Vilhelm Ekelund On Dogs And Literary Critics

In Nordic and Classic (reprinted in Dagbok och Diktverk by Sven Linquist, Bonniers, Stockholm 1966; excerpted in Vilhelm Ekelund: The Second Light, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1986, page 26), Vilhelm Ekelund, the master Swedish poet and aphorist, writes:

Into the dog’s sense of life enters, no doubt as an essential fact, the joy that God created so many trees and lampposts for him to lift his hind leg against. If the literary critic’s psyche could be analyzed, one would surely find there a vital, analogous disposition: the happiness that God, among the mass of harmlessly acceptable authors, created also the “curious” and original, unacceptable ones, for the critic to rush up to and lift his leg against.

Here, as in many other places in his writing, Ekelund expresses a characteristic dislike of one component of the unholy nexus of critics, fame, and popular opinion–that foul combination by which a writer’s talent would be waylaid and diverted into backwaters of conformism and deadly pandering to the masses. (Notice that the kinds of writers the critic sprays all over are the ‘good ones’: the ‘curious,’ the ‘original,’ and the ‘unacceptable.’) But he also, characteristically, delivers a penetrating insight the about the nature of writing.

Literary critics, sadly enough for Ekelund, are writers too; writers need foils; the critic’s are other writers. More expansively, a writer writes about something (the ‘raw materials’ of the truly productive and prolific are seemingly endless, speaking well to their ability to see ‘a World in a Grain of Sand.’); this is one reason why reading–besides training the writing ‘voice–is indispensable for a writer. It gives the writer her material.  The critic writes about other writers; so they provide grist for the mill, flesh for the sausage machine. The writings that the literary critic critiques may appear as riffs in a musical performance: one performer feeds off the other’s offerings.

Viewed in this light, the literary critic might appear as a parasite, but that would be a mistake. All writers need other writers to write, to push out into this world and to make it one they want to write for and about; the literary critic, who writes about other writers’ writing, is infected by a similar need.

Ekelund would be offended by my suggestion that the critic is a writer but there’s no getting away from such a classification. He might however, lend an attentive ear to the claim that one might venture a kinder view of the critic: that the writer’s disdain for the critic–almost fashionable sometimes–is a function of the critic’s location in a larger political economy of writing, in its ability to make or break or ‘careers’, to be the arbiter of commercial fortune and ‘acceptance’ in the ‘literary world’, one dominated almost entirely by artifice and pretension. Perhaps if the critic could be delinked from such a role, then the writer and the critic both might view each other in a kinder light; they would see the other as fellow travelers, committed to the same art, but with different inclinations, motivations, and methods.

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