Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On Lit Crit

One of my favorite academic literary critics, Stanley Edgar Hyman (who was married to Shirley Jackson, an underrated writer who wrote the famously chilling short story "The Lottery") seemed to have read everything and wrote about his reading in a provoking and engaging way. I love his book The Armed Vision. Hyman quotes an earlier critic/academic, I.A. Richards: "To set up as a critic is to set as a judge of values." (I wrote about Richards long ago HERE.)

I find Richards fascinating for many reasons, one of which was that he was influenced by both Coleridge and the early anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Besides Richards's scientific foray into how literature is received by bright college students (as described in Practical Criticism), he thought critical evaluation functioned largely as "social communion." He explicitly saw his work as "phatic," and I tend to wish more critics had these values in mind. (Certainly someone like Dale Peck doesn't see the role of critic like this!)

Hyman seemed to not like teaching all that much, and "Professor X," who wrote In The Basement of the Ivory Tower quotes Hyman: "I've been doing it for years, and before every class, I take a piss, I check my fly, I wish I were dead - and I go into the room and begin."

Jacob Silverman
Two months ago in Slate Silverman made a complaint about too much "niceness" in literary criticism lately, and he thought it had to do with authors using Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Yelp, and Tumblr. They create a "fan base," tweet nice things about other authors, every other author is awesome, we're all friends here, authors create an aura of good feelings around themselves, and literary criticism suffers, due to the "mutual admiration society that is today's literary culture, particularly online." The level of criticism an author receives amounts to a literary culture in which "cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments." Silverman would rather we cultivate an environment where we care less about an author's biography and who follows them, and more on the work itself. When no voices of dissent are heard about a work, it tends to chill a "vibrant, useful literary culture." He quotes Lev Grossman of Time, who admitted he won't review a book he doesn't like. Silverman would like us to act more like adults and not mix criticism for an author's work with criticism of the person who wrote the work. The last paragraph of Silverman's article sums his stance well: we ought to think more and "enthuse less."

Chris Collin
Around a year before Silverman's article, Chris Collin wrote a piece for Wired titled, "Rate This Article: What's Wrong With the Culture of Critique." I found and read this after I read Silverman's argument. Collin objects to online lit-crit's star-rating system, its thumb's up, its plus one, the number for how many times the article had been Tweeted (or re-Tweeted?), the number of "likes," etc. I couldn't agree more: go ahead and give some article four stars out of five, but don't pretend you're adding anything to the conversation. You're certainly not thinking. Well...probably not. Maybe a little, if the piece was good. Voting/giving symbolic feedback seems - to me - more a gesture along the lines of the consumer.

Hey, I dig good feedback and kind vibes - we all do - but in our writings as in life, we want to feel like we've been heard.

Collin quotes one of my favorite culture critics, Erik Davis: "Our culture is afflicted with knowingness. We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that's great on many levels. But we forget the pleasure of not knowing. I'm no Luddite, but we've started replacing actual experience with someone else's already digested knowledge."

(I wrote about "knowingness" not long ago, HERE.)

Collin says that "There's an essential freedom in being alone with one's thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else's. Diminish our aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective."

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Buckminster Fuller: "Dare to be naive." In a culture of knowingness, where everyone is always online, I can't help but think that our interiorities are suffering. It's getting to the point where the act of not looking to see what everyone else is looking at, what's viral, what's hot, what's cool...and instead just following your own path and evaluating on your own...seems a bona fide radical act. 

Roxane Gay's Answer To Silverman
Not long after Silverman's piece appeared, Roxane Gay parried in Salon. And while I think she played a tad unfair by tsk-tsking Silverman over not actually reading Emma Straub's book - that really wasn't his point - I think her rebuttal quite fine, and I present these three points of view about literary kulch in our online-world as a possible opening to a conversation itself. About the role of criticism.

I thought Gay's best point was the analogy that literary culture is like school, and serious criticism is the classroom; social networks and all the mundane trivia and phatic (How would I.A. Richards see "evaluations" of literature on Twitter?) aspects of five stars and "liking" is the cafeteria. Gay pulled up an apt quote from 1846, by Edgar Allan Poe, on writing too sweetly about someone else's book. There's nothing new under the sun, truly, Ms Gay! She also takes issue with Silverman over too much niceness regarding women, people of color and writers who'd fall under the LGBT rubric: when they are reviewed, often their personal lives are considered fair game. Gay shows that she's able to give a good review to a book while noting some perceived problems with it, and at times she might even know the author personally. She urges that we stop thinking of reviews as "positive" or "negative" as this is the "wrong conversation."

Points all well-taken...until someone's feelings get hurt. Vicious, savage reviews by the aforementioned Dale Peck and his ilk: do these people thrive on shame? Are they thinly-veiled sadists?

And I bet that it's true that males - especially white males - get reviewed more often. But I also bet they are "savaged" more often by critics, too. And sometimes it might seem the reason they're getting savaged is precisely because they're male. I cop to being a lot like Lev Grossman, but my reasons for not writing negative reviews are due to the unpleasant mental states I'm required to be in to write that stuff. It's not worth it to me. NB Roxane Gay seems to evade the question somewhat by saying that everyone who read the book would see its flaws jump out at them, so why bother writing the bad review?(However, if someone wants to pay me to review Dick Cheney's or Paul Wolfowitz's or Rupert Murdoch's memoirs...I'd take that advantage. Some things need to be said, sometimes, no matter how unpleasant.)

Intellectuals and Critics: The Mafia?
Woody Allen once said that intellectuals are like the Mafia: they only kill their own. As much as this culture of criticism chugs along, let's not pretend that a large portion of the critical class - the fine writers, the intellectuals, the "chattering classes," congenitally bookish bloggers - let's not pretend that they don't consider evaluations of a rival or a political foe's work as something akin to a blood sport.

I have never published a book to scathing criticism, but can easily imagine what it feels like, especially if one feels they've produced a fine work, filled with long hours of sweat, tears, inspiration, elation, actually getting themselves to believe that they were contributing something of value to society, that they might even inspire a handful of people not blood-related in a very deep way.

The cultivation of a Nietzschean sensibility seems in order, although 'tis probably easier said than done.

Finally, I can't help but think that most of us are taking ourselves and our evaluations far too seriously, and while I surmise that many of us give critics far too much power over our choices, this seems as virtually nothing compared to forming your opinion based on relatively faceless/nameless others' likes and thumb's ups and plus-ones and re-Tweets. Fer crissakes! Let us dare to be naive! I have tried it and found it quite invigorating. Am I preaching to the choir here? I suspect so...

Tomorrow I'll note an example of polarized approaches to the role of critics and criticism by two novelists, and I hope you'll get a nice laff then.


Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff. I love Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

I think critics do the most good when they praise. If they don't get a work of art, I don't think they have as much to offer. I prefer Pound explaining the values he finds in Golding's Ovid to his criticisms of Milton.

Thom Foolery said...

"I've been doing it for years, and before every class, I take a piss, I check my fly, I wish I were dead - and I go into the room and begin."

Wow. This is my EXACT experience as a higher ed temp.

michael said...

@Prof Wagner: Haunting of Hill House is one of those books I know I read, but only the residue of affect is left in me: creepy, weird...something to re-read in this month of October? My first reading was so long ago...

I have no fixed position on criticism. I noted I.A. Richards, strongly associated with New Criticism. I can easily make an argument that it was based on an outdated epistemology and just tear it to shreds, but my view of criticism seems far more pragmatic, and what I want is style, insight, and edifying discourse, no matter where it's coming from...and that includes the "negative" review.

@Thom Foolery: After I copied down that quote, I thought, "But doesn't this describe the feelings most guys have about their jobs?" Then I thought...I really don't know.

Glad I could provide a tiny shock of recognition?

Thanks for reading.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I love the Erik Davis quote. There's certainly nothing wrong with trying to keep up -- I find out a lot about what's going on by logging on to Twitter -- but I also find in enormously useful to turn off the computer, open a long (or "difficult") book and carefully engage with it. one on one.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Sometimes a bad review is necessary, if it's by a prominent author. I would like to know, for example, if the latest Martin Amis book is worth reading. Reviewers fill a need when they attempt to answer the question. A bad review for an unknown author is kind of pointless however; better just to ignore the book.

michael said...

I see opening up a thick book as inhabiting a much richer world that scanning the latest on Internet. (I'm still not on Twitter, ditto FB. There's no hope for me.)

However, I see how one's job or other contingencies could alter the use of social media and the level of attention and energies paid to it.

I tend to agree about the value of a negative review. What's striking to me, in my notes, is how there are a lot of writers who'd just like to be reviewed, period. I assume they'd even welcome a "negative" review, if it was nuanced. But then now we have all sorts of phony-reviews: you pay people to write good reviews of your work.

Do we think we can spot those? I think we think we can. And I bet we're (mostly) right?

If I really love, say, Martin Amis, I will probably read his book no matter what, even if I've tried to not hear/read anything about it beforehand. Inadvertently I've gotten wind that his latest seems phoned-in. But as am Amis aficionado, I still think They usually don't get His genius; I'll read it anyway...and then see that it is indeed his worst book. Sad, but...how fascinating to see where Amis went wrong! So fascinating to speculate about why he repeated what he'd written five years ago here, that this character that appears on page 35 and takes over the plot till page 113 seems overly wooden...and where are the ideas? Etc.

I got into a short talk about Mailer's Ancient Evenings, which I wasn't able to get through, but x-rayed pretty well way back when. My friend tends to find Mailer interesting, but said the book was "unreadable." So I preferred to talk about how William Burroughs liked the book, and how it influenced him.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

For me, there are certain writers who I'll read each book as it comes out (e.g., Neal Stephenson, Tom Perrotta) and there are other writers where I have to say, "Maybe." So many writers, so little time!

I usually discount the "reader reviews" on Amazon as I'v e learned they can't be trusted.