Links: No Place Like Home

You’d be surprised how interested people are in bathrooms,” the chief curator of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, tells the Hartford Courant. Actually, I’m not, having read Anne Trubek‘s A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a fine cross-country study of writers’ houses of all stripes, from the stately Mount to Jack London‘s burned-down Wolf House to a ramshackle Poe cottage in the Bronx. Wherever she winds up, Trubek finds either a curious fixation on “authentic” details—Dickinson’s chamber pot! Emerson’s hat!—or an enthusiasm for rewriting the past, as in the theme-parkification of Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. Trubek is a friend of mine, so my enthusiasm for the book only counts for so much. But even if I didn’t know her I believe I’d still admire her skill at blending elements of personal essay into a more rigorous study of literary reputation. Happily, though, she is a friend, so I get the opportunity to talk with her in public this weekend: If you’re in the D.C. area on Sunday, January 30, please come to Politics & Prose, where I’ll be doing a brief Q&A with her before her signing.

Patricia Chu, an English professor at George Washington University who specializes in Asian-American literature, delivers a threepart response to the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Amy Chua‘s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chu argues that the excerpt plays into “model minority” stereotypes about Asian-American families, and looks at how “Asian Extreme Parenting” plays out in a handful of novels. “In many books, it seems that Asian Extreme Parenting is supremely successful,” Chu writes, “because the children work hard in order to get out of their parents’ house as soon as possible.”

Cynthia Haven reports from an onstage conversation at Stanford University earlier this week where Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien discussed the kitschification of Vietnam in fiction—the “ossified conventions” of the form, as Wolff put it.

Conveniently enough, proof of that very kitschification arrives in the form of Apocalypse Moby (PDF), a mashup of Apocalypse Now and Moby-Dick. (via)

And speaking of Herman Melville: the unusual path of his copy of Robert Burton‘s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Revisiting Elizabeth Hardwick‘s New York stories.

Barnaby Conrad lasted all of five months as Sinclair Lewis‘ assistant in 1947, after which Lewis stole his girlfriend and ran off to Paris. But Conrad has finally made good on his promise to Lewis to write a novel about John Wilkes Booth.

Do financial types read? The post’s author might’ve rung up Martha McPhee, whose 2010 novel, Dear Money, had plenty to say about how people who work in high finance relate to art. (Short answer: They care about it more than you’d think, though they care about how money moves in that world about as much as you’d expect.)

In a letter to his hometown paper, Alan Gribben immodestly defends his “gribbenization” of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “I have published 40 or 50 scholarly articles celebrating Mark Twain’s genius as a craftsman with words. No one has a better or lengthier record in print of admiring his prose style than I do.”

The final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, which was scheduled to come out last year, won’t appear until 2012 this fall (correction per the comment from chief editor Joan Houston Hall below). In the meantime, samples from it are appearing on its Twitter feed, @darewords.

Asked to consider the notion that Martha Gellhorn might have looked at Ernest Hemingway as her muse, Victoria Best has an angry retort: “Ernest Hemingway, who sucked the vitality out of every woman he married, who exploited them, ignored their emotional needs, insisted they serve his every whim? The Hemingway who argued and physically fought with Martha Gellhorn because she wouldn’t give up her work for him, and who bewildered him by her inability to ‘tag along and like it’, as other wives had done? This man is to be considered a muse?” (What follows isn’t so much about the Hemingway-Gellhorn relationship as it is about giving and receiving criticism, and it’s worth reading in its own right.)

Crises Averted

Last Sunday the Jaipur Literature Festival hosted a panel called “The Crisis of American Fiction,” though the assembled panelists couldn’t agree that there was one. According to a report from the Times of India (the fest’s sponsor), Richard Ford figured we wouldn’t recognize the crisis if we were living in it, while Junot Diaz argued that the crisis has more to do with time-strapped readers than writers. Both Martin Amis (moving soon to Brooklyn, which I suppose qualifies him to weigh in) and Jay McInerney took the long view, saying they’ve heard this story before:

McInerney said: “By the 50s and 60s, writers like Truman Capote and Mailer began turning to non-fiction. By the 1970s, there was a crisis with Realism. By the 1980s, post-modernism or `PoMo’ was the catchword. American writers began soul-searching over whether fiction was about the world, or simply a game of words, with no connection to reality.”

Maybe it’s more correct, then, to say fiction is in a perpetual state of crisis, and that its survival largely depends on its capacity to respond to whatever we’ve just decided is killing it this time around. To work with McInerney’s series of examples: Capote and Mailer‘s abandonment of fiction was counterbalanced by John Updike‘s ascendance; Don DeLillo denied postmodern death-of-the-author chatter by finding a way into both realism and pomo acrobatics; David Foster Wallace, and, sure, Junot Diaz recognized the limits of fiction as a method of describing reality but could still find a way to capture feeling. And those are just the big names, though big names are necessary here—you haven’t responded well to the “crisis” if you haven’t brought readers along with you. And even so, we could all name a dozen or so lesser-known writers who successfully pushed back against its theoretical sworn enemy of the moment. (I bet we could even come up with a few who were products of MFA programs, yet another oft-claimed source of American literature’s decline.)

What’s different this time, though, is that the enemy isn’t a theory but a fact—available time, which is now reportedly less dedicated to reading because the internet has been eroding our attention spans. Might it spell doom for authors too? This is the anxiety that Union Atlantic author Adam Haslett voices in a Financial Times article pondering a “kind of death of the sentence by collective neglect.” He quotes editor Geoff Kloske of Riverhead Books (Diaz’s publisher), who says, “More, I fear, there is a flaccidity and casualness of style that has come from writing habits born out of e-mail and social media.”

Haslett is careful not to drift into woe-is-us-nobody-writes-long-letters-anymore complaints, which is as it should be. Just because more people dash off text messages than write letters, it doesn’t automatically follow that fiction becomes more text-message-y, or that readers won’t pay attention to someone who can write well-crafted sentences. (Did people ever worry about what telegrams were doing to our brains? To our fiction?) In Salon, Laura Miller takes an optimistic view and argues that novelists are only just now beginning to come to terms with how the internet reshapes our lives and our relationships. Novels now serve as a repository for “museum-quality depth,” she writes—the place we go when we’ve had it with our e-mail, Tweets, and Facebook friends. They’re also where writers increasingly go to show us who we are: Freedom‘s Walter Berglund’s sincerity is revealed as mere crankiness once a rant of his goes viral, for instance. Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story and Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad are also called out for special attention, though Miller doesn’t dwell much on how, in both books, the internet enlivens the sentences Haslett is so concerned about. Both novels skewer the online lingo that attempts to reduce us to database metrics (“need,” “reach,” “and corruptability” in Egan; “MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450” in Shteyngart), and they do it by showing how miserably they fall short of understanding who we are. Fiction writers will increasingly have to learn how to exist side by side with an audience whose patience is increasingly tested, but the value of the fiction writer won’t necessarily be reduced from that effort.

Links: Revolutionary Roads

Andrew Alan Stewart Carl: “It’s fine, I think, to write about a white, middle-class male accountant in Charlotte, North Carolina. But the story shouldn’t just be about his difficult marriage. Or rather, it can be about his marriage but it shouldn’t be insularly so, without regard as to how the difficulties in this particular marriage say something about the bigger ideas/struggles/issues of our time. This, I believe, can be addressed with bold strokes or subtly in subtext, but it should be addressed. Otherwise, even if the story is expertly written, it’s not likely to be an examination of anything new, a necessary story.”

Roxane Gay, who prompted Carl’s post, has a thoughtful reply that gets at why deliberately engineering fiction to be “relevant” is problematic, and why writing to satisfy (or undercut) your perceived place in the socioeconomic matrix is too. Richard Price had a story to tell related to this in a 1996 Paris Review interview:

I had a student in one of my classes. He was writing all this stuff about these black guys in the South Bronx who were on angel dust . . . the most amoral thrill-killers. They were evil, evil. But it was all so over-the-top to the point of being silly. He didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know this stuff either, but I knew enough to know that this wasn’t it.

I said to the kid, Why are you writing this? Are you from the Bronx?

He says, No. From New Jersey.

Are you a former angel-dust sniffer? Do you run with a gang?

He says, No. My father’s a fireman out in Toms River.

Oh, so he’s a black fireman in suburban New Jersey? Christ! Why don’t you write about that? I mean, nobody writes about black guys in the suburbs. I said, Why are you writing this other stuff?

He said to me, Well, I figure people are expecting me to write this stuff.

What if they do? First of all, they don’t. Second, even if they did, which is stupid, why should I read you? What do you know that I don’t know?…. [H]e went from this painful chicken scratch of five-page bullshit about angel-dust killers to writing stuff that smacked of authenticity and intimacy.

Adam Levin lists some of works of American fiction that have had the strongest influence on him, including a spot-on defense of Philip Roth‘s Operation Shylock.

Does pursuing a Ph.D. do a crime writer any good?

Mark Kurlansky on returning to his roots as a fiction writer to contribute to Haiti Noir.

A visit to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library:

Benjamin Taylor talks with Dissent about his experience editing Saul Bellow‘s letters. The passage from Henderson the Rain King he cites as an example of Bellow’s greatness is one of my favorites as well—that book has the best ending of his major works. (via)

Confronting Henry James‘ late works.

Victoria Patterson isn’t hearing the argument that an author has to be all over social media to promote his or her work. “I don’t have an optimistic, sunny personality. Why should I pretend to be a social person?

Reynolds Price died yesterday at 77. I’ve read none of his many works (recommendations about where to start are welcome), but I do like this line from his 1991 Paris Review interview: “I think I’m a comic writer always. I hope I am—in the long run anyhow—because I think our existence is comic, finally.”

What’s that? Somebody’s bemoaning the lack of a great Washington novel again?

J.D. Salinger’s Failure

At the Economist‘s culture blog, Prospero, Will Wilkinson takes a look at the legal wrangling between J.D. Salinger and Fredrik Colting, author of the Catcher in the Rye parody/satire/tribute/commentary 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye. In the months before his death in January 2010, Salinger vigorously protested the book’s existence, and the case has only just now ended: According to the settlement reached last week, the book cannot be published or sold in the United States and Canada. Wilkinson’s take on the squabble is that it reveals Salinger as more than merely a cranky misanthrope. No, his distaste for other writers getting into his business made him the “preeminent enemy of open culture in American letters,” while his habit of blowing a gasket whenever somebody made an attempt to comment on him and his work for profit revealed a “contemptible failure of generosity.”

It wasn’t that Salinger lacked generosity but that his generosity was, let’s say, unusually focused. I say this after reading Kenneth Slawenski‘s new biography, Salinger: A Life (published overseas last year with the godawful title J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High). The folk legend about Salinger’s seclusion is that it was a sudden break from the public—his public life essentially ended with the publication of his meandering story “Hapworth 16, 1924” in the New Yorker in 1965. But his split with society at large was a long time coming, and one of the pleasures of Slawenski’s book is how well he lays out the causes for his self-imposed seclusion without overstating the eccentricity of his actions. After all, he was a crank even when he was actively publishing: From the very start of his writing career he was fussy over his words and outraged to see his work manhandled without his permission in the pages of slicks like Collier’s or high-end journals like Story. By the time he was writing for the New Yorker he had sidestepped the usual processes of the fiction department and was working directly with editor William Shawn. Combine that hyperpossesiveness over his words with what Slawenski reasonably speculates was a traumatic experience during the D-Day invasion, plus a growing interest in Eastern spirituality, and you have a recipe for a man who felt stalked by phoniness wherever he went.

Salinger cared little about copyright per se, and he was no enemy of “open culture” in general—he just didn’t want it applied to his own work. What he was passionate about was ensuring his vision of the Glass family would not be tarnished, diminished—and, if the rumors of unpublished novels are true, read—by the outside world. “Salinger did not deliberately choose to withdraw from the world,” Slawenski writes. “His isolation was an insidious progression that slowly enveloped him.” It is a sad story to be sure, but not totally beyond reason. Clearly he loved his invented Glass family too much. By the time his last published book, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—an Introduction, came out in 1963, Salinger’s interest in writing about the family seemed to be more important than his interest in making compelling fiction about it, and critics had lost patience with the precocious, mordant clan. Slawenski lays out the frustrated response:

[Critics] called for an end to the series in no uncertain terms. The New York Times Book Review accused Salinger of the “self-indulgence of a writer flirting with the depths of wisdom, yet coy and embarrassed in his advances.” But it was Time magazine that boldly revealed the underlying exasperation that many critics felt but were reluctant to divulge. “The grown reader,” Time quipped sarcastically, “is beginning to wonder whether the sphinxlike Seymour had a secret worth sharing. And if so, when Salinger is going to reveal it.”

Slawenski is more fascinated with learning how Salinger wound up in this literary cul-de-sac than dredging up details Salinger’s infamous years of seclusion—a strategy that’s bound to disappoint reviewers hoping for a dishier book. But how much needs to be said about those years? He was a successful writer whose stories became increasingly navel-gazing and who couldn’t abide even the very long leash the New Yorker kept him on. He hid; he wrote; he lawyered up whenever anybody got too close to his creations; he died. Whatever manuscripts are left behind are likely to be just as rambling and insular as “Hapworth.” This is a “contemptible” existence only if you feel an artist is obligated to be happy whenever somebody subjects his or her work to remixing. In Slawenski’s reckoning, Salinger’s life was mostly just lonely—and pitiable for that, because so much of that loneliness was self-inflicted. In 1961 and 1962 Salinger corresponded with a pre-Esquire Gordon Lish, who solicited the writer to contribute an essay as part of a federal program intended to motivate youth. Slawenski describes the exchange:

“You only want me to participate in this because I’m famous,” he charged. “No, no, no,” Lish protested, “it’s because you know how to speak to children.” Salinger paused and then made a startling confession. “No. I can’t,” he said. “I can’t even speak to my own children.”

Links: Good-for-Nothings

A letter to the New York Times in response to its “Why Criticism Matters” package (more): “The most significant thing about the feature on ‘Why Criticism Matters’ is the title. The New York Times would never find it necessary to publish an article on why science, mathematics, medicine, music or art matters. The need to explain why criticism matters emphasizes as clearly as possible the fact that it doesn’t.” False equivalencies, reductionism, and all that. Also: Ahem.

Following up on the package, Peter Plagens points out that art critics are having as much of a “crisis” as literary critics are, though he has to ask: “[A]re literary critics an all-for-one, one-for-all band of musketeers fighting off—not to put too fine a point on it—amateurs who blog?”

And Morgan Meis defends the role of the critic in a time when the critic’s role as a cultural arbiter has been pretty much annihilated by collaborative filtering. “We need the critic, instead, to help us experience. We need the critic in the way that we need a friend or a lover. We need the critic as a companion on a journey that is a love affair with the things of the world.” Meis is halfway there. We also need the critic as the person who is going to challenge the received notions of “good” culture via collaborative filter, if not to conquer the filter then at least to point out that the eager consumer can dispute it. We need the critic in the way we need a frenemy. (via)

Noir scholar and novelist Eddie Muller: “That immediate post-World War II era is the height of American style in everything: architecture, clothes, design, movies, literature…. American literature was, I think, at its highest point.”

I don’t remember Jay McInerney‘s third novel, Story of My Life, as anything but awful (it’s one of the numerous novels that get brutally mocked in this book, which desperately deserves a reprint or, better, an update), but apparently it has its uses.

Amelia Atlas, who operates an excellent blog, registers her frustration with Gabriel Josipovici‘s What Ever Happened to Modernism?: “There’s a tension in Josipovici’s temporal logic that he never resolves: he seems to insist, paradoxically, on both the necessity of the dialectic and on the reality of its end, in the form of modernism. Is all that remains for the novel to sound, again and again, the alarm bells of its own fakery?”

A chat with photographer John Bayne, who’s published a book called Gravely Concerned: Southern Writers’ Graves. You can read the entire book as a PDF online.

Chicago Tribune‘s Julia Keller writes that Freedom is “so wildly praised and little scrutinized, a novel that inspired such fanatical devotion based on so little actual achievement that it ought to run for president.” Keller may be the only person in the United States writing about books who thinks the novel was “little scrutinized,” but the rest of the sentence, if not the column, is, yes, pretty good.

A sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn came out 20 years ago, according to a Stanford professor. Google and Nexis don’t produce any evidence that I can see, though.

When reviewing duties aren’t calling, I’m making my way through the short stories of Breece Pancake, partly because I’m fascinated by what seems to be a recent obsession over him. It may be that his entire oeuvre is easy to get a hold of (just one slim collection); that there’s a wistfulness about what could have been (he killed himself in 1979, at 26); or that his stories, which lay out relatively straightforward tug-of-wars between past and present, staying put and getting the hell out, always appeal, and are eminently teachable. At any rate, a couple of writers chronicled their trip to his gravesite.

Sick of hearing about the “Great American Novel”? There’s a specific person you can be mad at.

Looking Back on Charles Baxter

My review of Gryphon, Charles Baxter‘s retrospective collection of short stories, appears in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. One point I make is Baxter stands alone among short-story writers—if it’s hard to find anybody he’s clearly influenced (Stuart Dybek, kinda), neither does his work evoke the names of influential writers who were around as he was coming up in the 70s and 80s (John Cheever, sorta). You can see shades of Breece Pancake in Wells Tower, or William Trevor in Yiyun Li, but Baxter is pretty much Baxter. Many of his characters have at least a touch of emotional (if not mental) instability, I write, and Baxter “has this territory to himself because it is so difficult to create—a lesser writer might take this material and apply the arid ironies of dirty realism or make these hard-luck characters unsympathetic.”

The stories in Gryphon work in large part because Baxter is so masterful at controlling tone—crucial in stories like these, where characters’ emotions shift rapidly. In “The Old Murderer,” a man is fixated is on his new neighbor, a recently paroled murderer, but he’s uncertain whether his interest is unseemly or a product of, as they say these days, an abundance of caution. He visits his sister and her partner to play cards (oh, how Baxter loves cards, standard deck and Tarot alike, little slips of fatalism), and they wrap up with this exchange:

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. A paroled murderer has moved in next to me.”

“Is he nice?” Kate asked.

“I don’t know,” Ellickson told her. “I can’t tell yet. He works all day in his garden and then he disappears.”

“A murderer next door?” Irena said, putting away the deck of cards. “In Russia, this is not unusual.”

Following a series of scenes in which Ellickson is anxious about the man next door, this comes off as broad comedy: The faux-casual way he brings up the murderer, the absurd question Kate asks in response (which is the price he pays for being faux-casual), Irena’s own statement, which ends the section on a laugh line. But the little exchange also complicates the story, allowing the possibility of normalcy for this parolee and drawing a bright line under Ellickson’s obsession over him—two things that will make the story as heartbreaking as it is by the time the story ends.

One story I wish I could’ve found a way to neatly summarize for print is “The Cures for Love,” in which a classics scholar attempts to clear her head after a breakup by hopping a local bus in Chicago and taking it wherever it goes. She’s too much of an academic observer—and too aware of her heartbreak—to take much comfort in this aimlessness, though: “No one with a serious relationship with money rode a bus like this at such a time. It was the fuck-up express.” What she does take comfort in is Ovid’s poetry, which echoes in her head as she winds up at the airport to people-watch. When that trip proves to do more harm than good, she retreats again into Ovid, imagining his “I-know-it-all syntax and tone” retooled for her needs:

An airport! Didn’t I tell you,
to shun such spots? A city park on a warm
Sunday afternoon wouldn’t be as bad….

Thank you (he said)
for reading me, but for the sake
of your own well-being, don’t go there
again without a ticket.

By story’s end, she’s not much more stable than she was when she started—she’s still on the fuck-up express—but she at least has a better sense of her destination.

None of which is to say that Baxter is a comic writer, but he’s interested in human foibles in a way that avoids either somber judgment or satire. What’s fun about reading Gryphon start to finish, its stories arranged chronologically, is seeing how his skills grew and his characters grew up; the young parents and singletons of his early stories mature into divorcees and professionals, but they never lose that nagging feeling that something’s gone wrong in their lives. One of my favorite lines in the entire book comes from “Mr. Scary”: “With grown children of his own, and his own sorrows—his wife had pitched herself through a window eight stories up two months after learning that she had inoperable cancer—Randall had every right to be moody, or grumpy at times.” What a thing to stuff between em-dashes! Try to stuff, anyhow: The urge to push things away and the way they keep welling up regardless are trademarks of Baxter’s work, and he’s only gotten better at it as he’s gone along.

Links: Last Words

You likely don’t need to hear one more commentary about the Huckleberry Finn foofaraw, but consider reading Jon Clinch‘s, as somebody who spent a lot of time attempting to inhabit Twain’s world in his 2007 novel, Finn.

What happened to the literary prodigy Barbara Follett? (via)

Granta‘s 1983 “Dirty Realism” issue, which featured stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Angela Carter, and many more, is claimed as the best single issue of a literary magazine ever. (via)

Two editors discuss their discovery of three previously undocumented Zora Neale Hurston stories.

Toward a complete guide to Dashiell Hammett‘s Baltimore haunts.

On the growth of David Foster Wallace studies.

Richard Ford on his home state, where he’s returning to teach: “I think the state, in the hands and eyes of its writers, has a lot that needs to be explained. Writers are imaginative explainers. There’s a lot of received wisdom, history, a lot of drama in the fabric that is Mississippi that could be seen not to make a whole lot of sense.”

Why Paul Theroux will not be writing an autobiography.

The National Book Critics Circle gathers up some recommendations for books that should be back in print; I put in for Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel I wrote about here last spring.

“[T]he relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”

Paul Auster is a potato, not a tropical flower. Allow him to explain:

Edited for Content

NewSouth Books’ now-infamous version of Mark Twain‘s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces all occurrences of the n-word with “slave,” is foolishness, of course. It’s designed to make the book more teachable in the classroom, but the n-word’s absence can only draw attention to its presence, which any honest person teaching the book would have to acknowledge; and if you do that, it’s a short distance to the angry parent calling the principal to ask what the hell kids are being taught in there, defeating the purpose of the whole enterprise. If NewSouth’s version isn’t pointless, then it’s cynical: It hopes that students and teachers won’t push against the text too hard or ask too many questions of it. In his introduction to the new edition (which also includes Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), editor Alan Gribben says he’s been in the habit of replacing the n-word with “slave” at public readings. “Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed,” he writes. But Gribben isn’t addressing a problem with the text; he’s avoiding the text. Either you want to talk about race in Huckleberry Finn or you don’t; if you do, NewSouth’s version only gives teachers and students another hurdle to clear.

Gribben’s introduction exemplifies an eagerness to avoid the text in that it reads less like a scholarly introduction and more like a contract: We shall agree that some things from the aforementioned text be removed, and that in return some things shall be added, to the satisfaction of both parties. Gribben opens by suggesting that that publishing Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer together repairs some kind of injustice, as if the books couldn’t be understood separately or that popular editions containing both books don’t exist. Later, after discussing the n-word issue at length, Gribben mentions that the new edition restores a scene that had been cut from the original edition of the book; notable for its “strutting, pugnacious braggarts and its chilling ghost tale about a child’s murder, [the scene] contains some of Mark Twain’s best writing,” Gribben writes. Following all his handwringing about the real reason for the edited book’s existence, this change can only read like an attempt to placate critics; you can’t argue that harm’s being done to the text if the editor went to the trouble of inserting a “chilling ghost tale” into it. If that don’t fetch ’em, I don’t know school boards.

Unquestionably, Twain’s text presents a serious problem for teachers: Cynthia Haven, who first brought word of the NewSouth book, has heard from professors sharing their reservations about discussing the book. But the book doesn’t fix the problem so much as it identifies a market niche: People who think that this book will fix the problem. Twain might have appreciated this kind of ruckus: When he learned that the Concord Public Library had banned Huckleberry Finn from its shelves shortly after the novel was published in 1885, he wrote, “That will sell 25,000 copies, sure.” But would he have any patience for the sanctimony surrounding this version of book—the very sanctimony Huckleberry Finn skewers?

Three Years

This blog turns three years old today—it started as a new year’s resolution I made in 2008, and it’s the only one I’ve kept for so long. In all the time I’ve been blogging I’ve heard background chatter that blogging is a dying if not dead medium; the most popular blogs now look more like websites for mass-media properties, and a lot of what would fit best on a blog a few years ago now gets Tweeted or Tumblr’d. It may say something about our culture that we talk often about how books matter less and less, while we sign up for tools that offer subtle gradations of saying things briefly.

But the book still lives, as an idea if not always as a business proposition. And as for blogging, well, I’m stubborn, through the baby fog and all the rest, for the same reasons I gave last year. Blogging makes me a better reader, and though I do Tweet and (very rarely) use Tumblr, only here can I work out the kind of thoughts I can’t compress into 140 characters but which aren’t quite ready for prime time (i.e., a published review). I blog less than I used to, but, I think, with more of a purpose now: Though I swore to myself when I started blogging that I wouldn’t write what would formally qualify as a “review” here, these days I’m more interested in expanding on ideas contained in individual books or stories, either riffing on something I’ve written for print or exploring ideas that would be hard for me to summarize in a 600-word assignment. If I’m disappointed at how much word counts have diminished since I began writing book reviews for publication (oh, jeez) 15 years ago, I can’t complain that I lack the space to say what I’m thinking about. Here, the only limitations are available time and, perhaps, a good editor, still one of the benefits of writing for publication.

But if I don’t have a backstop, I’m not doing this entirely alone. The comments, email exchanges, and personal conversations I’ve had as a result of this blog have been profoundly important to me, and that in itself is a reason to keep doing this. As always, thanks for reading.

Me Criticize Pretty One Day

Of the six critics gathered by the New York Times Book Review to address the question of “Why Criticism Matters,” three state that criticism’s chief goal is to produce good writing. “The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing,” writes Katie Roiphe. Adam Kirsch puts it this way: “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.” And Sam Anderson: “To function as an evangelist, the critic needs, above all else, to write well. A badly written book review is worse than a badly written political speech or greeting card or poem; a badly written review is self-canceling, like a barber with a terrible haircut.”

These are weak defenses of criticism as a unique discipline. After all, every type of writer—the sports columnist, the author of a toaster’s user manual, the teenager working on a love letter—is improved by knowing how to write well. There is enough beautiful writing available from non-critics that the loss of critics would hardly qualify as a loss at all, if beautiful writing is all we’re trying to honor. All this says more about critics’ anxieties than the question of “why criticism matters”: The premise for the entire package is that criticism is under attack by “bad writing”—mostly electronic noise from blogs, Amazon user reviews, and Facebook status updates—that endanger the criticism the Times Book Review supports. “We live in the age of opinion­—offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones,” as the introductory note puts it. Yes. But as anybody who’s tried to argue politics with somebody on a message board or comment thread can tell you, “writing well” has remarkably little persuasive power, even for people who value writing well—a group that’s always been a small subset of the population. A firm command of Strunk & White won’t make criticism “matter.”

None of which is to say I have a pat answer to the question of “why criticism matters,” but I don’t feel a strong need to come up with one; I’d still want to read and produce it even if it was determined that it didn’t, in fact, “matter.” In the same way that the job of a fiction writer is to write good fiction, the job of a critic is to write good criticism—considerations of art that are rooted in knowledge, perspective, and an awareness of one’s emotional response to a work, paired with an eagerness to discover what generated that response.

To my mind, the squabbling about the value of criticism was settled nearly a half-century ago. In 1963 Pauline Kael kicked off the new year addressing complaints about her film reviews. The grousing, when it wasn’t plainly sexist, boiled down to snarky “If you’re so smart about movies, why don’t you make ’em?” swipes. In response, Kael destroyed the distinction between the filmmaker’s art and the critic’s art: “Movies are made and criticism is written by the use of intelligence, talent, taste, emotion, education, imagination, and discrimination.” In 1963 Kael was responding to a mass of people who were happy to reject criticism wholesale; in 2011 the Times is responding to a mass of people who’ve taken on criticism for themselves; if the main change in the past 48 years is that people now have more ways to talk about the art they care about, serious criticism now has less to worry about, not more.