Broadcasting Ambiguity

Sir William Empson by Fay Godwin

“Yet only writers (and certain kinds of reader) will believe they can never leave language to the side of any question.”

“Empson wants us to see literature as a kind of continuum, a viaduct from mind to mind …”

“Empson writes (in the poem “Letter I”), “I approve myself, dark spaces between stars,” and [Denis] Donoghue says, “You have to be an Ancient rather than a Modern to put yourself between that verb and that object.”

“But Empson doesn’t state the important corollary, perhaps because he thinks the judgment of a critic’s work needs to be left to that critic’s readers. The corollary is this: “if criticism can’t explain, can’t peg things out in words, it can, often magnificently, show us what there is to be looked at, prove there is a crossroad where we so far have seen only a single well-trodden track.”

“It strikes me that modern critics . . . have become oddly resistant to admitting that there is more than one code of morals in the world, whereas the central purpose of reading imaginative literature is to accustom yourself to this basic fact.”

Michael Wood. On Empson (2017)

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.

 

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.

Categories That Amuse

Voracious readers have regular dilemmas about what book to read next. At Of Books and Bicycles, the perplexity is of genre or category. Always the question of whether to read deeply to explore a category or individual writer thoroughly, or widely to embrace a wide selection of genres. The categories that provide amusement at the moment are:

  • Philosophy to deepen my reading of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; also to explore Kant to whatever extent I am capable.
  • Literary criticism of the novel: contemporary texts like James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Geoffrey Hill and Denis Donoghue; also earlier writing by Guy Davenport, Maurice Blanchot, Cyril Connolly and William Empson.
  • Fiction and non-fiction classics of all periods, with less emphasis on contemporary, and guided loosely by Bloom’s Western Canon.
  • Books about books, with the work of Alberto Manguel and Michael Dirda top of my list.
  • Natural history, inspired by my deep enjoyment of Roger Deakin.
  • A sprinkling of science, certainly all the output of cosmologist Paul Davies.
  • Psychology, working my way slowly through Freud’s essays and lectures.
  • Travel classics like Wilfred Thesiger, William Dalyrymple, Patrick Leigh Fermor.
  • Culinary-lit, particularly M. F. K. Fisher and Ruth Reichl

This is hardly comprehensive and is subject to whimsy.