What’s It Like for a Critic to Write a Novel? A Guest Post by Caleb Crain

Dear Reader,

There’s lots to like in Caleb Crain’s marvelous debut novel, Necessary Errors. This is a coming-of-age story of exiles and expats finding freedom in post-Velvet Revolution Prague.  In elegant prose and with great tenderness, Crain captures all the messiness of twenty-something lives, where exuberance and idealism collide with expectations and indiscretions.

But Crain’s talent isn’t limited to writing novels; for years now, his journalism and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily, and n+1.

Which is why I had to ask: What’s it like to be a critic-turned-novelist?  And this is what Caleb said:

What’s it like for a critic to write a novel? Lately people have been asking me the question—naturally enough, given that I’ve written criticism for years and unexpectedly now seem to have written a novel as well. Novelists often have other careers. The doctor-novelist is a celebrated type, and the professor-novelist has become common. But a critic who turns novelist is suspect, and perhaps rightly so. Isn’t criticism the enemy of creativity?

I remember that when I was an undergraduate, my friends and I had earnest, somewhat panicky discussions of the question. I went to college more than twenty years ago, when literary criticism in the academy was turning, somewhat melodramatically, inward—toward a contemplation of itself which was known as Theory. A number of my friends wanted to be writers, and we found ourselves attracted and unnerved by the charisma of Theory’s somewhat austere narcissism. Didn’t its mere existence prove that the old-fashioned pleasures of literature were naïve? One didn’t want to be naïve; the last act of the play is usually very unpleasant for the naïve. I’m simplifying, but we simplified then. Theory seemed to know more than literature, and it was only logical to prefer more knowledge over less. But what might Theory do to us, if we chose it? Our anxiety sometimes took the form of a crude developmentalism. We worried that if we exercised our critical faculties, our creative ones would atrophy. The left sides of our brains would eat the right sides up.

It wasn’t quite the case that I refused to believe in the danger. It’s more that I took it, rather perversely, as a challenge. Even though I wanted to become a novelist, I decided to get a Ph.D. in American literature. I wanted the scholarly training that graduate school could provide, and I wanted to spend a few more years reading and thinking about literature. I gambled that I could get those benefits without giving up my interest in writing fiction, and I did, in fact, keep writing fiction. For evidence, there’s a box in my basement of wretched and unpublishable drafts. I took a dark pleasure in telling people that I was going to graduate school in destructive writing.

Maybe I would have written a publishable novel sooner if I hadn’t spent so much time and energy on criticism—first of a scholarly and then, after grad school, of an unscholarly variety. But maybe I wouldn’t have. To invoke a crude developmentalism again, I suspect that my brain simply wasn’t ready to write fiction until fairly recently. I don’t think it’s likely that years of writing criticism unfitted my brain for creation. Maybe the opposite. Auden says somewhere that the best critics of poetry are the best poets, and I can’t see how practice in expressing an informed opinion about literature could compromise one’s ability to write. The real danger I ran, in my opinion, is that the clay of one’s social identity hardens in early adulthood. On a few occasions I had to fracture it, and this involved disappointing people. It was awkward to be disappointing them for the sake of something that was for the most part invisible, but the only way I felt that I could keep writing fiction was, for a long time, by keeping it relatively quiet. For a critic to write novels seemed like a strange and perhaps shameful thing, like growing a second head. Better to keep it under one’s coat. Even when people around me did learn about it, most of them were kind enough to pretend not to notice. There’s a not-much-read-now Henry James novel, The Tragic Muse, about the costs of coming out as an artist in middle age, which I read with a feeling of uncanny recognition around the time I started Necessary Errors.

Even now that I’m at last publishing a novel, being a novelist seems faintly embarrassing to me. As a social role, it seems so portentous and formless! Having gone to graduate school in destructive writing leaves traces on one’s personality, probably similar to those left by the military or a religious order, and I’m grateful at the moment to have at least a memory of discipline. Journalism, meanwhile, imparts a somewhat ironized sense of self—probably a side effect of repeated deployment of the self as an information-gathering tool—and a disillusioned awareness of writing as an activity always undertaken by mere humans under constraints of time, money, word count, and editors. I’m grateful for journalism’s deflationary contributions to my habits of mind as well, especially now that I’ve begun to be threatened with the strange curiosity that readers seem to have about the novelist as a person. In fact, the more I think about it, the sorrier I feel for anyone who becomes a novelist without having first been a critic.  – Caleb Crain

Cheers, Miwa

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.