Despite all evidence to the contrary, I admit to always being a little surprised that a place like NPR will publish nonsense like this. Because, I mean, NPR is capable of hiring decent journalists. Their currents events reporting is not bad. At the very least, the can get people who can go to a part of the world that they know next to nothing about, get various sides of a story, and then allocate each side space and importance based on how non-insane it is.
But when it comes to the arts reporting, it’s like their critics have never touched anything outside of the most mainstream reading imaginable. (Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part . . .) And I just don’t get it. Obviously NPR has the capacity to hire people who can get beneath the surface of an issue and come off as having some capacity to make sensible distinctions. But when it comes to the arts, this just doesn’t really happen.
Take, for example, this painfully un-self-aware NPR review of Mark Doten’s experimental Iraq war novel, The Infernal:
[The Infernal is] a novel written not for readers but for those who love to argue about the novel-as-object more than they love the words. It’s an elbow-patch book, fodder for lit professors, likely attractive to those young enough (or cynical enough) to believe that oddness and iconoclasm equals genius, but that just ain’t me.
I don’t want to debate the merits of The Infernal here—it’s gotten mostly very positive reviews, and I, full disclosure, know Mark Doten personally—but this is the perfect example of a flaw common in today’s literary and cultural criticism. When a reviewer can’t defend their preferences through argument, they resort to a No True Scotsman fallacy and say anyone who feels differently isn’t even a reader.
Honestly, anyone who is capable of even googling the title of the book and looking at the raves listed on The Infernal’s Amazon page would see that this is not a view shared by many readers of this book. Surely that would give this critic just a tiny hint that maybe the assumptions he’s brought to this review are a little off-base? (And it doesn’t help that his bio characterizes him as a food writer who happens to write sci-fi novels for an Amazon vanity press.)
I harp on this because NPR is one of those few remaining venues that actually reaches a shit-ton of the sort of people who still read fairly interesting books in the United States. Having that kind of an audience implies a certain kind of responsibility. It would be a responsibility to hire critics who are capable of explaining themselves in a more intelligent way. You don’t have to like every novel you read. This guy can hate The Infernal. But he should be capable of doing more than cluelessly handing out the same bromides that know-nothing critics have been passing around for decades.