Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The verdict is in

In replying to my essay on the Los Angeles Review of Books policy to review first books positively or not at all, editor-in-chief Tom Lutz says all that is left of my argument, after you remove the bug from my ass and spice up the quotations from George Orwell and Arnold Isenberg, is “the standard, centuries-old idea that evaluation is an important part of the critical act.”

I’d be very disappointed if that were the case. But the problem may only be that I have been unclear. Let me be as plain as possible, then, and reduce my argument to propositions:

(1.) Evaluation is the critical act. It is not merely an “important part”; it is the whole. To speak of one is to speak of the other.
(2.) The critical act is a close-fitting interdependent system that requires (quoting Arnold Isenberg) a “value judgment or verdict[,] a particular statement or reason, [and] a general statement or norm.”
(3.) A critical verdict is not to be confused with evaluation. It is a partial evaluation.
(4.) If any part of the critical act is thrown into doubt, the entire system collapses.
(5.) To reduce critical verdicts to a single class of verdicts (e.g., “good”) is to throw the critic’s reasons and norms, upon which his verdicts depend, into doubt.

The sound you hear is the sound of collapse. And that, according to me, is the effect of the LARB’s policy of reviewing first books positively or not at all. My argument against it also falls back upon literary sociology, holding that the tenderness toward first-time authors reflects a generational shift toward the literary career and away from a conception of literature (in Cynthia Ozick’s words) as a “holy vessel of imagination.” (Philosophers continue to think about their vocation in terms almost as elevated.) Lutz suggests that I am a conspiracy theorist for thinking like this, but if I am, I am not alone. (Where did I put the aluminum foil?)

Perhaps the difference between Lutz and me can be put most starkly by laying his belief that “there are hundreds of great novels published every year” alongside my own skepticism that there are any more than one or two “great novels” published in a generation. Or, as Orwell says in the same essay I quoted yesterday, “Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.” And I think that a bad book needs to be called a bad book, even when it is a first book.

Our ideas of criticism have been diminished, though, by conceiving of it as the pronouncement of verdicts, no matter how sophisticated the critic at disguising his use of good and bad. In the last few years, I have tried out reviews without verdicts. (Editors hate them and insist that a verdict be appended.) Here, for example, is a first-novel review that I’m proud of, which works hard not to invent synonyms for good or bad. You’ll see that I observe the author failed to overcome his central difficulty, I remark upon his historical ignorance, I note his reliance upon the pathetic fallacy and his stumble into anachronism. My conclusion is to classify the novel rather than to give it thumbs up or thumbs down—to offer directions for readers who might not have a literary GPS system rather than warning them off going there at all. Even if it is implied rather than stated as such, my verdict is pretty clear, but would I want it said that my final judgment is that Woodsburner is a “bad” novel? I’d prefer it be described as a novel in which the central difficulty is not overcome, etc.

Every book deserves as much attention as its author gave it in writing it. For a critic to give it any less is to duck his responsibility to it. And I don’t see how the responsibility is curtailed by the various excuses I’ve heard for treating a first book differently—it is an easy target; it has no larger importance; trashing it adds nothing to literary culture. The truth is that, in advance of reading it, the critic cannot know any of this. And the only question is whether he is going to be permitted to say exactly what he has discovered in reading it. Anything less than a full disclosure of the critic’s opinion is, take umbrage at the phrase if you must, fundamentally dishonest.


Paul J. Strassfield said...

David's correct and Tom's mistaken.

All book reviews should be honest.

Bad ones for first timers are necessary for readers.

Sometimes we forget about them because they didn't write the book, but they're just as important as writers.

As far as creative writing programs-- they're worthless cliques except as hideouts for writers who prefer to focus on their own work while holding done somewhat decent jobs since writing lives aren't regularly and securely compensated, and as schemes for English Departments to make money.

Writers should write well. Readers should read well. Critics should criticize well. Anything less is dishonest and just adds to the disturbing and growing buzz distracting us from what's important.

Reading, writing, and critizing involve taking valuable time away from our lives attempting to do some cultural good. They require us to tell the truth.

The rest is just publishing: buying and selling: a business. It's the difference between spending our lives reading fact patterns where the outcomes are uninspired, and having some skin in the game, living flesh and blood relationships by trying to take some responsibility for ourselves and each other.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Re 'David's correct and Tom's mistaken': I'm not so sure. You have the same outcome - positive reviews for first time authors - but two entirely different rationales, one reasonable, one questionable.

The defence: picking out the more promising books from the slushpile of debut authors and flagging them to potential readers - while ignoring the dross.

The prosecution: only giving positive reviews to debut authors.

Andrew Fox said...

I think the LARB's policy is a mistaken one because it essentially requires the LARB reviewers to ignore a category of first-time novels which can be (and I think should be) of considerable interest to readers, critics, and fellow writers. These are books which are written with ambitious, laudable goals in mind (either aesthetic or moral) but which fail to achieve those goals through some shortcoming on the author's part. A description of a worthy failure can be of just as much value to readers and critics as a description of a comparatively complete success, I think. David alludes to this in his recounting of a negative review which he wrote; he didn't simply call the work "bad" or unworthy of being read, but he described to potential readers the sorts of goals the author set up for himself and how he fell short.

Aonghus Fallon said...

That's a very good point, but I think the context would still be all-important. Being given a book to review and classifying it as a failure (in terms of what the author was trying to do) is one thing. Selecting a book by a debut author because it constitutes an interesting failure - that's something very different again: essentially the opposite of what D.G. is concerned about, as you would be singling out a debut author precisely because he or she had failed.

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent point, Aonghus, excellently made. There remains the logical problem, however, of how you know a book is a failure in advance of your reading it. (You can’t know that from what others have said, unless you dismiss the possibility of disagreeing with them.)

It seems to me that the only honest policy for ignoring some books is what I advanced yesterday on Twitter: you ignore the books about which you find that you have nothing to say.

Daniel Friedman said...


Since you use your review of WOODSBURNER as an example of a negative review of a debut novel that needed to be written, let's talk about that.

On one hand, I can see the arguments in favor of this review. The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the trades, raved about the book so there's an argument that your negative review is part of a critical discourse. When Kirkus calls it "Pulitzer Prize material," there's certainly room for a less enthusiastic viewpoint.

However: As of right now, the Amazon ranking for the paperback edition of WOODSBURNER is 626,613. The ranking for the e-book edition is 338,761. It has a total of 45 customer reviews, and 31 of those are from the Amazon Vine program which provides free books to highly-ranked reviewers. On Goodreads, the book has 276 ratings and 86 reviews. It has been out for four years.

Those glowing reviews didn't generate a lot of heat around WOODSBURNER. People just weren't very interested in a story about Thoreau accidentally starting a forest fire. This appears to be a book that sold in the neighborhood of 5000 copies, mostly to libraries.

This is, in other words, an example of a book that, as Tom Lutz put it, died a natural death. This is exactly the kind of review that LARB probably would not print, probably for something like the reasons I've discussed here.

So, I've got to ask: 1.) Where a novel by a little-known author has failed to gain traction in the marketplace, is a pan of it a thing that needs to exist?

2.) If Lutz kills a review like this, thoughtful and well-considered though it may be, what harm has been done to literature or the cultural dialog, given that the dialog surrounding this particular book is short-lived and involves very few participants?

3.) Four years after WOODSBURNER's release, when its monthly sales are in the low single-digits, is your review (or any review) of this book really much more relevant than the three year-old Fodor's guide you referenced in your post on Monday?

4.) Assume you are a reader and a consumer of criticism. Reading fiction, for you, is a recreational activity, and you have the capacity to read one novel per week or fewer, which means you will never read the vast majority of novels published in a given year. Based on the sales of WOODSBURNER, it is unlikely that you are reading or considering it. So, of what use to you is a negative review of this book?

5.) If you are an editor allocating your print space or laying out the landing page of your website, is a negative review of WOODSBURNER something you are interested in publishing, given the fact that sales of the book are very soft already? Or would you rather publish something else; a review that recommends an obscure book or pans a bigger one?

D. G. Myers said...


You and I inhabit different worlds. As Paul Strassfield says above, “The rest is publishing: buying and selling: a business.” I have the greatest respect for that business, but it isn’t mine. Mine is the business of ideas.

Were there any ideas worth turning over in the mind to be found in my review of Woodsburner? I can’t speak for anyone else—well, Patrick Kurp quoted from the review at Anecdotal Evidence, so maybe I can speak for two—but much of what I said about the received images of Thoreau (Thoreau the prophet of sustainable living versus Thoreau the writer) is something that needed to be said. That the novel, although written as a historical novel, really just uses the current popular image of Thoreau (and other current popular images: check out those two Czech lesbians!) is an important datum about literary culture.

I don’t sneeze at a book’s sales figures, but I don’t find them dispositive either. Popular books get plenty of reviews. Less popular, fewer. And the tendency among reviewers, as you noted in your comment (and as Lutz testified to), is to celebrate the hundreds of great books published in any literary season. Somebody has got to shrug, “Not so many. Not this one. Not so much.”

I’m not an editor. I’m a writer. I’ve found a format—the book blog—that gives me complete independence to write about whatever I want to write about. I need not worry about column inches or word counts or deadlines or buzz or sales in the single digits or the feelings of first-time authors. All I have to worry about is whether I can find something worth saying. If I’m lucky, a few hundred readers—probably fewer readers than Woodsburner, for that matter—will find what I have to say interesting. That’s the only business transaction I am involved in.


George said...

The two NY Times Sunday Book Reviews that are first to hand review nine non-fiction books each and six and seven works of fiction. Extrapolated, and leaving some room for special issues such as summer reading, this makes for at most 500 works of fiction and 700 of non-fiction. How many books are published in the larger English-speaking countries every year? I don't know, but I imagine that counting reputable trade and scholarly publishers it must exceed by at least a factor of 100 those that the Times notices.

So reviewing requires selection, and why would one bother to review a work by a first-time author? I can think of just two reasons. First, the work is very good, or such as to promise very good work later on. Second, the work is not so good, but has been receiving unmerited praise or publicity from other sources. How often does the second happen? (Yes, I can think of some cases, but three or four spread over ten years is not that many.)

If the second case occurs, a newspaper has good reason to publish a bad review. Otherwise, why shoot fish in a barrel?

scott g.f.bailey said...

"The rest is publishing," yes exactly. Why write about a book, a book you love or don't love? Why write about literature at all? If the only reason to write about novels is to boost sales of books you think a lot of people are going to read anyway, then sure, just write positive reviews. What is the point of writing a negative review of a popular book, then? A lot of people are going to read it anyway, right? So I suggest that projected sales figures are a screwy yardstick, unless "reviews" are just another word for "marketing." A lot of writers would like it to be so, but I am aware of many critics who do not seem to be in the business of recommending ways to spend our disposable incomes.

This comment is poorly-structured, I realize. I'll try again: if the reviewability of a debut novel is tied to the percieved sales success of that novel, then reviews are not criticism the way I understand the term. I guess I don't believe that a discussion of the ways that a book fails to move its reader is a pointless discussion when the book will have a small readership. Big, popular books often have the same flaws as small, unpopular books. Sometimes they have much larger flaws. Sales (and Amazon rankings) and literary quality have little in common. There is much to learn, or there could be, anyway, in a discussion of books that fail. It could be a very interesting discussion. LARB doesn't have to be part of that discussion, certainly.

(I see I have failed to clarify my point. This is why I don't write non-fiction.)

Aonghus Fallon said...

I think the 'nothing to say' rule is entirely valid, DG. At very least a review should have something interesting - good, bad or whatever - to say about the book in question. And I can understand why you might have grave reservations about a review policy biased in favour of debut authors, but one could just as validly ask - how does any book end up on a reviewer's desk? What singles that particular book out from thousands of others? Merit? Or some other kind of bias/filtration system? Presumably the latter. Will that bias colour the subsequent review? Well.....

George said...

Not quite responsive, but still: Clive James on the tameness of American book reviews.

jw thomas said...

A sample of the current British style of trashing literary icons - in this case Alice Munro - in the current London Review of Books: