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:
I LOVE SAUL BELLOW. SAUL BELLOW IS GREAT. DO NOT PICK ON MY AUCTORIAL HERO. (rinse, lather, repeat ad infinitum)