On June 8, 2022, New Yorker critic Merve Emre and WWB Books Editor Adam Dalva came together in celebration of the relaunch of Words Without Borders to discuss literary criticism and literature in translation. The recorded conversation can be viewed above, and the transcript of the interview follows below.
Adam Dalva (AD): I am so thrilled to be here tonight with one of my very favorite critics, Balakian winner Merve Emre, in what is one of the most exciting weeks for Words Without Borders: the relaunch of our magnificent new website. So thank you for being with us tonight, Merve.
Merve Emre (ME): Thank you. I want to tell everyone that Adam is a champ because he has COVID. He is…
AD: (LAUGHTER) You were supposed to— (COUGHS) Go on.
ME: And he told me not to make him laugh, because he will honk like that if I do. And I want to apologize in advance, because there are a bunch of drunk college students outside of my office making lots of noise. So if you hear honking on my end, that’s where it’s coming from.
AD: Great, we’ll make sure . . . Maybe they’ll really learn something from us tonight.
ME: I doubt it (LAUGHTER).
AD: And I always know, so, speaking of heroism, when I see Merve in her business pajamas, I know it’s going to be an excellent event—is it 11 at night where you are?
ME: It is 11 at night—it is 11 at night where I am, and I don’t know who stays in their, you know, jeans or whatever, until near midnight, but I don’t, so . . .
ME: You got me in my business jammies.
AD: We’re exhausted, we’re on cough medication, let’s get into it. (LAUGHTER).
ME: We’re ill, yeah, let’s do it, man.
AD: Yeah, it’s gonna be great. So, we wanted to start—
ME: I mean, this website is amazing!
AD: Okay! Take it away.
ME: You guys—you guys have done— Sorry. I’m sure you had something planned that got us to this point. But I’m going to skip it all and say that I think what you guys have done is absolutely extraordinary. And I spent hours, uh, that I did not have to spend today, reading through, you know, the first 7 or 8 pieces that are highlighted on the home page. So really, congratulations and congratulations to the whole Words Without Borders team.
AD: The amount of work they put in was just extraordinary, so yeah—claps to everyone on the team who was handling all of that. Speaking of Words Without Borders, that does segue us nicely into what you view, as a critic, as the role of translated literature in our conversation today, and what places like Words Without Borders do to spread and boost translated literature.
ME: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean I think I’ll say something about the website first, then I’ll maybe speak a little bit more generally about the place of translated literature in the larger literary field.
I mean, what I think Words Without Borders does that’s so incredible are three things. For me, it’s been a place of education, and one of my favorite parts of the site is when you can click on all of the different countries where you guys have translated literature from, and you can just scroll and pick any country at random, and then read whatever articles are part of it. And it’s a very kind of playful, and I think brilliant, way to put into circulation writing from around the world that might not necessarily reach a primarily English-speaking and English-reading audience. And so, for me, it has really been a place where I have learned a great deal from the work that the website does. And for that, I am just extremely grateful.
The other thing, the second thing that I think the website does so beautifully is that it’s a place of preservation. I have been really amazed. I was reading a couple of days ago about Ross Perlin’s work on the website, so the work that he does as the co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance. So the idea that there are languages that could potentially become extinct, that need archives to house them, that need dedicated translators to keep them in circulation—the idea that Words Without Borders serves as a space that makes it possible for those languages to be preserved is also extraordinary to me.
And finally, I was thinking about how it’s a place of connection that operates a little bit like the central concept in Olga’s piece, “Ognosia”, the bringing together—I think I’m pronouncing that correctly, I don’t know?
AD: Nailed it.
ME: In bringing together all of these people who relate to literature and translated literature differently, whether they are readers or writers or translators or critics—they do form a kind of hive or a swarm or a multicelled organism. It’s a feeling of the totality of literature, and actually makes us feel like translated literature is not some separate thing.
ME: But rather that the whole world of letters is one kind of heaving, teeming, multicelled organism that has a kind of peculiar consciousness entirely of its own.
AD: When I was reading “Ognosia,” that was the feeling I had, and so many things are being sucked into her argument to forge this way forward that she’s seeing for literature.
ME: Yeah, and to me actually when I was reading it, too, I couldn’t help read all of those pieces as kind of allegorical, of some of my own experiences with translated literature over the past year.
So, as I was reading it, I was thinking—and I’m curious to hear how you feel about this, Adam—whether or not a kind of flock of judges, a herd of judges, a school of judges—I don’t know what you call them—whether or not they can achieve “ognosia,” whether they can become a multicelled being that is moving synchronously with one another.
AD: It’s definitely a troubling of judges. I’m very confident about that.
AD: Well I mean, Merve judged the International Booker—can we see your stack again of all of the books you were . . .
ME: Yeah, but, please—if anyone from Fitzcarraldo is here, I’m so sorry that I’m showing you the white covers for Books of Jacob, I know you’re all sensitive about this.
AD: I’m sorry, Fitzcarraldo.
ME: It’s just the one I marked up. I’m really, really sorry.
AD: We all do that in advance.
ME: Yeah, I just didn’t want to get rid of the copy that I had, you know, assiduously dog-eared and scribbled in the margins of, so . . .
AD: And that’s your book, you know.
ME: Once you mark something up, it’s kind of yours, you know? You don’t—you can’t use a different book after that.
AD: Yeah. Yeah. So, I was judging National Book Critics Circle this year, and I do think when it’s working, it is like an organism; you can begin to learn each other’s tastes and you can begin to have small disputes and small recognitions and alliances and connections and “Oh, if you like this book, maybe you’ll like this book.” And those kinds of conversations—which are going on all over the world, all the time—I think, when a group panel is going well, it does happen, doesn’t it. Was that your experience?
ME: I’m trying to think about what I can and can’t say. So maybe I can say something fairly neutral about process. So something that I really, really admire about our Chair, Frank Wynne, is that the way he would run a judging meeting was as such. So we would have X number of books we had to discuss, and he would begin by calling on one of the four of us at random, to—
So yes, yes, it felt very much—
AD: Ooh. Popcorn.
ME: You had to be prepared, because it was like being at school and being cold called—and so you had to be prepared to discuss any of the books that were on the docket for the day.
And he has this very, very brilliant way of opening the conversation and inviting you not only to offer a judgment, but also to offer an explanation or a justification for how you arrive at your judgment. And then he also had a very brilliant way of taking what you said and distilling it to its essence and passing it on to the next person, and saying, “Well, do you agree with this judgment of X and this justification of Y?” And so, by the time you went around the table, by the time you went through all four people—and he would only really ever intervene if there was some kind of a deadlock or people were unwilling to commit to opinions one way or another—by the time he went around the room, through all four of us, what I actually ended up feeling was like I could have written a three-thousand-word piece about any of the 137 books that we read, based on the kind of conversational maneuvers that Frank was very, very good at orchestrating. And you know, I’m an academic, so I often think those are conversations I should be having in the academy all the time—but I almost never do.
AD: Never. Never.
ME: And so, this was actually a kind of rare and sacred space for me, to be able to do what I, you know, had always believed the essence of my job was, which was to judge and to justify and to persuade and to argue.
And I did think that by the end of it, yes, it did feel like we were kind of functioning in concert with one another in a very almost intuitive sort of way. And—
AD: Before we talk about—I mean, it sounds delightful, and it—
ME: But I’m really grieving the end of it, like I feel deeply depressed that I’m—you know, I keep thinking maybe I should write to all of them, like “Do you guys just want to Zoom and read something together?”
AD: Book club. Ten books a month of hot international lit. Yeah, why not?
ME: Well, that’s the other thing—I think I have some kind of Stockholm syndrome because if I’m not reading, like, two novels a day, I feel like a worthless, lazy piece of shit, so yeah.
AD: Did you have to adjust your . . . I read you’re a very prolific reader and that, like, 8 o’clock onwards is your reading time at night—and we’re interrupting your reading time right now—did you find you had to set aside more time to read for this?
ME: Yeah. I definitely did, so I don’t watch much—I have like a perverse television watching habit. I will watch the first episode of something on Netflix and then I’ll just watch the last episode, so I don’t have to bother with anything that happens in the middle. But now I couldn’t watch any episodes, neither the first nor the last. So it got rid of my very austere and nonsensical or illogical television-watching habit, so there’s that.
I think what was interesting for me was that, you know, I have two little kids: one is four and one is six, and the six-year-old has really come into his own as a reader this year. And what was nice was setting aside time when I would have had to be doing something else with him—but now I can just read with him. So a lot of time I stole to read for the Booker was child care time that had been converted into silent-reading-next-to-one-another time.
AD: That is very beautiful. Well, I’m not going to ask a follow-up on your insane Netflix habit—although I’m tempted. But that’s not the point of tonight.
ME: It’s completely insane. I’m very confused about what happened with Stranger Things. I don’t understand—I mean I can’t make any sense of it, so yeah.
AD: We’re not supposed to make me laugh too much. And so my question to follow up on that: when you are reading 136 books—you’re a brilliant critic and your long-form reviews and essays aren’t a binary of “this is better than this.” Instead it’s a kind of nuanced progression of an argument. And you read everything. If you are going to write about Elizabeth Hardwick, you will read all of Elizabeth Hardwick. And you will read supplementary material about Elizabeth Hardwick.
Here, you have this almost binary question of “Do I like this book better, or this book better?” And one of the books is 700 pages long and one of the books is 90 pages long, and one is very epic and sweeping about deep social issues, and the other one is a Künstlerroman, so how—how do you pursue just, a sort of one-to-one evaluation, as you’re thinking about what your favorite books are?
ME: I don’t think you do pursue a one-to-one evaluation, and I don’t think you think of it as favorites, either.
I mean, one thing, simply to say—and I would highly recommend that if people are interested in the kind of gossip behind this particular prize, you read the blog posts of the International Booker Prize Shadow Jury, which I have been doing, and I’m absolutely fascinated by—the other commentators I’m also fascinated by is a YouTube channel called KD Books, where they have reaction videos to the announcements of the lists wearing these wonderful dinosaur masks—so I watch those, too.
But I don’t think it really operates like that, and of course, the thing that everyone knows but doesn’t talk about is that we know that our judgments have a subjective quality to them. We know that our judgments are a kind of spontaneous expression of our affective responses to something. And then the point of having a conversation, of expressing those judgments in front of a community, is to try to tether those subjective judgments to something that appears objective.
And so, that’s just to say that there is no better, or best book—
AD: No, you are right.
ME: There are a series of judgments that very particular individuals are making at very particular times that are interacting with one another in very particular ways. And this is why I think I keep going back to the “Ognosia” essay, because that is an essay that’s so interested in how the world—and this is a little bit like the Books of Jacob, too, right—how the world is made out of these very, very small bits and bobs that add up to something so great and so totalizing, that could never just be reduced to the sum of the parts, right?
And I think, judging is a little bit like that, too. It’s a whole series of microconversations, of small conversations, small decisions that then add up to something bigger than it.
AD: Subjective and objective, there’s so many things that go into loving a book and thinking a book is great. I think what “Ognosia” does so well is explain how we might merge all of those sources into a single kind of term or a single “This is good.”
Just a critic saying, “This book is good, this book is worth your time,” is a product of a million decisions and a million thoughts.
ME: Yeah, I think also one thing, maybe just to flag, is that even if there is only one winner, when you have a short list and you have a long list, presumably what you are doing is trying to draw people’s attention to a really wide range of novels or short stories from across the world that people could read.
And so, I think that in addition to thinking of the judging function of a prize, we also think about how a prize functions a little bit like Words Without Borders does, which is to provide people with access, to provide people with education, simply to get people to break out of their maybe more provincial or parochial frameworks for how they think about reading and writing and where those conversations happen.
So I think there are lots of other functions that a prize and the discourses around it can serve, other than just to, you know, anoint one the book to rule them all.
AD: I totally agree. And I think that function is why I was so excited that Tomb of Sand won, a book that is not out in America yet, and a book that is—having started reading it in preparation for this event—is extraordinary on the linguistic level, and is also a work of, I thought, just amazing translation. The voice in that book is magnificent.
ME: Yeah, I mean I think it is an extraordinary book, and I think the way that it manages to balance these moments of just absolute despair with absolute beauty that pulls you out of that—and a great deal of comedy, too, is really quite masterful. And I think there is something really bold, too, about the pacing of it. Just, you know, to spend that first long section with Ma.
AD: Oh, it’s incredible.
ME: The wall before you then kind of breaks into what we might call the action of it. It’s a really amazing choice. And I think it only works, right, because you are getting so much tension and so much interest from what’s happening at the level of the sentence.
AD: I’m really excited for more people in the U.S. to have a chance to read it when it comes out next year. It’s just a magnificent book. So, thinking about your role as a critic, when you are taking on translated literature—I was very struck when I was reading your Simone de Beauvoir review, where you were talking about the book having two simultaneous translations that you were dealing with as you were working through the translation.
So as a critic, when you’re working through long-form essays—and quite a few of your long-form works engage with translated literature—how do you keep the fact the book is translated in mind? If there are two translations, how do you approach that?
ME: I’m just going to quote a translator—who I know is here in the audience, because I think I saw him say hello—and that’s Damion Searls, who had a really lovely interview that I was reading before we started up, Adam, where Damion says—and Damion, you can correct me in the chat if I’m paraphrasing you incorrectly—where Damion says a translated work, a work in translation, is a book, right? It is written in English, by someone.
And so, it’s very strange to hear people feel anxious about judging works in translation because they don’t know how it is that they stack up to the original. And Damion has a very nice meditation, in which he discusses how the idea that the way we “appraise” a translation, by doing a kind of one-to-one comparison of the language of the original with the language of the translation, is something that has been bequeathed to us from the language classroom—from Spanish 101 or Latin 101, right?
So in that sense, when you have an addition like The Inseparables, like Beauvoir’s Inseparables, that has two different translators, you can just read them both and figure out which one you think is the better book. And you can quote from the one you think is the more artful, the more elegant, the more passionate one in your review.
And for me—and you know, I hope I’m not offending anybody—but for me that was Lauren Elkin’s really brilliant translation that I think not only got at the intensity of the relationship between the Zaza and the Simone character, but also translated in such a way that there was a wonderful continuity between the ideas that were being formulated in The Inseparables and the ideas that would eventually come to the surface in The Second Sex, and The Ethics of Ambiguity, and some of Beauvoir’s other writing.
And so, I don’t think that, you know, one would need to go back to the French and then look at how the two versions are working with the French in order to make a judgment about which one is the better one.
But I would direct everybody to the wonderful interview with Damion, which, yes, yes.
AD: He’s thanking you for the shout-out in the chat, so we won’t check to see if you misquoted him, but I’m sure you handled it—
ME: I don’t think I did. I’m pretty—
AD: We’re good.
That also brings to my mind the wonderful essay “The Lost Translator” by Michael Moore, about Goldstein, on the Words Without Borders website.
ME: Yes, but also, Jhumpa Lahiri’s great essay about Echo, and I think that I think of them as mirror images of one another. Because Lahiri’s piece is making, I think, a totally fascinating argument about how the desire for the translator to be invisible is a way of obscuring the translator’s labor, in much the same way that Echo, the nymph, before she was transformed into this mute shade, was in fact overly loquacious.
And what I think is brilliant about that essay is the way that it links the desire for the translator to be mute, to the desire to obscure the translator’s labor, to the feminization of that, and the feminization of it not only in the sense that women have traditionally been silenced, or have been ordered to keep silent, but also the feminization of it in the sense that it is a devalued form of labor. And in its devaluation, it increasingly comes to resemble the kinds of work that women perform in the home.
So, I think it’s a brilliant essay for how it’s kind of leaping across those levels of criticism.
And then the essay about Goldstein, I think, kind of sneaks in to make a similar sort of point, which is that she is not credited in the movie version of The Lost Daughter.
But, you know, in fact it’s Ann Goldstein’s words that we read, when we read Elena Ferrante.
And anyone who has, you know—I did a piece for the New York Times Magazine on Ferrante where she and I corresponded a little, but of course she and I did not correspond: Ann Goldstein and I corresponded. And anyone who has done that knows precisely how it feels for the person that is supposedly purely “mediating” the exchange to really be the only person you are speaking to.
AD: Especially with the layers of identity that you are dealing with when you deal with Ferrante, as well.
ME: Well, of course, yeah. And I think Ann is just—a friend of mine once referred to her as a “word witch.”
ME: And I think that is absolutely right. I think she is extraordinarily brilliant at what she does, and the fact that the credit for what she does wouldn’t translate from one medium to the next is extremely surprising and troubling.
AD: It is, and I was struck in the Lahiri essay and listening to you talk about it, about the idea of “Echo is punished,” and this idea of work, women’s work, and I’m wondering, and you don’t have to have an answer to this, because this is a question we all think about, but: what can, would you say—for a critic who’s maybe watching this and starting out, or a critic hoping to break into criticism—what would you suggest a critic do to recognize translators as they work, and to lift them up in addition to the authors who are being translated?
ME: You know when I was doing—I did a piece on Meiko Kawakami’s Heaven.
AD: It’s great. A wonderful piece.
ME: I actually wrote to Sam Bett and David Boyd, because I had questions about particular words and the choices that they made.
And it seemed to me like one very easy thing I could do was write to them, talk to them, and then, where particular choices seemed to matter—and this is a novel where there are lots of puns that are drawn out or very, very—there’s a lot of significance placed on individual words and their resonances with words like them throughout the novel. And where that was the case I could simply point to the incredible agility with which they had managed the translation from Japanese into English.
So, I think that’s one thing that people could do, and I don’t really see any, you know, conflict of interest in doing that. And for me, at least, it is always just extremely educational to talk to translators and to hear them discuss what it is that they do.
You know the other thing that I think has been wonderful about this round of the International Booker, and I think this has everything to do having a translator as the Chair, is that Frank—along with people like Jenny Croft, Jeremy Tiang, a whole kind of community of translators—they have all been extremely vocal about trying to secure equal royalties for translators and making sure translators’ names end up on the covers of things that are written.
And I think that that is another thing that a prize can be used for, and that criticism can be used for, is to draw attention to the structure of labor in any industry, and to suggest some ways, small ways—I mean they’re not overhauls, they’re not revolutionary, but they are not nothing—small ways in which things can be equalized and the labor of translators, of editors, anyone who does work that is considered auxiliary or sometimes “merely technical” or even “secretarial” can be recognized as essential to the aesthetic object that is produced at the end of it.
AD: That really has me in mind of your marvelous, I mean, kind of remarkable speech when you won the Balakian prize earlier this year, which is on YouTube, and you spoke about what you saw as—
ME: Oh no—it is? (LAUGHTER).
AD: It’s good that it’s on YouTube: it’s fabulous. And that’s also why I don’t need you to repeat it all here, but you spoke about what you viewed as the turmoil in criticism, as well, with magazines cutting staff critics, and moving increasingly towards freelance critics to save money, with amazing critics like previous Balakian winner Jo Livingstone losing their job, and so when we talk about these literary communities with these peripheral, crucial actors, I was wondering if you could also, for those in the audience who didn’t see it, talk a bit about what you said that night, because I know a lot of people told me that it was one of the most stirring moments they’d had, to think about what a critic is in 2022.
ME: That is very nice. I mean, I think just to be super banal for a second, I feel very embarrassed being the—receiving any kind of prize. I mean, I even feel embarrassed this has been billed as a conversation about me, when like, you can tell I keep turning back to—
AD: Yeah, you’ve gotten me off you, whenever I got close.
ME: I feel—so I have a kind of impulse, almost always, toward self-effacement—but also just toward, and you know this from the Hardwick piece, like I believe in impersonality.
ME: To a strong extent. So, it just seemed like a little bit, you know, fucked up to get a prize when I was seeing friends losing jobs, when I see magazines cutting the number of words in the pages that they give to books coverage. Because you know, that has to be balanced with coverage of television, film, theater, and podcasts, right?
And when there are just so many—when people who work in the creative industries by and large exist in extremely precarious conditions . . . And the same thing is true in academia. It is no different in academia, and Adam, you can probably speak to this a little bit, too, but one of the things we see increasingly in literary academia is this fantasy that, that since the job market or the market for tenure track jobs has basically fallen off a cliff, what we will do is train people, train graduate students how to become, you know, magazine writers and critics.
And of course, if you exist in both of these worlds at the same time, you know that’s insane. That is the glibbest possible answer anybody could give to how to solve either of these crises, which are essentially crises of labor, right? And crises of what kind of labor we value, and what kinds of objects we value.
So, you know, I feel—felt—uncomfortable being recognized in any way, when any kind of recognition was always gained or won against this backdrop of increasing immiseration and precarity and unhappiness. And I thought the least anybody could do is talk about that and try to draw attention to it.
And again, I don’t know that it does anything, or that it affects anything, but, there is a Marxist critic, Frank Lentricchia, in his really great book Criticism and Social Change has a line that I think of a lot, which goes: “What can you do, so you don’t just keep doing more of the same?”
ME: And so, it felt like at least it was some way to not do more of the same, which was, I don’t know, talk about the beauty of criticism, and speaking truth to power, and all of that stuff, so yeah.
AD: Almost every adjunct professor I know and almost every freelance critic I know loves the time when they get to work: the time in the classroom, the time writing, and what they don’t like is the constant stress over the ability to continue doing that work. And I thought your remarks really drew attention both in academia and in criticism to how tenuous many of our favorite teachers feel, many of our favorite critics feel.
ME: Yeah, and in the university, at least, it is interesting. I think students are more keyed into this now, than they were when we were in college, right?
AD: Yeah. Absolutely.
ME: But I do think it’s still hard, sometimes, for students to see that their professors are not equal. And I think that figuring out ways to draw it to their attention as well is also really, really, really important.
For me, and I think I said this in the speech, like, this is ultimately what the politics of the literary for me comes down to: if you have unequal access to the means of the production and consumption of literary objects, then that’s the first thing that needs to be fixed in some way.
AD: I think we’re in total agreement here. Now, we have about maybe 7 minutes before we turn to Q&A, and I will not let your fans in the audience get totally off the hook with you talking about yourself—I think we have to have you talk about yourself.
ME: Can we keep talking about the website? I just want to keep talking about how wonderful the website is—
AD: No, no—even the people who work at Words Without Borders are like, we do want to hear a bit about you and your process. When I read your reviews—and you’ve mentioned a couple of my favorite recent ones—but all of them are terrific. I am always in awe of how you pull in academic research. You read everything, you’re a beautiful stylist, and you write about the style of the authors you’re dealing with. You don’t just deal with questions of plot.
And I was wondering, if you can take us through, like, what a Merve Emre review start to finish is like. Like “this is the moment I fall in love with a book and I want to write about it,” “this is how I do it” and “this is how I research”—what does that look like?
ME: Well, so I should say I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always had wonderful editors, and I think the thing that really, for me, differentiates a wonderful editor from a merely functional one is that they know how to pair a critic with a novelist, or a critic with an author. And so, almost everything that I’ve written recently has come to me by way of my editors.
At the New Yorker, that is Leo Carey, who has been, I think, absolutely amazing at kind of mixing up, like, some modernist authors—some canonical, some forgotten—with more contemporary writers in translation for me to write about.
And at the New York Review of Books that is the all-star team of Jana [Prikryl], Emily [Greenhouse] and Gabe Winslow-Yost, who, you know, have brought me so many of the novelists that just mean a great deal—novelists and short story writers who mean a great deal to me now: Diane Williams, Ingeborg Bachmann, Daša Drndić—and Elizabeth Hardwick, of course.
And so, I would really put a lot of that—I think that for me, at least, the relationship between the critic and her books is an arranged marriage set up by the editor.
AD: You are doing it again, I’m going to point it out.
ME: Yeah, I know, I know, I know I am. So, from there, I mean, I do read everything. I find that really important. I take notes really copiously. And then I just sit down and I write. I try to have a word quota every day—I try to write a thousand words a day, if I can. I can’t always. And I’m a fairly excessive reviser, I’m a retyper.
I will probably retype every single essay four or five times, and then—I think I talked about this in an interview with the New York Review of Books, but my final reader is my husband. And we usually get into a huge and horrible fight when he reads, which is always some version of him being like, “I don’t understand this claim,” and me being like, “Well, you’re just a man! What can you possibly understand about anything—.”
ME: And the piece always, always ends up for the better. And I think that what the last two years, at least, have made me really appreciate is that for me the most fun and the most challenging part of writing any piece is the fact-check at the end. The fact-checkers at both the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books are my favorite people to work with.
AD: Amazing people.
ME: They are extraordinary and they’ve kind of rewired my brain in how I think about the kind of precision or specificity of what I say, down to the level of every detail. And they’ve also helped me realize how much I imagine when I’m writing. They’ll just be like, that—I don’t know where this description of this dress came from, but there is nothing like that in there.
Like, no, she didn’t even end up with that guy, she ended up with—I’m like, “Oh my God, what did I even—”
AD: That’s amazing.
ME: Yeah. So they are totally extraordinary, but that is just to say all these, what ends up looking like a dyadic love relation at the end between author and critic is actually a totally polyamorous arranged marriage by, you know, multiple editors, fact-checkers, my husband, you know, so yeah. They’re all in the mix.
AD: Once I was fact-checked, I thought: what were all the reviews where I wasn’t fact-checked like?
ME: Well, I think about this a lot with academic writing, actually, because nobody fact-checks anything that academics write. And I’m sure my own work has had tons of misquotations, because it’s, it’s—and you don’t even do it deliberately, it’s just like you are typing, and something misfires between the page, your brain, and your hand.
I mean, my best fact-check story: I did an event last night where the author Elif Batuman and I were sharing fact-checking horror stories from the New Yorker, and both of us had stories where the fact-checkers had called our parents and our parents had gotten quite upset, and—
AD: That has happened to me, too.
ME: Yeah, I had a sentence about how my parents never really concerned themselves with my moral education and the fact-checkers called my parents and said, “Did you really not concern yourselves with her moral education?” My mother called me, you know, screaming, like, “We told you not to lie, and you didn’t learn anything about it!”
AD: Yeah, they don’t even warn you. They’re just like, okay, we’re going to call your mom now.
ME: Yeah, yeah. I mean the best thing though, is to have the people that show up in your anecdotes—you just have to tell them ahead of time, like look: you just confirm everything I say. Or like, this is over. (LAUGHTER).
AD: Oh, yeah. That is one-hundred percent correct.
ME: That’s the only way to go about it, right.
AD: This is an actionable tip for everyone.
So, it is time for us to pivot to Q&A, but as always, Merve, time flew by, and I asked maybe two of the forty questions I prepared for you. It’s just such a delight always to talk to you.
ME: Aww, thank you, you’re the best. I’m sorry you’re—thanks for doing this while you’re ill, I know that’s—
AD: Oh my gosh, this is the best I’ve felt in eight days. I’m flying. I’ll crash, but I’m flying.
Okay. Let’s hit some great questions from the Q&A, and I’m taking them in the order I see them. We could drop them in the chat. Some of these are quick hitters, some of them are complex wonders.
The first one I’m seeing: “I’d like to ask Merve who her favorite critics are?”
ME: Oh man. Um, can I think about that? I’ll come back, I promise—
AD: Yeah, I’ll put a pin in it. You’ll scan everyone in the audience to make sure you name everyone who’s here.
ME: I mean, the first critics that come to mind are all dead. I just don’t—
AD: That’s okay, we like dead critics!
ME: I just don’t read a lot of contemporary—I mean, this is maybe one of my failings. I read friends, like my friend Maggie Doherty and my friends Sarah Chihaya and Christian Lorentzen—I mean, these are like friends whose work I read because I’m in contact with them about their work.
But then in terms of, you know, favorites in a slightly more objective sense—let’s set aside the fact that I tried to throw objectivity out the window earlier—in a more objective sense, it’s all people who are pretty long gone.
So, I obviously like Elizabeth Hardwick, I love Virginia Woolf, Lionel Trilling, [Edward] Said… I read a lot of the academic critics from the 50s and 60s.
AD: I do, too.
ME: Yeah, yeah. I’ve gotten really into reading Eliot’s criticism recently.
ME: Renata Adler, another great one. Yeah, I was actually thinking that I would maybe write a book about the figure of the critic. A kind of historical book about the figure of the critic, from 18th-century teahouses to the Internet-saturated present. And if I do that, I’ll have to think up more favorite critics to throw into the mix.
AD: I think some editors in the audience are going to buy that… That sounds really great.
ME: I have like five books I need to write, so please, nobody—
AD: Okay, don’t buy it.
Jumping around, this does lead to another question that you’ve been asked. Many of the critics you mentioned also write fiction, and a question from our audience: “Merve, have you ever thought about writing fiction?”
ME: (LAUGHTER) I thought about writing a novel about a husband who has Stockholm syndrome, that is, the marriage is based on Stockholm syndrome—but then I realized that was just Gone Girl, basically.
AD: But Gone Girl is great, what’s wrong with that?
ME: No, it is, it is. But then I was thinking about Maris [Kreizman]’s recent piece on how everything has become like it and, I was like, oh, I’m just doing that, and well—I don’t know, I would like to. I was thinking a little bit about how, I was thinking about this when I was writing the Hardwick piece and I’ve been thinking about this a lot because—I feel like I mention this book in every event I do but—because my friend Tim Bewes has written this great book called Free Indirect, which is really interested in putting pressure on this idea that there might be a meaningful distinction between fiction and nonfiction.
And so, I increasingly think that criticism, particularly long-form criticism, makes space for the play of the imagination, and the kind of creative work that fiction also taps into. And actually, Adam, this links back to a friend, an epistolary friend that you and I have in common, which is Sherbert Taylor, of course.
AD: Yes. Of course.
ME: But you should tell that, you should just briefly—
AD: So Sherbert Taylor is a pseudonym of Stokes Prickett, who is a pseudonym of an author whose identity I and four New Yorker fact-checkers know, and Stokes Prickett mails people he loves—[whether for] their writing or their criticism—pamphlets, books, essays, all centered around a mysterious figure called “Foodie.” I believe he sent you something on the erotics of receiving something anonymously in the mail, if I’m correct.
ME: Yes, yes, men are always sending me things about the erotics of receiving things in the mail— (LAUGHTER).
Yes, but everyone should read Adam’s really brilliant piece in the New Yorker. It’s sort of this wonderful piece of like, both investigative journalism, because he tracks down this anonymous person, but also, I think, a great active, a great work of literary criticism in that you’re kind of wondering what is the difference, really, between a fictional author, especially one that is made up, a la someone like Ferrante, right? What is the difference between that and the critic that is also equally made up, that is being pressed into the service of commenting on this person’s fictional works?
And so I think that dilemma, which you—
AD: I like that.
ME: —Which really brilliantly gets at the same question, about whether or not criticism can harness some of the same energies that fiction does.
AD: It puts me in the mind of Don Quixote, you know, finding Don Quixote in the market.
ME: Of course. But also, just a lot of the novelists that I’ve been reading and loving recently for instance, this guy… (MERVE HOLDS UP A COPY OF GERALD MURNANE’S A MILLION WINDOWS)
AD: Oh, yes.
ME: They’re all interested in how the act of writing in and of itself—and writing about yourself—creates a kind of schism in the subject, between the author, the narrator, and the represented character that is you, in any work.
And so, that in and of itself troubles any idea about the kind of verisimilitude or the “trueness” or the “rightness” of nonfiction, right?
ME: Sorry, that fell a long way of not answering whether I’m going to write a novel or not, because I don’t have an answer to that, but hopefully.
AD: But it was a great ride.
ME: Hopefully you got something out of that, yeah.
AD: Yeah, absolutely. We have a beautiful longer question here for you: “In a short essay on the Russian art critic Paul Muratov, the late Clive James wrote, ‘Looking back on it, however, I am glad to have discovered Muratov comparatively late in my life. His taste was too sure, and his view too wide, to have been much use to me earlier.’ Is James right?
“Should young students of criticism be careful to initially educate themselves through critics arguably more holistic and ‘tolerant’ in their aesthetic judgements than someone like Muratov, however excellent the latter may be?”
ME: Mm, yeah, I think that is a version of a question I get asked sometimes, which is what do you think of the “negative review?”
I mean that word, “tolerance,” just kind of tips that off. You know, I think that what critics, young critics, what any reader gains more from, is being—and this goes back to what I was I saying about the Booker judging room—is being put through the paces of a critic’s argument. Put through cases of their explanation or their justification for how they came to the judgment that they did.
So, the severity of the judgment, or the praise of the judgment, is less important really, because it is not very persuasive to say to someone: “This sucks, this is terrible.” It is equally not that persuasive to say to someone, like: “This is the most wonderful novel I’ve ever read.” This is why we have all the jokes that we do and skepticism that we do about the blurb economy, because just kind of loading adjectives onto a novel or a short story or a book of poetry doesn’t actually accomplish anything persuasively.
What persuades people is the argument that is made on behalf of it. And so, to me, the generosity is always a generosity of argument. It is always a generosity of someone showing how they are thinking. And it’s the generosity of someone showing how their thought is moving, from perhaps one scale of argument, i.e. here is how something works on the level of the sentence to another scale of argument: this is how we think about the genre of this piece, how we think about the form of this piece.
AD: I think your Hardwick essay from which we got the title of this event is a great example of that: there’s a writer whose book you didn’t particularly like, it seemed, but you didn’t linger on it. You used it to further your argument about Hardwick in general. And in the reading I got a very clear sense of what you thought without you—sort of—whatever “negative review” means, it wasn’t a negative review. I don’t know how you would even score it, because it’s a ridiculous dynamic to do that.
Instead you are saying: this didn’t work for me, here’s why, and how it still contributes to the argument I’m making.
ME: Yeah, I think, you know, it’s so easy to activate people’s contempt. It’s so easy to indulge your inner sadist. And I’m not sure what it is that we gain from that. So, with the Hardwick review, the task was: here is a biography that doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work on the terms of the genre of literary biography, and it doesn’t work on the terms of what someone like Elizabeth Hardwick would have set out for what literary biography can do—even though she believed it had its own limitations.
So then the question is, how can you write something that aspires to be the biography of Elizabeth Hardwick that might have honored her understanding of the genre?
ME: And that might actually infuse life into a subject who is no longer living? Which is an impossible task. You can only approach it sort of asymptotically, right? You cannot bring people back from the dead, unfortunately.
AD: No, if only. But a good critic can activate, I think.
ME: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. And I think that the question for me is always, I think that it is easy to have strident judgments. It’s easy to hate things. It’s far easier to convince other people to hate things—as the Internet has shown us, right? The Internet is one grand experiment in how easy it is to get other people to hate things without even reading those things, sometimes. So that’s very easy, it seems to me.
What’s more challenging is, like, how do you convince people to spend the time of their day—that they might spend watching episode one and episode twelve of some shitty Netflix show—to instead neither watch episode one nor episode twelve, and to pick up a novel, instead.
AD: Oh, I love that.
ME: That seems like a harder task.
AD: And not read the first five pages of a novel and the last five pages of a novel.
ME: Don’t do that.
AD: Like you apparently would do. (LAUGHTER).
We have time for one more question and I’m being led into one, so let me just read it.
“Some of the ways you’ve talked about criticism—whether cherishing or denying objectivity, self-effacement (or not)—map very cleanly onto how we often talk about translation. Translation, too, is an expressed interpretation of a work—can you see what we translators do as a kind of critical reading, perhaps?”
ME: Yeah, absolutely. That is beautiful. I think that’s one of those very useful questions that has its own answer baked into it. So I am merely going to assent to the answer that has been given. I mean, of course it has to be a kind of critical reading.
What else could it be? Because you are reading one text, and then writing about it, and writing over it.
And I think about this wonderful line in a book of criticism that I really like, which is D. A. Miller’s fantastic book Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style, where in the third chapter of that, on “too-close reading,” he talks about too-close reading as a desire to get close—as close as possible—without literal plagiarism to the mother text.
ME: Too-close reading is the desire to both write over the text and to write with the text. And in some ways that seems to me a better definition of translation than it does of criticism. The too-close reading that Miller is talking about can, I think, in many ways be achieved better through the act of translation than it can through the act of persuasion.
AD: Oh, that’s beautiful and a perfect note to end on, Merve.
ME: I know, I planned it.
AD: You actually used the title of the event, in the hammer for the last thing you said.
ME: Do you know what? I hate it when novels do that, you know, you’re like—(LAUGHTER). I can’t say what I want to say.
AD: “It was truly War and Peace.”
ME: “And her name was Anna Karenina—“
AD: Pretty good. (LAUGHTER)
ME: Thank you, Adam. Thank you, everyone, for coming.