Writing about writing

There’s an old saying that “Those who can’t, teach.” (And fans of School of Rock will remember Jack Black’s character’s immediately juxtaposed corollary: “And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) I don’t think that’s true, or at least not often true, but it is funny and it is thought-provoking. Many, maybe most of us, certainly assume it relates to writing when it comes to the critics.

I get the print version of The Japan Times – and may print versions of newspapers never die – and recently on Sundays they’ve been running a series on historical literary critics in the Time Out: Books section. Now, I am not a Japanese scholar and not a historian and so take the following with a grain of salt, but it seems that fiction in Japan didn’t really get off its feet until the Meiji Period, which was the time that oversaw the restoration of imperial rule and spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Japanese culture had of course produced fictional works prior to that (the thousand year old Tale of Genji being perhaps the most famous example), but such were mostly for court consumption and were often difficult and dense texts that required very high levels of education to access. For the masses there were ghost stories, and there continued to be little else until the aforementioned Meiji Period. Naturally improvements in literacy greatly helped the situation when it came to fictional works becoming more popular, but the issue was really not just one of accessibility but also – possibly more so – one of attitude. Here is where literary criticism seems to have played a definitive role. Fiction had been viewed on these shores mostly negatively, a bit like Stolid Literary Appreciators today might approach a Spider-Man comic. The critics, however, were amongst the social forces able to change that by writing about writing, by taking what has really always been a bit of nothing (flights of fancy and all that) and applying theory to it. What is the value in this?

Fiction, literature, is at its heart an examination of the human condition. Even when done very poorly and schlockily (e.g. anything with the words “Star Wars” in its title) it is a view, an exercise, in what it is and what it means to be human, and this is done from the inside. We enter the characters’ minds and situations and we feel along with them as their circumstances and journeys through life unfold. Along the way we learn something even if they don’t. This is fiction’s great contribution to our species and it is a wondrous, enormous contribution, undoubtedly of far more value than all the academic treatises put together – and I say that as a professional academic and not someone taking pot shots at eggheads. These stories we tell each other and ourselves let us see who, what, and how we are as we struggle along in ever-rotting bodies inhabiting a world that cannot last. They, again, tell us this from an internal perspective.

Literary criticism flips that as it looks in from the outside. It examines not life but the writing about life that is fiction. It applies theory to this writing and by so doing it abstracts what is otherwise a very visceral encounter. What I mean is that it moves the experience of literature out of the gut, out of the heart, and into the head. (And as a sidebar here I note that traditionally in Japanese thinking the stomach was the seat of the emotions, not the heart.) From felt to thought. This process of abstraction is probably as necessary for us in coming to terms with being human as the originary work of fiction is. As the creatures we are we live on the conceptual level, and we look out at our environments from that middle-sized point of view: we are categorizing, ideas-based animals, and we cannot function otherwise. Critics contribute to this great process, this exhausting effort, of self-examination by giving us the means to take a step back from the tales we tell and, from that other side, learn even more about what is really going on here. And so thanks to them, really, and thanks to the writers whose work they dissect. We are indebted to you all.

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