gall and gumption

Saturday, June 23, 2007

No Pity

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids;
I must not laugh, nor weep sins and be wise;
Can railing, then, cure these worn maladies?

Donne is not referring to the bodily organ we know as the spleen, but to the spleen as the source of one of the four bodily humors of medieval medicine. The spleen is the irritable cranky one of the four.

Evidently he is recovering from a recent encounter with stupidity, and while it has annoyed him, “kind pity” checks the outbreak of irritability. Also he thinks he shouldn’t really stoop to their level: “Brave scorn forbids…” But you know? Despite the kind pity and the brave scorn he tells you anyway.

Well, kind pity chokes Donne’s spleen, but it does not choke mine. No, kind pity tried to choke my spleen but my spleen reared up and grabbed kind pity by its lapels and got all in its face and everything.

“Why are you hanging around here wasting yourself on smarmy middlebrow vulgarians?” my spleen wanted to know. “Are we out of orphans? Lonely people? Sick people? Abandoned animals? Why don’t you go get yourself a real job?” As for brave scorn, it was too busy with the highlighter pen and my diaries.

…. Questions like those raised by the NBCC survey envision the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader. To be obsessed with potential bias or conflict of interest on the book reviewer's part is to imagine the reviewer as a judge, who is obligated to provide every author with his or her day in court. But that judicial standard is impossible, because there is no such thing as an objective judgment of a work of literature; aesthetic judgment is by definition personal and opinionated. Nor would a perfectly objective book review even be desirable. The whole point of a review is to set one mind against another, and see what sparks fly. If the reviewer lacks an individual point of view, or struggles to repress it, there can be no intellectual friction, and therefore no interest or drama.

I wonder what it felt like to be the person who discovered that army of terracotta soldiers in China. It must have been thrilling to unearth first one and then another and begin to realize the extent of it all. Reading this piece I get some idea of what it is like: I pull up one straw man, and damn if there isn’t another one. Surely that isn’t… just how many of these things has he packed in here?

Well, now look; there’s a distinction that seems to have some content in it: “the book review as a transaction between author and reviewer, rather than between reviewer and reader.” Except the content just sort of shrivels up as soon as you look at it. The book review may be addressed to the reader, but it is about the author’s book, so the author has something of an interest in knowing whether the reviewer has any ethical biases. About 10 seconds more of thinking, and you realize that the reader has the same interest as the author. The reader has an interest in the use of the time and money and attention she gives to a book, and expects to be able to trust the reviewer to disclose prior commitments that might make for a conflict of interest: “The author is my no-good brother-in-law, and if he sells enough of these I’m hoping he can move off the basement sofa.” People have reviewed books by writers they know, who are friends. Of course! You tell the reader the truth, and you make an effort to be detached about the work, and the reader will judge whether your bias is an issue. If she thinks it is, she’ll go look for another opinion. If you’ve read Balzac’s Lost Illusions you’ll have a picture of what the literary world looks like when literary judgments are paid for without such payment (or any conflict of interest) being disclosed. This is an ethical question: is the reviewer deceiving the reader about the bases of his opinions? And again, the author and the reader share an interest in this ethical judgment, for a really simple reason: nobody likes to be lied to or lied about.

It makes no material difference whether the review addresses the reader or the author.
That distinction is a shiny object of no value. The real, important distinction in this discussion is the one that he breezily dismisses in the next sentence: between ethical judgments and aesthetic judgments. In the context of literature and the arts, Kirsch explains, aesthetic judgment is subjective, and therefore, by extension, the book reviewer’s ethical judgments are purely subjective too.

Let me see if I can compose myself to address the gibbering imbecility of this statement. Western culture has a tradition of investigation into and discussion of what constitutes right judging and good judgment going back oh gee I dunno nearly four thousand years. In criticism (i.e., the making of opinions) it begins with Aristotle and continues right up to the present time.

Brother Bongwater here seems to have made it all the way through college without having become aware of the existence of all this activity and its results in criticism, philosophy, science, ethics. What does he have to offer instead of all this accumulated experience? Sparks. Sparks that shed no light. Intellectual friction and “drama.”

Sad. Just sad.

I mean, what sort of standing would such an ill-educated person have to have an opinion about anything?

It makes a certain kind of sense, however, that book reviewers would become obsessed with ethical purity just at the moment that the newspaper book review is endangered. For along with the fall of the print review, we are also seeing the rise of the Internet review — or, rather, of a new form of discourse about books, which is not quite the same thing as reviewing. People who write about books on the Internet, and they are surprisingly numerous, do not call themselves reviewers, but bloggers. And the subtext of the NBCC's ethics survey and panel was really about the standards, professional and ethical, that bloggers are bringing to the profession.

(Do not fail to notice the insertion of the straw-man phrase “obsessed with ethical purity” which gives him back-out room for the moment when he is called on this nonsense. “I wasn’t speaking about you I was only speaking about the obsessed people,” i.e., not insulting you – only your intelligence.) And just as it was for the appalling Schickel, it’s news to this writer that people actually read books and talk and write about them. Until people started publishing their opinions on blogs he did not know this. Then he discovered that there were these creatures called bloggers. And the decline of the newspaper book review is their fault. Newspaper book reviews are declining, not because of the wretched cheap writing, not because they aren’t very good, not because the newspaper management is interested in making money and not, say, better newspapers, but because of bloggers.

In one sense, the democratization of discourse about books is a good thing, and should lead to a widening of our intellectual horizons. The more people there are out there reading, making discoveries, and advocating for their favorite books, the better. But book bloggers have also brought another, less salutary influence to bear on literary culture: a powerful resentment. Often isolated and inexperienced, usually longing to break into print themselves, bloggers — even the influential bloggers who are courted by publishers — tend to consider themselves disenfranchised. As a result, they are naturally ready to see ethical violations and conspiracies everywhere in the literary world. As anyone who reads literary blogs can attest, hell hath no fury like a blogger scorned. And the scorn is reciprocated: Professional writers usually assume that those who can, do, while those who can't, blog.

This is his not purely objective opinion, of course; he can’t be expected to supply any evidence for it. What follows is more not purely objective opinion – if by “subjective” we mean “I just felt like saying it and you can’t criticize it because you can never know what it feels like to be me. And if you do criticize it you will be guilty of seeking an impossible objectivity, obsessed with ethical purity, and besides you’re one of those angry bloggers.” Subtract these feeble self-defense strategies from the piece and you’d remove about 80 percent of it. The rest is one warm and fetid blast of contempt. Though he finds one web publication he can approve of for its seriousness of purpose. That it happens to be one he writes for is just one of those crazy things that happens, I have no doubt.

It is not just possible but likely that, one day, serious criticism will find its primary home on the Web. The advantages — ease of access, low cost, potential audience — are too great to ignore, even if our habits and technology still make it hard to read long essays on the computer screen. Already there are some web publications — like Contemporary Poetry Review (, to which I occasionally contribute — that match anything in print for seriousness of purpose.

I believe that that is what is known as “the money quote.”


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