The Din in the Head
Literary critics often have the problem of taking themselves too seriously, but Cynthia Ozick is more of an everyman cultural observer. She can dissect Susan Sontag's thoughts on art and make a case for Rudyard Kipling in the same book in which she examines Oprah's Book Club.
That accessibility makes her feel personable, and her new The Din in the Head is also part memoir. Ozick admits to feeling competitive with Sontag while disagreeing with Sontag's belief that there is little to no distinction between high and pop art. She starts her smart essay on Lionel Trilling with an anecdote about the famed New York literary critic interviewing her for a place in his Columbia University graduate English class. And she details her struggles with her first novel in "Henry James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel."
James is Ozick's main squeeze in Din. Three of the 20 essays have his name or one of his books in the title, and he is mentioned in passing in others. She ends the book with "An (Unfortunate) Interview with Henry James," a hilarious fake Q&A with the mysterious novelist. She creates a Barbara Walters-meets-People magazine format that focuses on his rumored homosexuality and his rejection of friends, and you've missed the point if you think the interviewer focuses too much on James' personal life instead of asking him about his work.
Ozick believes that knowing too much about an author's life can take away from, not add to, an appreciation of his or her work, a point she reiterates in an essay about Sylvia Plath. After admitting that Plath's private journals are pretty shallow, Ozick contends that it doesn't matter: "come back to the collected poems-the full force of their conflagration-and the journals and their lemon cakes and their good husband and their bad husband, all taken together, become as ash."
Although Ozick feels an author's private life shouldn't affect your perception of the work, she doesn't necessarily believe it should be kept private. Her essay on Trilling relies heavily on his journals and his desire to be a novelist like Ernest Hemingway. She also focuses on Leo Tolstoy's youthful shenanigans while questioning the politics behind The Cossacks.
In "Highbrow Blues," Ozick jokes about the Oprah's Book Club gaffe, when The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen said he didn't want Winfrey to choose his book for her club because he considered himself "solidly in the high-art literary tradition." Here Ozick is closer to Sontag than she likes to admit, suggesting that people who acknowledge a superiority of high art over, say, Oprah are suspect at best, supercilious at worst. And although she sometimes stumbles-Ozick almost worships John Updike in her short essay on him, unable to look at him with her famously critical eye-The Din in the Head is another success from a masterful, and approachable, critic.