Andrea Barrett’s Natural History is a “dreamscape of the distant past,” writes Regina Marler in her review of the book, a cycle of five stories and a novella, in our December 8 issue. Marler herself is a dreamer of the past. She brings the subjects of her criticism to vivid life, whether it’s Barrett’s Henrietta, an “indefatigable amateur naturalist,” or Rosa Bonheur, the subject of Marler’s last essay for the Review, a nineteenth-century realist painter who challenged gender norms and adored livestock. In similar fashion, two of Marler’s books have faithfully chronicled the lives of the Bloomsbury group and the Beats.
Over e-mail last week, we delved into Marler’s work as a historian and critic—which began in San Francisco in the 1990s—and her interest in the intersection of art and nature.
Lauren Kane: How did you come to write criticism? It’s not typically something one embarks upon with passionate fits and starts as a teenager, like fiction or poetry.
Regina Marler: I was probably born a critic—or shaped in infancy. My father was an Air Force engineer, trained to identify every possible structural or design weakness, and my siblings and I both benefited and suffered from his overactive critical faculties. My mother, first-generation Italian American, grew up in the Bronx under the gimlet eye of her female elders, exemplars of fine cooking, housekeeping, and appearance. No one in my family can eat a street taco without comparing it to other tacos, analyzing its ingredients, and mulling over how it could be improved.
I’m also a snoop—a burglar, as Janet Malcolm would have it—which has served me well in hunting down unfamiliar aspects of a work of art or a movement or a life story. The best job I had in college was in the Phoenix Art Museum library, where I could read for hours and, unseen at my desk behind the stacks, hear the whispered conversations of curators and docents.
My first book was a selection of the British postimpressionist artist Vanessa Bell’s letters. I published a few reviews and short stories after that, then wrote Bloomsbury Pie, a study of the Bloomsbury group and the industry that grew out of it. I’d started that book in part because I love literary and artistic afterlives and reputation studies (for example, the pervasive but now hidden influence of Joseph Addison as a prose stylist for a host of nineteenth-century writers like Poe, who went on to influence others—Addison was huge!), but also because I couldn’t bear to let go of the people I’d met and read about while working with Bell’s letters. I also edited a collection of the Beats’ sex writing. Meanwhile, I wrote for Steve Wasserman at the Los Angeles Times for nine years, learning to craft longer, more exploratory work, and for Adam Begley at The New York Observer. My relationship with Julie Just, my editor at The New York Review, began when she was working for The New York Times Book Review. I deeply value her common sense and her sensitivity to nuance, and I can rely on her to rein in my enthusiasms. I tend to get very involved in whatever writer or artist or movement I’m covering.
What is your process like? What are the hardest and easiest parts of writing a piece of criticism?
The easiest part of writing criticism is the immersive reading in and around the subject and—especially with popular subjects like the surrealists—digging up period film clips or European documentaries. The hardest part is the opening paragraph, because it establishes the tone and reach of that first draft. I can easily spend a day in a dopey state of receptivity, waiting for the right words to precipitate or pushing them around. It’s also excruciating to cut anecdotes or gorgeous details—unexpected connections between writers, interesting allusions, illuminating quotes—that don’t serve the larger argument of the essay, or simply don’t fit.
My process involves a lot of caffeine and hand-wringing.
Your writing has recently been at the intersection of art and nature: Rosa Bonheur; “climate novels,” so to speak, by Madeleine Watts and Maxim Loskutoff; and now Natural History by Andrea Barrett, a linked story collection largely concerned with the character Henrietta, an amateur naturalist and high school science teacher in upstate New York in the 1860s. Do you have a personal interest in the natural world? Is there a way or style of writing fiction about the climate—or about nature—that you think is particularly effective?
I moved from San Francisco to a rural community in Sonoma County, north of the city, about six years ago, and though I’d like to say—especially as an animal lover and former Girl Scout—that I was always sensitive to the natural world, this move has brought me into a nearly constant awareness of wildlife and the environment. So while I didn’t set out to turn from culture to nature, as it were, or to focus on their intersection, here I am. Here we all are. Climate catastrophe, resource hoarding, and overdevelopment are the most urgent issues of our time—and profoundly connected to the social justice issues that I once viewed in isolation.
On good days, I like to read about and support green belts, rewilding, and organic or regenerative farming—all great, productive intersections of culture and nature. But it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and do next to nothing. “Liking” ten rescued sloths online every day doesn’t help. We displace a lot of emotional energy this way, and all we get back is ads for alpaca sweaters. I think we can probably expect a little more from ourselves.
Superficially, the Bloomsbury group and the Beats are such different movements, but having studied them both more closely than most, do you see similarities?
In some ways, I think the similarity is their groupness: as a writer (or reader), one can approach them from so many different angles, through different relationships with core or secondary figures. You see this also with the surrealists in Paris. It’s a factor in their reception, the sense that there’s always a fresh perspective possible, some revelation. These kinds of connections are very engaging—at least to me. Another similarity is their formal experimentation. There’s a jagged modernist line from the abstract decorations Bell and her collaborator Duncan Grant made for the Omega Workshop and the early books of the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-ups.
And they all tended toward radical sexual politics—and often radical politics, period. Of course, Jack Kerouac’s political views were conventional (and over time moved further right), and Burroughs could have founded his own party of libertarian contempt and gun love. But they obviously violated the sexual mores of their day and advocated for greater freedoms. One of the Beats’ greatest cultural contributions is the Howl censorship trial. By contrast, the Bloomsberries—who had been middle-class Victorian children—were only privately daring, since they met in the wake of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. But their work was often playfully allusive to unconventional loves and flirtations and sensibilities, and camp, like Lytton Strachey’s biographies. It seems impossible now to read Orlando as a whimsical “straight” novel, but people did for decades.
Artists internalize restrictions; when laws or attitudes change, their art, their behavior, doesn’t necessarily alter immediately. E.M. Forster wrote his gay novel, Maurice, in 1913 and 1914, but he left it unpublished at his death in 1970. Grant’s erotic drawings are only now being publicly exhibited. Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey (1967) was the first biography to openly discuss its subject’s homosexuality and the first “post-Wolfenden biography.” (The Sexual Offenses Act decriminalized homosexuality in the UK in 1967, on the recommendation of the Wolfenden committee.) But Grant, an early lover of Strachey’s, almost refused to cooperate. If Strachey was outed, so was he.
Also, the core group of Beats, like Old Bloomsbury, stayed friends despite failed romances or unreciprocated love. It’s admirable. (I’m omitting the case of Lucien Carr, who was close to Burroughs and Kerouac while at Columbia, but broke off the friendship after he was jailed for killing their gay friend, David Kammerer, in 1944—a galvanizing event for the Beats since it cemented their outsider status and the primary relationships in the group.)
When I first suggested this exchange, a colleague mentioned that early on in your career, you wrote blurb-like reviews for listings on Amazon—what was that like?
That’s true! The book blogger Ron Hogan (the author of the writing guide Our Endless and Proper Work) brought me in to freelance for Amazon when the company first began selling books; this was in the late 1990s, before Amazon realized they could just import editorial content from The New York Times or wherever. When Ron left, I continued to write for several other increasingly bewildered bookish folks who somehow found themselves in corporate offices in Seattle. (I remember Ron complaining, “They want me to keep my office door open all day.”) Those 250-word reviews, sometimes ten or more a month, I consider my apprenticeship as a critic. They forced concision and clarity. Naturally, I didn’t slam anything—I assumed I wasn’t hired to discourage sales—but I did send back a few books whose redeeming qualities would not extend to 250 words. Some of these reviews are still on the site. I wrote hundreds. I was writing in the bathtub, on deadline for Amazon, while in labor with my daughter. Then they cut the pay in half and I bailed.
Who are you reading right now? Are there any new books you’re excited about?
I’m just back from the Charleston Literary Festival where Lyndall Gordon movingly read from The Hyacinth Girl, her biography that draws on Princeton’s newly opened cache of 1,131 letters between T. S. Eliot and his secret love, the American Emily Hale. I’m eager to start that. Patti Smith’s A Book of Days also just arrived. In the meantime, I’m reading a lot of Isaiah Berlin (he was the favorite thinker of a friend who died recently), Elisa Gabbert’s poetry collection Normal Distance, and, like most of literary America, everything by Annie Ernaux. I pride myself on having begun to read and talk about her several weeks before the Nobel announcement, which means that I’m personally responsible for her award.