Who can identify the author of these invigorating, clear-headed words?
“It might be argued that the habitual story-teller would be better not to enter the critical field at all. At the same time, pleasure and interest attach, for the writer himself, to the experiment – there is probably no one who is willing to rest until he has tried his pen upon everything. Few are the subjects upon which there can be nothing to say: the difficulty is in the manner of saying it. Criticism makes unexpected demands on what had hitherto been narrative style. Clearness, immediacy and honesty, in the expression, are what is wanted: that should be simple. But the writer whose type of mind is, by nature, practical is shy of (and possibly overrates) the necessity, in criticism, for theory. Mechanical difficulties with language are the outcome of internal difficulties with thought.”
If you guessed Henry James, I congratulate you on your shrewdness and proffer a hearty handshake, but tactfully confess you are wrong. The exacting syntax seems to be a giveaway, and that constitutes a bona fide clue: This writer, who crafted first-rate novels and stories, was a close reader of James and occasionally produced a passage that reads like a Jamesian pastiche. Other than James, how many fiction writers have also produced lasting, worthwhile criticism? We find wayward nuggets of critical insight – in letters, journals, essays -- in Melville, Chekhov, Joyce, Beckett – and in the writer quoted above. In terms of substantial bodies of critical writing we have Woolf, Gass, Ozick, Updike – who else among fiction writers? Surely, I’m forgetting someone. This species of “multitasking” – there’s an unpleasant neologism – is rare, though it’s not rare among poets – the hybrid “poet-critic” to describe everyone from Dryden and Coleridge to Eliot and Empson is a recognized job description, especially in the English tradition.
On another level, I like the excerpt for reasons that have nothing to do with writing fiction. I like the sweeping confidence of it: “…there is probably no one who is willing to rest until he has tried his pen upon everything. Few are the subjects upon which there can be nothing to say: the difficulty is in the manner of saying it.” About 15 years ago I made a similar point when I reviewed A Neutral Corner, a collection of A.J. Liebling’s boxing pieces that had never before appeared in book form. I hate boxing but I love Liebling, who loved boxing. Here’s how I put it: “A great writer can take the unlikeliest or most distasteful of subjects – say, disco or John Sununu – and through the alchemy of his prose transmute them into the precious metal of literature.” Who has done this? Besides Liebling I think of Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Stendhal, William Cobbett, Hazlitt. These are not aesthetes but scrappy, all-purpose professionals. It’s significant that the numbers dwindle in the 20th century. Edmund Wilson? Mary McCarthy? Whither the man or woman of letters?
I’ll give another sample from my anonymous novelist-critic, without context except what appears in the excerpt. It seems appropriate for our own American situation early in the 21st century:
“Literature of the Resistance is now steadily coming in from France. I wonder whether in a sense all wartime writing is not resistance writing? In no way dare we who were in Britain compare ourselves with the French. But personal life here put up its own resistance to the annihilation that was threatening it – war. Everyone here, as is known, read more: and what was sought in books – old books, new books – was the communicative touch of personal life. To survive, not only physically but spiritually, was essential. People whose homes had been blown up went to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves – broken ornaments, odd shoes, torn scraps of the curtains that had hung in a room – from the wreckage. In the same way, they assembled and checked themselves from stories and poems, from their memories, from one another’s talk. Outwardly, we accepted that at this time individual destiny became an obsession in every heart. You cannot depersonalize persons. Every writer during this time was aware of the passionate attachment of men and women to every object or image or place or love or fragment of memory with which his or her destiny seemed to be identified, and by which the destiny seemed to be assured.”
This is prose imbued with aesthetic authority, yes, but also moral authority. Self-pleading is absent. It has the strong, quiet, generous, humble assurance of Lincoln’s prose. Now do you know who this writer is?