Known in scholarly circles primarily for his biography of the critic H.L. Mencken, Teachout is also a blogger, memoirist, and drama and music critic. He writes about all aspects of the arts, from books to ballet, painting, film and TV. His criticism appears regularly in the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and he contributes to many other publications.
Since meeting him last year through his blog (About Last Night), I’ve picked Teachout’s brain on the process and ethics of formal and informal criticism. And because of his blog, I’ve been able to follow his progress on the Balanchine book, from start to dedications.
He agreed to answer some questions about criticism, writing, and then some.
Does your approach to criticism vary depending on the artwork in question? Would you approach a book the same way you would a play or an album?
Yes and no. It goes without saying, or should, that I acknowledge the essential differences between those arts that articulate time (like music) and those that do not (like painting). And as everyone who writes about more than one art can tell you, it’s easier to write about verbal art forms than non-verbal ones. Ned Rorem, a composer who is also a writer, puts it this way: “Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.” But the older I get and the more completely I immerse myself in all the arts, the more certain I am that there’s a larger, more fundamental sense in which they all seek to do the same thing. This deep resemblance means that I understand myself to be applying the same sort of aesthetic yardstick to, say, a ballet and a movie. Of course this could be an illusion on my part, but I don’t think so. It’s the means that differ, not the ends.
As you know, there’s been a great deal of discussion about the usefulness (or, as some would have it, the lack thereof) of snarky criticism in the literary world. Do you think scathing critiques are useful, and, if so, in what way?
They’d better be, since I’ve written my share of them! As a rule, though, I think snark is a gun whose barrel is open at both ends. If not used in scrupulous moderation, it’s bad for the soul. As I’ve said on my own blog, every morally serious critic should stencil on the insides of his eyelids this couplet from Pope: “Yes, I am proud; I must be proud to see/Men not afraid of God, afraid of me.” That’s the bottomless pit into which the critic who indulges heedlessly in snark may fall.
When to be snarky? When you’re writing about something pretentious, especially when other critics have been taken in by its pretensions. In art, pretentiousness is all the deadly sins rolled into one. Or when you’re writing about something that’s unserious by definition, especially when its creators are rolling in dough–like, say, the makers of Dracula: The Musical, to which I happily gave both barrels and then some in The Wall Street Journal. Such folk are fair game: they have their cash to keep them warm. In most other circumstances, I think snark is usually contraindicated. What’s more, it should never be used on somebody who isn’t in a position to snark right back at you. Fair’s fair.
Naturally, I’m not talking about dead people. If you’ve got to flush some excess snark out of your system, it’s probably better to spray it all over a famous corpse than on some poor little debutante novelist–unless, of course, she’s twenty years old and just sold the movie rights to her novel for a staggering sum. In that case, she’s on her own.
You’ve encouraged me not to shrink from an overtly subjective approach to reviewing — to realize that a critic is not called upon to pass judgment on a book for all people, for all time, but only (and these are my words, so I hope I’m not mischaracterizing your advice) to look inside herself and see whether the book speaks to her, and in what way, and to analyze its technical and thematic successes or deficiencies in light of her personal reaction to it.
In my favorite of your recent theater reviews, of “Charlie Victor Romeo” (which I saw and admired on your recommendation), you evaluated the reenactments of the final minutes of airplane crashes and then discussed the significance of the play for you personally, revealing that you’ve been in psychotherapy to conquer your own fear of flying.
Can you talk a bit about the place of the first-person pronoun, and personal reactions, in criticism?
Your personal reactions are all you have to offer. Only time can render them impersonal. In the moment, they’re nothing more–or less–than what Mencken called “prejudice made plausible.” That being the case, you should admit as much. To do so is not only good criticism, it’s also good journalism. I think my review of Charlie Victor Romeo was more effective because I wrote about my response to the play in so personal a way. People like to know who’s talking to them, not least because it helps them calibrate your opinions. If I were, say, deaf or blind, you’d want to know it before reading my review of a new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Met, and you’d have a right to know. What’s more, I also think you’d profit from knowing that I don’t like Tristan und Isolde!
On the other hand, you shouldn’t be gratuitous about inserting yourself into your reviews, at least not to the point where you tempt your readers to rise in unison and shout “Too much information!” Nor should you forget the right hand side of the equation: mere assertion is a starting point, not a destination. You have to make your prejudice plausible. “I think Hamlet sucks” isn’t criticism, not even if you say it 50 different ways, all of them clever. In the end, a review is about the art object you’re reviewing, not your sex life or the state of your gastrointestinal tract. Forget that and you’re in trouble.
Bear in mind, too, that the conditions of newspaper and magazine journalism not infrequently militate against the writing of full-fledged criticism. In such circumstances, witty assertion can sometimes serve as a partial substitute, especially if your tastes and inclinations are known to your readers from long experience. Lists can be both funny and useful–but only if people already know enough about you to read the shorthand in which they’re written.
How does writing a biography, as you’ve done with H.L. Mencken, and now with Balanchine, differ from writing criticism?
Well, it is a species of criticism, at least as I practice it. (So is writing a newspaper or magazine profile.) The difference is that the criticism is mostly embedded and embodied in the narrative. As Our Lord and Master Henry James commands us, “Dramatize, dramatize!” In a biography, unlike a novel, the facts are a given: you have to tell the truth. But if you’re a good writer, your presentation of those facts will imply the conclusions you’ve drawn from them, and for the most part that’s more than sufficient. I loathe over-interpreted biographies. They’re hectoring and tedious, and make me feel like shouting at the author, “I’ll be the judge of that!” I want to feel that the biographer has left me sufficient room, and given me sufficient data, to disagree with his conclusions.
I don’t mean, however, that you should suppress all explicit statements of opinion: there must always be a defining moment, or moments, when you emerge from behind the narrative and unfold yourself. The trick is to lay the groundwork for those moments. In The Skeptic, I state in a nuanced but unequivocal way that H.L. Mencken was an anti-Semite–but that statement doesn’t come from out of nowhere. I build up to it gradually, even stealthily, so that it will emerge naturally from the narrative flow. You want it to seem inevitable, not shocking.
Incidentally, don’t forget that there’s more than one kind of biography. My Mencken book is a full-length biography, comparatively formal in tone. It sounds like me, yes–I want all my writing to sound like me talking–but I never use the first-person pronoun. I leave that to Mencken. My Balanchine book, by contrast, is a brief life, more conversational and explicitly personal in tone. It starts with a description of the first Balanchine ballet I ever saw, and ends with a description of what I saw at New York City Ballet’s celebration of Balanchine’s hundredth birthday. Both of these sections are essayistic and make use of the word “I.” I don’t use it in the central chapters, the actual biographical narrative, but I am present at the beginning and end of the book in a way that wouldn’t have been appropriate to “The Skeptic.”
Yes, I see what you mean about the explicitly personal tone of All in the Dances. Was it more fun to write than The Skeptic?
It was, but not for that reason! I wrote The Skeptic in spurts over the course of a decade of hard slogging and private sorrow, whereas I wrote All in the Dances in three months of actual ass-on-chair time (I’d obviously been thinking about it for somewhat longer). I’m not sure that kind of intense immersion is “fun” in the normal sense of the word, but it’s tremendously exciting, and also makes it possible for you to hold the whole of a book in your head while you’re editing it–a short one, anyway. I was completely exhausted when I finished All in the Dances, and also incredibly exhilarated. As Winston Churchill said, nothing is quite so exhilarating as the sensation of being shot at without effect. I may not feel so cheery when the reviews start to
hit, though . . . .
Oh, I doubt that — but I wanted to return briefly to your observations about the inherently critical aspects of the biographer’s task. In your lives of both Balanchine and Mencken, the criticism is incorporated so judiciously and seamlessly into the narratives that it’s tempting to focus on the storytelling. It’s easy to forget how much interpretation and argument is involved.
Still, I know exactly what you mean about hectoring biographies. I’m fascinated by Eudora Welty’s work — more than a few of the characters in her stories evoke my Mississippi relatives — and am eager to know more about her life (about which, to be fair, she was singularly guarded). Not long ago, I picked up Ann Waldron’s Eudora: A Writer’s Life.” So replete with cliches, bland writing, and baseless (or at least unsupported) conclusions about the author was Waldron’s biography that I found myself skimming for Welty’s own words and finally abandoned the book altogether.
Your biographies, whether formal or more conversational in tone, strike an excellent balance between story and criticism. Can you name some biographers who’ve influenced your approach?
My favorite modern biography is W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, and I have no doubt that it influenced me. I meant for it to. I made a point of re-reading it shortly before starting work on The Skeptic, as well as on two or three more occasions in the ensuing decade. My friend Sam Tanenhaus was working on his Whittaker Chambers biography at that time, and we discussed our mutual travails on a fairly regular basis. (Biographers love to talk shop with other biographers.) When Sam’s book finally came out, I was briefly intimidated by it–it was exactly what I wanted The Skeptic to be–but then I pulled myself together and profited from his example.
I read and reviewed Paul Johnson’s brief life of Napoleon not long before I got the idea to write All in the Dances, and I suspect Johnson’s approach had some effect on my own book: it certainly gave me a number of ideas about how to integrate narrative and commentary within a smaller compass. I’ve also been influenced by Richard Brookhiser’s short biographies of American politicians, which I think are models of their kind.
Is there a point in the writing of someone else’s life at which the story becomes almost as internal as it is external? I realize this is an odd question, and I’m trying to figure out a more precise way to formulate it. The closest I can get is this: does a biographer, as the best actors and novelists do, come to feel that he or she understands the subject so completely as to almost inhabit him or her? If so, how does this feeling impact the boundaries between fact and interpretation?
I never felt that I “inhabited” Mencken: for all the positive tone of his writing, he was simply too complicated and ambiguous a character to make that possible. I think I understood him when all was said and done, but there was no identification, and I found it especially difficult to grasp the coldness of his unpublished writings–his diary and unpublished memoirs in particular–which seemed to contradict the apparent warmth of his public face. As for Balanchine, he was a genius, and mere mortals cannot hope to work their way into the thought processes of such folk. We can only describe them from without.
I do think other biographers have almost certainly experienced something like what you describe, though–it’s probably a function of the choice of subject.
You’re practiced at storytelling, having written a memoir in addition to the biographies and numerous magazine profiles. I’ve often wondered whether you might try your hand at fiction, and you answered my question on your blog recently, in response to a novelist friend’s suggestion that you write a short story. It’s not, you said:
that I wouldn’t like to write you a short story, but I have on more than one occasion dug deep within myself in search of the stuff of fiction and found . . . nothing. I’ve gone so far as to start two or three novels, invariably petering out after the first few chapters. I did manage three years ago to write a full-length play, but once the first hot flush of enthusiasm and vanity wore off, I realized that it simply wasn’t good enough, and scrapped it.
I’ve always wondered what was missing from my psyche that might have made it possible for me to write fiction. Anthony Powell, if I remember correctly, once claimed that the reason why Cyril Connolly, a very gifted essayist and parodist, was unable to write good fiction (his lone novel, The Rock Pool, was a clever disaster) was that he was insufficiently interested in the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of other people. This may be one of those explanations that sounds good but doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny — or possibly not. Though I always thought I was interested in other people, it’s also true that I’m not the world’s best noticer. No sooner does a friend tell me that she’s in trouble than I’m all solicitude and consideration, but often I’m too lost in my own thoughts to spot the fast-growing pool of blood at her feet.
I think Powell is onto something. Standout fiction writers do evince an unusual, probably unhealthy, level of interest in — and sympathy toward — other people and their peculiarities. But beyond that, what is it, do you think, that separates the fiction writer from other writers?
Sometimes I think it’s an ability and willingness to play fast and loose with experience, both one’s own (if not directly than by mining the emotional truth of some life event) and that of other people. Other times (and some of my friends would like to slap me when I say things like this), I suspect that we simply draw from a deep, inner well of screwed-upness but, unlike actors, are too uptight to broadcast this fact out loud in front of other people.
That’s what older critics called the wound-and-the-bow theory of fiction, after a once-famous essay by Edmund Wilson. I think there’s something to it (up to a point, Lord Copper!). It’s possible for comparatively ordinary people to write good novels — Anthony Powell certainly did — but it doesn’t hurt to have had an eventful and/or psychologically interesting life. It’s occurred to me more than once that my childhood and youth were simply not the stuff of interesting fiction. Alas, that hasn’t been true of my middle age, so perhaps I’ll suddenly produce my first novel shortly after I cross the fiftieth meridian! Don’t hang by your thumbs, though.
I also like your notion that writers of fiction must be prepared to transform lived experience. The rest of us may simply be too literal-minded for that. I know I am — I’m responsive to poetry, but I have no poetic streak of my own. I’ve been quite surprised to see myself metamorphosing into A Biographer, a midlife transformation I never expected. It might be that I’ve finally found my metier, after years of wanting to be a novelist and settling for being a critic.
Occasionally I revisit one of my favorite novels — some book I once thought was nearly perfect — only it find it flawed in some significant way that I didn’t notice five years before. I had this experience last year with Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. It held up, overall, as a fine story. But what once struck me as a sensitive and poignant novel included one primary character (the stepmother) who was so one-dimensional and unsympathetic that it colored the whole book for me. So a book that easily made my top five list a few years ago has fallen drastically in my estimation, and I cringe when I happen upon prior posts in which I heralded it as a Singularly Great Work of Fiction.
How often do you find yourself modifying your initial critical perspective on a work of art?
Not infrequently, at least over the course of the life cycle, and sometimes with breathtaking speed. I occasionally quote on my blog a great line by the music critic Hans Keller: “As soon as I detest something I ask myself why I like it.” But you’re talking about something else, something different, and I think it has a lot to do with growing older. If you’re paying any attention at all, increasing age brings with it the shedding of youthful illusions, along with a detachment that also affects your aesthetic requirements. It’s harder to be romantic in middle age–you’ve seen too much death, too much failure, too much injustice–and you also lose your taste for a certain kind of effusiveness. At 48, for instance, I now find that my favorite opera is Verdi’s Falstaff. I would never have said that at 28. By the same token, I think I also appreciate certain authors more, in some cases much more. I liked Conrad when young; I love him now. I would never have appreciated a novel like [Willa Cather’s] Death Comes for the Archbishop when I was in my twenties. And I didn’t get Mauriac at all back then, whereas I’m now quite passionate about him.
You and I tend to avoid talking about politics, a subject on which I’m guessing our views might not frequently overlap. We focus instead on other subjects of interest to both of us: novels, music, movies, Mexican food. . . .
I was interested to read your recent response to a reader’s announcement that he or she was “surprised that I agree with you so frequently because my politics are very different.” Among other things, you said:
The only time I engage with political issues as a critic is when I’m covering specifically political art, and even then I always try to start with the immediate experience. Did the play I just saw excite me? Was I moved? Puzzled? Bored? In my experience, most political plays tend to be boring, precisely because the political playwright voluntarily places himself in an ideological straitjacket and thus is rendered incapable of responding freely to the call of inspiration. That leaves me with nothing to talk about but his beliefs, which then become fair game for fisking. On the other hand, I don’t want to write about plays like that, and given the choice I won’t waste time going to see them in the first place. They’re too predictable, and usually too smug as well. (In my lexicon of critical invective, “smug” is the supreme pejorative, worse even than “dull.”)
I’m as imperfect as the next guy, and no doubt I’ve written a few reviews in which I let my political opinions color my critical responses. But I don’t think it happens very often. I can’t tell you, for instance, how many of my readers are surprised to discover how much I love the films of John Sayles (which at their best seem to me a touchstone of how “political” themes can be treated in an unpoliticized, open-minded way) or the dances of Mark Morris. A fellow critic whom I admire recently described me as “a strong personality — and spectacularly unpredictable.” I myself wouldn’t put it that way: I don’t think unpredictability is a virtue in and of itself, just as I don’t think my aesthetic opinions are arbitrary. Still, I know what he means, and I treasure the compliment, in part because it is a compliment and not condescension in disguise.
My criticism comes with a warranty: I can’t promise that you’ll like what I like, but I do promise that I like what I like — and not because I think I ought to, either.
It’s clear from my site that I’m more than a little left-wing (in contrast to my conservative southern parents of the reactionary and extreme evangelical breeds, respectively), but I completely agree that it’s imperative to create art of all kinds in response to “the call of inspiration,” and not within the confines of “ideological straightjackets.” I’m a feminist, but I don’t know whether that’s clear from my writing. (One of my professors would say it’s not. She took extreme exception to the pornography depicted in “Post-Extraction,” a story I wrote a couple of years ago.) I don’t see my writing as a vehicle for my political convictions.
I like your argument, as I understand it: that criticism of art should be handled as a response to the immediate experience, that it’s a reaction to the artist’s ideally unfettered inspiration and to the implementation of that inspiration. And while I doubt it’s always possible — for me, anyway — to disentangle political beliefs from personal reactions, I believe it’s important to be able to evaluate the artistic and political aspects of a work, to the greatest degree possible, as separate strands.
As for seeking out new art when the artist’s views or actions are abhorrent to me, I myself have a bit of a double standard. I’ll listen to and admire Michael Jackson’s Thriller even though charges of child molestation enrage and disgust me like nothing else. I’ll happily read Iris Murdoch and (somewhat less happily, mainly because of the hieroglyphics) Ezra Pound and H.L. Mencken, all writers who espoused views with which I strongly disagree. But if I’m already unlikely to seek out an author’s work (e.g., Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game) because it doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, the author will definitely seal the deal if he or she makes statements I find offensive.
Under your scheme, I suspect, this is unwise. Am I right?
If I’m reading you correctly, you’re describing a two-part process: first you develop suspicions about the author and his work, then you encounter politically off-putting statements and decide to shun him. That’s not the worst rule of thumb in the world, so long as your initial suspicions are aesthetically determined. I mean, you can’t read everybody, right?
This works both ways, incidentally. I’ve been a critic long enough to know the “smell” of a good artist, or a bad one, when I first get a whiff of it. Perhaps that’s a journalist’s skill — the ability to intuit the truth in buzz. It’s said that Bill Paley, the founder of CBS, could walk through an art gallery and tell which paintings cost the most, even though he didn’t know anything about art.
I know I don’t need to remind you that our aesthetic lives would be grossly impoverished if we only consumed art by artists of whose lives and views we approved! That way lies . . . well, you know what it leads to, on either side of the political fence. Anybody who thinks that Flannery O’Connor’s short stories should be removed from a school library because one of them is called The Artificial N[—–], or that the Harry Potter books should be banned because they glorify witchcraft, is a halfwit — sincere, no doubt, but the world is full of sincere boobs, as Mencken might have put it. People like that simply don’t know how art works, or what it’s for.
Where do you draw the line? I don’t know, but it’s not a bright one. I wouldn’t want to live without the recordings of Alfred Cortot, a French pianist who was also a Nazi collaborator. He was a very great artist, one whose playing speaks directly to my head and heart. At the same time, there should always be an asterisk by his name in the record books, if I may indulge in a rare sports metaphor. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any important artists whose works I would shun solely because of their politics. Whether or not I’d accept a dinner invitation from them is another story.
(By the way, I won’t write profiles of artists I don’t like personally, even if I like their art. I don’t have to love them, but I don’t want to spend face time with jerks.)
Now that the Balanchine book is in the bookstores, have you set your sights on another potential Teachout biography subject?
I’m just now starting to research a full-length biography of Louis Armstrong, the most important jazz musician of the twentieth century, and one of the very few who left behind a substantial body of unghosted writing, including a memoir, dozens of essays and articles, a large number of unpublished autobiographical manuscripts, and a lot of letters, most of them uncollected. I expect to spend the next four or five years working on it, and I’m really excited by the prospect. Aside from being a great artist, Armstrong was also a great personality, someone with whom I expect it will be a pleasure to spend four years in close companionship.
In addition, writing All in the Dances gave me a taste for brief lives, and I’d very much like to write another one — maybe more than one — at some point in the future.
Have you considered writing a biography of a novelist? You wrote about Anthony Powell in the weekend’s New York Times Book Review, for instance, and I’d love to read your book-length take on his life and work.
I don’t know that I have anything all that compelling to say about him beyond the compass of an essay! At the moment, I can’t think of a novelist about whom I’d be inclined to write a full-length biography. On the other hand, the idea to write about Armstrong came to me unexpectedly, so who knows?
This may surprise you, but what I’d really like to do is write the biography of a woman, presumably but not necessarily an artist. I prefer the company of women to men — virtually all my friends are women — and I think it would be both fun and challenging to try to get at least partway into a woman’s head. Nominations for possible subjects can be sent to me at www.terryteachout.com. The winner will not receive a share of future royalties, though.
Doesn’t surprise me at all. Your enthusiasm for, and willingness to champion, great works by female artists and critics (your excellent co-blogger among them) of all stripes is one of the things I admire most about you.
Thanks so much for answering my questions, Terry.