13 May 2013

I Concur . . .

In a 1974 interview, Joyce Carol Oates asks Philip Roth if he feels he has received unfair or inaccurate critical treatment. Roth’s answer intrigues me. He refers Oates to a “sharp and elegantly angry little essay called “Reviewing” by Virginia Woolf. She suggests in the essay that book journalism, by which she means the cursory book reviews that appear regularly in newspapers and magazines and even academic journals, “ought to be abolished (because 95 percent of it was worthless) and that the serious critics who do reviewing should put themselves out to hire to the novelists, who have a strong interest in knowing what an honest and intelligent reader thinks about their work.” Not having read the essay myself, I am not sure how a serious critic might establish her/his credentials to achieve the position, but that might for the moment be neither here nor there. That critic would hire herself out for a fee per hour and might consult “privately and profoundly” with the author about his/her work. Woolf writes, says Roth: “ . . . they would consult upon the book in question. . . . The consultant would speak honestly and openly, because the fear of affecting sales and of hurting feelings would be removed. Privacy would lessen the shop-window temptation to cut a figure, to pay off scores. . . .  He could thus concentrate upon the book itself, and upon telling the author why he likes or dislikes it. The author would profit equally. He could state his case. He could point to his difficulties. He would no longer feel, as so often at present, that the critic is talking about something that he has not written. . . .”
            What a wonderful and fascinating proposal. I think what Woolf is suggestingand that Roth advocates in his citation of herthat good criticism engages in conversation and not pronouncement, and that the good critic has much to learn from the author before the former can begin to appreciate the work itself. At which point I suspect any writing about the work would change significantly.
            How much would I pay to sit down with Philip Roth to discuss my Symphony. The preceding is a statement and not a question. 


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