Saturday, May 26, 2018

`Until I Set Out My Thoughts on the Page'

In his introduction to Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives (1989), Joseph Epstein, while formulating his own writerly M.O., articulates what I’m up to on this blog and elsewhere. Epstein notes his “unwillingness to see [himself] as a literary critic”:

“And yet I continue to think of myself as someone who is essentially a reader—a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, who views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience, and who still brings the highest expectations to what he reads. By the highest expectations I mean that I am perhaps a na├»ve person who has never ceased to believe that books can change his life, and decisively so.”
Many claimants to the title “critic” seem seldom to take deep pleasure in anything, including good books. They certainly take no pleasure in writing well, based on how seldom they do. Why would anyone take seriously a self-ordained critic who can’t write? His every word subverts his credibility.    

Last week, when writing about Hilton Kramer, I noted in passing that I’m not a critic. A reader asked me to elaborate. There’s no one-word moniker for what I do. Whatever it is, I distinguish it – reading, and writing about what I’ve read – from conventional understandings of criticism. I don’t possess sufficient analytical skills to be a bona fide “critic.” Besides, unless your name is Samuel Johnson or Yvor Winters, there’s something a little presumptuous about it. Don’t tell me your opinions, please. They are the least important and interesting thing about you. Tell me what you know and what a book has contributed to your accumulated knowledge – of what? Life and literature, of course. Epstein goes on to explain the payoff for doing what we do. Like me, he begins with “inchoate thoughts”:

“Nothing so concentrates the mind as having to write. In my own case, I frequently do not know what I really think about a writer, a general subject, an event, a person, until I set out my thoughts on the page.”


mike zim said...

“Nothing so concentrates the mind as having to write."

Blinking Sam's dictum takes it up a notch:
"When a man knows he is to be concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Epstein brings Robinson Crusoe to mind:

p 173… In laying things open for Friday, I really inform’d and instructed myself in many things, that either I did not know, or had not fully considered before.

p 174… I had great reason to be thankful that ever he came to me.
The three years which we lived there together perfectly and completely happy.
… By his serious enquires and questioning, made me a much better scholar than I should ever have been by my own private meer reading.

Cal Gough said...

Thank you, Patrick, for your quotation of Epstein's credo about his earnest reading (and his justification for it), and thank you, Mike Zim, for those wonderful quotations from ROBINSON CRUSOE!