I like to think of the critic’s profession as a community of readers, helping each other read more proficiently.
Interview with EARL INGERSOLL
LIDIA VIANU: You are a reputed and experienced critic of contemporary literature. You have tackled in your books the American poets of the eighties, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Lawrence Durrell, but also DH Lawrence and Joyce. You are Professor Emeritu at SUNY Brockport. You have published interviews with the writers above. Do you feel that an interview means today more than a book of criticism to readers? Because no other age indulged in interviews as we have been doing for the last few decades... Or is it just a reflection of the need to capture the attention of mass-media, and therefore not literature at all?
EARL INGERSOLL Interviews with authors have a wide and varying audience of readers who are attracted to conversations with writers for a variety of reasons. I think of “interviews” in the context of journalism where an interviewer swoops down on an author with an agenda of questions that the author-interviewee is expected to answer, rather like short, impromptu essays which fill in the blanks. In the literary “conversation” the questioner may have several questions in mind but prefers a more flexible structure for the interchange with the author, allowing the conversation to take its own course. In the literary conversation the questioner usually is an academic, familiar with the author’s work as a teacher and scholar, while interviewers sometimes preface their questioning with a comment such as I’ve never read any of your work, but I’d like to ask you a few questions about . . .
In some cases readers of
interviews are curious about what kind of person wrote a book such as
They may be looking for hints as to what the author intended in writing
the book, what it means, how the writer goes about writing a novel or a poem,
etc. Scholars often find interviews useful in writing about an author’s work. If
I am writing about Ian McEwan’s novel On
Chesil Beach and I’m struck by the names
LIDIA VIANU: Is our love of interviews (which I am guilty of as anyone else) proof that we are prolonging the book we read into its author’s life, in an attempt to build our own story, whose hero the author is? Proof that we are trying to subvert his authority and confiscate both his life and work in order to satisfy our desire to be creators?
EARL INGERSOLL: I think many of us want to be connected to authors, who often seem to be standing in the wings, off-stage, where we have a strong sense of their presence, but they remain in the shadows. The irony is that as many authors have reminded us the author who writes the book is not the “author” who answers interview questions. I don’t think the author who writes a second novel, say, is the same author who wrote the first, even though the same name is on the spines of both novels.
LIDIA VIANU: We have come to a point in literary criticism where – since cutural studies no longer monopolize the market (thank God for that) – we feel like going back to the solid analysis of how a story is made, how a poem was written, and to what purpose. In short, as I sense (I may be wrong, of course), we are going back to the text after a trip into biography, philosophy, linguistics, history, which turned critcism into a discourse that had nothing to say about the work it claimed to focus on. Was it a good idea to yield to cultural studies? Have they helped literary critcism?
EARL INGERSOLL: I have been generally opposed to cultural studies, which seems to say a text is a text is a text without any concern for the value of the text, and in the process encouraged the production of writing on writing that is essentially journalism directed often to the investigation of nonentities. I abhor the misguided egalitarianism that considers the assessment of value in a piece of writing a symptom of “elitism.” Most days I envy art historians because they have managed to escape the leveling down of works of art, primarily because art objects have monetary value, i.e., the value established by a purchase price. People in the art world don’t say that someone’s doodling is as worthy of attention as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” mainly because no one is willing to pay 100, 000, 000 euros for a doodle.
LIDIA VIANU: What name would you give to the kind of literary criticism you teach and practise?
EARL INGERSOLL: You know, I’ve practiced some psychoanalytic criticism, à la Lacan, or the vein of criticism I admired in the writing of Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson, and Jane Gallop, but not “Freudian”, you know, the kind of reading that finds the phallus everywhere. But as a boy I was taught by New Critics and I am still enamored of the notion that it is the text itself, in and of itself, that matters. I realize that many considered that approach “elitist” from their righteous and self-congratulating egalitarianism, but I am too old to have to pretend respect for the smugness of academics politics—you know, “we are correct politically, and we will bury you.”
LIDIA VIANU: Do your students prefer the new critical fashions of turning the text into a side-discourse (I mean Postcolonialism, Identity, and so on) to thematic critcism, for instance? Is the communism of cultural studies still strong in your university?
EARL INGERSOLL: I like to think students still come to a literature class to learn to read more effectively. I think young academics invest in the newest critical approach in part because it’s going to get them hired, published, tenured, and promoted. I recall that during an MLA interview for a position in our department a member of the search committee asked the applicant about a course she was teaching in the “Harlequin Romance,” sometimes called “bodice-rippers” in my country, specifically, how students reacted to a whole semester of novels, supposedly written for and read by “desperate housewives.” The applicant replied: “Well, eventually they ask, ‘When are we going to read some literature?’”
LIDIA VIANU: What do you think of such terms as ‘hystoriographic metafiction’, repeated and refurbishd by successive critics, who treat the words as if they were sacred cult objects? There are academics who still examine their students’ knowledge about the story of a term: who created it and when, who changed it partially and when?
EARL INGERSOLL: I think that some of the jargon of the discipline has the same origins as the lingo of physicians, or the slang of adolescents: it offers the security blanket of “our little group knows a language that excludes those who don’t know it.”
LIDIA VIANU: Is literary criticism, in your opinion, a precise way of measuring literary quality (which is the assumption cultural studies often start with) or creation – and in the latter case, is it all right to be a bit imprecise, allusive and to write appealing (not just dry) texts? Is the literary (ambiguous, inevitably) load of a word important in criticism? Is the critic supposed to be a creator himself, or a measurer of effects?
EARL INGERSOLL: This is a bundle of questions. First, I doubt that literary criticism can be all that “precise.” We may enjoy deluding ourselves into believing we are being “precise,” but honest critics don’t pretend. I am just as well pleased to have a literary criticism admit subjectivity; otherwise, I find myself reading someone’s self-delusion. In a literary critic I look for someone who offers a reading of the text, and when I write I feel as though I am repaying some of those over the years who have helped me to read texts a little more effectively.
LIDIA VIANU: Do you feel any change in the quality of the literary text as a result of the recent fascinating virtual adventure? Has the internet affected the way writers write and we read? The way we look at a book on paper?
EARL INGERSOLL: Yes, I am aware of how digital texts have the potential to change the way writers write and readers read. At the same time, I still see people in bookstores buying books. People try out things such as Amazon’s Kindle, and then go back to reading books in their more “primitive” form.
LIDIA VIANU: I still experience a religious feeling I had as a child, when I held a bound book in my hands with the certainty that it was an object of art, smelling of paper, minute care and a million ideas on every page. They were just letters, no illustrations, no ‘readers’ digest’, no guide – it was just me and the author. A perfectly intimate literary affair. What do you think those who read in the computer or on printed paper feel these days?
EARL INGERSOLL: I too have had intimacy with authors through reading. I am conservative enough to believe that that is still the reading experience, and I don’t think it’s going to be completely eradicated by the impulse toward the “new,” the “advanced,” etc. Every once in a while I encounter a writer or a book that I like to say “reminds me why I became an English major.” Most recently, the writer and the book have been Colum McCann and his newest novel, Let the Great World Spin. I find I have a deep psychological, maybe even spiritual need for literature that confirms my faith in the simple notion that experience means something.
LIDIA VIANU: Since literature gives signs of losing its audience, how come literary theory and all those branches of rigid literary criticism still appeal to some? Have critics lost touch with reality? Can criticism be suicidal to such an extent?
EARL INGERSOLL: I think what’s wrong with academia, in my country, and maybe in others, is that some academics are less lovers of literature and more political ideologues, bent on foisting their views on their students. Or their readers, if they are writing essays for scholarly journals. I was asked by a good journal to referee a submission castigating Ian McEwan for writing a novel – Saturday – whose viewpoint character is a surgeon who is so preoccupied with his work that he has no time to pay attention to issues of diverse cultures and ethnicities in contemporary London where he practices. I felt a bit of an old curmudgeon saying that having recently undergone surgery I didn’t much care about my surgeon’s social and political views, but I was impressed that when he released me from the hospital on a Saturday he encouraged me to call him that day or Sunday if I experienced any problems with what might have been a premature release. I get annoyed by academics who seem blissfully unaware of the egotism in their self-righteous sense of what is “correct.”
LIDIA VIANU: I am aware that most literary criticism today is either academic (scientific and so on), or review-oriented. I am afraid that the literary critic, who was the writer’s and also the readers’ partner in the process of reading, has turned into an advertiser: either of the author (reviews on sites and papers, blurbs, etc) or of himself. What future do you see for the critical impulse, which, as Eliot once said, is ‘as inevitable as breathing’?
EARL INGERSOLL: I fear that literature, and culture generally, is a business, and that upsets our traditional notion of the artist starving in the garret for his or her art. On the other hand, literature probably always was a business; you know, writers having to please a patron or patroness and his/her circle of associates. Even Shakespeare could be swayed by the “Tudor myth” of strong monarchs as the Tudors wanted to see themselves, and didn’t he write Macbeth in part to please James I ? Clearly the critical impulse has a future because we want to know what the “experts” think. If I see a new film and like or don’t like it, I might well Google the movie reviews and see what films critics thought of it.
LIDIA VIANU: If you were to start all over again, would you choose to be a critic and an academic teaching literature?
EARL INGERSOLL: You bet I would! I miss the opportunities to talk about books I have read with students who are sometimes much more perceptive than we give them credit for being. Like most retired academics, I do not miss the stacks of papers to evaluate and the effort to grade fairly and the meetings that last 90 minutes only because they were scheduled to last that long.
Criticism I still do, even though it brings me no merit raises or promotions anymore. Still, it has its rewards, such as the occasional e-mail from a stranger saying, I wanted to let you know how useful I found your essay on X, Y, or Z. I like to think of the profession as a community of readers, helping each other read more proficiently.
March 16, 2010