I know I should be grateful to the NYTBR for trashing my new book. I’m not.
So the New York Times Book Review just reviewed my new one, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. The most awesomest passage of the review likens the book to Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. Hey, it’s not every day a guy gets compared to his spiritual mentor.
The overall tenor of the critique isn’t exactly a shocker. Having written a book that vilifies self-serious cultural critics, I figured at some point it would be reviewed by a self-serious cultural critic, who would use phrases such as “an aesthetic of quasi-handmade approachability” and quote the Velvet Underground adoringly and decree that anyone who might enjoy my book is a cretin.
It’s a sore bit of luck to have this critic deployed by the NYTBR. But it more or less lines up with my expectations of the venue.
This no doubt sounds like sour grapes, given the context. Probably it is. I’m long past denying that most of what I do in life amounts to sour grapes. Still, here’s what I had to say on the subject a few months ago:
I am so ungodly tired of reading all this crap-ass literary punditry that passes for criticism. I mostly avoid reading the NYTBR for this reason. Rather than documenting the pleasures and disappointments a reader might encounter in a given book – offering a serious consideration of aesthetic and moral intent – they just do this stupid trend-mongering.
Instead, let’s check out the Jay McInerney review of Joshua Ferris’ second novel, The Unnamed. You could just see the editors sitting around with this one going, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll get the old It Guy writer to take on the new It Guy writer!’ McInerney’s eventual verdict: Ferris should stick to writing droll comedies of manner.
He has a right to that opinion, of course. But it’s a facile opinion, the sort that refuses to engage honestly with the book in question.
The Unnamed is far from a perfect novel. My own take on the book found fault with its ponderous prose. But any responsible critic would also have to recognize that Ferris did indeed have a moral and aesthetic intent.
His hero is afflicted by a mysterious condition that causes him to walk compulsively, through “the scuffed aisles of candies and chips … the dismal fluorescent brutality that chain restaurants wore like trademarks … the national color of insomnia and transience.”
Ferris isn’t just dragging the reader on a forced march into America’s bleak capitalist hinterlands to torture poor Jay McInerney. He’s asking an essential question: will the base compulsions of our bodies defeat the contents of our souls? Will our lust for distraction and empty calories overrun our duties toward those we love?
Whether or not McInerney thinks Ferris is successful, he should at least recognize the dude’s deeper intent.
Compared to George Saunders, Ferris should maybe consider himself lucky. A couple of years back, Will Blythe wrote a review of the essay collection The Braindead Megaphone that was astonishing for its intellectual stinginess.
Blythe mocked Saunders for his excessive use of capital letters, which he diagnosed as part of the author’s larger effort to buff his persona:
Maybe, as a Chicago-raised guy, [Saunders] goofs on himself to show he’s not some East Coast Intellectual Twit. One suspects that the irony of this maneuver is there to protect the very Midwestern Sweetness of the Author’s Soul.
For George Saunders has a Very Sweet Soul indeed.
Blythe has every right, even an obligation, to observe that he feels manipulated by Saunders. He can even be snide about it, and try to score laughs. But he also has an obligation to give Saunders credit for his insights.
That doesn’t happen. He writes off the title essay as a “solipsistic analysis” of the modern media. I can’t express how disappointing I found this judgment. Saunders’ piece is a strenuously reasoned argument against the Fourth Estate’s impulse to wring profit from neck of stimulation.
But the end of Blythe’s review, I felt this creeping suspicion that he simply had it in for Saunders, that he resented the author’s ostentatious decency and/or his optimism and/or the fact that he became a MacArthur Genius despite his Inexcusable Use of Capital Letters. He did what the lit crit crowd back in college used to call “reading against the text.” He thereby flattened the entire experience of reading Saunders.
Again: I’m not suggesting that critics can’t dislike the books they review, and say so. I do it myself. But I’m really tired of reading reviews – in the NYTBR and elsewhere – in which I feel essentially stuck inside some critic’s cant, with no clear view of the author’s world, let alone the broader ideas that ostensibly made the book worth reviewing. Or in which the subject of the review isn’t really the author’s book at all, but the imaginary book the critic not-so-secretly wishes he or she had written instead.
One of the most glaring recent instances was Jodi Kantor’s dismissal of Rebecca Mead’s One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.
Kantor’s agenda is plain from the start. She had a great wedding. So did her friends. So why is Mead being such a party pooper?
What never seems to have occurred to Kantor – or the editors who published her review – is that Mead’s book wasn’t written as a rebuke to Kantor or her fun-loving pals. It’s an exploration of something larger. Namely, the insidious reach of the bridal industry.
I suppose a topic like that wasn’t compelling enough to capture the fickle post-millennial reader on its own merits. So the editors turned to the tried-and-true gimmick review, the one guaranteed to generate debate – not about the book’s subject, but about the review itself.
Look: the NYTBR is supposed to be the gold standard of mainstream literary thought in this country. The disappearance or contraction of other outlets makes it, at the very least, the dominant arbiter. They’ve got scads of editors, and can get basically anyone on earth to write for them.
Given all this, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in asking them to stop doing business in such a shallow, small-hearted manner. As for the perpetual moaning about space constraints: I’d be more sympathetic if the editors took a knife to the gratuitous plot summaries and indulgent, trend-mongering leads that eat up so much of their word count.
On that note, let me reiterate an uncontested point: I’m reacting to the sting of a particular review. (Full disclosure: this is actually the second time my work has been torched by the NYTBR.) Our loyal literary pundits will inevitably seize on this fact to dismiss my larger point. It’s kind of their job to do so.
But for the rest of us – the writers and critics – let me offer some parting words, before I put the finishing touches on my upcoming masterpiece, Chasing Sarah: A Life in Hunting and Pornography.
First, you have the right to react to the critical reception your work receives, or doesn’t receive. There are zillions of writers out there who are, this very minute, cursing the NYTBR for ignoring their work altogether.
Books – especially literary books – should be filled with smart, provocative ideas that deserve a response. They are intended to initiate a conversation about what it means to be human. A good review enlarges that conversation.
But it’s a loser move – an imitative fallacy, actually – to dismiss a bad review. As unpleasant as it’s been to read the assessments of my work in the NYTBR, both of the reviews in question had something to teach me – about dumb decisions I made at the keyboard, about the limited appeal of my sensibility, about certain habits of excess borne of my own doubt.
So, yeah, it’s okay to get pissed, maybe even inevitable. But we must not stop learning as writers. Even our least sympathetic reader has something to offer.
Second, as writers (of whatever sort) we should discuss books as seriously as we want ours to be discussed. I truly believe this. And not just in print, but in our daily lives, in how we talk about books with friends and colleagues, on our blogs, or even within some aggrieved comment thread. To degrade another writer without a respectful consideration of his or her intent and labor is to degrade our own vocation.
It would be wonderful if the NYTBR had a bunch of editors who held themselves to this standard. But that’s not really their job – as much as they might think it is. Their job is to drum up interest in a cultural artifact (the book) that keeps sliding further out onto the margins of our frenzied visual culture.
Our job, as writers and critics – as plain old advocates of literature – is to keep this larger discussion alive, about what it means to be living in this perilous historical moment, about our good intentions and our bad conduct, about those ecstatic confusions that made us fall in love with books in the first place.
Now then. In the interest of giving credit where it’s due, as well as promoting good works over sour grapes, here’s a brief list of critical dispatches I consider excellent role models:
*“How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” by David Foster Wallace (from his fantastic collection Consider the Lobster). Note how precisely Foster Wallace articulates his disappointment in Austin’s memoir, then goes on to enlarge the conversation about our worship of athletes.
*James Wood’s review of Paul Auster’s Invisible demonstrates why Wood is such a badass. He goes out of his way to understand and articulate the author’s intentions. He cops to his biases. He puts the book into a comprehensive aesthetic context, by which I mean that he compares Invisible not only to other Auster books, but to Flaubert, DeLillo, and the post-modern tradition. (I’m pretty sure Wood would chew me up and spit me out if he ever read one of my books. But I’m also sure I’d know a lot more about what I’m up to as a writer after he was done.)
*David Ulin’s review of John D’Agata’s About A Mountain. Ulin discusses D’Agata’s controversial narrative decisions in a way that actually helps us make sense of this unorthodox book. He takes in the forest without getting lost in the leaves.
*Justin Taylor’s remarkable inquiry into Zachary German’s Eat When You Feel Sad. Without passing easy judgment – the perpetual temptation for a critic – Taylor provides a detailed and thoughtful meditation on a book that most reviewers (myself included) would either write off as vacant hipsterism, or glorify for its affectations.
*Laura Miller on Eric Kraft’s Flying. I have a feeling I’d be less amused by Kraft than Miller, given my impatience with meta-fiction, but she does a terrific job of locating the writer, both among his contemporaries and a longer tradition of satirists. (Bonus points: This actually ran in the NYTBR!)
*Anthony Lane reviewing the film Lilya 4Ever. Lane can be savagely smart about dumb movies. Here, he’s unflinchingly honest about a heartbreaking film.
Right. Enough of my blather. What critical pieces have you read of late that enlarge the conversation about literature, about art, about us? Even if you’re gonna rake me over the coals, that’d be swell to know.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.