The Great Divide

New Critical Essay Collections

The Great Divide

New Critical Essay Collections

The Great Divide
New books dissected over email.
May 4 1999 1:57 PM

New Critical Essay Collections

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Dear Tony,

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Throw me a curve ball, why don't you? The goal of an original relationship with the universe sounds liberating, but also abstract and over-totalized to me. "We" might not be able to have one at all, or at least we might not be able to clear away the historical obstacles (post-Cold War-ennui, ethnic balkanization, wrenching but still incomplete technological change, yadda yadda yadda) that stand in our way. But I can struggle toward mine and you can struggle toward yours, and I can try to learn from yours and vice versa. In any case, whatever "an original relationship" is, my guess is that it evolves one by one and spreads out from there, especially in crapola times like ours.

Tell me, is this anything like self-reliance? Why don't you be the Emerson pointman, and I'll tend to the other misunderstood ghost haunting this week's books, Virginia Woolf. Fadiman invokes Woolf in the preface, quoting her famous description of the common reader as a randomly educated amateur who reads for selfish pleasure and is guided, above all, "by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole----" I think it's so significant that Fadiman lops off the rest of this sentence, where Woolf throws out suggestions for the kind of "whole" she's thinking of: "a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing." The beauty of the common reader is that he's a humble person searching inside in order to go outside, as it were--trying to find that relationship with the universe that you were talking about. But Fadiman is blind to this, because she's already swept up in an adoring relationship with Anne Fadiman. Here are some of her "portraits" of writers: "I know how Kipling felt" ... "The moment I read that sentence, I knew that Macaulay and I were peas in a pod." And here's a prime example of her "theory of the art of writing": "My most frequent response to gastronomic references in literature is an immediate urge to raid the refrigerator." *#!^#@$#*%@())#!

Anyway, I don't want to ramble on about Woolf, because, like you, I disliked the way these essayists flaunt their love of a certain writer to reflect on their own taste and character. Epstein doesn't have this problem so much--he's got some self-knowledge going for him, and it's part of his shtick to make himself look cranky and limited. But Poirier swings Emerson around like a Jedi saber, and Wood leans on Woolf and especially Chekhov, and is more defensive than he needs to be about D.H. Lawrence; for Lesser, I guess you'd have to say the be-all and end-all is Dickens, but that may be because she did a thesis on him. (After reading her book, you know a lot of humdrum factoids like this about her: She likes to take dance lessons, she has lately started going to operas, and long ago she had a quirky, idealistic, memorable schoolteacher. Which is good to know, since, of course, No one in the whole history of the world ever had a quirky, idealistic, memorable schoolteacher before her.*#!^#@$#*%@())#!

Speaking of graduate theses, I loved the map you drew of professionals on one side of the divide and amateurs on the other. But I wonder if we should add the third messy element of academia. Tony, am I correct in remembering that you did some time in graduate school? I thought about it briefly but didn't, and I remember that when I came to New York instead I got lots of hearty pats on the back for this decision. For the last couple of decades or so, there's been a lot of anger and annoyance in this so-called literary world at the way academia retreated into trendy French theory and hyperpoliticized multiculturalism and traded in good clear writing for insider jargon, etc. Most of it is justified, I guess, but it occurred to me this week that some small part of it is also smug and reactionary, head-in-the-sand stuff. On the evidence of these books, the divide has been every bit as disastrous for the generalists as it's been for the profs. At least academics have to be dimly aware, for the sake of their precious careers, of changes in racial attitudes and the ways people think about and experience sexuality, and the actual existence of non-European, non-American literature, and of whether the things they are saying have been already been said 819 times by 437 other people. But not Fadiman, who writes on the problem of gender bias in language as if she' d discovered it, and makes the unbelievably vain statement, "Am I the only one who feels torn?" And not Wood, who in his overheated attack on Toni Morrison seems to taunt the do-gooder multiculturalists with an unseemly chapter title, "The Color Purple: Toni Morrison's False Magic," that unfairly lumps Morrison in with Alice Walker.

Talk about an ivory tower. Hanging on to the notion of a common reader is a brave and valuable thing, but you gotta live in the world you gotta live in. I'd like to talk more about Wood tomorrow. I was surprised by the religious element in his book, and I think we have yet to bring it out.

All 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.