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Educate, Entertain, Scold, Charm

Merve Emre, interviewed by Lauren Kane

Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Merve Emre

Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin

Merve Emre

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


In the Spring Books issue, on the occasion of Cathy Curtis’s new biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, Merve Emre writes about the restless critic who cofounded the New York Review and contributed more than one hundred incisive essays before her death in 2007. Emre does Hardwick the honor of an empathetic, even reading, taking in her youthful determination and personal frustrations and, ultimately, the incredible will that found in criticism “an achieved, enjoyed, and triumphant life.”

Emre has in recent years cultivated her own critical voice in the Review, writing on Diane Williams, Daša Drndić, Gary Lutz, and Ingeborg Bachmann, and is now a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is a professor of American literature at Oxford University. Her second book, The Personality Brokers, on the origins of the Myers-Briggs test, engaged a fascination with human types and their expression that comes through in her lively appraisals of writers and their characters on and behind the page.

As well as a prolific critic she is also an energetic e-mailer, as I found out this week while we corresponded about Hardwick, style, and the strangeness of marriage.


Lauren Kane: What was your introduction to Elizabeth Hardwick?

Merve Emre: When I was a graduate student at Yale, each year, the professors in the English department would put on a staged reading of one of the plays taught in “English 129: Tragedy.” In 2011 I played Célimène in Molière’s The Misanthrope, and in 2012 I played Hedda in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. I believe it was the play’s director, the very passionate, very patient Murray Biggs, who suggested I read Hardwick’s essay on Hedda Gabler to prepare for the role. It is a remarkable piece. And it puts its finger on a type of character to whom I am instinctively and alarmingly attracted—the “creatures of the will,” heroes and heroines straining toward victory and self-destruction at once. They seem to be made of both coarser and finer material than ordinary humans. They are wound tight. They are never boring.

You describe Hardwick’s first novel as “artful and unpleasant, claustrophobic, and more gratifying to think about than pleasurable to read.” (I myself have this experience of Hardwick’s fiction.) It’s this kind of failure in fiction that marks her as an embryonic critic. Do you think that one can be both critic and novelist, or are these ways of thinking too at odds?

One can be both—consider Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Ingeborg Bachmann, and John Berger—and I believe that there is deep continuity between how novels and criticism work. Recently, I have been rereading the novels of Proust alongside the novels of Gerald Murnane and marveling at how their shared commitment to paraphrasing rather than quoting directly from the books their narrators are reading makes room for both criticism within the novel and novelistic techniques of description and characterization within criticism. There is a line from Mikhail Bakhtin I like and think of regularly: “The boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature and so forth are not laid up in heaven.” If they are laid down on earth then mere mortals may shift them around.

What distinction, if there is one, separates a critic from an academic?

I have recently started to think about this question as a matter of genre. As a critic, I primarily write in two genres: essays, typically between 4,000 and 8,000 words, and blurbs of thirty to fifty words. As an academic, I have a wider range: books and book chapters, articles, conference papers, and abstracts, or what we would call “scholarship”; but also, reader reports, tenure letters, letters of recommendation, student evaluations, syllabi, comments on student papers, fellowship, grant, and prize applications, and e-mails. If I were to think about this division schematically, I would say that the critic’s genres foreground her charismatic authority and its expressive markers. Style, for instance—the gradual revelation of a persona or personality, a flesh-and-blood creature concealed behind the irregular mask of prose. That charisma is imagined as being capable of instantiating its own public, of beckoning and gathering to itself a vast, unbounded audience. What she does with this audience is up to her: educate, entertain, scold, charm.

The academic’s genres are also stylized, but in a different way. They filter whatever charisma one might possess through bureaucratic protocols designed to standardize, routinize, and professionalize language, such that all articles and letters of recommendation and e-mails speak in more or less the same voice. The majority of what I write is intended to be read in the strictest confidence, by little committees making decisions about others’ lives and careers. This may be why I find it odd when people request examples of “engaging” or “beautiful” academic prose; most of the academic’s genres are not occasions for entertainment or aesthetic appreciation. I wonder how much that request is driven by a desire for beauty versus a desire to confirm that charisma can still overpower the strictures of bureaucracy.  

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I should clarify, by the way, that I am speaking neutrally, and I am speaking of ideal types or archetypes. There are critics whose voices are regimented by “house styles,” just as there are still academics who find ways to write highly unprofessional e-mails.

Do you have any writing habits or routines that you rely on? Do you often revise?

I start by reading everything by the writer I am writing about, as well as a biography (or perhaps several) of the writer. In the case of Hardwick, I read all her fiction and nonfiction and the letters collected in The Dolphin Letters. I also listened to and transcribed the eight hours of recorded interviews that David Farrell conducted with her. My scholarship has an archival bent to it, which means that I am often on the lookout for new and different kinds of sources.

I do not take notes as I read. I dog-ear—verso-top, recto-bottom—and underline sentences and paragraphs. I create a document and type out every underlined sentence and paragraph, sorted by book. Then I create a second document and sort the sentences and paragraphs by subject. The process of doing this usually gets me to a preliminary articulation of the argument I want to make, its beginning and its end, its arc, and its subclaims. I handwrite outlines in a very haphazard way, on the backs of bank statements and other stray envelopes strewn across my worktable. 

I try to write a thousand words a day during the week, and if I’m reading for one essay I’m writing for another. I revise constantly; I am a compulsive tinkerer. You know this because within an hour I sent you at least four drafts of my responses to this interview, which is typical. I usually retype each essay I have written three times to revise it—sometimes only two if I get the shape and movement of it right in the first draft, but I rarely do. My first reader is my editor and my final reader is my husband, who reads proofs and highlights parts he doesn’t like or understand in yellow on the PDF. Then we go through the highlights section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and have a huge, horrible fight. I consider this an essential part of my routine. I see little point and a great deal of dishonesty in romanticizing one’s process.

As a married critic, do you have an answer to the so-called embarrassing question you pose in your piece: How does marriage matter for criticism? 

I often replay a moment in Hardwick’s interviews with David Farrell when he asks her what it means to be married. “You’re never really a married person,” she says. “Who is?” For many people, marriage—or any long relationship—holds out a fantasy of devotion and enduring romance and perfect understanding. The disappointment of that expectation is a common experience. And it is a common experience that results in loneliness, resentment, bitterness, deception, and, sometimes, abandonment. Marriage is, as Hardwick puts it, “an experience violated by need, by the drastic workings of chance, and by the peculiar limitations of choice.” 

Yet the stress might fall differently on the claim that no one is ever really a married person. If both the self and the other are unknowable, if perfect understanding is a rickety fantasy, then two people retain the ability to surprise each other. A person can become strange to you, just as you can become a stranger to yourself. This can be as intriguing and enlivening as it can be brutalizing. An appreciation for that strangeness—the strangeness of the intellect, the strangeness of the heart—is the spark that kindles and illuminates the critic’s mind.

My husband has always had an intuitive grasp of this logic. He likes to say he married me because then life would never be boring. I have always insisted on taking this as a compliment. But these days, I also insist on reading it as a more general truth.

In your review, you refer to Hardwick’s essay “Wives and Mistresses,” which was published in these pages at the same time that she was giving those interviews to Farrell. In it she writes, “What a sinking it is from the high-flying insistence of the miserable to the slow, steady hum of affirmation. Egotists of affirmation have problems of form spared the truculent and misrepresented.” Do you sense that anxiety about being an egotist of affirmation comes across in her interviews?

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If she is anxious about the role that she once played propping up her ex-husband’s ego and career, then that anxiety is countered by a compensatory claim: those who are shattered by betrayal produce more deeply felt writing than the “egotists of affirmation,” who can claim neither the plunge of disorientation nor the slow and agonizing rebirth that make for absorbing human drama. “It is the loss of love that arouses the speculative faculty and its rich inventions,” she writes. She knows this is a pyrrhic victory. But what choice does she have? We all take our wins where we can get them.

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