Tanenhaus Has Shortcomings, To Be Sure

Sam Tanenhaus: “Shortcomings, to be sure. But so what? Nature doesn’t owe us perfection. Novelists don’t either. Who among us would even recognize perfection if we saw it?”

With these five simple sentences, Sam Tanenhaus has spelled out why the New York Times Book Review is a publication hostile to penetrating insights on fiction. Literary criticism, as I understand it, is not the quest for perfection, nor should one expect a single volume to yield near universal plaudits from all who read it. (Unless, of course, like the old Saturday Night Live sketch suggested, you liked Cats and you’d see it again and again.) One of criticism’s vital functions is to present doubting Thomases who cast aspersions on a book’s greatness and brave critics with cogent arguments explaining why a universally derided book is worth reading.

I happen to believe Rupert Thomson’s The Book of Revelation to be a near perfect novel, but while attaching a melodramatic modifier might be good for blurbs, it doesn’t tell you anything about why I believe it to be a near perfect novel. I can tell you in very specific terms why I believe it to be one one of the best novels of the past ten years, but I would not deny another critic her right to express why it fails, using supportive examples and reasonable terms.

Literary criticism is certainly not a matter of bullshit lists. It is not a matter of declaring an author above a single reproach, as Tanenhaus has done. Literary criticism is a quest for understanding, a way of playing booster to authors who are maligned or misunderstood and skeptic to the critical darlings.

Edmund Wilson once described the situation this way:

No matter how thoroughly and searchingly we may have scrutinized works of literature from the historical and biographical point of view, we must be able to tell good from bad, the first-rate from the second-rate. We shall otherwise not write literary criticism at all, but merely social or political history as reflected in literary texts, or psychological case histories from past eras.

It is not enough for the critic to describe a book as first-rate. The critic has the duty to explain why this is so while considering the blind partisanship of her enthusiasms. A good book review editor will cultivate these critical impulses in his contributors, instead of penning a 2,000 word love letter that could have just as easily read:



  1. If there’s a blog war between you and Mark Sarvas over this essay (he’s praiseful), after reading both responses, I’ll be wearing Ed Champion colors.

    However, I was curious about this line: “Literary criticism is a quest for understanding, a way of playing booster to authors who are maligned or misunderstood and skeptic to the critical darlings.”

    The two halves don’t match for me. Criticism as a quest for understanding, absolutely. I’ve always thought of criticism of any kind as the critic’s best attempt to explain things as they are, placing the work in context. That is the purpose or function of criticism.

    You seem to then posit boosterism or skepticism as either the same function as a quest for understanding, or at least a corollary to the quest at the same level of purpose.

    I see those things as byproducts to criticism, a potential end result, rather than the attitude one brings toward the act of criticism. If one goes in thinking about boosting or being skeptical, it seems that the first purpose (understanding) is potentially lost in the service of this other thing.

    It’s one of the reasons snarkwatch was so unpalatable to so many since it seemed to potentially close off understanding. It’s also why Tannenhaus is so full of crap here.

  2. Well said. Literary criticism is a process of shared discovery between the critic and the reader, and it is the process itself — as much as the understanding and knowledge produced by the process — that readers value.

    The one thing Tanenhaus did right in this essay, in my opinion, is quote directly a Bellow passage he admires. But in his framing of this passage, and of the rest of Bellow’s writing, he does nothing more but stand and point and say “great, huh?”. Yeah, great.

  3. A little off topic, but I thought Book of Revelation was/is incredibly underrated/overlooked.

    In terms of SamTan, I expect we’ll be reading any number of Norman Mailer reviews in the coming weeks.


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