There comes a moment in the life of every literary critic when they need to give up and admit they’re never going to be a novelist. I arrived at mine, not by trying to create a novel, but just by recognizing what it would entail. I could probably teach myself to put together a story, but I don’t have the imaginative equipment: the memory, the gift for observation, the X-ray vision when it comes to character, the ear for dialogue. I don’t think in stories, the way that novelists do; I think in ideas.
I don’t, in short, have a novelist’s soul. Novelists appear to dwell most deeply in their childhoods. Even when they talk about their reading, they’re apt to say the books that matter most to them are ones that they discovered then, during that time of helpless feeling, when emotions are absolute. Me, I tend to keep my feelings at a distance. The period I’m most connected to is adolescence, the birthplace of the critical intelligence, when you start to separate yourself from what’s around you, and the books that mean the most to me are those that helped me do that. My instinct is to pounce, to judge, to moralize, instead of observing and sympathizing and incorporating. I’m either/or, not both/and. (This very argument is either/or.) I push things away—the dark and shameful things in human nature, the materials stories are made from—instead of recognizing them as part of me.
And never mind the novelists; what about the poets? I think of some lines from Leonard Cohen: “There are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love.” Leaning out for love! Our lot, in four words. How must it be to see like that, to see it all spread out before you like a god, to dwell on that plane? And I, a critic, looking up from the Purgatory of ordinary perception at that paradise of the elect, gazing at their blessedness but comprehending it not.
But all this is too easy. What I lack that the poets and novelists have, the really good ones, is not finally sight or insight, talent or memory—things you’re either born with or you’re not. What I lack is courage: the fortitude to look things in the face and tell the hardest truths—about yourself, about life. Think of Joan Didion, sending her dispatches from the shores of death. “The mind is full of what it doesn’t want to know,” wrote the critic Michael Wood in an essay on a book about Proust. For most of us, our psychic equilibrium depends on not letting in the kinds of recognitions that the writers make a dreadful daily business of pursuing.
I cannot blame myself for not having talent, but courage is another matter. We like to throw around the word “heroes” these days, almost always in connection with people in uniform. But putting your body at risk, in the company of comrades, for a cause you believe in, is something very different from risking your soul, alone in your mind, by daring to discover things about yourself that cannot be forgotten or forgiven. Yet what a gift to others, if you make it back intact. The people who do that—those are my heroes.
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