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.”

14 thoughts on “Critics: Too Extreme? (VIDEO)

  1. You ARE part of the problem, Mark. Because you’ve proven time and time again to be a fucking pussy (oh noes! ad hominem! that crazy motherfucker in Brooklyn can’t POSSIBLY have a point! we can’t argue like this!) who, on one hand, tries to pretend that he’s all civil. And then, as I’ve done many times, when you are called on the carpet for writing something utterly stupid, reductionist, and uninformed, you refuse to engage or even attempt to oscillate another person’s extreme position with your extreme position and corral this into an interesting discussion or even an intense but amicable ping-pong game. How unadventurous! How in the hell can a passive-aggressive type like you who ignores conflict be in the business of criticism? Here again, you offer the bullshit stereotype that a critic who writes extreme reviews is incapable of subtlety (or that a subtle critic is incapable of extreme reactions). Where I roll, that’s just not the way real human beings react to anything. There are some things that fill you with passion. There are rational efforts to make sense of that passion. But if you are an even remotely honest writer, you will be true to it all and not give a flying fuck about what anybody has to say about it (although it helps to have editors persuade you off the ledge from time to time).

    It’s clear that you are too concerned about what people think about you and your writing. That’s what motivated your participation in the NBCC. That’s what motivates this blog. And that is why you cannot be called a critic, who must, after all, stand for something. That is why you are an otherwise intelligent guy who comes across as a disingenuous milquetoast. Come on, Mark. Go down roads that we wouldn’t expect you to veer. Confront aesthetic tastes that would otherwise infuriate you. Steer away from the mostly safe middle-class Americana that you like to hold up as The Novels That Should Be Read. If you can do this, I wouldn’t have to walk away from 70% of your work and conclude that it’s bullshit.

  2. I only read “The Tiger’s Wife” in The New Yorker, not Tea Obreht’s entire book. That said, I was very engaged by her imagination.

    I didn’t think about her verbs until I read the quote that begins your post. I’d willingly read an entire book by Tea Obreht, and I will. (Re-reading the post: “She has a way with verbs.” A writer reduced to her use of verbs. Amazing)

    I remember feeling stunned by “The Tiger’s Wife.” And also being thrilled that there was this new voice in the world. I don’t much listen to on-line chatter and I’m way behind in my reading of The New York Times Book Review (I’ve been a subscriber for over a decade). So, here’s my vote for Tea Obreht, who on the basis of that vivid story has made it onto my short list of “Must Read” writers.

  3. Thank you, Mark, for your thought-provoking look at the current state of criticism. I appreciate your ability to examine issues and provide critical insights rather than joining the throngs in either their mud-slinging or their hallelujah choruses. It’s one of the many reasons I read your blog every week.

  4. Mark, thanks for the link. And for weighing in. I definitely agree that that the ever-contracting space for reviews creates pressure to make “extreme” statements in one direction or other (a pressure I’m sure I’ve caved to now and again). My issue with the Obreht was less the content of the reviews — people are entitled to their opinions — than the fact that it seems a disservice to readers, and to the novel itself, not to engage with it seriously, and the reviews I cited tended to gloss what seemed to me a very conspicuous set of problems. Perhaps it’s naive, but I always figure the best way to advance the cause of books is to meet the questions they ask head-on, and reviews that are completely continuous with the language of a book’s marketing offer little in that regard.

    (On a different note, @anthropologist, I can see how my comment about verbs might have come across as reductive. But what I was hoping to get across was the fact that Obreht has a gift for revivifying language on the sentence-level. This kind of precision is what I found exciting about her writing, but unfortunately it just doesn’t translate to the structure of her novel as a whole.)

  5. Moving on from the focus on Tea Obreht (thanks much, Amelia, for your insight on Obreht, and love that phrase “revivifying language on the sentence-level”), the question: Do book reviewers have a moral responsibility?

    The answer is yes.

    I’m a woman. I’m a woman “of color”. A woman of color who hails from the Philippines. There are not that many of us out there, reviewing books. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously: reviewing books, especially those that I know will never get reviewed unless I sit down and donate my time, my words, my attention to them.

    Have I ever given a negative review to a writer who is: a) a woman; b) a woman of color; c) a woman of color from the Philippines — You know, good question. If I feel I can’t say anything positive about a book by a woman writer from the Philippines, I pass.

    1. If everybody shared that strategy, though, wouldn’t we receive a collectively false portrait of female writers from the Philippines? What if there were prominent, well-reviewed, bestselling book by a female writer from the Philippines that you feel represents the country poorly and inaccurately—would you feel an obligation to say so? I don’t ask those questions to encourage you to deliver negative reviews—just to suggest that stressing the positive may not automatically be the obviously moral choice.

      1. Who cares if something sells or not? You are an inherently unethical reviewer if you are basic your final decision, positive or negative, on hype or commercial value. @anthropologist feels that she wishes to speak up for marginalized or minority voices — a perfectly reasonable decision (especially since she also calls for someone to know the culture downthread) having little to do with the commercial nexus and drifting away from the need to respond to the Now. After all, today’s hot author may find herself in the remainders pile in eighteen months. Or she may be entirely forgotten. The critic’s only job is to offer a bona-fide judgment reflecting her individual tastes. So by this criteria, I would trust @anthologist to write a more ethically responsible review than Mark Athitakis.

        What is unreasonable is Mark’s notion of “a collectively false portrait of female writers from the Philippines.” We are talking about fiction, a lie that the reader is willing to believe. How many novels have presented a region “poorly and inaccurately” yet have succeeded as art? (Now there’s an interesting moral dilemma that I would trust @anthologist to write about.) Mark is nothing less than an isolationist bumpkin for maintaining such a Manichean view, especially since he has erected this around commercial fiction. @anthologist is not a lesser reviewer for refusing to engage with a specific book, but Athitakis is for refusing to consider these vital nuances. Unless, of course, he can offer clarification (which he won’t).

  6. the best way to advance the cause of books is to meet the questions they ask head-on, and reviews that are completely continuous with the language of a book’s marketing offer little in that regard

    I really agree with this formulation: the whole ‘good review’ / ‘bad review’ dichotomy seems so reductive. For me, the most interesting criticism often seems to be in a thoughtful dialogue with the work under examination. Though the overall evaluation may be positive or negative, what’s interesting and important is the process and the explanation, the discussion, not the pronouncement. But that kind of analysis doesn’t “RT” or “blurb” well.

  7. If I were to be placed in a hypothetical situation such as you describe (bestselling book by female writer from Philippines that is inaccurate), and I had been asked to review it, then I would feel an obligation to speak up and say this was an inaccurate portrait. (Now, how do I KNOW, though? I might be thinking I’d speak up, but if I were in an actual situation, I might not. I suppose I’ve been lucky, never to have been placed in such a situation! Because I would be torn, terribly conflicted. Or, I would have to express just how torn I was, I’d have to include that in my review)

    I guess it depends on HOW inaccurate. If writer got one or two things wrong that I don’t think are terribly important (this is all relative, mind you — just exploring hypotheticals. Since I’ve already gotten my feet wet, I might as well go in all the way!), then I’d have to say, overall, this book was still ___ then go on to focus on the positives.

    But if it was a really really glaring inaccuracy, if I felt it was fundamentally DISHONEST, which is really the worst criticism I can make of a writer, any writer, not just “female writer from the Philippines” that’s been well-reviewed (You know, I’m actually loving that I’ve gotten to utter the phrase “female writers from the Philippines” several times now, I’ve never had this happen before, I must be in heaven), I would have to weigh in.

    I also think that it would behoove book reviews to have books by Philippine writers be reviewed by someone who at least knows the culture, because someone reviewing a book by a Filipino writer wouldn’t necessarily know what was inaccurate. So there’s that issue, as well.

  8. @Mark, @Anthropology:

    What moral responsibility there may be, applies only to the text and my sensibilities as a reader [in relation to that text]. This includes the structural frontiers it builds a home in, or dares to explore. This includes the reader’s response when that book is in his hands. This is the reader’s history brought into the now that the text demands. This is form and affect. This is the Status and Contract Models converging to present a book that is not only technically impressive, but also has the capacity to touch something in you before wringing it dry.

    I know that all sounds a lot. But this is what I, as a reader [and half-hearted reviewer] do not have any responsibility to: The author’s role in furthering a nation’s literature. My review’s possible promotion of a nation’s literature.

    See, that’s incidental. If the novel can stand on its own to a reader — pity the collective grade inflation — these little triumphs will happen. I don’t believe in keeping mum of a book’s faults because the author happens to live in the same country as me, or has the same gender, or everyone’s saying it’s the best thing that ever happened to the printed word [pls RT!] — or because my corner of the internet could stunt the already creeping development of a nation’s literature. I have my biases, but those are not among them.

    For what it’s worth, I’m a girl, a published writer, born and raised and currently living in the sweltering Philippine Islands, a reader-blogger. But, really now?

    As for Obreht, I’ll read her when she reaches my shores. Integrity’s too big a word to go throwing around the blogosphere — but I owe it to myself to be honest about my response to the novel.

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