Reviewing Literary Citizenship
Valerie Miner | September 1995
I want to consider the work of the literary citizen, work that is too often senselessly specialized and fragmented. As a novelist and critic of fiction, I'll begin with a story about storytelling.
The tall man was standing in an open-air market in the Northern Sahara amid stalls of blazing textiles, resonant spices, eerily vibrant boxes of Tide and Cheer. I remember watching him tell stories within a circle of villagers and knowing on this bright, hot African day how much I, too, wanted to tell stories. Of course, becoming a writer wasn't the result of one epiphany, but rather a continually interrupted process (interrupted by history, censorship, health, economy, and self-doubt). But I still find pleasure and provocation in my now twenty-year-old memory of the itinerant storyteller. He has stayed with me while my heroes from the printed page have washed in and out of importance—perhaps because I remember him in context, outdoors in the market with the rest of us. People tossed coins at his feet and I reckoned he was literally one of the merchants. I remember his audience sighing, laughing, talking back, listening to him, and appraising him on the spot. As a young expatriate reporter frustrated by the sterile hypocrisy of my journalism, I yearned to be a real writer, to be part of a literary circle.
Passionately I wanted to participate in a world where people attended artistically to the rhythm of one word breathing against another, where they exchanged ideas of philosophical depth and social consequence, where they shared the pleasurable complexity of distilled, clear language. I approached and the circle receded. The oasis became a mirage. The circle turned into a line in one of those maddeningly brilliant Norman McClaren animations. Curves were now chopped into disconnected links. These links metamorphosed into a directionless ladder.
In order to finance my journey to this increasingly elusive world, I got a university teaching job. This would earn my living until the fiction did and, coincidentally, admit me to another region of the literary circle. In the Academy, I discovered that professors didn't talk to writers or literary publishers. They didn't even talk to lecturers. Most academics seemed unconsciously jealous of poets and novelists, nervous when they couldn't quantify them. They weren't so keen on audiences either, and they tended to write for others like themselves whom they saw in the mirror in the mirror.
Next, I tried reviewing as a route into the circle. Given my journalistic experience, it felt natural to write newspaper and magazine reviews. Gradually I learned that mass-media critics were segregated from academics and artists as much as these groups were isolated from one another. Editors were often reluctant to admit a novelist had anything special to say about a novel, suspicious of her critical distance and wary of her deadline discipline. My colleagues at UC Berkeley found the reviewing marginally quaint. Quickly, I learned that this was not considered criticism (for those who don't remember, criticism is what scholars used to write before they turned to autobiography). Meanwhile, my fellow artists didn't see reviewing as real (artistic) writing, although some became very solicitous when their books appeared. During this time, I developed a course at Berkeley called "Social Issues in Publishing" in which students worked ten hours per week at presses, magazines, writers' organizations, and bookstores, and used their practical daily dilemmas to interpret our assigned texts. With my students I learned that the literary world I wanted to enter did not exist.
By this time, I knew what to do. By this time, I was a published fiction writer, if not a self-sustaining one, and I made up the story, designed my own concentric circles. I told myself a narrative—the same one I am telling you now—about a naive girl who grew up and pretended and pretended until she imagined her way into a literary world.
Now in 1995, after publishing eight books and hundreds of reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Village Voice, Nation, New York Times, Washington Post, Women's Review of Books, Los Angeles Times, New Statesman, and other journals, I find that I actually believe in this literary world. I'd like to discuss some of the complications of citizenship there.
Let's first look at reviewing. One of the big surprises has been how much we review beyond the conventional connotation of writing an assessment of a published book. There are so many ways to be of use. My definition of reviewing now includes: refereeing books for publishers; critiquing student theses; composing introductions and afterwords to new volumes; participating in a writers' group; reading galleys for possible blurbs; judging fellowship applications, literary contests, and book awards; commenting on colleagues' draft manuscripts; and having serious book conversations with friends.
The more I engage in these varied activities, the more clearly I understand the problem of the traditional book review—that it happens, like political commentary, too late to be of use to the subject. Thus, while I continue to write book reviews widely, I don't review for the author.
Rather, I review in newspapers and magazines to participate in a broader writers' forum about new novels. I review to learn how another author faced the damn block of ice and managed to shape it into something meaningful before we all melt. I review as a way of reaching out of the suffocating confinement of the solitary-genesis myth. One convention I envy scholars is the custom of citing and arguing with and elaborating on each other's work within the text itself. This kind of academic citizenship seems closed to most fiction writers, although poets manage to acknowledge each other fairly often in epigraphs and improvisational responses to other poets. I find reviewing mimics citation—a serious, public interaction with peers' work.
Essentially, then, book reviewing contributes to the all-too-faint literary conversation. Those of us who aspire to live in a world of ideas discover we live in a land of labels. Americans ask how politicians are doing with far more curiosity than what they are doing. Likewise in the arts, writers focus on self-representation—on packaging celebrity in interviews, readings, and promotion campaigns. Reviewing, of course, can simply escalate such commercial momentum. Or it can provide the writer/reader with companions and models. In recent years, I've met a number of writers through their books—people who, for some reason, were not yet "names" or "reputations" to me—such as Janette Turner Hospital and Thea Astley and Randall Kenan—and yet who provided me with great pleasure in their work and opened new directions for my own fiction.
Two years ago at Sarah Lawrence College, a student asked me an interesting question: "How is the process of 'understanding' different in writing fiction and writing criticism?" All that came to mind were obvious rhetorical distinctions between a story and a review and stale workshop nonsense about the emotional truth of a good story versus the intellectual acuity of a good review. But I have to admit I don't buy the left brain-right brain division. I protest the split between analysis and imagination, artist and scholar. It seems crazy that the Academy names my fiction, but not my reviews, "creative writing." I went home from Sarah Lawrence and mused about the mutual sustenance between writing fiction and writing criticism.
Fiction writing brings experienced appreciation to my reviewing. I know, for instance, the transformative powers as well as the agonizing tedium of rewriting. I admire the writer who has beautifully distilled a scene and I know when an author just needs another draft (or seven). I have sympathy with the novelist who must let go of her characters—who have become as close as any friend or relative—at the end of a narrative. I know my characters are real when I dream about them and I know when I dream about them they will leave me.
On the other hand, the nerve and imagination of authors I review provokes me to continue my fiction. I've learned to experiment in specific ways with my own style and content and format. I've developed a taste for more complex choices in narrative strategy. The more I read, the more I understand about creating layers and interlayers. Recently I finished writing a novel in the first person—after six previous novels in the third person. I used to dismiss first-person writing as too easy or as an expression of undigested autobiography. Reviewing has taught me about the range of registers for the "I narrator," from soliloquy to therapy to conversation to diary to confession and beyond.
Meanwhile, the less successful books I review often inform me about humility, failed nerve, bad luck, or the pitfalls of commercial pressure. Generally, I've become much more savvy about the tensions between publishing-profession ideals and book-industry bottom lines. This awareness has been valuable to me as a writer, reviewer, and teacher.
An unexpected link in my personal storytelling-reviewing web is that in recent years I have developed the strange, useful habit of writing and publishing essays about my own novels after I finish the books. These essays allow me to go back through the writing journal, weighing intention and outcome, to make a retrospective map of the ever-surprising route on which one is led by characters. As Wallace Stegner observed, one always learns how to write the last book. Now, I don't plan to emulate Walt Whitman in composing actual reviews of my books, but through writing essays about All Good Women and A Walking Fire, I found myself knowing the books differently, understanding better why I write so frequently about war, and raising new dilemmas for the next project. After I finished a recent draft of Range of Light, set in the High Sierra, I wrote a long essay called "Writing My Way West" about the muse of Western American landscape.
In conclusion, let me argue more specifically for wholeness, for permission for a life in letters. Perhaps it's heresy for a 1990s feminist to be invoking a concept from patriarchal imperialist antiquity. But while the 1890s Man of Letters may have taken himself too seriously, I'm suggesting we take one another more seriously in a fuller notion of literary citizenship. I'm asking for a forum that employs the dignity and beauty of accessible language. In the specialist culture, multiple literary personality is a notorious pathological symptom. Perhaps we should get a second opinion. Several years ago in the New York Times Book Review, historian Patricia Limerick blamed narrow, turgid scholarship on lack of social skills. Quoting a colleague, she said, "Professors are the ones nobody asked to dance in high school." Limerick complained that the specialists can't understand each other.
It's easy to get lost in the hierarchy, the ranking, and labelling. The right questions aren't simple; they're not whether writing is good or bad, major league or minor league, but rather: what does this book do to expand our range of compassion, to enlighten us ethically, to provide a moment of transcendence, to create the pleasure of recognition or connection?
It's hard to converse in a frantic world where we read reviews not so much to determine whether to buy or borrow the book or even to engage with moments or ideas the reviewer has managed to capture, but instead to graze opinions, so we know who's saying what. In our once-removed reality, reviews are more likely to inoculate or anesthetize than stimulate. Too often, we read reviews as we scrutinize food labels: how much pleasure, insight? How many grams of fat? What percentage of our daily artistic quotient? Is this hazardous to our opinions?
As the catastrophic 1994 election reveals, "The Politics of Anything" is troubled; in the dark of this civic disaster, I make a modest plea for literary citizenship, knowing that my fiction informs my reviewing, my criticism stimulates my art, and my curiosity about the outside world enlivens all my writing. I'm remembering the tall Saharan storyteller with his rapt, arguing, nodding listeners, and I wish our literary scene were more reciprocal, less a series of one-way fast lanes to such private destinations. I'm hungering for a world in which artist is intellectual is activist. I'm imagining a life in which one letter relates to another, creating words and sentences in which we're all named and implicated.
Valerie Miner is the author of Rumors from the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews, and Reportage (University of Michigan Press, 1992), and seven books of fiction, including A Walking Fire (State University of New York Press, 1994). Currently she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.