The Importance of Writing About Writing


By Ilan Stavans

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World

By Morris Dickstein

Princeton University Press, 320 pages, $26.95.

* * *

Why write about literature? The answer isn’t money, fame or love. Nor is it immortality, because criticism — a few exceptions notwithstanding — seldom lasts. So why?

The question is posed and answered by Morris Dickstein in his admirable new collection of critical essays. His response is blissfully straightforward. “Critics write about literature,” he argues, “for the same reasons writers write about anything: for the pleasure of forming graceful sentences that sort out their own reactions to books, or simply to be part of a conversation about the human dilemma that goes back to the beginning of culture.” He adds that the people he’s chosen to write about are artists whose language and outlook on life matter deeply to him. “They provoke the shock of recognition that, like some magic mirror, offers revealing glimpses of one’s half-hidden selves. In reading [Philip] Roth, for example, I’m always arguing with him, admiring him, feeling outraged by him, and implicitly defining myself though him. Such hotly divided feelings may be the ones most congenial to criticism.”

It’s a good answer, but I have another: One writes about literature because literature without criticism doesn’t have a solid place in society. The critic is a map-maker, one in charge of surveying our intellectual landscape, of offering context, of offering judgment on what’s beautiful. Unfortunately, “beauty” is a word out of fashion. Still, the critic invites us to make aesthetic validations. This is true in any time and place, especially in an open-market democracy such as ours, in which ideas are showcased like merchandise.

Every generation has the critics it deserves, from Alexander Pope and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Matthew Arnold and Walter Benjamin. They are cultural thermometers: They find meaning, they analyze the present vis-à-vis the past and the future. It’s no secret that we’re amid a draught of this kind of enlightenment, but the work of critics such as Dickstein offer a glimmer of hope.

Dickstein sees himself as an offspring of the New York Jewish intellectuals, the cadre around Partisan Review whose oeuvre became a compass in the midcentury. Like his role models, he is allergic to parochialism. And like most of them, his principal interest is fiction — more concretely, the novel, a genre that found its gravitas with the Enlightenment and might well be understood as a kaleidoscope (Dickstein prefers the metaphor of the mirror) through which to comprehend the distorted picture a class has of itself and of the world. What does F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” tell us about the haves and have-less in the America that existed shortly before the Depression? Is Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” a response to

Reaganomics? What does Franz Kafka say about Prague’s bourgeoisie at the turn of the century?

Some of the most insightful segments in “A Mirror on the Roadway” are about a so-called “honorary member” of the New York Jewish intellectuals: Edmund Wilson. Dickstein explains Wilson’s path, studying the way it mirrors the changes that America underwent from the Depression to the Vietnam War. The essay is succinct yet powerful, and it made me want to reread “To the Finland Station,” Wilson’s take on Marxism as implemented in society. Another provocative piece is “Finding the Right Words,” about Irving Howe, a socially-conscious literary critic — he is closer to what today is called a “cultural commentator” — whose ambitious oeuvre has influenced many of us. But every page in the volume displays curiosity, incision and surprise. For instance, as Dickstein delves into Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” he falls in love not with what he calls “mythical realism” but with the “comic gusto” displayed by the Colombian master. And when discussing S.Y. Agnon’s “Only Yesterday,” Dickstein is startled not only by the crisp verbal intensity of the Nobel Prize winner but also by his willingness to reach “the far side of horror.”

Aside from these and another handful of non-Americans (Samuel Beckett and Günter Grass make it, too), the bulk of the volume, just like in Dickstein’s previous “Gates of Eden” and “Leopards in the Temple,” is 20th-century American fiction. He includes ruminations on such authors as Willa Cather, Raymond Carver, William Kennedy and Richard Ford. Plus, there are several far-reaching surveys, including a particularly affecting one about Jewish-American literature from the age of immigration (Anzia Yezierska, Abraham Cahan and Henry Roth) to the current wave of newcomers (Nathan Englander, Aryeh Lev Stollman and Allegra Goodman).

Dickstein is most compelling when he is at his feistiest, as when he analyzes the platitudes of William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice” and the incapacity of Mary McCarthy to find a balance between tenderness and intelligence. My favorite pieces are the ones on George Orwell, but I found Dickstein echoing my own thoughts on a bevy of other writers: Dickens; Saul Bellow, about whom Dickstein confesses that “as a reader I was late in appreciating”; the Philip Roth before and after “The Counterlife,” a book that Dickstein persuasively argues divided Jewish-American literature into a “before” and an “after.”

At a time when academia has been kidnapped by suffocating theories eager to take the air out of literature and put it in a straitjacket, Dickstein still reads and writes for pleasure. There are those who might ask not only why one would write literary criticism but also why one would read it. For them, the answers are in “A Mirror in the Roadway.”

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