The Critic and the Writer; or, the Labour of Writing

Viriginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912. Woolf was one of the great writer-critics.

Writing a novel is a painful process. If there were ever such a thing as a Muse then she certainly isn’t whispering in my ear. Between divine afflatus and sublunary deflation il n’y a qu’un pas. And part of the reason for this general pain of writing, this labour of writing – that which makes writing work – is, for me personally, the internal split that occurs between the critic and the writer. Karl Marx once demanded “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists”, and once you’ve worked as a Marxist literary critic for a few years, you become accustomed to deconstructing things, reading texts against the grain, exposing the secret unions between the inner workings of form and the great forces of history itself. Your natural disposition is suspicious and analytic; you take things apart and reconstruct them into an intellectually more satisfying whole, transvaluing aesthetic autonomy into historical truth. But the work of the writer is very different.

It is very difficult to describe what the writer actually does. She doesn’t so much sacrifice critical rationality as adopt a different kind of rationality altogether. To use the ancient categories, we could say that the writer’s reason involves techné (geared towards poiesis) rather than dialectic, a concern with the making of an artefact rather than intellectual reasoning towards a truth. And yet the very fact I feel it necessary to return to the ancient categories is a sign of what a mess we’ve been in for quite some time now when it comes to defining “creative writing”. One of the most moving passages in Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature is where he shows, not only that the post-Romantic distinction between creative/ fictional/ subjective writing and non-creative/ factual/ objective writing is, on closer inspection, simply untenable, but where he suggests that it can actually be damaging. The external opposition between fact and fiction, objective and subjective becomes reflected into the writer herself, creating a rift within her own psyche. When she puts pen to paper, she is bound by these distinctions which do not cohere with her actual experience. The reality and objectivity of her inner life, which is in any case always socially mediated, is denied by the external conventions of categorising literature. She begins to think of her own inner life as indeed non-objective, and hence as one subjective atom in a sea of countless others. And this is truly damaging: for the writer, the reader and for the society at large in its self-understanding.

The point of all this was merely to suggest, firstly, that the split between the writer and the critic is not and should not be absolute, but that, secondly, it is still sufficiently dominant to produce a sort of schizophrenia within the writer-critic’s mind. It is not simply that the aims of the critic and the writer are different in nature, but that their very languages have been torn apart. My first task as a novelist, then, is to learn to negotiate the gulf between critical prose and narrative fiction. To learn to write like a writer and not like a critic, all the while recognising that that distinction is false from the outset.


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