What motivations shape a critic’s decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss? And what are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? Are there personal forces or experiences that affect their preferences about what to read and review?
In this ongoing series of interviews with critics, one of the central questions will be, “What is a critic’s role?” It’s a broad question, open-ended, but one which can be used, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.
For the second post in this series, I’m very pleased to present an interview with David Winters. Our conversation took place over email in recent months.
David Winters is a literary critic living in Cambridge, England. His reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in a wide variety of print and online publications, including the Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, The Literary Review, The White Review, The Quarterly Conversation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A collection of his literary criticism, titled Infinite Fictions, is forthcoming from Zero Books in January 2015; it can be pre-ordered here. He is currently co-editor in chief of 3:AM Magazine, where he commissions criticism and nonfiction. He can be found online at davidwinters.uk.
I’d like to hear a little bit about your beginnings as a critic. Was there a particular experience that triggered your interest in writing criticism?
Not a particular experience, so much as my general experience of reading—a basic love of reading being why anyone ends up a critic! For me, writing about books presented an opportunity—or perhaps just an excuse—to extend my engagement with the reading experience. What interests me most about that experience is its mystery—its opacity; its apparent distance from everyday reality. And really, thinking about my “beginnings” as a critic means thinking back to my earliest, murkiest memories of reading. Among those is an image of my father, sat on a bench in the garden of the house where I grew up, reading a paperback book. I must have been four or five. I’m not sure of the author—maybe Aldiss or Asimov; it doesn’t matter. What matters is my memory of his mood: sunlit, immersed in his book, he seemed serenely removed from the world. Maybe that’s what I’ve always sought in my reading: a kind of miraculous disappearance. Another memory: I’m sixteen, sitting in the same spot—my father is already four years dead—and I’m reading Kafka for the first time. Another: nineteen, same bench, different book—Roland Barthes. In both cases, I feel the same thing I think I saw on my father’s face, as a child. I can’t put a name to that feeling, but it’s the real reason I read, and the reason I write about what I read.
That’s a lovely phrase—“a kind of miraculous disappearance.” It has a spiritual tone, of course. As you express it, the common idea of reading-as-escapism sounds more like being freed from the burden of thinking about one’s self. Based on that, it sounds as if criticism is then a sort of reportage from the other side?
Maybe—although I’ve always liked Wittgenstein’s advice: “Make sure your religion is a matter between you and God only.” And what you’ve said can be said in a simpler, secular way: reading puts us in touch with our larger context. Yes, for me the experience of ego-loss is pretty central to the pleasure of reading, as it is to most genuine pleasures. In saying this, though, I don’t intend to define the task of the critic. Critical practice isn’t an irrational activity, and I try—increasingly, actually—to attain certain standards of rigor. At the same time, critics should never forget that their craft stems from a deeply uncertain substrate of experience. Antonio Gramsci famously says that “the starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is.” In a similar spirit, I believe the best critics are those who maintain an awareness of the tension between critical rigor and the reading experience—a subjective domain that can never be stabilized.
What memories do you have of your first few assignments? During that time, reading others’ work and theory, what was your initial feeling about what it meant to be a critic?
My first book review was of Barthes’ The Preparation of the Novel. I sent it to Andrew Gallix at 3:AM. He published it, and made me an editor shortly afterwards. I’m grateful to Andrew for that. And to Barthes! That particular book is about what he calls the “fantasy” of wanting to write a novel. At the time, I was earnestly—embarrassingly—trying to write a novel of my own. Writing reviews freed me from that fantasy; I came to feel that it could provide what I’d tried to find in writing fiction. This is hard to articulate, but I saw how criticism might allow me to say things about myself, without actually “saying” them. There’s an innate indirectness to book reviewing—you’re writing about someone else’s book—but that indirectness creates a space for subtle self-exploration. Another way of saying this is that, in any act of “writing about,” the writing itself exceeds its “aboutness.” When criticism opens that gap, it seems like somewhere you can hide for a while, or a place where you can put your secrets. I’m not talking normatively, of course; I wouldn’t claim this is what criticism ought to do or be, but it was, in your words, my “initial feeling.”
How did it feel to have that first piece published and be invited to join the staff of 3:AM at the same time? Did you suddenly start reading and studying to “get in shape,” so to speak? I imagine the sudden responsibility to produce work and edit it regularly must have been encouraging but also daunting, in terms of guiding the magazine, envisioning a course for the kind of books and criticism it might stand for.
I was already in shape, or aptly out of it (if addiction to literature is, as Enrique Vila-Matas says, a kind of sickness) and I’d been employed in book publishing for some years, so editorial work came easily enough. As for “guiding” the magazine, for me the most attractive aspect of 3:AM is its refusal to “stand for” anything! As Andrew often puts it, the site has “no party line.” It was always supposed to be a broad church—or an anarchic ship of fools, to mix the metaphor. The most amusing attacks on us have come from bloggers who treat book reviewing as if it were some sort of moral crusade; who want to divide readers’ tastes into “right” and “wrong.” We find factionalism quite infantile, and upsetting these dogmatists is as good a reason as any to keep publishing.
Having worked in book publishing and written widely about literature and theory, you’ve seen many sides to literary culture, including the financial, academic, artistic, and the effects on these of cultural commentary. Based on that, how do you view the role of a critic in society? How has that view changed over time?
This will sound cynical, but I feel like the social role of lit crit is sometimes overstated—at least, that is, by literary critics. Whether we’re talking about turf wars between rival book bloggers, or the “radical” affectations of some academics, critics enjoy exaggerating the social weight of their work. I take a more Bourdieusian view. I’ve long admired John Guillory’s argument about the “fantasy of literary power”—that is, the strangely influential assumption, among those invested in it, that “literary culture is the site at which the most socially important beliefs and attitudes are produced.” Taking up this idea, Mark McGurl has suggested that critics who “amplify” literature’s social stakes lend it “a dignity of effective scale that it does not necessarily deserve.” They don’t, he says, “make any conceptual allowance for the potential triviality of the literary work as a historical force.” But, you know, admitting the triviality of our objects doesn’t make them less valuable. On the contrary, once we’ve acknowledged such limits, that’s when things start to get interesting. Only then can we get a reflexive grip on our practices. So my view of criticism’s social role is pretty deflationary. At the same time, it isn’t defeatist. Nor am I dissing my own reviews when I say that they stem from escapism, daydreaming, and personal weakness. I prefer not to conceal their contingency.
Your forthcoming book, Infinite Fictions, collects some of your writing in two sections, “On Literature” and “On Theory.” Can you describe a few of the ways that your experience studying theory has affected your experience as a reader and a critic?
The most revealing thing is probably how it affected me as a person. In my late teens and early twenties, I basically lived and breathed so-called “French theory.” I really was like those “pallid theory boys” Simon Reynolds writes about. I identified with theory, and in doing so, I fitted a definite stereotype (which was pretty ironic by that point, when theory had already been declared “dead.”) Anyway, Marco Roth captures this quite well when he says that theory appeals to people who possess a “native anti-foundationalism”—an instinctive unease “about subject and object, language and self.” That kind of alienation is common to adolescence, of course. Indeed, adolescent identity is almost like theory’s ideal type. It’s no surprise if “floating signifiers” speak strongly to someone on the cusp of adulthood; “aporia” are appropriate to people whose lives are largely unmapped. Perhaps that’s part of what theory is: the time for theory is the time of youth. In the old, it ossifies into philosophy. My problem, though, is that I never grew out of my native attachment to theory. All my friends have matured and flourished, and I’m still here, at odds with my body, my words, and my world. Waiting for theory to finally swallow me.
You’ve written at length about Gordon Lish and the work of many writers he guided. What drew you to study Lish, and what would you say defines his impact on American letters?
Well, it was theory that led me to Lish. His intellectual background is interesting: he’s deeply steeped in the work of Deleuze, Kristeva, Agamben, Lingis. He’s also absorbed aspects of chaos theory, information theory, and the psychology of education. Then there are his literary influences; he’s well-versed in the work of Bernhard and Beckett, as well as in the best practitioners of the American short story. Combine all of that, and something quite striking emerges. It’s something critics have had trouble getting their heads around. Back in the ’80s, Lish was misleadingly labeled a “minimalist.” Some of the sloppier recent critiques have linked him with “MFA culture”—yet Lish detests MFAs, and his classes had nothing in common with that format. There’s also a tendency to view him as some sort of sentence-fetishist: “don’t have stories, have sentences,” as the quote goes. Even that’s not entirely accurate. Actually, Lish is less interested in sentences than in the relations between them—and in the way those relations project what Poe would call a “total effect.” Nor are such effects purely formal, for him. Instead, they’re integral to his conception of the moral role of the artist. So, what we’re talking about here is a complex kind of philosophical poetics. And the impact of that poetics on Lish’s students, and on the work he edited (not to mention ghostwrote) played an important part in postwar American literary history.
Earlier you mentioned that you try to attain certain standards of rigor in your critical practice. What does that entail for you at this point? Do you vary your approach for each piece?
That’s probably more applicable to my academic work than my reviewing. For instance, right now I’m researching Lish. That kind of work is subject to certain standards of scholarly enquiry—you formulate your research questions, organize your empirical sources, test your analytical frameworks against those sources, and so on. Next to a journalistic treatment, it’s a different approach, with a different purpose. The non-academic accounts of Lish have all been unhelpfully rhetorical and polemical—they’re either hatchet-jobs or hagiographies. My work is detached from all that; I’m simply interested in historical reconstruction and contextualization. I guess that’s one kind of “rigor.” As for my reviews, I can’t really say how rigorous they are. But one thing I’ll say about the online world in which I’ve worked—and about the “blogosphere” in particular—is that I think it brings out the best and the worst in critical writing. I mean, the medium encourages a sort of deprofessionalized subjectivism, which can be incredibly exciting. At the same time, I’ve seen it produce some indefensible breakdowns of critical sense. Consequently, I’ve come to feel that the editorial function is vital to online book culture. There’s a lot to be said about this, but to put it simply, I’m much more likely to read online writing if it’s passed through the hands of an editor I respect.
Returning to your quotes from Guillory about “the fantasy of literary power” and McGurl’s idea of this supposed power’s “triviality”—even if we assume this is true about literature’s role in culture as a historical force, critics exercise a different, much more quantifiable sort of influence. Even a critic who is (to borrow your phrase) focused on the subjective domain of Gramsci’s “consciousness of what one really is,” a review is a form of journalism, a public record that affects the real-world sales, fortunes, and reputations of writers. How do you view and approach that aspect of a critic’s role, in terms of journalistic responsibility?
I’m not sure I share your confidence that critical influence can be “quantified.” The aspects of it I care about probably can’t be. Nor am I sure that many reviews ever really become enduring “public records.” For me, the form’s evanescence is its attraction. It’s also worth remembering, from a publishing perspective, that the relationship between review coverage and sales isn’t always straightforward. In any case, I’ve never aimed to affect the sales of the writers I review. I couldn’t care less; that’s their publicists’ job. The matter of a writer’s “reputation” is more complex—and surely still less quantifiable—but, to be honest, it’s far from my mind when I’m doing reviews. Listen, essentially I’m less interested in “writers” than in writing itself. True, I’ve tried to draw attention to authors who’ve been neglected, but I’m not out to forge anyone’s “fortune.” And if sales, fortunes, and reputations really are the stuff of “journalism,” then I’m afraid I’m against the statement that “a review is a form of journalism.” Reviewing isn’t reducible to those terms. If criticism has a responsibility, I simply don’t see it like that. Isn’t the critic’s only real responsibility to capture the essence of her object? Or, at least, to truthfully track her lived encounter with it? And, in failing to do so completely, to take account of her failure? I take that kind of responsibility—or better, fidelity—very seriously. Sales and fortunes, not so much.
In collecting your work for your new book and writing the introduction, did anything surprise you in looking back or commenting on your body of work thus far?
Every morning in the mirror, the first things I see are my flaws. Assembling a collection’s no different. It’s unnervingly personal. Looking back at my writing means looking back at my life, and I never like what I see. This sort of book is sometimes construed as a vanity project. In my case, that’s even truer if we return to vanity’s etymological root: vanitas, emptiness, futility. Reading my writing, I recognize my futile attempt to make sense of myself. It rarely registers on the surface; it’s buried deep in the fossil record. Unsurprisingly, if pressed to reflect on the pieces I’ve written, I’m not the type to promote my personal favourites. I’ve no desire to make a name for myself; the one I was born with is more than enough. That’s why I’d rather talk about failure. And the best thing about making a book is that it opens my eyes to the scope of my failure. I’m not being nihilistic here. I’m describing a highly productive kind of surprise. What does Cardew say? Failure reveals “the pettiness of the goals.” That’s part of it. Lately I’ve also been thinking a lot about failures of expression, not just in my writing, but in the last few years of my life. I’ve realized how my failure to express my feelings has shaped who I am. Reappraising my book reviews has helped a bit, in that respect. I tried to say things in some of them—real things, to and about the people around me—that no one noticed I was trying to say. I really believed I was speaking, and all the time I was silent. Besides vanity, essay collections can represent a writer’s attempt to draw a line under a period of their past. Personally, I don’t know what lies beyond that line. Maybe there’s nothing more than the imperative to improve; to keep trying.
Editorial note: David has published a review of mine at 3:AM Magazine.