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Superficial Reading: Cynthia Ozick and Critical Pygmies

When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.

In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.

Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies has been bitchslapped by The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Mike Fischer, and The Seattle Times‘s Michael Upchurch for a novel that is, respectively, “more schematic than engaged,” “doesn’t have the texture or plumb the depths that anchor James’ metaphor-rich prose,” and “a great premise — disappointingly handled.”

Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)

When one explores the Goodreads page for Ozick’s book, one discovers that even the reviewers who didn’t care for the book have more clarity and plenitude than Upchurch:

She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.

That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.

Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.

In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.

Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.

Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.

It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)

Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.

* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:

The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.

David Ulin: A Books Editor to Be Deactivated

If you are a humorless books editor packing mundanities (while also resorting to the groundless Sven Birkerts-style grumbling about online interlopers who express more enthusiasm about books in 140 characters than you can in 800 words) into a badly written piece about just how gosh darn hard it is for you to sit down and read, then you have no business keeping your job. David Ulin’s piece is not so much an essay, as it is a confession from an out-of-touch and calcified man who clearly does not love books and who lacks the courage to take any chances. He may as well have written an open letter of resignation — not just from his editorial position, but from the rustling possibilities of books. (If you don’t have the ability to “still [your] mind long enough to inhabit someone else’s world, and to let that someone else inhabit [yours],” then you may as well sell overpriced stereo systems to unthinking schmucks.)

It has been disheartening to watch the Los Angeles Times‘s books coverage burn into mediocrity in the past year. While Sam Zell did indeed unleash any number of unsuspecting Santa Anas to fan this conflagration, the brigade trying to extinguish the fire are more content to let the foundation burn. Carolyn Kellogg’s once exuberant voice on the Los Angeles Times‘s book blog, Jacket Copy, has transformed from its early promise into soulless corporate boilerplate. Here is a recent opening paragraph from a post titled “Hello, cutie! New Sony e-reader scores on style”:

Yesterday Sony announced a new bargain e-reader: Just $199, it’ll be among the cheapest e-book readers around when it hits stores later this month. But it doesn’t look cheap — in fact, it’s really cute!

Beyond the troubling sense that one is intercepting a note handed from one bubble gum-chewing teenager to another, how is this any different from a recycled catalog description insulting the audience’s intelligence? Kellogg’s approach is vituperative in its own way, disingenuous in its abuse. Kellogg’s post isn’t so much a piece of journalism, as it is an unpaid Sony advertisement. (Kellogg, incidentally, was observed sheepishly trailing Ulin at BookExpo America and resembled not so much an independent-minded journalist, but Ulin’s executive assistant for a hopelessly institutionalized outlet. At what price an latimes.com email address?)

I have already explored at length Louisa Thomas’s unconscionably bumbling review from April. But I must ask how such pieces as Amy Wallen’s snarky assault on misfits make it into this seemingly esteemed newspaper? Much as Newsweek‘s Jennie Yabroff recently declared Richard Russo a “misogynist” because of her own inability to understand human behavior, so too does Wallen misinterpret humanity in attempting to “take down” Jennifer Weiner. Wallen cannot understand why a bank teller working at a low hourly wage might indeed find the financial lucre and an adventure of a bank robbery enticing. (When was the last time she worked a minimum wage job?) Wallen cannot comprehend how another character is attempting to corral the present with the past by revisiting place. (The fact that such snark appeared during the same week as Erin O’Brien’s moving essay about her brother makes Wallen’s piece particularly egregious.)

And at the end of last year, there were a number of surprisingly humorless pieces written by the overrated but occasionally enjoyable Brooklyn writer Edward Champion, an apparent legend in his own mind who was inexplicably assigned morose dead authors instead of the giddy subjects that serve this writer’s admittedly limited strengths.

But back to Ulin’s essay. If Ulin actually cared about anybody other than himself, then he might indeed devote his bumbling mind to another’s point of view. If Ulin truly sought contemplation in books, he would have a more tangible memory of Malcolm Lowry’s book rather than the beach he lived at. He also misreads Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time (indeed, in the very manner that Conroy warned about). Here is the complete Conroy passage that Ulin quotes from:

It was the winter of my seventeenth birthday, presumably my last year of high school. I made a half-hearted attempt to pass my courses, knowing that in any event I’d have to go to summer school to make up for previous failures. I wanted the diploma that year. I wanted to get it over with so I could leave the country, go to Denmark and meet my grandparents, see Paris, but mostly just to get away from home. I withdrew into myself and let the long months go by, spending my time reading, playing the piano, and watching television. Jean too had retreated into himself. He’d watch the screen silently for hours on end, wrapped up in a blanket Indian fashion, never moving his head. Night after night I’d lie in bed, with a glass of milk and a package of oatmeal cookies beside me, and read one paperback after another until two or three in the morning. I read everything, without selection, buying all the fiction ont he racks of the local drugstore — D.H. Lawrence, Moravia, Stuart Engstrand, Aldous Huxley, Frank Yerby, Mailer, Twain, Gide, Dickens, Philip Wylie, Tolstoi, Hemingway, Zola, Dreiser, Vardis Fisher, Dostoievsky, G.B. Shaw, Thomas Wolfe, Theodore Pratt, Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce, Frederick Wakeman, Orwell, McCullers, Remarque, James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, de Maupassant, James Jones, John O’Hara, Kipling, Mann, Saki, Sinclair Lewis, Maugham, Dumas, and dozens more. I borrowed from the public library ten blocks away and from the rental library at Womrath’s on Madison Avenue. I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Safe in my room with milk and cookies I disappeared into inner space. The real world dissolved and I was free to drift in fantasy, living a thousand lives, each one more powerful, more accessible, and more real than my own. (Needless to say, emphasis added)

Conroy read so many great writers “very fast, uncritically, and without retention!” And this is the virtue Ulin calls for! This is the method of reading that Ulin cops to — an endless and uncomprehending cacophony that is less predicated upon understanding others and more predicated upon the accomplishment-centric egos of those “who have written” rather than those who “are writing,” or those “who have read,” rather than those who “are reading.” (Shortly after this passage, Conroy confesses that this milk and cookies ritual encouraged him to be a writer.) This is the apparent “state that is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture.” But it seems to me that if you are reading without thinking, without masticating, without having your heart and your humility and your dedication to others soar, while various internal angels and demons sing earnest hymns and ribald rockers to humanity and these are shared with others, then this is hardly a state to strive for. Ulin has confused Conroy’s ephemeral approach for contemplation. This has nothing to do with the digital age, but everything to do with personal choice, the rejection of smartphone trinkets, and one’s self-discipline.

These are disheartening statements to hear from the self-absorbed Bernaysian automaton who edits books coverage for The Los Angeles Times.

For my own part, I spend long hours disconnecting entirely from all forms of technology, applying the discipline required to understand another person’s perspective, which often humbles my own. Who cares if the perspectives are old or new? (Certainly, William T. Vollmann does not in his mammoth book, Imperial, which I continue to peck away at.) Indeed, knowing past perspectives and folkways recently erected permit one to discover how humanity regularly dupes itself. And reading Ulin’s essay allows us to understand his perspective, which comes across as that of a prejudicial and undisciplined narcissist. Or perhaps he’s just a permanently anxious man who might better love the world if he realized that his thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as significant as he believes them to be. Or if he wasn’t busy firing people and striking “eccentric” freelancers of his list (save Tod Golberg) because he desperately wants to keep his salaried position.