Critics: Too Extreme? (VIDEO)

Amelia Atlas wonders if Téa Obreht‘s The Tiger’s Wife is the beneficiary of collective grade inflation among reviewers:

[W]hat’s bewildering is the rapidity with which everybody else fell into line. Reviews feel like a set of sequential gears in the same publicity machine. There seemed to be a critical consensus months before the book hit the shelves, all on account of Obreht’s anointment by The New Yorker…. She has a way with verbs, of crystallizing familiar movements and gestures with an unexpected word (“birds shuddering free of their nests,” “the bass line of Springsteen’s ‘I’m on Fire’ humming in my lower back”). But isn’t there some middle ground between a strong debut novel and instant ascendency to the contemporary canon? The Tiger’s Wife is a promising first novel; it doesn’t need to be more.

But does it, especially these days? Online noise has a way of gravitating toward the highly enthusiastic (“MUST READ”) or the bluntly damning (“#fail”), and Atlas’ post left me wondering if mainstream publications are absorbing that attitude—a subconscious sense that what gets clicks (and hence justifies books coverage) is hype in either direction. That attitude gets plenty of encouragement, especially when it comes to positive reviews. In a recent post on HTMLGiant, M Kitchell argued that negative reviews are now all but pointless: “How about we pour our energy into writing about things we love instead of things we hate?”* A few days later another post on the site asked whether “book reviewers have any moral responsibilities,” and many of comments circulated around issues of reviewing a book positively or negatively—that it’s difficult, for some reason, to negatively review a book, and that while honesty should be the ultimate goal there’s something to be said for not reviewing a book you don’t like.

And more: In the past week, anybody who cares about books and blogs came across a post at BigAl’s Books and Pals in which the author of a self-published novels went ballistic over a negative review there; Twitter chatter quickly ensued over how foolish it is to respond to a negative review.** To read all this was to figure that conversations about books online now tend toward the exceedingly polite or vituperative (the latter quickly tamped down by those who’d rather we all be polite). Books are either getting a hard sell (The Tiger’s Wife is amazing—everybody says so!) or they’re getting shivved.

All of which reminded me of an essay Walter Kirn wrote for the New York Times Book Review a little more than ten years ago titled, “Remember When Books Mattered?” Kirn constantly weathered suspicion for negative reviews he wrote: “I call it Oswald’s Law: No one who has any stake in the issue will ever believe that a negative review was the work of a lone gunman. No, there must be a plot.” Oswald’s Law, he added, applied to positive reviews as well.

Back then, Kirn’s chief concern was that the critical landscape would wind up being pushed into politeness. “[H]ow was an honest reviewer to express himself? By giving every book a gentleman’s C? By splitting the difference between his likes and dislikes, his enthusiasms and aversions, and turning out copy so bland and so uninteresting that no one will want to read it in the first place, but all will declare it fair-minded and unbiased?” Kirn pined for the days when you could turn on a TV set and watch Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer snipe at each other***; setting aside the fact that literary types hardly show up on TV at all now, when’s the last time two novelists disagreed with each other on a TV program?

But in many ways, Kirn has got exactly what he wanted—or, to be more accurate, we’ve avoided what he didn’t want. Instead of collapsing into a mush of indifference, reviewing is a cornucopia of extreme opinion. Five best new novelists (of this spring!); fifteen overrated old poets; the book I just read is a classic; so-and-so is a washed-up hack. (Please RT!) There’s a difference, though, between the extremism Kirn hoped for and the extremism we have. The former puts enthusiasts and detractors face-to-face; the latter gives them separate corners. (Or am I missing something? Is there a great knock-down argument between two people about The Tiger’s Wife going on somewhere?)

I’m careful not to overstate any of this—even as I recognize that my being careful not to overstate this makes me part of the problem I’m raising. The internet certainly didn’t invent hype and hit pieces, but it did arrive with a promise of more push and pull and fewer echo chambers. That behavior has consequences. As one commenter to the HTMLGiant post about moral reviewing put it: “In this tightly-knit and supportive online lit. community we see plenty of reviews of the opinion variety, but since they are mostly positive, no one minds.” So we’ve found a new way to get to same question Kirn ended his essay with: “Either books are worth fighting over or they’re not — and if they’re not, why read them in the first place?”

* I am trying very, very hard to set aside the fact that this statement echoes a line from the unintentionally hilarious punk rock episode of Quincy, M.E., which contains the painful lament, “Why would anyone want to listen to music that makes you hate when you could listen to music that makes you love?”

** Left undiscussed, as far as I could see, is that it can be equally off-putting to send a gushing note to a reviewer who’s reviewed your book positively. Respond, and you risk having the kind of friendly conversation that’ll make you wonder if you can review his or her next book fairly; don’t respond and you risk seeming like an antisocial jerk. Since the default assumption about a critic’s demeanor is “antisocial jerk” anyway, I generally figure I lose nothing by not responding.

*** Today, it’s easy to go to the tape and watch the ridiculousness in action. Kirn’s recollection of the exchange between Mailer and Vidal is hazy, but he was pretty much right to say that what they disputed was “the fact of each other’s existence.”

Links: So Much for That

Wendy Lesser: “[T]he literary critics I really care about are mostly dead.”

In response to my post last week about The Late American Novel, Frank Wilson questions my supposition that readers look to novels for validation of their feelings. “I certainly don’t read them to validate my feelings about anything, if only because I feel no need to validate my feelings. I read them to be transported to an interesting place where interesting things are taking place.”* Fair point, but, still, what makes those novels interesting? About ten years ago I heard Robert Christgau say something on a panel that I’ve always kept in the back in my head: “A great song can’t tell you something you don’t already know.” (That’s a paraphrase; I doubt he’d use a double negative, even casually on a panel.) The surfaces of a song, novel, movie, poem, whatever, always have the capacity to surprise us—it’s why we never tire of new ones. But ultimately each of those songs, novels, movies, poems, whatevers, are hitting something that feels familiar.

Jennifer Egan‘s next project is “a novel about the women who worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.”

Lionel Shriver‘s next book is The New Republic, a novel about terrorism inspired by the time she spent living in Northern Ireland. She wrote the book in 1998 but couldn’t attract a publisher then: “[A]t that time I had trouble getting American publishers interested in the manuscript—none of them were interested in terrorism until after 9/11. Plus they didn’t give two hoots about Northern Ireland—I’d start talking about Northern Ireland and they’d fall asleep. Now in some ways the US cares too much about terrorism and for a long time I felt it would be wrong to publish something that has a sense of humour about the issue. Enough time has gone by for a droll novel to be well received.”

Dale Peck: “[I]t’s my sense that there are talented writers out there who are more concerned with reputation and how that translates into sales than they are concerned with what they are actually putting on the page.”

Hilton Als delivers a thoughtful consideration of James M. Cain‘s work, though the best line in it actually comes from Luc Sante, who called The Postman Always Rings Twice “a prose poem hallucinated from a potboiler.”

Please don’t assume that Suri Hustvedt‘s new novel, about a woman abandoned by her husband, has anything to do with her real-life husband, Paul Auster.

Longtime music critic Tom Moon exposes his own work to criticism, and finds the current reviewing landscape wanting. Many of his concerns are applicable to book reviewing, for instance: “Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the ‘story’ as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that’s inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it’s important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn’t have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader’s question about what happens inside the work—how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it’s that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers.”

Newsweek considers novelists who keep at it well after they’re capable of producing good work. Most of the examples cited are thriller authors, who are more often obligated to turn out new works on a regular basis; plenty of exceptions abound, of course.

Rudolph Wurlitzer‘s 1984 novel, Slow Fade, will be reissued this year in book form and as an audiobook read by Will Oldham. (via)

Does the New York Times paywall mean we’ll get an Amazon Book Review? That sound you hear is me shaking a Magic 8-Ball where all the answers are “Doubtful.”

* My heart lifted a bit to learn that Wilson’s link is appended with the four-word parenthetical, “(Hat tip, Dave Lull).” I know Lull only as an intrepid and knowledgeable gatherer of relevant book-related links, though (to the best of my knowledge) he doesn’t blog himself. To be included among his gleanings is high praise indeed.

Details, Details

My review of Stewart O’Nan‘s new novel, Emily, Alone, appeared in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I admire the book, though it took a little while to win me over. The story of an 80-year-old widow, Emily Maxwell, managing her Pittsburgh household after her sister-in-law suffers a stroke, the novel makes some awkward moves early on. A search for a working car battery noisily announces a revitalization theme (in a chapter titled “The Resurrection,” no less), and O’Nan’s attention to detail occasionally feels forced, as when whole paragraphs are dedicated to matters like Emily working a crossword puzzle. “Xwords = drama?” I scribbled in a margin.

Some pages later, I scribbled this: “What could be more perfect for a novelist to write about than old age?” Novelists are professional noticers, and in Emily, O’Nan has a person who has plenty of time not only to take in details but to think about what makes them important. You don’t necessarily need an elderly person for that. O’Nan did much the same thing in his excellent 2007 novel, Last Night at the Lobster, by setting it in a blizzard-bound restaurant, slowing time to take in all the curious ways people behave in a deceptively complicated setting; O’Nan made running a Red Lobster seem as emotionally and technologically fraught as steering the starship Enterprise.

Yet in a character like Emily, someone for whom xwords do = drama, that attention to detail is much more pronounced, because the smallest actions carry plenty of meaning—and, quietly in the background, is the sense that the time allotted for paying such attention is running short. “The day had been an adventure, and she expected to sleep well,” he writes; Emily’s chief accomplishments that day were doing the laundry and walking the dog. The tone of that sentence is flat, declarative, free of irony or judgment; O’Nan means neither to tease Emily for the modesty of her life or to set her up as an object of pity. But he’s not attempting to make a noble hero out of her either. Emily is too clear-headed and demanding for that—she repels not just pity, but condescension too.

O’Nan makes that work not just by describing all that small stuff, but by noting the emotions wrapped up in them. Writing about a thank-you card from Emily’s son Kenneth, he captures plenty about their history, education, and her approach to parenting:

Kenneth, ever dutiful, finished his thank-yous before Margaret started hers, though his were slapdash, as if he’d rushed through them just to be done. Due to larger curriculum changes, in the early seventies the Pittsburgh schools dropped writing, and his cursive never improved. A five-year-old’s scrawls could be charming, but not a fifth-grader’s, and as he grew older, Emily vetted his efforts like a teacher correcting homework, more often than not sending him back to his desk so that it became a struggle, and unpleasant, to the extent that the mere mention of thank-you notes met with a groan—a mistake, since it awakened her sense of outrage, which only escalated the situation. Occasionally he was confined to his room until she deemed his work suitable.

Much of Emily and Kenneth’s adult relationship jibes with that old tussle over thank-you notes—in his hasty scribbling is a lifetime’s worth of arguments over decorum. And O’Nan draws our attention to it without fuss or contrivance.

E-books’ Dreaming

The title wheels a corpse into the room: The Late American Novel. And the first two epigraphs to the essay collection sound like eulogies. Steve Jobs, asked if he felt competitive about the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore.” Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen: “If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.”

But all that front matter mischaracterizes the book’s contents. The authors assembled by editors Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee don’t share uniform reasons for feeling hopeful about the future of books, but the feeling itself is largely uniform. Joe Meno: “[T]he idea of the book is more important than the actual form it takes.” Nancy Jo Sales: “I don’t think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much.” Elizabeth Crane: “[T]he role of the writer will always be to write.” Owen King: “I still don’t expect the book as an object, or the art form of the novel, to disappear anytime soon.”

And so on: The majority of the essays are structured by the writer’s taking notice of the alarms—e-books, tablets, an ever-destabilizing economy for writers, readers’ decreased attention spans, the novelist’s loss of centricity in the culture—and then choosing to ignore them. We’re wired for story; story will never die; writing is worthy labor; there will always be readers who appreciate it; and hey, didn’t Choose Your Own Adventure books prove the physical book can play with form well before the iPad? The arguments’ shape, along with their homily-like brevity, reminded me of a line from Roger Lambert, the bitter, pervy divinity-school teacher at the heart of John Updike‘s Roger’s Version: “Raise the doubts, then do the reassurances. People have no idea what they’re hearing, they just want a certain kind of verbal music. The major, the minor, and back to the major, then Bless you and keep you, and out the door to the luncheon party.”

Two exceptions, though. Despite its sheen of condescension, Benjamin Kunkel‘s “Goodbye to the Graphosphere” is admirable for never letting go of its sense of doubt. Though the internet has been a boon for writing in general, he argues, in general it works to erode it as a vehicle for considered thought, with “the role of writing as a whole resembling viewers’ comments on YouTube.” As much as I bristle at Kunkel’s characterization of novel-writing as being inherently amateurish, I get his point that if there’s something inexpert about novels—that it’s just a smart person taking a stab at explaining human nature without performing a clinical study—then the internet’s role as an enormous narcissism engine will erase a need for them.

Kunkel is right so long as we read novels only to validate the feelings we have in our daily, non-reading lives—if we do it only to meet people we can relate to. But that’s the main reason people read, yes? We could name other reasons—to challenge ourselves, to learn something about a place/culture/time we wouldn’t know about otherwise—but those still circle around the idea that novels exist for us to bounce our emotions off of. Critical remove is nice and all, but it’s impossible, or at least churlish, to read books full of people we can’t relate to, and any book with human beings in it is meant to be, at some level, relatable. At any rate, unrelatable-ness a hard thing upon which to build a literary culture. And if a sense of fellow-feeling is as easy as tweaking your Twitter stream, who needs novels?

At least, that’s the question Kunkel leaves me working through. The only voice of optimism that convinces me in The Late American Novel comes from Ander Monson (a writer I very much admire): In “ and Playing the Book,” he breaks open a lot of presumptions writers reflexively make about the structure of books and writing, from the syntax of sentences to the shape of the page. The writer’s role, then, is to test those limitations: “[I]f we think our only job as writers is to write nice sentences and hand them off to someone else, we risk obsolescence or, at the least, irrelevance.”

If I hadn’t seen how Monson himself does it, I wouldn’t trust his call to arms more than anybody else’s. And his challenge to writers to test the boundaries of writing will probably get executed hamfistedly a lot; I suspect we’re in for a lot more Choose Your Own Adventure-type books. (The questions the people who point to Choose Your Own Adventure as the future never seem to answer: Why was the series conceived for children? And why do you think the concept is so easily transferable to adult readers?) Per Monson, the future is full of plenty of interesting stories; we’ll just have to accept, per Kunkel, that fewer people will want to read them.

Links: Back in Town

I spent much of last week in New York City, where I helped select the winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards. It was my first year as a board member taking part in the process, and though the proceedings are confidential, I think it’s OK to say my worst fears didn’t come to pass. I recall little discussion revolving around identity politics, reputation burnishing, or turning a literary award into a lifetime achievement award; the conversations about the books ultimately turned on the merits of the books themselves. (Though that’s not to say the discussions always went smoothly; things get noisy when two dozen smart people get in the same room to talk about books.) Regardless, despite having voiced a few complaints about Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I’m happy it took the prize in fiction. And I wish we could have given some kind of prize to Donna Tartt, who delivered a stellar, hilarious reading from Paul Murray‘s Skippy Dies the night before the awards.

Goodreads is hosting a panel discussion on short stories this week with Alan Heathcock, Danielle Evans, Valerie Laken, and Emma Straub. I’m particularly intrigued by Heathcock’s writing process, which involves more thinking than drafting: “I don’t like sitting at the computer until the life is full in my imagination. I call this “hitting critical mass”—the point where the character (in the situation, in the place) is so alive in my imagination that it’s clawing at the backside of my eyes to get out. About 80% of my process is spent not putting words of a blank page, but doing anything I can/need to do to reach critical mass.” (My review of his debut collection, Volt, should be online soon.)

Ishmael Reed on his new book, Juice!: “Since I don’t like the modernist novel in which the omniscient narrator smothers his characters to death with psychoanalysis, they called my characters cartoonish. So I made this new character of mine a cartoonist.”

Snooping on John Fante‘s papers.

Ethan Canin on being a novelist without a sense of place.

This is Téa Obreht‘s moment. Though I wasn’t as seduced with The Tiger’s Wife as many seem to be.

Sam Lipsyte on his early days: “I would hoard my words, hoard my decent pages. I didn’t realize you just have to keep throwing everything away and squandering everything because you’ll find out that the real stuff starts to come. It’s learning not to be too precious about a few sentences you’ve written.”

One paragraph from Philip Roth on Thomas Wolfe.

Michael Copperman voices his frustrations with being a non-black writer who works in black dialect. I don’t know enough about the internal politics of literary magazines to validate his argument that there’s a reflexive aversion to Copperman’s choices as a writer; it strikes me that dialect-heavy stories in general can be hard to come by. (Even Mark Twain, who least needed to justify his choices as a writer, felt compelled to explain his use of dialect in Huckleberry Finn. Joking as the explanatory note is, he clearly sensed the matter needed addressing.) And, at the risk of diminishing the issues of racial politics Copperman discusses, dialect may simply be especially challenging on a rhetorical level, as difficult to pull off as a multithreaded historical narrative or a convincing work of magical realism. If editors have to get past a lot to accept a dialect-heavy piece of work, writers have to work through a lot to make one worth reading.

Anyway, I asked Richard Price about this a few years back in the context of his 1992 novel, Clockers. What he says strikes me as reasonable, though of course he had built a reputation before Clockers that perhaps made it less likely to raise the hackles of editors:

You don’t have to be a crack addict to write about it. Anybody can bear witness. I never for a second ever presumed to think I know what it’s like to be black. At the same time I also feel like, is everything between black and white so exotic that a white writer dare not write about being black? Because we have no human traits in common? In a way it’s like, the human heart is the human heart. I don’t sit down and think, “Now I’m gonna write a black character.” I’m gonna write a character. And this character happens to be black. And I feel like I don’t have to be black to write about a black character anymore than a writer has to be white to write about a white character, or a writer has to be gay to write about a gay character.

I always say this: You can’t get into this vicious game where you have to be the thing that you write. That’s deadly. Because if I can’t write about being black, or if I don’t want to see any black people write about being white, and if I can’t write about being gay, I don’t want to see any gay writers writing about straight people, because you don’t know what it’s like to be straight. You don’t know what it’s like to be white, you don’t know what it’s like to be Jewish or Christian, or Muslim.” The job of the novelist—or any creative writer—is to imagine lives that are not your own. And nothing is off-limits. If you’re writing about a group of people, and you do a clichéd job, you deserve whatever’s coming to you. If you’re just contributing to a stereotype.

Believe me, I was so aware of this while I was writing. I was scared to death about the whole charge of cultural piracy. It was a very hard thing to convince myself I had a right to do. But once you get a roll going, it’s like, This guy’s a human being.

The Beauty of the City

My review of Ward Just‘s new novel, Rodin’s Debutante, is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. I’ve riffed plenty on Just before, and I was certainly happy to see him return to Chicago, where he grew up and where he set one of his best novels, 2004’s An Unfinished Season. Writing about the book let me touch on the love-hate relationship that so many Chicago writers have with the city, and one thing I tried to point out is that Rodin’s Debutante is remarkable for being more on the hate side of the ledger: “The strange yet admirable thing about Rodin’s Debutante, the seventeenth novel by Ward Just, is that its Chicago is the broken nose without the loveliness. Though its characters swan through the city’s elite social circles, it’s clear they’re only play-acting at sophistication.”

For the 50s-era Chicago Just writes about, the corruption is thoroughgoing, from South Side medical clinics to North Side art aficionados. A drifter who appears in a tony North Shore town early on is meant to stress that danger and anxiety are everywhere, even in the places where the well-off try to escape it. I wish I had more room to discuss how Just takes the things that Chicago writers commonly admire about the city—its hardworking people, its ambitious skyline—and turns them inside out, darkens them. A scene describing City Hall gets at some of that, satirizing the typical paeans to the city’s architecture:

Bert…crossed the county line into Chicago, home at last, the familiar streets, the racket, the city’s mighty industrial groad. Farther on, pausing at a stoplight, City Hall loomed large. The building was one of the least distinguished of the Loop, a coal bucket of a building, but appearances were deceiving because the coal bucket concealed the Hope Diamond—a political apparatus so costly, so exquisite, so multifaceted, so blinding in its flash of fire, that it had secured tenure for scores of Illinois political scientists over the years. And still they had not driven a stake into the heart of things. What they did not know about the politics of the city would fill Wrigley Field. Of course no one knew it all; in its dash and complexity it resembled the Dark Continent. God knows there were ghosts aplenty in Chicago but the city was beautifully reconciled, its books immaculate. You walked into City Hall and you knew exactly what had to be done, where the payments went and to whom and what was expected in return. That was the beauty of the city, its clarity—and balance.

The novel also reminded me that I ought to read Herman Melville‘s Omoo, which is referred to a handful of times in the novel: The headmaster of a second-tier boys’ school is greatly admired for his lecture on the book, much to the consternation of the lawyerly parents. (“The navigator was secretive and sly. Was this Melville a red?”) But even without reading it, Just’s reason for mentioning the book seems clear: “The entire Pacific Ocean was not sufficient to quench his thirst for experience and the knowledge that came with it. There was always something fresh beyond the horizon line and a vessel at sea was a world unto itself.” Sticking to Chicago and its piddling lake, you might as well be landlocked; if you want to be around grownups, make haste for the coasts.

God Talk

In the Wall Street Journal, Meghan O’Rourke discusses the virtues of cadences in prose writing. “The American literary tradition is filled with writers who have understood that the power of writing springs not only from the precision of sentences but from the feeling evoked by their rhythm,” she writes. As one of her chief examples she cites Moby-Dick, which right from the first sentence evokes a “tragic Old Testament resonance.”

O’Rourke doesn’t discuss it in her piece, but that Old Testament resonance has a long history in American literature. In his 2010 book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter discusses how those old rhythms have played out in the works of a handful of writers. Melville is Alter’s Exhibit A: Moby-Dick, Alter writes, exemplifies Melville’s skill at blending the authoritativeness of the King James Bible and American colloquial speech. Among the tools Melville uses to pull of that balancing act (aside from heaping helpings from the book of Job), is parataxis—telescoped, run-on sentences that make liberal use of the word “and.” One example from the book: “Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and send the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard,—”

“This is not a kind of syntax that is at home in early modern or modern English, or, at any rate, it was not at home until the appearance of the King James Version,” Alter writes. Alter’s study of parataxis extends to Faulkner, Hemingway (“It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in the trees”), Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson (“Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand”). As I’ve noted before, Alter’s not always convincing: His attempts to find the Old Testament in Seize the Day feel strained. But he’s never totally off-track, and with the King James Bible turning 400 this year it may be the right time for a retrospective look.

Alter concedes that the connection between American fiction and the King James Bible is fraying, especially since it isn’t the standard text in most congregations now. Yet “something of the old dynamic stubbornly persists,” Alter writes. Reviewing Pen of Iron in the New Republic, Adam Kirsch notes America’s dwindling biblical literacy and asks, “It would be interesting to try to read more recent American fiction through Alter’s lens: can you hear the Bible in David Foster Wallace’s prose, or Lydia Davis’s?” Well, we can give it a shot.

This week’s New Yorker includes “Backbone,” an excerpt from David Foster Wallace‘s forthcoming posthumous novel, The Pale King. Structured and styled much like a medical case study, the story depicts a few years in the life of a preadolescent boy whose “goal was to be able to press his lips to every square inch of his own body.” Wallace mostly looks at the boy from a clinical distance, and anatomical jargon quickly piles up: “the interior thigh’s dense and intransigent gracilis, pectineus, and adductor longus, which fuse below Scarpa’s triangle…” And so on. It’s ugly, unliterary language—perhaps all the better to match the obscure, awkward behavior it describes.

But if those clots of Latin will only fuel the exasperation of people who are easily exasperated by Wallace, it’s worth noting where his language loosens up. There’s a bit of that parataxis when the boy is relaxing in his room, depicted as one with nature:

Light from the sun came through the tree at different angles and intensities at different times of day and illuminated different parts of the boy as he stood, sat, inclined, or lay on the room’s carpet, stretching and holding positions.

We get a similar but more extended glimpse of the boy’s environment a bit later:

Past the southern exposure’s tree were the foreshortened roofs of neighborhood homes and the fire hydrant and street sign of the cross street and the forty-eight identical roofs of a low-income housing development beyond the cross street, and, past the development, just at the horizon, the edges of the verdant cornfields that began at the city limits.

There are a few other examples of Wallace stretching out the sentences like taffy, usually moments when he wants to set cold omniscience aside for a moment and zoom in on a character’s nature. (My favorite ends with “a sort of dutiful tedium of energy and time and the will to forge on in the face of despair.”) None of which proves that Wallace had a strong stylistic interest in the King James Bible—run-on sentences can also just be a way for a writer to work up a head of steam. But “Backbone” is unquestionably a God-concerned story: The case study references religious mystics who performed various acts of bodily abuses on themselves as a way of acting out God’s will, and one of the questions “Backbone” opens is whether this sort of extreme action is a clinical or a spiritual act.

The narrator says “the boy had no conscious wish to ‘transcend’ anything,” but he’s not denying that the action has had a spiritual impulse. The story needs those crazed mystics to give a flesh-and-blood counterbalance the dry bones of his medical condition. And while nobody gets Jesus in the story, Wallace understands how old-fashioned Biblical syntax can be a source of uplift. The boy’s father keeps a list of inspirational lines taped to the bathroom mirror, including: “The coward flees even when no man pursueth.—The Bible” That’s slightly off from the King James Version’s translation of Proverbs 28:1 (“The wicked flee when no man pursueth”). But considering how far the KJV has had to travel through naturalism and realism and modernism and postmodernism and all the rest, it’s close enough.

A Parliament of Owls

There isn’t too much to disagree with on the surface of Charles Baxter‘s brief essay on book reviews in Fiction Writers Review, “Owl Criticism”: reviewers can be impossibly shallow, he asserts, while more credentialed reviewers are often only slightly better. “[Q]uite a few book reviews are worthless,” he writes. “They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.'”

But every critic performs a sort of owl criticism, including Baxter. After dismissing the reviews of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic and the New York Times as hyping the novel as either dull or a timeless masterpiece, Baxter points out what those reviews should have addressed: “the formal properties of Franzen’s novel—in the ways, for example, certain dramatic events duplicated themselves, or the instances of crucial scenes that Franzen chose not to present directly.”

The “formal properties” of a book are important, but those aren’t the only aspects of it worth reviewing. Neither the Atlantic‘s rant about the shift of American literature toward the drably quotidian or the Times‘ trumpeting of the novel’s political savvy were especially convincing, but they are reasonable positions from which to address the book. Indeed, it may be the sign of an interesting work of fiction that it can absorb all sorts of criticism, accommodate many owls.

“[A] good review, if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life, and then has to tell us how its content is located in its form,” Baxter writes. It’s sensible advice, followed up by less sensible advice: Great book reviews “assert that a great precious object exists that you need to discover for yourself, because it will change your life.” Apart from echoing the kind of breathless tone common to the reviews that exasperate him, the statement implies that the best reviews are the positive ones, constrained by their proclamations of “formal and verbal” successes but courting worthlessness if they apply a different kind of filter.

Every good critic has a grip on the “formal and verbal properties,” sure, but every good critic is sick with prejudices as well. James Wood‘s owl, to pick one example, is hysterical realism (“this book has busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us, and I don’t like busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us”). It’s understandable that Baxter took a look at and despaired of where criticism (or precise writing in general) is going, but in complaining about the noise of empty criticism he dismisses much that makes criticism lively and valid as well.