The Critic as Novelist

By Levenson, Michael | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Critic as Novelist


Levenson, Michael, The Wilson Quarterly


Misleading to call it a movement, and still worse to think of it as a program, but we now have seen enough minor literary eruptions to suspect that it is a cultural symptom that bears some reflection: this burst of novel-writing from people who have lived the conceptual life, the life of method and argument, who often carry leather cases, or who give public lectures and contribute essays to learned journals. In the past five years, some of the world's leading literary critics have turned novelists, and at the same time turned from the coterie audience gathered in the universities to the wider public made up of anyone who wants to read. Why do they do it? What do they want? Are they merely slumming in the bad streets of the imagination? Or are these just new cases of a few gifted people who always hoped to grow up to be novelists and decided to act before it was too late?

Literary critics are not alone in suddenly feeling the charm of novel-writing; it happens to historians and journalists, among others. But I intend to give reasons for taking the literary academic drift of the tide with special seriousness. I'll start by proposing a story of this century, inevitably a story with many chapters left out. It begins with the old provocations of modernism, especially those forbidding experiments of the third decade--Joyce's Ulysses, Woolf's The Waves, Eliot's The Waste Land, Pound's Cantos--works more than willing (in T.S. Eliot's phrase) to disturb and alarm the public. This they did. One slowly building consequence of those literary agitations was the creation of criticism, criticism as we know it now--professional, sophisticated, ambitious. In significant respects, the modern professoriate within the humanities is one of the lasting (though inadvertent) achievements of the avant-garde. It is scarcely an accident that this century has seen the emergence of these rival siblings: a revolutionary avant-garde intent on speaking a new word, and an academic establishment that has perfected the skills of interpretation. Indeed, the academic standpoint must often be seen as a defense against the aggressions of modernism.

With the great postwar expansion of the university and with the exciting lure of interdisciplinary collaboration, the critical project took on ever more heady ambitions. Hopes of a grand synthesis--among, say, Marx and Freud and existentialism--led to the vision of a Total Theory, an exhaustive method that would take into account all relevant details on the way to its definitive interpretations. Jean-Paul Sartre gave one version of this comprehensive system of explanation, Herbert Marcuse another, and Northrop Frye a rival third. Theirs was a great dream of the 1950s and early '60s, when it seemed possible that many disciplines would meet in a grand methodological union.

But the theory project has fallen into a crisis. The dream of a Total Theory is no longer able to soothe any deep academic sleep. It just hasn't worked out: There were too many fissures in the great globe of perfect understanding. Total Theory has itself become a primary target of theoretical attack; the very idea of a seamless explanation that would find a home for every detail of a life, a text, an epoch now seems charmingly quaint.

With the fading of the missionary goal there has emerged a conspicuous revival of individualism in academic life. Of course, academics have never been free from the taint of self-interest. But now that it's so hard to believe that particular essays and books are part of some unfolding collective structure, everywhere you look you see eye-catching individual display. The dazzling feat of interpretive ingenuity, the bravura reading of a well-worn text, the memorably witty lecture, even the rhetorically bold introduction to the witty lecture, now comprise the intellectual currency of academic life: the public working of the quick mind as high theater.

No longer convinced that their academic labor is leading anywhere in particular, scholars give themselves to self-contained gestures of critical power. …

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