Baby Elephant Walk

“The language of critics, and of artists of the kind who pay attention to critics, has become exceedingly odd: not talk about feelings or intellectual affirmations—not talk about moving and surprising twists of plot or wonderful characters and ideas—but sentences full of large words like hermaneutic, heuristic, structuralism, formalism, or opaque language, and full of fine distinctions—for instance those between modernist and post-modernist—that would make even an intelligent cow suspicious. Though more difficult than ever before to read, criticism has become trivial.
“The trivial has its place, its entertainment value. I can think of no good reason that some people should not specialize in the behavior of the left-side hairs on an elephant’s trunk. Even at its best, its most deadly serious, criticism, like art, is partly a game, as all good critics know. My objection is not to the game but to the fact that contemporary critics have for the most part lost track of the point of the game, just as artists, by and large, have lost track of the point of theirs. Fiddling with the hairs on an elephant’s nose is indecent when the elephant happens to be standing on the baby.”

—John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978

I haven’t read this since about 1980 or so, but the turn of phrase has always stuck with me.
I can’t really comment on the late-1970s state of literary criticism, or even its state today, but the overall point, both in terms of there being nothing wrong with the trivial but something wrong with focusing only on the trivial, is one that I find has resonated with me over the years. Even when writing Thunderbolts and The Power Company.
Something I saw online today reminded me of Gardner’s point, so I figured I’d post it.

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