Story About the Story: An Interview with Phyllis Rose

J. C. Hallman

Next in J.C. Hallman’s series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors is writer Phyllis Rose. Rose is the author of Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf and Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages.  An excerpt of The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time appears in The Story About the Story I.

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

Phyllis Rose: Creative writers have no obligations, even to take out the garbage.  But if they feel like doing criticism, that’s a kindness to the rest of us.  I for one appreciate it.

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?

PR: Arnold paved the way for a golden age of criticism—for a hundred years of respect for literature as a means of finding out truth about life. My generation benefitted from English departments staffed by people who still believed in a connection between literature and life and weren’t embarrassed to assert that there could be meaning in a text. I don’t know whether it was an inevitable progression to thinking that such a link was naive, or whether we have the French entirely to blame, but when that link was lost, the whole enterprise of literary humanism collapsed. There are half the number of English majors now as there were in the 1960s.

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

PR: Necessity.  Biography was the only way I could do literary criticism.  I think the model of Walter Jackson Bate’s biographies of Keats and of Samuel Johnson, and the example of Bate’s teaching, was important to me.

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

PR: Readability.

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?

PR: You and I write about literature just fine. It’s those other people! (LOL)

JCH: The excerpt of The Year of Reading Proust included in The Story About the Story I emphasizes just how difficult it was for you to undertake reading Proust at all.  For example, you write, “I had read Swann’s Way so conscious of my own pleasure or lack of it that I could hardly enjoy it.”  Can you expand on what you mean by “enjoy” here?  Do we err in expecting books to be “enjoyable” in a crass or overt way?

PR: Enjoyment is first and foremost what reading is about. What we “enjoy” may differ from book to book. What I meant in The Year of Reading Proust is that self-consciousness about reading is unnatural. It’s this unnaturalness that a professional critic has to come to terms with.

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

PR: I don’t know your timetable, but I would hope you could use something from my new book, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES (FSG, forthcoming May 2014).

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.