Monday, March 04, 2013

A critic’s jealousy

In a Salon essay that is attracting a fair amount of attention, the critic Alexander Nazaryan has confessed that at least some of his book reviews will have to be tossed out now; they carry the “stench of bitterness.” He “trashed” the first novels by young men his own age (“young men whose profiles were similar to [his],” whatever that means away from Facebook), because he was “set aflame by jealousy.” They had done, you see, what he had not. They had finished a novel! They had gotten it published! His essay at Salon is Nazaryan’s apology to them.

Let me hurry to confess that I am jealous of Nazaryan, because he has a staff position at the New York Daily News, editing the paper’s Page Views book blog, and I do not. (By the way, does it qualify as Schadenfreude to observe that Commentary has not published a word of literary criticism since firing me in November?) I am not jealous of Nazaryan’s confession, though. Don’t misunderstand me. I am as beset by small-mindedness as any other critic. But I have never written a review out of jealousy, and cannot really understand what it would mean to do so. I have abused my share of bad books—Richard Ohmann’s Politics of Letters, Rafael Yglesias’s A Happy Marriage, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Nicole Krauss’s Great House, Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet—but never out of the fear that their authors’ success magnified my own failure. For one thing, I did not consider the authors to be successes (even if I acknowledge that I am a failure). For another, I do not think literary success is a zero-sum game. Nor (although Nazaryan holds that only “hopeless naïfs” fail to do so) do I equate literary success with “fame, greatness and immortality, preferably in that order.”

My own small-mindedness, when I am overcome by it, reveals itself as self-righteousness, as if the Holy One, Blessed Be He, had called to me from a burning bush to act as the defender of literary tradition. I am not bitter that some writers have succeeded where I have failed; I am angry that they have settled for such a measly simulacrum of success. Consider Nazaryan’s own literary ambitions:

Allow me to be immodest: I would like to write the best thing about Brooklyn since William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and a campus novel to rival Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.William Styron and Donna Tartt? Really? That’s your idea of literary greatness, is it? Now imagine a young actor’s announcing his “immodest” ambition to do community theater.

Like Nazaryan, I too wanted to be a novelist once upon a time. (Till I admitted to myself that I lacked the talent.) My thwarted ambition to write fiction did not leave me jealous of published novelists, though. It gave me a specialized knowledge, an insider’s vantage—the same way an amateur tennis player can see things at the U.S. Open that escape those who have never tried to master the difficult game. But an amateur who is jealous of Roger Federer isn’t particularly interested in tennis; he is engaging in a narcissistic fantasy.

Nazaryan is quick to say that his confession of jealousy has not tainted all of his reviews, and I hope he is right. (I am personally grateful to him for his report on my firing.) I worry, though, that he may be wrong. He is like a crime lab that admits it fudged the results to get a conviction, but just in this one case—all its other results are accurate! A critic asks his readers to trust that his judgments are motivated by a disinterested passion for good books. And once that trust is lost. . . .


Chris Roberts said...

Reading B. G. Myers is Like Committing Intellectual Suicide

Chris Roberts

D. G. Myers said...

Thank God this blog is written by D. G. Myers, then.

Anonymous said...

ni don't know this Nazaryan chap but small-minded people often assume everyone else is small-minded, so they can't believe in, e.g. generosity or dispassionate judgement or professionalism. Iago types.

Glad you're still blogging. One thing you're not is petty.

Unknown said...

Jealous reviewers ought to cease reviewing. However, as a different angle on the subject, many people have argued that academics in English departments are mostly frustrated (jealous)novelists, and some have even trotted out the worn out statement, "Those who can, do, but those who cannot, teach."

On a different note, I want to thank you for what you have done over the years: you have provided me with a "lifetime" of reading. In your commentary and your "lists," I have found much wisdom and guidance. After all, in my lifetime, I cannot expect to read all the good books, so I must settle for reading recommended good books and avoiding excoriated bad books. I am currently working on your "historical novels" list, and I remain--by the way--forever wary of Sophie's Choice.

Again, thanks.

kevin said...

Well, I found this very funny: "Now imagine a young actor’s announcing his 'immodest' ambition to do community theater."

Steven Marks said...

I came upon A Commonplace Blog several years ago when doing research on Philip Roth, and I've been reading your writing ever since, to my great enlightenment, esp on matters relating to Jewish literature. You pointed me toward such books as The Believers, The Frozen Rabbi, The Talk-Funny Girl, and the works of Howard Jacobson, just to name a few off the top of my head, wonderfully humane explorations of contemporary life that I would otherwise have missed. Thank you for sharing your critical acumen and making the distinctions that need to be made. FWIW, I continue to read Commentary for its political coverage, but the back of the book has taken a mighty turn for the worse since your summary discharge. I still can't figure out for the life of me why you were let go, nor why some accommodation couldn't have been reached, but that's the journal's loss. I think much less of John Podhoretz for the way this matter was handled. Sic transit gloria. Anyway, you carry on, and Godspeed...

Aonghus Fallon said...

Most literary criticism seems to act as a counter-agent to public sentiment anyway. Popular mainstream novels get trashed (often justifiably) while critics feel it's their duty to persuade the public to try more worthwhile offerings - or at least, what the critic deems to be a more worthwhile offering. A handful of books manage to withstand the rigours of both the public and the critic.