William Giraldi is the author of the novels Busy Monsters and Hold the Dark, and of a memoir, The Hero’s Body. In August Liveright published a collection of his literary criticism titled American Audacity, which the novelist and critic Walter Kirn describes as “a gorgeous fury of language and sensibility.” In an interview conducted by email, Giraldi and Commonweal’s book columnist Anthony Domestico recently discussed the practice of criticism and how it relates to other kinds of writing.
Anthony Domestico: In your introduction, you write, “The critic is a reader before he is a writer, a spirited lover of literature, and criticism is one important use to which he puts his reading and his love.” I think that’s exactly right: the best critics are the best readers and the best readers are, I’m increasingly convinced, the most loving readers.
All this reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book?”: “Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words.” What do you make of Woolf’s suggestion here that criticism is a fundamentally creative act? What about her claim that good reading begins in sympathy, even charity; that, before judging, we should “try to sink our identity as we read”?
William Giraldi: Woolf is correct, of course—she usually is—and her contention there is in keeping with what Arnold and Wilde advocate both in theory and practice: that the critic must seek equal footing with the primary creator; that criticism makes imaginative literature possible by providing an essential reciprocity. In our own day, we see that reciprocity, that Wildean exuberance of critical assertion, most potently at work in the criticism of Harold Bloom and Cynthia Ozick—Ozick especially. No other living critic, and few living fiction writers, can wield an English sentence as Ozick can.
When Woolf suggests that we should attempt to “sink our identity” while reading, she means, I take it, what Arnold means by “disinterestedness”: not being uninterested, but being objective and detached enough to take the book by its own program, not to let our own savagely guarded identities or political affiliations or religious convictions sully our assessment of how the sentences and stories are or are not working on the page. By sympathy and charity I think Woolf means just that—the charity to set our own identities aside so that we may fully enter the selfhood of the author or characters under review. This is akin to that famous quip Eliot makes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about poetry being an escape from personality. I’d say that criticism must make an identical escape. I don’t mean that critics shouldn’t cultivate a personal style, a particular potency of mind, only that their personalities, their me-tinted glasses, should not discolor what lies before them on the page.
About the necessity of critics being readers before they are writers, I’d argue the same about any writer in any genre. There are quite simply no idiot savants in literature as there are in math, music, painting. Without a life as a devoted reader of serious books one can never hope to become a serious writer. And by “serious” I mean what Gerard Manley Hopkins means for the writer: to be “in earnest,” to employ “justice and candor and gravity and rightness of mind,” which is how he praises the work of Cardinal Newman. Or as he puts it elsewhere: the “touchstone of the highest or most living art is seriousness...being in earnest with your subject.”
AD: People love to quote Eliot on poetry as an escape from personality. They don’t usually quote what comes immediately after: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Great critics, like great poets, have a distinctive style, but it’s a distinctive style that doesn’t distort what it encounters. One of the things I admire most about Ozick, and about you, is precisely the seriousness you mention—as you put it when describing Ozick’s criticism, “the wedding of the cerebral and visceral in pursuit of moral verity.” That word, “moral,” comes up at several points in your collection. In an essay on James Baldwin, for instance, you write that, at least in the best writers, “style is the assertion of morality.” For you, art stripped of moral concerns isn’t really art, and it’s the job of the critic to discern how these concerns play out not so much at the level of theme, but at the level of style—in images, sentences, rhythms. I’m reminded of one of my favorite passages from Auden:
Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: “What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?”
Ideally, the critic integrates these two concerns, the stylistic and the moral. Do you find that contemporary criticism does one better than the other? Is the training or reading required to be a good critic of style different from the training required to be a good moral critic?