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Episode XLVI: "Living in this world is okay as long as I can still hear the song"
In this installment, I speak with Jonathan Russell Clark. Topics include criticism and the “real” dream, if criticism is too positive and what it ought to do, non-elitism, not needing literature & more.
Today I'm with Jonathan Russell Clark, a literary critic and staff writer for Literary Hub, and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review, The Millions, et al. I don’t normally source Facebook for interview material, but yesterday you posted something that received a lot of likes, six hundred and growing, a number normally reserved for marriage proposals and Bernie Sanders mega-shares. “Three years ago today, I quit drinking. Since then, I haven’t had a single sip,” you begin. “Since then, mornings have acquired optimism, comfort, an excitement to get to work. Since then, I’ve published over 70 essays and reviews in nearly 20 publications.” I originally hoped this interview would shed light on what it’s like to be a full-time essayist and critic, and one that’s decidedly remote (Jonathan lives in North Carolina) and, as I normally do, I was going to ask how you broke into your line of work. The answer to that question is by and large one of surprising turns and steady climbs, but I’m guessing your story’s inflection point is much sharper. So I’ll leave the definition of “beginning” up to you, when I now ask: Take us from the beginning to where you are now.
Yes, that Facebook post! The reaction to that was so unexpected and touching. People sent me messages as well thanking me for sharing and telling their own struggles. It's so wonderful.
In terms of how I've gotten to where I am, I think of my transition into being a critic, like Mike said in "The Sun Also Rises," in two ways: gradually, then suddenly. As a kid I read tons of film criticism because I loved movies but didn't always understand sometimes why they were supposed to be so great. So Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael and Glenn Kenny and Andrew Sarris became guides for me. Later, in Boston, I was a theater critic for a free weekly there. I didn't get paid, but it definitely helped me develop a critical voice.
But throughout all of this I wanted to be a fiction writer. That was what the "real" dream was. Criticism seemed to me peripheral, supplementary at best. Not a real vocation and certainly not an art.
When I quit drinking three years ago, my ambition took over and I ended in grad school for an MFA in fiction. But during my first winter break, I read Christopher Hitchens's "Arguably" and suddenly felt an irresistible impulse to write essays about books. I wrote a few; they weren't great. Then I wrote one about Ali Smith and sent it to The Millions. Max, the editor, published it, and since then all those years as a kid reading film reviews, and those years writing theater reviews, and of course the years in college (in Ohio, Las Vegas, Boston and Oxford, England) writing literary analyses--I suddenly realized that I'd ALWAYS been a critic, and my confusion over wanting to write fiction was merely misplaced love.
So anyway, none of this would have been possible had I not quit drinking. It finally let me put my own ambition first, to seek it and not simply hope for it, gave me the clarity I need to be a good critic. Not to mention that quitting just made me feel so much better about myself. I really do attribute whatever success I've managed to acquire to quitting.
In your mind, what makes a great critic, and what skills do you think you'd transposed to the idea you wanted to be a fiction writer?
Well, for me the biggest thing is voice. Intelligence, critical acumen, erudition--those are all expected from writers of any stripe. But voice--personal, idiosyncratic, vibrant--that is the thing that will draw me to a great critic. Hitchens certainly had that. James Wood, Edmund Wilson, Hilton Als, Helen Vendler. It is their voices as much as their opinions that bring me back to them.
And this is definitely something I developed from writing fiction. But I think, for me, it applies to all literature. I need something to compel me through, and ideas and opinions will carry me to a certain extent, but voice is the vessel, everything else slides in with it.
Other than voice, for me another important quality is a willingness to extrapolate, to take the themes of a novel or a poem and riff on it, maybe tangentially, maybe in parallel to another work, but taking it out of the realm of pure review and into something bigger, more artful.
I recently read Wood's back and forth with n+1, and found it a bit hysterical. Maybe it was just the fact a lot of it was criticism about criticism about criticism. I won't ask you to take sides, but I will ask you if you've ever considered what level of 'criticism' should be par in the field. That is, if you hate a novel, do you write about it? When is an essay a takedown, and is criticism, by and large, too positive?
Great question. You know one of the things people forget about critics is that they are regular-ass people, who, like anyone, don't love laboring through a book they don't like. And so for those who have to pitch reviews to editors, the notion of spending a lot of time (reading, pitching, writing, editing, etc.) on a book you don't like ends up feeling a lot less important than pitching the ones you love to your marrow.
Another thing: to those who think criticism is "too positive" and who think that's a problem, what would they prefer criticism do? I mean, are they pissed because maybe a few readers bought books they may not like? Are they upset that posterity might record a few good reviews for a book that didn't quite deserve it? Is their integrity so rigid as to not believe that maybe, great work is being written right now and the excitement around it is palpable?
Because here's the truth: the crassly commercial criticism of "Should I buy this book?" is not the name of the game. But neither is some classically "objective" or rigorously scholarly criticism the thing either. Well, those categories exist but they ultimately affect very little.
The criticism that matters is an art in itself. It sings and shines in all the same ways. Sure, there's a ton of low-quality criticism out there, but what ISN'T that true of? And it doesn't diminish the beauty of the good stuff.
Well, I think Wood would say that criticism's primary objective is to push the art forward. Would you not? And isn't that a case against criticism that's "too positive"?
I don't think criticism has to push the art forward. I disagree with Wood on that. Because, if anything, criticism aims to keep up with the art form. Take Edmund Wilson, for instance. His early essays on "Ulysses" played a large role in establishing many of its bewildering complexities. Wilson didn't push literature farther; he caught up with it, so that others (i.e., artists) could take the reigns and push the art forward.
I don't, however, mean to imply that critics are merely passive observers, but only that our work is necessarily reactive, a response to something, and though we may opine about the direction of literature or take stock of the current landscape, to suggest that it is somehow our responsibility to progress literature seems misplaced. Because, what use would our insights be if they weren't taken and applied (or avoided) in real life by working artists? Those critics who step deeply into art (like Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine) are making art, too. So while they may be pushing the art, they are doing it as artists just as much as critics.
I think there's a fundamental disagreement between us, but conflicting perspectives is at the heart of any real discussion. Let's pivot a bit, but stay the (relative) course. In my interview with Lauren Cerand, we spoke a bit about the retreat of literature from the public sphere. I don’t think anyone doubts that—the question is, why. Part of me sees a thriving community, with fractured conversation and growing outlets for it and forms challenged and…Part of me steps out of that community and sees it from the outside, through the hard glass dome that encapsulates all of its ideas (in this metaphor, only a goliath marketing budget can send a piece of literary fiction through the firmament, and even City on Fire failed to reach escape velocity). How enclosed is the ‘lit community’, for lack of a better word? When you write, is your imagined reader part of it?
Mostly I think I write for people who are in the community, who will most likely get the references I make and will mostly like care about the ideas I engage with. But I don't consider it some insular inside-baseball kind of thing where I'm excluding anyone in an elitist way, any more than sportswriters would consider their usage of stats and numerous references to be excluding anyone from sports.
To be honest, I don't think too much about literature's, as you put it, "retreat from the public sphere." Maybe because I don't believe that literature is the be-all-end-all solution for a great life. I know plenty of people who don't read literary fiction or poetry and are perfectly happy. Sure at parties they may express regret they don't read more, but fundamentally it isn't a part of their happiness.
I think the literary community's fixation on literature's relevance or irrelevance is kind of needless. I mean, do I wish that books made way more money so that more writers could earn a living? Of course. And do I wish my opinions on such were read by way more people? Of course. But I don't think that literature--any more than high art, or jazz, or philosophy, or math--has to be widely read or a vital part of the world in order for it to accomplish its goals.
Literature is my life. It is my very blood. I don't really think about anything else. But I don't think about why the world isn't reading more. I couldn't solve that problem even if I wanted to. I'm too small. But I also think that often, the issue isn't that we're in a glass dome separate from the world, it's that we believe that our dome should be the world. And there's simply too much in the world--visual art, sports, history, law, politics, business, etc.--for any one art form to take precedent over everything.
Again, do I think the world would benefit from reading more literature? Yes, of course. But it would also benefit from eating better, and traveling more, and exercising more--or becoming bilingual. Shit, think about how much linguistic work goes into learning a new language, and how difficult reading complex literature in that new language would be. It wouldn't be nearly as necessary as simply learning the functional phrases and words. To get by. People I know who speak another language fluently don't necessarily read a lot of books, but they have a grasp on language I never will, because they see shades only visible from the outside, from where I, woefully monolingual, am excluded.
So if the suggestion is that criticism could somehow serve as a bridge between literature and the rest of the world, I don't feel responsible to do that. For one I'm not nearly talented or smart or whatever enough to accomplish that, and because I don't really think its necessary. If I reach 10 people with something I write, I'd be happy. Incorporating an expectation that the world pay attention would just be setting myself up again and again for failure.
That's a very honest and refreshing point of view. I appreciate it. The idea that so many passions could stand in for yours of literature in another soul is fair, and objective, and of course, true. What do you think it is about you that made literature your lifeblood?
I'm not sure. It would be easy to say that my mother read a lot, and that being the youngest child of four instilled in me a desire to be taken seriously which inevitably lead to me trying desperately to be smart, and that growing up on movies (we saw movies every weekend) gave me a love for stories, but I don't know if any of those things are the real reason.
When I read something beautiful, wonderful, engaging, and true, it just fills my heart with jittery palpitations, it makes me feel whole, gives me reassurance about who I am, that living in this world is okay as long as I can still hear the song.
Also, writing is how I figure out what matters to me. After writing a number of pieces, I can see threads and themes and thirsts, subtle preoccupations that pervade the work. It takes me an embarrassing amount of time to spot the things sometimes, but when I do, it's just as revelatory about me as the pieces were about the books, though only I can see it.
So it gives something fundamental back to me, and I have no idea when that relationship started (or, better, when I understood that that was the dynamic of the relationship), but it's there, and it keeps me moving.
The crossover between film criticism and literature criticism is as easy to pass as any two media (and how many times do we hear a movie was 'literary'). It's also not unusual for lit-based writers to obsess over movies (i.e. Bret Easton Ellis). Why do you think your criticism ended up facing lit, instead of movies?
I think because movies were never really the passion. I think they stood in for literature because I was too intimidated to approach literature seriously. I felt unequipped. And film, having such a short history, is containable in a way literature is not, which is also overwhelming.
Not that I don't love movies; I do. And I get much inspiration from my favorite filmmakers (Welles, Kubrick, Allen, (P.T.) Anderson, Altman, etc.). But I think books got to me first, maybe, via Stephen King. I remember reading "The Talisman" (which he co-wrote with Peter Straub) and just being flabbergasted that you could make these things happen in stories, shit that would never happen in a movie.
We're nearly out of time, so I'll send you off with one last question. New York is still the country's publishing capitol, and will always be—but every day that matters less and less. You live in North Carolina and, as your record shows, you're breaking in from every angle. Do you think your career is affected in any way by your location?
Not at all. I think in New York one's progress might be speedier, since connections are so much easier to make and are in person rather than online. But I'm actually thankful I don't live in New York. I can sometimes crumble at perceived competition, or the idea that I'm not good enough to be in the room, and New York just riddles me with those doubts. Where I live, I don't have too many friends. I don't go out much either. I spend most of my time reading and writing, whereas when I lived in Boston I was constantly attended events (or organizing them, which I did for years too) or going to parties or readings or work. In Wilmington, I can truly focus on literature and my work--which, besides my family, my girlfriend and my dogs, are the most important things in the world to me.
Thanks for your time Jonathan, and your words.
No problem! Thanks for including me in this series. I went and read them all and it is really fucking great. A very necessary resource for writers. Keep up the great work, Andrew.