Poison Pen Letters

Through a former classmate, I came upon Michelle Hoover’s take on the controversy surrounding William Giraldi’s nasty review of Alix Ohlin’s books, which fits into a larger conversation about whether reviewers have become cheerleaders or whether reviewers should feel free to vent their spleens on authors they dislike. Should reviewers try to serve the book buying public or offer stern critiques to help writers improve the product? Should the critical environment be more like a cotillion or like Thunderdome?

To answer the second question for yourself, watch this and ask whether you’re amused or annoyed:

Giraldi’s review is certainly at least as nasty a bit of business as Vidal’s review of Mailer’s work, though it was not as well executed. As Hoover described it, it’s “cruel, repetitive, and strangled by its own attempts at elocution.” Ironically, Giraldi’s review left me devoid of any desire to read his fiction. I’m not sure I could take page after page of sentences like “The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that ‘this world is but canvas to our imaginations,’ that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity.” If George Orwell returned from the dead today to revise and update “Politics and the English Language” and decided he needed a more contemporary misbegotten sentence to dissect, he’d bag this one, tag it, and put it on the slab. Giraldi seems less a reviewer than a schoolyard bully, with Alix Ohlen as the nerd who’ll receive Giraldi’s blows and, in doing so, relieve Giraldi’s sense of his own inadequacy.

It would be tempting at this stage to ask whether I prefer that blubsters bombard us all with “fresh! daring! compelling” until we all throw up. No. There’s a middle ground between blurbing and assassination (the more old fashioned of us call it fairness), but since reviews are a form of entertainment and a means of marketing as well as analysis, it’s unlikely that we’ll get all fairness and civility all the time (or that we’d want it if we got it). Publicity managers for publishers like blurbing. Readers who love violence but consider themselves above boxing or mixed martial arts will prefer witnessing assassinations, and the market, as it frequently does, will see to it that everyone’s tastes are served.

As for my first question–should critics try to help guide readers or improve authors–we run into the issue of what critics can and can’t do.

Critics can do many things with a review, some admirable, some not. Critics can point to important issues a book raises and explain how it handles, or mishandles, them. Critics can make the case for the writer as an important thinker on our times, a solid entertainer, or a charlatan. Critics can use the review to aggrandize themselves at the expense of someone too obscure or too dead to offer an effective retort. The most skilled critics can make half baked arguments about a book sound convincing and can make unfairness and cruelty sound sober and clever.

What critics probably can’t do is help writers improve their writing.

By the time a critic’s review reaches the public, the book is out, has been out sometimes for months. The decisions that shaped it have been made. No one’s going back the change it. Authors, at least those with brains, have already started the next project.

Can a review of a previous book help a writer with the next one? I doubt it. Each book presents its writer with unique challenges, and writers who look back at past projects for guidance become like generals who’re still fighting the last war or central bankers who fail to push stimulus because they fear the ghosts of inflations past. A writer has to relearn writing with every book. Attempts to recreate past successes can leave a work mannered and self-referential, while attempts to avoid past failures can lead a writer to take cures that are worse than the disease.

The thing about writers is that they seldom respond in healthy or even rational ways to reviews. There’s something about seeing criticism of a work in print, where other people will read it, that wrecks a writer’s sense of proportion. They remember the bad reviews much more than they remember good ones, and the mere mention of them can, years later, turn even mild mannered writers into Ahab. I know it’s true of me. When it comes to negative reviews, even those online by readers, I turn into a mix of Richard Nixon and Sweeney Todd. (Yes, I have an enemies list, and, yes, the meat pies made downstairs are really good.)

Because of this, I think the best thing a writer can do with published criticism is ignore it–whether its a rave or a pan. It can’t help the work under discussion and there’s nothing in it to spur the creation of new work. All it does is produce a state of arrogant joy or desperate shame, and who needs either? Writers do best when they let readers argue, kvetch, fuss, and debate. Writers already had their say. They wrote the damn books.

As for critics, their best role is to describe to their readers the experience they had of the books they read. Since critics can’t help us, they can help readers, by educating them, amusing them, and helping them decide how best to spend their time. If only William Girardi had decided to do that job in his NYT review, a lot of people would have been, if not happier, at least better off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s