Working Theory

Your advocate, who has spent his Saturday night finalizing his taxes, isn’t so much in a joyous mood (sadly, he has to pay), but is greatly relieved that it’s all over (a pox upon you: Schedule CA (540)!) and is, as a result, unusually jocose.

I put forth the following quandry to the prosecution: Have the critics savaged Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt because The Intuitionist and John Henry Days are both damn good novels and quite possibly, at least in this advocate’s opinion, exceptionally brilliant? Is it because Apex does not live up to these two shining beacons of virtuousity?

Corollary: To what degree can a lesser work by a great novelist be forgiven? Did the critics go after Faulkner because The Hamlet didn’t measure up to The Sound and the Fury? Did they not understand that setting down Snopes in early form might have been a way to get to Intruder in the Dust or the next two (better) books in the Snopes trilogy? And even if some of you in the jury might be snobbish enough to think that everything Faulkner put out after 1940 (a lot of it mysteries) isn’t really worth contemplating, to what extent does the literary community and this court by proxy have to consider good (but not great) works from its authors with less alacrity than the norm? I do not suggest handicaps. I suggest context or a more rigorous study of an artist’s work, if charges are to be leveled against my client. How can the vast divide between the masterpieces which an author puts out early in his career be corraled with the “good but lesser” works he puts out later? How can an author maintain any sense of ambition or evolution when the later works don’t live up to critical and scholarly expectations?

It’s a disingenuous charge that the prosecution puts out, your honor. They want to nail these “early bloomers” to the wall. They’ve gone after Dave Sim for his muddled politics in the latter part of Cerebus, failing to consider the accomplishment of his artwork. They’ve gone after Jane Campion because her most recent films don’t live up to An Angel at My Table or The Piano, even when the later films contain clear flashes of brilliance (such as the vibrant reds and greens of In the Cut and the daring sexual politics of Holy Smoke). And they declare Apex as “technical artistry [which] is in the service of unremarkable themes and ideas,” a book that involves “watching Whitehead sketch out a minor character’s essence with one stroke, while breathtaking, makes one wish the same treatment was afforded the people who ostensibly inhabit the novel’s complex ideas,” and dismiss the plaintiff’s work as “admirable ambition.”

But are these really charges with which to castigate the plaintiff? Does it allow for a proper exegesis? Even if the prosecution wishes to condemn the artist, does it not make sense to give the accused some benefit of the doubt in light of honorable standing and past accomplishments?

I do not wish to curtail rigorous and often vicious criticism, your honor. I merely wish to point out that sometimes a book is more than just a disappointment. And it is worth understanding why a book has failed within the context of previous offerings rather resorting to the altogether too easy approach of casual dismissal.

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  1. Very interesting theory Ed. And many authors you can bring up – McCarthy’s post All the Pretty Horses novels (or for some, his post-Blood Meridian novels); for many who enjoyed the out and out zaniness, Chester Brown’s post Ed the Happy Clown work; even contemporary authors (as you’ve suggested) such as Kent Haruf – whose Eventide frequently had negative comparisons to his previous Plainsong.

    Is it a fear of this comparison to prior greatly received works that kept an author like Harper Lee from a follow-up?

    On the flip side, how many authors get a free pass because of past works? Maybe not from the critics that have names that you would recognize – that people not reading 75 books per year would recoginize that is – but from the every day no-name critics? The type that wouldn’t rip a novel with Delillo or Oates on the cover, even had I written it?

    I agree to the concept of no handicaps. Each work should be looked at on its own. A beating for an author because of prior masterpieces should come within the context of an essay, not in a review where the writer of such typically has less than 300 words to make his/her point.

  2. I agree–plus, it isn’t just that writer’s later work isn’t as good and therefore judged too harshly, but often that work is actually really good and is dismissed anyway. “The Hamlet” and “Go, Down Moses” are actually two of Faulkner’s best. People still shit on “Pierre” but it is as good, if not better than, “Moby-Dick.” “The Confidence Man” is the jam too.

    And get this: “Trompe Le Monde” is the best Pixies record! Everyone thinks “Surfer Rosa” is great–it isn’t all than. Frank Black’s first two solo records are better.

  3. Wait, wait–you think The Town is better than The Hamlet? You, my friend, are in what some folks would call the minority. (Seriously, I’d be curious to hear what it is that you like about The Town, a book that I always find frustrating). I do love The Mansion, though.

  4. I think that probably everyone has had a bad day in her lifetime, and probably every bookwriter has written a “bad” book in her lifetime. Some bookwriters have written LOTS of bad books; probably most bookwriters have.

    But maybe the “bad” books each bookwriter has written ultimately aren’t so bad because they make the “good” ones beside them shine that much more.

    I also think different artists peak craft-wise at different times. Some start off strong and finish weak; others start off weak and finish strong; and still others start off weak and finish weak (very common); and still others start off strong and finish strong (very rare); and still others start off mediocre and finish mediocre (also very common); and still others start off mediocre, stay mediocre, and finish mediocre; and still others start off mediocre and finish strong; and still others start off one way, finish another way and peak somewhere in the middle; and still others fit some combo of those choices and other choices. Variety’s the spice of the writing–and reading–life!

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