Sian Cain provides a revealing sketch of Justin Cronin as he deals with the reception of The City of Mirrors. All I can say is, “Wow. The man had cancer. No wonder it took him ten years to write the books.” He’s very brave, Mr. Cronin is, and I regard him with more than my usual amount of fan warmth for an author because he’s a transplanted New Englander who found his way down to Texas and Rice University here in Houston and made the place his home. We get a lot of those transplants on a regular basis, and despite what you may hear–either in fun or in serious tones–we don’t think of them as “damn Yankees” and wish they’d all go back where they came from. On the contrary, they are very much part of the lifeblood of our economy. We need them, and we welcome them. The process sometimes works the other way, too: many, many years ago, Hyder Rollins, the editor of the Variorum Edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (1944), found his way from the place of his birth, Abilene, Texas, up to Harvard University, where he made his own remarkable contribution to literature and criticism. And, of course, as I’ve mentioned before, every year in the academic job market, scholars who are educated in this part of the country will find jobs in other regions, as the seeds of learning and the values of the educated mind are spread as widely as possible.
Cronin reacts as sensitively to criticism of his work as you might expect, being stung more by the occasional indifferent review than he is cheered by the five enthusiastic ones. He is not likely, then, to enjoy Stuart Kelly’s review, or mine, but in both cases, we critics are doing our best to provide an honest and helpful assessment of the novel. I do know, however, how Cronin feels. One of the things that has always held me back from trying to write and publish a novel until now is my own fear of criticism. I don’t know if I have the courage to endure it. Yet, I also know (that is, I believe strongly) that one has to earn the right to be a critic, to say or write certain statements in the examination of another person’s arguments and ideas. I was persuaded of this by Arnold Stein at Illinois, and he was correct. In the field of fiction, one of the ways one “earns the right” to criticize is by writing a dadgum novel or story or poem for oneself. Then, and only then, can any of us fully appreciate the labor involved, the constant creativity necessary, to sustain a three-volume tale over 2000 pages, as Cronin has done. A lot of critics–including some famous ones–haven’t taken this step. I tend to devalue the reviews of such critics if I happen to know they haven’t written any fiction.
Yet, there’s another side to this coin that both Cronin and we need to look at. Provided that we approach the job with the necessary humility and at least some of the requisite intellectual skills, anyone can be a critic and provide a useful, necessary service for readers. The job of the critic is not a priesthood, although sometimes critics would have us believe that it is. C.S. Lewis withdrew the veil from academic criticism in A Preface to Paradise Lost in 1942. Who can endure a doctrine, he asks, wherein only cobblers may tell us when our feet hurt, or only governors may tell us when we are well governed? The answer, of course, is that we can’t and we don’t endure it. We engage in criticism every day as we read, and as we sometimes write. The only requirement for the task–and it’s a big one–is that we bring to bear all of the humility, intelligence, and humor that we possess any time we sit down to pass judgment on the work of someone else. In Lewis’s case, he had earned the right to say what he did about criticism by writing The Allegory of Love in 1936–a very good book on medieval and Renaissance poetry, if you haven’t read it–and, as you all know, by branching out from Christian apologetics in the 1940s with his own fiction (The Chronicles of Narnia) in the 1950s.
I believe I learned one very useful thing from reading The City of Mirrors. Kelly almost comes to it in his review when he remarks that the descendants of humanity don’t quite know what to make of Moby-Dick. I don’t know what to make of it, either, which is partly why I regard it as a wonderful book. I was thinking of Moby-Dick (not to mention The Book of Job) as I neared the end of the battle with Subject Zero, Tim Fanning–the words of Ishmael, “I alone escaped to tell thee.” At first, the recollection was nothing profound; it’s just an instance of how my mind works. Then, it hit me: this is what all stories are; this is what fiction is–a tale of survival, whether it’s a story of horror, of science fiction, of romance, of the domestic strains of marriage or friendship. This is what they all come down to: tales of survival. Our attempts at history bend that way, too, as historians rescue the artifacts that have escaped the ravages of time and try to make sense of them. And science? Science studies the world and the cosmos by studying the leftovers, as well. I do not know whether this insight is universally applicable. I’d appreciate it if someone could point out a weakness in thinking this way, or an exception to this train of thought. But I am glad to have learned it from Cronin. His long story was not only a fine summer read, it provided me with something of permanent value in the way I think about how we interpret the world.