In this issue of Spring Books, on the occasion of Cathy Curtis’s new biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, Merve Emre writes about the restless critics who co-founded the New York Review and contributed more than a hundred incisive essays before her death in 2007. Emre does Hardwick the honor of an empathetic, even reading, taking in her youthful determination and personal frustrations and, ultimately, the incredible will she found in the critique “an accomplished, enjoyed and triumphant life.”
In recent years, Emre has cultivated her own critical voice in the Checkwriting about Diane Williams, Daša Drndić, Gary Lutz, and Ingeborg Bachmann, and is now a contributing writer at the new yorker. She is a professor of American literature at the University of Oxford. Her first book The Personality Runnerson the origins of the Myers-Briggs test, he displayed a fascination with human types and their expression that manifests itself in his lively appraisals of writers and their characters on and behind the page.
In addition to prolific criticism, he also sends out forceful emails, as I discovered this week as we corresponded about Hardwick, style, and the weirdness of marriage.
Lauren Kane: What was your introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick?
Merve Emre: When I was a graduate student at Yale, each year the professors in the English department would stage a reading from one of the plays taught in “English 129: Tragedy.” In 2011 she played Célimène in Molière’s the misanthropeand in 2012 I played Hedda in Ibsen Hedda Gabler. I think it was the director of the play, the very passionate and very patient Murray Biggs, who suggested that I read Hardwick’s essay on Hedda Gabler to prepare for the role. It is a remarkable piece. And he puts his finger on a type of character I’m instinctively and alarmingly drawn to: “creatures of the will,” heroes and heroines who strive toward both victory and self-destruction. They appear to be made of thicker and finer materials than ordinary humans. They are tight. They are never boring.
You describe Hardwick’s first novel as “witty and obnoxious, claustrophobic and more rewarding to think about than pleasant to read.” (I have this experience of Hardwick’s fiction myself.) It is this kind of failure in fiction that marks it as embryonic criticism. Do you think you can be a critic and a novelist at the same time, or are these ways of thinking too close?
One can be both—consider Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, and John Berger—and I think there is a deep continuity between how novels and criticism work. Recently, I have been rereading Proust’s novels alongside Gerald Murnane’s novels and marvel at how their shared commitment to paraphrasing rather than directly quoting from the books their narrators read leaves room for both in-novel criticism and criticism. novelistic techniques of description and description. characterization within criticism. There is a line from Mikhail Bakhtin that I like and think about regularly: “The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, between literature and non-literature, etc., are not set in the sky.” If placed on land, mere mortals can move them.
What distinction, if any, separates a critic from an academic?
I recently started to think of this issue as a gender issue. As a critic, I write mainly in two genres: essays, usually between 4,000 and 8,000 words, and commercials of thirty to fifty words. As an academic, I have a broader range: books and book chapters, articles, conference papers and abstracts, or what we would call “scholarship”; but also, reader reports, letters of tenure, letters of recommendation, student evaluations, study plans, comments on student work, applications for scholarships, grants and awards, and emails. If I were to think of this division schematically, I would say that the genres of criticism emphasize their charismatic authority and expressive marks. The style, for example, the gradual revelation of a person or personality, a creature of flesh and blood hidden behind the irregular mask of prose. That charisma is imagined as capable of instantiating its own public, of attracting and gathering a vast and unlimited audience. What she does with this audience is up to her: educate, entertain, scold, charm.
Academic genres are also stylized, but differently. They filter whatever charisma one might possess through bureaucratic protocols designed to standardize, routinize, and professionalize language so that all articles, letters of recommendation, and emails speak with more or less the same voice. Most of what I write is meant to be read in the strictest confidence, by small committees making decisions about the lives and careers of others. This may be why I find it strange when people ask for examples of “sexy” or “beautiful” scholarly prose; most academic genres are not occasions for entertainment or aesthetic appreciation. I wonder to what extent that request is driven by a desire for beauty versus a desire to confirm that charisma can still overcome the constraints of bureaucracy.
I must clarify, by the way, that I am speaking neutrally, and I am speaking of ideal types or archetypes. There are critics whose voices are governed by “house styles”, just as there are still academics who find ways to write highly unprofessional emails.
Do you have a writing habit or routine that you trust? Do you review often?
I start by reading everything written by the writer I’m writing about, as well as a biography (or perhaps several) of the writer. In Hardwick’s case, I read all of his fiction and non-fiction and letters collected in the dolphin cards. I also listened to and transcribed the eight hours of taped interviews that David Farrell conducted with her. My scholarship has an archival bent, which means I often seek out new and different sources.
I don’t take notes while reading. I make a little ear —verso above, recto below— and underline sentences and paragraphs. I create a document and write each sentence and paragraph underlined, arranged by book. I then create a second document and classify the sentences and paragraphs by topic. The process of doing this usually leads me to a preliminary articulation of the argument I want to make, its beginning and end, its arc and its sub-statements. I handwrite the outlines in a very messy way, on the backs of bank statements and other loose envelopes strewn across my work desk.
I try to write a thousand words a day during the week, and if I’m reading for one essay, I’m writing for another. I check constantly; I am a compulsive bungler. You know this because in one hour I sent you at least four drafts of my responses to this interview, which is typical. I usually rewrite every essay I’ve written three times for proofreading, sometimes just twice if I get the form and motion right on the first draft, but I rarely do. My first reader is my editor and my final reader is my husband who reads the proofs and highlights the parts he doesn’t like or understand in yellow on the PDF. Then we go through the highlights section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and we have a huge, horrible fight. I consider this an essential part of my routine. I see little point and much dishonesty in romanticizing the process itself.
As a married critic, do you have an answer to the so-called embarrassing question you raise in your article? What importance does marriage have for criticism?
I often replay a moment from Hardwick’s interviews with David Farrell when he asks her what it means to be married. “You’re never really a married person,” she says. “Who?” For many people, marriage, or any long-term relationship, offers a fantasy of devotion, lasting romance, and perfect understanding. The disappointment of that expectation is a common experience. And it’s a common experience that results in loneliness, resentment, bitterness, disappointment, and sometimes abandonment. Marriage is, as Hardwick puts it, “an experience violated by necessity, by the drastic operation of chance, and by the peculiar limitations of choice.”
However, the emphasis might fall differently on the claim that no one is really a married person. If both self and other are unknowable, if perfect understanding is a rickety fantasy, then two people retain the ability to surprise each other. A person can become strange to you, just as you can become strange to yourself. This can be as intriguing and exhilarating as it is mind-numbing. An appreciation of that strangeness, the strangeness of the intellect, the strangeness of the heart, is the spark that ignites and illuminates the critic’s mind.
My husband has always had an intuitive understanding of this logic. He likes to say that he married me because then life would never be boring. I have always insisted on taking this as a compliment. But these days I also insist on reading it as a more general truth.
In her review, she references Hardwick’s essay “Wives and Mistresses,” which was published in these pages at the same time she was giving those interviews to Farrell. In it she writes: “What a downfall it is to go from the high-flying insistence of the wretched to the slow, steady buzz of affirmation. The egoists of affirmation have problems of form spared the truculent and misrepresented ones.” Do you feel that anxiety about being a self-serving assertion manifests itself in her interviews?
If she’s anxious about the role she once played in propping up her ex-husband’s ego and career, then that anxiety is countered with a compensatory claim: those who are shattered by betrayal produce more deeply felt writing than “assertion egoists.” “. that she can claim neither the plunge of disorientation nor the slow, agonizing rebirth they do to absorb human drama. “It is the loss of love that awakens the speculative faculty and its rich inventions,” she writes. She knows this is a Pyrrhic victory. But what choice does she have? We all take our victories where we can get them.