Bill Brown first sensed his calling when he realized he read very slowly—a habit he thinks is integral to the critic’s discipline.
Question: When did you first know that you wanted to study literature professionally?
Bill Brown: I think I probably recognized that I was going to be something like a literary critic when I started to be conscious of the fact that I read very slowly, you know? Which is really to say that if I'm reading narrative prose fiction, I tend to read it more like poetry, so I read a sentence and think about a sentence. And which is, I have to tell you, a huge handicap if you end up being a literary critic, because you have to read lots and lots. But I think it was probably that, a certain sense of being interested in the lines of prose that made me think that, you know, there was really something to explore, whether it had to do with the rhythm, the symbolism, the tropology, something along those lines. And I also have to say that I imagine even when I was a kid I was pretty convinced I would be an English teacher.
Question: On which areas of literature are you currently focused?
Bill Brown: Mostly I work on 19th and 20th century American literature. Sometimes I do English literature, I have an essay on Virginia Woolf, for instance. Sometimes a little bit of French literature and increasingly, I also attend to the visual arts.
Question: What does your everyday work as a critic consist of?
Bill Brown: I think it's trying to explain how, both what and how a given text, either discursive or visual, means and by the, what it means and the how it means, I could very well be asking questions that are eventually going to be historically grounded, or with a historical context, which makes a given poem make sense, right? Or geographical context, how is it that this should, you know, German artist in 1950 was using these materials, that, you know, happened to be outside of Berlin, that kind of thing.
And I would say, a lot of it would relate to the very idea of slowing down. That is, I think if you read something, something famous, say The Great Gatsby, well, it's not hard to understand, you know? It's not complicated, it's not like a tough poem, but I think in fact if you slow down and you start to see what it is that Fitzgerald is doing, constructing certain metaphors and deploying and redeploying certain themes as you go through that book, that's how, I think, you realize that in, you know, 100-and-some pages, a very, very short novel, you feel as though you've had a very, very big experience.
Recorded on March 4, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen