By Greg Bills, Vicki Forman, Michelle Latiolais, and Elisabeth Sheffield
Edited by Jeff Solomon
The birth of this roundtable, like the birth of most monsters, was complex. “Monster and Critic” was inspired by a 2001 conference of the same name at the University of Southern California, which considered the complicated interactions of writers, texts, and their critics. To extend this intriguing, important conversation into the realm of living, breathing writers, I hosted a virtual panel among four: Greg Bills, Vicki Forman, Michelle Latiolais, and Elisabeth Sheffield. Here is the result.
The mad scientist makes monsters because his unhappiness with the world inspires him to change it; he is a critic of what already is. Dr. Génessier of Eyes Without A Face cannot bear how a car accident left his daughter with an open wound for a face, and so he flenses a series of young women to give Little Christiane some flesh. The motivations of Dr. Moreau are not as clear-cut. Why shape live animals, through grafting and vivisection, into men? For cheap labor? To provide an unsavory metaphor for the oppression of colonized peoples by sadists in white ducks? Or does Moreau, like Dr. Frankenstein, like many bad parents, simply crave the rush of power that comes from creating life, a rush that fades to disinterest for the creations themselves?
Despite their desire for transcendence, these doctors must scavenge the material world for their ingredients: The mad scientist must start with the mundane. Doctors Frankenstein, Moreau, and Génessier thus reflect their creators—writers Mary Shelley, H. G. Wells, and Jean Redon—all of whom created something new out of the words and images that mark and name our everyday existence. That we don’t (necessarily) call these artists and critics “mad” or their creations “monstrous” is a tribute to the integrity and popularity of their creations rather than an inherent difference from the mad doctors and their flawed creation.
Which brings us to the slippery title of our roundtable: Monster and Critic. As Michelle Latiolais asks within, is the monster the artwork or artist that the critic regards, or is the monster synonymous with the critic? Our title was chosen for its indeterminacy—which may or may not have been mad, but certainly was productive. Moo ha ha ha ha.
Greg Bills, Vicki Forman, Michelle Latiolais, and Elisabeth Sheffield. Four fiction writers; four professors of creative writing, four graduates within five years of the University of California, Irvine MFA program; four friends whose hybrid identities as both professors and professional writers complicate the terms of our debate. Feel free to let loose more anger and frustration! I wrote, looking for a fight. But all the contributors were unfailingly respectful to each other, if not to the topic at hand. All I could do was cut most of their graciousness from the final draft.
Ah, the cutting. Lisa, Michelle, Vicki, and Greg’s conversation was so abundant that we exceeded our page allowance. Some time in the lab proved that the most coherent cut mixed and matched the correspondence so as best to frame concordance and disagreement. What follows are the four contributors’ opening statements, each followed by a suite of responses drawn from the two rounds that followed. Any incoherence should be attributed not to my four friends but to my own sutures.
The critic as monster, the monster as critic. This roundtable aims to address the relationship between the creative and the critical, which is to say, in the end, that it addresses nothing less than the age-old opposition between the creative and the critical. I’m reminded of Hillis Miller’s piece, “The Critic as Host,” which deconstructs the necessarily symbiotic relationship between the writer and the critic. Collectively, under their own roundtable entitled “The Limits of Pluralism,” Miller argues with Wayne Booth and M.H. Abrams about the role the critic plays in interpretation, setting the stage for the next 25 years of debate. Is the critic teasing out the truth, or is she making a truth of her own? And if she is making a new truth, doesn’t criticism count as creation too? How odd that in the years since Miller’s essay so little has changed. The critic still competes with the creator, parasite and host are still entwined in their undying, symbiotic feast, and we’re all still arguing about who belongs at the table.
For a long time creative writers have whispered among ourselves about what a terrible mess critics in general and deconstructive critics in particular have made for us: they claim that the text no longer exists (if not, what was I doing up until 2 am last night?); they assert that the author is dead (but didn’t I see my reflection in the mirror just this morning?); they proclaim their superiority over writers with their fancy theoretical language, their fine French-ismes and even nicer shirts; above all, they make writers feel like second-rate citizens. Anybody can do what we’re doing, only the critics can tease out the hidden meanings of our creations, and, finally, a piece of criticism is just as important as the piece of poetry or prose that engendered it. A story about a man stealing his ex-wife’s plants isn’t just a story about a man stealing his ex-wife’s plants. It’s a story about the fear of an absent penis in a phallogocentric world and just try to prove the critic wrong. (Or try to convince the critic that maybe the writer really did have this idea in mind while writing.) What we think we’re writing isn’t at all what we’re really writing, and if we want to understand what we’re really writing (and know that it has value), we don’t need an audience, we need a critic.
Often, I find myself defending the monstrous critics. Let’s not be afraid of the parasites outside our doors, I say. We all have the same aim, to wit, the creation and appreciation of great works. Criticism doesn’t have to be hostile to creation, nor does creation have to threaten criticism. Can we try to imagine a world where neither the critic nor the creation are considered monstrous? Apparently not. What’s become clear to me, and what this current roundtable would appear to prove, is that from the monster vs. critic debate arises the equally age-old, almost totemically necessary (and deeply satisfying) creation by the insider of an outsider. Fiction writers are outsiders to the critical theorists, theorists are insiders to the fiction writers. The insider/critic defines the creator as monster or outsider. Consider that even Dr. Frankenstein could not be happy with his creation but had to make a monster out of it. (Or perhaps the critical Dr. Frankenstein had too much self-loathing to make a creation not monstrous but beautiful?) I’m reminded here of my family’s new favorite film monsters: Stuart Little, and Beary of The Country Bears. Both creatures have been adopted into families where their differences (their nature as outsiders) are not celebrated but ignored. (Not unlike fiction writers within academia.) Both take a journey to uncover and discover their true monster natures, only to realize that the uncritical (and unaware) family system sure beats the big bad world out there where a monster is treated like a monster. The conclusion: all creations, ultimately, have a disability (something monstrous) handed to them by their critic/creators which then becomes the object (or subject) of criticism, thereby safeguarding both the act of creation and the critical process. (P.S.—If you’re really lucky, your parents still won’t think of you as a mouse or a bear when you get home.) In his essay, Miller suggests that possibly the host and the parasite can “live happily together, in the domicile of the same text, feeding each other or sharing the food.” Perhaps. I’d add that in the end the necessary and satisfying oppositions between monster and critic, outsider and insider, creator and creation—and the wealth of creation and criticism that arises from these oppositions—is not only the stuff being served, but the actual food we crave.
ELISABETH SHEFFIELD ROUND ONE Vicki seems to disparage the critic who defines both creator and creation as monsters, and suggests “the critical Dr. Frankenstein had too much self-loathing to make a creation not monstrous but beautiful.” I would argue that the critic is only doing his/her job—all truly original creation is “monstrous,” in that the monstrous is that which stretches the boundaries of the normal or recognizable. The monster both summons up and repudiates the conventions of form, and points the way toward (or portends, as omens do) the new.
GREG BILLS ROUND ONE As for Vicki’s intriguing analysis of the monster-critic relationship: If the connection is, in fact, symbiotic, not parasitic, I wonder what, exactly, the artist/monster should expect to get out of the deal. Approval? Opprobrium? Insight? Certainly, artists and their works have benefited from the intellectual/cultural production of English departments in recent decades; all those de-centering, deconstructing, gender-troubling trips to the panopticon have not gone unnoticed and unreported in current fiction or unconsidered during its creation. But it’s revealing how little of this influential critical work has actually concerned itself with the study of contemporary fiction texts.
When I ask myself what I am seeking as a writer, it’s not critics, it’s readers. If criticism is an act of intellectual engagement, so is reading. And if readers happen to be exquisitely educated and bristling with brilliant theories, terrific. But it’s the intelligent enthusiasm that really interests me, and it’s a requirement no different, really, from the one I search for in fiction writers. One of my favorite critics, rarely considered as such, is Angela Carter. Her re-inventions of fairytales, legends, and history are as much engaged criticism as her essays are exercises in creative investigation. Maybe in the literary realm I aspire to, monster and critic become indistinguishable.
MICHELLE LATIOLAIS ROUND ONE It seems the group is somewhat in accord as to the necessity of critics, but which critics are we talking about? Vicki brings up Hillis Miller, one of the finest readers anywhere and in any time, and man, I’m all for Hillis’s careful work, but what seems to pass for criticism generally in America is not work the caliber of Hillis’s but rather tripe which should be tossed off a boat mid-Atlantic. For the most part, I have stopped reading reviews in newspapers, in particular The Times from either coast. It has taken me days to recover from lapses in this resolve! A couple of years ago in a review of Edmund White’s nephew’s chronicle of living with his uncle in New York for a year, the reviewer, someone well-known and highly regarded, dismissed summarily all of White’s work as self-indulgent and autobiographical. This—I guess—in favor of the nephew’s telling of how his uncle took him to a dermatologist and taught him how to dress properly, a work obviously, unashamedly autobiographical, a work whose self-indulgence goes without saying as the book wouldn’t even be published if the kid weren’t by some genetic good fortune related to Edmund White. Was the review just an oddity, a marvel of illogic and equally singular in relation to the quality of reviews more generally? No, I don’t think so; it reminded me of why I had stopped reading what usually passes for criticism in America.
Good critics help us to listen to a work, help us to grasp more of it at one time. Good critics couldn’t care less that we “like” a work or that it has anything “likeable” in it; critics take us beyond our parochial tastebuds and deliver us upstairs into the cerebral cortex. Critics often help us to understand what our tastebuds are transmitting to us in a different register. Reading criticism, thinking about a work, is not the same experience as reading the work and no good critic I know—least of all Hillis Miller—would suggest otherwise. But I’m not ready to suggest one experience is better than the other or that one experience precludes the necessity of the other. Most writing—even the worst—needs to be thought about, and thought about articulately.
Summer Saturdays at 11:30 a.m., deep in Utah childhood, I sat myself down in front of the basement TV, a color console from back in the days when this meant a massive chunk of wooden furniture. Down there in the subterranean dark it could have been midnight, and I could have been anywhere, or so I thought, as the set warmed up for SCIENCE FICTION THEATER. The opening credits were often more interesting than the movies that followed: cheesy images of women in space bikinis and groovy planetary landscapes cribbed from the covers of paperbacks then strobed with washes of color for a psychedelic effect. The soundtrack was sorta spacey, sorta grandiose (later, I learned it was Pink Floyd, but that meant nothing to me then). Like the reliably terrifying maniacal laughter that opened NIGHTMARE THEATER on the same station, late-night Fridays, the weird images and drugged-out music set up otherworldly expectations that the subsequent features—culled from under the attic stairs at the Universal film library—were never going to be able to fulfill.
I watched them anyway. These were not the A-list creatures of the 1930s: Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man. These were critters from the black-and-white, paranoid, post-atomic 1950s. TARANTULA. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. THE MONOLITH MONSTERS—giant, killer towers of fast-growing rock that seem so unlikely I had to check a film guide to make sure I was remembering them correctly. And my favorite, THE MOLE PEOPLE. This list above could easily account for about fifty percent of the movies shown in the series—it was a VERY small repertory. And repetition was a big part of their enchantment, and their power. I had ample time to grow fond of the mole people with their giant, nearly sightless eyes and webbed paws. They were kept down, used and abused, by a long-lost underground civilization of guys in robes and lots of pasty-face foundation and gals in short cocktail dresses from some Lost Atlantis Casino collection. My attention grew keenest whenever the mole people descended, feet first, into their holes in the ground, crossing their claws balletically above their heads as the sandy soil closed over them. Unloved, unlovable, the mole people suffered and raged, fleeing in pain from the single failing flashlight brought by the surface world’s explorers. I identified with them entirely.
Around the same time that the giant spiders, moles, and monoliths and I were becoming friends, I recognized that I had been born on another planet but had been placed, for unfathomable reasons, with a human host family. I awaited the return of my kind with a mixture of dread and anticipation. I awaited them q-u-i-e-t-ly because I had learned from these movies what happened to monsters when they were discovered living among real people. If you were a monster, you really, really didn’t want to be noticed.
Also around this time I started using my required spelling list sentences to write stories at school. Tiny tales full of giants, dragons, and talking things. Not just animals but talking trees, books, balloons—the everyday animism that American children are saturated in and then required to repudiate. The other kids weren’t doing this story trick; it even fucked with the teacher’s strict “one numbered sentence for each word on the list” rule. I hated to break the law, but I couldn’t help myself. Possessed by the narrative monster.
And throughout this time, in an underground city of the mind that none of my own surface explorers had yet found and named, a part of me waited to grow up and be queer. This buried piece of me saw, in a bone and sinew way not requiring the earthquake cracks of puberty to send down shafts of revealing light, that I came from outer space, from 20,000 fathoms, from the body-snatching invasion; that I was being raised by unsuspecting strangers; and that I was preparing myself to write about it. If I was going to escape the Black Lagoon, if I was going to avoid incredible shrinking, I needed to make myself heard in a voice more sophisticated and assertive than tiny insectile shrieks of “Help me! Help me!” Not all monsters can tell their stories themselves; fangs, claws, retractable wings, and poor verbal skills interfere. But rather than wait for the critics to point their flashlights at the map and say, Here Be Monsters, maybe those of us creatures who can speak and write have an obligation to do so.
ELISABETH ROUND ONE I loved the end of Greg’s opening statement, in particular the sentence about how not all “monsters can tell their stories themselves; fangs, claws, retractable wings, and poor verbal skills interfere.” And I agree that those “creatures who can speak and write have an obligation to do so”—but not to prevent the critics from speaking and writing for us. Indeed, I’m going to put my scaly tail on the line and say that we can’t prevent that moment of critical interception because it already happened long ago, maybe when we first got our paws on a pen (as Greg suggests with his anecdote about using the required spelling lists to tell stories that “fucked with the teacher’s strict ‘one numbered sentence for each word…’ rule”). It’s a critical as well as creative facility that enables us to tell our stories, an ability to judge, to separate and distinguish our experiences rather than simply being the dumb (or impotently shrieking) products of them.
MICHELLE ROUND ONE I must admit to still feeling hugely at sea as to what we’re supposedly discussing. What are we discussing? I’m not settling down very comfortably with this metaphor of the monster, which I guess is a metaphor for the artist whose work is recoiled from, at least initially. Or is it the author being recoiled from? One thing which worries me is the conflation of the work and the artist/author. I do think there is tremendous danger in this conflation, particularly when it comes to criticism. Is Greg a monster by dint of his homosexuality, in other words a monster long before he’s a writer, an artist? Or does Greg take on monster status when he dares to write openly about these issues? Maybe both. But I worry about the criticism which insists upon Greg’s sexual orientation for its moorings, its readings. It seems in America we are so hell bent on an author’s character we’re blinded to an author’s imagination, his intellection—and those can be and usually are two very different if not antithetical realms.
VICKI ROUND ONE Our identification with monsters, our inherent interest in the monster over the critic—we have revealed perhaps too much in our statements. What is it, exactly, that proves the monster to be so much more compelling than the critic? Why are we as writers so eager to support, defend and embrace the maimed and the frightening, the unlovable and the obscene?
The monster is more interesting, yes. Different, indeed. What we have in the monster is nothing less than a metaphor—Greg’s brilliant metaphor—for all the inadequacies we sense in ourselves as writers, the essence of ourselves as freaks and outsiders. Love me, the writer says, love my scars, my bolts, my withered limbs. The “nearly sightless eyes” of the mole people are nothing less than the over-sighted (and often near-sighted) eyes of the writer herself.
Replace the word “monster” with writer and what do you have? A powerful person, one who is different. Terrifying? To some. An outsider? You bet. Disabilities, vulnerabilities, dependencies. A role balanced between power and helplessness, rage and vulnerability. As for the axe to grind, that depends on the writer. Surrounding both writer and monster there is fear, acceptance, paranoia and relief. The monster/writer will speak, will destroy, will return. The monster/writer will be vanquished, repressed, befriended and betrayed. The monster/writer has undying power, is vulnerable, can be destroyed, is only a puddle of ooze when all is said and done.
I began my comments in this roundtable by claiming an interdependency between writers and critics, describing the symbiotic feast that keeps us all healthy, hale and wanting more. I myself tried to focus on the critics and came up defending and discussing the monsters instead. Dare I suggest that the writer who identifies with the monster over the critic does so not only because it’s more interesting to be a monster, but also because it’s more fun to tread the line of being hurt, ugly, punished and destroyed?
Our identification and attention as writers to the monstrous—so much more compelling, so much uglier, so much more to discuss than the critic, whose time on the psychoanalytical couch would take up only a tenth of that due the monster—has come to feel, like many an obsession, riveting and necessary. We are all ugly, violent, disabled, tortured and demented. There is something wrong with each of us, something that will be revealed in time. Inside our monstrous power lies a profound helplessness, worse by far than Frankenstein’s. In the writer-as-monster scenario, the critic becomes more than a symbiotic friend, far more than a fellow diner. The critic is the doctor with the big syringe, the sheriff with the posse. For that civilized, pluralistic meal Hillis Miller once envisioned, substitute a Gothic death match—and may the most monstrous one win.
GREG ROUND TWO In terms of the metaphor we are busy beating into submission here, am I a monster due to my sexuality, because I dare to write about it, or both? Or is this, as Michelle suspects, a mistaken conflation of work and author? I find myself drawn to this thorny patch of our discussion not only because it affects me directly on a variety of personal and professional levels but because it most clearly underscores some lingering ambivalence I hold for our topic.
Some of my readiness to embrace the “artist as monster” metaphor must arise from a lifelong internalization of the parameters created by a homophobic culture. No more than a few days ever pass before I encounter some reference to homosexuality as an “abomination,” as “unnatural,” or at least, with benign intent, as “alternative.” The queer activists respond to these characterizations with talk of “sex radicals” and “gender outlaws.” And on campus, academics are all about “difference,” “subversion,” “transgression” (in part, I suspect, because these topics seem(ed) offbeat and juicy). In these contexts, I find it easy to want to embrace my inner monster whoever he (it?) may turn out to be: he’s persecuted, but soulful and sex-ay! And as Vicki astutely points out, who wouldn’t rather identify with the romantically misunderstood monster than the clueless peasant whipped into a frenzy by hearsay and handed a torch?
MICHELLE ROUND TWO I can’t say who I identify with, the critic or the monster? I think both, though I suspect that the three of you might say that I’ve been batting for the critics team? Quien sabe? I do suspect that the idea of monsters—however the metaphor is working—is fun, sexy, stimulating, grotesque, vital, hideous, delicious, oh it’s just too much fun to describe, and the idea of the critic is dry, pedantic, flat-lined, cerebral, anti-fun, sexless. We all, particularly critics, have a responsibility to revitalize the perception of critics, the smart ones, I mean. I just always think of Gertrude—monstrous Gertrude—seeing so clearly the early genius of so many writers and painters and dancers and chefs. And not being quiet about it, in fact supporting many of them so that they could buy paints, eat, and most importantly writing so much of her thinking so that many an artist could feed off of what she knew, what she was smart about. Her essay “What is English Literature?” is one of the most brilliant and expansive pieces of criticism I know. And it’s pure Stein, gorgeously grotesquely Stein and as smart as acid.
Faced with the task of filling up the page with an “opening statement,” my inclination, given the academic parameters of this discussion, was to find a text to analyze.
Since there is no text per se, beyond the three words of the discussion topic, two nouns and a conjunction, I had to fall back on old grad school tricks to create one. Thus, the first thing I did, when I finally sat down to work (after procrastinating for as long as I could), was to go to my dictionary and look up the etymologies of “critic” and “monster.” “Critic,” Webster’s told me, comes from the Greek kritikos, which in turn comes from krites, a judge or discerner, and also from krinein, to judge, to separate, to distinguish, which was not terribly interesting, the line of semantic descent being more or less straight and lacking in digressive and associative potential. A critic is one who judges and analyzes, or a critic is a critic is a critic. “Monster,” on the other hand, had a more suggestive ancestry. From the ME monstre, which derives from the Latin monstrum (omen, monster) and monere (to warn), “monster” describes not only something that deviates from the normal, a freak of nature, but one with ominous potential. Further, when I ventured to the OED (for why stop at Webster’s?), I found, as I had suspected, that there is a connection between “monster” and “demonstrate” (from de + L. monstrare, to show). To discover this, it was necessary to go to “monstrate,” an obsolete form of demonstrate (as in “The light of nature is sufficient to monstrate the impiety thereof.”), where it clearly says, “see monster.” My conclusion, at the end of this brief etymological foray, was that monsters would be a more promising subject than critics, and further, a more writerly one, since their connection to “demonstration” suggests that they present their omens by showing rather than telling. (A suggestion supported by the Sphinx, who though very concrete in her imagery, certainly didn’t spell anything out.)
I’d like to just dismiss the critics and focus on monsters; however, the discussion topic is “Monsters and Critics,” not “Monsters or Critics.” Further, it’s possible that I’m not giving critics enough credit, that I’m failing to acknowledge how they can be monstrous, or at least irregular in their logic and deviant in their methods—as I have been above. For certainly it was rather sophistic to establish a connection between monsters and the writerly technique of “showing” based on that tiny, bracketed “see monster” in the OED. And while my excuse for this deviation from sound reasoning could be that I’m more of a writer than a critic at this point (my literature Ph.D. being dead and buried, or at least feeling like an appendage from someone else’s corpse), the fact is that “real” critics make such moves all the time. Years ago, for instance, I heard Derrida give a lecture on Heidegger, during which he invested much in the notion that the end of a loaf of bread in one particular work was “the remainder.” But then afterwards, during the question period, another well known literary critic, a Pole who spoke fluent German, objected. Derrida’s etymology had been false, he said: really it was just a piece of bread.
So when I think about it, critics are fabulists too (an affiliation that Derrida himself would probably be first to embrace). In fact, I must admit, my graduate education in literary criticism provided a good background for writing fiction. Not only did it give me a sense of the literary tradition, of what had been done, and by whom, in the past, but it also gave me a feeling for narrative—how to recognize it, and even how to make it. I don’t know, for instance, if I would have been able to go from writing short stories to a novel if I hadn’t written a dissertation in between. Somehow, the process of fabricating an argumentative framework linking together a group of essays (a framework both culled from and imposed upon the individual chapters as I was writing them) supplied the necessary practice for creating a fictional one linking together various characters and images: if I hadn’t first told a “story” about James Joyce, poststructuralism and feminist theory, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to tell one about Barbara Salzmann, Stella and Judith Vanderzee (all characters in my novel).
So if critics are in some sense fiction writers, and by extension, monsters—are fiction writers/monsters critics? According to many of my fiction workshop students, it’s better if they’re not. Writing critiques, having to analyze how different elements of the story create different effects and how the parts contribute to the whole—all of this, they say, “kills” the story a priori because, as “everyone knows,” dissection can only be performed on something that is already dead. My response to these students is that the critical process can be a dynamic and creative one (and now it becomes completely clear, if it wasn’t already, the disingenuousness of the desire I expressed above to get rid of the critics), that thinking about how a work of fiction is put together can lead to seeing how it could be put together differently (and perhaps better), or to seeing the potential for some singularly interesting element (a serendipitous image, a skewing of point of view) to generate a new whole (i.e., if critiquing “kills” the story a priori, it’s also possible to make it come alive again). The monster needs Dr. Frankenstein, just as Dr. Frankenstein needs the monster (much as he’d prefer, like so many other critical types, to forget his own creation). And while there are exceptions, I think this symbiosis makes for better fiction and literary criticism.
GREG ROUND ONE In my opening statement, I wanted to come on strong in support of monsters but not because Mothra or, say, some ideal target for critics of the multicultural—a wheelchair-bound, lesbian Aleut poet girl—needs me to defend them. Monsters often have fierce defenses of their own (because they need them). Instead, I wanted to explore my childhood monster solidarity to make the case for monstrousness as a good—even a necessity—in the creation of an artist. Because I once seethed through a course on the “creative process” that salivated over artistic difference and suffering (Rilke’s gloom! Kafka’s family life!), I hesitate to push this monster idea too far and make it a fetish. Yet I do think, as revealed in Lisa’s deft gloss on the etymology of our topic, that art should seek to “show” something. Even if that “something” is as seemingly untroubling as a new observation of a flower, the effect of that effort can be seen as monstrous, at least as anomalous, if it breaks from the background noise of our received perceptions (I just had an image of that little girl with Karloff’s monster tossing flowers in the lake. Perhaps in tossing her in after the last flower is gone, he is able to turn the girl=flower equation into something newly disturbing because he is, himself, such a big hulking metaphor). Virtually all the art I truly care about beats its head against complacency and often defiantly asserts the validity of its own vision (which is not to suggest that most of what we artists churn out won’t be banal, complacent, normative, etc.—just that we should aim higher). Even writers regarded as retrograde, establishment, and thuggishly patriarchal, like Hemingway, are often revealed as freaking weirdos when you dig into their work. And for me, that irascible oddity is what makes any writer worth reading.
MICHELLE ROUND TWO Elisabeth writes: “It’s a critical as well as creative facility that enables us to tell our stories, to separate and distinguish our experiences rather than simply being the dumb (or impotently shrieking) products of them.” I—of course—agree with this wholeheartedly, that there are many facilities working in concert when good, complex writing is emerging. And we’ve all read a lot of writing in which these facilities are not working in concert, writing which may have quite smart critical facility but which doesn’t steam up a mirror. And I am more familiar than I wish to be with writing in which there is one creative machination after another and yet not a spark of reason within all the exhaust. How the critical and the creative, and in all their various forms and impositions, work together is mysterious, and should perhaps remain so. I do not know to which specific course on the “creative process” Greg is referring, but I too seethe when this is talked about as though it is something which can be talked about, lingua-fied, if you’ll allow me the neologism. I’ll use Greg’s verb too, seethe, because much of the talk which purports to be about the creative process derives directly from commercialization, an attempt to get our mitts on a formula. Greg’s course seemed at least to touch on some fine literary figures, Kafka, Rilke, but then, unfortunately, to suggest—I think—that a biographical probing of these writers’ lives would yield insight into their “creative process,” and that, in turn, this highly suspect “insight” might help us with our own creative productions. I’m always surprised that such foolishness exists, not the study of lives, not that as that is what we do when we write our own stories, but rather the idea that anyone’s creative process can be plotted out, made equational. What horse shit, and then the horse shit piles up when anyone else imposes a creative process from the outside instead of growing to fit their own.
It made me happy when I read Greg’s sentences, “Virtually all the art I truly care about beats its head against complacency and often defiantly asserts the validity of its own vision… irascible oddity is what makes any writer worth reading.” Yes, oh yes. But here is where my intense sadness over the relegation of the thoughtful critic to the library stacks registers. I find that often critics—or writers bringing their critical acuity to bear on others’ work—are the ones to first think about difficult and odd writing. Not to hawk the work, not to reduce an aesthetic creation to one imperative, read this/don’t read this, but to ruminate on the work, to start the discussion as it were. Ironically, smart critics can make the slightest work interesting. No, let me rephrase that, slight work is only and for always slight work, it doesn’t get more interesting, but agile, smart critics manage to say very interesting things about colossally uninteresting work,. I sometimes resent them doing this.
VICKI ROUND TWO In the second round, I succumbed so baldly, so eagerly to the very fetishizing Greg warns against. I love being a monster! I announced. I identify with monsters! For isn’t this what makes for good writing, the monster behind the pen, the monstrous people within the novel? What else is fiction but bad things happening to good people, over and over? And what else is a writer but the monstrous engineer of these bad things? As for what the monster hopes to get out of the symbiosis—well, since we monsters are proverbial self-destructive black sheep, I’d have to put myself on the line here and say, “Death, obviously.” In the paranoid monster universe, the critic’s sword is there to destroy—nothing more, nothing less. Even Greg contends that the effect of “a new observation of a flower” can be seen as monstrous. The monster knows the insidiousness of her role, the potential for harm, the need to defend against retaliation. It’s a cold world out there, baby; someone’s gotta win and someone’s gotta lose.
Monster and Critic. Is the monster a critic? Does the critic see monsters?
It would seem that the play within the word monster in the first question is rather different than the play in the second. The first question suggests we’ve determined a monster exists, that we agree upon this existence, but that the monster may or may not be a critic? Monster may or may not mean the state of critical reception in America today? I do not know.
The second question suggests to me that we are in the presence of writing, or maybe film—some esthetic work—upon which the critic is at work and that what he or she may perceive in the work is of a teratogenic nature. But this sense of monsters—and their sightings— is further complicated. Does the critic see monsters with respect to some biographical information known or thought to be known about an author? Rilke really did forgo his daughter’s wedding—I hear—because he felt a poem coming on, and Norman Mailer does seem to have stabbed his wife at a party. Rather monstrous behavior, but a monster-sighting I wouldn’t normally bring up if it weren’t true today that far too much biographical information is used to bludgeon esthetic work.
Or does the critic see monsters in some perceived authorial presence in the work? In Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, the authorial presence in the writing is particularly duplicitous and disturbing and an issue in any astute reading of the book. Malaparte is an Italian captain during World War II and by dint of his country’s allegiances—and perhaps Malaparte’s too?—he has access to the interior workings of the German war machine. I know nothing biographical or historical about Malaparte the person; I am given a lot of very puzzling information within the pages of the book, information which certainly begs questions of monstrosity. There is also much information I am not given. The tension which accrues between what is said and not said, the authorial positions claimed and those belied by action or inaction is certainly work for a good critic and reader.
The third and most obvious take on Does the critic see monsters? is the issue of the critic’s analysis of the characters within a work. Are there critical readings which cite or claim monstrous intentions or monstrosity in certain key characters?
Certainly one huge bit of banality being perpetuated currently—by critics and readers alike—is the absurd measure of likeability. Is a character likeable? How many novels in review are hailed now as having “likeable characters” as though the battle is won, read this book! And if the writing has unlikable main characters, monsters, the critical reception can be—and usually is—quite different and stinting.
I heard recently at a writers’ conference the claim put forward by a very famous and intelligent author that any novel had to have at least one character in whom the reader found moral identification, one character whom the reader liked. (“Like” was the word she used persistently.) Putting aside the question of whether those two things are one in the same, liking someone and finding a moral mirror, I immediately think of several brilliant and powerful novels which do not offer this pacifier. Just who might you like in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, or in Outer Dark? Which of the characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn would throw the reader a lifejacket, this one character who the reader cleaves to for identification? Tra La La or Vinnie or Abraham would rather smash your face in than have to suffer the reader’s identification, an identification—if it transpires—that Selby, Jr. may be arguing puts the reader’s moral responsibility at rest rather than enlivening it, provoking it. Monsters in these novels? Yeah, lots, and for good reason.
There are brilliant critics of contemporary writing, critics supported by the university as a rule and whose work—no matter how “accessible”—a word whose meaning we should take up—is rarely published in magazines or newspapers, in other words rarely published in a forum conducive to a broader public exchange. Where does the fault reside for the quarantining of work done at the university, work that is often not “academic” work, or at least not exclusively that? The charge is leveled ad nauseam that work being done at the university is inaccessible, impenetrable, jargon-ridden. Indeed there is work like that, work that annoys me often too, though annoyance—I’ll quickly say—is different than rejection or refusal, but there is much very fine critical work which is written quite beautifully and though one may need to attend its arguments, the writing can be read and absorbed by a non-specialist, for lack of a better phrase. This work is rarely seen outside the library stacks.
ELISABETH ROUND ONE “Angels are hard to tell apart,” while the damned, on the other hand, “announce and suffer their singularity” (Harpham). Angels are hard to tell apart and yet we prefer them, just as, according to the psychologists, an attractive face to most people is a “regular” one, a face whose features are not too big or too small, too close together or too far, but firmly in the middle of the class. Perhaps the predilection for angels has something to do with the taste for “likeable characters” that Michelle mentions in her essay. Like the damned, who “announce and suffer their singularity,” “unlikable characters” call attention to the boundary between grace and hell fire, between inclusion and exclusion, forcing the reader to confront the constructedness of our categories and even the possibility of the devil within. Catering to the need for “moral identification,” is perhaps, as Michelle suggests, a failure (“put[ting] the reader’s moral responsibility at rest rather than enlivening it, provoking it.”). Rather than challenging us to think about how we order and arrange the world, or to imaginatively reach out to the possibility of “otherness,” identification offers a snug and impenetrable refuge.
GREG ROUND ONE In regard to fiction and its critics, I find it helpful to divide this group into functional categories. Contemporary fiction writers encounter critics in two principal arenas: academia and the marketplace. (While critics can and do wander from one location to the other, their markings and behaviors in each are fairly distinct.) As an art form, fiction has the possibility—however increasingly hypothetical—of reaching a mass, non-specialist audience; therefore, critics also have a foothold in the consumer matrix, essentially as product testers. In the increasingly hyper-commercialized for-profit publishing industry with its cross-promoting multi-medialization, the fiction writer has become an entertainment content provider (Tell me if I’m being too cynical to think that many people in publishing view novels as ungainly eggs in which potential screenplays are gestating). Critics in mainstream venues, therefore, whatever else they might think they are accomplishing, are primarily kept around to assist the publicity departments of the megacorps with their promotions. Here’s what most criticism in public forums looks like: Lots of plot gets summarized, a few comparative names get dropped (product branding, I suppose), then perhaps a paragraph of thumbs ascendant or declining. A bad review is rare enough to be notable on the sole basis of its negativity (as we write in the summer of 2002, novelist/critic Dale Peck has just been excoriated for his scathing reviews in the New Republic). I suspect that Michelle’s irritation (which I share) about “likeability” factors in here; it’s easier to promote sympathetic characters. And the critical herd instinct is usually in evidence: Everything is NOT illuminated, only one or two things per season are, by every available light, before the crowd moves on. Small presses, non-profits, university presses, and their authors can escape this system only to the extent that they are willing to give up on mainstream exposure. My gripe is not that any one particular review or reviewer is inadequate but that the entire current hypersales-driven practice itself is equally dispiriting for the writer and the critic (who, in many cases, is a fiction writer as well).
Now, academia. I trust Michelle entirely when she states that there are “brilliant critics of contemporary writing” hidden away in universities, although I have to admit that I have not been diligent or lucky enough to encounter much of their work. Academic critics, sequestered from churning out the consumer reports of the market, should be more able to engage with current fiction in provocative, insightful ways, yet I sense that the great Twentieth Century project of increasing the professionalization of the study of English and literature has led to a permanent split between the creative and critical sides of this field. On the critical side, a strong element of this process has been the scientification (if that’s a word) of literary study, with its own specialist language and protocols, and the flight of seemingly all philosophy into the English department. Under the burden of increasing technical demands, how many academic critics have time to read deeply in contemporary fiction? And who are they writing to and for when they do respond? The reading public (whoever that may be these days)? Fellow academics? Across the chasm, creative writers need to be held accountable as well. The dramatic rise of creative writing programs has, to a greater or lesser degree, siphoned out the artists from the English major mass on the undergraduate level and created two separate career tracks on the graduate level. As a result, these pursuits have largely become two different disciplines sharing office space.
When careful readers punctuate the books they respect and admire, critics and criticism rise above the monstrous. There is no death match, no need to fight for scraps. Rather, as Elisabeth reminds us, a compelling need to categorize, judge, distinguish. These are exactly the duties we perform religiously in our workshops, the challenge we give ourselves as writers and readers of one another’s writing.
MICHELLE ROUND TWO Greg’s criticism of the “scientification” of literary study in the academy is accurate to a great extent, but I’d have to be really simplistic and say that’s the study of criticism, no so much the study of literature. And too much of what happens to literature in those forums is akin to footbinding. How do we make Coetzee the racist writer we insist he is, that sort of reductionist oversight. And finally, that work is more about critical philosophy or whatever you want to call it than it is about the poor piece of literature they’ve decided to flog that day. But hey, Disgrace is there on the shelf. As James M. Cain once responded to a journalist trying to feel him out about the recent release of the film The Postman Rings Twice: “They haven’t done a thing to my book; my book is there on the shelf.”
GREG ROUND TWO The relatively recent explosion of the literary “canon”— transforming English/ American Literature into a whole variety of elaborately titled “literatures” seems to be a consolidation of the possibilities opened up by the civil rights movements, feminism, gay and lesbian rights struggles, assertions of Native American identity, etc. And I think a lot of the resulting changes are wonderful. Works have been reconsidered, authors rediscovered, and new writers and movements championed. The arrival of identity politics has created more interesting turbulence than anything in the field in a long time. One problem, however, is that the vanguards of this movement are literary theorists not literary critics. These scholars often seem more concerned with considering how literary texts should be thought about than with what these texts actually are about. Going back to Lisa’s gloss of the critic as a judge or analyst, I sense that many contemporary scholars are disinclined to take up this duty and make aesthetic and intellectual discriminations within and among literary works. As a result, stuff gets celebrated that really isn’t all that good, with the implication that its quality doesn’t really matter because it’s just another cultural object to be examined.
I recently attended a talk by gender theorist Judith Halberstam on her efforts to document drag king culture, particularly by collaborating to produce a book and a video documentary on the subject. In the Q&A, I asked her if aesthetic considerations were important in deciding which performers to include and what material to cover, and she answered that artistic judgments were definitely not criteria for her decisions, that ideas of community and self-definition were paramount. While it is hard to argue that those ideals are not vitally important to consider in representing this, or any, cultural group, I’m concerned that critical unwillingness to make aesthetic distinctions among drag king performances, or Latino paintings, or Asian-American novels may ultimately devalue all the artists involved. I’m convinced that Halberstam does not view her role in drag king culture to be an arbiter of quality (nor do I want to suggest that she must be). But I do wonder if “monsterizing” an artist or group of artists—establishing oppositional categories, practices, and critical criteria—can sometimes boomerang, placing women and ethnic and sexual minorities securely “over there.”
A personal example: Borders Books. When I have run across my books in a Borders superstore, they are invariably located in the “Gay and Lesbian” section. Looked at one way, this placement is a way to celebrate and distinguish queer work from the mass of fiction and literature. Looked at another way, it’s a book ghetto. Here Be Monsters, all over again. How many “mainstream shoppers” are willing to browse there to find Edmund White, or to search out the “African-American” shelves to find Colson Whitehead? Will they even be aware of what’s missing from the general fiction shelves? Distinguishing among authors and celebrating their contributions should be possible without putting some writers and readers “over there” so that “everyone else” can get back to reading Tom Wolfe.
A further stop along this line of reasoning: Why is it that critics (particularly public arena critics) identify Toni Morrison—Nobel Prize and all—as the chronicler of a specifically “African-American Experience” while Wolfe is lauded as nothing less than the Voice of The Way We Live Now? Why is it that the much-praised “big books” on “universal themes” about “The Human Condition” and “The State of America” are invariably written by straight white dudes (Wolfe, Foster Wallace, Franzen, etc.)? Some writer/monsters are apparently more “universal” than others.
VICKI ROUND TWO And so, wither the debate? I’d love to see the day when more of us as writers try to deliver this kind of criticism to the world at large: the pondering of a story’s structure, the questioning of its strengths and weaknesses, the meaning of its title or its references. With the intermediate fiction workshop I teach, I now add criticism, essay writing, autobiography and memoir to the syllabus. By bringing in these other forms, my hope is to widen the discussion, to engage our perceptual skills, voices and positions as writers and apply these talents to the world beyond the characters, situations and metaphors of our own creations. To move, I might suggest, beyond the narcissistic solipsism of the writer/monster and the inherent sadism of the monster/ critic. Read Lester Bangs and you’ll find a critic who loves and elucidates his subject, no matter how hostile he may sometimes seem. I doubt Lou Reed would dispute the fact that Bangs, despite his sometimes vitriol, in many ways made his career.
What’s interesting to me, as we end this discussion, is the absence of a metaphor to represent this utopia I envision, this peaceful embrace. Let’s hope that even without the language to describe this non-monstrous relationship, we find the words to help shape its future.
ELISABETH ROUND TWO Back in the second round, Michelle wrote that she felt “at sea as to what we’re supposedly discussing.” I have to confess to feeling the opposite of “at sea”—when a topic is so broad, I think there’s a tendency to stake out a position, or construct a thesis of sorts. I think we’ve all done that to some extent, Michelle perhaps the least, as in both rounds she’s tended more to suggest different avenues of approach to the topic rather than settling on any one (although there does seem to me to be in both her contributions a definite confirmation of the worth of a certain kind of non-market driven critical enterprise). At any rate, by the end of the last round I felt like I’d just suffocated within the confines of my own self-secreted carapace— what more could I possibly have to add to this discussion? Indeed, for the final round I considered writing a page of “monster talk” (i.e., a composition of shrieks, growls, grunts and howls, all onomatopoietically rendered like the meow of Bloom’s cat in Ulysses—”Mrkrgnao!”), or perhaps staging a dialogue between Frankenstein and Paul De Man, but realized both of these approaches would probably be too time consuming, as well as not terribly helpful.
I think these ideas I had, for the “monster talk” and the “monstrous dialogue” between Frankenstein and De Man demonstrate (or monstrate?) my weariness at this point with critical discourse, which is (by necessity?) the discourse we’ve used in this discussion. Due perhaps to something fugitive in my character, I am averse to defining myself or my position (indeed, a shiver went up my spine as I completed the last statement). Even as I find myself constantly divvying up and classifying my reality, I’m also seeking a way to slip out of the categories—which is why I prefer the mode of fiction to criticism. It seems to me that there’s always a place to disappear in the literary work, behind a point of view, down one or another of the various rabbit holes of an image. And maybe I’m deluding myself, thinking I’m hiding when I’m actually in plain sight (“Look Mommy, you’ll never guess where I am”), but I think there’s an inherent evasiveness, a slipperiness, in fiction that we need to respect, and not, as Michelle says, conflate the monstrous writer with the monstrous work.
But while I’m tired of critical discourse, I still find tremendous value in the critical enterprise. First of all, as I said in the last two rounds, I think the critical enterprise is crucial for literary creation—even if we don’t use critical discourse per se (because there is a difference between literary and critical discourse, the one being more showing, the other primarily telling, despite the existence of creative/critical hybrids, as in the work of Derrida, Cixous, etc.). To slip out of the categories (or as Greg puts it, to break “from the background noise of our received perceptions”), we need to see what those categories are, to think about how the world is constructed, so that we can put it together again in new, unexpected ways. This need, this vital component of the creative process, is why, to quote the very quotable Greg again, “all those de-centering, deconstructing, gender troubling trips to the panopticon have not gone unnoticed and unreported in current fiction”—of course writers (at least some of them) would notice this activity, since it’s all about representation, about questioning current schematizations of reality. Indeed, as it has been argued elsewhere, writers and other artists may have organized the first forays—possibly the poststructuralist critics have only been telling us about what Joyce, Woolf, Stein and Picasso were already starting to show us almost a century ago.
Reading over that last bit, I realize I’ve just excreted another layer of shell—time to shut up (I’m running out of air). But before I do, I suppose for the sake of closure I should finish what I started above, “the first of all” at the beginning of the preceding paragraph implying a “second.” So…secondly and finally, I think that critical activity is not only crucial for the conception of the literary work, but also for its health and longevity. At this point, I am referring to the critical activity of readers, not writers (although certainly readers can also be writers!)—the kind of readers Greg describes as intelligently enthusiastic and “bristling with theories,” as well as the kind who Michelle says “help us listen to a work, help us to grasp more of it at one time.” Their activity gives us a way to “see,” via analysis, comparison and connection, what we might have missed—not to “correct” our vision, but to multiply it, to bestow us with the monstrous compound eyes of the work itself. And as we “see,” we give the work the means to “be.” Enough.
Greg Bills is the author of the novels Consider This Home and Fearful Symmetry. He teaches creative writing at the University of Redlands.
Vicki Forman holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Santa Monica Review, The Ear, Writer to Writer and Faultline. Her story, “An Unmeasured Thing,” appears in the anthology The Spirit of Pregnancy. She teaches fiction at the University of Southern California.
Michelle Latiolais. I am an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine, the second or other writer in the fiction program. I published long ago a novel with Farrar, Straus & Giroux titled Even Now, and have since published pieces in literary journals: The Antioch Review, The Santa Monica Review, and most recently ZYZZYVA. I live in Los Angeles with a bull terrier named Damned Spot.
Elisabeth Sheffield, fiction writer, literary critic. B.A., State University of New York at Purchase; M.F.A., University of California at Irvine; PhD., State University of New York at Buffalo. Author of a novel, Gone (2003), and a critical book on James Joyce, poststructuralist and feminist theory, Joyce’s Abandoned Female Costumes, Gratefully Received (1998). Has also co-edited a volume of women’s experimental fiction, Chick-Lit II: No Chick Vics. Her short fiction has appeared in Pretext, Gargoyle, Denver Quarterly, 13th Moon, and other literary magazines, as well as the first volume of Chick-Lit. She has lived and taught in Kiel, Germany (as a Fulbright Lecturer in 1999-2000), in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (1995-1997), on both coasts of the U.S. and in between.
Jeff Solomon has published some stories and articles, the most recent in Studies In Gender and Sexuality. His story “Vermilion” was in Santa Monica Review 7 (2). He has an M. F. A. from UC–Irvine and is completing a Ph. D. in English Literature at USC.
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