All writers are fundamentally mapmakers. The cartography of the novelist involves creating unknown lands, while the literary critic finds the uncharted routes and undiscovered islands.
This weekend I attended the Yale Writer’s Conference. In my excellent Literary Criticism and Review workshop with Je Banach, we were asked to define and then justify the discipline.
One may imagine a sort of relationship, be it symbiotic or parasitic, between literature and literary critique; on the face of it, there would seem to be a distinct parasitical directional pull from critique-ee to critique-er. And yet, no one (sane) ever told a story in a vacuum. It is much more true to speak of the relationship as symbiotic, and to rejoice in the discourse, because critics are mapmakers too.
Walking into breakfast the first morning I barely let my stride break while I furtively perused the early morning population. I had seconds on my way to the victuals to seek out a suitable place to sit. A place where I could insert myself cold at a stranger’s table with a measure of comfort. I passed one full table after another and a few very long lonely tables that screamed out to me – Sit here, it’s easy! While another voice said, my God! don’t sit alone, Idiot! The tables passed, oh hurry, find a spot, Jessica! – Too late. Time’s up. The door to the food is to the right! Turn! Turn! Turn!
If we are talking about why one writes, then the impetuous is a common one. And if we talk about why one reads, again, we are on the same terra firma- both the writer of fiction and the writer of critique use the same tools to the same effect: to share and map their vision and sense of the world.
Coming out with my plate of food and coffee my nerve (what nerve?) slips away and I sit at the very end of a frighteningly long table. I eat in mute discomfort trying not to look too entreating, resigned that my isolation is a growing barrier reef. Finally a lovely energetic man sits nearby, (If we were chess pieces I would have had to be a horse to move to his seat) we chat amiably, but he leaves precipitously and alone again, the book in my bag is a siren’s call. Don’t do it! Do. Not. don’t – I capitulate, (damn it!) pull it out, but cleverly lay it across my lap so as not to appear entirely hopeless and unsocial. It is, I must confess, a sweet relief.
As human beings we have a strong desire for understanding and belonging. One of the ways that we do that is to share our stories. Before the days of the written word, the most effective form of critique was omission from the oral cannon. If the stories and rhythm of the words did not resonate with the audience, the work died a death of silence. Once the world of print took over storytelling, it became necessary and interesting to justify or examine the presence and continuing existence of each piece of literature in the ever-growing sea of canonical works. Unlike the oral story, the written word never dies, but banishment, facilitated by critical opinion, is an option, and for many a saving grace of efficiency.
Later in the afternoon, I sit in the faux-Oxford courtyard basking in the sun, the academia dripping down the walls of the surrounding buildings. I have no computer but begin to imagine writers, including the oft-maligned critic, as members of the same map making species. I pull out a piece of paper and a pen. Holding the pen in my hand I marvel at the length of time it has been since I have seriously written with such an archaic object. I begin to write: All writers are fundamentally mapmakers…but when I look at the words I see that my hand has made these words: All writers are fundamentally heartbroken. I eye my hand with some trepidation and laugh. Yes, a friend says to me later, all writers are fundamentally heartbroken mapmakers.
The critical voice is a curator, an enthusiast and a realist. The curator offers context and relevance. The enthusiast shares insight and meaning. The realist describes the mechanics- the hows and whys it all works or doesn’t. That is what the literary critic can do. He or she can step off the island of the book where the novelist is trapped, and view the entire archipelago, deconstruct the ecosystem of the lexicon or simply consider the climate of meaning.
Lunch. Oh God.
It is probably safe to say that readers consume far more reviews of books than actual books in their lifetime. Navigating all the seas of literature is an impossible task for any one reader , and if they are told, “Don’t go there, it’s a barren wasteland!” or, “You must see this place before you die!” the wanderlust is channeled. There is also the specific pleasure of perusing the maps of review and criticism in and of themselves, because readers are essentially curious travelers; they are seekers and gypsies of the heart.
That evening, I’m chastised with uncalled-for excessive zeal by my children for my social awkwardness and reticence. Breathing deeply I enter the trial-by-breakfast on the second morning cavalierly ignoring my relentless reserve.
Whether telling a story or critically seeking to understand a story, words are the mapmaker’s tools. The topography, scale, and charts of language, while distinct, ultimately give each reader a key to understanding the terra incognito of us all.
A conference full of people who love what I love; incredibly talented writers and teachers full of kindness and generosity- these are my people: I am – a mapmaker.