Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays
by cynthia ozick
houghton mifflin harcourt ,224 pages, $25
At eighty-eight, Cynthia Ozick focuses her attention where she always has—Henry James, Harold Bloom, the Holocaust, forgotten writers working in Jewish languages, ambition, idolatry. But in her newest collection, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, a unifying question emerges with urgency from these familiar subjects. What do we do with—or, more accurately, without—that strange breed of writer, the literary critic? Incessant hand-wringing over the fate of the novel or of reading in general draws our attention to all the wrong places. Novels and novelists, poets and poetry, however ignored they complain they are, “however they manifest themselves, will never be lacking.” “What is missing,” Ozick argues, “is an undercurrent, or call it, rather (because so much rests on it), an infrastructure, of serious criticism.” At the heart of a thriving literary culture, we should find a thriving criticism.
This critic-created infrastructure comes to life when set against the persistent catchphrases and metaphors of High Modernism. A century ago, T. S. Eliot presented the image of a self-organizing literary culture in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” one in which “[t]he existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them,” which alters “the whole existing order … if ever so slightly.” For Ozick, however, the literary critic is herself the architect of literary tradition, arranging works, authors, movements, and trends in conversation with one another, “teas[ing] out hidden imperatives and assumptions held in common, and … creat[ing] the fertilizing conditions that underlie and stimulate a living literary consciousness.” Ezra Pound, she might have added, asked the wrong question when he cast criticism as mock primer in ABC of Reading or How to Read. “The better question,” she writes, “is not who will read, or how they will read, but why.”
She never says it so explicitly, but this is the question Ozick places at the core of true criticism, a constant inquiry into the purpose and meaning of reading that similarly guides its readers. “The key,” she tells us, “is indebtedness … is connectedness.” While individual essays may originally have appeared alone, Ozick the critic-architect arranges them under headings drawn from the three terms in her title, adding “Figures” and “Souls” to the mix, each section accompanied by a brief, meta-critical introduction. One reads, among her “Figures,” about Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and W.H. Auden in order to consider them together.
It’s Trilling, one of mid-twentieth century criticism’s titanic figures, who stands as the truest protagonist of the tragedy of literary criticism. Trilling’s stature, now “so reduced [as] to have become a joke to certain young critics who favor flippancy and lightness,” a ghostly flickering that haunts the poor souls condemned to wander the halls of the academy, reflects the state of criticism in our time. But Ozick pushes back against Trilling’s self-assessment as a failure. For Trilling, it was “novel or nothing,” and here, history is clear and unforgiving: His first, The Middle of the Journey, was panned (unfairly, in Ozick’s view); his second, The Journey Abandoned, was left unfinished (rightly, Ozick suggests).
Trilling’s error is our own—is that of the famous-to-those-few-who-care spat between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, a decade ago, that pitted “realist” against “experimental” fiction, and which Ozick recounts, elsewhere, with a barely restrained eye-roll. “[Trilling’s] resplendent body of literary and cultural essays,” she wonders, “and the university, and the authority, and the fame, and ultimately the legend—was all that nothing?” However they might otherwise look askance at each other, Trilling, Franzen, and Marcus agree that it was. Ozick dissents, must dissent: Artists and critics live symbiotically (whether they might ever be synonymous is the subject taken up in essays on “Monsters”—Henry James, Leo Baeck, Harold Bloom) and together create literary culture. “Without the critics, incoherence,” she insists.
To find the exemplar of this symbiosis, it’s best to keep Ozick’s voice in mind even while closing her book and opening Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot. Crawford’s biography of T. S. Eliot’s early years depicts art and criticism living uncomfortably together between the 1915 publication of Prufrock and Other Poems and the 1922 detonation of that literary atom bomb, The Waste Land. Yet, painstakingly, he recounts how Eliot’s emergence could not have been accomplished had he not overwhelmed himself with wide-ranging teaching duties, book reviews, and critical essays in order to make ends meet. The Eliot whose Platonic vision of literary tradition verges on the self-sustaining was, it appears, produced by the persistent, at times drudging labor of architectural criticism that Ozick describes.
As with Eliot, one suspects, so with Ozick, whose own career has included the twinned and twined roles of storyteller and literary critic. Throughout the decades, short stories and criticism, essay collections and novels, have emerged concurrently, offering alternate approaches to her recurrent themes: ambition, idol worship (literary and religious), the Holocaust, and the word’s precarious, liminal balance between sacred and profane. Yet these approaches have been in tension as often as they have been complementary, sometimes misleading dares—as with the tendency to read her substantial corpus through the narrow prism of her best-known essay, “Toward a New Yiddish.” Beneath her lament for the lost role of criticism and polemical take on contemporary literary culture (such as it is), Ozick offers something quieter. Nothing so mundane as autobiography, of course, but a suggestion of how we might read her careers in fiction and criticism together: in terms of not influence but symbiosis.
J. L. Wall is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Michigan.