Post Road Magazine #23

Writers and Critics at the Dinner Table: TRISTRAM SHANDY as Conversational Model

Cynthia Northcutt Malone
There is nothing so foolish, when you are at the expence of making an entertainment of this kind, as to order things so badly, as to let your criticks and gentry of refined taste run it down: Nor is there any thing so likely to make them do it, as that of leaving them out of the party, or, what is full as offensive, of bestowing your attention upon the rest of your guests in so particular a way, as if there was no such thing as a critick (by occupation) at table.

—I guard against both; for, in the first place, I have left half a dozen places purposely open for them—and, in the next place, I pay them all court—

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (II.ii.60)

Digital media make possible the blending, fusing, even violent yoking of forms and genres: animated typography with audio; virtual historical sites with documents and video. Some mixtures yield glorious results; some fizzle; some reek. Oddly, two related textual forms have so far largely resisted the forces of mashup. Literary works and critical responses— reviews, scholarly essays, blog postings, and the like—typically inhabit separate discursive spaces. A few exceptions, especially critical editions and casebooks, do bind together literary works and critical essays. Yet, on the whole, critical and literary works resist fusion.

Criticism attracts criticism; scholarly studies accrue citations as they roll along. (That scholarly articles often cite earlier articles in order to wad them up and toss them in the bin, clearing space for the work at hand—never mind that just now.) And critical essays do quote bits of the texts they examine. As for literary works, almost anything sticks like a burr in their shaggy coats, any text from Paradise Lost to a chewing-gum jingle. Contemporary experimental writing invites collaboration of many kinds, yet rarely, even now, does a writer allow critical work to lodge in a literary text.

To borrow Sterne's metaphor, writers and criticks [see above] usually take their meals in separate dining rooms. The publisher distributes a work; the reviewer, scholar, or citizen blogger publishes a response. Occasionally a writer feels moved to respond to the criticism and sends a letter to an editor, or an interviewer asks the writer about specific matters in a critical response. These exchanges only illuminate the conventional separation between the literary work and the critical response, as an exchange of letters highlights the fact of separate postal addresses. How odd, how quaint that separation seems in a digital environment of crossovers.

Laurence Sterne bridged the separation 250 years ago, with Volume III of Tristram Shandy. As the epigraph demonstrates, Tristram Shandy first sets places for the criticks in Volume I, published in 1760; Tristram then mocks, scolds, beefs about, and quarrels with them in Volume III, published a year later. By the time Sterne composed Volume III, Volumes I and II had proven a sensation. Moreover, Sterne's publication of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick had provoked great ire. When writing Volume III, then, Sterne had his pick of critics to seat at his dinner table as guests or targets. One example illustrates the point: the Monthly Review had featured a review of Volumes I and II in the form of a fictional dialogue between Sir John and Sir Peter, a traveller just returned to England. Sir Peter asks about recent developments in his home country, and Sir John winds up a scathing description of Tristram Shandy with this summary: "In few words, Sir, and without a figure, Tristram Shandy is an obscene novel, the reverend author is a prebend of the church of England; and both are at present in the highest estimation" (qtd. in Howes 96). Sterne deploys Tristram to answer this review. Comparing the body and mind to a jerkin and its lining, Tristram complains that "never poor jerkin has been tickled off, at such a rate as it has been these last nine months together": "—You Messrs. the monthly Reviewers!—how could you cut and slash my jerkin as you did?—how did you know, but you would cut my lining too?" (III.iv.115).

It was the serial publication of Tristram Shandy, of course, that gave Sterne the opportunity to answer the reviewers of earlier volumes. In fact, serial publication created the possibility not only for responses to reviewers, but also for topical commentary on and references to public events. In Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel, Thomas Keymer notes that Volume IX of the novel "jestingly" alludes "to unrelated developments in the external world . . . by playing on the fact that the commoner to whom volume 1 is dedicated [William Pitt] has in the interim become a peer" (103). While Sterne's model may have tempted other writers of serial fiction to tease or torment their critics, those other writers generally chose to bar critics from the dining rooms of their novels. Serial publication simultaneously made possible a response to critics and fixed writers' minds wholly on the next developments of their own narratives. By the Victorian period, when serial publication in periodicals became common, publishers' deadlines drove writers so relentlessly that many had to write flat-out to complete an installment. Pausing in this sprint to engage in a playful exchange with reviewers must have been the farthest thing from their minds.

Thanks to the digital storage of texts, contemporary writers could easily graft the words of a critic or reviewer into a literary work. The digital era simplifies the creation of hybrid forms: just as mixing musical tracks once required great labor and technical skill, so splicing criticism into a literary work once required tedious resetting of the text. Now, however, a writer could invite critics to enter one version of his or her literary text and exile the critics from another, shaping multiple versions of the "same" work. Writers and critics could work collaboratively, creating hybrid forms that emphasize the dialogue between writer and reader.

Certainly the familiar, separate forms of "creative" and "critical" or "scholarly" writing will and should persist, since these different forms of work grant considerable pleasure and insight. They persist because writers and readers value the experiences of entering an imagined world and residing there until the last speck of punctuation, or of following a perceptive and well-informed extended argument. We need not choose between those inherited forms and hybrid forms. Older forms will remain even as hybrid forms emerge alongside them.

If the writer were to invite the critic to dinner, what might the hybrid form look like? Let's take John Banville's 2010 novel, The Infinities. Set in a house called Arden, the novel features both mortals and gods. Lest we think that the gods have given up their Olympian mount for the damp and gloom of an Irish home, Hermes explains early in the novel that "the gods cannot but be everywhere"—not only in Arden, not only in "this rough world," but also in "an infinity of others just like it that we made and must keep ever vigilantly in our care" (14). As we begin reading the novel, its world appears to be the world that readers know (except, of course, for the gods lurking about). In the opening pages, natural laws operate as we'd expect: ill-fitting pajamas pinch, uneaten cereal congeals. Soon enough, though, the narrator makes an offhand allusion to history that arrests us in our tracks. Hermes refers to "Mary, Queen of Scots, great Gloriana" (36). Mary as Gloriana? Hasn't Hermes read Spenser? The passage goes on to recount Mary's "accession to the English throne after the beheading of her cousin, the upstart and treasonous Elizabeth Tudor" (36).

The contemporary world of the novel bristles with surprises, too: scientists have debunked "Wallace's theory of evolution" and string theory; they have successfully managed cold fusion; the country derives most of its energy from brine (82, 103, 93, 94). The world of the novel coincides nearly, but not entirely, with the world we know. Gradually we realize that the world from which Hermes recounts this story is not the world the reader inhabits but another, one of the "infinity of others" he alluded to in the early pages.

If he wished, Banville could extrapolate from the notion of infinite worlds: the thematics of infinite possibility in the novel might be turned to illustrate the infinite possibilities of the novel. Suppose, for example,

Banville were to create in addition to the published, printed 2010 novel another version, integrating into it the remarks of selected reviewers. For example, Banville might respond to Christopher Tayler's criticism of the narrator's style, which appeared in The Guardian: "Hermes, if he is Hermes, overwrites shamelessly. Banville has shown before that a heavy gloss of style doesn't have to rule out artistic restraint and some resemblance to a speaking voice, but, sad to say, he doesn't do so here." No one is likely to refute the point about overwriting, but Tayler links this observation about style with a crucial question about the narrator's identity: "Hermes, if he is Hermes." That qualifying conditional, "if he is," matters greatly, and it repays reflection.

At strategic points in The Infinities, wobbly pronouns blur distinctions between "narrator" and "character," and the ambiguous pronoun references raise questions about cause and effect, about perspectives and evidence, and about the workings-out that constitute the closure of the novel. If Banville chose to respond to Tayler in another version of his novel, what divine jujitsu Hermes might visit on Tayler. The charge of overwriting might prompt Banville to marble the narrative with new asides to the reader on the subject of style, moments of self-justification or self-mockery. Those revisions would result in a version that nearly coincides, but doesn't quite, with the 2010 novel. Any provocative observation about the novel—from a review, a scholarly essay, or a blog—could generate another of its infinite possibilities.

Jorge Luis Borges would surely smile upon this narrative experiment, but what good might it do for the world that writers and critics share? Tristram Shandy pictures the writer and reader—or the specialized reader, "the critic (by occupation)"—in conversation, and a livelier exchange offers several potential benefits. Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group or enrolled in a literature class has noticed that legions of readers half-perceive and half-create the works they read. To put the point another way, discussions reveal that many readers have in mind a work that nearly coincides, but doesn't quite, with the work on the page. A writer who invites a critic to the table would confront (with delight or chagrin) the phenomenon of infinite readings and misreadings. Conversation with the reader may yield nothing but a fuller awareness on each side of error and blindness—misleadings and misreadings the writer failed to anticipate, misreadings that the reader wandered into. But the digitally enabled extensions of a literary work might take forms that reach far beyond clarification: dialogue embedded in the text, generating new imaginative directions for a narrative, lyric, essay, or dramatic work; dialogue in the margins, supplementing the voice of the work with multiply voiced inquiry and commentary. Works like Mc Kenzie Wark's Gamer Theory point the way. Working with the Institute for the Future of the Book, Wark published Gamer Theory online, along with a forum for comments and discussion. Readers' comments informed the revision, Gamer Theory 2.0; the print version, published in 2006 by Harvard University Press, contains selections from the discussion. The most innovative works might follow this model: born as openings for dialogue, recognizing from their inception the collaborative enterprise of writing and reading. Even in these works, of course, the writer could issue the invitations and operate the dining-room door; the writer could choose the number and names of those invited to dinner. What might happen around the table we can no more anticipate than we can predict what will happen at our own liveliest dinner parties.

—Gentlemen, I kiss your hands,—I protest no company could give me half the pleasure,—by my soul I am glad to see you,— beg only you will make no strangers of yourselves, but sit down without any ceremony, and fall on heartily. (II.ii.60)

Gather interesting minds around the table: it's time for dinner.

Works Cited

Banville, John. The Infinities. New York: Knopf, 2010.
Howes, Alan B., ed. Laurence Sterne: The Critical Heritage. 1971. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Keymer, Thomas. Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ed. Howard Anderson. 1760-1767. New York and London: Norton, 1980.
Tayler, Christopher." The Infinities by John Banville." guardian.co.uk.
The Guardian, 25 September 2009. Web. 22 February 2011.


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