Conflict drives the story. Luscious prose, compelling characters, insightful discourse — these fade within paragraphs without the bite of conflict. The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature (Tin House Books) could easily have dwindled into bland ash were it not for editor J.C. Hallman’s understanding of the human need for conflict. In the introduction, “Toward a Fusion,” Hallman hooks the reader by unveiling a cold war, a “decades-long pissing match between creative writers and critics.” He goes on to disclose the presence of a revolutionary front in this war: “a wholly different kind of writing about reading, work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical.” Hallman asserts that “a writers’ model for how to write about reading is now in ascension…”
The essays that comprise The Story About the Story could easily have formed a body of dry academia, suitable only for the most desiccated of the literati. Instead, Hallman has compiled pieces that leap with scintillating vigor and occasionally astringent force from the page. Thorns prick the mind when Charles D’Ambrosio says of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. “It’s all about Suicide and Silence.” Virginia Woolf’s fangs bite into Hemingway’s legend in “An Essay in Criticism.” “But, although Mr. Hemingway keeps us under the fire of dialogue constantly, his people, half the time, are saying what the author could say much more economically for them. At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?’"
In fairness to Hemingway, it should be noted that Ms. Woolf first skewers “the critic” before she turns upon Hemingway. “And yet, barring the learned (and learning is chiefly useful in judging the work of the dead), the critic is rather more fallible than the rest of us … He has to get outside that cloud of fertile, but unrealized, sensation which hangs about a reader … The chances are that he does this before the time is ripe; he does it too rapidly and too definitely.” Ouch. Coming across this sentiment in a book one is reading for review is a daunting experience. The reviewer immediately feels the full impact of her inadequacies. Still, one must carry on — a foot soldier in the literary wars.
Good stories encapsulate not only conflict but conflict’s dark side — romance. Many of the essays are love letters, written with such fervor that the reader wonders if she should leave the writer and the work alone for privacy. Sven Birkerts’ “On a Stanza by John Keats” is filled with a much sensual beauty as the subject of his adoration, Keats’ poem “To Autumn.” Birkerts postulates that “perhaps the feeling of beauty depends on a tension — or charge — born of an opposition within one’s own psyche.” The charge pulses from the page; in decency, one should turn away, yet the lure overwhelms. Birkerts claims that “the beauty of the ode is to be sought with the fine crosshairs of sound and sense, that it inheres in the subtlest details and is sustained from breath to breath.” With the lazy sibilants and gentle exhalation of “breath,” Birkerts echoes Keats sensual use of sound. Birkerts says it himself: “Sound is the primal clay out of which all meaning has been sculpted.” “To Autumn” is an easily comprehended object of love. Yet, it has been said that the eyes of love render the beloved more beautiful. What of “The Metamorphosis”? Vladimir Nabokov’s treatment of Kafka’s giant bug unfurls subtle wings of beauty. Nabokov also succeeds in rendering “The Metamorphosis” almost comprehensible — to my mind the greater feat.
Nor does The Story About the Story limit itself to discussions of classic literature: Salman Rushdie on The Wizard of Oz (film not book), anyone? From Geoff Dyer on D.H. Lawrence, Lawrence himself on Moby Dick, to E.B White (yes, he of Charlotte’s Web) revealing a slight embarrassment at his admiration of Thoreau’s Walden, The Story About the Story feels like a literary salon in book format. The reader is a fly on the wall, inhaling the coffee and cigarette fumes as literature’s greatest writers gossip about their peers and predecessors, and dissect the work of writing and of reading. Ultimately, The Story About the Story is writing for writers, for those who write or for those who dream.