Silos and Bones

This piece in Ploughshares got me thinking about the use of critical lenses to engage with literature. Or, I should say, it was the latest piece asking the question of separating art from artist (though obliquely) that had me considering the point where a tool becomes an ideology.

As I wrote to a friend earlier, when discussing this essay, it seems to me that one of the unintended consequences of the changes to literary criticism over the past half-century has been fragmentation of the critical viewpoint.

This is a good change, in that it allows the emergence of perspectives rooted in diverse experiences, which had been sorely lacking and treated as tokens for most of America's literary history.

It's also bad, in that it has created or enabled this weird false dichotomy based on experience. Which is to say, there's no reason Abbey shouldn't have written from his experience to truly capture what it was he was after in the desert. After all, it's his story and his view based on his experience. I don't believe that invalidates or supersedes the experience of others. Yes, this is where it gets tricky, in that others at that time — particularly others who were not white men — did not have the same access to publishers and outlets for their writing.

And this is why his writing should absolutely be considered through various critical lenses, including feminism.

Unfortunately, what often happens is that critical perspectives become ideological silos, rather than a set of lenses that can be swapped out as needed to view work from different vantage points. From where I sit, it's not only possible to love Abbey despite his peccadilloes, but it's important to build on and write past them. Abbey owns his experience of the desert, but it isn't the final word by any means.

I find the streak of absolutism that has arisen in the wake of these ideological ossifications to be discomfiting — multiple perspectives and views of the desert (or anything else) can coexist. I'd argue they must coexist, actually, and that we find truth in the tensions between them. It's our duty as readers to locate these perspectives, to enter the tension. Of course, we don't seem to be in a cultural moment where such a thing is in common practice.

So how do you read beyond the peccadilloes? No author is ever exempt from critical evaluation, and no author will ever be perfect. The best of them engage in regular self evaluation, and you can see them evolve through the years. The worst of them are Ayn Rand. But even Ayn Rand is worthwhile in terms of the overall conversation that literature is supposed to be. (I don't want to reread her dreadful "novels", but dismissing the ideas that have managed to endure simply because we disagree with them makes it difficult to counter them thoughtfully. And we all know how that's working in our political sphere.)

We have seemingly few critics or professors who read and comment broadly and outside of their chosen ideological viewpoint any longer. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is that it's difficult to change directions mid-stream when you're part of a faculty or hold a position at an ideologically-driven magazine or journal. There are even some professors who have made names for themselves in the public sphere (such as it exists for these folks) by criticizing anything outside of their chosen ideology.

Ultimately, we the readers need to figure out what works for us, what we're willing to endure in our search for truth. And it's not going to be the same for all of us. Nor should it be. This silo approach, the demand for fealty to an ideological position, the need for perfection — it's stifling. It expects perfection, which will never occur in a human endeavor, and writing is a very human endeavor.