Story About the Story: An Interview with Jane Tompkins

J. C. Hallman

Up next in J.C. Hallman’s series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors is writer and professor Jane Tompkins.  Jane Tompkins is the author of a number of books, most recently A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned.  Her contribution to The Story About the Story II, “The Last of the Breed: Homage to Louis L’Amour,” is excerpted from her book, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Jane Tompkins: Creative writers have no obligation to act as critics, but it’s great when they do. Writers look at literature freely, because they’re not writing within an academic framework.  At least one hopes they’re not.  So it’s refreshing to read what they say because they don’t have to touch certain bases or avoid certain mistakes.  They say what they see.  I’ll never forget reading D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature.  He just said things, whatever he felt, aired his prejudices, didn’t ask permission.  As for example, when he said that that Melville understood “the raw naked slidings of the elements.”  [Lawrence’s essay on Moby Dick appears in The Story About the Story I.]  And when he said that the relationship between Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo was “deeper than love.”

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism?  That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?

JT: Professionalism happened.  Arnold and Pater didn’t have to get teaching jobs by writing criticism and they didn’t have to worry about getting tenure.   If you’re a literature professor you’re part of a guild with an apprenticeship, entry requirements, standards of practice, and so on.  You have to master the rules to be a player.  There’s some great academic criticism—nothing wrong with that.  And once you become successful, you can start breaking the rules.  But it’s hard to get out of the box, once you’re in it.

JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?

JT: I formed a writing group with two other people (professors, both women) who wanted to write for a wider audience.  We’d all gotten to a point where we didn’t have to please the older faculty any more because we were already full professors.  We egged each other on.  We encouraged each other to dig down and get personal, be honest and go for the jugular.  It felt good.

JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?

JT: The writing has to come from somewhere deep down.  I don’t care if it’s autobiographical or completely non-self-referential, there has to be something real at stake for the writer.  You can always feel it when a person’s core is invested in what they’re saying, when they’re writing for their life, so to speak.  The writing has to be good, too.  I mean from a craftsman’s point of view.  Getting on your horse and riding off in all directions won’t work.

JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days?  If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?

JT: Perhaps it’s more metamorphosis than crisis. The computer is edging out printed matter but people are still reading and writing literature.  The forms haven’t even changed that much, that I’ve noticed, at least not yet—novels, short stories, poems, plays are still what they were.  The blog is a new literary form.  Maybe you can see it as a kind of creative non-fiction—the form that interests me the most—which started before the internet and seems to be strong and getting stronger.  As for criticism, I don’t know what’s happened lately because I haven’t been reading it.

JCH: Your essay “Me and My Shadow,” a call for a more personal writing, kicked off a debate over “autobiographical criticism” in the 1980s.  Can you describe the reaction to the essay?  What did it reveal about criticism as an institution?

JT: Some people thought this kind of writing was self-indulgent, narcissistic, embarrassing—not about anything real or important (no politics, no economics, no theory), hence not serious work.  Kind of like what Mark Twain said about the women writers of his time: “All tears and flapdoodle.”  (A self-serving myth).  For other people, it’s been liberating.  It opened up space for doing things that the strictures against personal reference prevented.  It allowed people to relate their reading of literature to what was happening in their lives, a huge shift.  For women, especially, it was important, since so much of women’s experience had been hidden and off-limits.  By focusing on their emotional reactions to literary texts, women learned a lot about the society that was represented in those texts, as well as about themselves.  If you can manage to figure out why a piece of literature makes you feel the way you do, you might actually learn something about yourself and the world that you didn’t know before.

JCH: In “The Last of the Breed: Homage to Louis L’Amour” (included in The Story About the Story II), you claim that the book’s value is fear: “I want the fear.”  Then you offer a qualification:

“By which I mean I want the sexiness of it, the titillation you get from reading books where excitement is so acute it becomes a physical sensation.  It pulls you in against your will and better judgment.  Knowing you should be answering mail, sleeping, washing your hair, you read anyway and keep on reading.  You want the adrenaline rush, the stirred-up feeling, the sense, not consciously registered but strongly apprehended nonetheless, that your mind is totally absorbed, occupied by a form of experience that originates outside itself: consciousness traveling at a speed down a track it can’t get free of without a powerful jolt.  To be a prisoner of adventure in this way is to be free—free of the present moment with the burden of consciousness it holds.”

Lurking in this passage, I think, is the suggestion that the lives of our minds and our bodies are artificially separated, and that reading heals the rift.  Is that it?  Reading is an intellectual activity whose real goal is physiological?  Or is there a better way to put it?

JT: In this question you suggest that in writing about The Last of the Breed I’m saying that reading literature may be a way of healing the rift between the mind and the body.  That’s not what I had in mind specifically, but it gets at something I was trying to say, which is that we read in order to make ourselves feel a certain way—self-medicating—for the same reason we might decide to have a drink , eat a cookie, call a friend, or go for a walk in the woods.  It’s a way to give ourselves an experience we’re not already getting.  In the case of the Louis L’Amour novel and a lot of popular fiction and movies and TV, and a lot of classical literature as well, for whatever reason, we seem to want the experience of being mortally threatened and then escaping death.  Hence, the experience of fear and release from fear offered by the plot.  It plays with the survival instinct—in this case, I think, wonderfully.

JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?

JT: V.S. Naipaul’s “Disparate Ways: Flaubert and Salammbô,” from A Writer’s People

In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.