And Just What, May I Ask, Are Your Intentions?

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.”

Mr. Cheney responds to his critics.

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.

 

8 Comments

  1. Rebecca Jensen on August 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    This is a truly brilliant essay. I loved it from beginning to end. I’ve often felt in reading certain book or movie reviews that the critic was much more interested in being clever or demonstrating their vast knowledge than attending to the task at hand — not once have I found that to be satisfying.

    You have a magnificent way with words and I love how your self-confidence shines through. You’re a role model as a writer and essayist, keep going please!

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 16, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks so much, Rebecca, both for taking the time to write and your kindness.

  2. Lisa on August 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Ford shot bullets into one of Hoffmann’s novels & mailed it to her? not a copy of the review, which i might almost understand, but no, he shot her novel, which really has nothing to do with it. what an idiot. on so many levels.

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      I know, right. Recently I was asked to write a review for Truthidig on his new novel, and I was going to do it, but the publication pulled the review. I was disappointed, but you know what? Now I’m relieved. Sadly, this sort of bad behavior turns me off someone’s work, which is a shame. I hear “Canada’s” pretty good.

      Possibly not as good as “Any Bright Horse” though! 😉

  3. Clive on August 17, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    Lauren,

    A fresh breath of sense in a seemingly senseless world, a fair critique of critic, reader and author alike, and all excellently presented. Thank you. I feel a little happier now that the world hasn’t perhaps secretly gone mad behind my back.

    As an author – one of those deplorable ‘indie’ ones – I’ve had private criticism of my work which the reader refused to put in their review, despite express encouragement. Why? Because they were themselves authors, and hence fearful of retribution – whether warranted or not.

    Mind you, having said that I have also had that reviewer who couldn’t finish Lauren’s book, and who likewise couldn’t finish mine. Yes, it did hurt, but that’s only natural and somehow seemed more honest.

    The real point is, as Lauren so clearly describes, intelligent and balanced criticism appears to be dying a death, just when the book world needs it the more. We are now so flooded with ‘literature’ that it’s almost impossible to see the worthy and interesting within the morass.

    I honestly see no solution, despite hoping I’m wrong. Our previous guardians of the good and worthy are fast disappearing within the wild west terrain now rapidly opening up before us. They certainly weren’t perfect, but I’m not convinced that their replacement will be any the better.

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      Thanks so much, Clive. Just to be clear, I do not consider all ‘indie’ authors deplorable — only the ones who a) publish unedited dreadful books that should more rightly remain between the author and his or her family members, and b) those who use social networking sites for the sole purpose of promoting those same books. Spare me.

      Mostly, I feel awful for indie authors who are often lied to by unscrupulous companies who prey on the desperation of unpublished authors. As you’ve posted elsewhere, I believe, our responsibility as writers is to write and to write well. That takes time (I’ve talked about that elsewhere — http://laurenbdavis.com/2012/03/10-truths-for-emerging-writers-hint-think-slow/ and http://laurenbdavis.com/2012/05/we-remain-faithful/ ) and dedication and a certain madness, perhaps.

      Publishing is business. It is not writing. It is something separate, and few things are as psychosis-inducing. But if you are a Real Writer, by which I mean someone who is saner when they’re writing than when they’re not, there is no better way to live your life than surrounded by books, you heart filled to the brim with stories.

      YOU be the guardian of the good and worthy. Keep writing. Don’t worry about anything else. This, too, shall pass.

  4. Clive on August 17, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    You are quite right, the art is in the writing, the commerce in the publishing, and ne’er the twain should meet.

    My apologies, I didn’t mean to suggest you had disdain for ALL indie writers – a failure on the part of my own editing there :^[

    • Lauren B. Davis on August 17, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      No apologies necessary, Clive! I was concerned I’d offended YOU! 😉

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