Cynthia Ozick’s ‘Critics, Monsters, Fanatics’ is Brilliant, Maddening

Can Ozick's beloved monsters and fanatics revive literary culture? Does it need to be revived?

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Of the three literary types listed in the title of Cynthia Ozick’s Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the author hews closest to the “fanatic,” or at least that’s what she told Giles Harvey in a New York Times Magazine profile last week. For longtime readers of Ozick, this won’t be a surprise: one of the more prodigious prose artists of her generation, she writes her criticism (if not her fiction) at a fever pitch; as with her literary step-brother, Harold Bloom — here reviewed with sibling adoration and rivalry as a “monster” — even her pronouncements of mediocrity are preloaded with an oratorical zeal. This is to say that you won’t find a section in this book on “normies,” but you will find one on “souls.”

And you’ll find, in part, another ’80s and ’90s-style lament on the evaporation of literary culture — especially literary criticism. The book opens with “Critics” and a frontispiece on George Orwell and Edmund Wilson; the latter, she reminds us, helped convey the tradition of literary lament. “In a sense, it can probably be said that no such creature exists as the full-time literary critic,” Wilson wrote in The Shores of Light, “a writer who is at once first-rate and nothing but a literary critic.” Ozick, upset again about our literary solipsism, admits that Wilson’s complaint was unjustified in one sense: “Wilson, of course, was that creature” — the first-rate literary critic. Still, if I agree with Ozick that more people should read Wilson, and if Wilson is right that one critic doesn’t make a literary culture, it still stands to reason that you can’t propagate such a culture by telling readers that it doesn’t exist. “Without the critics, incoherence,” Ozick concludes. Sure, but critics can be incoherent, too.

The book builds steam by gently deriding Jonathan Franzen, whose essays Ozick variously describes as “pumped up by anecdote” and “businesslike,” and Ben Marcus, who gets off easier. Their famous tiff over accessibility (Franzen’s side) and experimentation (Marcus), Ozick points out, was “a fight rather than an argument,” since both agreed that the “readers are going away.” Ozick (bafflingly) concedes the same, but she doesn’t believe the readers’ exit is a matter of novelistic form:

Novels, however they may manifest themselves, will never be lacking. What is missing is a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how they are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era.

I agree with Ozick that we need better literary essays and less bookchat, but I’m not sure her menagerie of cosmopolitan familiars — Trilling, Bellow, Amis (all featured here) — will draw TV bingers back to contemporary literature. Better contemporary criticism — of the kind that sometimes appears here, of the sort she recommends and then forgets — would probably help.

Unfortunately, the collection is more lumpy than uneven. Ozick is plainly at her best when she drops the meta-commentary for what she’s after anyway: the “connectedness” of literary discussion. Along these lines, some of these pieces are among the best I’ve read on their subjects, which is saying quite a bit when you realize they cover Kafka’s biography, William Gass’ Middle C, and American Hebraism. And nowhere is Ozick better than on the subject of writerly identification. In an historical moment when readers have become obsessed with “finding themselves” in whatever writer, Ozick offers a sane rebuttal. There is no guarantee that a writer is what she appears to be:

For instance: this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When illicitly spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralyzed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence. And that apologetically obsequious, self-effacing, breathlessly diffident and deprecatory creature turns out, when in the trance-like grip of nocturnal ardor, to be a fiery furnace of unopposable authority and galloping certainty. Writers are what they genuinely are only when they are at work in the silent and instinctual cell of ghostly solitude, and never when they are out industriously chatting on the terrace.

Elsewhere, though, Ozick sticks to the through line of American criticism. “History commands communal representation — nations, movements, the reigning Zeitgeist,” she writes, “Fiction champions the individuated figure.” Is this true, or is it the expression of a pernicious and longstanding individualism that guides American criticism? It’s no secret that the critics Ozick privileges — Bloom, for example, and James Wood — are zealous individualists. And more often than not, it’s the zealous who see themselves and others as unruly egos, as monsters and fanatics. I doubt you can make a literary culture out of those.