Boston. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016. 211 pages.
This slender but dazzling collection of thirteen essays, some previously published but refurbished, is primarily concerned with fiction and criticism, both of which Cynthia Ozick practices with ease. It is clear that she is not a reviewer but a critic. Reviewers are allocated a certain amount of space, while critics can—or should—be given free rein, addressing not just the work but its relationship to the world in which it gestated and into which it arrived.
Naturally, such critics are rare. Most can synopsize and summarize, but not all can judge, the root meaning of “critic”—one who can adjudicate, producing something akin to literature. Ozick asks as much of critics as Alexander Pope did in “An Essay on Criticism,” who demanded “a knowledge both of books and humankind.” Ozick is very much the kind of critic Pope envisioned. The epigraph is taken from Pope’s essay, and the title was suggested by Pope’s challenge to critics, urging them to attack the excesses of the age: “These monsters, Critics! with your darts engage, / Here point your thunder, and exhaust your rage!”
Two such critics who can satisfy Ozick’s criteria are the polymath Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who based his criticism on moral as well as aesthetic grounds. To Ozick, the ability to wield language creatively, even in letter writing, is paramount. She praises Saul Bellow’s letters both for their expression and insights. The prose may not be as inventive as that of the novels, but the letters are a worthy ancilla.
Ozick has never considered the Holocaust a horror of the past but an ever-present reminder of hearts so hardened and “so inhumanly wicked, that only God can fathom them.” Ozick does not claim to fathom the darkness of the heart, only to expose it in the profoundly disturbing “Love and Levity at Auschwitz: Martin Amis,” a reflection on Amis’s novel The Zone of Interest. As Matthew Arnold might have said, Ozick saw literature steadily and saw it whole. . . . Pope would have welcomed her into the pantheon.
Bernard F. Dick
Fairleigh Dickinson University
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One’s faith in Ozick’s “large project” depends mainly on how willing one is to join her in grandly ignoring the exigencies of the marketplace. The literary novel may be an independent art, but long-form, highbrow criticism is surely rather less so: The amount of such writing that is being published at any given time relates less to necessity and will than to the number of readers prepared to pay for it (or to the number of patrons willing to subsidize it). And much as we might wish it were otherwise, it’s safe to say that the current supply of superior criticism is more or less commensurate with public demand.
More troubling than Ozick’s indifference to these bothersome facts is the aggressive snootiness of her tone. Few are likely to disagree with her about the qualitative difference between an essay by James Wood and a newspaper review. Many might even share her nostalgia for the heady days when Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe bestrode the cultural landscape. But there is something unseemly and excessive about the energy she expends on delineating what she finds vulgar and unsatisfactory in the current literary scene.
Publishers, she tells us, are mostly commerce-minded dullards who favor treacly nonsense over “the real right thing.” Online reviews are “mostly random and trivial and shrunk to fit the hither-and-yon notice of cafeteria-style readers.” (Are “cafeteria-style readers” people who read in cafeterias? Or people who graze literary offerings as if they were snacks? No matter, we get the drift.) Even the “unlettered exhibitionists” who post reviews on Amazon and the innocent “amateurs” who attend book clubs to kibitz about “best sellers” do not escape Ozick’s furious condescension. As far as I know, no one has ever proposed that book clubs or BuzzFeed fill the vacuum left by Partisan Review. Why break these butterflies upon her wheel?
Ozick has always been a great guardian of distinctions — between the major and the minor, the high and the low. Her fear is that our ability to make such distinctions is rapidly eroding, that we are in danger of forgetting why Henry James is better than comic books, or why Austen’s novels do not belong in the same realm as chick lit. She is a subtle reader and persuasive champion of the aristocrats of her cultural hierarchy. The essays in this collection that discuss the work of Bellow, Kafka, Trilling, Malamud, are all shrewd and engrossing and eminently capable of seducing the reader’s agreement. (Her attack on the twin fallacies of the “Kafkaesque” and of Kafka’s “transcendence” of his Jewishness should be required reading for all literature students.)
But her zealous efforts to put lesser talents and lower forms in their place are rarely so edifying. Rather like the watchful snobbery of Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice,” her relentless policing of the literary ranking system tends only to point up the insecurity of the class order it seeks to defend. One of the distinctions she guards most anxiously is between the eremitic dedication of the true writer (for whom art is a great and necessarily lonely vocation) and the worldliness of the fake writer (who yearns for success, audiences, fame). She alludes to this distinction in her essay on criticism, when she chastises Jonathan Franzen for having admitted, 20 years ago, in his pre-“Corrections” days, that he wanted to “escape from the confinements of a small readership.” (The rebuke to this base ambition is to quote Lionel Trilling’s injunction that a writer must “direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie.”) She returns to it again in an essay about the necessary “invisibility” of the novelist. A proper writer, she explains, seeks not “clamorous Fame” but the “simpler, quieter and more enduring” reward of recognition.
In truth, the line that separates the desire for recognition and the less noble sorts of aspiration is often blurry — as Ozick herself is prepared, in her less censorious moments, to admit. She has written feelingly in the past about the anguish, the pangs of professional envy that are wont to beset an obscure writer. As someone who did not publish her first novel until she was in her late 30s, she knows something about these darker, less respectable aspects of writerly ambition. And yet that knowledge tends to produce not sympathy or fellow feeling for those similarly corrupted, but an exaggerated contempt. These days, like Franzen, she enjoys enormous success: a long backlist, critical respect, many awards. Given this, you’d think she could afford to be a little more generous.Continue reading the main story