Monday, January 03, 2011

Pompous Pundits in the Penny Press!

I had intended to make the first Stevereads post of 2011 – the first of a new decade! - entirely wombat-related. But then I noticed the little “symposium” unfolding in the New York Times, a group discussion on the Role of the Book-Critic Today, and I swerved in my course, like a great white shark suddenly sensing the proximity of a wounded elephant seal. An intensely narcissistic subject, served up in fresh steaming piles of self-importance? Wombats will keep.

And I wasn't disappointed, except in the sense of being intensely disappointed. It being The NYT Book Review, I expected the thing to be more full of bromides than Granny's medicine chest – but even I was underestimating how bad it could be. The salt in the wound was the feature's invocation of the great literary critic Alfred Kazin as a sort of ghostly moderator, using his entertaining essay “The Function of Criticism Today” as a trampoline on which these six fat little babies could exhaust themselves until they reached their word-count. But the aggravation started before any of those babies could open their yaps – it started in the Editors Introduction, which included this precious line: “But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)?”

Gotta love that sniffing tone! Gotta love that hint of genteel mystification that anybody (except maybe a – sniff – real estate agent) might suspect the Book Review of being clubbish, of seeking to be cool, of assigning some of its reviews for less-than-Olympian reasons of pure literary quality. Wanna gut somebody's latest novel because they refused your drunken advances at a Tribeca party? Wanna praise somebody's uncle so you'll get invited to their fabulous loft in Dumbo? Well, then, you better peddle your wares someplace else, buddy! Here at the Book Review, we're entirely above such petty game-playing – perhaps you'd have more luck with – sniff – a sociologist.

But then, Editors Introductions are pretty much always bad (I ought to know – I've written my share of them), so we can take that with a degree of stoicism. But geez, did the rest of the feature have to be so bad? Granted, it's a boring subject, and granted (despite its serial bemoaning of the slapdash nature of the Internet) it was obviously pulled together about a hung-over half-hour before deadline, but even so, these six essays made for grim reading. Even the ordinarily-good Sam Anderson and Adam Kirsch were defeated by the Times-dictated bloat of the central conceit, and the others – derivative egomaniacs at the best of times – never stood a chance.

Stephen Burn's densely idiotic essay was the worst of a bad bunch (there are more cliches and mixed metaphors in this one piece than in all the others combined), and as horrifying as his prose is, his underlying sentiments are even worse. At one point he writes: “And while the removal — or more accurately, the redistribution — of the evaluative task is likely to dilute critical standards, it can also free up the critic to engage in more serious tasks that might bleed back into the culture, providing a stronger skeleton for a range of literary activity. The critic who reviews contemporary novels now might valuably turn her attention to different kinds of vertical or horizontal mapping.”

If you can get past the imaginative log-jam of bleeding skeletons providing range, if you can focus past the pompous vagueness of “vertical and horizontal mapping,” you'll see what I mean: it's bad enough that he writes about the diluting of critical standards as though it's just something that's going to happen, no big deal, but what follows is even worse – that muddy implication that it's a good thing that critics now won't have to bother so much with those boring critical standards, because now they'll be free to do more of that vertical and horizontal mapping we're always complaining we don't see enough of. Yeesh. Alfred Kazin might not have been pleased with a tribute like this.

I wish I could say that the implicit contempt for book-criticism that runs through Burn's piece was unique to it, but all six of these essays are lousy with it. Pankaj Mishra's piece has this astonishing opening: “I don’t think of myself as a literary critic. I write about novels and short stories. But I am reluctant to describe what I do as “literary criticism,” as I like to move quickly beyond the literariness of a text — whether narrative techniques or quality of prose — and its aesthetic pleasures, to engage with the author’s worldview ...” OK, fine – since you like to get past the, hee, literariness of the text, then by your own admission you're not a literary critic – but you spend the rest of the piece gassing on about Tolstoy as if you still think you are a literary critic, and more importantly, you're here, in a feature about the role of the literary critic today. And again, the implications here are worse than the statements. When somebody says “I like to move quickly beyond the literariness of a text” (in order to find out what the author thinks about Tamil refugees, or something important like that, not all this frilly folderol about prose), their implied conclusion couldn't be clearer: “...because really, who can tell whether the literariness of a book is any good or not? And really, given the state of the Indonesian economy, who cares?” When the literariness of a text is viewed as some niggling little obstacle, something to be quickly got beyond, the state of book-criticism is dire indeed.

But then, book criticism hardly seems to be on the minds of most of these writers. Most of them hit the same note about what a critic's really important job is. Adam Kirsch hits that note more fatuously than the others, but he'll stand for everybody when he writes: “Whether I am writing verse or prose, I try to believe that what matters is not exercising influence or force, but writing well — that is, truthfully and beautifully; and that maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.” Say 'unto' much in your day-to-day speech, Adam? Think it comes across any less affected here? And although it's a little dispiriting that such a normally-smart critic would find it necessary to put so much elephantine stress on something so self-evident (yes, all publishing writers should strive to make their prose excellent … and?), the worst part, again, is in the implications. What, after all, is he talking about when he says 'the rest will be added unto you'? You're doing your best to write truthfully and beautifully, and somewhere along the line, 'the rest' will be added unto you – but what's that? It's obvious: 'the rest' are those pesky 'critical standards' – once you're done making your prose as pretty as you can, you'll just have to hope you accidentally drop some hints to your readers as to whether or not the book in question is any good. The important thing is that you get in lots of pseudo-literary swanning. The rest will either happen or it won't.

And the added twist to all this 'the important thing is the writing' bull-hooey is the hypocrisy of it all. The very first question asked by every one of these oh-so-exquisite aesthetes, upon being approached by the Times to desecrate Alfred Kazin's memory, was: How much does it pay? And no matter how feelingly they declaim that the quality of the writing is everything to them, if the Times had said, “why, we're not paying you anything – it's a friggin' symposium,” each and every one of these oh-so-exquisite aesthetes would have refused to contribute even one mixed metaphor. I care most about the truth and beauty of my writing – but you can't have it, because The Rumpus is offering me 5 cents more a word. Ah, the glory that was Athens.

Not to mention the obvious fact that it's a very tricky business, claiming that the only important thing to you is the quality of your own prose – it invites scrutiny of that very quality, like Achilles hanging a bulls-eye on his ankle. Needless to say, most of our Kazinites don't hold up well under that scrutiny. Katie Roiphe is no better than any of the others when she turns in a paragraph like this:
Before the requiem begins, we have to admit that critics have always been a grandstanding, depressive and histrionic bunch. They — and by “they” I mean “we” — have always decried the decline of standards, the end of reading, the seductions of mediocrity, the abysmal shallowness and distractibility of the general public, the virtually apocalyptic state of literature and culture. Yet somehow the bruised and embattled figures of both the writer and the critic have survived lo these many centuries.

Pretty much the only smile I had during the whole ordeal of this feature came in imagining how a paragraph like that would have fared in the general edits of Open Letters. From John Cotter's gentlemanly “Hmmm. Doesn't really work, does it?” to Greg Waldmann's grunting “can we nix this … and this … and this” to Rohan Maitzen's playful “We'd be doing her a favor if we 'nixed' the whole paragraph” to Sam Sacks' damningly curt “Cut this graf” ...and this is somebody writing about the role of the book-critic today, in the New York Times. The thing is a stunning comment on its own irrelevance; the swanning of the critic has firmly supplanted any other function, and the reason it's done that is disgustingly craven: because here in the most-read book review forum in the world, post-modern textual cowardice has entirely won the day. The reason this gang of six is concentrating so much on lo the gorgeous prose they're giving unto us is because they've turned and run from the task of actually analyzing prose (Anderson and Kirsch, at least, aren't usually like that – I tend to give them a pass for this “symposium” and just hope to see them back to work soon).

Fortunately, it's only the Book Review: it's been somewhat dimly bourgeois since the Eisenhower administration (Ike's response to reading his one and only review in the Times: “Well does he like the book or doesn't he? Gee, I can't even tell!”) - we mustn't expect the truth from a publication dedicated to providing comfort. But still, more people are going to read it in a single morning than read most other review-publications in an entire month, and I worry that many of those people will unconsciously absorb the defeatist implications everywhere throughout this “symposium” (the accompanying pod-cast is, if anything, more grotesque – is there anywhere on the Internet a literary pod-cast that's actually good? Or are they all doomed attempts to recapture the glory of the previous night's book-talk over wine and sleeping basset hounds?). I worry that these six pieces and their sniffing introduction will serve in some readers' minds as an actual examination of the role of the book-critic today, when actually they hardly come near it.

Sam Anderson, bless him, comes the closest when he talks about book-critics being 'evangelists' – that'll serve well enough if we recall that evangelists also condemn. The book-critic (all books, incidentally – our six writers here seem unable to conceive it possible to review a book that isn't a novel)'s job is the same now as it's always been: to serve as the more dedicated, more experienced, faster, and better-prepared reader all readers wish they had time to be, to employ a specially sharpened acumen and a lifetime of experience in order to assess the merits of the day's literature, for the sole purpose of determining whether or not it deserves the wider audience all published writing seeks. There's nothing in that purpose about the critic showing off his own literary talents, and there's nothing in it about getting beyond the literariness of the text – the literariness of the text is everything. And those texts must be judged, and judgement is not only possible but necessary. Book-critics use those 'critical standards' to uphold a dialogue between the readers they represent and the unending texts that confront them.

We're lucky the Internet has blossomed – we have more book-critics than ever before, and just in time, since we have more books than ever before too. So yes, this “symposium” in the Times disappointed me, but it's over now, and at least a couple of its better writers can now get back unto work.

And I'll be getting back to that work myself, here at Stevereads! 2010 here was a lot of fun, and I have high hopes for 2011 – I plan on resuming all my old favorite hobby-horses, and I plan on introducing some new ones, and I plan a good many other changes as well – I hope it entertains you all, and I invite your comments for all of it. And now that I've been clued in to how culturally important it is, I'll be adding lots and lots of vertical mapping – at no extra charge!


Sam said...

Whew, thank God you're going to spare us your horizontal mapping!

I bet any critic would offer up a 'why I write' essay for free if it meant having their face on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. This is probably one case where money didn't really enter into it.

The thing I thought was oddest about this feature (which I liked more than you did) was: why didn't the Times ask the Times's own reviewers to write such essays? I want to hear what Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner have to say about the work they're doing.

Steve Donoghue said...

you LIKED it? how could you, of all people, find anything to like in such tripe? Why, even Rohan hated it - and she likes EVERYTHING! hee

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