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The Story About The Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature

J.C. Hallman (editor)

(Tin House; US: Sep 2009)

Getting Personal

In his introduction to the fantastic collection of essays The Story About The Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature, editor J.C. Hallman writes about what he calls a “kind of personal literary analysis, criticism that contemplates rather than analyzes”. He goes on to make the case for writers writing about writing from an individual perspective as his ideal approach to critiquing literature and the inspiration behind his compiling these works by notable writers from Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence to Susan Sontag and Milan Kundera.


The flip side of this writerly approach would be a style of academic writing that is typified by pointless erudition and cold analysis so rigorously doctrinaire it becomes removed from the original text, a style that Hallman believes may have reached a saturation point. He continues, “My assertion is this: a writer’s model for how to write about reading is now in ascension, and it’s largely the upshot of a debate conducted on the other side of the aisle [academia].”


I’m not sure how new or vibrant this model is; the century long time frame covered by these essays proves that the writer’s approach has probably been around as long as there have been writers. Likewise, there continues to be no shortage of irritatingly obtuse academic writing floating in the ether and there probably never will be. And of course there will always be plenty of good and bad writing—academic and otherwise—to make one’s case as one sees fit.


But dithering about what has already been endlessly dithered about seems beside the point when the writing here is so great. Hallman started to put these essays together for a class he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and while the breadth of topics and wisdom contained within makes for a useful education resource, the selections go well beyond the eat-your-vegetables arbitrariness of a class syllabus.


The writings are vibrant and compelling. Hallman says that what is great about this “great writers” approach is that, “Writers set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it.” But the essays here can be just as lacerating as laudatory about a writer’s work. I would say that the writers are always enthusiastic about writing, and don’t seek to exhaust either their enthusiasm or the reader’s good will in their analysis. Even at their most damning, these writings inspired me to read books and stories I hadn’t read or revisit those I had forgotten about or had originally disinterested me.


The selections range from well-known essays like Vladimir Nabokov on The Metamorphosis (he tries to figure out exactly what kind of beetle Gregor Samsa had turned into) to quirkier pleasures like Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz. Even the essays that I didn’t like at least made good cases for opinions I didn’t agree with and theories I don’t believe in. (The one essay I out and out hated was Frank O’Connor’s “An Author in Search of a Subject”—a take down of Katherine Mansfield steeped in such Freudian masochism it was hard to stomach his more reasonable points.)


Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction writing might constitute a recent high water mark for what the personal approach can accomplish. Hallman includes a section from Out of Sheer Rage, a book that is mostly about how Dyer cannot get his act together to write a book about D.H. Lawrence, and through this long personal essay, where he is writing about not being able to write, Dyer is able to approach Lawrence along with deeper literary ruminations. Along this winding road he manages to make a passionate declaration that could be considered this books reason for being:


Now, criticism is an integral part of the literary tradition and academics can sometimes write excellent works of criticisms but these are exceptional: the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of books by academics ... are a crime against literature. If you want to see how literature lives then you turn to writers, and see what they’ve said about each other, either in essays, reviews, in letter or journals—and in the works themselves ... In such instances the distinction between imaginative and critical writing disappears.


Hallman connects the essays in ways that can be both cheeky—jumping from his own essay on Henry James to Michael Chabon on “The Other James” M.R. James—and illuminating—contrasting the more emotionally immediacy of Charles d’Ambrosio on J.D. Salinger with Virginia Woolf’s cool dissecting of Ernest Hemingway. Many of the writers wrestle with what modern literature should be and a few representative authors get discussed repeatedly: Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, and Franz Kafka.


No matter the exact topic, all of the writers are careful not to slip too far into the personal that their essay becomes pointless navel gazing, and are relentlessly sharp in their analysis of the text. As Oscar Wilde writes in the “Mr. Pater’s Last Volume” after discussing his relationship with his subject: “But I must not allow this brief notice of Mr. Pater’s new volume to degenerate into an autobiography. I remember being told in America that whenever Margaret Fuller wrote an essay upon Emerson the printer had always to send out to borrow some additional capital ‘I’s,’ and I feel it right to accept this transatlantic warning.” In the best instances they are able to spin this criticism out to incorporate more far-reaching observations about literature and life.


The Story About The Story is an intelligent celebration of the nexus where good fiction and nonfiction meet. As most of the essayists make or made their primary living as fiction writers, it may not be surprising that the writing is protective of fiction writing’s original intent. And so Hallman sews everything up, fittingly, with Wallace Stegner’s “On Steinbeck’s Story ‘Flight’”:


Having gone this far in taking Steinbeck’s story apart, we should now do him and it the justice of putting it back together again. Having played critic, we should put ourselves back into the hands of the storyteller, and open the book and read the story through once more, letting its flow carry us and its suspense grip us and its details convince us of its rightness and validity.


And so I will shut up and let this book be.

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