I’ve been haunted for years by a single line from a New Yorker profile ever since I first read it as a high school freshman. (One must find great pleasure, as I do in this moment, in writing sentences that have never before been written or spoken aloud.)
Was I a tad precocious, subscribing to the New Yorker at 14? Sure. It started on a high school ski trip, actually, when I saw my history teacher reading the magazine, and when I asked him what it was, and what it was about, he characterized it as “TIME for grown-ups.”
Being precocious, and being a subscriber to TIME, I saw very little reason not to subscribe to the New Yorker, then, at the first opportunity. I soon found that the New Yorker was not at all very much like TIME for grown-ups, unless all grown-ups went to plays and concerts and museum exhibitions in New York City every month.
Nevertheless, I persisted. In the course of my subscription, I read a profile — the best part of the New Yorker, without a doubt, are its profiles, and the worst is the fiction, which is worse than the listings of plays and concerts and museum exhibitions — a profile, that is, of James Joyce’s grandson. The provenance of the haunting freshman-year quote is that profile by D.T. Max, and specifically, that grandson: the redoubtable and pugilistic Stephen James Joyce, executor of the Joyce literary estate.
Stephen’s relationship with the guild of Joyce scholarship is, to put it mildly, confrontational. Describing Stephen’s view on his grandfather’s legacy of literary genius, Max summarizes Stephen’s view thus:
“He did not see what the two hundred and sixty-one works of criticism in the catalogue of the Library of Congress, say, could add to this legacy.”
This is the quote that has haunted me, and I can hardly explain why. I have no great affection for James Joyce’s work — Dubliners was good, Portrait of the Artist I should probably re-read, and I doubt I’ll ever touch Ulysses. Still less do I have any affection for the pigheaded grandson, who says things at academic conferences like, “If my grandfather was here, he would have died laughing.”
But as someone who loves reading books, and talking about books, and writing about them, I’ve all along worried that perhaps Stephen James Joyce is right: No matter how much you think and argue and write about a great book, you will never add a jot or a tittle to its legacy. You can spend your life publishing criticism on an author’s legacy, but you will never be more than an observer — exactly the same as an average reader, with the disadvantage that you think you matter, when you don’t.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that D.T. Max can at this point, I’m sure, scarcely remember his Stephen James Joyce profile, if he does at all? And yet this innocent little line of his — just a short paraphrase of a cantankerous profile subject — found its way, like one of Cupid’s arrows, to my heart and hooked its barbs into me, with the difference that rather than voluptas, it arouses deepest dread.
Despite the dread, though, I am convinced that literary criticism is good. The trouble is that my heart does not, on this matter as on many others, follow my head. On the working theory that a clearer enunciation of the thoughts in my head may heal my heart of its Joycean-inspired dread, I propose to offer below an explanation for what makes literary criticism good.
I have no desire to elevate critics to a heroic stature. Nor am I deploying here a technical vocabulary, or even an overly precise definition of “literary criticism” (as distinct from literary history and literary theory). Nor will I even offer multiple reasons in my explanation for what makes literary criticism good — only one.
Literary criticism is a way we hand down literary culture. Consider, even, the idea of “handing down,” trado in Latin. It is from this verb that we receive the word “tradition” in English. Without criticism, our literature would exist as completely isolated outposts of light in a wasteland. Perhaps Stephen James Joyce is right — criticism adds nothing to the legacy of the writer. So even if criticism does nothing to improve the outpost of light that is a particular book, criticism does act like a Roman road, linking each outpost with the other, making the journey from one to the next possible, much less intelligible.
The wasteland of my metaphor needn’t be identified with one, single thing. It is, clearly, a popular culture polluted with staggering banality and garbage. In this sense, our literary tradition provides refuge from pollution.
But the wasteland is also the more neutral “trackless wastes” of the Psalms: uncultivated, empty space. Not prima facie bad, but also not good for anything in particular either. Our literature forms outposts not just in the polluted hellscape of our culture, but also in the trackless wastes of human experience, which require narration and meaning. This is why we are right to say that great literature is universal. A great poem or story transcends the limitations of its context (political, social, historical, sexual, racial) to impart meaning to any and all who desire it.
Literature is also inescapably personal. Great poems and stories are thus outposts in the wasteland of my own and your own mind, which are normally filled up (or emptied out) by the flotsam of quotidian details and the jetsam of irrational desire and fear.
This is the role that literature plays, and criticism cannot replace it. If it tried, which it has tried to do, it would become a parasite, gorging itself on blood from its host, until the host dries up and the parasite finally bursts.
But parasitism is not the normal mode for criticism, rather its opposite. Contrary to the connotation of the word “criticism” (judgmental, condemning), criticism is actually far more constructive than it is destructive. If we do indeed find ourselves in trackless wastes, then the whole enterprise of literature, including literary criticism, is concerned not, as C.S. Lewis said, with chopping down forests, but with irrigating deserts. The art of literature and the craft of criticism are partners in this task.
Doubtless criticism is not the only method of handing down our literary tradition. Teaching is the most obvious way, and even though a teacher is not the same thing as a critic, many critics are teachers, many teachers critics, and you cannot really do the one without the other.
The poets and story-tellers, in their works, hand down the tradition as well, as they reformulate and revise the works of their predecessors. But when they hand the tradition down, they are often playful or obscure. Their motive is not usually to explicate — critics are the ones who do that.
We face, on at least three fronts, trackless wastes. We will only survive because of the outposts along the way. There we will fill our bellies and find some place to rest. But without criticism to guide our journey and make rough paths smooth, we might never find the outposts.