V.S. Pritchett, the man who packed a copy of Tristram Shandy while walking across Spain in 1927, writes in Midnight Oil (1971) of his early years as a reviewer/essayist:
“I had read widely but I had never `done’ Eng. Lit., French Lit., or Russian Lit. [Read his books on Meredith, Balzac and Chekhov.] I had no critical doctrine – a shock later on to the platoons of New Critics and later regiments – for critical doctrine is of little interest to the novelist, though it may mean something to the poet.”
Pritchett attended college briefly but like Aristotle, Johnson and Coleridge never earned a degree or joined the faculty of a university. He may not have “done” the various national literatures cited but ranks among the most industrious of readers. For Pritchett, books are the ideal compliment to life, its secret sharer. He’s a model for those of us who read, and write about it. Sadly, times have changed in 40 years: one wishes novelists took no interest in “critical doctrine,” so more of them might spend more time writing novels worth reading. Pritchett continues:
“The tendencies of the thirties persuaded me to the historical situation of the writer who was being enjoyed first and then examined. We were fond of calling ourselves victims of an age of transition; but it seemed to me this had been the lot of every writer of any distinction at any time. I was moved by attitudes to social justice; but presently I saw that literature grows out of literature as much as out of a writer’s times. A work of art is a deposit left by the conflicts and contradictions a writer has in his own nature. I am not a scholarly man; and I am not interested for very long in the elaborate super-structures of criticism.”
The enjoyment of books precedes their study, though it sounds quaintly heretical to say so. A good critic shares enthusiasms and a good book is written not for critics or graduate students but good readers. Professors have hijacked pleasure-giving writers – Joyce, for example – and elevated dreary grinds – Gertrude Stein – because both suit the purposes of a cloistered academy. Pritchett, a scholar by any reasonable definition, goes on:
“… Anyone who has written a piece of imaginative prose knows how much a writer relies on instinct and intuition. The war had added to my knowledge of human nature. I appear as a disarranged stoic, a humanist with one wall of his room missing – an advantage there, I think, for all writing has one of its sources in the sense of a moral danger to which the writer is sensitive.”
There’s no science and little method to writing – or reading. Too many critics deem their job a species of social engineering. Wayward readers and writers, like free speech and free markets, worry them. Elsewhere, Pritchett describes himself as “less a critic than an imaginative traveler or explorer.” Later on the page from Midnight Oil quoted above he writes:
"I have always thought of myself -- and therefore of my subjects -- as being `in life,' indeed books have always seemed to be a form of life, and not a distraction from it. I see myself as a practicing writer who gives himself to a book as he gives himself to any human experience."