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J.C. Hallman: Driving The Stake

September 16, 2009

J.C. Hallman

story about the story.jpgThe whole question of beginnings is tricky–a point Geoff Dyer makes about D.H. Lawrence’s poetry in the excerpt of Out of Sheer Rage reprinted in The Story About the Story:

“Who can say when a poem begins to stir, to germinate, in the soil of the writer’s mind? There are certain experiences waiting to happen: like the snake at Lawrence’s water trough, the poem is already there, waiting for him. The poem is waiting for circumstance to activate it, to occasion its being written.”

The same may apply to editing anthologies.

Okay, an anthology is not a poem. The Story About the Story is not something I, as its editor, created or wrote. (That’s actually why I can tell you it’s a great book–I didn’t write it.) But it’s not just an anthology either, or at least I hope it’s not. I hope it’s a clarion call. I hope it changes the world–of course I do. Is that conceited? Probably. Would it be worth doing if it didn’t have a shot at accomplishing just that? Probably not.

So I’ll just assume at the outset here that the beginning of an anthology is interesting. But it’s still tricky–and I might not be able to tell you what exact circumstance resulted in its being edited.

Did the idea for The Story About the Story begin when my agent somewhat reluctantly agreed to send out a book proposal to a select group of publishers? Or did it begin when I started collecting essays of “creative criticism” to use as texts for a course at the University of Pennsylvania, a class that stemmed from a five-page essay I’d written on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw? Or when that five-page essay had itself begun as a seventy-page thesis written at Johns Hopkins? Or, years before that, when I first taught The Turn of the Screw and wondered why my students thought it was about sex? Or when I spoiled a first date with an English Ph.D. student who insisted that every use of the word “queer” in The Turn of the Screw was “loaded” (which is a load of shit)?

“I want to pen people in, get them to acknowledge that even though critics employ a standard, scientific hypothesis-proof model in their writing, no one actually winds up ‘proving’ anything in lit crit.”

All of those are important moments, but perhaps not critical ones. None of them occasioned the book.

Dracula did.

I have a bad habit of arguing with critic types. Theory-based critics, folks who go to scholarly conferences to make friends with peers who will peer-review them through the 120-pages of published material–or whatever the standard is–that they need for the tenure that will ensure that they spend the rest of their lives attending more scholarly conferences. It’s hopeless, I know–but I can’t resist picking a fight. I want to fight about authorial intent. I want to believe–as Henry James did–that it is the producer with whom we are attempting to communicate when we consider the art of literature. (I’m paraphrasing “The Art of Fiction.”) That is, when you read, you communicate with the writer. But what seems obvious to me and to all people still in possession of their souls is a blind spot to most critics.

So we squabble. I’ve ruined garden parties, been rude to people in their homes. I don’t care. I want to pen people in, get them to acknowledge that even though critics employ a standard, scientific hypothesis-proof model in their writing, no one actually winds up “proving” anything in lit crit. In fact, their “arguments” tend to be unpersuasive because they are theories born of passion that are then translated into analysis as dry as a corpse and as boring as binary code. In other words, it’s dishonest. Why do this? I ask. The answer is always the same: that’s the way it’s done.

Even people who know that it shouldn’t be done that way do it that way.

I could live with that. I could live with good people stuck in a bad system. But those people are not the only people here. It’s the other people who occasioned The Story About the Story.

I was at a dinner party one night. There was a nice pork loin and a big oval table, and good wine, and cheerful table-talk through the main course. Then, somehow, the subject of “good books” came up–by which was meant a common standard of objective aesthetic merit. Another tricky subject, to be sure, but not one that necessarily has to lead to discord. In fact, precisely to establish some common ground, I threw out what seemed to me–in a room full of sophisticated readers–to be a fairly obvious truth: a book like Dracula, say, had been very popular, of course, but it was in fact a very poorly-written book.

There was silence for a moment. And then the Victorianist next to me said, “I like Dracula.”

Was I itching for a fight? Had I drunk too much? Probably. But I didn’t steer the conversation directly to authorial intent. First, I allowed that bad books can make for interesting subject matter. Indeed, I was then writing a book about the history of utopian literature–an entire genre almost uniformly horrific from an aesthetic perspective. (The only utopian novel I would remotely defend is Austin Tappen Wright’s Islandia, which is hopelessly romantic.) Of course this was already hinting at semiotics, and I knew all that, not just from Roland Barthes, but from Charles Peirce. (Peirce was close friend of William James, the subject of the last book I’d written.) So I knew the origin of the whole sign-and-signify thing, and I thought it was great when applied to things like professional wrestling and television commercials and beer bottle labels. But literature? No, not literature! Good, serious books were written by good, serious people who knew what they wanted to say! People who took pains–suffered!–to say it. To assume that you could treat books with authors in the same way you treated authorless “texts” was an abomination. And to then turn around and assign some standard of quality to a book that had an author, but might as well have been authorless (Stoker having merely organized a set of tropes bouncing around in vampire literature for a hundred years by the time he came along), was not only wrong, boring, and frightening, it was actually a pretty good description of what’s become of the modern practice of literary criticism.

I won’t describe the melee that followed–suffice it to say we corked the wine and some people went home early. Relationships were compromised. Not that I’m bothered by it. What I came away with was a new sense of impetus, a new drive. I’d taught my old class on “creative criticism” having only ever read the non-creative version of it, and my squabbles with critics had to that point been only border skirmishes where a siege, a campaign, a war, was needed. Now I’d crossed bayonets with the hapless living dead of the enemy itself, the army of theorists who planned to suck the life out of literature just as life had been sucked out of them. I needed to do more than reach out to students a dozen at a time. I needed to drive a stake into the dead beating heart of the Beast, and leave him rotting in his coffin.

So I compiled my own army, my battalion of good souls, in The Story About the Story. If you have a soul, too, you will recognize yourself here, life peering out at life, resuscitating books, finding glory where once dwelt impotent proof.

The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature will be available October 1 from Tin House Books.

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Courtesy of Tin House and reprinted from their blog.

J.C. Hallman will be reading in New York as part of the InDigest 1207 Reading Series on October 7 at 6pm.

J. C. Hallman is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Chess Artist and The Devil is a Gentleman. A collection of his short fiction, The Hospital for Bad Poets, was published by Milkweed Editions earlier this year. His work has appeared in GQ, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He is working on a book about modern expressions of utopian thought.

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