New Critical Essay Collections

New Critical Essay Collections

New books dissected over email.
May 3 1999 1:19 PM

New Critical Essay Collections

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Dear Tony,

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I lead off with a brief prelude of self-pity. Five. Count 'em--five. That's the number of books we poor toilers have been asked to cover this week.

Now to work. Our job is to diagnose the current health of the literary essay, and since diagnosing is a stressful business, let's not beat around the bush. Here's what I think is going on. It's clear that our patient, the essay, is operating well beneath his full capacity. He's not as robust or playful as he used to be; his vision is a little cloudy; and lately he's been clinging to known routines, which could be an indicator for some form of depression. However, and let me emphasize this, I see absolutely no reason to despair. After a thorough going-over, I can tell you his brain is functioning normally. I see no alarming growths, viruses, inflammations, or arterial clogs. There's nothing fatal going on here--nothing that some exercise and a change of scenery couldn't cure.

In other words, I think the sky is still the limit for the literary essay, only the writers we're discussing--Anne Fadiman, Richard Poirier, Joseph Epstein, Wendy Lesser, and James Wood--don't know it. Their books are quite various, but one thing almost all have in common is an approach to literature as a fixed, defined thing--something that is pretty well understood, that mostly occurred in the past, and that is for all practical purposes over. There was an insular, nostalgic, echo-chamber or whisper-gallery quality to reading these collections in quick succession. The same great old names kept cropping up, over and over again: Emerson, Dickens. Eliot, Emerson. Dickens, Eliot, Woolf. (That's someone we'll definitely have to talk about this week, Tony. Did you notice how a couple of our writers invoked Virginia Woolf as the model of criticism, and proceeded to write with purposes and styles that bore no resemblance to each other--and barely any resemblance, for that matter, to Woolf?)

Needless to say, Emerson and company are peerless, quite possibly better than we'll ever see again. Still, if you're going to turn out literary essays, I should think it would come in handy to hope that literature is something that can still be written today. None of these essayists seems to have kept up this faith. In very different ways, they're all looking back over their shoulders. Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris is a self-consciously quaint exploration of her lifelong devotion to books--how she arranges books on her shelves, and how she and her husband and writers through the ages have inscribed volumes to each other, etc. Fadiman is widely, interestingly read and often charming, but I feel that she fetishizes reading, reduces it to a hobby on a par with gardening, and drops the names of famous and obscure old books to reflect on her own inimitable quirkiness.

Richard Poirier's Trying It Out in America is an altogether more serious effort (excessively so--he could use some humor), energized chiefly by Poirier's brilliant skill as a reader. But he too is unhealthily fixated on the past. His essays on Whitman and Melville and T.S. Eliot beat too hard on the dead horse of Americanness, and in particular of American genius. As for Joseph Epstein's The Narcissist Leaves the Pool, it's ... well, it's Joseph Epstein, which is to say exquisitely pleasurable, reliably well-crafted writing in a style that blends Montaigne and James Thurber and doesn't much aspire to break new ground. (I'm not being mean here--he says so himself, in the strongest passage in the book.) Wendy Lesser's The Amateur is perhaps the most open-minded of the books we're considering (her topics include the choreographer Mark Morris and the poet Thom Gunn). Significantly, though, Lesser also strikes me as the least literary of the lot, and, stylistically speaking, by far the least ambitious.

This brings us to James Wood, who has written the most challenging collection, and the hardest to characterize. I always look forward to Wood's pieces in The New Republic, and all his best characteristics--his intensity and passion and his distinctive fierce-but-restrained style--are on moving display in The Broken Estate . But I found this collection confusing. Time and space are slipping away, so I'll have to explain why tomorrow; for now I'll just say that Wood's depressing Isaiah Berlinian/PartisanReview-ish title and his obsessive focus on a fairly standard canon--Austen, Arnold, Eliot, Woolf--make him seem more nostalgic than I suspect he wants to be, and could be. But maybe I'm unfair? I can't wait to hear what you thought of these books. I can't say I loved any of them, but I have to admit they got me fired up with ideas about the essay, and what it can do.

Best,
Sarah

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A.O. Scott is Sunday book critic for Newsday and a regular contributor to Slate. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss a selection of new critical essay collections.