Memoir & Criticism

I believe that literary criticism has most often been done best by writers themselves: Lawrence, Forster, Orwell; Auden, Woolf, Delmore Schwartz; Randall Jarrell. These are the critics whom I have prized; writers who wanted their criticism to do what imaginative writing (at its best) does: bring to consciousness the feeling intelligence trapped inside the wilderness of mind and spirit that we all stumble around in. I prize this kind of criticism because it understands intuitively that it is in an aroused consciousness that the solace and excitement of literature are to be found.

The critique must be as emotionally ambitious as the work it is interpreting if it is to give us back the taste of our own experience. The critic, like the writer, needs to perceive accurately the underlying influences in the culture and the way those influences exert themselves on the inner life of those on the ground. This is the double task for all who undertake to make or, in the widest sense, appreciate literature.

Looking back half a century, I see the same simple truths being addressed by American critics of an earlier time. In 1948, Partisan Review held a famous symposium on the state of American writing at a moment when the rise of middlebrow culture alarmed the pulse-taking editors of America’s most highbrow magazine. In the welter of words that the symposium induced, two sets of remarks were made that still hold my attention. R. P. Blackmur said, “The elite of writers in America is at present . . . without adequate relation to the forces which shape or deform our culture. . . . If American middlebrow culture has grown stronger in this decade, I would suppose it was because the bulk of people cannot see themselves reflected in the adventures of the elite.” And Lionel Trilling said, “There is in English what might be called a permanent experiment, which is the effort to get the language of poetry back to a certain hard, immediate actuality, what we are likely to think of as the tone of good common speech. . . . I like to think that our cultural schism may come to be bridged with the aid of a literature which will develop the experiment of a highly charged plain speech.” Sixty years later, these words resonate for me. As a reader, what I look for in contemporary writing is an adequate relation to the forces that shape or deform our culture; as a writer, what I struggle to achieve is a sufficiently charged plain speech.

For me, the liberationist movements of the past forty years have been the single most powerful influence on the lives we are now living, because they drove an extraordinary wedge into the kind of coherent self-description that stabilizes a society. The current descent, in this country, into mad religiosity can be laid directly at their door. Class struggle is as nothing beside the anguish over race and sex, the real specters long haunting Western democracies. Not for the first time, the rise of feminism in America, coupled with the social progress of blacks (and this time around, gays as well), has unhinged the culture. At the end of the 19th century, the agitation caused by the great reform movements (abolition and women’s rights), joined to the bitterness of the Civil War and the rise of Darwinism, caused thousands of people (many famous and accomplished) to retreat, in historic anxiety, into a belief in spiritualism (that is, communion with the dead) not so very far from where we are today. Now as then, it is as though one kind of civil order were dying, and another being born—in the midst of which we seem unable to tell the story of who we think we are; that is, to describe adequately, with intellect and emotion, how at sea we are within ourselves.

Sometimes during such a historical impasse, literature derives sufficient clarity to flourish; sometimes not. Right now, I think not. The gargantuan, language-swollen writing of the Pynchons and DeLillos declares itself an encompassing reflection of the tumult—and who knows? perhaps it is—but for me, this work is brilliant abstraction. In no way does it give me back the taste of my own experience. At the same time, the liberationist movements—which, as politics, have appealed urgently to me—have produced only novels and memoirs of testimony, not literature. I can think of no novel self-consciously feminist or gay that has achieved the kind of largeness that gives us back both world and self.

Yet not so long ago there came among us a European writer whose work, more than that of any contemporary American’s, points a way out of the impasse with a kind of hybrid writing that fulfills brilliantly the demands made by Blackmur and Trilling; it also throws into question the future of well-defined literary genres. In the mid-1990s, W. G. Sebald, a German in his fifties who’d been living in England for thirty years, began publishing works of nonfiction often described as “unclassifiable” because his narratives are endowed with a power of suggestiveness we associate only with fiction.

For me, Sebald is transparently what I will call a memoirist. Every instinct for literature that I possess tells me that his is the odd but striking voice of a nonfictionist writing to puzzle out a position that will let him include himself in what he experiences as a ghost-ridden universe, at whose wavering edge he stands, alternately staring out at the emptiness beyond, and back at the silence of a world now peculiarly motionless. The “ghosts” are everything that has come before: the sum of human history, which the narrator connects to with an associativeness that is unaccountably deep, moving, mysterious. War, fable, architecture; medicine, philosophy, trade routes; old newspaper scandals, hotel lobbies, buried resort towns; literary unhappiness and political martyrdom—he remembers them all with an act of recall so strong that the connections transmute his feeling into hope rather than despair. The magic is in the transitions—as effective in Sebald as those in good poetry. They pull us directly into the marvel of human consciousness and, in a way that is hard to describe, succeed in giving us the courage to live with the fragmented civilization that is ours to endure. Everywhere in Sebald, in writing clear as water, we have the paradox of a silence and an emptiness that under the writer’s calm, unafraid gaze become infused with richness and excitement. If bleakness is what we have inherited, then bleakness is what we must engage. We are here, this writing tells us, not to mourn lost worlds but to see things as they are: to take in the is-ness of what is. Consciousness is our only salvation.

At this point, it seems to me, Sebald becomes the writer for our times: the one giving us back the actual feel of experience—our experience; our moment, our world, the one we have made and are wandering forlornly about in. Alienation, his writing tells us, is a romance whose moment has come and gone. Anomie is no longer what we are about. The work accomplishes a renewal of feeling for the immensity of human existence, not its smallness or meanness or pointlessness—exactly what a writer of significance might be expected to achieve.

It is, I think, a measure of the widening gap between literary convention and sensory reality that Sebald’s books are repeatedly called novels. Many readers, and certainly many critics, cannot believe that the ability to make us feel our one and only life as very few novels do these days is coming from a nonfiction truth speaker—even though it patently is.

“Give the novel back its aesthetic autonomy,” says James Wood, “and we will discover . . . that [it] justifies itself by making an enquiry that it alone can make.” But no one can give the novel back its autonomy (that is, its authority); it must earn it; the very thing, at this moment, it seems unable to do. Which is precisely why the memoir compels the greater interest of readers and writers alike today. It is in the void created by stasis in the novel that this genre is flourishing.


Not to say that memoir is the genre to turn to for great writing these days—not at all—only that the present currency of nonfiction means that a sea change has taken place in literary culture. The other night I was having dinner with two friends, one of whom was recounting her harrowing experience of the past year. Her son had taken a bad spill on a ski slope that had resulted in months in the hospital, and my friend was describing—how vividly!—the terror with which she had slowly come to realize that he was permanently brain damaged. When her awful tale was ended, our other friend said, “Now, there’s a memoir.” I stared at her, thinking, thirty years ago she would surely have said, “There’s a novel.” Not that any of us thought our dinner companion might have produced a work of literature if she wrote a memoir rather than a novel; for that, we all knew a writing imagination is required, something always in short supply. But it was a sign of the times that the impulse to shape a story out of the raw material of actual event—an impulse alive in all people at all ages—suggests itself as more readily served by a memoir than a novel. I agree with James Wood that nothing can replace the novel: it occupies a position of beauty and power halfway between the poem and the essay that we can no longer do without. Nevertheless, at this moment the form does not inspire faith in its narrative preeminence.

James Wood is a strong critic because he comes alive when he is reading. He may not understand better than anyone else what his time and place is about, but he knows when the book in his hand hits a nerve. I feel the same; it’s only that Wood’s nerve is located in a different part of his reading body than mine. Which means that it takes a great number of critics to piece together a revealing portrait of a literary period; one that reflects the way it feels to be reading and writing at this time, in this place.

But what do I know? In the 1920s Virginia Woolf complained in print that she could not hear an authentic voice in the novels of the moment (which was why she was retreating to the literature of earlier times). In novel after novel, she said, Chloe loves John, John loves Olivia, oh dear, what to do! (Perhaps, she added elsewhere, eyes turned innocently skyward, it would be more interesting to have a novel in which Chloe loved Olivia instead of John.) In the ’40s, the critics who contributed to the Partisan Review symposium also spoke of the retreat into the work of the past because contemporary writing was profoundly unsatisfying. Today, we look back on the ’40s and ’50s as a golden time for English and American literature. No doubt, in the not-so-distant future the literature that currently surrounds us will loom infinitely larger (or smaller) than it does at the moment. How could it be otherwise?

What we critics do—in the aggregate—is to provide, one hopes, a perceptive if not prophetic response to imaginative work; it either rings true or not, on the skin, in the nerve endings, at the given moment. If our responses are themselves imaginative—rich, ardent, inclusive—they will make a contribution to the record of the way it feels to be writing and reading now. Then let the literary chips fall where they may.

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