There’s an interesting piece about literary criticism in the Aug. 15, 2012 New York Times, written by literary critic Dwight Garner, called “A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical.” It’s a fun article to read, peppered as it is with just the sorts of anecdotes that make us want to read critical snark to begin with. Consider:
Jim Harrison called his detractors “tweed fops” and “snack-food artists.” Roy Blount Jr. declared about Larry McMurtry, who panned one of his books: “I hear he is absurdly, egregiously — especially in a cowboy hat — short.” Erica Jong recalled that Paul Theroux, while reviewing her novel “Fear of Flying,” referred to her as a “mammoth pudenda.” (Actually he was referring to the novel’s main character.) She replied: “Since Mr. Theroux has no personal acquaintance with the organ in question, I cannot help but wonder whether some anxieties about his own anatomy were at the root (as it were) of his review.”
As well as:
It hurts to be criticized, and there is exhilaration in firing back, sometimes literally. The novelist Richard Ford, after a dismissive review from Alice Hoffman in The New York Times Book Review in 1986, shot bullets through one of her novels and mailed the mutilated thing to her. “My wife shot it first,” he reportedly said. Years later he spat in public upon the novelist Colson Whitehead, who had harshly reviewed another of his books. Afterward Whitehead commented, “This wasn’t the first time some old coot had drooled on me, and it probably won’t be the last.”
I admit to horror at Ford’s behavior. Whitehead got his own back, however, when he later said he wanted to “warn the many other people who panned the book that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford.”
Wit is always entertaining, and I admit to loving a review that contains it, whether for good or for ill. Dorothy Parker is, after all, something of an idol of mine. (“If all the girls from Vassar were laid end-to-end, I wouldn’t be surprised.”)
Garner goes on to criticize, and I think rightly, the utterly useless aren’t-we-all-simply-wonderful idiocy that passes as mutual support on sites like Twitter. It seems every third person who ‘befriends’ me on Twitter really just wants me to buy their self-published sci-fi/romance/thriller novel. Did I say self-published? Sorry, apparently I’m supposed to call it ‘indie’. Fine. Indie. Every book is, I am to believe from the Tweets, “Magnificent,” “Riveting,” “Unput-downable.”
Garner goes on to say,
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.
Here, I agree in part. I agree not every book deserves a gold star. If we are told every book is brilliant and then, when we read one of them we discover they are anything but, we cannot trust that critic again, and thus are likely to miss some actually wonderful books. I do not agree a review should be punishing. The critic should not a school-master wielding a cane. (Let’s leave that to the 50 Shades of Nonsense, shall we?)
I write reviews myself, and I insist on being, well, critical. By this I mean I ask myself what the writer’s intentions were for the book. In other words — what does the author intend the reader to feel, and what does the author want the reader to think about, to reflect upon? Then, did they meet these intentions or not? If not, why not? If so, how? Did the characters feel alive? Did the plot feel contrived? Is the pacing appropriate? Is the language well-formed? Elegant? Cliched? Or overly poetic and self-indulgent? For what kind of reader is this book intended? How might the intended reader best approach the work?
What I refuse to do is to write snark, which only brings attention to the reviewer and is probably the result of a problem with the critic’s ego or his/her envy. A example of this is novelist Walter Kirn’s review of Jeffrey Lent’s “A Peculiar Grace” in the New York Times. This review is so nasty/clever that it’s more about Kirn that it is about the book he’s supposed to be reviewing. It left such a bad taste in my mouth (Oh, God, now I’m doing it!), that I can’t imagine reading anything else Kirn writes, and I’m quite sure that’s not what he intended.
I get letters every week from emerging writers describing their heartbreak at being rejected by publishers, and I tell them they had better get used to it, because being rejected and criticized is part of the writer’s life. I also regularly hear from writers who are distressed over the bad reader reviews they get on Amazon or Goodreads or other such sites. And I get it. I recently got a one-star review from a woman who said:
I couldnt finish it. I am at a point in my life where I dont need more violence – the minute I see a child or animal in a book or movie, I know the author is likely to take the easy road and use them as a sacrifice. I am fully aware therw is tremendous violence in this world, I just dotn want to be entertianed by it anymore.
The spelling and grammar are the reviewer’s, so perhaps I should take that into consideration.
Another writer friend of mine recently got a reader-review complaining her work wasn’t a fast-enough read. In both her case and mine, I simply shrug and say, well, not all books are for all people. But in neither case were the remarks true criticism, in the full sense of that word.
I laughed a little when Garner talked about how thick-skinned he’s had to become and how broody and wounded he feels. Welcome to the club. Frankly, if I ever receive a review such as the one Kirn wrote, I might spit on him as Ford did Whitehead, but in a marketplace flooded with unedited books, and books from publishers more interested in a quick dollar than a great novel, if all books are rated as 5-star masterpieces how are we to discern the book that is for us, and that will please us and enrich us, from the book we will toss across the room in frustration and disappointment? Critics, and readers, have a responsibility to write intelligently and truthfully about the books we love, and about the books we think have failed in their intentions.