Jason Guriel is set free by Michael Hofmann
Welcome to a new series in Partisan, "Last Night a Critic Changed My Life". Echoing a long-running feature in Mojo Magazine, which looks at life-changing records, this series will focus on moments when writers encountered the work of a critic and found themselves transformed. In the first instalment, an anxious graduate student (is there any other kind?) remembers an encounter with the critical prose of Michael Hofmann.
BACK WHEN I was a Ph.D. candidate, I used to debate the worth of stylish critical prose with a professor of mine. I liked the kind of critic who, having quoted somebody else’s use of the word “Aristotelian,” couldn’t help but point out the word’s resemblance to a “porcupine of tongued consonants.” I thought metaphors like that pretty sharp. My professor, however, didn’t like critics who seemed to be trying to out-write their subjects. Put another way, I thought critical prose an opportunity for “porcupines of tongued consonants” and other showy metaphors. She thought prose should simply show the proofs. When she came to the part of my dissertation where I had it that Pound “hijacked” the poetic image, she duly circled the verb: too colorful.
“I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” That was Macbeth’s colorful way of saying there was no point turning back. In other words, I waded forward and finished the dissertation. But scholarship wasn’t in my future, on the far shore—and it wasn’t just the lack of academic jobs. Reading the brief, bracing introduction to Michael Hofmann’s first book of reviews and essays, Behind the Lines—reading it while working on a dissertation—confirmed what I had long suspected: I wasn’t a scholar.
“Seeking to direct opinion, making my contribution to debate, was much more to my liking than the ‘contribution to knowledge’ that was required for a Ph.D.,” writes Hofmann, who eventually put aside his own scholarly ambitions for scrappy reviewing.
I was always prepared to drop everything if a book came through the post with a little review slip—whereas I never gave much for libraries, and the larger the less. I relished what seemed to me the freedom of reviewing, and the multiple address…even if it did mean the end of any academic hopes I might have entertained.
My sober, rigorous professor might have found that unnecessarily flashy: try not to take note of the alliteration of “libraries,” “larger,” and “less,” the internal rhyme of “less,” “relished,” and “address.” But Hofmann’s confession stuck, though not simply because of style; he seemed to be writing about me. To be sure, I plugged away at my dissertation—I had come too far not to. But I had little interest in turning chapters into chum for peer-reviewed journals. I liked pitching reviews to Poetry, or working on a piece for the now-defunct Books in Canada, even though these non-academic publications weren’t going to advance a scholarly career. What’s more, I needed to make money. When it came time to defend my dissertation and lay claim to a doctorate, I had to take the day off from work; I had long since left academia for a job in communications. (I still need to order my diploma.)
Opinionated writers with an excess of flair – or, in my case, a tendency to overwrite – often make their happiest home outside the ivory tower, on more hardscrabble turf, where something like a marketplace reasserts itself, and readers must be won over. (No, I don’t own any Ayn Rand, swear.) Hofmann’s book was proof that an enthusiastic non-specialist could cadge together a work of critical art from many disparate commissions and occasions.
And the book’s introduction affirmed the value of deceptively provisional book reviews. “A lot of the articulacy and the connections and the nerves that might have gone on poems,” says Hofmann, “have gone on these pieces.” Such thinking was helpful back when I used to worry over whether I should waste a promising metaphor on some critical prose—back when I thought writers, like the comic character Spawn, possessed a finite supply of power, and so had better deploy it wisely. (I still think, perhaps irrationally, that writers had better hoard their best lines—but Hofmann taught me that reviews are at least a worthwhile home for the lines.)
A healthier job market might have held me in academia. But Hofmann would’ve still had my number. “[F]irst impressions, followed by bags of technique”—that’s how he describes his critical process. And to my mind, his ratio of impression to technique (content to form, idea to style) sounded about right. The person who brings “bags of technique” to an argument or even a banal point – the word “Aristotelian” is a mouthful; scholarship isn’t my thing – probably isn’t a scholar. Such a person is happiest polishing their pitches to dazzle some editor, and their prose to dazzle the rest of us. (They belong in a streetfight, not the stacks.) Perhaps it’s too showy or colorful to equate Hofmann’s introduction, as encountered in my second-hand copy of Behind the Lines, with light in a void. But it had traveled years to illuminate at least one reader.
JASON GURIEL is co-editor of Partisan. His recent work appears in The New Republic.