BE STRONG AND READ HARD!
A CALL FOR A NEW ERA OF EXPERIMENTATION,
AND A BOOK CULTURE THAT WILL SUPPORT IT
George Orwell, in his essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” postulates a Sisyphean vision of the average book critic, a pouchy-eyed and preternaturally geriatric fiction writer clad in grubby robe and slippers, cowering behind a vertical thatch of cigarette butts and gazing at a mail packet of five novels, about which he’s meant to write an 800 word review by noon the following day. This coal laborer of the intellectual set has made his living turning “tripe” into cultural fossil fuels, he has sacrificed his standards for “a glass of inferior sherry,” and the effects, Orwell warns, are dismally incapacitating. Finally, as the shadow of the deadline darkens his study door, the despondent reviewer plods to action, dragging from his weary critical arsenal phrases such as “a book that no one should miss” and “something memorable on every page”—and types the concluding period just as the new packet of books thumps onto his doormat.
At the moment, I share vague similarities with Orwell’s reviewer. I am wearing pajamas (clean ones), I am a fiction writer, I prefer Brooklyn Lager to sherry, and that thumping sound? I suspect it’s the woman next door who beats her cat. Finally, what I lack in moral despondence I make up for in vacillation. For the past few months I’ve been trying to write an essay about reviewing that does not cast stones or bestow accolades, which is measured and polite and avoids value assignation, but the result felt like one long exercise in avoidance. If I were to write an essay about reviewing, it would make sense to admit that I have biases; I have opinions; I have some assertions to make about the current state of affairs. This is decidedly dodgy business, given that, as a general career operating principle, I try not to piss people off. Yet I need only look toward Washington, and the cringing Democrats, to see the fruitless results of this career operating principle. Such duck-and-cover amenability starts to appear cowardly, not to mention self-defeating; rather than guaranteeing a tepid longevity, it ensures an inevitable, and ignoble, extinction. And according to Orwell, horrors of the more existential variety await the timid person who prances around her subject for fear of saying something disagreeable. To write a dull, safe essay might be to risk slipping, intellectually, into his tattered landscape of hoary bathrobes and cigarette ruins.
Before I start outright lamenting, I’d prefer to take a sober look at the way we use book reviews, and how this use has changed as the book’s cultural status has diminished. I’m from the generation that grew up with the idea of “service,” one based less on a religious model than a business one, and thus, as an editor, I’m interested in who or what a book review best “serves.” The reader? The author? The culture? The critic?
The first obvious answer: the reader. (Actually, the first obvious answer might be the publishing houses and the review publications. We hear of publication editors lunching with marketing directors, we hear there exists a correlation between the advertising space purchased by publishers and the books which are subsequently reviewed, and how—but that is the paranoid province of a different essay.) A review serves today’s reader by helping him sort through the myriad offerings and anointing a few worthy of notice. Books are expensive, after all; not many are willing to make a $25 bet on an unknown horse. We are talking about a very specific kind of review here, a.k.a. Hello, Heidi Julavits! We have recommendations for you! (If you’re not Heidi Julavits, who cares?) This is review as consumer reports-style squib, meant to alert the reader to a book’s simple existence as a purchasable ornament, a seasonal literary accessory that presumably everyone will be talking about, assigning to their book clubs, reading on airplanes and subways. This is the sort of “exposure” craved by publishing houses and publicity people, even though I was told by a PR person that “glossies don’t sell books—dailies do.”
I find this heartening, since newspapers tend to run longer reviews, reviews that are of varying meatiness, certainly, and often composed of rearranged copy cribbed from a press release. Nonetheless, this indicates, however weakly, that there are other sorts of readers, readers who are less (but not entirely un) susceptible to the fashionable aspects of reading, readers who are more eager to use reviews as a way to engage books on a critical level. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote a piece about William Gaddis in The New Yorker. Ed Park recently wrote a piece about William Gaddis in The Village Voice. I acquired Gaddis’s The Recognitions four years ago, and it has sat ever since on my bookshelf, save for a few vacations when I’ve optimistically hefted it along, only to return it to my bookshelf, pages unsullied by sunblock. I am now reading The Recognitions. Why now, after all these years of well-meaning procrastination? Because I want to be able to interact with Franzen and Park on more than a surface level, meaning that I read their essays and thought, huh, interesting, but was incapable of a more engaged or informed response; I want to read Gaddis so that I can figure out if I agree with them or not, and regardless, their essays indicate that I should obviously just read Gaddis.
In a perfect, or possibly gilded world, a book review might strive for loftier service issues, those completely unconnected to commerce or fashion; a review might hope to serve the culture. Yes, we’ve had our Vendlers, our Sontags, our Updikes, and our Ozicks, but no one critical group is as mythically representative of a golden age as the “New York Intellectuals,” among whom the most famous was probably Lionel Trilling and the most infamous Norman Podhoretz. During the WWII era in which most of these writers emerged, literary criticism was inextricable from cultural criticism, and thus reviews functioned as moral, philosophical and political explorations for society at large, inspired by this or that book. Trilling, by far the most mannerly member of the NYI, was the first to coin the term “cultural criticism,” and he believed—it sounds adorably giddy nowadays, or reprehensibly bourgeois (if you’re my mother-in-law and a feminist literary critic)—that “intelligence was connected with literature, and that it was advanced by literature.” Writers of my approximate generation have heard of, and possibly even read anthologized pieces from Commentary and Partisan Review, we imagine intellectually volatile dinner parties at Village basement dives during which men in big black glasses leap across a table to yell at other men in big black glasses, we imagine Mary McCarthy dropping a conversation-halting bon mot before adjusting her fur and teetering off to the Ladies’ Room for a cigarillo. We imagine these intellectuals as urban celebrities; we imagine not only a vibrant intellectual and critical culture, but a groundswell of readers for their work, accompanied, naturally, by a devotion to their personal lives so intense that Bunny and Mary’s break-up was as chattered about as Tom and Nicole’s (or possibly Kenneth and Emma’s).
What is so captivating about reading, for example, Trilling, is how seriously he took his job as a book reviewer, how powerful, and by extension perilous, he believed his (and all the NYI) attitudes toward literature, politics and morality to be. In his essay, “Hemingway and His Critics,” Trilling addresses a collective “we” when he cautions against the reduction of art to a pure moral or political message that is ready-made for application in the world at large.
We have conceived the artist to be a man perpetually on the spot, who must always report to us his precise moral and political latitude and longitude. Not that for a moment we of course consider shaping our own political ideas by his; but we who would turn for political guidance to newspapers, theorists, and historians, create the fiction that thousands—not to be sure ourselves—are waiting on the influence of the creative artist, and we stand by to see if he is leading us as he properly should. We consider then that we have exalted the importance of art, and perhaps we have. But in doing so we have quite forgotten how complex and subtle art is, and if it is to be ‘used,’ how difficult it is to use it.
There’s much to note in this passage, not least the assumption a) that artists possess moral and political convictions, and that they are “on the spot” about them, b) that anyone should give a damn about these convictions, or, c) that they should give too much of a damn about them. Oh, and d) that literature has a “use” above and beyond entertainment or populist pablum. Much as I find sentimental solace in this idea of book reviews “serving” American culture, it is sobering to note the following hard number: Partisan Review rarely enjoyed a circulation of above 10,000. Not bad for the average literary magazine, but hardly the sort of numbers that would earn one a floor (or even a toilet stall) in the Condé Nast building.
But not to get gloomy so quickly. I’ll save that for later. If a review serves a reader, a culture (no matter how marginally or nostalgically), it might also serve an artist—and not always in a beneficial manner. Trilling’s Hemingway essay cautions against the negative effect that reviewers can have on the artists whom they assess. Hemingway, Trilling notes, was a writer who “more than any writer of our time has been under glass, watched, checked up on predicted, suspected, warned,” embraced by some, but criticized by others for work “made up of cruelty, religion, anti-intellectualism, even basic fascism.” Because, as Trilling points out, these critics continually failed to distinguish “the artist” Hemingway from “the man” Hemingway, these slights hit a rather personal nerve with “the man” Hemingway. Trilling conjectures that Hemingway was tempted to vindicate “the man” against these charges, which led, unfortunately, to Hemingway’s writing a very bad play (The Fifth Column) and a not-so-great novel (To Have and Have Not).
But to bring it back to our present Teflon age of criticism. The idea of a review influencing a single artist can be expanded to encompass entire aesthetic movements, which might be seen as a review’s—and by extension, a critic’s—job to identify and warn against. Take, as a recent example of this, the critic James Wood, and his ornery dislike of what he terms “hysterical realism,” an aesthetic movement whose primary symptom is a cartoonish whoosh of exhibitionistic, information-laden and emotion-free prose. He pegs this contagion as a lamentable American export—which sweepingly encompasses writers from Jay McInerney to David Foster Wallace—at least when he’s not diagnosing Brits like Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith. Wood takes his job as critic very seriously, and I suspect he pines for a day when writers are morally and emotionally engaged again—even as he morbidly speculates about that impossibility—which is what I took to be his message in the essay he wrote for The Guardian on October 6, 2001, “How Does it Feel?” Wood took American writers to task for their spellbound fixation with glitterama lit, and expressed a lukewarm hope that the terrorist attacks might issue in a more somber and mature aesthetic period, in which writers would deliver “the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.” Notice he’s not interested in politics, despite the overtly “political” situation we all find ourselves in. Wood is overcompensating for the burgeoning domination of what he calls “the social and documentary” novel, while also dismissing the novel that is little more than solipsistic, scantily-reworked autobiography. He wants feeling on a grand scale, he wants something that is closer to religion than literature, and that’s a fairly ballsy—if equally hazardous, at least where the production of decent books is concerned—thing to want.
I admit: I find Wood’s mordant optimism inspiring, if only because books are my religion, too. But Wood—specifically, a recent incident involving Wood—catapults me toward a more ideological service issue: Should a review practice a certain etiquette, either spoken or unspoken? Which is another way of asking, When is criticism too self-serving or mean? Should one even be stupid enough to invoke etiquette—or in Wood’s case, since he appears sensitive to this sort of thing—feelings, when speaking of reviewing? Or is that sort of dreckish handholding a surefire way to guarantee the grandscale trumpeting of mediocrity?
The answer to that final question is yes. And as for cruelty and pettiness, how would you go about “stopping” such a thing? (And how can one properly define “cruelty,” when one person’s respectful criticism is another’s heartless thrashing?) In what practical way could there be accountability? Accoun-tability, that is, beyond gossiping and whispering, as was done after Dale Peck’s invective against Rick Moody appeared in The New Republic. Or after James Wood’s review of Zadie Smith’s novel, The Autograph Man, appeared in the London Review of Books. I respected Wood a little bit less after that review. Does that amount to accountability? Does Wood care what I think?
I think it was a mistake for James Wood to accept that assignment; that said, he might have accepted the assignment without taking the bait. When I saw the Wood/Smith match-up on the front page of the LRB, my first thought was: bloodbath, Heidi Julavits! My second thought was that Smith must have really pissed off an editor at the LRB. My third thought was: I don’t need to read this review (even though I did). Smith wrote a stirring rebuttal to Wood’s Guardian piece after September 11, and the pair have butted heads on other occasions. Wood famously abhors the aesthetic tradition in which Smith works. Rather than overcompensating for his known bias (a potentially interesting tack) or surprising us by delivering the last verdict we’d expect, he made a savage dive for the jugular, going above and beyond the critical call of duty by indulging his own fictional impulses and composing a derisive example of “hysterical realism.”
Of course, there exists a pedigreed precedent for this type of witty abuse. Edmund Wilson attacked Archibald MacLeish in his poem, “The Omelet of A. MacLeish.” When asked by Isaiah Berlin why he’d written such a mean-spirited bit of sarcasm, Wilson’s response was “Oh, he’s just an idiot, you know.” Wood, for all his complaints, does not think Smith is an idiot (he does think McInerney is an idiot)—and while one might not want to make a habit of trashing idiots, Wood’s impulse to mock a writer he respects seems lurid and malicious. From an editorial perspective, the LRB assigned a book to a critic who was practically guaranteed to keelhaul it. Perhaps it makes most sense to assign a critic to a writer with whom he has an antagonistic if vital history of repartee, a writer whose aesthetic is one the critic actively loathes, but it could also be argued that this match-up makes about as much sense as a cruddy marriage. Wood himself has a novel coming out in June of 2003. Will the LRB assign his book to Zadie Smith for review? Would this make the most sense, or the least? To do so would be advocating an eye-for-an-eye reviewing culture that seems both barbaric and sensationalist. To not do so would reveal certain favoritism one would hope a publication of its ilk might attempt, at least superficially, to avoid. No matter what is decided, these assignments do raise the question: What value system is at work here? Has the book fallen so far down the cultural totem that it is worth little more than the number of magazines a controversial review match-up is able to sell? (This is the apparent operating system at the The New Republic; editor Leon Wieseltier seems committed to publishing incendiary, if not exactly cogent, pieces for the sake of boosting its circulation).
Even the champions of books are tempered—or at least realistic—in their enthusiasms. Yes, there are contemporary critics who take literature seriously, but no one, who I’ve read, would be so arcane to suggest that literature remains our cultural keystone (save possibly Harold Bloom, who alienates as many readers as he inspires). At some point in the Sixties, cultural and literary criticism parted ways; or maybe it would be more accurate to say that culture disentangled itself from literature’s influence and superceded it by stacking the low-brow deck, as if it were a mere matter of physics—top-heavy = instability, bottom-heavy = stability. With the advent of postmodern criticism, in which the methods of literary criticism were lifted and used to analyze everything from parking lots to Madonna videos, books became far less “fashionable” subjects. Perhaps this parting was also due to the growing importance of television, of a competing medium’s ability to provide a more “real” and thus more authoritative version of human experience. The irony here is that the first novelists were journalists, as Mary McCarthy points out in her essay “The Fact in Fiction.” Boccaccio’s The Decameron, considered by some to be the modern novel prototype, is a collection of stories told by a bunch of Florentines exiled in a country castle to escape the Great Plague of 1348 that melds fiction with factual and historical information. As a result, The Decameron is not only taught in comparative literature courses; its in-the-trenches eyewitness accounts of the Black Death—symptoms, contagion, sanitary precautions, medical treatments, burial rituals—have made the book an indispensable source for historians. McCarthy segues into a discussion about Defoe, a Grub Street journalist whose Robinson Crusoe was—oh, this is sounding familiar—based on a true story. McCarthy claims, “not only was the ‘father of the modern novel’ a journalist, but he did not distinguish, at least to his readers, between journalist and fiction writer.”
So if the chromosomal code of the novel carries the occasionally dormant “news” gene, (the word “novel,” McCarthy reminds us, means “new”) perhaps it’s no wonder that the novel should suffer a Darwinian set-back in the face of an evolved medium of news storytelling. Yes, the news gene has been dormant for long stretches—during the modernist period writers tried to free the novel from the burden of information in order to see what language alone might convey—but mainstream fiction gave up on language long before the culture gave up on literature. Even Trilling was forced to confront the growing cultural indifference toward literature’s significance; his 1973 essay, “Art, Will, and Necessity” tries to historicize this cooling off, almost the way anti-global warming theorists try to dispel hysteria by suggesting such fluctuations are simply that, fluctuations rather than a Doomsday call; he writes, “But although art is regarded as momentous...nothing is more typical of our cultural activity than our periodic discovery that art is not so serviceable as it was supposed to be.” The novel was no longer the expert to which one turned, as they did in Trilling’s day, for “political guidance.” McCarthy believed that post-war novelists “lacked real experience,” a sentiment turned into a hyped-up battle cry by Tom Wolfe in his 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” advancing the cause of the new—or the very, very old—journalist-fiction writer hybrid, a writer who prizes experience and hands-on research as the only means to true authority and relevance.
Since I’ve been a conscious reader of book reviews, I’ve watched the novel try and fail to compete, not only with television and movies, but with the obscuring popularity of non-fiction and memoirs, books which put a premium on actual, rather than literary truths, or those more obscure truths of pure language. The novel—a certain type of novel, it should be pointed out—attempted to regain its foothold by re-engaging in social analysis, assimilating pop culture, and responding directly to current events. (Other novelists long ago stopped trying to compete with news and nonfiction. These writers—called “experimental,” if they’re not really, or “inaccessible,” if they are—have differently tormented careers. The more realistic among them never expect to be mainstream cultural players—quite unlike the narrative “story” writers, who have a much harder time relinquishing the hope, no matter how facile and unlikely, that their books still might be as artistically embraced as an Eminem album.) By less serious writers, this sort of novel acted as a fun, glitzy cultural information booth, one whose offerings risked becoming embarrassingly outdated even before the book’s paperback edition hit the shelves. And as Wood points out, “But this idea—that the novelist’s task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality—may well have been altered by the events of September 11, merely through the reminder that whatever the novel gets up to, the ‘culture’ can always get up to something bigger.”
Which leads to a fairly dead end, does it not? Still, I maintain a small bit of optimism that this decline I’ve been describing is not a decline at all, but a dizzying cycle, as Trilling believed. Yet even that isn’t wholly accurate, since the notion of a cycle is that you eventually end up right where you began. I feel like a person who started out with a hundred U.S. dollars, who changed my dollars into Euros, then changed the Euros back to dollars and so on, until I’m left with about three cents. The culture spirals between extremes, yes, but some small commission is extracted during each rotation, until these circles are hardly visible to the naked eye, and about as significant.
If the novel suffers in a cyclical fashion from the longest of terminal illnesses (“life,” I’d call it; “playing possum,” McCarthy calls it), it isn’t halfway as dead as the art of fiction reviewing, a death Richard B. Woodward autopsied in a piece that appeared in the Village Voice in 1999. Review space has been slashed (if nobody reads fiction, who’s going to read reviews about fiction?), and what remains is meringued into “stylish piffle,” comprised of re-fluffed jacket copy and colorful cut-and-paste nonpareils from a press release. Woodward also points out how fellow writers have contributed to this decline, by lavishing praise upon terrible books, out of a survivalist concern for future career retribution. A writer/reviewer would sooner toss himself off the Brooklyn Bridge before he’d give a fair or truthful assessment of a colleague’s book, for fear said colleague will be in a position to ding him from Yaddo next summer or stand between him and his Guggenheim. I don’t deny there’s truth to this. I don’t deny that writers have all become a little bit too greedy about praise, that the manner in which writers assess other writers has suffered from a sort of grade inflation, until everyone’s got an impressive if meaningless 4.0 average on our career transcripts, the hacks and the quasi-hacks alike.
To which I say: le plus ça change. Every crime of mediocrity Woodward enumerated in 1999 was enumerated more than sixty years earlier by Orwell in his 1936 essay, “In Defence of the Novel.” Orwell also pins the decline of novel on reviewers. “Question any thinking person as to why he ‘never reads novels,’ and you will usually find that, at bottom, it is because of the disgusting tripe that is written by blurb reviewers.... When all novels are thrust upon you as works of genius, it is quite natural to assume that all of them are tripe.” He traces the reviewer’s gradual lowering of their standards as follows:
To apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants. On such a balance as that a flea would simply fail to register; you would have to start by constructing another balance which revealed the fact that there are big fleas and little fleas. It is no use monotonously saying, ‘this book is tripe.’ [The reviewer] has got to discover something which is not tripe, and pretty frequently, or get the sack. This means sinking his standards to a depth at which makes Ethel M. Dell’s Way of the Eagle a good book, The Constant Nymph a superb book, and The Man of Property—what? A palpitating tale of passion, a terrific, soul-shattering masterpiece, an unforgettable epic which will last as long as the English language, and so on and so forth. (As for any really good book, it would burst the thermometer.)
Perplexingly—or hearteningly—Orwell wrote this essay just as Trilling and the NYIs were gaining speed and “influence.” So here I am again, left with my money exchange metaphor. It’s the same hopeless cycle, many years later, but I insist that something is lost through each exchange, and I’m left holding three lousy cents.
Not all books that contribute to Orwell’s Tripe Effect are, themselves, tripe. Yes, there are those glowingly received books that qualify absolutely as tripe—easy-to-swallow, “redemptive” novels with feel-good finales and sentimentalized conflicts, meant as crowd pleasers rather than challengers and disrupters (yes, there are those occasional bestseller books that buck this stereotype; they are a rarity)—but what about those books by lauded literary authors that receive kid glove treatment because of the circumstances or career of the writer in question? I’m thinking of the critical leniency afforded those writers who have suffered the mythical “sophomore slump;” the more successful the first book, and the more publicly grueling the gestation of the second (ideally, this struggle should take at least a decade), the more certain it is this book will be received kindly, no matter what the result. Perhaps I should admire this critical politesse, which might further imply that critics harbor a sincere reverence for writers and the punishing demands of their métier. But I need only look at those successful debut writers who are not crippled by their fame, who continue to work uninterrupted to produce a second book in due time, and the very different treatment they receive, to sense there is something more complicated and perverse at work than mere graciousness. Americans prefer tormented underdogs to unshakeable confidence; the aw shucks, grammatically challenged, bad grades political candidate is down to earth and worthy of our sympathy and support, while the undeterred, driven intellect is met with suspicion. We don’t like Christians, but we do like born-again Christians (Bush and Gore are BAC)—we like a person who has taken a tumble, in whose rise to power there was an implicit Fall. The world of book coverage is no different. The come-from-nowhere debut or struggling comeback kid; these are the two critically newsworthy positions a writer might occupy. Just another easy success story isn’t worth embracing, unless that success is being hailed as a failure.
But reviews that fail to acknowledge a significant feature of a novel (or try to put a thoroughly positive spin on a novel of mixed virtues) possibly perform a greater disservice to the author they attempt to protect. Readers are sensitive to the disconnect between what is described in a review, and what they encounter in an actual book; the result of the disconnect is that readers will be a lot less sympathetic to a book’s oddities, and a lot more wary of reviewers. They’ll feel they’ve been had. Unfortunately, people felt “had” a lot. The repetitious sentiments in reviews can lead to the paranoid conclusion that there’s a critical “rabblement of lemmings,” to tweak a turn from Harold Bloom—no, that’s not a man behind the curtain, those are two giant thumbs, and they’re both pointing...up! Who cares if a book is terrible, average, or just terribly average? It’s a thriller about so-called serious issues by an African-American professor at Yale Law School. Thumbs up, people! (Lorin Stein, reviewing Stephen L. Carter’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park for the LRB, writes, “American reviewers, partly out of deference to Carter’s serious polemics on race, religion and American politics, have tended to treat The Emperor of Ocean Park as a serious novel, which it is not.”) Or: this little upstart is everywhere, she’s in every hip anthology, every glossy, she’s even in a band. Thumbs to the floor! Here’s the scary truth: individual books don’t get reviewed—careers do. People do. As Stein remarks, The Emperor of Ocean Park...for which [Carter’s] publishers paid a record-breaking advance, is being sold on the strength of its author’s name...and is meant only in a secondary way to be read.” I once heard a reviewer confess that he’d pre-decided to dislike a book because of the dolled-up author photo on the jacket flap. Another reviewer claimed to resent female writers whose pictures appeared in Vogue.
Critical behavior of this sort also supports the belief—half conspiracy theory, half justified—that there are those writers who will be accepted and applauded critically, no matter what they write. The world of book reviewing does not operate on a meritocratic model, it operates on an aristocratic one. An example of one such aristocratic writer is Richard Ford. I have spent long subway rides defending Ford to those who have only read his short stories, and who are mystified at, even enraged by, the affirming critical treatment Ford typically receives. This whispery, resentful climate is partially why Colson Whitehead’s review of Ford’s story collection, A Multitude of Sins, (NYTB, 3/02/02) caused such a ruckus. Partially, too, the ruckus was due to the fact that Whitehead’s review was of such a strikingly zingy intellectual caliber. To entrenched Ford defenders, the Whitehead-Ford match-up might recall the Wood-Smith match-up in the LRB. The NYTBR assigned Ford to a reviewer who was possibly antagonistic toward Ford, or ran a higher risk of being antagonistic, given who he is (Black, Young, Northerner) and who Ford is (White, Older, Southern and A Bit Unchecked, At Least When It Comes to Employing Casual Master-Slave Metaphors).
But Whitehead is clearly a fan of Ford, the novelist—furthermore, Ford’s book appeared the next week in the “Editor’s Choice” sidebar. It’s unlikely this assignment was made with any sensational intent. But Whitehead’s review is noteworthy, not only because of his unusual candor regarding Ford; he also calls into question the true delights provided by that reigning, and occasionally formulaic, literary genre—”the well-made story.” Not to pan the well-made story, but, like every genre, it has its expert practitioners and its less effective ones, and the less effective ones appear far more frequently than the former, thereby giving the well-made story a rather poor reputation. Critics have been circling the badly made well-made story, unknowingly and inarticulately, for some time. Because this genre, in its less elegant incarnations, can appear programmatic, many critics are quick to blame the recent proliferation of creative writing programs for paint-by-numbers fiction that traffics in easy metaphor, prose that is competent to a fault, muted epiphanies in the final paragraph. Critics cite the MFA workshop as a put-down, meant to imply that the graduates of such programs produce fiction in an environment of infantilized handholding which indulges all artistic impulses while promoting an assembly-belt aesthetic. (In fact, workshops do not produce the same kinds of fiction; the truth is that only a certain kind of fiction stands a very good chance of getting published. If critics have a bone to pick, maybe they should take their complaints straight to the publishing houses.)
Sam Sifton, in the process of reviewing Mark Nesbitt’s book Gigantic for the NYTBR (03/31/02), also managed to slander MFA programs and every conceivable writing community—even his very own New York City borough, known for its recent influx of artist types (icky hipsters to Sifton). Sifton’s singular complaint and singular point, which goes on for about a thousand words, and which is backed up with many convincing examples (by my count, twelve), is that Nesbitt is overly fond of lousy metaphors. Fine. Next point? But there isn’t a next point; instead, Sifton uses the Nesbitt review as a platform from which to air his withering views on writing establishments and writers in general, of which he clearly has a very low opinion. He writes of Nesbitt’s prose, “What is this, poetry? Nesbitt took a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan and now lives in Brooklyn, so it very well might be...Nesbitt’s stories, which have appeared in Harper’s Magazine and The New Yorker are the type of hipster fiction the Yaddo and Breadloaf crowd might call ‘rich with meaning.’” Okay, for the record—I’ve been to both Yaddo and Breadloaf, in addition to an MFA program (right—and I live in Brooklyn), yet I have never in my life heard anyone except my hippie herbalist friend and Sifton utter the phrase, “rich with meaning.” Most upsetting is that Sifton wants to be a smarty-pants, while espousing views of a decidedly anti-intellectual (never mind anti-artistic) bent; the only Nesbitt sentences of which he approves, the “best writing in the book,” is “writing meant for a popular neo-thriller bound for best-seller lists and Hollywood.” I could be wrong, but I think Sifton, for a change, isn’t being arch. What is this, poetry? Bring me my Ellroy!
Sifton’s review is one of the more blatant examples of anti-intellectualism I’ve detected recently—his review is also part of the impetus for writing this essay, because if people as whip-smart and gifted as Sifton are espousing views that seem more fitting for a Bush cabinet member, we’re really in trouble—yet he is part of a trend that scares the pajama pants off of me. Time and again I see modest, unspectacular books get celebrated, while more ambitious ones are lambasted or ignored. Maybe it’s simply that book reviews have devolved to a point where they function as little more than advertising, posing as criticism; the only books likely to be ratified by critical coverage are the books that promise to be ratified by the marketplace. But I fear there’s something more insidious at work, a fear supported by the extreme, and scarcely disguised, critical disdain for intellectual ambition.
Let’s return to Rick Moody and his book, The Black Veil: A Memoir, with Digressions, which attempted to meld personal experience with literary criticism about Nathaniel Hawthorne. Moody, an impulsively literary writer, received positive reviews and not so positive ones. In other words: the usual. What proved fairly unusual was that many of the “not so positive” reviews amounted to some of the most savage and gleeful critical eviscerations I’ve ever read, culminating in Peck’s screed in The New Republic. Critics seemed eager to punish Moody for what they saw as laughable, even offensive, presumption and pomposity. Maybe it was true, as one writer I know said, that “Moody had it coming.” Meaning too much fame, too much Moody in every conceivable humanities niche—literature, movies, radio, religion. The critics relished the chance to put Moody the overdog in his place, because he hadn’t agonized over this book for a decade, he’d whipped it off while opening for the Magnetic Fields and serving on the committee of every conceivable non-profit literary foundation.
But even if you sift out the person who was being reviewed (and the genre—critics made it quite clear how tired they are of memoirs by the youth, or the medium-youth), the cautionary underlying message was this: if you try to be overly ambitious, and fail, you will get the heck spanked out of you. You will be mocked. Because save for the lucky few writers who slide over the radar (every age must cultivate a genius or two to feel notable), ambition is not the sort of thing that American critics are terribly partial to, on the whole. Ambition is irksome. How often do you read of a book being described as “overly ambitious”? Why can’t it simply be ambitious? To me, “ambitious” implies the hopeful act of overreaching. I often described Don DeLillo’s Underworld as “ambitious,” meaning that it was grandly conceived and fabulously imperfect for it. Isn’t “overly ambitious,” thus, a redundancy, but one with a distinctly pejorative tinge? The implication is that the writer has overstepped his bounds; he has fallen prey to his own creative or intellectual hubris. He deserves to be pistol-whipped. But why is too much aspiration such a bad thing? Why does ambition make critics so uneasy? Ambition rarely yields perfection, and yet I do not understand why these flaws are seized upon with such rancor, when the shortcomings resulting from bland underachievement slide by without notice. I don’t understand why books aren’t criticized for failing to be more ambitious, for playing it safe and failing to take risks. If there is to be any dialectic between critics and the writers they review, shouldn’t this be an implicit part of their job? To, as Harold Bloom says, “promote a struggle which is a provocation to greatness”? But the only provocation I see is a provocation to write books that will become bestsellers (“the best writing in the book”). Stephen King and John Grisham and now Stephen L. Carter get more favorable and serious literary treatment for their genre novels, while more ambitious novels are derisively spanked—or, more frequently, flat-out ignored. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
Edmund Wilson might think so. Wilson made an earnest, if humorous, attempt—in fact, given the influx of angry letters he received, he made three attempts—to understand the detective story craze that was sweeping the states in the Forties. He writes of the much-approbated Flowers for the Judge by Miss Margery’s Allingham:
This tale I found completely unreadable. The story and the writing both showed a surface so wooden and dead that I could not keep my mind on the page. How can you care who committed a murder which has never really been made to take place, because the writer hasn’t any ability of even the most ordinary kind to persuade you to see it or feel it? How can you probe the possibilities of guilt among characters who all seem alike, because they are simply names on a page? It was then that I understood that the true connoisseur of this fiction must be able to suspend the demands of his imagination and literary taste and take the thing as an intellectual problem. But how you arrive at this state of mind is what I do not understand.
Wilson can be crabby and even willfully ingenuous, yes, he can be blunt—he describes Miss Allingham’s book as “one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field... the first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practiced in English churches”—but beneath his spirited sentences is more than a droll fellow sounding off for the sake of appearing cranky and clever. He is a critic with high standards, perhaps naively high, and yet these standards can be reduced to his very elemental need to care for the characters and conflicts about which he’s reading. He makes a point that is not limited to those concerned with the making and preserving of highbrow art; he wants something as simple and stupidly human as an emotional connection with the characters—a craving, it would seem, that would (or should) cross “brows.” What begins as a comic premise—a very, very smart man trying, and failing to understand the most unsophisticated fictional offerings—ends on a serious note of warning to readers, about the possibly irreparable damage they might do to their own heads, if they permit their standards to slip. We no longer have Bunny Wilson in our midst, but we do, thank God, have the remarkable Daniel Mendelsohn, a critic who is impervious to publicity brainwashing and literary trends and the opinions of other reviewers. An erudite lover of literature, (he’s a classicist, a trained one) Mendelsohn has the highest of standards, yet he is no snob. He approaches books not only as a thinker, but as a reader—in other words, you sense his enjoyment at work, as well as his analytic faculties. His reviews are generous, impressively substantive, persuasive, and meticulous; without sounding corny, they are also full of caring—even if he doesn’t particularly “care” for the book at hand, he manifestly cares about literature.
Wilson’s and Mendelsohn’s passion, and their enduring faith in literature, leads me back to James Wood. I admit I have an obsession with Wood; you might even call it an intellectual crush. Because, the Smith incident aside, I find myself investing a perhaps unhealthy amount of hope in the guy. Wood is a curmudgeon, yes, he is grumpy and irksome and fails to muster unchecked enthusiasm for most contemporary literature save W.G. Sebald, but I would argue that his curmudgeonliness is a crime of idealism—an idealism which is quite evident in his book The Broken Estate. Not to indulge easy analysis, but Wood offers a key (perhaps) to the tone of morbid exhilaration that marks his reviews in the title essay of his collection. Raised by Evangelical Christian parents in England, Wood was child witness to a particularly fervent version of Christianity that involved crying, dancing and speaking in tongues, a terrifying extremity of devotion he responded to with “fear and slyness.” He notes how liberating it was at the age of fifteen when “I tore myself away from a belief in God.” Importantly, however, his rejection of one belief system was supplanted by another: atheism. “True atheism understands the obligations of the negative revolution it has begun...The advantage, if it can be described as one... is that the false purpose has at least been invented by man, and one can strip it away to reveal the actual pointlessness.” This is doomy business coming from a man who describes singing in a cathedral choir as “an experience never to be regained, a lost garden.” Wood, I suspect, like Wilson, just desperately wants to care about something or “someone,” even if that someone is just a character in a book (God, Emma Bovary, whomever); if God has failed to render him ecstatic, he will seek his ecstasies in God’s negative. The same could be said for his occasionally vituperative approach to literature. His need to believe is intertwined with his failure to believe, and his insistence on believing in that failure—because once a believer, always a believer. Faith is intrinsic to his intellect. His disenchantment is part and parcel of his elation.
This is an important distinction, because I don’t know what many critics believe when it comes to literature; at worst, I fear that book reviews are just an opportunity for a critic to strive for humor, and to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy, without attempting to espouse any higher ideals—or even to try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly. This is wit for wit’s sake—or, hostility for hostility’s sake. This hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt is, I suspect, a bastard offspring of Orwell’s flea-weighers. I call it Snark, and it has crept with alarming speed into the reviewing community, infiltrating the pages of many publications, and not only the The New York Observer, or the The New York Press, the possible laboratories of this disorder (yet both are labs in which this sort of disorder is, well, part of an identity, or at least an intentional façade). Yes, perhaps this is the only sane response to a publishing world prone to over-exaggeration and generalization of a hysterical sort. All writers who use the occasional metaphor are Faulkner (a decade ago they were García Márquez); the rest are DeLillo, if they’re detached American urbanists, or Barthelme, if their stories are exuberantly weird (or Beckett if they’re weird and darkly comic, or Kafka if they’re weird and depressive and plagued by futility, or Malamud if they’re weird and Jewish) or McCarthy if they write about the West, or O’Connor if they’re bleakish, Southern and female, or Cheever if their characters live in commuter suburbs, drink cocktails and engage in ill-fated adulterous relationships, or Dickens if their books are long and spirited with lots of queerly-named characters, or Carver if they barely use words at all. But no matter how or what they write, they are always “distinctive new voices in fiction,” they are always “startling” and “stunning” and “fiercely original.” (As Gaddis reminds us, “most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing”—in which case, the “fiercely original” evaluation actually holds some weight.) If snark is a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole, fine; but should the writer, who is a pawn in this system, who has negligible say over the design of his book jacket or even his title, who would never be so presumptuous to compare himself to Dickens, should this disdain be delivered unto him? (Writers also become pawns of the “call and response” reviewing that occurs between competing publications; Time magazine runs a glowing review, and Newsweek answers with a pan.)
Here’s another theory about snark. Maybe snark was a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level, with the Anthony Lanes of the world, critics who write witheringly and hilariously about movies that will nonetheless go on to sell millions of tickets and win twelve Oscars. Lane and Denby make us feel like cozy ex-pats in a country of higher standards; we are the giggling, minuscule minority. We also see those movies. Book reviewers who adopt this tone when reviewing literary fiction are about as humorous as cow tippers; as a result, they guarantee a book that might have sold 4,000 copies, will now sell 800. And nobody will read that book, not even the literary types, who are off watching Titanic with a knowing smirk.
Most frightening is how easily snark is perpetuated by snark bytes—fragmented portions of essays, articles, interviews, taken out of context in order to make the author appear in the worst possible light— those little bonbons of malice favored by The New York Observer, New York magazine, The New York Post. Unfortunately, most readers don’t return to the source to determine what the article in question was striving to say. The snark byte supplants the original article; the author’s intent is reduced to the periodical equivalent of gossip.
To be perfectly clear—I am not espousing a feel-good, criticism-free climate, where all ambitious literary books receive special treatment, just because they’re “literary” (I acknowledge the dubiousness of the term)—I’m simply asking that we read between the lines, and see what value systems these reviews are really espousing. I imagine snarkiness has always been around, if not thriving then dormant, but I’d argue that the critics with staying power never employ it. Read Norman Podhoretz’s “A Dissent on Updike,” published in 1963, and you will see the way a controversial and rabid critical figure (a.k.a. someone not exactly known for his tact, his geniality, his loyalty, nor his consistency) upbraids Updike—yes, to a brutal and unsparing degree—but without ever slipping into pat, snarky, vacant dismissals. Wood is peevish, even occasionally mean, but never snarky. He is perpetually disappointed with “us,” (if you’re a writer, even one he’s never written about, you cannot help but feel you’ve let him down)—which is certainly better than being too jaded to be much more than dismissively irritated, too disdainful of fiction to do much more than toss clichéd disparagements around (“MFA thumbsuckers” another Sifton turn of phrase) and call it criticism. Wood makes people hopping mad, yes, but despite his grumbly excoriations there’s usually room for a dialogue with Woods, which indicates there’s something to wrangle over, i.e., his claims are based on a strongly-held (and felt) belief system, and he’s an intellectual, which means he likes to be forced to defend that belief system. The same could be said of Wilson, ditto McCarthy. Their every review, no matter how intentionally inflammatory, is underwritten by an attempt to sort out right and wrong, no matter how “wrong” they might have sometimes been, their enterprise is buttressed by an optimistic belief that fiction is still a worthwhile enterprise, even if it isn’t the cultural bigshot. The difference, I suspect, is that Podhoretz and Wilson and Wood and McCarthy and Whitehead and Mendelsohn know what they’re talking about (boy do they), thus the snark is unnecessary; snark, I suspect, is a scornful, knowing tone frequently employed to mask an actual lack of information about books.
This is because a lot of books are reviewed by people who don’t read books unless they’re reviewing them. Experienced and committed readers, those few we are led to believe remain out there, have lost their jobs to more predominant cultural attachés (TV and film and food critics) whom, I suspect, editors believe might be able to coerce the public into reading, if not the book in question, then at least their magazines. To be fair: with the dwindling space afforded book reviews, many of these critics of other mediums might be avid readers who have taken jobs in fields with more opportunities. Maybe there are a lot of readers out there posing as film critics. Because it is not always the case that snarkiness masks a lack of knowledge, as snark has been known to infect even the most bookish reviewer.
The upshot, however, is this: snark is a reflexive disorder, whether those who employ it realize it or not; the pointlessness of fiction only comes back to suggest the pointlessness of its commentator. The real question then becomes: If you don’t believe in this, what do you believe in? What do you care about? What is the purpose of this destructive clear-cutting, if you don’t have anything to suggest in its place, save your own career advancement? Reading many reviews these days (ones that aren’t regurgitated press copy, ones that are purportedly “critical”), I have the feeling of dust settling on a razed landscape, in which nothing is growing, in which nothing can grow. And this is what makes me depressed, and then angry, and then invigorated by the possibilities that every wasteland suggests. Like Wood, then, I will find my elation through my disenchantment.
But it is rhetorical and useless to ask “other people” what they believe. Maybe the only questions I have the right to ask is: What do I believe? What do I care about?
I would say, quite generally, that I believe literature has an intrinsic worth, and that I believe in employing both fairness and rigor when assessing the success or failure of an author’s project. Interesting books are being written—books that are not ratified by the marketplace—and there exist many able reader-critics to write about them, people whose main qualification is that they seriously care about books. As Orwell says, “and that means, probably, neither highbrows nor lowbrows, but elastic-brows.” I also believe (perhaps naively) that there is a way to insist on rigorous standards from reviewer-writers, without these reviewer-writers fearing they’ll never get a Guggenheim, or an NEA, or a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony, or another decent blurb for the rest of their lives. They will not “have it coming.” If a book is treated respectfully, if thoroughly, it should not follow that there should be implicit shame or punishment for the reviewer; and perhaps, in the service of our “profession,” we all need to grow up a little bit, writers and reviewers alike. Reviews should be an occasion, not for tears or vendettas or shoe licking, but for dialogues. I want to give elastic brows a forum to introduce ideas in a civil yet serious manner, and remind people of writers who were overlooked last month or thirty years ago.
Finally, I would hope to urge readers—and, by extension, writers—to reach beyond their usual notions of what is accessible or possible. To recall my obsession with service issues, well, this one is dear to my heart: I want to encourage readers to sample books they might otherwise never open or even hear about. I want to promote a struggle that is a provocation to greatness. Wilson writes in 1944 of Joyce and Finnegans Wake, “I do not deny that he is tedious at times. But it is an exciting, a unique experience to find pages that have seemed to us meaningless start into vivid life, full of energy, brilliance, passion. The chance to be among the first to explore the wonders of Finnegans Wake is one of the few great intellectual and aesthetic treats that these last bad years have yielded.” We’re in the middle of some bad years right now—artistically, okay, yes, that goes without saying, but politically and culturally, I suspect we are in for some very bad years. If there have never been fewer opportunities for critics and artists, perhaps it would be equally true to state that there have never been more. This is an era when disenchantment and elation are running nose and nose. If you’re not Heidi Julavits, click here. Oh but I am, no getting out of this now. Besides, I have that three lousy cents burning a hole in my pocket—and I’m eager to place my bet on the latter horse.
- While I am wild about Richard Ford’s novels—The Sportswriter and Independence Day are among my top forty favorite books—I am not wild about his short stories. As a novelist, Ford transcends the prejudices and shortcomings of his protagonist; as a short story writer, he never quite seems to, and the result can be, depending on the reader, boorish and offensive. ↩
- By “intellectual ambition,” I do not mean the “I know that I’m about to write something clever and I’m also smart enough to have ironic distance about it as I write it” writing; I am not talking about the self-congratulatory veneer of cleverness, no matter how gymnastic; this is exhibitionism without literary or emotional purpose, and is today not so much ambitious as derivative. ↩
- A lot of books are reviewed by those people whose main qualification is that they are least likely to “get” the book in question; an academic book is reviewed by a fiction writer, who complains the book is “academic.” A novel concerned more with language than plot is reviewed by a home décor columnist, who complains about the lack of story and characters. While this disconnect may seem entertaining and even postmodern (mixing high and low brows) to assigning editors, the result is rarely enlightening and is of limited entertainment value. Readers usually end up feeling badly for the author, and even badly for the struggling reviewer. ↩
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