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.