Nobody Here But Us Chickens
Writers stung by criticism are seldom shy about retaliating. Hardly a month slips by without some disgruntled author coughing into his fist on “The Dick Cavett Show” and denouncing critics as whores, leeches, or—that old wheeze—eunuchs (invariably: “They like to watch because they themselves can’t Do It”). Other epithets are always in fashion. To some, critics are a scurvy band of cutthroats swarming upon unprotected vessels; to others, they’re—we’re?—careless surgeons, splitting open the tender skin of prose with scalpels rusty and blunt. But perhaps the most popular hostile image of the critic now is that of the thug—the hit man. A decade ago in Commentary, Gore Vidal did an entertaining burlesque in which he depicted a number of critics as black-gloved gangsters, “edgy hoods hanging around the playgrounds of the West Side.”
But tough guys work both sides of the street, and one man’s hood is another’s righteous enforcer, which perhaps explains the contestable reputation of the critic Marvin Mudrick. When Mudrick’s third collection of criticism, Books Are Not Life But Then What Is?, was published in 1979, Mudrick was dubbed by one reviewer the “Mickey Spillane of Belles Lettres.” It’s a compliment which seems to have captured Mudrick’s stony heart, for the writing in his new book Nobody Here But Us Chickens is even more brusque and combative. Tattoos snaking up his brawny arms, Mudrick has taken to patrolling literature’s waterfront, tossing undesirables (Shakespeare, Flaubert—scum like that) rudely into the drink. He doesn’t seem to be in a mood to brook any back talk.
Unlike Mudrick’s previous collections, this new volume has a loosely threaded theme as evidenced by the jacket blurb, “A Book about People in Books.” In a singularly sober and unpugnacious essay from On Culture and Literature (1970) called “Character and Event in Fiction,” Mudrick argued that in prose fiction “the unit is not, as in poetry, the word, but the event….” Characters, he argued, are forged and shaped by events, “and events have their own internal cause, duration, magnitude, and consequence.” However, he now writes about fictional characters as if they popped out of the toaster full-grown and ready for action. “The people I write about in this book come from history and fiction, i.e., from books,” says Mudrick in his preface. “Nevertheless they speak for themselves in their own words, they live their own lives, they look to the mind’s eye just like you and me and give the impression of being just as free to choose, hence I needn’t pretend they’re only an historian’s abstracts or a novelist’s inventions.”
But can that pretense be given up so easily? True, literature’s most boisterous characters—Falstaff, Balzac’s Vautrin, Faulkner’s seedier Snopeses—seem to slip free of their creator’s reins and boldly bolt, but this freedom is simply the spill of genius, the writer letting his imagination have a …