Thinking and Feeling

Earlier this week Frank Wilson found a post by British blogger Mark Meynell in which he claims frustration with the shelf talkers at a bookstore chain. The cards ask staffers to finish the sentence, “This book made me feel…,” but feeling has only so much to do with it:

It seems to me that our whole approach to life, from primary school up, is based on emotional response. Probably because we’ve given up on the possibility of truth—not necessarily out of a partisan, ideological antagonism (although that’s true of some). More because of a despair at previous failed attempts. As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think.

In response, Meynell has written “20 Questions to Ask of Novels,” though this seems to veer too far in the other direction, favoring a clinical analysis of the book’s plot mechanics, themes, and reasons for existing. (A handful of questions also prompt the reader to ask about the Christian aspects of the book, which is only going to be useful for so many novels, and the wrong filter for most of them.) I cringe a little reading it, the way I usually do whenever I scan the questions in the “reading group guide” stuffed in many paperbacks. Is a book’s ending “escapism…or gritty, unresolved realism?” goes one question, as if I only had two possible responses. “If evil is a reality, how does it get portrayed?” Er, realistically?

I don’t mean to mock or dismiss Meynell’s project, because by and large the questions are worth asking. And he’s right to be skeptical about how so much casual book commentary celebrates how “relatable” a book is—how much a book evokes something I’ve personally experienced. (I still resist writing about my personal experiences in any review I write, and I reflexively think less of any review that starts with a personal anecdote. Some can make it work, but most can’t.)

The grating part of the list of questions that no open-minded reader ought to look at a book so programatically, and a set of particular questions won’t be relevant to all books. As Wilson points out, “The questions posed here may lurk somewhere in the back of my mind when I read a novel, but certainly not consciously. I just pick up the book and start reading.” For a critic as much as any other reader, the book has to deliver some kind of pleasure—the critic just more spends more time sorting out why the book succeeded at that (or didn’t). And though the answers might touch on “Scale,” “Narration,” “Development,” it’s rarely so simple.

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.

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.