The Girl Who Cried Julavits

OGIC has weighed in on the Caryn James piece, as has Galleycat. OGIC suggests that the James piece is honest criticism. Meanwhile, Galleycat (inter blogia) has stated her reasons why James has attacked. Rather than ape Galleycat’s able analysis, I thought I’d respond to OGIC’s notion that we all leaped into some touchy-feely Julavits antiseptic tank.

If James had stated specific examples in her profile, then her huffing and puffing would have had more validity. But I perceived this piece as an “assault,” not because of the piece’s intensity, but because it was the worst of assaults (the spineless passive-aggressive tone) available in the human repertoire. But more than that. James was fundamentally dishonest about her sensibilities in the following ways:

First off, James complains about a chapter being composed of one sentence and then inveighs against “bite-size fragments” (and, no, she’s not talking about those bags of tiny Snickers bars, but books, believe it or not!). This is certainly an interesting position to take. I’m genuinely curious to understand why anyone would be so hostile about a book merely because its spine failed to stretch out at least three inches or a single sentence carried over to another page. But the most we get from James is some vague quibble about “the tyranny of white space” and then a logical fallacy (and thus dishonest argument) that employs a backwards Chewbacca defense, suggesting that anyone interested in an abbreviated book inherited this interest from watching too much MTV. (And since Terry Teachout himself has confessed that his attention span has shifted towards shorter books, I get this wonderfully comic image of Teachout sitting through a Real World marathon on the weekend.)

Having failed to reference a single example to support her argument, James then badgers not the similarity of the books, but the close proximity and gender of the authors! How dare this quintet have vaginas or dine in Manhattan from time to time! Why, those two simple facts alone are enough to corrupt literature as we know it! Never mind that within the Bloomsbury Group, you couldn’t get any more disparate than Lytton Strachey’s crisp satire and Virginia Woolf’s baroque paeans to consciousness. No! In the Caryn James universe, if you have at least two personal attributes in common with another person, you will live similar lives and make similar choices. Does that mean that all male writers living in San Francisco put together prose like Dave Eggers or Daniel Handler or Andrew Sean Greer? I couldn’t name three more local writers whose work contrasts more sharply.

Then, after all this flummery, James throws us a frickin’ bone. She likes the Silber. But not so fast, kids! Because all five books are “built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.” And not a single example of what these “compressed observations” might be (what a writer sees while diving in the deep sea perhaps?) or the “woozy and poetic” MFA stuff that James takes offense to.

Again, this is unreasonable and dishonest. If you were a lawyer trying a case in court, you’d tell a jury that the defendant raped and murdered 32 squirrels, but you’d point to the police report, the testimony of witnesses, the laboratory tests, and the like. In short, you’d rely upon evidentiary support and ensure that the depraved squirrel killer would pay for the 32 small lives in blood, currency, or imprisonment of the judge’s choosing. It might give the hypothetical attorney a cheap thrill to call the defendant “woozy and perverted,” but without hard evidence, it’s nothing more than silly ad hominen.

Then James offers a valid point about award ceremonies offering variety, only to drift back into the “claustrophobic sameness” of the five books that represents a still as yet unestablished style that she objects to. James turns to the books themselves, but again and again seems confused. Instead of citing examples, she attacks story structure as a “trendy gimmick.” She then tells us, “Trendy gimmick bad, illuminating strategy good,” which is the same thing that a marketing manager once told me. Then there are the handicaps and yet another unfair assualt on Bynum not because of the writing, but because she is 32. (And, by the way, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission is being cc’d on this post.) And still no hard examples.

By then, the James profile ends and the anger across the blogosphere begins. But in rereading James with a more careful eye, I take back my initial assessment. Her article isn’t an “assault.” It’s simply dishonest and incompetent criticism.


  1. The “Chewbacca defense” is actually a parody on the “Twinkie defense” I believe, a piece of legal history lost in the sands of time.

    By the way, ABANDON INTERNET EXPLORER! I’m using Firefox almost exclusively now.

  2. Topic Du Jure

    Since everybody seems to be talking about it, allow me to weigh in on the Caryn James piece on the National Book Awards. Some reactions have been rather sharp (see here and here for example) although OGIC has come to…

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