If you want it done right...
I'm embarrassed to say how long I've been fiddling about with some commentary on >this review by Wolcott in The New Republic, of Gail Pool's Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America. Possibly the fact that I've never heard of Gail Pool is symptomatic of the plight of book reviewing. But I'm glad to know of her book now.
Wolcott also points from his blog to this essay by Christina Nehring, at Truthdig, on the decline of the American essay.
They’ve both got my sympathy, sincerely. But I don’t know that you can get great essays or great book reviews, or any other kind of literature, by deploring the state of the art and putting out the call for more and better. I don’t know that art has ever responded to that kind of summons. The book review and the essay are basically literary forms; they’re just something more to read. Literary forms occur not in response to summonses but in response to conditions, the most critical condition being the presence of the writer who is the only person who can summon up a particular piece of writing. I’m not sure you can summon up writing in general from the culture in general. One writer can summon up a piece, but the only place he can summon it up from is himself. The writer otherwise needs time, a little bit of money and space, and a publisher who will take a chance on his work. I think that there are lots of writers who are producing good essays. What we need is a better class of audience.
I’m kidding when I say that, but only a little. The audience for books needs to be educated, which traditionally has been the job of the critic. And book reviews are in an awful state because critics aren’t doing that. By educate I don’t mean “supply a lot of information” though in the absence of any ideas you might as well do that. I mean you have to educate your reader’s judgment, and show that pleasure attends on this process. Which it should.
The two greatest book reviewers ever, Marvin Mudrick and Cyril Connolly, wrote book reviews that became literature, and these book reviews don’t look anything like any other book reviews. Connolly wrote newspaper book reviews but always seemed to feel he ought to have been doing something else. This was reasonable as Connolly’s literary sensitivity soared above the sort of material he was given to review. One of my favorite pieces by Connolly is a long list of things that he wants to ban from the novel. Such as the nape of the neck, as in “he loved the way her hair curled at the nape of her neck.” Another was stuff, as in one arty character asking another arty character “What’s his stuff like?” about a third arty character. And the sort of upper-middle-class novel with the clever young heroine and the weird combination school slang and baby talk that she talks with her parents – this particular phenomenon came in for Connolly’s special ire. It’s like it raised up something in him, like Bill Hicks’s “Goat Boy,” or the Ancient Mariner, and that Inner Cyril was possessed with a mission, which was to try to kill this species of novel altogether. (In one parody he kills off a whole family of characters.) Oddly, Julia Burchill at the Guardian goes after the same literature in its current manifestation. But Connolly is definitely after the literature. The real target of Burchill’s “contrarianism” (spite, really) is the people who do the writing. Next week when it isn’t the books they write it will be their taste in espresso drinks or sweaters.
Connolly’s exasperation was the effect of having to find something intelligent to say about the unending flow of inoffensively competent, diverting, apparently unobjectionable but totally uninspired and uninspiring fiction, i.e., most of what gets published. No matter how innocent each individual work seems, no matter how just its claim to an encouraging word and a favorable notice, you can’t help giving way sometimes to the suspicion that they are all, collectively, part of a conspiracy to make everybody stupid. And you feel that if you don’t rise up in defense of the idea of better, you will become stupid too. I mean, independent of your own appetite for entertainment. Because at a certain point it is not only that you are bored, it is the appalling realization that boredom is the standard.
I don’t read to escape. I read to get the feeling that life is more present and more interesting. I read to wake up. And some writing makes me feel more alive and other writing makes me feel stupid. Not only because the writing is boring, but because there is a boring or canned or dishonest experience of life under it.
I have long-term relationships with books, and I read old books. How many books will get published this year? I can assure you, one Pushkin short story, “The Queen of Spades,” for example, will still be better and a more profitable read than every single one of them. But it isn’t news, in the news sense.
Book reviewing is news. A book review may also be entertainment, and if it is very good entertainment it can be literature.
Books are marketed and reviewed in a news time frame, but books also exist in a literature time frame. Which is mostly the one I live in, too. The news timeframe constrains the things you can talk about in book reviews, it imposes its own subject matter (it is presumed that no one needs your observations on Pamela for a book review unless you happen to be reviewing a new edition or a piece of secondary literature or, God forbid, one of those “sequels” that later authors write), it usually imposes limits on the length of the piece as well. These are challenging constraints, but you can write within them and do fine.
What you don’t want to do is fall completely into the news timeframe to the extent that you forget the literature timeframe. Because when the news timeframe starts to affect your literary judgment rather than being something your literary judgment just manipulates, you are at risk of catching “nowadaysism,” the belief that new work is more “relevant” than old work, just by virtue of being new.
Mudrick got around this by treating the book review as a sort of pretext for a wider exploration: he might start from, say, a biography of Voltaire that was just published, but he’d go on and talk about Voltaire in a tightly researched piece that was packed with information and quick, revealing judgments that turned on a dime, and ultimately you got Voltaire, you got a whole lot of ideas, you got a pretty strong sense of the difference between shit and shinola, and you found your curiosity about the main character in the piece – about Boswell or Johnson, or about Voltaire, or about Pushkin, or Chaucer or Austen or Lawrence – enormously boosted. When he set to write such a review (he did write about Voltaire and it is one of his best, not collected), he would read the book under review and he would read every single available word written by the author who was the subject of the book. He was interested in judging rightly, which means he was interested in ideas, in discriminating between good ideas and bad ideas, between ideas that were alive and ideas that were fake, ideas that carried you by their light into a better vision of experience and ideas that were inert. Why? Because, really, he had discovered one of the things that made Voltaire say Montaigne was the best philosoper of all: what Montaigne called “the voluptuousness of virtue.” Marvin loved what was good, and thought the difference between good and not-good was important.
He reviewed academic books and he turned each review into an opportunity to write about what mattered. If he read a book on Chaucer he would dispatch it efficiently and then have lots of room to write about Chaucer in a way that considerably increased your pleasure and understanding of Chaucer. He did it by being what we are told in the news business you must never be: self-indulgent. The extended inquiry into ideas that you find in one of Mudrick’s pieces, the pursuit of the author’s presence, the use of jokes as little revelations, all of this sort of thing is self-indulgence because not 1) solemn in conformity with the rubes’ idea of what a professor should sound like, and 2) it is garrulous, not at all in conformity with that great American virtue of being sparing of words and “sincere” with the few simple ones you use, and in which thinking and inquiring into the ideas that people live by is a frightful piece of presumption. License to do otherwise is granted to those professors who have mastered the art of pompous, empty, uplifting blither, and who have various other social credentials. Marvin wrote like a wisecracking urban Jew from Philadelphia. He didn’t strike heroic poses out of his slum childhood as some people do, it’s just that his own way of dealing with his origins (poor Jews, immigrant slum Jews, Jews who didn’t speak English with Bostonian accents – hell, Jews who didn’t speak English at all; Jews who had things like bedbugs) was so completely original. He had, not an accent, more a lilt or an intonation when he was thinking out loud. At such times his diction was marked by care over every single syllable, something that must have begun as a conscious effort and had now become habit. Some form of this intonation spread to a greater or lesser degree, among his literature students; it was the Creative Studies accent. Long, long years passed before I understood that we had been listening to (and imitating) the faintest trace of a Yiddish accent. (In my defense I remind you that when I met Marvin I had been living in the U.S. for less than a year. There were lots of accents that I had never heard before.) Marvin’s accent was more that than anything else. He was the youngest son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, people who had lived through pogroms. His mother was the breadwinner; his father was a Hebrew scholar, extremely devout, and his role in just this capacity was so valued that he basically didn’t do anything else. Marvin had two older sisters who bossed him around and his mother was sort of the superboss, of the house, of everybody, of the universe, a great and formidable matriarch. Bookish, sensitive, romantic, he wanted escape. So he didn’t bother to learn Yiddish or Russian or German or Hebrew, all of which he could have learned to speak at home. He concentrated on being American. But here’s where he departed from the experience of a lot of immigrants. He primarily thought of becoming American as a form of escape. I think his family life was so intense around him that he never thought of transforming himself into some other person; he wasn’t going to have Saul Bellow’s Ivy tones, he’d never “pass”. And I think that after the war, when he went off to grad school in California, he made the great discovery that is another one of this enduring gifts to his students: Simply put, you didn’t have to assimilate, you didn’t have to “pass.” You could just escape into being yourself and create a new world that you would fit into. And his great optimistic faith in American life was in the bountifulness with which it had permitted him to do that. Until he became sick with the lung cancer that killed him, he was a happy, happy man in his life and work. He taught us that we could expect to be happy, if we knew what it was really about: “Just remember, nobody gives a shit about you.”
Because he was radically, bluntly truthful, in his criticism and his teaching, and in the way he worked as an administrator. If academic tenure didn’t give you that, then what the hell was it for? Marvin once referred to another colleague’s work – in a faculty meeting and in the presence of that colleague – as “donkey work.” Which was really, if you know that man’s scholarship, kind. But you are never supposed to say these things. The great virtue is collegiality, the maintenance of this specious chumminess among people who secretly and violently loathe each other. What brings them together is saying shit about the stupidity of students and grad students and (I suppose) of those untenured phantoms who roam from campus to campus, living on Top Ramen, doing the actual teaching. And Marvin refused to play from the day he arrived at UCSB as an assistant professor. He simply chose not to. That was some of this here freedom he’d heard about in Philadelphia and by God he was going to enjoy it because he had things to do – he had things he was excited about, and life was very short, and wasting time was a sin. “Oh well,” he’d say in class, leering, “In a hundred years we’ll all be dead!”
So with a view to the shortness of life, while you feel that every writer should have an encouraging word, you have to also feel sometimes that you are starving if you don’t get something that really transports you. With me that feeling of starvation comes in the form of the state of near despair: “Why does the Universe want me to be bored?” But I’m all right if I complain. To find yourself in apparent agreement with the general view that the merely mediocre is great, with the attendant implication that you agree to that devaluation of what great is, that’s the terrible thing; that’s what will wear into you. I want to be one of those aristocrats of the imagination who can afford to hold out. Cyril Connolly was one of those, but he had to pay the bills, and writing newspaper book reviews of what I believe is now called “literary fiction” was a necessity. He did it brilliantly, but he didn’t like it. Nothing could make him like it, and that’s what makes him great. If he had written the sort of competent reviews that took this stuff at its face value – if his reviews had merely been a matter of execution the way those novels were (and still are) his reviews would be just as forgettable. Who cares, really, for these ritual exercises except a few interested parties?
I confess I go for book stuff to the British newspapers more than the U.S. ones. The Guardian’s book review section seems to be thriving. It seems just as much designed to promote the book publishing industry as the NY Times book review, but they are a little smarter about it; they go for that part of the job with a certain gusto and good ole mercantile sharpness, following and creating buzz around contests (and they seem to have more contests over there), having all sorts of little gizmos like quizzes and competitions and inventive forms of interaction. Entertainment. Having secured the attention of a pretty wide public with all this fun and games, they really do deliver book reviews. No worse than anywhere else, and, moreover, their reviewers will take the gloves off.
And so what if they have J.K. Rowling on the front page every other week? That’s where the money is and if the money buys space for a piece that might make a reader curious about John Donne, Rowling is paying her way.
U.S. newspaper book reviews don’t seem to know how to make themselves attractive to a basically non-reading public. There’s a feeling that book reviews ought not to be sexy but aspirational in some now totally unfashionable way, ought not to make the same appeal that draws an audience to everything else. I suspect that this is a vestigial form of that compulsion to morally uplift that attends any discussion of ideas and culture among Americans (Cf. Robert Hughes in Culture of Complaint).
Which, by the way, is why the American essay sucks in exactly the way that Nehring says. Because if you can’t deliver the uplift, then in order to say anything critical about anything and keep your mass audience you have to play the self-deprecating curmudgeon. “Oh, don’t you mind Uncle Frank. The Katzenjammer Kids set fire to his underpants again.”
It isn’t that people aren’t writing better things. Lots of people are. But this is the standard of what is good. The essays that she is criticizing here are the best of their kind and no fault can be found with them in terms of their execution; it’s that what is being executed is pointless and dull. That whole beleaguered-genial-loafer-family-guy schtick began with Robert Benchley, and with him it was as good as it ever got – which, really, I’ll be the first to tell you, was very very good. Perelman introduced a considerable amount of vinegar into the formula and that worked pretty well except in his later pieces when there wasn’t much besides vinegar. Then you have people like the sainted and interminable E.B. White, inoffensiveness raised to a principle, this sort of genteel, idea-less hum, like a fly at a window, to doze over while you’re sitting on the screen porch after a heavy Sunday dinner.
You know, I mean, you have to know, that people have been doing better than this all along. But the space that is reserved for “the Best American Essays” has definite rules of decorum, most of them, I suspect, derived from White. The good stuff, original stuff, will seem like a failure to execute according to eternal standards of taste about which people actually have the vaguest and most incoherent ideas.
When dependable execution becomes the main value of the audience of an art form and of its most prominent practitioners, that art form is in a decadent phase. People like Lileks and Dreher are sort of the death rattle. I mean, Dreher can write 900 words of it without ever saying anything – sorry, I mean 850. Then the Inner Lizard gets hold of the keyboard and for the last 50 horks up a bit of what Dreher really thinks about something. The rest of a piece like this (Thanks, Roy) is utterly empty – and Dreher does not know this. Neither, I suspect, do most of his readers. That is decadence. I think you can find historical periods where similar things happened. I suspect that the early nineteenth-century reading public coasted along contentedly on a lot of really bad Augustan-style poetry before they realized that Wordsworth was writing literature.
And for those of us who hope to see better and to write better? There are some things that if you want them done right, you have to do them yourself.