The critic as writer
The relation of art and thought, the fiction of criticism and the criticism of fiction, holds a central place in Northrop Frye’s work. He advocated the creativity and integrity of criticism as well as of literature. This Romantic position may also be a personal and historical one. Frye himself stressed the creative aspects of myth and metaphor both in his criticism and the fiction that he published in his twenties and continued to plan well into middle age. The post-war age has become an age of critical and scholarly output that is unmatched in ‘Western’ history. A view, like Frye’s, that elevated criticism to the level of literature and justified the ways of departments of literature to humankind found favour in a field that had so many doubts about whether it existed or if it did, whether it should. The rise of English studies as a successor to classics was a relatively new phenomenon (see Eagleton 1983b, Graff 1987, Murray 1991). These insecurities in the discipline are understandable. When examining the relation between Frye as a critic and a fiction writer, I am not interested in psychoanalysing him. Instead, my wish is to see whether his fiction can tell us something about his views of creativity and writing in general. He didn’t realize as early on as he says in his interviews and critical works that he had no vocation for writing literature. His hopes for his literary writing occur at the time he is working out his commentary on Blake. Was writing about metaphor as satisfying and as creative as creating it? Perhaps Frye realized where his true talents lay and made the most of
them; perhaps not. In an age when Derrida, Kristeva, Cixous and many others are treating all writing as writing, whether it is fiction or criticism or ficto-theory, Frye’s proclamation that criticism is creative seems enlightened if different. His criticism tells stories, although stories that often retell those from literature or from class, but is set out in the language of argument and follows the conventions of scholarly or critical prose. His criticism is not constructed ostensibly as a fiction, although it may be a supreme fiction, like a cosmology. The fiction is different from the criticism. The two share properties but are generically distinct. This chapter will concentrate on Frye’s fiction but, whenever possible, will relate it to his criticism and theory. For the most part, it will circle back to Frye’s youth in order to try to illuminate the criticism that followed, to see whether he is a writer who chose criticism or a critic who wrote. Writing well was good enough for Auden in praising Yeats, but for Frye it was Yeats’ vision that made him a major poet. It may be Frye’s vision that makes him a major critic, but that still leaves us with the problem of whether criticism can be visionary in the same way and with the same effect that poetry can be. Is it the concrete nature of metaphor that resists the philosopher’s abstract descriptions of it? Was Frye breaking new ground or was he like Wilde’s liar seeking the impossible with spectacular success? Is it necessary to create a world of fiction to make a fictional world (see Hart 1988)? In this chapter I want to work backwards from the notebooks, journals and correspondence to Frye’s stories in the 1930s and 1940s.