Writing and Life: Influential Critics

Some time ago one of my most thoughtful readers (hi, Tom!) suggested I write about “a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you.” I really liked this idea because, as I said in the resulting post, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn out to be ‘right’ ahead of time.” The teachers I wrote on included one from elementary school, one from high school, and one in particular among several who were important to my university years. At the close of the post, though, it occurred to me that the original question “may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences.” “I’m still thinking,” I concluded, “about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been ‘influenced’ by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions again recently because as I have tried to figure out what is most important to me to express as a critic (now that my long apprenticeship is over and I’m answerable primarily to myself for the future direction of my research and writing) I have identified two critics whose work indeed does inspire, move, and motivate me. More specifically, I have noticed that two critical books in particular repeatedly help me see and articulate what matters to me, or interests or challenges me, about many of the books I read, teach, and write about. One of these is Wayne Booth’s companionably plump and erudite The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and the other is Carolyn Heilbrun’s slim but mighty Writing a Woman’s Life. Oddly, both were originally published in 1988. That means both were quite current when I started my PhD program at Cornell in 1990. But neither work–indeed, neither author, that I recall–was assigned, or even mentioned, in any course I took.

Booth’s book I discovered for myself when, soon after I earned tenure, I allowed myself to reconsider the focus of my scholarship, hoping to capture in my research the same excitement and urgency I felt in my teaching. I was dubious that I would ever feel much exhiliration pursuing increasingly esoteric projects about obscure women historians; I had done what I wanted to in that area with my thesis (which became my book). What I wanted to talk about was how and why novels actually mattered in our lives. I felt (feel!) that they do, profoundly, and I thought (think!) that one important facet of their significance is ethical. But I didn’t know how to talk about this in a rich way that would also be sensitive to fiction’s many other significant facets, including form, aesthetics, and history. The Company We Keep not only talks about exactly this, but it does so in Booth’s wonderfully engaging, unpretentious, open-minded way. It was criticism that talked about how we live in the world, and about literature as part of that living rather than something abstractly theoretical. Booth’s work was part of a wider debate about the ethics of fiction that included, among many others, Richard Posner, Martha Nussbaum, and, eventually, me: I published two academic essays as a result of this turn in my research (here’s one, in PDF; here’s the teaser for the other). The ideas it generated infused my teaching as well, particularly in a course I designed on ‘close reading’ that I will offer again, for the first time in 5 years, next fall. More recently, I wrote an essay on Gone with the Wind that attempted a “Boothian” reading of that problematic novel: an ethical reading that avoids (or so I hope) simplistic finger-pointing while accepting morality as a key aspect of literary evaluation. (Judging by the comments, not everyone was convinced! But I hope, in the spirit of what Booth calls ” coduction” [my favorite neologism!], some readers found themselves thinking about Gone with the Wind differently, even if they didn’t agree with me in all the details of my argument.) Clearly, Booth counts for me as an influential critic; I only wish I had read him earlier and been in a program where he and his interests had been prominent instead of–well, instead of much of what I was assigned.

I have a longer relationship with Heilbrun’s little book, which was given to me by my mother soon after its publication, with a lovely inscription noting that she had found it “interesting and provocative” and hoped we would talk about it “over tea.” It seems appropriate that Writing a Woman’s Life should have come to me in this way, as a gesture of shared interests and an invitation to intimacy and support, because that kind of female community and the strength it generates is one of Heilbrun’s major themes. Written relatively late in Heilbrun’s long career, its brevity is deceptive as it distills the accumulated insights of three decades of academic experience and feminist scholarship (for Heilbrun, often in a vexed relationship with each other). It’s wise, articulate, and insistent. I drew on it in formulating the central argument of my thesis and book, quoting from its first chapter, which is nominally on George Sand but is also on the difficulties and the vital necessity of finding appropriate ways to shape narratives of women’s lives. “Lives do not serve as models,” Heilbrun writes;

only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or changed, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

She moves immediately on to an example from George Eliot, to the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda, who vehemently “protests women’s storylessness.” She writes in the book about women who lived lives that chafed against the stories they knew, and about biographies of these women that did, or, more often, did not find a better story to tell their lives in. She writes about anger and courage, about love and compromise, about age and beauty, about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and herself. Writing a Woman’s Life is as much polemic (graceful and witty as it is) as theory, and it makes big claims supported by allusion and invocation rather than narrow claims defended by bulwarks of footnotes and metacriticism. It’s not, exactly, scholarly, but then it wasn’t exactly meant to be, because it’s a book that’s about living life as much as it is about writing it. “I risk a great danger,” Heilbrun remarks at the outset: “that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences.” But Writing a Woman’s Life is never boring because it has all the urgency I wanted criticism to have. Though I didn’t immediately see it as a relevant book when I was reconsidering my own critical path, it’s urgent because it too is ethical criticism, in that broad sense of ethos that drives Booth’s arguments as well, and it’s urgent because it thinks it matters what and how we read: it takes fiction seriously because it sees reading as part of living, as shaping how we think and thus how we live.

I’ve found myself returning again and again to Heilbrun’s ideas about the limits of narrative forms and the problems of conceptualizing new stories (especially love stories) when talking with my students about many different novels, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to The Mill on the Floss to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. Like Booth’s book, Heilbrun’s has been recurrently useful not so much in the details but in the lens it offers for bringing key problems into focus–or, to try a different metaphor, for the way it illuminates the problems I want to talk about. Reviewing a new biography of George Eliot that frustrated and disappointed me, I turned to Heilbrun for help in explaining why. I just turned to her work again while teaching Death in a Tenured Position, which was written by Heilbrun under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross. (In another odd coincidence, Death in a Tenured Position is dedicated to May Sarton, whose novel The Small Room I just read and wrote up for the Slaves of Golconda.) Looking at it again, and also reading with great interest and pleasure the essays in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, I found that after all these years, she more than most critics speaks in a voice I want to listen to. She’s infectiously passionate about the books and writers and issues she addresses, and she explains them sympathetically: her approach is inspiring, even, again, if we might differ on the details. Her  own story, also, with its brave ending, is moving in its effortful integrity. She was a controversial figure, but that in itself is motivating. As she says towards the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, those of us who are very privileged,

not only academics in tenured positions, … but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security, are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.

“I do not believe,” she concludes, “that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions.” There, she is surely correct.

2 Comments to Writing and Life: Influential Critics

  1. November 4, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Fascinating post. I have only read Booth through Nussbaum (wHom I like tremendously) and have only read Heilbrun as Amanda Cross. I’m intrigued to read them both in their own voices, particularly the Heilbrun as women’s writing has always been an interest of mine. My own influential text was Terry Eagleton’s Modern Critical Theory. It gave me such a different perspective on literature when I read it. I was 19 and just starting out and I hated it at first because it was so challenging, and then I loved it for making me think differently.

  2. November 4, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    @litlove, I think you’d find Writing a Woman’s Life very engaging. Also, in Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women there are several pieces on May Sarton which I meant to bring in when discussing The Small Room but somehow didn’t.

    I had Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction but it was stolen from my library carrel at Cornell and I admit, I wasn’t sorry!

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