The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
The full title of this chapter is The Short Story and the New Criticism. In this section Hills provides a historical basis for many of the artistic freedoms authors enjoy today, as well as an explanation of why the short story as a literary form is uniquely positioned to take maximum advantage of those freedoms.
By separating questions of intent and effect from the question of merit, the New Criticism introduced:
….an aesthetic that considered a work of literary art as more or less an independent object, and denied the relevance of its effectiveness as either an expression of the author or as a communication to the reader.
The core argument in support of this perspective is compelling. If a work of art can only be understood by considering its historical context, or the mindset and intent of the author, or the effect on people who experience the work, then what is the value of the work itself? In a literary context this question is a bit difficult to grapple with because artists and critics use the same medium: language. It is easier to see the point in the visual arts, and particularly in abstract works. If a free-form sculpture means nothing without context, how can any work of art actually be a work of art? If an abstract painting requires historical relevance or biographical importance in order to be understood as a painting, then who is the author of that work — the artist that creates it or the critic who provides that context?
To insist that art is context may seem almost absurd today, but that was the dominant critical view at one time across a variety of schools, and it still remains a popular way of responding to art. By treating art as object the New Criticism put the question of merit squarely on the work itself, denying even the role of the artist. At first blush this might sound equally absurd, but note: it’s not credit being denied but the relevance of context. New Criticism simply asserts that each work stands on its own apart from who the author is, and I don’t think that’s a particularly radical notion even among the general public. Whatever criteria you use to judge any artist, you probably perceive qualitative differences in their individual works regardless of your feelings for that artist, even if you make no claim to critical objectivity. In focusing on art as object New Criticism takes this idea to its logical conclusion by denying the influence of everything from commercial and popular success to an author’s persona or biography. What’s good is good because of qualities inherent in the work.
I tend to favor this perspective myself, as evidenced by a post I wrote several years ago:
After far too many years listening to people talk about Hemingway’s persona when they thought they were talking about Hemingway’s writing I draw a sharp distinction between an author and their work, and I tend to dislike criticism (academic or otherwise) which seeks to explore and explain a given work by digging into an author’s past or (apparent) psychological make-up. Having writers on the record may help mitigate this sort of sanctioned speculation, and I think that would be a good thing. As long as everyone remembers that authors are no more likely to speak absolute truth — particularly about themselves — than is anyone else.
Were Ditchwalk a blog about criticism I’d happily go bounding down the New Criticism road, but it’s not. It’s a blog about storytelling, and as such I’m infinitely more interested in authorial best-practices than I am in how any audience comes to terms with my stories. As a matter of opinion I think you should give some thought to approaching authorship that same way. I’m not naive enough to believe that authors don’t think about target markets, including critics they hope to impress, but whether you aspire to commercial or critical acclaim (or both), I think it’s important to keep the author-critic relationship in perspective. Ideally, every author should aspire to be their own best critic because all other critics are useless during the act of creation. While downstream critics may impart insights that can be used in later works, the greatest critics in the world can only aspire to art, and that unalterable fact is as damning as any extended diatribe I might unleash.
As an author, what you should want to know is not how to make other people happy, but how to get the best work you can out of yourself. Rust Hills’ opinion, shared by me, is that craft is the best way to accomplish that goal. But that goal is in service of something, and in reading this section it’s very easy to be swept along by Hills’ logic when you may not share his intent. In fact, here’s the sentence that leads me astray every time:
The New Criticism in its purest form aggressively considered art as object, and certain advantages and implications devolve from this.
The question for me, as an author, is whether I aggressively consider the stories I write to be art. Not whether they are or might be art after the fact, but whether I intend them to be art; whether art is an objective (or the objective) of my literary efforts. (Not only is this not the case for most authors, even among those authors who do aspire to art there is often no clear understanding of how that goal might be achieved — hence Hills’ insistent nods toward craft.)
As noted in an earlier post I don’t aspire to art. I hope there is some artistic merit to my work — I’m not aspiring to be bad — but I am consciously apathetic to the specific concerns of critics who bestow such honors. While every writer is free to make their own choices, I do believe it’s important that those choices be made consciously. I don’t ignore art as an objective because I”m against art or because I think critics are stuck up, I ignore it because I can’t isolate it and define it as reliable truth. I can do that with craft.
Perhaps the worst thing you can do as an author is to be wishy-washy about any commitment you make to your work. If you’re going to aspire to something then go for it, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to learn what works and what doesn’t. You can change your point of focus as often as you want — and perhaps should when you’re first learning to write — but even if you tell no one else that intent should be clear in your own mind.
Rust Hills is concerned with literature as art. I’m concerned with storytelling as communication. These perspectives aren’t mutually exclusive, however, because excellence in both is facilitated by the same techniques and methods. Whether you’re writing for art or reader interest, bad craft is bad craft.
In making the case for art as object, Hills explicitly recognizes that validity of story as communication:
To consider the effect on the appreciator of the object as being the relevant question is to consider the story as a communication, which it is certainly possible to do. The only trouble is, this eventually leads to a vote-taking kind of aesthetic, bringing up questions like: how many people liked the story how much, and how qualified were they as readers, and so on. It all leads away from the story.
It’s a fair point. Literature is not a democracy, and turning the question of literary merit over to the masses is probably not the best way to divine art. But there’s a problem. Even if you decide to directly assess the merits of a work yourself as opposed to polling a crowd, somebody — or some collective body — is going to have to draw up the rules by which you make that assessment. Which means there’s no getting away from the fact that some group of readers, however qualified they might be, will always be casting votes.
While I sympathize with the motives of the New Criticism, and I think in practice it’s possible to demonstrate quality by pointing to many of the same things Hills points to in his book, the fact remains that every critical school makes choices about what does and doesn’t matter. In the end there’s no objective truth to any claim of literary merit because there’s no objective way to measure literary merit.
Whatever you write will be read by others. Depending on the criteria those readers use to judge your fiction that’s how your work will be perceived. Your yourself may belong to a particular literary movement, but if your readers belong to a critical school that disputes that movement your work will be read differently, perhaps even with hostility. Whether you buy into a literary movement and write to that target, or buy into some other objective of storytelling and write to that target, in the end you will suffer the same vote-taking fate.
Fortunately, for most writers, and particularly beginning writers, all of this is beside the point — and I think Hills would agree. No matter what path you take in learning the craft of storytelling, the best way to grow as a writer (other than by writing) is to get feedback through the workshop process. And there’s absolutely no chance you’re going to start out in a workshop populated with readers who are experts in any formal critical discipline. (If I’m wrong about that, run for your life.)
Next up: The American Short Story “Today”.
— Mark Barrett
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