Thursday, December 13, 2012

The critic’s credentials

The novelist William Giraldi, who is no stranger to controversy, has kicked up more dust with a recent Los Angeles Review of Books essay in which he deplores what has become of literary criticism as it has migrated from “respectable print publications” to “blogs and social media sites.” In yet another enforcement of Gresham’s law, the “online culture of masked assassins” is driving out “serious criticism.” Giraldi’s description of the quality of book discussion to be found online is carefully tailored to offend just about everybody: “If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog,” he says, “you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.”

Ouch. As if on cue, my fellow book bloggers rose up in arms. But I’m not sure why. Giraldi was not questioning their venue, but their credentials. And he was unusually clear—for a writer who prefers a more baroque style, he was shockingly plain—in saying what he meant by the critic’s credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” What Giraldi expressly did not say is that discrimination and learning can only be exercised in “respectable print publications” and never never never in “someone’s personal blog.”

Indeed, the biggest shortcoming in Giraldi’s essay is not its sweeping condemnation of book bloggers, which is not to be found there, but its short-changing of what I’d call the gatekeeper problem. The editors of print publications, respectable or not, used to supervise the gates of literary criticism. Only the critics they approved of, only the criticism they found acceptable, were allowed to proceed into print. They selected the books for review; they assigned the reviewers. They decided how long the reviews would be and when the reviews would run (if at all). The editor’s judgment, not the critic’s, was final.

Every writer needs an editor, I suppose, but as someone who has written both for “respectable print publications” and on his own blog, I can tell you that the difference is between criticism that is constrained and criticism that is free (in every sense of that word, sadly). To the degree that blogs and social media have broken editors’ power, I am all in favor of them. I’ve had editors who angrily refused to review a writer out of personal malice, who spiked a review because they disagreed with its conclusion, who garbled an argument by cutting it to fit, who botched an allusion by failing to recognize it and recasting it in their own (superior) words, who introduced errors by inserting their own points. Worst of all, in my experience, has been the fundamental difference between editors and critics over the very function of criticism.

Giraldi quotes a wonderful passage from Percy Lubbock’s Craft of Fiction, which gets at the difference:

If you ask Henry James whether he “likes” some book under discussion, the roll and twinkle of his eye at the simplicity of the question is a lesson in itself, and one that a young critic will never forget. Where, he seems to say, on the loose fabric of a mere preference or distaste will be found the marks of the long wear and tear of discrimination that are the true critic’s honorable and recognizable warrant? It needs a solider consistency to stand the pressure and take the imprint of the accumulating weight of his scrutiny; and certainly there was no light fondness or hasty petulance in Henry James’s praise or blame of a book. A large unhurried mind, solitarily working and never ceasing to work, entirely indifferent to the changes and chances of the popular cry, it was this that gave its sonorous gravity to Henry James’s opinion of the thing that he rated.A critic’s verdict on a book is almost never a simple question of whether he “likes” it. In my experience, though, an editor wants to know very little more, and he will pressure the critic for a definitive assessment, up or down. The origins of Amazon’s five-star rating system lie in magazine and newspaper editors’ impatience with the “long wear and tear of discrimination.”

Here’s a good example of what I mean. Mark Athitakis recently reviewed Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, a study of families with children “whose identities are radically distinct from their parents’,” for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Writing at the top of his game, Athitakis burrows deeply into Solomon’s book:No amount of praise for the book—and it deserves much—can soften how challenging the material is. Interviewing more than 300 families, Solomon gathers up sheaves of tragedy. Ostracism abounds for parent and child alike, and helplessness is common. I doubt a more heartbreaking page has been published in a book in 2012 than one here listing the ways despairing parents have murdered their autistic sons and daughters.This is how criticism should be written: with rapt attention to the book, and an evaluation of it implicit in the close description of it. This exemplary paragraph, however, is followed by a remarkable jarring:So why read it?Just like that. I was sufficiently amused to tweet an ironic commendation, to which Athitakis replied: “Nothing quite like an editor who insists you get to the point.” Right now. On his timetable. In as few words as possible.

Perhaps instead of asking about critics’ credentials, Giraldi might have inquired into editors’. If he is right that “readers looking for literary analysis are going to have an increasingly arduous chore of dividing the shit from the serious”—and he is right—the reason is not that Amazon reviewers and chitty chitty bang bang blogs have taken over the field. The reason is that the “long wear and tear of discrimination” has always been in short supply, never more so than at present, and readers who are looking for it can no longer depend upon the venue of criticism for an imprimatur. They will have to exercise their own judgment; they too will have to suffer the “long wear and tear of discrimination.” To a dividing of the shit from the serious there is no end, and no one who cares about literature is excused from it. As with literature so with criticism: the only way to tell whether it is shit is to smell it.

There is, in short, no outside credentialing agency. As the great Ruth R. Wisse once said in reflecting upon her own experience as a critic:What you don’t want to do is feel you have to prove your bona fides, to make it clear what a good person you are and all the rest of it. If you have to do that, it weakens the force of your argument. It already suggests there’s something suspect about your position.The critic’s credentials are in her argument and nowhere else.


Mark Athitakis said...

Thanks for appreciation---well, half-appreciation, I suppose---of my review of "Far From the Tree." I'm more sympathetic to Giraldi's cultivated hard-headedness about criticism as a discipline than some of my online peers have been. But a few points:

* I do think Giraldi was dismissing bloggers as a class in that piece. Why else would he call them "epigones"?

* To be clear: The "So why read it?" line in my review was mine, and not pressed upon me by my editor. My tweet about an editor saying I should get to the point wasn't meant to suggest I was responding to an editor's diktat. ("Get to the point, Mark! Why does our audience need to consume this long, sad book!") But I was responding to my own recognition that newspaper book reviewing is a different creature than criticism as it's pursued by LARB, the New Yorker, or even (I dare say) my own neglected blog. I wrote about this distinction some time ago:

* I do believe that the daily newspaper book review can contain as much intelligence, profundity, discrimination, and rapt attention as anywhere else. If my review of the book fell short on that front, that's my shortcoming, not the newspaper's, and not a shortcoming of gatekeepers in general. (Giraldi has an editor at LARB too, albeit one who allows longer word counts than the Plain-Dealer.) The "long wear and tear of discrimination" can happen in newspaper pages as it does in literary journals and better blogs. Though, like a lot of people, I wish it happened more.

D. G. Myers said...


How dare you spoil a perfectly good narrative with actual facts.

Obviously, I am no one to dispute your account under To be clear. To be clear, though, any mention of an editor disappears between your second and fourth sentences. I guess I don’t understand how an editor wound up in your tweet, in that case.

Unless your parenthetical phrase is meant to imply that you have internalized your editors’ advice (if not diktats). In which case your one-line paragraph remains an editorial insertion, squeezed in there in preemptive recognition of certain editorial imperatives. (And among them is the imperative to deliver an assessment, up or down.)

Anyway, I would have cut the paragraph. But then I’d be acting as an editor.

Don’t get me wrong, Mark. I have nothing against newspaper reviewing except its tight crawls. My gripe is with editors, although I have had some very good ones (hello there, Neal Kozodoy, hi!). In the nature of things, however, editors and writers are supposed to get along—just about as well as Palestinians and Jews.


Mark Athitakis said...

You're correct that I've internalized editors' expectations from me; I trust you won't interpret this to mean that I'm hearing voices or that I've acquired an imaginary friend.

That said, I like editors. That is, I like editors who edit---who press, question, force me to think about what it is I'm trying to say, send me back to rewrite, etc. And I like being that editor; I like making good stuff better. But not everybody is receptive to it, and most publications are too pressed for time these days to provide that kind of attention.

D. G. Myers said...

When an editor is your most attentive reader, he can be your best reader. What I always appreciate is when an editor says he doesn’t understand what I mean by something. You’d agree, though, that such editors are extremely rare?

And to be clear, the worst editing I’ve received has been from quarterlies, where time pressures would not seem to account for it. I’ve had things rewritten from top to bottom, and never receiving a galley, saw the monster for the first time in print.

Paul J. Strassfield said...

David and Mark, Solomon's Far From The Tree is indeed a good and interesting book. As someone who loves to read good books and has a social work practice in special education, it fails to describe the philosophical underpinnings of our society's understanding and appreciation (or lack thereof) concerning tolerating people's differences. It's the distance between the cognitive psychological Theory of Mind and Wittgenstein's Form of Life theory of language and social knowledge. Theory of Mind basically purports that there are standards of language that we all have in common and have to live up to in order to be included, or considered "normal". Form of Life blows this out of the water by suggesting that we're all aliens, parents and their children included. All of our narratives, are worthy of equitable consideration. Seeing each other as aliens broadens our perceptions of what's "normal'. As much as I liked Solomon's book, I missed his philosophical explanation of this critical point. His is a Form of Life book, without saying so, given his big section of notes and index. Your reader, Paul Strassfield

R.T. said...
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