In the fourth and final installment of J.C. Hallman’s series of essays about his forthcoming book The Story About the Story he discusses what makes the essays in that book stand apart from traditional literary criticism. Thanks to Tin House Books and J.C. Hallman for partnering with Guernica to bring you this series of essays.
The essays in The Story About the Story differ from traditional literary criticism in many ways. They contemplate rather than argue. They do not artificially sublimate subjectivity. They preserve mystery instead of dissecting it. And often they expand the scope of what they are willing to address so as to speak to the basics–the history, the process, the purpose–of literature itself.
I didn’t quite mean to do this when I started collecting pieces for the book, but the essays in The Story About the Story add up to a solid century’s worth of literary wisdom–straight from the horses’ mouths.
This wisdom takes a number of forms.
Cynthia Ozick (“Truman Capote Reconsidered”) begins with an elegant aphorism: “Time at length becomes justice.” Similarly, Nabokov (“‘The Metamorphosis‘”) introduces Kafka with a rapid-fire definition of art, “Beauty plus pity,” a maxim that a few pages later is met with Camus’ insistence (“Herman Melville”) that Melville is the furthest thing from Kafka but still offers “inexhaustible sources of strength and pity.”
Other contributors suggest trends. Michael Chabon (“The Other James”) recalls that “all stories…descend from the fireside tale, told with wolves in the woods all around…” and Frank O’Connor (“An Author in Search of a Subject”) contrasts Katherine Mansfield with “Joyce and Proust, who in their different, more worldly ways were also attempting a magical approach to literature by trying to make the printed page not a description of something that had happened but a substitute for what had happened.”
The book’s essays often seek to make the effect and purpose of reading a visceral experience. William Gass (“In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life”) describes beginning a book (“How easy it is to enter. An open book, an open eye, and the first page lifts toward us like a fragrance…”) and Susan Sontag (“Loving Dostoevsky”), on ending one, is “purged, shaken, fortified, breathing a little deeper, grateful to literature for what it can harbor and exemplify.”
On the stakes of literature, Robert Hass (“Lowell’s Graveyard”) finds a metaphor for a poem’s capacity to change life irrevocably: “Poems take place in your life, or some of them do, like the…day the trucks came and the men began to tear up the wooden sidewalks and the cobblestone gutters outside your house and laid down new cement curbs and asphalt streets.” Charles D’Ambrosio (“Salinger and Sobs”) unapologetically articulates why he reads at all: “Admittedly, wanting practical advice is a pretty primitive idea of what a book should do, but…I didn’t know any better, and probably still don’t.”
Walter Kirn (“Good-bye, Holden Caulfield. I Mean It. Go! Good-Bye!”) reveals the true life of books: “People tell me that the mark of a great book is the way that it sticks with you, stays vivid over time, but I disagree. The best books fade into the scenery, dissolve into instant backdrop, return to dust. But that dust is never the same; it’s changed forever.” And E.B. White, writing of Thoreau, proposes that the reader-writer relationship is much more than a contract: “He is a better companion than most, and I would not swap him for a soberer or more reasonable friend even if I could.”
Sven Birkerts (“On a Stanza by John Keats”) sets out to question the whole business of writing about reading–“Is beauty that has been made out of words impervious to other words?” To which Phyllis Rose (an excerpt from The Year of Reading Proust) offers an answer: “No matter how full we make our accounts of reading…what we produce is less than the text it describes.”
But of course, what’s at stake in the writing life is more than just chat. Seamus Heaney (“Learning from Eliot”) reminds us that a writer’s life means “the disciplining of a habit of expression until it becomes fundamental to the whole conduct of a life.”
The Story About the Story is full of such-disciplined souls.
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.