Say It Loud (I’m an Innovator and I’m Proud)

There is now a literary crisis. Irony, once declared dead, may not be quite as interred as it was six years ago, when we were all still debilitated from Yamasaki’s shrapnel. But it is certainly viewed as a cheap trick, a low literary tactic akin to kicking a ruffian in the nuts. Never mind that, assuming the complaints against irony are legitimate, the ruffian is, with this savage stroke, disarmed in an effective manner. Never mind that cheap shots, however you may identify them, are well within the boundaries of regular human behavior. Irony is now viewed as the kind of literary device that only a snark-spouting scoundrel writing for an alt-weekly or a blog is likely to use. Allegedly real writers — that is, those who are comfortably tenured or otherwise securely employed at an institution or who hack themselves out to outlets without valuing their material — regularly abjure themselves from such playfulness, from not questioning their own instincts, from not changing their minds. Irony may be a helpful tool to the contrarian thought process, but it is apparently the stuff of tots. Basic human skepticism and healthy chicanery are now beneath the current elite.

When it comes to books, one must say simply what one thinks, and justify it and justify it again until the critical piece becomes something akin to a cadaver dismembered beyond recognition. The critic’s scalpel — the one commonly accepted in the mainstream operating room — is held with a humorless hand, its fingers frequently failing to turn even one page with passion.

This lengthy post jumps off somewhat from Cynthia Ozick’s criminally underread essay “Literary Entrails,” and is in response to a literary climate in which the top-tier critics are people like Daniel Mendelsohn and James Wood — both fine critics, but both remarkably reactionary about what literature is and can be.

Let us consider their critical work in relation to two recent volumes that are arguably contemporary masterpieces. Here’s Daniel Mendelsohn’s dismissal of Richard Powers’s The Time of Our Singing. Mendelsohn writes, “His weakness as a writer is the weakness of all conceptual artists: you may admire his elaborate installations, but you sometimes find yourself missing the simple pleasures of good old-fashioned painting.” Beyond the later conclusion that Powers’s writing is “unresolved” (the lack of resolution may very well have been Powers’s point), Mendelsohn here seems reluctant to dive into a more expansive novel of ideas, much less the antecedents before DeLillo. (And if this is the case, why bother to assign Mendelsohn the review in the first place if he’s such a classics man?)

Or consider Wood’s extraordinary nitpicking of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, one of the most ambitious novels to come along in the past decade. Indeed, in Wood’s case, he has failed to consider that there may actually be something to the Whitehead sentences which he declares atrocious. But instead of attempting to understand Whitehead’s patois or considering the possibility that a sniper, literal or metaphorical, may very well view his task to be “euthanasiac” in an effort to justify his continual murders, he nukes Whitehead from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

In both reviews, Whitehead and Powers are admonished because they are followers of Don DeLillo. Must we aver then that anyone who follows a major postmodernist influence must, by necessity, be bad? And why has this environment been allowed to fester? Because there is no longer any room for irony? Because there is no longer any room for the bold claim that declares a different type of literature something magical?

These are admittedly quibbles that go back to Heidi Julavits’s inaugural essay for The Believer, which was apparently misread after its publication — by me included — as a war against snark and therefore a war against objection. But it has been four years and the issues demand to be revisited. Indeed, they have been most recently explored by Garth Hallberg and Traver Kauffman, who both locked James Wood in their crosshairs.

But I blame B.R. Myers for all this. In “A Reader’s Manifesto,” a 2001 article in The Atlantic Monthly, Myers started the trend of looking to the innovators (including DeLillo, no less) and declaring them bad through an ignoble nitpicking technique, slightly presaging Fisking but no less lackluster in intellectual rigor. Because these innovators did not fulfill Myers’s personal view of what literature should be, he proceeded to unfurl his so-called “manifesto” — and, as nobody noted, it was not issued by a sovereign or a legitimate organization of any sort (unless you count a magazine editorial staff as a legitimate source for manifestos). This was, in short, a declaration of war against novelists who dared to issue “affectations” to their prose.

Because of this, eyebrows were raised and critics like Mendelsohn and Wood found new careers taking down stylistic innovators when assigned to review their books. For those who still championed the New Criticism that came before, outside of perhaps Sven Birkerts, Tom LeClair, and Ed Park, it was a fairly lonely world. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name any newspaper critic actively writing in a non-dismissive manner about authors who fall outside of literary realism. Mark Z. Danielewski came along in 2006 with a new volume that dared to subvert the novel’s form and, instead of critics closely examining Danielewski’s eye-opening experiments, they proceeded to declare willful misunderstanding, with — if we count general newspapers — perhaps only the Washington Post‘s Steven Moore going out of his way to understand Danielewski’s subversion of the form. (“Still here?” sneered Troy Patterson, a television critic assigned to review the book by the New York Times Book Review.)

Here was a novel — perhaps as ambitious and as misunderstood as Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, John Barth’s LETTERS, or B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo — that was left to rot because it was too hard for Joe Sixpack, or rather the critical establishment’s approximation of Joe Sixpack, to grok. Thankfully, the judges of the National Book Award saw fit to honor Danielewski last year among their nominees.

To the critical world — largely composed of the self-imposed gatekeepers who purportedly knew damn better than those litblogging upstarts operating in basements in Terre Haute — Danielewski was dismissed as a conceptual artist. Never mind that the man had combed through obscure pamphlets and the like for years to find arcane words that nobody knew about.

So what is the acceptable standard? Let us consider Roxanna Robinson’s dismissive NBCC post on Lydia Davis, yet another literary innovator thrown, as a matter of course, into the “it’s not realism” dust heap. The NBCC has regularly eluded responsibility for whether its blog, Critical Mass, represents the NBCC, the NBCC Board of Directors, the John Freeman Appreciation Society, or the NBCC Committee to End All Committees and Keep Things Staid and Humorless. But I think it’s fair to say that if the blog is regularly featuring such outbursts like Robinson’s, which fail to cite a specific textual example from Davis’s work, then it must, as a matter of course, reflect the NBCC.

It’s Jack Green’s “Fire the Bastards” all over again. The current environment is one in which critics not only fail to read the whole of a book, but like Malcolm Jones, boast about their lack of intellectual vigor in a major weekly news magazine!

This is the literary criticism we want to preserve? These are the book reviews we need to save? This is the abject environment that is permitted to go on, but without that glorious “ba de ya” one should damn well find in September.

If you want to get a true sense of what literary criticism is missing, consider John Barth’s The Friday Book, and the manner in which he updated his controversial essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Barth had written in 1967, “Our century is more than two-thirds done, it is dismaying to see so many of our writers following Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or Balzac, when the question seems to me to be how to succeed not even Joyce or Kafka, but those who succeeded Joyce and Kafka and are now in the evenings of their own careers. Barth updated this sentence with the following footnote:

Author’s note, 1984: Did I really say this remarkably silly thing back in ’67? Yup, and I believed it, too. What I hope are more reasonable formulations of the idea may be found in the Friday-pieces “The Spirit of Place” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” farther on.

Can one imagine such a helpful critical clarification today? Today’s titans would rather be right than wrong. Dave Eggers reviews Infinite Jest with mixed results in 1996 and critically flip-flops without a helpful explanation.

Was it really that much of a surprise when Dale Peck turned heads with one simple sentence? The critical establishment has no desire to give itself a swift kick in the ass, much less exhibit the kind of playfulness and inclusive expertise that makes for good criticism. If the critical establishment cannot effect these qualities, then it deserves to die a lumbering and painful death. This monster has only itself to blame for ignoring so many passionate qualities.

Small wonder then that the litblog is considered to be the upstart competitor. And if it has to be this way, if the two sides in this apparent print-online war cannot cooperate and cannot learn from each other and cannot settle upon a detente by the end of the year, then the time has come for the litbloggers to break away and stand firmer on their feet. They must shout, “I’m an innovator and I’m proud!” and not let anyone get in the way of what they do. They must become more serious. They must generate better content. They must figure out a ways to apply better editing standards and inject more life into what they do. They must organize events. They must unite together and be more inclusive. (Bud Parr had the right idea with MetaxuCafe.) They must constantly question themselves and the Establishment and not get too cozy. They must remain clued in to tomorrow’s William Gaddises or Gilbert Sorrentinos.

And they must not make the same mistakes that the old guard did.

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17 Comments

  1. I think you should re-read that Roxanna Robinson post. It seems pretty clear to me that she is actually making an argument in favor of reading Lydia Davis and is perhaps trying to mimic Davis’s style.

  2. Ditto what Richard said. The Robinson piece is an appreciation of Davis, not a dismissal of it. A pretty skillfull one too. Certain to attract those who would probably respond to Davis’ work.

    Other than that, I’m with you, down with the limiters and naysayers. Up with possibilities. John Henry Days was one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.

  3. Ed –This is 4th grade work man. Just do a short trip down context lane. Mendelsohn was a big lover of yr first podcast subject, David Mitchell; James Wood has championed (ha ha!) some unexpected writers (like David Bezemogis?) that story writer from Canada. Freeman was one of the first critics onto House of Leaves — which was a much better book than the second one. Even I couldn’t read it and I love Gaddis and all those big brain novelists. All I got at home on the shelf. And I read that Roxanna Robinson post as an attempt to get at why Lydia Davis is such a disturbing writer (but not a bad one). Throw around words like Establishment and Old Guard and you prop up distinctions which exist mostly as unreal divisions. Do better man

  4. Are you gay? This is the fourth or fifth reference that makes me think you’d like to go to the steam room with Freeman.

  5. “Never mind that the man had combed through obscure pamphlets and the like for years to find arcane words that nobody knew about.”

    Uh, what? Effort, believe it or not, does not a literary artist make.

  6. I really appreciate the gist of this piece, because I do think there is much more to be done as far as upping the ante. Litblogging is just beginning to find its footing–it’s a wonderful time to be engaged in this exhilarating and necessary venture.

  7. I don’t mean any disrespect to Ed. I leave this comment as a litblogger who is confused by Ed’s call to arms. I also leave it as an entertained reader who is nevertheless a little concerned about Ed’s name-calling of late. Too many people are semi-literate oafs in his book. (Read your prose more carefully, Ed. A little humility is in order.) Finally, I offer this in honor of our Boy Howdy, whom Ed called a coward and then outed and then threatened to report to his employer. All for the sort of harsh criticism that Ed doles out daily. So take note of my name, Ed. Plus, I’m unemployed.

    Okay. Here goes.

    You write:

    “When it comes to books, one must say simply what one thinks, and justify it and justify it again until the critical piece becomes something akin to a cadaver dismembered beyond recognition. The critic’s scalpel — the one commonly accepted in the mainstream operating room — is held with a humorless hand, its fingers frequently failing to turn even one page with passion.”

    1. How does saying what one thinks and justifying it multiple times create a piece of writing that looks like a dismembered body?

    2. Is the head a “member”? Because the only way to dismember a body beyond recognition would be to lop off its head. Otherwise, bodies are perfectly recognizable without their toes, fingers, hands, feet, arms, and legs. The way to make a body unrecognizable would be to mess with its face.

    3. And how does one recognize a piece of writing one has never read before?

    4. Are scalpels “accepted” in operating rooms or just, you know, used? Or are there scalpels that are more common than others, like a brand of scalpel or something? Or maybe there’s some guy at the door of the operating room who looks at your scalpel and just shakes his head as if to say, “Nuh-uh. That scalpel is no good here, my friend.”

    5. What’s a “mainstream” operating room? Are there alternative operating rooms? Indie operating rooms? An operating room-cum-hookah-bar-cum-tattoo parlor?

    6. Also, why all of a sudden is there a stream in the operating room? I know, I know. “Mainstream” here is not meant as a metaphor. But here’s the thing: It IS a metaphor. We forget that sometimes, but there it is. Unfortunately, it’s a dead metaphor (to borrow from Donald Hall), or, put another way, a cliché. Or, in this case, a mixed dead metaphor that’s also a cliché.

    7. Can a hand have sense of humor?

    8. Would you even want a hand to have a sense of humor if that hand is holding a scalpel? Seriously.

    9. Would you want a critic/doctor, who has gone to all this trouble to set himself up in a mainstream operating room with an acceptable scalpel, to then be reading a book during the procedure? Or is that book some kind of instructional manual that he needs to look through and periodically turn the pages of? And if it is, does he need to turn the pages passionately? And if it isn’t, will that passion with which he’s reading whatever it is he’s reading get in the way of, you know, the SURGERY?!

    A few more questions about the post:

    10. “Mendelsohn here seems reluctant to dive into a more expansive novel of ideas, much less the antecedents before DeLillo.” Antecedents before? Also, how does one dive into antecedents? Is that something you can picture? If not, I think it’s another dead metaphor.

    11. “But instead of attempting to understand Whitehead’s patois or considering the possibility that a sniper, literal or metaphorical, may very well view his task to be ‘euthanasiac’ in an effort to justify his continual murders, he nukes Whitehead from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” Of what? And how does someone nuke something from orbit? And what orbit is a novel in exactly? Is there an Orbit of the Good and this critic has used a nuclear weapon (via what? airplane? a space version of the B-52? or a space ICBM? what?) to knock it into the Orbit of the Bad?

    12. “Because these innovators did not fulfill Myers’s personal view of what literature should be, he proceeded to unfurl his so-called ‘manifesto’ — and, as nobody noted, it was not issued by a sovereign or a legitimate organization of any sort (unless you count a magazine editorial staff as a legitimate source for manifestos). This was, in short, a declaration of war against novelists who dared to issue ‘affectations’ to their prose.” So what’s wrong with Myers having a personal view of what literature should be? Isn’t that the whole point of literary criticism? To have your view and argue it? And his manifesto is so-called because a) that’s what it is, a manifesto; and b) that’s what he and his magazine called it, a manifesto. Can a so-called manifesto be unfurled? If it’s scrolled, like “On the Road,” then maybe. Or perhaps what we have here is a metaphor. The manifesto is like a flag representing a nation, a set of values or some such. Except that then Ed says it’s NOT like a flag because it doesn’t come from a sovereign or a legitimate organization. Okay. Moving away from the flag metaphor for a sec, does a manifesto NEED to come from a sovereign? And is it possible that this went unnoted because everybody (besides Ed, that is) understands that a manifesto can come from anywhere or anyone and be about anything? That it just has to be a comprehensive statement of beliefs about something? Which is to say, not necessarily a declaration of war, although some legitimate organizations CAN declare war, but Myers isn’t a legitimate organization so he can’t. Oh, and one more thing: How does one ISSUE affectations TO prose?

    13. “In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name any newspaper critic actively writing in a non-dismissive manner about authors who fall outside of literary realism.” How is it that Pynchon and Vonnegut and DeLillo got to be such big deals then? James Wood gave a bad review to “Underworld.” But part of the point of that review was that it was contrarian. Pretty much everyone else gave the book a great review, didn’t they? I don’t know. But I don’t trust Ed with such sweeping statements. He hasn’t earned it.

    14. “(‘Still here?’ sneered Troy Patterson, a television critic assigned to review the book by the New York Times Book Review.)” So Ed is suggesting that someone who is a critic but who normally writes about television isn’t qualified to write about books? And Ed is a blogger, right? And someone who takes exaggerated offense at any of those horrible print snobs who claim that someone should actually, you know, be qualified to review books, that someone should actually, you know, be able to write well to review books?

    15. “. . . the self-imposed gatekeepers who purportedly knew damn better than those litblogging upstarts operating in basements in Terre Haute . . .” Exactly.

    16. “Today’s titans would rather be right than wrong.” Those bastards.

    17. “The critical establishment has no desire to give itself a swift kick in the ass, much less exhibit the kind of playfulness and inclusive expertise that makes for good criticism.” Why should something that should be kicking itself in the ass also be playful? Sounds mixed up to me. A little bipolar.

    18. “And if it has to be this way, if the two sides in this apparent print-online war cannot cooperate and cannot learn from each other and cannot settle upon a detente by the end of the year, then the time has come for the litbloggers to break away and stand firmer on their feet. They must shout, ‘I’m an innovator and I’m proud!’ and not let anyone get in the way of what they do.” Don’t you mean “the time will have come”? Also, it’s not clear how there’s a war. The only war mentioned above was the one B. R. Myers supposedly declared on writers he didn’t like. But it’s even less clear what litbloggers should break away from. How does a blogger stand firmer on his feet? Why must a litblogger be an innovator? The only innovations talked about above were literary, innovations that could be appreciated or not appreciated, depending upon your taste in literature. What does being an innovator in this context have to do with litbloggers? And who is getting in the way of anything? Who is preventing litbloggers from breaking away or not breaking away, standing firm or not standing firm, being innovators or not being innovators? Who? And how?

    Ed is welcome to examine my writing for its many deficiencies. They’re there. But if I’m to take Ed seriously when he calls people semi-literate or when he calls us litbloggers to arms in defense of some cause, then I should be able to read, understand, and trust his writing. I can’t. Still, it’s entertaining, which is why I still read, I guess.

    Keep it up, Ed.

  8. Friday 07 September 2007.

    Sir—

    “They must figure out a ways [sic] to apply better editing standards.”

    This seems as if it might be a trap, or a joke. Or as if it might be the sort of thing you can now pretend was a trap or a joke.

    #

    “They must unite together and be more inclusive.”

    How else will they unite, if not together? Will they unite apart in some peculiarly non-unitary unit?

    Why does careless writing matter? because the way you hold your pencil is the way you live your life. Perhaps this is where the aesthetic begins to shade into the moral: the made thing provides a revelation of its maker.

    #

    Six examples of a passion for “passion”:

    1. “The critic’s scalpel — the one commonly accepted in the mainstream operating room — is held with a humorless hand, its fingers frequently failing to turn even one page with passion.”
    06 September 2007.

    2. “This monster [the critical establishment] has only itself to blame for ignoring so many passionate qualities.”
    06 September 2007.

    3. “And it’s always beneficial to have people examine where my arguments fall flat or where I am uninformed. A good thinker accepts those impassioned people kind enough to quibble with his arguments.”
    03 June 2007.

    4. “I like David Kipen. He’s one of the most enthusiastic and passionate literary people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. […] The public is quite capable of thinking on their [sic] own. So why not invite them with more passion and less doom and gloom?”
    09 May 2007.

    5. “[M]y unexpected trajectory into books emerged out of my literary passions.”
    28 April 2007.

    6. “I don’t see how you can produce an engaging weekly book review section if cannot [sic] maintain even a remote passion for books. I certainly wouldn’t be maintaining Return of the Reluctant if I felt, in any way, that my passion had waned in any way.”
    26 February 2007.

    #

    Is passion the highest good? Does its presence justify the absence of other goods?

    You may know that Yeats had an opinion on the subject: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

    #

    The violence of this imagery is notable:

    shrapnel,
    kicking a ruffian in the nuts,
    a cadaver dismembered beyond recognition,
    nukes [a writer] from orbit,
    a war against objection,
    locked [a man] in their crosshairs,
    a declaration of war,
    a swift kick in the ass,
    deserves to die a lumbering and painful death.

    This is all only figurative language, but metaphor reveals what is ready-to-hand, which, in turn, has certain implications.

    Auden was more direct: “Pick a quarrel, go to war, / Leave the hero in the bar; / Hunt the lion, climb the peak: / No one guesses you are weak.”

  9. I see I’m in the micro-minority of sane commenters who feel it’s possible to agree with the gist of what Ed’s saying, while admitting that Wood has a good eye for freaks, re: the sentences he culls, for his cabinet of horrors, from Whitehead’s book.

    Too bad Wood is too deep in the blood-heat of his calling as *Malleus Maleficarum* to admit that novelists these days don’t, as a rule, enjoy the sort of editorial love and attention which polished, say, early Bellow to a gloss. I’d say Wood’s real (or just) beef should be with the flimsiness of the modern editorial prophylactic, and that a novelist who dares more boldly is bound to fail harder, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, given the circumstances. A dozen Thalidomide sentences in a 400-page novel do not a misfire make. Wood sometimes puts me in mind of the goatee’d baddie in a kung fu flick who goes after the hero by beating a few of the hero’s disciples to death. The hero, of course, being Shaolin master Don DeLillo.

    When Wood writes, “The fastest way to irritate the lions of late postmodernism is to deny them their meat ? that is, to make the obvious point that Underworld is really an old-fashioned Dickensian novel, a Bleak House of the digital age, which attempts to evoke, in great detail, the interconnectedness of society,” I hear that wise old Wilsonian critic, Ronald Reagan, quip, from heaven’s rolling green,*There he goes again…*.

    Yes: and Joyce’s Ulysses is merely a pastiche of Homer’s Odyssey; ignore the formal innovations in the younger work…its scope of allusion and depth of invention…its particular relevance to the era in which it was published, et al: all that matters is the vaguest similarity between narrative outlines. A neat trick: focus exclusively on the most traditional level (out of many) in a work of Art, in order to argue how traditional the whole work is!

    Back to Ed:

    As far as I can tell, Ed presented an Editorial here…not a work of Art…so, you know, a line-by-line take-down of the style/diction/grammar therein is as bone-headely irrelevant as it is vicious. Unless Ed was attacking the Wood/Peck/Myers style/diction/grammar. Was he?

    The argument is supposed to be with Ed’s *argument* (or not)…not a churlish point-scoring orgy for online pedants.

    As if, right?

  10. Sorry for this churlish point scoring, but it was amusing to see you decrying the lack of irony in current criticism, and then subsequently to read the link to a resounding example of its use in Robinson’s treatment of Davis. Ironic even.

    Thanks for an engaging post Ed, and for an outstanding blog.

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