This is the first in a new series of interviews about the art of criticism. More to follow soon.
Adam Kirsch is one of America’s most distinguished literary critics. Still only 37, over the past decade he has written extensively for the New Republic, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He is the author of two collections of poetry, a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, and, most recently, Why Trilling Matters (Yale University Press).
For Prospect he has written on a wide variety of subjects, including 9/11, fairy tales, Nietzsche’s influence on American thought and, in the latest issue, a new generation of African writers who are helping to reinvent the modern immigration novel. I spoke to Kirsch earlier in the month about his work, influences and the future of literary criticism.
When you were growing up did you read much criticism?
It’s definitely something that was in the air in my house because my father is, and my grandfather was, a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. I think my own desire to do it started when I began reading TS Eliot’s essays as an English major at Harvard in the mid-90s. That was the first time I encountered criticism as literature. From there I was led to read Matthew Arnold and Samuel Johnson and the tradition of criticism.
What was it that struck you reading Eliot’s essays for the first time?
I suppose it was the idea of the intellectual drama of criticism, the idea that you’re responding to texts not just in terms of personal taste but in terms of what they say about the history of ideas, about society, about how literary ideas connect to political and ethical ideas. Those things made Elliot’s essays exciting to me, even though my personal tastes and politics are different from his.
After college you started working at the New Republic. How did that come about?
I started as a summer intern and the person who was then the assistant literary editor was leaving at the end of the summer. I was asked if I wanted to stay. At the time I had a scholarship to go to Cambridge but I decided that after doing a masters degree, this would be the kind of job I would want to get. So I figured I would just stay and take it. As a result, I’ve never gone to graduate school or done any graduate work.
I had always thought that the kind of writing I wanted to do was more journalistic than academic. I was more interested in writing for a general audience and I’d always had an instinctive allergy to the more theoretical kinds of criticism. I never read Derrida at a time when a lot of people in the English department were reading Derrida.
How would you explain that allergy to more theoretical writing about literature? Do you feel the same way about all of the writers broadly associated with literary theory?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more time reading theory, but even now it doesn’t strike me as a very interesting way to approach literature. Theory sometimes seems to me a way of taking revenge on literature—the critic masters the text and rewrites it in his own image, instead of submitting to it and listening to what it has to say. The aggressive ungainliness of so much academic writing about literature is a sign of this—it is unliterary writing about literature, which should be a contradiction in terms.
What were the first things that struck you working at the New Republic?
It was a great place to be, and to learn from [the literary editor] Leon Wieseltier, and also James Wood, who was there at the time. Between the two of them I got to see what the real lives of intellectuals and critics are like. I was exposed to a lot of things I didn’t know about—philosophy, history, politics, all the things that the magazine covers. Getting to know them through some of the authorities in these fields that we would have writing for the magazine made them seem more accessible to me, made them seem like things I could write about and contribute to.
Were you writing at the same time?
I was. For the first couple of years I was writing more or less exclusively about poetry. At the same time I was writing my own poetry and being a poet was what I wanted to do first and essentially. For me, maybe because of the example of people like Eliot and Arnold, the idea of being a poet-critic was something that felt natural to me.
How do you look back on your early essays and reviews now?
I think that one goes through phases as a writer. Young critics are often more negative, more confrontational. I think that was certainly true of me. You think that there’s a sort of rot in the world and you have to get rid of it, attack it. As you get older you realise that criticism doesn’t really change things, time is what changes things; time sorts out the good from the bad.
You don’t often write very negative reviews these days but it seems to me those that you have written—such as of House of Exile by Evelyn Juers or The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh—share a theme. In a number of these cases you seem frustrated that the writer is condescending to history or judging figures of the past anachronistically. Do you think that’s a fair observation?
I can see what you mean about those reviews. I think that one thing literature can do is make you aware that the past is just as real as the present was to the people who were living it. You have to try to understand it, rather than merely making it serve purposes for the present. There has to be certain humility before the past. I particularly remember that with House of Exile, which is ostensibly a biography of Thomas Mann’s brother Heinrich, the author was simply scolding Thomas Mann—asserting that he wasn’t up to scratch, that he wasn’t nice enough. I think that with a writer like that—and Mann is one I particularly love—you have to approach with a sense of humility and willingness to be instructed rather than to just pass judgement.
Last year there was a lot of debate among critics like Laura Miller and Daniel Mendelsohn about whether literary critics should refrain from writing very negative reviews, especially given the notion that literary culture is “under threat.” That is, the idea that in the 21st century we should supposedly all band together to defend literature by drawing attention to good books, rather than slamming the bad ones. Where do you stand on this issue?
I think it is a problem if you pick out a book that isn’t particularly good from the 90 per cent of books that aren’t particularly good and then just devote the review to saying that it’s not good. It may be true but it does seem a little unfair to the person you’re reviewing, as one could say that most books aren’t very good or memorable. I think that the books that deserve to be attacked are the very influential and highly regarded. So if you have a writer who you feel is exerting a malign influence on the world because so many people admire them then I think it’s worthwhile to say this is no good, people shouldn’t be admiring this.
I felt that way about Slavoj Zizek, that’s one person who I wrote about in a deliberately attacking way because I felt the cult of Zizek was intellectually dangerous. In those situations, I think negativity is quite helpful. We could do with more people who are prepared to pick fights about important issues.
You’ve been rewarded by being quoted on the front cover of his books in the UK!
Yes what’s funny about that is I said in my piece that he was “despicable” and whoever wrote the cover line for that issue of the magazine said “the most dangerous philosopher.” That’s the line they quote. It gives him a certain allure.
You write on a wide range of subjects, but one you return to regularly is Judaism. Was that something that came out of your childhood or was it something you discovered later?
My personal background was not very religious but I did have some Jewish education so I did feel sort of close to it. I think that a lot of Jewish writers don’t like to be called Jewish writers because they don’t want to be limited in their audience or in the subjects they can address. For me, as I’ve got older I feel that it’s more a window onto wider things, that there are many things about modernity and politics and literature which you can approach from a Jewish point of view by looking at them through Jewish experience.
I think the big turning point for me was reading a lot of Walter Benjamin and realising that here was a secular, intellectual literary critic who was drawing very deeply on Jewish ideas and themes and whose take on the world could be explained by the fact of his being a German Jew in a certain time and place. Maybe there’s some continuity in the modern Jewish experience that connects Jewish writers in America and Germany, in Yiddish. All of these people are responding from their various vantage points to the unfolding of the same story, which was the story of Jewish emancipation and assimilation.
Is there a common thread or attitude in their writing that identifies them as part of this tradition?
I think it takes different forms in different times and places. But maybe the connection is that Jews are continually negotiating their place in non-Jewish cultures, even in the present. That gives you a perspective that is both inside and outside. So to read TS Eliot as a Jew is to come to terms with all of the unpleasant things he thought about Jews, not just him personally, but all of the traditional discourse he drew on. You have to negotiate how do I love and admire this writer and at the same time realise he had a desire to keep me out of his world. I think you encounter versions of that question, not always so blatant, in reading a lot of western literature.
Another theme of your work is your interest in intellectual history…
I’ve always been interested in the history of ideas. I’ve learned a lot about that from Lionel Trilling. Trilling often writes about literature as a drama of ideas, particularly in Authenticity and Sincerity, which is a book that had a big impact on me when I first read it.
Do you think criticism today sometimes prizes engagement with form at the expense of paying attention to the ideas behind the individual sentences?
I see what you mean. I think you could say that Trilling doesn’t do well what Wood does—Trilling seldom has anything to say about the details about how a text works. He’s not good at showing the particular aesthetic merits of the text. He’s more interested in what the text reveals about a mindset or about the time in which it was written. So maybe there are poles and different critics are closer to each pole. Both are necessary.
I think the reason that there’s a shortage of criticism in the mould of Trilling is because our culture is much less political that it used to be. If you look at Trilling and the environment he came out of, all those mid-century New York intellectuals had grown up in a Marxist tradition. They continued to define themselves vis-a vis Marxism even if they moved away from it. That meant they were thinking politically about literature from the beginning. Now people don’t tend to think politically about literature. Partly that’s because there’s a widespread loss of confidence that literature has anything to say about the state of society—partly because not enough people read it. It’s treated as a personal interest or hobby rather than an avenue to understanding the larger world.
Would you describe yourself as approaching texts from a political angle?
I’m not particularly political about the things I write about—but I do often have a social and historical and ethical dimension in mind, which you can see more in some writers than in others. For instance, I wrote about Frank Kermode’s book on EM Forster for The New Republic. Kermode thinks of Forster very much in class terms and doesn’t like the way he condescends to Leonard Bast, for instance. That helped me to think of Forster as liberal, what Forster’s particular brand of liberalism means and why he was the kind of liberal he was. That was my interest in Forster, rather than the details of how a particular novel works.
How do you go about writing a long review like the one on Forster?
Usually I try to read as much primary material as I can. I generally don’t read other critics or secondary sources, partially because it would become an endless process and partially because I want to preserve my own reactions and not get channelled into the terms of the existing critical debate if I don’t have to.
You’ve worked with legendary editors like Leon Wieseltier and Robert Silvers at the New York Review. How important are editors when you write your reviews? Have they sent you in directions that you wouldn’t have chosen yourself?
There are two crucial roles that editors play, especially when they are “legendary” ones like the two you mention. First, of course, is actually shaping the review—suggesting directions to expand on, ways to advance the argument. The second, maybe even more important, is by incarnating a publication and its values: Wieseltier and Silvers stand for certain ways of thinking about ideas, politics, and the connection between the two, and they make writers want to live up to those standards and traditions. A great editor is, among other things, a great inspiration.
You’ve written some slim books such as Why Trilling Matters and the Disraeli book. Do you harbour any desire to write a big Mimesis-style tome?
I don’t really. I feel that what I do best is to respond to texts. I also think that I tend to work best in a shorter format. I don’t think I have any grand theoretical statement to make. I prefer what ideas I do have to come out in terms of a response to something else rather than setting them forward as a thesis.
If you were to give three books to someone who is interested in writing criticism, what would they be?
If we’re talking about literary criticism, definitely Eliot’s essays, maybe The Sacred Wood or the Selected Prose that Kermode edited. Probably something by Trilling, maybe The Liberal Imagination, which is a great example of thinking politically about literature and vice versa. One other book I’ve always loved is Edmund Wilson’s Letters on Literature and Politics because it gives a very vivid sense of what it’s like to be a literary journalist, both professionally and intellectually. You see him editing various publications, you see him contributing and dealing with editors; it gives you a romantic picture of the literary life.
Who are the critics you’re most excited to see nowadays?
Definitely James Wood. Daniel Mendelsohn is also someone I read. Ruth Franklin, another person associated with The New Republic, is someone I admire and always read. Cynthia Ozick is someone who is Trilling-esque in a lot of ways, quite consciously so, and has written a number of great essays.
At the start of Why Trilling Matters, you talk about Cynthia Ozick’s 2007 essay about criticism. Her argument is essentially that to have a good literary culture and good novels we need good critics. Do you share that view?
I think that criticism is an important part of literary culture. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with her that criticism used to be in a much healthier state than it is now. I think partly that can be an illusion of looking back at a “golden age” and thinking that things used to be much better. There are plenty of good places to read criticism now, all the publications you would think of coming out with serious long form criticism. Then there are a lot of online publications, where younger writers are setting themselves up as critics and learning to practice criticism.
I don’t think you can say there’s a shortage of supply. Maybe there is a shortage of confidence in the importance of literature generally, which affects both the way people write literature and criticism. But again that is a post-1960s phenomenon so deeply rooted that I don’t think there’s anything that can fruitfully be done about it.
So what is a critic to do in that situation?
I think you write as though literature is important, because it is important to those to whom it’s important. That’s sort of a circular answer but one thing I try to say in the Trilling book is that writers shouldn’t develop an inferiority complex towards the wider culture—television, mass media. Seen in those terms, literature is a very small pursuit. It’s definitely a minority case and it can’t have the kind of influence it once had. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s own kind of importance. It deserves all the attention and work one can give to it; it will be repaid, although perhaps not in the direct influence Ozick was talking about.
Do you think it will be possible to be a professional critic in ten years time?
It’s a good question. I don’t know. The opportunities to do it and get paid for it are shrinking. On the other hand, the opportunities to do it and not get paid for it are probably growing. We will see more criticism, and it will probably be good criticism, but it will have to be done in the intersections of another profession like academia; that seems to be the way for most people who make a living out of it. Making a living as a journalist of any kind is much more difficult that it was even when I was starting 15 years ago. I don’t know if there’s a solution to that problem. It seems like every form of journalism is suffering.
Looking ahead, I wonder if there are new intellectual areas that you would like to explore.
One thing I’m exploring now is traditional Jewish literature. I’m writing a column for Tablet in which I’m reading the Talmud on a weekly basis and writing about what I find there. I’m working on a book project that will be about reading different texts from antiquity to the 20th Century—using the Bible, Josephus, Maimonides, as windows into Jewish history. That’s one area I’m hoping to learn about and go deeper into right now.
More by Adam Kirsch
From Nigeria to New York: A new generation of African writers is embracing the themes of classic 19th-century literature and re-inventing the immigration novel for the 21st century (£)
Neverending stories: The world’s stubborn refusal to grant our wishes lies behind the sudden revival of fairy tales
American superman: Nietzsche has appealed to Americans on the right and left for over a century. They have looked past his dark reputation to remake the German philosopher in their own image
Adventures on the edge of consciousness: In his new book Oliver Sacks reveals how an amphetamine trip led to his lifelong obsession with the strangest experiences of the human mind (£)
In the shadow of the twin towers: American fiction writers are still struggling to put words to the horror of September 11th—and only a few have succeeded