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: 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.