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To discern the influence of an earlier text is not sufficient grounds to identify a literary work as a critical fiction (except in the broadest sense of the subtitle of this project, that all fiction is critical fiction and addresses earlier texts). To discern traces of influence in a literary work is analyzing seed and soil and climate, not eating the fruit and experiencing the author’s art. These are in fact two modes of reading that both have their purpose; sometimes they are narrowly linked — but not always.

This topic came up during a recent conversation about Joseph Conrad, when I mentioned that Guy Davenport noted clear textual and structural connections between Dickens’ Dombey & Son and Conrad’s Chance (in the essay “The Critic as Artist” cited earlier). It is always interesting to find influences and tastes and echoes of earlier works, for all writers are readers; but the points Davenport made do not make of Chance a critical fiction as we can identify Wide Sargasso Sea or “Belinda’s World Tour” as critical fictions. And then, of course, the conversation became even more interesting, as it always does when author  Tom La Farge is talking about books: he noted similarities between key passages of Poe and Conrad.

“As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense — of extreme despair.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd”.

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.”

— Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”.

This post advances the discussion of critical fiction only sideways , perhaps, but to hear such echoes enriches our experience of literature and our knowledge of its continuities. Tom La Farge is one of the most attentive readers I know, and our conversations over the years have been rewarding. One of his remarks about the Magic of Class in American literature helped me to shape “Appraisal at Edgewood”,  my critical fiction of Little, Big by John Crowley.

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