Comparative Criticism

I’m about to read C.K. Williams‘ book-length consideration of Walt Whitman, On Whitman. If it gets me excited—or makes me mad—how should I write about it?

Writing at the Tin House blog, J.C. Hallman makes an impassioned plea for a livelier, more metaphor-infused style of criticism, as opposed to the kind of “astringent” criticism preferred by Helen Vendler‘s review of the Whitman book. This seems reasonable enough at first glance: Writing should feel like a punch to the chest! Like a blast of cold air on a hot day! Like the shocking sense that the floor has suddenly disappeared beneath your feet!

Or something. I’m pretty bad with metaphors—any one I come up with tends to feel like, at best, an approximation of what it is I actually mean to say, not to mention awkward and contrived. (Comparing reading an influential piece of criticism to feeling like you’ve just noticed you’ve gone around all day with your shirt half tucked-in? Eh. I’ve long figured that much of what you’re paying for in an MFA program is the ability to write non-crappy metaphors.) So I can support Hallman’s idea in theory, while wondering if he should be careful what he asks for.

Truth is, Hallman’s attempt to walk it like he talks it by deploying lots of metaphors to dismantle Vendler’s piece isn’t especially effective. Vendler’s complaint about the Whitman book, best as I can tell, is that the author concentrates too much on his emotional reactions to the poetry, and less on the structure of the poetry itself. Hallman compares Vendler’s argument to a few things:

It’s as though someone has shown Vendler some sexy pictures and she’s decided to be grossed out by them.

[It’s] like saying it’s okay to watch porn, and it’s even okay to talk about it and write about it, but under no circumstances should you actually imitate the acts that get your juices flowing.

[S]he has become the aging schoolmarm playing chaperone at a middle school dance.

How many comparisons to an easily shocked crone do you think Vendler deserved to drive this point home? If you answered “three,” you’ll have Hallman on your side. But—at the risk of sounding astringent—it should be pretty clear that he’s making the same exact argument three times. That’s not better writing, let alone better criticism; that’s just overwriting. That’s not to say that metaphor itself is a problem. But its utility is as a way to bolster an argument, not be the argument itself. (A metaphor can only tell you what something is like. You still need a something.) A call for more metaphorical writing will probably make for some more colorful prose, but also prose that prefers to makes a noise about itself—which is more about the writer than the point the writer wants to make.

4 thoughts on “Comparative Criticism

  1. Hey there,

    Thanks for this (pretty) thoughtful take on my admittedly astringent (!) reply to Vendler. That you were already headed to Williams’s book and not diverted to one of Vendler’s surely means you’re one of the good guys.

    That said, I think you miss the forest in doing the job of chopping down a few of my trees. You say that you are not good with metaphors, and it’s true that the examples you give are not very good — they’re cliches, in fact. And sure, a good MFA program should call attention to that.

    But there’s a larger question here — one that my metaphors about Vendler don’t even attempt to address. That question is simply whether metaphoric-writing (to be distinguished from the use of simile, as you tend to suggest) can be used to communicate what reading a book is “like,” and whether that doesn’t amount to a kind of critical action in and of itself.

    I think it does…and in addition to Williams, I’d point to Dyer, De Botton, Baker, Lodge, and many others who have trailblazed a path on this point. Indeed, I was able to post my reoly to Vendler on the Tin House site precisely because I edited a book of this kind of writing for them: THE STORY ABOUT THE STORY.

    In any event, it’s a good discussion to be having…and I sincerely hope the Williams book goes over well.

    1. Hi J.C.—thanks for your comment. I’m glad you took my points in the spirit in which they were intended, even if we seem to disagree a bit on how useful or advisable metaphor is in criticism. I have “The Story About the Story” on my shelf, and I plan to spend some time reading it soon.

      One thing I hope that book (and perhaps the Whitman book) sheds some light on: How “metaphoric-writing” qualifies, in itself, as criticism. Saying what something feels like isn’t criticism, or at least it’s a very surface-level criticism. I can say that I enjoy something; I can even come up with a lovely metaphoric construct to capture that feeling of pleasure. (Well, a better writer could.) But that’s just the start of the job—criticism also involves explaining how a work creates that pleasure, spending some time looking into its mechanics. Can that be accomplished in “metaphoric-writing”? Not in a way that wouldn’t be distracting and off-point, I imagine (though I’ll happily read examples to the contrary). Eventually you have to wrestle with the thing you’re wrestling with. There are ways to do it that are compelling, and ways that come off as priggish and academic and obnoxiously “astringent.” But to *not* do it is to just find fancy ways to say, “I like this.”

  2. My apologies if this winds up out of order…replying on Blackberry.

    I think this boils down to a question of theme vs. thesis, and whether a writer working with theme can still offer “analysis,” of a kind. Charles D’Ambrosio’s lead essay in SATS is a great example. It’s a long personal essay about his own family and Salinger, and ends with a line that is both theme, thesis, and metaohor:

    “The genius of Salinger is that, speaking through Holden Caulfield, highly emotional, in tune and unison with life, with events re-echoing still, he told us exactly what it feels like to feel too much.”

    Do we really want to say that this does not codify, analyze? Particularly when we consider “criticism,” we should be wary of the tendency to conflate sobriety and profundity…

  3. I do agree with the point about overuse in that the third example about the middle-school dance makes the point of the others more effectively.

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