Trademark Taste

John Matthew Fox, discussing the diminishing clout of the standard-issue newspaper and magazine book review, writes:

[W]hen James Wood reviewed “Atmospheric Disturbances” in the New Yorker, I listened to his complaints about the book’s postmodern elements, recognized them for his trademark taste, and his argument backfired—instead of avoiding the book, I knew I’d love it (it ended up being one of my favorite novels of 2009).

From there, Fox makes some good points about how the proliferation of word-of-mouth outlets online practically demand that newspaper reviewers do better than just deliver yeas or nays about a book. To survive, he argues, reviews need “more critical interpretation, less personal opinion.” But his complaint about James Wood reveals a common bit of bad logic, a close cousin to the line “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded”: “I hate that critic, I disagree with everything he says.” A good critic isn’t necessarily one whose opinions you agree with, just a person with a set of beliefs and attitudes stable enough that you can bounce your own off them.

Like Fox, I tend to tune out when Wood begins keening about postmodern writing. But there’s a reason why Fox has instant recall on Wood’s name (and Michiko Kakutani‘s), as well as his “trademark taste”: They write consistently enough, and at length enough, to make their biases familiar to readers. If the value of print reviewers has diminished for committed readers like Fox, it’s due at least in part to the fact that thinned arts sections jettisoned their regular staff critics (a problem more pronounced in film than in other arts). That any arts coverage is left at all is something to be thankful for, but anybody looking for a consistent voice to argue with today will have a hard time doing so amid the crazy quilts of freelancers, wire copy, and somebody yanked off the statehouse beat to review a book on politics.

Small wonder, then, that recommendation engines like GoodReads and Amazon are appealing—I use both, and while I know I won’t find a Wood or Kakutani there, at least there’s a vibe of consistency there, a particular kind of noise all the chatter makes. I’d like to think that this supplements more formal reviews instead of replaces them, though. Because a critic voicing “personal opinion” isn’t really the problem; the problem is the decreasing ability for readers to know, over time, that the critic is a person with a few habits and peculiar tastes, somebody you know well enough to care about disagreeing with.

(via Electric Literature)

Wood vs. Franzen

The Harvard Crimson does a nice job covering last night’s public discussion between James Wood and Jonathan Franzen. The two needn’t have hung out in the same room if they didn’t want to: Wood took some whacks at The Corrections (and the widescreen social novel in general) back in 2001, and Franzen dismissed criticism these days for not “responding intelligently to the text. So few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum, it’s so black and white.” Even the people who’ve been nice to his work earn his scorn: He dubbed Michiko Kakutani, who liked The Corrections, “the stupidest person in New York City.” Noting that he’s had a rough time writing fiction since 9/11, Franzen wondered out loud what role the novelist plays today:

“When you have the opportunity to do a documentary—to do Frontline, to do The Wire—and reach a much larger audience much quicker and you actually gain, it’s more vivid, you can go right to the body on the street in Baghdad and can have that up on the screen,” Franzen said. “I’m engaged in a lifelong struggle to produce texts that have that kind of interior depth that is not immediately apparent, that repay some kind of careful analysis without losing people who just want to follow along on the surface.”

Saturday Miscellany

The New York Times Book Review‘s Web site excerpts the first chapter of Charles Bock‘s Beautiful Children.

Financial Times profiles James Wood. The critic was no fan of D.C., which was home to his long-time outlet, the New Republic, before he recently jumped to the New Yorker:

“It’s a dead place,” says Wood. “Unless you are going to conquer it like something out of a Balzac novel, or climb the political world, it’s dead, totally dead.”

The article also includes some of Wood’s more pointed assessments, like his take on Tom Wolfe‘s A Man in Full:

Unfortunately, Wolfe’s characters only feel one emotion at a time; their inner lives are like jingles for the self. As Picasso had his Blue Period, so Wolfe’s characters have their Angry Period, or their Horny Period, or their Sad Period. But they never have them at the same time, and so the potential flexibility of the stream of consciousness, precisely its lifelike randomness, is nullified.

Theodora Keogh’s stepdaughter notes in the comments of my brief item on Keogh’s death that the Charlotte Observer piece I pointed to wasn’t an obit. True enough: What I linked to was an appreciation. The Observer‘s obituary was published on Jan. 8. Clearly, I’m not the Keogh expert. Brooks Peters, however, very much seems to be.