Before this year is over I have a week on business in New York, and a fortnight’s trip to the Far East. That’s almost forty hours of reading time. I’m looking forward to the periods of sustained concentration, and pondering what to read to occupy those long hours on the aeroplane.

This year is already a watershed in my reading life. My Joycean summer and discovery of the sheer brilliance of Ulysses alone would mark 2010 as pivotal. But in the same year I have fallen heavily for the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, and the critical works of Gabriel Josipovici. The thrill of reading Don Quixote is merely the cherry on the trifle.

The transition between years is arbitrary, but a useful juncture for reflection. Next year I plan to complete my immersion into Saul Bellow’s novels, read my unread Virginia Woolf novels and more of her diaries and essays, and read more deeply of Kafka’s non fiction. Also on my list is to sample more deeply the works of Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Bernhard, Robert Walser, Marguerite Duras and Peter Handke. I’m musing with trying once again to sustain a reading of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’m also thinking it is time to reread Proust and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, but we shall see. I hope also to discover a new writer or two from my Reading the Girls List.

I have lost my innate scepticism about the concept of reading groups. This year’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves has been revelatory. The posts and ensuing discussions in comments have, in each case, enhanced my understanding and appreciation of each book. I thank Frances for getting me started and very much look forward to reading, posting and commenting along with some of “The Wolves” selections for 2011. I’ll be posting my thoughts on ‘Vilnius Poker’ later in the week.

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.

Best of Literary Criticism

Recently I posted this quote from Julian Barnes:

You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.

I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:

  1. Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
  2. Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
  3. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  4. Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
  5. Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
  6. Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
  7. William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
  8. D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
  9. Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
  10. Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.