Boring Review Worse Than a Vicious Review

Just to add to Ron Charles’ great remarks. A lot of the reviews in our nation’s periodicals of record are bland and phoned-in because they’re written by . . . novelists. Yes, I understand that sometimes great novelists are great critics and vice versa, but most of the time if you dedicate your life to writing great fiction you probably won’t have time to do the kinds of things necessary to be a good critic. Like . . . read. I recall once seeing David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody in conversation, and it came to light that neither man had read a single word of William T. Vollmann. (They went on to add that they didn’t read much contemporary fiction.)

The point is that a lot of editors toss review work to novelists because their byline looks good on a cover and novelists can generally be counted on to produce writing that will leave a reader awake (a challenge for too many critics). But a lot of them a) don’t want to offend potential colleagues; b) know what it’s like to read a bad review of their own work and don’t want to write one; or c) just don’t know how to write very good criticism.

I’m not claiming that all novelists are bad critics, only that having published a novel with a major publisher tends to qualify you to review in a lot of places that you might not actually be qualified to review in.

As a reader of many, many reviews, I have to admit I’m more alarmed by the number of dull ones than the number of unkind ones. For all the celebration of “democratizing criticism,” the chatty responses on Amazon have only dimmed the flame more, as far as I can see, though none of us snobs should ever admit that publicly. (Do I need a “friend” on Goodreads to tell me that “Mira Grant’s ‘Feed’ “has zombies in it, but to call it a zombie or horror novel does it a disservice”?)

And speaking of zombies: Bland plot summaries, worn out compliments and the requisite quibbles have surely done more than excess bile to drain the life out of the nation’s book review sections. I look longingly at the fist-fights in British newspapers and wish we could roll up our sleeves more often in this country.



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It seems to me that criticism of criticism is a quicksand of appropriateness.

It smells of canonical tyranny or worse just plain tyranny.

A minor point perhaps, but this sentence is deeply inaccurate:

“I recall once seeing David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody in conversation, and it came to light that neither man had read a single word of William T. Vollmann. (They went on to add that they didn’t read much contemporary fiction.)”

DFW frequently expressed his admiration for WTV, even blurbing the latter’s second book “The Rainbow Stories.” Several of the interviews in “Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself” also quote him on WTV. In addition, both DFW and Moody write extensively about contemporary fiction, so the claim that they didn’t read it rings false.

How can a review by viscous?

Forget criticism, if a novelist doesn’t read how exactly will he or she produce serious novels? I cannot think of a single great novelist who was not also a great reader. Certainly my own personal favorites (Joyce, Beckett, Gaddis, Sorrentino, Ellison) were ardent bibliophiles. As Roberto Bolano once said, “reading is always more important than writing.”

Tom: No, actually it’s not. I was there, and that’s what they said. This may be news, but writers blurb each others books all the time without reading them.

I don’t have a copy of “Although” with me at the moment, but I recall him talking more about Vollmann in general terms than bringing up points that would indicate a deep reading of his works.

Gs: Why shouldn’t people criticize poorly written and dull reviews? Every day people read reviews and rely on them for guidance toward what to read and illumination of what they have read. I also frequently correspond with authors who read my criticism (both the critiqued author and others), and it’s clear that they draw from criticism. So we should sit back and ignore poor reviews?

@Tom:

Also, Mr. Esposito could be referring to a time before DFW had read and appreciated Vollmann.

I do remember an interview w/Charlie Rose about a decade ago in which Wallace said he didn’t read contemporary writers. Yeah, he probably did–I envision him eagerly checking out the competition–but he said he didn’t.

You’re absolutely right — I wasn’t there, so I can’t argue with what they may have said. Based on interviews, blurbs, and the fact that both writers shared a special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, I’m highly skeptical that DFW hadn’t read Vollmann. And just looking at his class syllabus, it’s obvious the man read his contemporaries. At the very least, we know he read DeLillo, Pynchon, Franzen, Mark Leyner, Rick Moody, A.M. Homes, Bret Easton Ellis, and Mary Karr, as he wrote or commented about them all.

To be clear: I wasn’t calling you a liar for passing along this anecdote – just pointing out that it’s a suspect claim from a writer who was obviously engaged with the work of his peers.

It isn’t just the reviewers who fear offending. It’s the editors. They simply won’t hire people who will fire up their pages with chewy sentences, fulsome passion, the ability to include the reader (as John Leonard did so well with his essays), and a true sense of what it is to connect with the book. And the editors fuck with your copy until whatever grand essence that was there in the first place has been smoothed over so that it resembles the bland patina of a faded Formica diner table. And the people they DO keep on as regulars are often the blandest and least interesting people on the planet. And in the worst cases, such as Carolyn Kellogg, they get their facts wrong — even WITH an editor.

Also, to settle the DFW/Moody conversation, Scott, are you referring to the Herbst appearance from a few years back? I was there. DFW and Moody said they hadn’t read EUROPE CENTRAL. As Tom articulates above, this doesn’t mean that they hadn’t read Vollmann.

I must confess that I very much dig the idea of a review being viscous.

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