Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Except When I Write

In his book, Except When I Write: Reflections of A Recovering Critic (Oxford University Press, 2011), Arthur Krystal displays a dexterity and charm with the essay in general, the literary essay in particular, that few can match these days. He does not write down to the reader or condescend. He simply gives us an education with wit and verve, never making us feel we are being schooled.

The book begins with an author’s note explaining a concept readers of the prose essay going back to Montaigne will surely recognize: essayists often write in order to think. Great reading inspires great thinking, the two traveling hand in hand. It is no wonder a student once went to university to read the law or to read history. Long before there were general education requirements and majors and minors, there was reading. And of course, there was writing. Reading naturally pairs with writing, subject and predicate, yin and yang, Batman and Robin. Get the picture?

Krystal uses this dynamic duo to launch an attack on the charge that writers are less than impressive in public. They stutter when they read. They trip over their tongues. They under whelm and then mumble when they sign the freshly purchased copy. Krystal says writers are bumbling public speakers because they have already said all there is to say in the writing. The only reason a writer talks about his creation is commerce. Some publisher thinks that a personal appearance by the guy with the pen will sell more books. Maybe it does, but the baseline in all this is a mind alone, writing, writing, writing, and then sending the ink and paper out to the world to be absorbed by other minds, the original wireless connection brain to brain, author to reader. To have the writer show up and read a few pages is almost beside the point.

“Writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists,” says Krystal. “It’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write.” Hence the title of his book. Writers revise and shape their words over time—days, weeks, even years. They are not off-the-cuff creatures like talking heads on TV, all noise and no substance. Very few ink-stained wretches can do both, and personally, when I see a writer who can, I am suspicious. Krystal includes all platforms for writers who are forced into public speaking in this inarticulate category. “To hear yourself on radio is to wonder why anyone has ever slept with you,” he says. Of course, I have heard that one reason a writer steps to the stage at the local Barnes and Noble (if there are any left) is to get laid.

What I like about Krystal’s writing are the details he offers beyond strict literary criticism. He is a true cultural critic, connecting his reading to the world, and broadening his scope to show us the power and breadth of the literary form. From a book on sleep, he branches out to an historical view of the way our ancestors used their horizontal unconscious state: “Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of wakefulness,” he quotes from A. Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past (Norton, 2005). “People, evidently, awoke after midnight and instead of tossing and turning, they regularly got up to talk, study, pray, and do chores.” He goes on to discuss when people began to stay up later, citing sources regarding caffeine consumption as counterpoint to Ekirch’s book.

Krystal analyzes the prose of Hazlitt, Coleridge, and Samuel Johnson, all of which morphs into a discussion on essayists who lie and the essay as a self-portrait “of the author at his desk, not in the world.” He assails aphorisms and Edgar Allan Poe in equal measure. He makes the connection, as others have, that Conan Doyle owes Poe a debt of thanks for helping him create Sherlock Holmes. He celebrates Jacques Barzun as a man who read everything. Do you see the pattern in the chaos? Krystal’s purview goes in many directions.

My favorite pieces in the book are the ones on duals and famous dualists, the Great Depression (which, in Krystal’s take, sounds suspiciously like what is happening now), and the book’s concluding essay on his time as a night watchman at a seedy hotel on the Upper West Side circa 1972. That was in the time before Giuliani’s reign as mayor, when Manhattan was the wild, wild west. It is in this last piece that Krystal tells us why he’s not a novelist. His fiction fell flat, but his essays soar, and we are the better for it.

Arthur Krystal is the kind of omnivorous critic I love, the Everyman in his writing and his interests, a natural raconteur. I absorbed the book like a visit with an old friend, and I missed him when I closed the book for the last time and he was gone. But if I was to meet him on the street, I would most likely find him nondescript, shabby, a real wallflower. I have to remind myself that he is under no obligation to be as witty, insightful, and intelligent as his book; he cannot boast of being the life of the party, except when he writes.

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