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.”

Job Description

Yesterday I wrote that “fiction’s job, best as I can tell, is to be good fiction.” That’s a lot simplistic (and completely tautological), and since I scribbled it I’ve wondered if there’s a better way to make the point that fiction that serves a larger purpose always feels compromised, a little less true to itself. If fiction doesn’t have a job, what’s its purpose?

In an entertaining interview with Levi Asher, Up in the Air and Thumbsucker novelist Walter Kirn offers the kind of summary response I was looking for:

My job—my only job, the way I see it—is to dedicate myself, with my whole being, to reflecting, animating, and discovering that in the world (and in my myself) that speaks most energetically of our remarkable situation here as beings who get just one shot—so far as we know—of accommodating a reality that we encounter through no act of will, must abide in without the assistance of a rule book, and are granted no clear vision of our progress through, or any guarantee that progress is possible, measurable, or what it would constitute assuming it were.

That’s a mouthful, and all those rhetorical switchbacks means it likely won’t make it into Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But it’s as good a description of the fiction writer’s purpose as I’ve come across.

The entire interview, by the way, covers plenty of interesting ground about Kirn’s dual duties as a novelist and critic, as well as the process of transforming a novel into film. As bloggers used to say a lot more often, read the whole thing.

Dept. of Self Promotion

So, that question I asked a little while back? I was being a bit mercenary in putting it out there–I’ve been cobbling together a piece about D.C. novels that’s now up on Washington City Paper‘s Web site. This may stoke the anger of people convinced that reviewers are “one of the lowest forms of life.” But to paraphrase something Walter Kirn wrote a while ago, if we’re not interested in arguing about books, why are we reading them?

I also have a brief review of David Hajdu‘s new book, The Ten-Cent Plague.

New Dybek

The Washington Post‘s Sunday Magazine is its Valentine’s fiction issue, featuring stories by Stuart Dybek, Julia Alvarez, Walter Kirn, and Julie Orringer. Missing Chicago a little lately, I went straight to Dybek’s “Road to Cordoba,” a small North Side love story set in a very large Chicago blizzard; it’s a beautifully turned piece, with a quick detour into a bar that neatly evokes every red-brick-facade-Old-Style-sign-in-front-joint in the city:

The cramped, low-lit space was packed, or so it first appeared. Though only three men sat at the bar, they were so massive they seemed to fill the room. Their conversation stopped when I came in. I’d heard the rumor that players for the Chicago Bears sometimes drank there, but hadn’t believed it, probably because I’d heard it from Lise’s stepfather, Ray, who’d also told me that as a cliff-diver in Acapulco he’d once landed on a tiger shark with an impact that killed the shark. With all of Rush Street waiting to toast them, why would Bears drink at a dump like the Buena Chimes?

Dybek will discuss the story on the Post‘s Web site Monday.