"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Personal Essay: On Writing on Literature

In my review of Julie Davis’ book Happy Catholic the other week I started the post by saying, “I’m not very good at book reviews.”   

What you say, what exactly is the point of this blog?  Isn’t it to review books?  You’ve been writing for eighteen months on literature and you’re not good at reviewing books?  It’s true, I’m not good at reviewing books.  However, I don’t consider most of what I write here to be book reviews.  Occasionally yes, such as that post on Julie’s book.  Yes, some of my early posts on books were tagged “Reviews” but if you’ve noticed I’ve dropped that tag.  I did that after giving some thought as to what I actually do. 

On reflection, I guess there are at least three types of writing on literature.  Let me go through them. 

(1) You can give a review, which amounts to a subjective reaction to a work.  Most people who write about books in magazines and newspapers are writing book reviews.  Most people who write on the internet about books are also giving you a review.  There are reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble web sites, usually submitted by readers.  It is instinctual for people to give reviews.  That is what they read, and that is what they emulate.  The author of the review describes the work, highlights what is distinct about it, tells you what they liked about it, and might provide some sort of rating, similar to how movie critics in the newspapers rate movies.  The review rests on the reaction of the reviewer to the book. 

(2) You can provide analysis, which requires a more objective dissection of the work based on some level of knowledge.  Here the author identifies the structure of the work, how the themes are brought out, the character development and the contrasting characters.  He might bring out the historical context of the work, bring out how the author is relating to his society, contrast it with similar works, or place the work within the author’s other works.  Is there subjectivity?  Well, nothing is perfect, but if a critic is writing analysis he is trying to squeeze out every bit of subjectivity.   Literary analysis amounts to an undergraduate college paper.   

(3) Or finally you can do literary criticism, which is also analysis but set in the context of past criticism.  Literary criticism is what college professors and graduate students do.  When I was a graduate student my papers were literary criticism.  It builds on past criticism and either explores an idea about the work or author that hasn’t been thought before or it expands on some critics previous idea that didn’t go far enough.  Or, perhaps, some new biographical detail of the author’s life has reframed a previous idea, and so past criticism missed a particular theme.  But literary criticism requires a research library and a fair amount of time reading past criticism.  It requires footnoting and giving credit for any idea one picks up from another work of criticism.   

As I was thinking through these types of writing on books, I came across this feature in The New Criterion on literary essayist Joseph Epsteintitled, “On Joseph Epstein: A look at Joseph Epstein’s work, the importance of reading, and the role of the critic.”  Now there’s an essay that coordinates with my blog and especially this post: the importance of reading!  I think the feature essay brings out the differences between the three types of writing on books.  I don’t recall ever reading a Joseph Epstein essay, so I’m somewhat speculating here but let’s explore how the author of the feature, William Giraldi, defines Epstein’s essays.
For more than five decades as a critic and essayist, Joseph Epstein has been one of our most valuable and vociferous antidotes against puerile and invertebrate reviews, a smasher of hype and entrenched pieties among the literati, an arbiter with a bloodstained yardstick, a writer serious about his convictions and his comedy. With Ruskin and Arnold and Wilde, Epstein is a shining example of how essay writing and criticism aspire to equal footing with imaginative literature. The author of twenty-four books—his newest collection, A Literary Education, will be released in June—Epstein illustrates the necessary difference between disposition and argument and never confuses rhetoric with logic, or rationalization with reasoning. By turns cantankerous and comedic, traditional and irreverent, damning and praising, he writes sentences you want to remember. And that, in the last analysis, is the only measure of a writer. 

As I perused Joseph Epstein’s page on Amazon, he’s got an assortment of books: collections of his essays, collections of great essays in literary history in which he edited, biographies of authors, and a collection of his short stories.  He is a writer who has lived a life as a reader.  Giraldi in the paragraph above identifies Epstein as both a critic and an essayist.  As an essayist he associates Epstein’s work with John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde, quite prestigious company.  But when Giraldi says “essay” I think he means the personal essay, which is not what I’m writing about here.  But Giraldi also fleshes out Epstein’s ability as a critic: 

The average reviewer’s idea of literary comment is indistinguishable from a primary school book report: summary flanked by quotation, interspersed with how the book made him feel, as if his feelings have anything at all to do with the artistic success or failure of what he’s read. They do not. Where the novel is concerned, part of the problem is that many publications harness other novelists to do the reviewing. They must go this route for the obvious reason that our culture currently suffers from a dearth of Edmund Wilsons, H. L. Menckens, Elizabeth Hardwicks, and Lionel Trillings. But one can’t get around the fact that most creative writers don’t know the first thing about the critical mind. They can’t tell F. R. Leavis from R. P. Blackmur and they don’t much care to. They preside over literary comment much the way they preside over their MFA writing classes: either with saccharine equanimity, with a kind of artistic egalitarianism that scoffs at canonical standards, or with bromidic workshop lingo such as “I couldn’t sympathize with the narrator,” or “The plot feels unrealistic to me.” I’ve said this before but I hope you’ll agree that it bears repeating: Criticism is personal and passionate, the product of severe erudition, or it is impotent and dull, the product of mere opinion.

Here Giraldi places Epstein among five of the most renown critics of the 20th century, though H. L. Mencken was more of an essayist.  Where Mencken was scholarly was in writing on the nature and evolution of the English language.  When it came to books and writers, he was more of a reviewer.   

But what is Epstein?  Here Giraldi describes his essays on literature that I think is insightful.

The endemic illusion among many reviewers is that talking about imaginative literature is a lot like talking about life. Try not to believe that. To talk about imaginative literature is to talk about art—artifice and architecture, the liturgical and the linguistic—and Epstein writes about books not through the vista of someone who has lived fully, but rather as someone who has read fully. In other words, he doesn’t make the tyro’s error of confusing art for life, even though he understands that art enhances, enriches, enlarges life. His essays are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres. More important, the torque and pitch of his literary assertions can be muscular introductions to those writers you don’t know well and also a whole new sheen on those writers you do. 

Now Giraldi is not on the same wavelength as I am when it comes to the three divisions of writing on literature.  So there is a blur of distinction when he refers to Epstein as a “reviewer.”  But there are a couple of hints in the paragraph that suggest Epstein is more than a reviewer as I defined it.  Epstein doesn’t make the “error of confusing art for life.”  That’s a focus on the aesthetics and the subjective reaction to the work.  Also, Epstein’s essays “are troves of literary reference and allusion, maps between centuries, countries, genres.”  That’s an analysis of a work within the context of cultural history.  The essay is an interesting read, if you want to read its entirety.   

So what is it I do with my writing on literature?  Well, I don’t have a research library on hand and there is very little incentive for me to read three books of literary criticism for every work of fiction I wish to write on.  So I don’t do literary criticism.  Actually I have never seen literary criticism on the internet.  Perhaps one day I might post my Master’s Thesis.  It would have to be in five or six installments because of its length. 

I don’t do reviews well because I have been drilled to strive for a pursuit of objectivity, both from my graduate school papers and, perhaps, inherently because I am an engineer by profession.  I’m not claiming that all graduate school papers are objective, and I can assure you not all engineers are objective in their work.  But if you want to be good at both I’ve learned you need to strive for it.   

That is not to say that reviewers of books are in any way lesser.  If anything they might be greater.  Certainly people want an educated person’s opinion of a novel.  People who can project why they enjoyed a work do not produce the “stodgy, old intellectual blogs” such as this.  What I do is hopefully show the literary aesthetics of a work, highlight the creative sections, and link the aesthetics to what makes the work important. 


  1. Manny, I 'll admit that sometimes you lose me, especially when the engineer in you is doing the talking. lol. But I appreciate your take on things, and many times have read a book because you brought it to my attention,
    Btw, have you ever read Flannery O'Connor?

    1. I love Flannery O'Connor. She's probably the best short story writer of the last fifty years. I haven't read one of her stories recently. Would you like me to read one and give my thoughts on it? I've been trying to decide which stories to read next. Pick a story. I have her complete collection.

    2. Huh, I left a comment this morning and it isn't here. Oh well. What I MEANT to say is that I have one big volume called The Complete Stories. And I liked them all, but especially Greenleaf. Did she only write short stories?

    3. Hmm, your morning comment is not in my spam. Yes, that's what I have The Complete Stories. I have a vague memory of reading Greanleaf, or at least noticing it. I'll read it and post something on it. She also wrote two novels: Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away. I have not read either. Her letters are also supposed to be good.

  2. Whether what you write is a review or not I know that I have learnt a lot from visiting this Blog. And I still think you should collect a number of your posts together and publish them as a book or an E Book. (Write to me if you need advice on this).

    Hmmm ... I wonder what you'd write if you were reviewing my books?

    God bless.

    1. One day I will Victor. And i will ask you for help. As to your book, I have it on my Kindle. I'll read it for either Christmas or Lent, depending on my schedule, and write something up on it. OK?

  3. ((( So I don’t do literary criticism. Actually I have never seen literary criticism on the internet. Perhaps one day I might post my Master’s Thesis. It would have to be in five or six installments because of its length. I don’t do reviews well because I have been drilled to strive for a pursuit of objectivity, both from my graduate school papers and, perhaps, inherently because I am an engineer by profession. I’m not claiming that all graduate school papers are objective, and I can assure you not all engineers are objective in their work. But if you want to be good at both I’ve learned you need to strive for it. That is not to say that reviewers of books are in any way lesser. If anything they might be greater. Certainly people want an educated person’s opinion of a novel. )))

    I couldn't have said "IT" better Manny and believe it or not, with my Canadian grade ten diploma and with only one or two books under my belt, I had planned to dissect this post of yours but after I took a look at the lengthy material that I had accumulated, I simply said to myself, self, this is not your blog and if you try to touch the surface of what you've written here, people will think that you're trying to high Man he, "I" mean high jack his blog and that's only if people don't start thinking that you've literally gone crazy already? :)

    Who's Laughing? Manny don't tell any body's spiritual, reality cells but because I had problems sleeping in the twentieth century and long story short, society had no choice but to check me out on four occasions in a mental hospital but this all stopped after "I" literally cried to GOD (Good Old Dad) around 1991 and longer story short, His Angels lifted me UP and told my heart to keep "IT" quiet until ........

    Manny, Manny, Manny! Why can't we just keep hiding? I guess God's Angels knew what they were doing when they placed my ego in an occupational high school course so that I would slow down and forget about the angel gods who have now taken over our Canada while angels like Canadian "Q" are on the Go and Gayly Meshing around with their Pride angel gods. By the way, these alien godly angels think that there's nothing wrong that we Canadian human animals are footing the bill just like the days of old. Manny, "IT" has gotten so bad that even The Anchoress doesn't know how to help Victor, "I" mean US (usual sinners), no, no, us gods have warned her godly angel cells, "I" mean her right hand must keep what her left Irish hand cells in check ..... and..................................................................and................................................and.................................


    I hear YA Manny! Victor #2, I 'll admit that sometimes you lose me. LOL

    Go Figure bro?

    By the way here below is another Engineer who use to be an Atheist but for more than about twelve years he's been a good Catholic like you and for what "IT" is worth, I would trust him to review any of my future books. :)


    I'll close by asking you to give my best to The Anchoress and thank her for her patience with little old me...


    God Bless
    and thank you for your continued prayers

  4. Forgive me Manny! I've finally taken a look at what I've written while away from our modest cottage during these last few days and long story short, I must say that I'm really lucky to have met such good well intentioned Christians friends as yourself who are so quick to forgive.

    As for Jeff Miller well, I guess he forgave me probably while I had my first blog and/or sometime while he was an Atheist... LOL :)


    God Bless

    1. Victor, Victor, sinner Victor...lol. Just be yourself, I wouldn't want you any other way. Actually I had been wondering where you had gone to. I have visited Jeff Miller's on occasion. There are so many good blogs I don't have time for them all. Thanks for stopping back. I've missed you. :)