Archive for August 14th, 2010

From a lawyer in Hawaii … more on the state of litcrit today

Saturday, August 14th, 2010
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The photo says it all?

My post on “More Heat than Light: Life is Too Short to Read Crappy Books” didn’t please everyone, and Anis Shivani‘s ability to piss people off seems pretty bottomless.  (He’s at it again today with “17 Literary Journals That Might Survive the Internet.”)  Jezebel responded with “Literary Critic Hates Vaginas, “Ghetto Volume” (also picked up by HuffPo here).

The debate over the post happened not in the comments section of this blog, but on my Facebook page.  This, from my friend Paul Achitoff in Hawaii: “I don’t know enough about him to know what he risked by writing a pissy, supercilious rant, but I’m not sure I agree it took guts. It got him what he wanted–a lot of attention, which he well knew would include a lot of negative attention. Sneering at allegedly poor writing takes little talent, and one can always roll one’s eyes at those who imagine the disparaged writing is worthwhile (his photo suggests just such a tendency). Writing even a second rate novel requires more skill than is displayed by his somewhat clumsily written column.”

From Hawaii

Someone has to weed the garden. Looking back, I often feel I have pulled too many punches in the misguided effort to be kind. This doesn’t serve the reader and throws the burden on someone in asbestos with a blowtorch to do a controlled burn. It’s hardly just me who wimps out. The whole reviewing gig has become largely gutless — critics don’t want to diss a colleague in their MFA program, or someone from whom they might need to get a blurb for their next book.

I don’t think any good writer has been broken by bad reviews. But many inflated, trendy writers have pushed good writers to the side for a generation or so.

This biting exchange between Dana Gioia and James Wood on Slate is 11 years old. This was before Dana was chair of the NEA, and before Wood joined the New Yorker.

In their epistolary columns, D.G. writes to J.W.:

From the New Yorker

And if you think that most new poetry is–what is the polite word?–“uneven,” then just look at the criticism. The innocent reader of fiction cannot comprehend how dull, esoteric, and pandering poetry reviewing has become. Most critics never give a negative review. After all, in the small world of American poetry the critic will eventually meet the author. And who knows what writers will be sitting on the next prize committee? It is safer to declare everyone a genius. Reading the smarmy acclaim that fills most literary journals, one would think we live in an age of unprecedented poetic achievement. Welcome to Potemkin Village, Mr. Wood.

It may bring gentlemanly tears to your eyes to learn that even so tenderhearted and soft-spoken a critic as yours truly is often castigated for giving books negative or mixed reviews. The assumption is that contemporary poetry is such an endangered art that no one should criticize it in public. That Chamber of Commerce claptrap doesn’t even constitute an adequate philosophy for public relations, not to mention literary criticism. I believe that one reason poetry has such a small readership, even among the literati, is that current criticism is so bad. There is almost no really engaging or reliable public conversation about new poetry–just paid publicity and unpaid hype. Academic criticism has become so parochial in its concerns that it no longer has much relevance to the general literary reader, and the little journalistic criticism that remains rarely goes beyond log-rolling.

From the NEA

The exchange is interesting and, of course, witty.  I reread it occasionally to keep my standards up, in a world where so much garbage is being treated like crème brûlée.

Paul liked it, too.  He wrote me:  ” Cynthia, thanks for forwarding that Woods/Gioia dialogue. I’m only halfway through it, but am enjoying it. I wouldn’t compare it to the other piece; they explain very clearly and specifically what disappoints them about the poets, with less arrogance than sadness. They make the critique about the poets, rather than about themselves.”

But Paul’s comments made a further point:  Has the drive to whacked-out, souped-up internet-style writing pushed aside the criticism the average reader might crave — reviews where the writing is elegant and takes its time, where claims are buttressed more substantially than hit-and-run internet journalism offers?   Must every line be a punch to keep the reader’s attention?

Isn’t this the very thing Shivani was criticizing in Junot Díaz?  Isn’t this the litcritic equivalent of someone who, as he wrote,  “replaces plot in stories and novel with pumped-up ‘voice’”?