I've been reading Gilbert Sorrentino's Something Said, a compilation of his criticism over the years, and it's another reminder of how a really good critic makes you say "It's always been like that, hasn't it? I just never saw it." It also makes me look at my own work and feel like I've missed even the standards I wanted to set for myself. Maybe the feeling will pass, but once such a thing is awakened it rarely nods back off on its own.
Sorrentino was challenging without being compulsively counter-intuitive. For years Sorrentino championed William Carlos Williams as one of the most misunderstood figures of his century — absolutely not the Grandma Moses of American letters he'd been made out to be — and defended a view of the man as being far less preoccupied with trivia and far more merciless and clear-eyed than most would give him credit for.
Sorrentino was staunchly against the idea of advertising in fiction for an idea but rather using fiction to embody one's ideas. He took one essay to shoot John Gardner off his plinth, and show how someone who pled for fiction of clear-eyed conscience was incapable of writing anything that had an ounce of artfulness in it; it was all tell and no show. From Gardner I did garner a few useful ideas, namely that you have to be conscious of what worldview informs your work and how it does so. But not to the extent that you are writing tracts, or that you are devolving into some humorless, unpoetic stodge whose main mission is to "get a point across", who falls back on cliché rather than try to actually see things. And now I have to confront the possibility that Gardner was a well-intentioned soul who also happened to be a bad model, one I followed too closely for my own good.
Reading good criticism makes me painfully aware of my own limitations, and how I have been conscious of them without being able to transcend them. What reading Sorrentino made me most conscious of was how easily one inserts one's self into everything, how mindlessly simple it can be to pour a lacquer of aren't-I-great-or-what? prose over things that have no Ding an Sicht, no thing-in-itself. Hubert Selby said things about modern life that nobody wanted to talk about, said so in language that was impossible to miss, and was mostly treated as a cult author. John Updike told us nothing about (a very small, cloistered, privileged segment of) ourselves we didn't already know, or were only too happy to hear, but, uh, he wrote real good, so there's that. It wasn't even that he "had no ideas"; most novelists have no ideas. It was that he had no vision of things that was more ambitious or daring than anyone in his audience, an audience that resents being asked to dream, let alone have nightmares, because that's too much like work.
I think now of my own failings, of how I've intruded on my own work instead of letting things speak for themselves. E.g.: When Aki, the protagonist of Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned, looks at one of his self-consciously thuggish colleagues with shirts too good for him and likens him to "a brick wall giftwrapped in silk", the image seems more mine than Aki's. Debatable, perhaps. Aki is no dolt, and that's actually one of his flaws: he's a little too smart and with-it and humane to be fully part of the only environment that ever said yes to him, a criminal environment, but he's too tied to the man who opened the door and let him in to walk back out again. It's not inconceivable someone like him could see things as I described them. But the doubt is hard to shrug off.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind