Frederick Crews Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

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Great Writers and Distinguished Writing

Let's move away from Freud and talk a little about great writers and distinguished writing. What are the characteristics of distinguished literary writings? Or is that too gross a simplification?

Yes, it's very, very hard to say precisely, because the great writer, and one always thinks immediately of Shakespeare, is the one who's least explainable in terms of his contemporaries. You know, you can read Marlowe and Shakespeare, who were writing the same kinds of plays at the same time, but there's a qualitative leap that is almost indefinable but we all feel is there.

Does it go back to what we quoted you as saying earlier, that "the best American novelists have made singular departures from established belief and practice"?

Yes, I would say so. Faulkner, whom I certainly had in mind when I wrote that sentence, is a good example. And Faulkner was a very confused man. Faulkner's views on race are nothing to write home about. He didn't know which side of the fence he was on. But out of his confusion he wrote extraordinarily powerful fiction that was highly empathetic. What Faulkner could do was to put himself into the body and mind of a black man, or a white man, or a woman, with equal facility. This is genius at work. There's no explaining it, and certainly there's no formula for reproducing it.

This would explain why a critic has to place an author in his own personal history and in the history of his times to come to an understanding of the issues that he's grappling with.

Well, yes. If you want to find out what's unique about a writer, you're obliged to be well acquainted with his or her contemporaries, for sure. And you know, in general a literary critic wants to understand what's there. And it isn't just understanding what's unique, it's understanding the whole package. Perhaps the author is conventional. Perhaps the author is terribly overrated, because when we get to know the contemporaries we see that it's not as new as we thought it was. Well, let the chips fall where they may.

Part of your struggle is to overcome the author's own representation of himself.

Certainly people in general do not understand themselves terribly well, and there's no reason to think that an author is transparent to himself. This being so, however, we still want to be wary of methodologies which give us the idea that we will know in advance what the deep secret factors are. We don't know that in advance.

In your metacriticism of the critics, one of the telling points that you make is that they're so engaged by their own theory that they really want to put aside the facts of a particular life.

Well, yes, or more typically they will light upon a fact or a handful of facts that are particularly congenial to the theory at hand, and then these facts become the only facts. You know, the great intellectual model, perhaps the most influential intellectual model in the humanities in our time, has been the work of Foucault. This is exactly what Foucault did with history. He brilliantly amplified the significance of a few facts which he then took to be the essence of the whole civilization, or the whole segment of time that he would call an episteme within the civilization. He did not have an empirical frame of mind. And if you'd asked him about it, he would have agreed with you. Empiricism is old-fashioned, it's not the way to go.

And presumably his followers would confirm his conclusions, as opposed to evaluating them in light of different theories.

Yes. Again, in this empirical vacuum that I have described to you, the citation of intellectual authority becomes a substitute for reasoning. And to cite the so-called "correct" authorities, not always politically correct but the ones who are current at the moment, is a large part of what is required if one wants to be taken for an intellectual. Whereas my view is almost exactly the opposite. The appeal to authority can never be satisfactory, even if the authority is right.

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