Do Critics Make Good Novelists?

By Jamison, Leslie | International New York Times, May 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

Do Critics Make Good Novelists?


Jamison, Leslie, International New York Times


We seem to have more patience for the novelist who writes criticism than for the critic who writes novels.

Leslie Jamison

When we talk about the novelist as critic, or the critic as novelist, the as matters. It creates a hierarchy by tucking one identity inside the other, like a pair of Russian nesting dolls. Which body is the central one, the beating heart?

We seem to have more patience for the novelist who writes criticism (Henry James, Virginia Woolf) than for the critic who writes novels (Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling). This discrepancy suggests an implicit prejudice: The novelist who writes criticism is sending dispatches from inside the maelstrom -- translating creativity into sense -- while the critic who writes novels is learning to fly from a set of instructions, trying to conjure magic from recipes. The critic of the critic-novelist ratifies a certain Romantic notion of art: Creativity should rise from intuitive inspiration, not conceptual overdetermination.

No one has proved herself a more frequent target for this particular kind of critique than Sontag, so vaunted for her critical legacy that people don't exactly forget her fiction so much as they enjoy picking apart the ways in which it fails to match her critical brilliance. In a 1967 New York Times review of "Death Kit," the novel Sontag wrote after the intensely productive years that yielded "Against Interpretation and Other Essays," Eliot Fremont-Smith acknowledges that it's already an "old saw ... that the critical and creative imaginations are in some sly way antithetical" but persists in using this saw "to hack away at least part of the mystery of how it happens that a critic of Susan Sontag's refined sensibilities can write fiction that is both tedious and demonstrably insensitive to the craft of fiction." Fremont-Smith reads Sontag's style as a series of failures to understand certain "matters of craft," dismissing her "nagging ... use of 'now,' in parentheses," for example, as a botched attempt "to heighten immediacy."

To this particular critic/novelist, it seems likely that Sontag is doing something subtler with her use of "now," perhaps evoking how her protagonist's "hallucinated erasure of the present as it becomes past" leaves him isolated and discontinuous in a perpetually granular present. …

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