The literary critic Michael Gorra has been writing for the Review, mostly on English-language novels, for just shy of a decade. His subjects have ranged from Charles Dickens and Edith Wharton to the living writers Christine Smallwood and Claire Messud. In our Holiday Issue, he reviews Cormac McCarthy’s new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris—“in all likelihood his last.” Surveying McCarthy’s sixty-year career, Gorra finds pleasure in watching the great novelist do something new.
Born in Connecticut, Gorra was educated at Amherst College and Stanford University. He has taught since 1985 at Smith College, where he is the Mary Augusta Jordan Professor of English. We corresponded this week about McCarthy’s long career, György Lukács’s theory of ethics, and Virginia Woolf’s supremacy.
Sam Needleman: A few years ago, in a review of Benjamin Moser’s Susan Sontag biography, you wrote, “A great critic is always better at questions than answers.” In the two dozen or so essays that you’ve written for the Review—about, among other subjects, William Gass, Elizabeth Spencer, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the color green—are there certain important questions you find yourself returning to?
Michael Gorra: I distrust the kinds of large questions Sontag herself was drawn to, questions about the nature of our cultural moment. Or rather I distrust them for myself, as the kinds of things I might have the range or confidence to write about. What interests me instead is the process of trying to make sense of a given sensibility—capturing the quiddity of Don DeLillo or Dickens, say, defining what makes them them. And with those writers who are still alive and working, I like to fit a new book into an already existing oeuvre, asking what’s different about it, or not; where it goes, or doesn’t. So I suppose I’m interested in the shapes of careers, in the way that one book answers and builds on its predecessors, responds to the shelf that’s stretched out behind it. That’s fascinated me ever since grad school, and it’s a question I always go back to. What doesn’t much interest me now is the question of evaluation, proclaiming this or that figure to be a great one, this new novel a sad falling off. I try to avoid all superlative adjectives. Though I’m suspicious of that claim even as I make it, because an evaluative note does come through in the comparisons I reach for, comparisons to other writers above all. And the simple fact of deciding to look at a given work is an evaluation in itself.
Your review of The Passenger and Stella Maris is a survey of a novelist not unlike your piece on DeLillo’s late work. How was your task different than, say, that of a critic who reviewed Blood Meridian back in 1985?
My job was a lot easier! McCarthy was almost completely unknown in 1985. He’d won a MacArthur and yet Blood Meridian sold fewer than 1,500 copies. I like to think that if I’d read it then I would have seen something more than its relentlessness, would have recognized its originality, its grandeur. But I’m by no means certain. I didn’t yet know how to pick apart genres—the Western, the historical novel—and might have just written it off as a bloodbath. The later books have made Blood Meridian easier to approach. They give us something to measure it against. They make us see that it was a step, a big one, along the path of his developing career. I think that’s true of the new books as well. When you look at his whole body of work you can see that they change our sense of what he can do, and they are all the more interesting because of it. They’re not books that you can judge simply in terms of an individual success or failure. Though for the record, I think they’re pretty damned magnificent.
In these two books, McCarthy has for the first time written about his characters’ interior lives. You observe that this is an ethical as well as an aesthetic choice. What does the introduction of interiority bring to McCarthy’s ruined worlds?
The idea of the intimate relationship between a work’s ethic and its aesthetic comes from Lukács, who writes in The Theory of the Novel that a writer’s ethical intention is “visible in the creation of every detail and hence is…an effective structural element of the work itself.” A writer’s aesthetic choices provide a guide to what they think matters, and style itself can tell us about their sense of truth and beauty. The interior lives in these late books are above all registers of the characters’ pasts, of the way they grapple with the forces and people that have made them. That didn’t matter so much in McCarthy’s earlier books, where individual endeavor or desire was almost always ineffectual, and what the character might have thought about it all was beside the point. Neither Bobby nor Alicia Western, from the two new novels, are going to escape their own peculiarly ruined worlds, but the things that get them aren’t the external forces of an indifferent universe, like the ecological disaster of The Road or the murderous Judge of Blood Meridian. They’re internal—they lie in a familial past, and that’s not something to which McCarthy’s given much weight before.
In a grace note at the end of your October review of Terry Eagleton’s book about five male literary critics in interwar Britain, you write that A Room of One’s Own is “not only the most important work of literary criticism to have emerged from Cambridge, but the most necessary of its century in English.” Why, in your estimation, is Virginia Woolf a supreme critic?
You mean aside from that prose of hers? A Room of One’s Own is a great book about the process of looking for answers, which means learning to ask the right questions. The whole book seems to think aloud, and it’s one of the most thrilling intellectual journeys I know. That’s just one thing, though. Woolf and Henry James are two great novelist-critics in English, but James often reads someone else in order to see how he would have done it differently, and usually better. Woolf did write a few manifestoes—“Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” tries, after all, to create the taste for which she would like to be appreciated. But she’s more interested in the experience of reading itself. And she gives space to her own ambivalences. She also has a long memory, stretching back to the oddities of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, and she’s always fascinated by the individual quirks of her subjects. She’s drawn to personality, eccentricity—maybe that’s why she so often writes about letters or diaries, defining a particular sensibility in relation to its historical moment.
You often write about protagonists’ relationships to great characters from the past. I think, for example, of your essay on The House of Mirth, in which you place Wharton’s Lily Bart between James’s Isabel Archer and Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. What does playing spiritedly and cleverly with a literary tradition, as Wharton does, help a novelist to accomplish?
T. S. Eliot once said that the most original parts of a writer’s work lie in those moments when they summon up the literary past—he calls it tradition—and in doing so mark their difference from it. Lily Bart may recall both Isabel Archer and Becky Sharp, but she’s also crucially different from each of them; putting them alongside each other allows us to see that difference, and therefore to see Wharton’s own. What you call her “clever play” helps establish her own individuality. Still, it does depend on us all knowing the game, both the writer and her readers, on us knowing what has come before. I suppose my own tendency to see it that way—to make those comparisons—also owes a lot to the classroom. I talk about one book on my syllabus in relation to another, or cut in my mind among the old books I usually teach and the new ones I write about.
You write about paintings more frequently than many of our literary critics. How does your looking inform your reading?
Do I? I had no idea. But I’m married to an art historian, and our life together has taught me a bit about how to look (though not enough, she’d say). Still, our shared time in museums and galleries has made me more aware of the material objects or environments contained within the novels I write about: the rooms the characters inhabit, their clothes, the streets through which they walk. And then, in trying to define just what a novel’s imagined world is like…yes, I can see that I’d reach for a visual analogy. But beyond that I’ve come to think of the critic’s job—my job, anyway—as essentially curatorial, which brings me back to your first question. Here’s an interesting object, a book. What do we need to know in order to understand it? What different contexts can we put it in? What other objects can we place alongside it?