The mighty TLS, being the single best literary review forum in the Western world (although surely it won’t be too long before it’s no longer cheekily presumptuous to claim the #2 spot for a certain online venture of growing renown?), is always foremost in the demonstration of literary journalism’s two signature functions: to war down the proud, and to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer.
Ooops – sorry, that’s the ancient Romans, by way of the Aeneid! Although the mix-up is easy enough to understand: after all, the deluge of books is, thankfully, never-ending, and one’s reading time isn’t. And the problem goes one step deeper – because as Mark Twain aggrievedly pointed out a hundred years ago, sometimes the damndest fools are given publishing deals. Confronted with that fact month after month, the TLS (and every other regular review) can be forgiven for occasionally developing a frontier legion-style mentality toward the books that just keep showing up at the office.
No, the two arts of literary journalism aren’t Virgil’s, but they’re pretty close to Horace’s: at its best, it not only guides us in what to read but also how to read. And of course nobody does that combination better than the TLS.
Take two examples from last week’s edition. First, Martin Goodman reviews The Invention of the Jewish People, a contentious and controversial new work by Shlomo Sand, in which he maintains that the modern Jewish cultural identity is an entirely artificial construct with no basis in history. Sand’s book has received a bit of press (most of it damning), and it’s clearly Goodman’s aim to provide the final nail in the thing’s coffin. When the TLS sets out to do this, the results can be more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and this piece certainly is:
What has possessed Shlomo Sand, a Tel Aviv historian of contemporary European history, to write about a subject of which he patently knows so little? The answer is refreshingly simple. His aim, which he does not try to disguise, is to undermine the claim of Israeli Jews who come from diaspora communities to have returned to the land from which their people originated.
Goodman writes that the book as “received praise from historians and others who ought to have known better” and proceeds to demolish its historical claims. But as with any first-rate critic, Goodman has deeper goals in mind than simply ripping apart the pretensions of an overstepping book:
So why bother to review such a book? So far as I know, no scholar who works on Jewish history in the Roman period has deigned to pay it any attention. But such lordly disdain is dangerous. The cover of Sand’s book proclaims it an international bestseller, and it has been widely discussed by journalists and on television and radio both in Israel and France, and now in Britain. For the general public, what catches the attention are the headlines, not the arguments or the evidence…
The general public is on the mind of Caroline Miller elsewhere in this issue, where she reviews Zadie Smith’s collection of occasional essays, Changing My Mind. I went into the review a bit tense, since I’ve very much liked Smith’s recent forays into periodical nonfiction – although as a novelist she’s never done anything but frustrate me, as a critical ‘common reader’ in the Frank Kermode/Clive James mode, she turns out to be a delightful and entirely approachable generalist. I could happily see her writing a book of short literature-essays every year (with no further thought ever given to novel-writing), so I was a bit apprehensive that Miller would find her wanting and issue a patented TLS Olympian dismissal.
Happily, no. Miller accurately warns that “Collections of multi-purpose, previously published prose are often bitty and unsatisfying,” but she, too, likes Smith’s version – including its gentleness:
Changing My Mind, whose title is itself a pre-emptive disclaimer, is a far cry from the rebarbative polemics of an older generation of essayists, such as Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. Connoisseurs of literary bile may even be disappointed by the fact that Smith so rarely resorts to the slam-dunk of the insult.
That ‘so rarely’ is in fact ’never,’ and although it’s the heart of what made Smith’s collection so friendly, it also rubbed me the wrong way (I don’t think good literary journalism has the luxury of leisure necessary to be friendly more than about fifteen percent of the time) when I read the book, and when I read most critical reactions to it. Leave it to Miller and the TLS, then, to offer the much-needed corrective that simultaneously mans the battlements and invites Smith and others like her to join the fight:
Value judgement and tolerance can be awkward fellow pilgrims: Smith often praises writing she believes to be “right” or knows to be “beautiful.” As a corrective to academic dryness this is refreshing. But, as a wider credo, it has little except its superior eloquence to recommend it – and no principle from which to recommend superior eloquence. If we each decide whom to worship, then there can be no arbiter on beauty and truth other than the mass market. If the dreams of our fathers are to be realized in literature, then we need a critical vision to make the case for its value.
With which I of course whole-heartedly agree. The key here is not to be didactic, to allow for the validity of different critical visions while at the same time insisting that some kind of principle-schema is absolutely necessary. If I had a dime for every time some hippie has told me that ‘reading is subjective,’ I would load all those dimes into a shotgun and blast every single hippie back to Hell where they belong. Of course reading is not subjective – but neither is it monotheistic. The key is to find a critic who espouses principles that match your own, and then to slavishly follow that critic and surreptitiously send lumps of money to his Google ads account.
My hope is that Smith’s ‘what I like is beautiful, I hope what you like is beautiful too’ namby-pambyism gives way in the natural procession of things to a more formulated, discriminating sense of criticism that nevertheless doesn’t lose its enthusiastic open-mindedness. How nice it would be, to have a Virginia Woolf working among us again!