Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Embracing the limits

Yesterday Wuthering Expectations celebrated its third anniversary. In reflecting upon his experience of book blogging, the Amateur Reader (who has remained anonymous for three years) cited William H. Pritchard as his model (the critic “can embrace limits as a provocation to speak out”), and then proceeded to sketch the kind of book blog that gladly embraces the limits. He has in mind the bloggers who “write on a book or idea however they want, for however long they want.” He gives an example of his own practice: the time he spent two weeks on the nineteenth-century Scottish novelist John Galt.

He also singles out Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence, of course (“the best written book blog, easily”—ditto). Last year I noticed that Kurp was doing the kind of thing the Amateur Reader describes, thinking about a book as he worked his way through it rather than waiting till the end to gather his thoughts. “The effect is that of a serial review,” I observed. “Instead of a book review that satisfies the publisher’s (and author’s) thirst for publicity—a book review that delivers a finished verdict—you have the adventure of a mind as it inches toward conclusions.” This, as I noted at the time, is the original meaning of the word essay.

My own blogging practice is different. I am far more worried—far too worried—about finish. My training under second-generation New Critics is showing, I’m afraid. Every time I begin a sentence, I hope that I can achieve the effect of absolute completion, to which nothing could be added or taken away. And this goes all the way down to my handling of books. I almost never say something until I have finished a book and can say something conclusive (with luck, even definitive) about it.

The Amateur Reader’s practice, and Kurp’s, is the better. My literary ambition is unobtainable (and therefore neurotic), while theirs is inviting, modest, and open to surprise, change of mind. I must sustain the illusion of self-consistency as if my thought formed a virtuoso whole across years of critical writing, even when I am fully aware of the gaps in my knowledge and the holes in my reasoning. My style of criticism is an old, discredited style—a pretense of completeness in an age of open sources and endless links. In the three years of its existence, Wuthering Expectations shows how book blogging differs from (and improves upon) centuries of after-the-fact literary criticism.

Congratulations to the Amateur Reader! And here is to a blogging run that is ten times longer than it has lasted so far!


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

After spelling Nick Carraway's name wrong twenty times in a single post, I'm not going to argue against the value of "finish." Thanks, though, for this post. You describe the ideal well. As for the practice - an undending task.