An Exemplary Intensity

You might be surprised to hear Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb described as an intense little book. Surprised because it’s a book of meta-criticism, of literary criticism about literary criticism, which isn’t usually the sort of thing that lends itself to intensity, and because most of its contents has been plucked directly from Green’s litblog, The Reading Experience, which has been running since 2004. But its intensity comes precisely from its brevity, its scant hundred pages plus change, and from how this brevity has emerged from a body of work of awesome magnitude. Green has resisted the temptation to simply throw together a “best of” anthology from the vast amount of book reviews, occasional musings, and discursive interventions that have appeared on his blog and elsewhere online. Instead, he has selected seventeen previously published essays, each of which directly addresses the subject of literary criticism, and supplemented them with some new writing that allows this book – in his own phrase – “to distil” the various things he has said about his own particular critical preoccupations. To distil, yes, as one would distil whiskey or brandy or some other powerful spirit. To filter out any impurities in order to produce something singular, concentrated, and uniquely potent. A quick Google search will turn up an impressive number of the essays in which Green has offered his assessments of various works of literature, usually the sort of complex and challenging works labelled as “experimental.” As he writes in his introduction to Beyond the Blurb, however, he has looked back at more than a decade’s worth of writing on The Reading Experience and recognised that what has most pleased him has been the freedom

to critically examine not just works of literature past and present but also the critics and critical methods whose influence helps to determine how ‘literature’ is perceived and how literary works are made meaningful for diverse and at times disparate readers. All of the essays [in Beyond the Blurb] are animated by this impulse to explicate the assumptions behind a practice referred to by a common name – ‘criticism’ – but carried out in numerous and often quite conflicting ways.

Among Green’s greatest strengths as a critic is the care with which he navigates the various conflicts of the critical enterprise. In particular, I admire the unflagging generosity with which he hears out the arguments and analyses of other critics, especially those with whom he has significant disagreements. He is never dismissive of critics who hold views that depart from his own, or who operate on a different set of critical principles, and he is never derisive or flippant or cursory in pointing out the flaws of their work. He is never anything less than fully attentive to the nuances of their analysis and respectful, if not accepting, of their intellectual positions. In Beyond the Blurb, a long chapter on two books by James Wood provides ample evidence of Green’s generosity, as does a rigorous deconstruction of the work of Morris Dickstein which is all the more impressive for having been written “regretfully.” Green confesses that “Dickstein’s 1979 book, Gates of Eden, was probably more responsible for setting me on a path of study of contemporary fiction than any other critical book I read or any course I took,” and he adds that “much of Dickstein’s analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I discovered when I recently re-read the book.” On the whole, he finds it “undeniable” that Dickstein deserves credit as “an acute analyst of [American literature] within the framework of a consistently applied historical criticism.” All that, however, that doesn’t stop him from picking apart Dickstein’s 2009 book Dancing in the Dark, although his dismantling of it is as respectful as it is methodical, taking care to honour the appeal that the book might hold for some readers while also questioning the validity of the grounds on which one might find it valuable.

Whether Green sets out to address the work of Dickstein or Wood, or Christopher Hitchens or Hershel Parker, he never performs the easy trick of allowing his targets enough rope to hang themselves; he never jumps out at the end of a long quotation to yank open the trap in the floor of the scaffold as soon as someone has taken things a step too far. He routinely gives a variety of critical views a full and faithful airing, but then he backtracks in order to attend more closely to the principles that underpin them and to demonstrate how those principles – those first things, those fundamentals – have skewed or distorted or misinformed a critic’s investigations from the outset. Or, more specifically, he demonstrates how certain principles often have the effect of unnecessarily and arbitrarily limiting the scope and the depths of a critic’s investigations. It’s probably better to say that Green’s great object isn’t literary criticism so much as literature itself, the world of words, and that he therefore doesn’t take issue with other critics simply for reasons of engaging in critical discourses. He seems, instead, to see these critics as having imposed interpretive restrictions on a field of artistic endeavour – a force – whose aesthetic potential he feels is almost unbounded, and whose extraordinary liberties might be more widely recognised if only more critics would broaden rather than seeking to narrow their readers’ understanding of what literature is and what it can be.

Well, okay, so what is literature and what exactly can it be? The introduction to Beyond the Blurb and the first of its three sections, in which Green elucidates his own critical principles, are as clear and stark an explication of the nature and potential of literature as I have ever read. Some of these sections date back many years, perhaps a decade or thereabouts, and I recognised, with pleasure, parts of them that first came to me when I was still taking baby steps towards proficiency in literary criticism. I remember my initial encounter with them; I remember, vividly, the way they struck me not as bloodless rehearsals of pedantic arguments with which a fledgling scholar ought to familiarise himself, but as startling articulations of my inchoate instincts as a reader and a lover of literature. I remember having the sense that another person was reciting to me, in miraculously comprehensible language, my own gut feelings about how literature might be best approached. It’s no exaggeration to say that these parts of Green’s writings became, for me, essential findings in my formation as a serious and attentive reader, much more so than almost all the academic articles and monographs I devoured, and I read them again in Beyond the Blurb more assured than ever of their veracity and vitality. Especially true, and precisely worded, are Green’s reminders for readers of prose fiction to always devote intense concentration to the particularities of its language, over and above all other elements of any given work. It’s certainly the case that most novels contain conventional things like a narrative, characters, a setting, grand themes, and so on. But in spite of all that, Green insists, “fiction as a genre of literature is at its core the creation of illusions of such things… through skilful manipulation of language,” and, as a result,

a critic needs ultimately to be able to focus on the writer’s invocation of language, on the text as an artificial arrangement of words. Attempting to explicate a work of fiction by leaping first of all to plot or character or any other imposed device rather than considering the way such devices are conditioned by and embedded in language ignores the very medium through which literature exists, as if a work of fiction was really just like a movie aside from those pesky words. … Ultimately language is everything in a work of literature, and a critic needs to account for the way a writer marshals the resources of language to create all of the effects in that work.

To be hasty in giving Green’s position some coordinates on the existing landscape of literary criticism, remarks like these basically make him a formalist. One among far too few, I think. Green’s dogged attachment to the sensuality of specifically literary aesthetics – to the effects on the reader of the aesthetic capabilities and resources that are exclusive to literature and are not shared by alternative forms of art – is, for me, another of his greatest strengths, and maybe even his single greatest. For that reason, the introduction to Beyond the Blurb is a goldmine of formalist precepts, clearly and aptly put. “A literary work, whether in verse of prose, is worth taking seriously for its own sake,” Green begins. “The meaning of a literary work,” he adds, “consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.’” He pleads for an “approach to criticism” that “takes literature seriously by granting it a fundamental integrity as a form of art, doesn’t attempt to overshadow the literary work by subsuming it into another agenda… [and] assume[s] that criticism acquires authority through being rigorously attentive and articulating persuasive standards of analysis.” He spells out the half-dozen most important pieces of his critical credo and elaborates on the assumptions and implications of each one, and this credo, in its totality, amounts to a necessary and impassioned advocacy for a view of literature as, first and foremost, an artistic stimulus to human experience rather than a static container for representations of the world.

Having articulated a view of this sort, it’s no surprise that Green goes on to find much to say about the New Critics and their legacy in the form of “close reading,” and he even devotes the third and final section of Beyond the Blurb to praising fellow aesthetes like Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, and William H. Gass. He singles out Poirier’s A World Elsewhere for particular appreciation, even reverence – it is, says Green, “one of the most important academic studies in American literature,” “offer[ing] a radical analysis of American literature and literary history” – and so his essay on Poirier emerges as the most sympathetic and insightful of all those republished in Beyond the Blurb. That said, I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see that none of Green’s extensive and equally immersive remarks on John Dewey’s Art as Experience have made the cut for republication. Their inclusion may have drowned out his responses to the “critical failures” of Dickstein, Wood, and others, bloating the book’s third section and throwing the whole structure of the volume off-balance, but in their sentiment they would have been in the company of kinfolk.

What direction, then, might Green take from here on out? If there’s a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, or a gap in need of filling, it is arguably the choice of subject in a work of literature. Subject, content, the “message,” the thing that a work is “about” – this is, of course, Green’s bête noire, anathema to the essays in Beyond the Blurb, a distraction from the real stuff of literary art. But while I wouldn’t disagree that critical analyses and discussions of literature are too often dominated or overshadowed by the subject of a work as a site of interest in itself, a writer’s choice of subject is surely just as much a focal point for an aesthete as long as the emphasis falls on the word choice. More specifically, I think, critics like Green have an aesthetic obligation to consider the extent to which and the ways in which a choice of subject coheres, resonates, with the whole complex of other aesthetic choices that characterise a work of literature.

What becomes clear in reading Green’s essays is that an aesthetic appreciation of a work of literature involves, at bottom, two rare and complex things related to authorial choice. The first is an awareness of the effects a work achieves by virtue of the way it is stylised and structured, which is to say by virtue of the stylistic and structural choices a writer has made in the process of creating it. The second is the heightening of a reader’s awareness of those effects, and therefore the intensification of his or her appreciation of the work as a whole, through the development of a broad understanding of the aesthetic capabilities and resources of literature – which is to say an understanding of all the possible choices the writer of the work could have made, but didn’t, as well as all the potential alternative effects the work might have achieved, but doesn’t.

In other words, for Green as for myself, the sum total of all the choices a writer has made in a work of literature, when viewed alongside all the other choices the writer has determined not to make, is the key to a thoroughgoing appreciation of the aesthetics of the work. But a writer can choose a subject that serves the work’s stylistic and structural program, that speaks to its terms and becomes an integral part of the overall aesthetic schema, or else the writer can choose a subject that is more or less appended to that program, if not entirely arbitrarily then at least as a discrete piece of the whole. Whichever way it may go in any particular work of literature, then, this choice is fundamentally aesthetic in nature, with consequences that can strengthen or weaken the aesthetic foundations of the entire result.

An example? If Herman Melville, for instance, had written Moby-Dick using the same vast array of aesthetic resources he actually deploys in that novel but applied them instead to the hunt for something other than a whale, the result wouldn’t be anything like Moby-Dick. His novel, as it stands, is stylistically and structurally oriented around concepts of magnitude and the individual effort to exert control over that which possesses magnitude. These concepts feed into the arcane and technical diction of his narrator, as well as his sophisticated and deliberately convoluted syntax. They also feed into his structuring of parts of the novel as itemisations of the innumerable qualities of whales, and the human uses associated with each one, as well as itemisations of variations on those qualities and further itemisations of the uses associated with each variation. Concepts of magnitude are written into the architecture of the aesthetics of Moby-Dick, playing out at all levels of the novel upwards from each individual word, and very possibly the only subject capable of embodying those same concepts – and thereby reinforcing the aesthetic architecture – is “the whale” as both a species of animal and a specific incarnation of that species. Anything less, anything smaller, anything of comparably unimpressive magnitude, wouldn’t work nearly as well as the whale because it would be a subject lacking exactly what Melville’s aesthetics embody.

I don’t think Green would disagree with this. In his analysis of David Winters’ Infinite Fictions, he approvingly quotes Winters’ observation that the stories in Gary Lutz’s Divorcer deal with the subject of divorce while also adopting aesthetic strategies that correspond with the subject. “[I]t’s as if divorce has seeped into the structure of these ‘stories,’” Winters writes, “buried deep in their syntax, motivating the phrasing that estranges the opening of any errant sentence from its end” so that “words are put to work on pulling something apart.” In his response to Richard Poirier, too, Green writes that as a graduate student he wrote his dissertation on “the self-reflexivity of metafiction,” the ways in which metafiction “direct[s] the reader’s attention to the artifice of language” and “ask[s] the reader not to regard language as the transparent medium for the invocation of a created ‘world’ at all but as fiction’s primary source of interest.” Since an appreciation of literary self-reflexivity involves an awareness of the extent to which a work is about itself and its own devices, a detailed examination of metafiction must involve looking at what a work is “about” as much as looking at “how it is about it.” This is, then, a variation on the critical consideration of the choice of subject in literature, and I wish there was more of it to be found in Beyond the Blurb. It’s not missing from the book, but it deserves closer inspection – particularly since it affords Green an opportunity to chip away at the binary opposition between “subject” and “form,” and to tease out the threads by which “subject” is not so much bound to “form” itself as it is bound to the other constituent elements of “form” that receive the critic’s scrutiny.

Yet if this downplaying of choice of subject is, as I said, a blind spot in Beyond the Blurb, then for that reason it’s also a proof of the intensity that is the book’s signature virtue. What is a blind spot, after all, but the space that opens on the margins of vision when one devotes attention to some other object of concentration? Beyond the Blurb is an intense little book. It’s unique for its kind in the sense that it uses a series of discrete examples of literary criticism in order to articulate a singular vision of the value of the practice. It’s a focal point for critical energies expended over many years, fusing intermittent sparks of writing into a brief but powerful surge. I’ll concede that it was never going to persuade me of its worth because I didn’t need persuasion. I’ve long been onboard with most of Green’s positions on the issues that matter to him. Nevertheless, I anticipated something much more diffuse than what appears in Beyond the Blurb – I anticipated a harvest of blog posts bound between two covers – so it’s a thrill to see that the result is a sharp, serious, and sustained appraisal of the appreciation and evaluation of literature in today’s world.