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Why Do You Do It This Way?

Christine Smallwood

Christine Smallwood

In a series of conversations with Merve Emre at Wesleyan University, some of today’s sharpest working critics discuss their careers and methodology, and are then asked to close-read a text that they haven’t seen before. The Review is collaborating with Lit Hub to publish transcripts and recordings of these interviews, which across eleven episodes will offer an extensive look into the process of criticism.

The first living critic I can remember looking up to was Christine Smallwood. When I was in graduate school, I would read her “New Books” column in Harper’s and her essays in The New Yorker and Bookforum. I was captivated by her ability to fire on all cylinders, to write with elegant simplicity, and to move from questions of style to questions of genre and form.

It was a thrill for me when she turned from writing criticism to writing fiction with her debut novel, The Life of the Mind, in 2021, which she describes as a “freelancer novel.” At the novel’s beginning, Dorothy, an adjunct professor of English, has a miscarriage. Dorothy has reached the end of several plots: she is no longer a dutiful graduate student aspiring to become a successful academic, she is no longer pregnant. What should come next? La Captive, Christine’s most recent book, is partly about Chantal Akerman’s film adaptation of the Proust novel of the same name and partly about Christine finding the time to write a book about La Captive while caring for her two young children. Christine’s unflinching self-reflection and style of interrogation will become apparent in this conversation.

For the last episode of the season, our discussion unfolded, appropriately, as a meta-examination of its format—what it makes possible and what it leaves out. Christine surprised me by taking the show as her object, and I’m thrilled to have her here to challenge my ideas about what criticism is and how we do it.

Merve Emre: You have been listening to the podcast. You know how I always start. The people in our audience are the critics of the future. How do you explain to them how you got from where you were when you were their age to where you are now?

Christine Smallwood: I always feel a little bit nervous when I have to talk to younger people about the profession of criticism, because it’s not a profession that is easy to survive in. I’m a freelance writer. That means that I’m not a staff writer, I’m not a tenure-track academic. All of my money comes from writing for magazines, and occasionally adjuncting or doing other kinds of pickup teaching. This is not a life that I would recommend, necessarily. I want to be clear that what I have is not a job. I cobble together a bunch of different things, some of which are prestigious, some of which are not. I am always a little uncomfortable about being held up as an example of something you should aspire to.

That said, I can tell you how I became a writer, which I am. I grew up in a house without a lot of magazines. My father read voraciously, but only genre fiction. My mother was too busy working and being a mother to read for pleasure. The only book I ever saw her read was the Bible, in Bible study. Now she reads a ton and is in a million book clubs, but she’s retired. The only magazines we got were US News and World Report and Sports Illustrated. I had never seen a New Yorker until my junior year of college, so I didn’t really understand the kinds of writing that I do now. When I was in high school, I thought that I wanted to be like Terry Gross. I thought I would be a cultural interviewer of some kind.

For a long time, I wanted to be Charlie Rose, but not touchy.

My mom always listened to NPR in the car and I was like, This is a cool job. The idea of wanting to be a writer like the kinds of people who were interviewed by Terry Gross felt like too big of a dream. I got to college and wandered around for a bit, but by the end of my first year, I had fallen in with the people who ran the humor magazine. I went to Swarthmore, a small college not totally dissimilar to Wesleyan.

What was the humor magazine called?

It was called Spike. The people who ran it at that time were all graduating. It was an unusual cohort. People went on to become investigative journalists or work at The Guardian’s Ideas section or be an editor at GQ. They were media people in training. I totally fell in love with the world of magazines through this campus humor magazine, and then became coeditor of it for the next three years. Some of the people who had been part of that magazine started a newspaper in Philadelphia called the Philadelphia Independent, founded by a guy I went to college with named Matt Schwartz. The Independent was part art project and part serious news operation. There were four of us who were paid to work on it, the editor, the designer, the ad salesperson, and me. I made five dollars an hour, which you could do in Philadelphia in the year 2004. I wrote all kinds of things. I wrote arts features, I wrote news features, and I learned how to write for a nonacademic audience. There were people floating around that scene who worked at Philadelphia magazine and other kinds of places.

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When you say you learned how to write for a nonacademic audience, what did that mean in terms of the actual process of conceiving of and writing pieces?

I can tell you a story, which is that I was working on an article and left it on the desk at the office, which was in this art collective. I came back the next morning and someone had completely marked up my article in the most—I don’t want to say vicious, because I quite like her—she had marked it up in an aggressive way. She had taken out all the throat clearing. She had taken out all the academic language. She had turned it into a piece of journalism. That experience was both deeply traumatizing and so important, and I am grateful to her for showing me what it looked like. She didn’t sit down and talk about it with me, she just did it.

At the Independent, I learned about writing. We had somebody who at that time was also an assistant at The New York Review of Books; he was running our books section. I wrote an NYRB-style piece about Joseph Roth, and I was like, I think I’ve found my thing. The Philadelphia Independent went out of business; it was not long for this world. Some people had done internships at The Nation, and they said to me, you should do a Nation internship now. I applied, and I did that. I became the assistant literary editor at The Nation magazine working for Adam Shatz, who has recently written a great biography of Frantz Fanon that everyone should read. My job was to help edit book reviews. I noticed while doing this that a lot of the reviews were written by professors, and I thought, I also want to be expert and authoritative, so I guess I should go to graduate school.

Before we get to that part of your journey, I don’t think I knew that you had worked at The Nation. What did you learn about writing from editing?

That’s a great question. I think being an editor is invaluable for many reasons: One, you become less precious about your prose. Two, you understand the editorial process that a piece goes through, so you’re not confused about what’s happening. You file the piece, and you know exactly the kinds of conversations that are happening, you know exactly where you are in the process. I also think it teaches you a certain kind of humility. When you’re an editor, you might ask someone to write a piece, and if they say no, you just ask someone else. My attitude about writing is very much that I might not be the right person to write this piece, and there’ll be somebody else who will do it if I don’t, so I don’t have to do every single thing in the world.

I really loved working at The Nation. I was there for almost four years. It felt like another college. I learned so much about politics and about magazines. I was there at a critical transition between print and digital media; I was there when the first media blogs were starting, so it was an interesting time. I did decide to go to graduate school and got my Ph.D. at Columbia. While I was pursuing that, I continued to write mostly reviews, but then I started doing other kinds of pieces. I did travel pieces for T Magazine for a while, and then I started writing profiles for The New York Times Magazine.

You have written a novel that is partly about a life in which one needs to cobble together a variety of jobs, some prestigious, some less so. When did you decide to write The Life of the Mind? How did you decide to turn to the novel as a form distinct from criticism or scholarship?

I started writing fiction while getting my Ph.D. I published a couple of short stories while I was still in graduate school, and then I finished my Ph.D. and decided that I wasn’t going to go on the job market. I wasn’t going to be an academic.

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There were a lot of different reasons for that decision, but one reason was that at heart I’m a bit too much of a generalist. My field was nineteenth-century British literature. The idea of having to teach the Intro to Victorian Lit survey for the next five years—I didn’t want to do that, and I didn’t want to turn my dissertation into a book. I wanted to be done with my dissertation and never think about it again. I thought, I guess I’m a writer now. The transition was smoother than it could have been, because at that time I happened to be writing a column for Harper’s called “New Books” that came out every month, so I had this illusion of security in a regular paycheck. I could budget. I knew how much money I was going to be paid. Everything was set. At the time, I also had another monthly magazine contract. In time, both of those things ended. I stopped doing “New Books” so that I could work on the novel, and the other thing also ended, and so I delayed falling into the abyss, which would come later.

Which is in part what your novel is about.

Yes. I think it’s interesting how a lot of academics adopted my novel as a campus novel, but for me, the structure or feeling behind it is a hundred percent that of a freelancer. It’s just that those two things are the same, whether you’re an adjunct or in the world of what I do. Why did I write the novel? I was trying to write a collection of short stories, and I had written a short story called “The Keeper.” I showed my agent ten stories, and he correctly said, “These three are good and these others are not good, and we’re not going to go out with this book.” I am grateful for that. A year or so later, I thought, maybe I should go back to that story.

Has becoming a novelist changed how you write criticism? Has it changed how you encounter other people’s novels?

Yes, I think so. I was always interested in how novels work. That was what I liked about graduate school and academic study. I am now even more interested in how they work structurally, how they’re put together. How do people get from this scene to that scene? I hate the word craft, but I’m interested in those kinds of crafty questions. I probably have less of a killer instinct than I did before, but I also think that has to do with aging. I wrote a lot of negative reviews when I was in my twenties, and that has become less interesting over time. I can still be negative, but now I’m more interested in being ambivalent.

Why do you think that the negative review is a young person’s art? My cynical read is that it’s the quickest way to get attention. Readers swarm to them. They love the aggression. They want to see blood.

Young people have the energy for it, frankly. I’m twenty years closer to dying, and I have to think every day, Is this how I want to spend today? Do I want to spend it with this book that I don’t like very much? Sometimes I think that young people can get hot with wanting to take someone down. I did that, and it felt good then, and now I don’t feel great about it. Now, I’m so much more interested in books that I like some things about and don’t like other things about. That’s what I’m really interested in, a book that I have mixed feelings about.

Can you give an example of a recent book that you’ve had mixed feelings about? 

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Sheila Heti. Heti is a writer that I feel ambivalent about. There are some things she does that I admire hugely, and there are other things about her writing that I don’t admire as much, so trying to work that out was very intellectually satisfying for me.

That essay contains a good deal about your own experience of giving birth, of being in the hospital.

It begins with that.

How do you think about how much of your personal experience or scenes from your life to include in the pieces you’re writing? Your recent book about Chantal Akerman, La Captive, features many scenes of you parenting, scenes of you with your mother. How do you strike a balance between you and your object?

I think about this a lot. I started thinking about this question of where the critic shows up in the work back in graduate school. My dissertation has an introduction arguing that our academic positions are, in fact, expressions of our dispositions, our temperaments, our autobiographies. I think that’s always true. I don’t usually write so explicitly about myself. That Heti piece was an exception, and I do it in this book. Usually, I’m just writing a review, but I do think we bring our whole selves to the project every time.

La Captive begins—and forgive me if this is a mischaracterization—on a sour note. You express how glad you are that you’re done writing the book.

It begins with some remarks on the negative affects that criticism can call up. I do think that if you’re working on something for a long time, you might develop an ambivalent relationship with it, maybe even a hostile relationship, maybe a resentful relationship. Then the question becomes, is my piece turning negative because I’m a little bit grouchy that it’s not done yet, or is my piece turning negative because I have a real critique that I want to make about this object that I’m writing about? Those are things that I try to be very aware of and self-reflective about when I’m writing.

Speaking of bringing your whole self, or other selves, to projects, I’m wondering if I could ask you to turn over this piece of paper and read it out loud.

Okay.

“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.”

Thank you. I’m guessing members of our audience recognize this. Let’s just see, quick poll: Raise your hand if you recognize this. Christine, do you recognize this?

I do, and I have to say, I’m really surprised. I was psychologically preparing for something that I would not recognize.

What is this?

I’m quite anxious. I know what it is, but what if it’s not? The setup here is really getting to me. It’s Middlemarch.

Yes, this is the prelude to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I don’t think I’ve said this about any of our objects so far—you all need to go read Middlemarch immediately, or yesterday, or make this your summer project. What do you want to do with this, Christine?

It’s interesting. I’ve been listening to these podcasts and thinking a lot about this part of the show.

Ah, you’re going to make it about the show.

This isn’t what we do when we write criticism. We don’t have to perform on the spot—this is much more like what we do in an oral exam. I’ve been dying to ask you: Why? Why bring in people who write criticism for magazines and have them do this Oxford-style exam?

When I worked at Oxford, this was how we would admit students to the university. You would create a short list of applicants, and have them come to your office, pick up a poem or a short excerpt of prose, send them out for fifteen minutes, and they would come back and have to explicate what they had read. It was the best part of my job. It was a lot of fun. Even the students who were nervous, because this was about to determine whether they got into the university, could be coaxed into having a good time. Well, I don’t want to say everyone was having a good time. But most of them got jazzed despite themselves.

The second reason is because there is a great deal of talk about what criticism is, but we don’t often see people doing it. I want students in particular to see what it looks like to think spontaneously about a text.

But do you think spontaneously when you’re writing a piece?

I do think spontaneously, absolutely. What do you do when you write a review?

I’m prepared in a different way. I know what I’m writing about.

The third thing I’d say is I like doing things in conversation. When Maggie Doherty was here, one of the things she said was that the reason she got into criticism was because she had a group of friends who would all get together, they’d read something, and they’d talk about it with each other. There’s too much of us sitting alone in our rooms ruminating and then writing our great thoughts down on paper. For me, at least, a lot of it is done in conversation with other people.

When I’m reading something to write about it or to teach it, or, increasingly, anything I’m reading, this setup is what’s in my head, but it’s between me and me. There’s the me who’s reading it, and as the me who’s reading starts having reactions, there’s a second me in my mind interrogating those reactions, especially when I’m seeing something new. I’m wondering if you also have that dialogue with yourself going on in your mind, or if you have a different phenomenological or cognitive encounter with the text.

Writing is so weird, isn’t it? I don’t know what I’m going to say until I’m deep in the piece and pulling it apart. What has it been like for you, knowing what the objects are going to be when no one else knows?

That has been a source of anxiety for me. What if someone bombs? What is that going to teach people? Let’s say someone was up here, and they didn’t know the first thing in the world to say about Middlemarch. Let’s say you’d forgotten who George Eliot was, or that you’d named the protagonist of your novel after Dorothea Brooke.

I didn’t actually do that. Everyone thinks I did, but I didn’t.

You didn’t? So where does the name come from?

Maybe I did it unconsciously. I did not do it consciously. But go on.

I don’t know if I believe you, but okay. So—what if someone draws a blank? The question then is, Can I rescue the situation by being suggestive enough to trigger something in my interlocutor, but not overbearing?

I’ll tell you what’s tricky in talking about this, for me, is that I’ve taught Middlemarch a handful of times, and so it’s hard to isolate these three paragraphs from the meaning it casts on the rest of the eight-hundred-page novel. For people who don’t know Middlemarch, it’s about many things. It is about a young woman who passionately wishes to have a great social project that she can apply herself to, and doesn’t because of circumstances of place and time. She attaches herself to an older scholar who she misrecognizes as being the pathway to this Saint Theresa-esque life. I don’t want to ruin it, because there are all these wonderful Victorian twists and turns, but by the end of the novel, the idea of being a “Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing,” has been twisted a couple of different ways. In the end, Dorothea’s life has immense value, but not in the arena that she had imagined when she was the age of people in the room today. It’s hard for me to isolate this, but we can do it.

Why Saint Theresa and, particularly, Saint Theresa as a little girl walking “hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother”? Why is that the figure Eliot chooses?

You know, Merve, I have to be honest, I’m having flashbacks to my oral exams right now. Why Saint Theresa? It’s religious, it’s presexual, it’s passionate. The word ardor, which is used in these three paragraphs, is a super important word to Eliot. It is a word that brings intellectual purpose together with emotional life, which is one of the big things that happens in Middlemarch. Eliot is looking for a way to talk about our passionate attachments to our life projects. This ardor, I think, is important. The “Supreme Power” reminds me of the Spinoza that’s going to be such an influence to Eliot. Eliot often moves from these philosophical examples to the lives of these “insignificant people” in the town of Middlemarch and its surrounding estates. She’s saying, I am telling a story about these average everyday English people, but their lives have just as much meaning as Saint Theresa’s.

I’ve taught this book, so I feel like I’m not doing the thing. I’m not doing the close-reading thing, because I’m falling back on my knowledge from outside of these paragraphs.

Why is that wrong? Why do you feel anxiety about that? Why not fall back on your knowledge from outside of these paragraphs? Everyone brings to the close-reading exercise outside knowledge that they have. Why does that make you feel anxious?

I think there’s a difference between bringing our own knowledge to bear on close reading the words on the page, the I.A. Richards way, and knowing what the text is and doing an explication based on that.

What’s the difference?

If I didn’t know what this was from, I obviously couldn’t talk about how it relates to the novel that follows. I would have to talk about things like, who is the narrator, who is speaking? This first sentence, “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves…” I would have a lot of questions about that voice. For me, those questions are closed because I know who’s speaking, it’s George Eliot.

One of the reasons I gave this to you was because you wrote a novel in part about someone seeking, if not exactly an epic life, the life of the mind, then a life with a particular kind of meaning attached to it, and finding themselves in a historical moment when the meaning that life promises is no longer available to them. You claim you didn’t name your protagonist after Dorothea Brooke, but I’m wondering if you thought about Eliot’s offering of Saint Theresa or of Dorothea Brooke as a kind of model for the protagonist that you created.

Maybe I unconsciously did, but I really, really didn’t. You have to understand that when I left graduate school, I was not interested in thinking about Middlemarch. I was interested in saying goodbye to graduate school and everything it had meant and been. I finished in 2014, so that was ten years ago; it wasn’t until five years later that I started returning to any text from that time. I think The Wizard of Oz was also maybe on my mind, Dorothy. My novel is very much about a person who has lost faith in religion, and is losing faith in the substitute object for religion, literature. Dorothea, does she lose her faith? I guess in a certain way. She relocates it in family life.

I’m always struck by what Leslie Stephen said about Dorothea, and what his daughter, Virginia Woolf, repeated about George Eliot’s women, which is that there is a slight touch of stupidity to them. Woolf says that Eliot is at her worst when she’s treating her female protagonists as herself. They’re a little too perfect, and that ardor is a little too muted. I’m wondering what you think about that.

I will admit that there are Dorothea people and there are Lydgate people. In Middlemarch, there are two main plots, and I’m very much a Lydgate partisan.

Say more.

Lydgate is the young doctor who comes to Middlemarch thinking that he will make his name in this provincial backwater, and instead he finds that mediocrity and debts swallow him up. My identification is very strong with Lydgate and very weak with Dorothea. I’ve never related to her in any way as a character. I’m forgetting now who the scholar is who makes this joke about Eliot’s sympathy, but, talking about Hetty Sorrel from Adam Bede, he says that when you’re on the receiving end of George Eliot’s sympathy, you should duck. Her famous sympathy can also be a contemptuous pity.

Now you’re making me wonder if a desire to make the person across from me as comfortable as possible leads me to give them something that they know too well. Should I have given you something out of your wheelhouse? What would have been the appropriate level of strange or difficult that I could have given?

I don’t know. Close reading the realist novel is a very different task than close reading a Gertrude Stein poem, or even a paragraph from Joyce or something.

Why?

All the magic of the nineteenth-century realist novel unfolds over time. It’s about processing or taking in hundreds and hundreds of pages. There are not, in my opinion, pyrotechnics of language—I mean, we could talk about word choice, like I talked about ardor, or we could talk about voice, who this narrator is. But everything I would want to say about Middlemarch would be about watching what’s being set up here happen.

Help me link this with a larger argument about criticism. There are two things that I’m thinking in response to what you’re saying. One is that there is a very common critical practice among nonacademic, working critics to evaluate novels or nonfiction by poking at the sentences. “Here’s an annoying sentence. This sentence doesn’t work.” I recently read in a review someone say something like, “On average, there are more good sentences than bad sentences in this book.” You’re making me think that is a kind of failure, but it’s a failure of education, that when we teach close reading, we try to take the methods that have been honed on poems and apply them to novels.

Yeah, I’m scanning this like, is there a metaphor I can pull out? Is there a quotation from something that we could unpack?

Okay, so that’s one thing that you’re making me think, but the second thing you’re making me think about is the affirmative side of that observation. How do we teach close reading for the novel? Is close reading the wrong way to think about teaching the novel?

It’s a balance. When you’re in a seminar, you have to always go back to the text. Close reading for a novel is sometimes about just establishing what happened here. Student A says, This character is motivated by X. And it’s like, show me where that is. That kind of close reading is different than what you would do with the poem. One of my favorite things to do when I’m teaching a literature class is to read out my favorite sentences. That’s like what we’re doing here. This last sentence is famous also, “Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing.”

There’s a great little book that just came out by Michel Chaouli called Something Speaks to Me: Where Criticism Begins. There are three sections, and each starts with him standing in front of his class, reading a sentence from Kafka, and then having nothing to say about it. It’s the equivalent, for a professor, of the nightmare of showing up and teaching class in your underwear. I’ve read this sentence. I have nothing to say about it. What do we do in those moments of nothingness? Is that where criticism begins, or is it where thought ends? Which way does it cut for you?

When I teach, I’m not always trying to get an answer. I’m trying to model how to ask the question. It’s okay if there’s no answer. It’s okay if you point to something and say, this stirs up something, but we’re not yet sure what it is. I believe also in not being the “authority expert” in the room. Now, I’m thinking about why the sentence ends the way it does.

Which one?

The very last sentence. “Foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.” I, a lesser writer than George Eliot, might have ended the sentence on the “sobs,” which would be too obviously emotive.

But it would be rhythmically off, right?

No, I don’t mean I would have put a period there. I mean, I would have put the long recognizable deed in the middle of the sentence and ended with “unattained goodness” with “heart-beats and sobs,” because my emphasis would always be more on the tragic.

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