Story About the Story: An Interview with Walter Kirn

J. C. Hallman

Walter Kirn’s books include Up in the Air, Thumbsucker, and, most recently, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever.  His essay included in The Story About the Story I, “Good-Bye Holden Caulfield.  I mean it.  Go!  Good-bye!” first appeared in With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to the Work of J.D. Salinger. Here Kirn shares his thoughts about the nature and current state of creative criticism. 

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

Walter Kirn: Creative writers have no obligation do anything, including their own creative work.  That’s what makes them “creative” in the first place, not merely productive.  That being said, a novel or a short story is an implicit piece of criticism.  It suggests that the job – some job; that of telling a story, say, or representing reality with language, or torturing reality with language – can be done better, or at least differently, than it has been done before.  I think I learned that from Harold Bloom.  Or James Joyce.  Ulysses is a splendid work of criticism, and more influential, I dare say, than any piece of criticism proper written during the same period.  Criticism proper is simply an attempt to catch up with the latent criticism offered by such exciting, fertile artifacts.

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?

WK: What happened to criticism is that it became a profession, even a guild, heavy on trade craft and jargon and dedicated to exclusion and self-protection.  It became a way of credentialing an insider class and assuring its members of an income inside of the academy.  As such, criticism took up a specialized vocabulary whose chief function, as I see it, was to signal loyalty to the executive board of the approved critical class.  There are all these words in contemporary criticism – “gendered,” “hegemonic,” “interrogate,” etc. – that strike me as verbal secret handshakes.  They might have been meaningful once, but more and more they feel like coded transmissions between the troops and their leaders.  And they make for very ugly sentences.  Critical prose of the type that includes them is singularly ugly prose, and I’m with Einstein and similar physicists in believing that elegance bears a close relation to truth.

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

WK: I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever written criticism. I’ve written book reviews, for money, in the sorts of magazines and newspapers that used to run such reviews regularly but seem to be giving up on them.  I had no special training for the job other than being a reader who tends to scribble in the margins as he reads.  I saw my job as harmonizing these scribblings and making them available to the public.  I was aware the whole time that most of the readers of my reviews would never even open the books in questions, which obliged me to make my reviews absorbing and diverting in themselves.  My overall goal was to convey the impression that literature is a vital undertaking, worthy of the most passionate responses.  I wanted, very simply, to create excitement around an enterprise that too often comes off as stiff, remote, and sleepy.  My reviews were chronicles of taste, and my hope was that they invited readers to test and scrutinize their own tastes.  Maybe that sounds like a modest motivation.  I don’t think so.  Literature to me is a matter of life and death, and that’s how I tried to write about it, as though it mattered at least as much as electoral politics, say.

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

WK: Writerly criticism uses a personal vocabulary, not a received or assumed one.  It sounds, when read, like an actual human being thinking and feeling.  It resists theoretical paraphrase.  It provokes conversation rather than shutting it down through intimidating, scholastic moves.  It gives pleasure.  It releases more energy than it traps.  And it takes responsibility for its points and statements rather than shifting responsibility to some larger body of expert thought.  For some reason, film and music criticism these days is more likely to show these traits.  Oh, and this: creative or “writerly” criticism is informed by its author’s experience as a maker, when possible.  It enlightens us as to the choices that went into the work at hand, and it reminds us of just how many choices there were to be made.

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?

WK: I certainly hope they’re in a state of crisis. The moment they’re not, they’ll probably cease to matter much.  Maintaining a state of crisis around matters that many people might considered settled – What is it to be a person? What is it to tell a story? – is the first job of literary art. Nothing keeps the novel livelier and more relevant than those ceaseless “Is the novel dead?” essays, for example.  The markets live by the competition of fear and greed, they say, and literature lives by the struggle between hope and despair over certain fundamental concerns such as whether life can be fruitfully represented at all.  Crisis and criticism go hand in hand.

JCH: In “Good-bye, Holden Caulfield.  I mean it!   Go!  Good-bye!” (included in The Story About the Story I), you make the following observation:

“People tell me that the mark of a great book is the way it sticks with you, stays vivid over time, but I disagree.  The best books fade into the scenery, dissolve into instant backdrop, return to dust.  But that dust is never the same, it’s changed forever.”

Among other things, this suggests, I think, that it’s wrong to ask literature to do anything too overt or literal.  But is that what we now tend to do?  Is that why people expect books to last when all art, even sculpture, decays?

WK: I suggest going deeper into whatever text you happen to have in hand right now.

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.