Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic is a collection of literary essays by New York-based writer Arthur Krystal, a well-regarded book reviewer, who, over the course of his long freelance career, placed reviews with Harper’s, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. However, fifteen years ago, while still at the height of his powers, Krystal suddenly decided to quit writing literary criticism; in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he explains the reason for his decision:
Given a book to review, I'd snap on my pince-nez, straighten my waistcoat, and get down to business. I was worse than officious: I was clever.
Following his decision to abandon literary criticism, Krystal began to focus on the more reflective genre of literary essay. Although he remains a critic writing about literature, he wants to put as much room between himself and book reviewing as possible. The essays collected in Except When I Write are examples of this new paradigm put into practice. Krystal still lauds books for their merits and takes them to task for their faults, but he does so only occasionally, instead using books as a launching pad for broader investigations into personalities and ideas. He writes about our conceptions of nighttime in “Carpe Noctem,” for example, and the genre of aphorism in “Too True.” A few times he explores episodes in the lives of famous writers, as in “The Usual Suspect: Edgar Allan Poe” or “Slow Fade: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.” He even includes a previously unpublished essay, “The Night Man—or Why I’m Not a Novelist,” which approaches the genre of memoir.
The title "Except When I Write" is a reference to Montaigne’s famous remark, “I never think except when I sit down to write.” The first essay in Krystal's collection elaborates on this by discussing the incapability of many great authors to sound intelligent when speaking off-the-cuff. While everyone has moments when he wishes he could have sounded more clever or insightful, Krystal does a marvelous job showing how this experience is particularly ironic for writers: “[A writer’s work is] the face we want others to see…the person we want everyone to know.” Writers who are not very articulate, therefore, can present their desired public image only when they write. Presenting oneself through writing has inherent problems, however, since a writer has no control of “how others will read us.” Writers who want to present a certain image of themselves through text may not succeed in doing so. It would appear that the position of a literary critic or essayist is even more fraught than that of a fiction writer in this regard. Since critics primarily excerpt and interpret other people’s work, they don’t express their own vision of life but rather express their interpretation of another’s vision.
By putting the essay “When Writers Speak” as the first of his collection, Krystal frames the essays that follow as responding to the questions, “To what extent can critical speech express an identity?" and "What about Arthur Krystal’s identity do these essays express?”
Reading these essays it is clear that Arthur Krystal is not only an established critic and essayist, but a master of his craft. Each piece in this collection could serve as a model for a writer trying to approach a certain style of literary essay; that style is, assuredly, a popular one. Like a stand-up comedian, Krystal speaks for the everyman. He is not beholden to any political or critical ideology in these essays; his aim is not to teach or to discover truth, but to spark interest. “Confound it, man, don’t be insipid!” is Krystal’s maxim, which he picked up from the late-eighteenth-century reviewer William Hazlitt, about whom there is an essay in the book.
To avoid insipidness, Krystal uses several tools. He has an endless reserve of anecdotes and quotations, which are drawn from all subjects, from American and European history to art and popular culture to science and still other fields. Sarcasm and humor are pervasive in his work. Striking a concluding note in his essay on dueling, Krystal writes, “The history of the duel is one of increasingly shabby ironies.” In explaining why there were so many radicals in the 1960s, he claims, “If you could quote Blake or Che, chances were good that you could meet someone who liked you for your politics. In other words, nerds and geeks by joining counter-culture could get laid.” Most useful for thwarting blandness, however, are Krystal’s substantial gifts for imagery and metaphor:
In approaching the arts, he [Hazlitt] combined the coolness of a surgeon with the fervor of an adept. When operating on a poem, he made the blood flow just enough not to leave any drops on the floor.
Krystal may admire Hazlitt, but he disn’t anywhere near as brutal. When Krystal attacks, he quibbles. For example, when he claims that an author is wrong in thinking that he has written a history of nighttime in Western society, it is because this would imply that “someone could do the same for the morning or for three in the afternoon. What he’s writing, of course, is a history of Western society during nighttime.” To criticize an author for overwriting, Krystal simply asserts, “To a certain point, evidence no longer qualifies as knowledge.”
If the essays in this collection are typical, an Arthur Krystal essay can easily be imitated via the following: begin by presenting the topic, then humorously digress with a few self-effacing tidbits, tastefully select morsels from the book you’ve read—all the while taking pains to establish some terms of discussion for it—and conclude with a hanging question or sentiment that makes the reader want to go out and buy the book.
While Krystal is brilliant at posing questions, he doesn’t give easy answers. His primary virtue as a critic is that he invites readers to participate in a discussion and think alongside him. Unlike many critics who make their opinions the ones that the reader is supposed to think about, Krystal speaks for all by bringing to the fore questions that readers already have; he is a critic who both engages and liberates.
Brian Libgober is the author of two novels. You can find more of his work at libgober.wordpress.com.
Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic
Oxford University Press, 2011
$24.95 hardcover, ISBN: 9780199782406