By Matt Hanson
Demanding that people pay attention to quality is about as audacious a demand you can make in our giddy culture.
American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring by William Giraldi. W.W. Norton, 336 pages, $30.
Counterintuitive as it might sound, it’s not always true that novelists make equally good literary critics and vice versa. Some, like Updike and Nabokov, can tack between creating and critiquing fiction fairly easily, while others, such as Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, were brilliant critics who faltered at writing memorable novels and stories. In Wilson’s case, his best attempts at fiction were his versions of history: Patriotic Gore and To the Finland Station read more like the novels they weren’t intended to be than the fine histories that they are. William Giraldi is a novelist and memoirist (reviewed in The Arts Fuse) but his critical writing is as engaged and engaging as any fictional confection. His selected essays and criticism have been recently collected in American Audacity, a rich culling from his critical work on American subjects over the past seven years. It should be enjoyed by anyone who lives for and by the power of literature.
For one—and I’m putting this first for a reason—it’s deliciously well-written. Some the finest minds can be dead fish when it comes to the printed page (Herr Kant, I’m looking in your direction). That doesn’t mean that they should be avoided or scorned; many a jewel of insight can be hidden in a tangled thicket of prose. But it does mean that readers should be especially grateful indeed for a writer-guide like Giraldi, who surely and confidently leads them through the labyrinth of the best that has been thought and said. In his criticism, he affirms that “literature, like love, is what makes life worth living” and that “literature is the one religion worth having.”
A lapsed Catholic who writes gratefully about the primal concerns of sin and grace his abandoned faith bestowed him with when young, Giraldi is one of the best deacons that the current literary world could ever ask for. His insistence on the urgency of the soul-challenging pleasures of literature is as exhilarating as an ocean breeze. It’s especially welcome amid the huddled, cramped, blurry screens and intrusive beeps of our increasingly digitized world. When he points out, apropos the Kindle and assorted digital coffins of reading, “I’m sorry but your Kindle has no presence” you know exactly what he means.
Refreshingly, Giraldi is a believer in the old-fashioned value of what used to be called “close reading” and takes a microscopic gaze (free of academic cant or jargon) at the molecular structure of sentences, images, insights, and stylistics. Wisely, he insists that style is, above all, a moral concern: “if writer’s aesthetics are not moral, if they do not comprehend that style is inextricable from morality, then they’re just goofing off on the way to being forgotten.” The forensic awe that he brings to the writers that matter most to him keeps oblivion at bay, especially in his enthusiastic but measured takes on the opinionated panache of the likes of Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, James Baldwin, and James Wolcott, who “shook his pen like a thermometer to let us know how hot or cold we were running.”
There’s a fresh simile or striking image on virtually every page of American Audacity, and they enliven Giraldi’s evaluations: “One must write into the language as a bird takes off into flight, discovering itself in the act of its own soaring. The daring ones are always helpless to do otherwise.” Giraldi is as erudite as a critic should be (T.S. Eliot opined that the only true requirement for a critic is “to be extremely intelligent”) and he brandishes sparkling aphorisms plucked from a vast range of texts, sometimes multiple times a page. The risk of all this erudite quotation is sounding pedantic or show-offy, a pitfall which Giraldi scrupulously avoids. These essays are studded with the contributions of different voices, but they are artfully deployed so as to enhance and not to talk over each other. Instead, the references become part of an engrossing, time-spanning conversation nimbly curated by Giraldi.
Thankfully, Giraldi is no snob; the collection includes honest assessments on the art of hate mail, a heartfelt reflection on book collecting that will bring an inky tear to any bibliophile’s eye, a witty dismissal of the soggy nonsense of Fifty Shades of Grey, and a sensitive takedown of the commercial crassness behind publishing Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s botched early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. You can’t help but chuckle along as he slices and dices Norman Podhoretz’s vain memoir Making It, seeing it as the opportunistic sham that it always was, and wades through the murky sludge of Cormac McCarthy’s ostentatiously morbid Child of God, as well as the ubiquitous James Franco’s earnest attempts at film versions of Faulkner and McCarthy.
One of the tests for a book review is whether or not it can stand as a worthwhile piece of writing regardless of the reader’s knowledge of the subject. I’d previously only vaguely heard of Nadine Gordimer, Carl Van Vetchen, or Allan Gurganus, but now I’ve added them to my already creaking to-read shelves. Even Giraldi’s portraits of writers are compelling: whether we are eavesdropping on his long conversations with Barry Hannah or hearing about his extended stay on Gurganus’s sequestered porch above a storied graveyard amid the simmering history of small-town life in the South. The skills Giraldi exercises in writing fiction helps his field pieces shine through their veracity of detail and insight into character.
In reviewing a book about literary audacity, it would be inappropriate not to disagree, with a hearty dose of audacity, with some of its claims. Giraldi argues that ideology is the death of art because it is the death of the independent imagination. This can often be true, but not always. Sometimes ideology can be a way of dramatizing one’s beliefs, if only as the means to set up contrarian energies. I’m not a person who likes dogma very much, especially since my teenage apostasy. Which is why I was struck when I first realized that many bona-fide literary geniuses believed — quite strongly — in various varieties of religious dogma. Great literary imaginations, Dante, Milton, Dostoevsky, and Flannery O’Connor among them, unabashedly draw on their belief in particular religious traditions as a direct inspiration for their art.
No doubt these geniuses had extremely personal and often downright eccentric approaches to their religious traditions, but these commitments, which they held sacred, were crucial engines for generating their art, even if that creativity ultimately surpassed the limitations of mere belief. As far as theology goes, I don’t take a word of Paradise Lost’s or Inferno’s intricately mapped cosmos as gospel truth. But I believe Milton and Dante were driven by far more than aesthetic admiration for their different metaphysical testaments. I also suspect that a lot of writers (and not only religious ones) hold onto a certain belief system in order to ultimately transcend it. Powerful imaginations sometimes need to stand on different grounds (religious, political, etc) in order to see farther and probe deeper into the human condition. In order to start dreaming up immortal lines for the damned to speak, sometimes it helps to have a literal belief in hell.
Giraldi also claims that literature is the highest form of art because it “is the most consummate access you can gain to the inner cosmos of another, to the psycho-emotional systems of people wholly different from you.” I agree, but to an extent. Peering into Hamlet’s mind through reading his soliloquies on paper is more satisfying to me than most times when I’ve seen an actor do it, though the best forge fresh new interpretations. You can watch a character thinking on screen, and it can be riveting; though it’s not as powerful as when you read the character’s inner monologue firsthand. One of the reasons why Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury are so perpetually riveting to me is how the narratives are so immersed in these character’s very complex and ever-changing inner lives to the extent that they almost feel more real, more viscerally present, than real life.
Movies, magnificent as they are, can often let great source material down. It’s much easier to make a memorable movie out of a blah novel (The Godfather, anyone? How about Double Indemnity?) than to make an equally great movie out of a masterpiece. But, for me, I’m a staunch believer that music is the most exalted of the arts — it’s there where I feel that conduit between performer and audience is stronger — without the mediation of words, colors, and shapes. I think a musical note is the purest form of expression that there is because, whatever it’s composer’s purpose might be, it remains itself — it is what it is — and it contains multitudes. All of the arts bring something amazing to the table, but in the end I’m with Walter Pater — they all aspire to the condition of music.
Giraldi argues that politics undercuts the profound spiritual cultivation that should come from deep reading. As a longtime Harold Bloom devotee, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of deep reading as soul-craft. But after years of passionately discussing this point, I have to wearily admit that that very self, so carefully and sublimely forged in literary study is, or will eventually be, political. Which is not say that it will be a self that waves a flag or recites some terrifying platitudes (if it’s lucky enough to live in a decently functioning society) but because it will eventually have to put the book down and be around other people.
Plenty of writers intended to elevate the moral conscience of their readers and, as with religion, I would assert that social commitment can also deepen the writing. Again, these things should be judged, critically, on a case-by-case basis, of the writer or the book. Hopefully, a self that has been enhanced by careful reading will be slightly wiser, kinder, more perceptive, humorous, and skeptical. If these traits are in place it might — dare to dream — even possibly make a person slightly less likely to kill or jail the people one disagrees with.
Even though he’s a proud Wildean aesthete (the divine Oscar is reverently cited a few times), Giraldi doesn’t pull an ostrich about the world outside the book. He writes with a sensitive outrage about the ways in which our manic society plays havoc with the development of literary consciousness. A response to the Boston marathon bombing contains some beautifully modulated keening, properly taking to task the lazy terms we use when we talk about terrorism. When it comes to teaching literature, Giraldi cheers on a high school teacher’s zealous commitment to the craft. But he has no illusions about the unjust class divisions that dictate that this kind of quality literary training is only available to the students in the schools whose communities can afford to pay for it.
The irony is that, at time our screen-narrowed attention spans are shorter and ever-hungrier for new stimuli, the possibilities for interesting writing are growing. (More novels are being published than ever before.) And literature is available in more mediums than ever before. It’s becoming increasingly important to preserve and promote the art of literary criticism for its own sake and to sharpen our attention spans. Juicy palace intrigue is churned out daily, courtesy of the badly scripted reality TV show in the White House, while the warning signs about environmental and economic catastrophe blink redder and redder by the day. As Saul Bellow once put it, many years ago, “there is simply too much to think about.” The question facing our literary culture becomes less about where our next generation of great writers will come from, and what they will have to say, but who will still be able to sit still long enough to read them? Demanding that people pay attention to quality is about as audacious a demand you can make in our giddy culture, flush with the sugar-high of constant stimulation. But it doesn’t have to be. Spending some serious time with Giraldi’s collection of alluring literary audacities might be an invigorating way to start your year in reading off right.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.