The Critic as Memoirist

Jonathan Lethem’s new book on Talking Heads is the latest entry in an exciting new hybrid form.

Illustration by Nick Pitarra

Jonathan Lethem’s new book, Fear of Music, is a collection of 23 short essays about Talking Heads’ album of the same name. It’s essentially a work of music criticism, but David Byrne isn’t the only artist the book concerns itself with. Lethem repeatedly returns to a figure he refers to as “the boy in his bedroom.” The boy is Lethem himself, aged 15, listening to Fear of Music for the first time, shortly after its release in 1979. While it’s primarily a critical exploration of a single album, the book is also a dialogue between the teenager obsessively listening to that album and the writer writing about it more than 30 years later. Early in the book, Lethem explains that he can’t write about Fear of Music without writing about the boy in his room, “not only because he knows what it’s like never to have heard Fear of Music and then to have heard it for the first time, but because he thereupon arranged himself in a posture of such abject identification with Fear of Music that he can no longer imagine who he’d be had he never heard it. Fear of Music wrote the boy, in other words.”

Fear of Music
by Jonathan Lethem

The book, part of the 33 1/3 series, is full of long, brilliant passages of music criticism interspersed with riffs on topics such as science fiction, paranoia, fame, and Asperger’s syndrome. But it’s at its most interesting at those moments when Lethem tilts the mirror of autobiographical reflection at just the right angle to reflect both himself and the music of Talking Heads in some new light. At one point, he recalls the first time he saw the band play live, at a theater in New Jersey with his school friend Tom. Tom was the son of Rudy Burkhardt, a photographer and filmmaker who was heavily involved in the 1950s abstract expressionist scene. “Though we were just two high school kids on a Greyhound bus going to sit in the rear section of that New Jersey theater,” Lethem writes, “Talking Heads would have liked to meet Tom’s dad, if they’d had the chance. Rudy was exactly the sort of person who was the reason the band had come to New York City in the first place.” This is an oddly touching disclosure. Even as it reveals something of the wider cultural affinities of one of the great American rock bands, it reveals something even more crucial of the writer himself as a 15-year-old boy, yearning for some tangible connection with a band in which he has invested so much of his own developing identity.

Lethem is the latest writer to work within a hybrid form whose cultural moment seems to have arrived: criticism as memoir. In his recently published Zona, Geoff Dyer presents a comprehensive analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker alongside a haphazard analysis of his own life. It’s remarkable for the way in which it makes the crossover between memoir and criticism seem so unremarkable. Our cultural enthusiasms and aversions are central, after all, to our identities—to how we see ourselves and to how we want others to see us. “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography,” as Oscar Wilde put it in “The Critic as Artist.” To write about art is to write about yourself, even if only implicitly.

Zona isn’t the first time Dyer has staked a claim on the largely uncharted literary territory between memoir and criticism. Out of Sheer Rage, his formally volatile book about a thwarted attempt to write a study of D.H. Lawrence, was much more comic memoir than critical study, although it still managed to be fitfully illuminating on Lawrence’s work. Early on in the book, Dyer is preoccupied by what might be the ultimate First World problem: He can’t decide where in the First World to set up shop while writing his study of Lawrence. As he drifts between England, France, Italy, Greece, and Mexico, his inability to settle in any one place is reflected in his book’s inability to settle on any one topic, especially that of Lawrence. Dyer’s meandering nonetheless gives him certain insights into the itinerant life and work of his not-quite subject. “What Lawrence’s life demonstrates so powerfully,” he writes, “is that it actually takes a daily effort to be free. To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project to be constantly renewed. More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness.”

At one point, during a particularly frustrating effort to cultivate a tenaciousness of his own and get down to some serious research, Dyer has the misfortune to be lent a volume of academic essays on Lawrence. The titles alone (“Lawrence, Foucault and the Language of Sexuality,” “Alternatives to Logocentrism in D.H. Lawrence,” and so forth) are enough to provoke a Thomas Bernhard-style frenzy of italicized contempt. “How could it have happened?” he fumes. “How could these people with no feeling for literature have ended up teaching it, writing about it?” He decides to “deconstruct” the text in the old-fashioned, pre-Derridean way: He sets it on fire. It’s an extremist gesture, but it’s one that Dyer insists is taken in “self-defense,” because academic criticism, as he puts it, “kills everything it touches.”

As an academic critic, I’m obliged to take issue (dryly, objectively) with the claim, but I do agree that one thing academic criticism does tend to kill is the academic critic—at least as a palpable personal presence in his or her own writing. There have been serious efforts within academia to promote a more intimate style (see Nancy K. Miller’s Getting Personal and G. Douglas Atkins’ Estranging the Familiar, among other gerund-based titles that would no doubt cause Dyer to reach reflexively for his matches). The overwhelming majority of academic writing about literature, however, is still staunchly impersonal in its approach.

But Lethem and Dyer aren’t the only contemporary writers whose work has hinted at a possible genetic mutation of literary criticism and memoir into a hybrid form. Nicholson Baker’s 1991 book U and I, about his lifelong obsession with John Updike, makes a mockery of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence theory by turning it into a controlled creative panic attack. At one point, in fact, Baker admits that he’s never read any Bloom, and that therefore “all the way through writing this essay so far I have been experiencing bursts of anxiety about my ignorance of The Anxiety of Influence.” (Regardless of whether it’s true, this is a pretty nifty ironic inversion of Bloom’s idea.) The beautiful innovation of Baker’s book is that it isn’t really about Updike at all. It’s about the version of “Updike” as an idealized literary figure that Baker holds near to his skittishly ambitious heart, and it’s about the way in which his memories of reading and thinking about Updike are woven into the fabric of his own identity.

This brings him to places that conventional critics would not be able—or perhaps not be inclined—to take their engagements with a writer’s work. And which is why we get alarmingly frank disclosures such as the fact that Baker has “never successfully masturbated to Updike’s writing, though I have to certain remembered scenes in Iris Murdoch.” (It is, I think, the subtle pressure of the word successfully here that really sinks this sentence, and the image it evokes, into the mind.) It also allows him to view Updike’s work through the lens of his own life, and vice versa. Throughout U and I, we are given glimpses of Baker’s relationship with his mother via their shared obsession with Updike. During one of their Sunday-afternoon phone conversations, she tells him that he should continue to work at nonliterary day jobs because Updike, in her opinion, “would have benefitted from the same necessity.” And although she finds her son’s reluctance to air their family’s dirty laundry admirable, she insists that his writing ultimately suffers because of it; he should follow Updike’s amoral example, she says, and ignore the possibility of hurting people’s feelings.

Author Jonathan Lethem, 2008.
Jonathan Lethem.

Photograph by by Fred Benenson.

More recently, Elif Batuman’s memoir, The Possessed, about her years as a graduate student in Russian literature at Stanford, demonstrated the grace with which writing about literature and writing about a life devoted to it can be part of a single enterprise. Batuman is a gifted critic, but her book is charged with her own anxious determination to be more than that. She seems to vacillate between not wanting to be an academic and not wanting to belong to any culture of “creative writing,” but it’s a productive kind of vacillation. “For many years,” she writes, “I gave little thought to the choice I had made between creative writing and literary criticism.” This might well be because she hasn’t really made any such choice. She never says so straightforwardly, but she doesn’t have to; her writing itself is evidence of the fact that she has chosen neither (or both). She’s not a critic writing “creatively” in the classic gamekeeper-turned-poacher mode; or rather, she’s combined gamekeeping and poaching into a single activity. The book is at its most interesting when she delegates the ordinary business of literary criticism to the memoirist side of her authorial identity. In one particular scene in which Batuman discusses Anna Karenina in the kitchen with her mother, what we get is not simply an account of two people talking about a book but an incidental, ad hoc critical reading of that book:

I said that I thought Vronsky had really loved Anna.
    “He couldn’t have loved her enough, or she wouldn’t have killed herself. It just wouldn’t have happened.” My mother’s theory was that the double plot of Anna Karenina represents the two kinds of men in the world: those who really like women, and those who don’t. Vronsky, a man who really liked women, overwhelmed Anna and was overwhelmed by her–but some part of him was never committed to her in the way that Levin, a man who essentially did not like women, was committed to Kitty.

Criticism as memoir is a scattered subgenre, certainly, but there are signs that it is beginning to cohere into a recognizable form. Lethem’s book is the latest entry in Continuum’s (now Bloomsbury’s) ongoing 33 1/3 series of book-length essays about albums, a series that has already produced a number of autobiographically inflected works of music criticism. A book on The Replacements’ Let It Be by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists is an example of how the trick can backfire in the wrong hands; it’s a pretty unremarkable memoir about growing up indie in Montana, with lots of stuff about really liking The Replacements, but not much in the way of critical engagement. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson, on the other hand, is a fascinating autobiographical examination of taste, Quebecois identity, snobbery, and global culture through the lens of one terrible album by Celine Dion. It’s an example of how accommodating a form criticism can be, and of how, in the work of a gifted writer, exploring life and exploring art (even really bad art) can be a single creative project.

At its best, criticism is itself a form of indirect self-expression. To read, say, Walter Benjamin or Susan Sontag or Roland Barthes is to encounter a sensibility as distinctive, and a voice as powerful, as any in 20th-century literature. “The motive of the critic who is really worth reading,” as H.L. Mencken put it, “is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive of the artist.” Mencken certainly regarded himself as a critic worth reading, so he was referring at least as much to his own work as he was to criticism generally. Books like Batuman’s, Lethem’s, Dyer’s, Baker’s, and Wilson’s bear out Mencken’s claim, while also revealing the motive of the critic as the motive of the autobiographer. Our experience of art can, after all, never be anything but subjective. To write about that experience in an explicitly autobiographical way might therefore be the most natural form of criticism, even if at the same time it is the most artful.

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