Friday Column: A Critical Experience

Over at Critical Mass, Molly McQuade has a nice idea. After a particularly tumultuous year for book reviewing, why not look back and see what we can say about the state of the art? Choosing Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero as her test case (because it’s a book that forced critics to react differently than usual), McQuade writes 4,000 words in a three-part essay (1, 2, 3) on what she sees.

It’s not good. McQuade almost immediately finds most critics too "incurious" to approach Divisidero correctly; that is, their preconceptions of what a novel is and should be short-circuited their potential appreciation of what Ondaatje’s might have been.

McQuade then links this lack of curiosity to another problem with newspaper reviews.

[Ondaatje’s] writing seems less likely to explain anything—including itself—than many another writer’s prose. The lack of explanation might tempt curiosity, invite curiosity, or beckon to the curious to “explain” it. In any case, opportunity lurks. And yet, most critics of his most recent book appear to stop short, limiting themselves by their own choice; namely, they either commit rapture or rebuke in their reviews. Although either rebuke or rapture can give me something interesting to read, by itself neither will lead me far enough. The reason is simple: either reaction excludes at least as much as it includes.

Though this point has been made before, it’s no slight to McQuade for making it again since it’s such a good one. (As a sidenote, it seems appropriate that our era’s best example of the hack reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, seems to be a favorite target for those critical of the "thumbs up/thumbs down" approach to book reviewing.). Further, McQuade is right to bring this up in her essay since a book like Divisadero is a good one to expose the fallacy of a review that solely seeks to say "good" or "bad." Divisadero, like all challenging works of fiction, can’t be reduced to one or the other; as McQuade finds, those who try to do so end up either in cliché or foolishness.

But if I find McQuade correct in her criticism of Divisadero’s critics, I can’t entirely agree with her prescription for them. Part of good criticism, McQuade says, is to become something akin to "a leading character in the very book [under review]," someone who can "tell the story of living in [a book] to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live."

Although I think a good critic does convey something of her experience of the book in a review, I think this is always secondary to explaining why a given piece either works or doesn’t. I’ll grant that telling the story of a book has some value, but aspiring to that feels to me too much like aspiring to write good catalog copy. I think reviewers should do more.

Book reviews are, of course, only the first line of critical response to a work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good criticism. In my own reviews I always make it a point to dig down beneath the surface of my reaction to a piece of prose of any length (sentence, paragraph, book, etc) and make clear what I reacted to it as I did. I don’t think it’s idealistic to believe that this can be done in a newspaper review, and I believe that the more critics engage fiction on these terms, the better will their readers be able to think about and read the books under review. Further, if this kind of criticism is done well the experience of a book often comes included in the analysis. (One of James Wood’s strengths is just this; in much of his output Wood conveys the experience of a work while, in the very same words, he explains its rhetoric. In his best reviews, the two are inextricably bound up in each other, to remove one necessarily destroying the other.)

In actually getting below the surface of a novel is where a lot of critics fail. (At one point in her essay, McQuade rightly rails against the overuse of meaningless words like "breathtaking.") In fact, with regard to Divisidero, this is where even McQuade finds herself failing. Earlier in her essay, she writes:

Michael Ondaatje is a writer whose books I would much rather read than review. . . . In fact, I have never reviewed him, though I have often taught his work to undergraduates and graduate students, most recently this autumn. While I always savor the moment of entranced bemusement overtaking a typical new reader of his words, to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of his writing. Better to write in his footsteps, perhaps, than to summarize, adjudicate, or analyze?

Based on this, I don’t think McQuade should be reviewing Michael Ondaatje’s works, and I give her credit for knowing this about herself and abstaining from critiquing his books via print.

However, I find very strange her idea that a novel can’t survive a critic’s attempts to analyze it. As if a work of art were so fragile a thing. A good reading of a work (be it negative or positive) has always enhanced my own thoughts on it, opening up new avenues of contemplation and encouraging me to return back to it. (Sometimes, it has even opened my eyes to works I haven’t read or unfairly dismissed.) I don’t believe that "to explain the words themselves (or the bemusement) might seem peculiarly at odds with the consciously elusive sensibility of [Ondaatje’s] writing" any more than I believe that to explain David Letterman’s relationship with irony makes his monologue less entertaining.

Oddly enough McQuade seems to end up finding her ideal critical reaction to Divisadero in the universal whipping boy otherwise known as Amazon reviews. (This may be the first ever instance of someone ostensibly from the establishment actually praising these things.) But the qualities McQuade highlights in Amazon reviews are hardly those I would want in a review:

The reviews of Divisadero—together with the ratings of those very reviews by Amazon readers—offer a curiously complete and unguarded range of opinion. Does something in Ondaatje’s writing lead silent solo readers to log on, and open their mouths? What is that certain something in his writing?

My guess is, the structurally maverick and unexpectedly poetic qualities of his prose tend to inspire conflicting opinions that feel no obligation to resolve themselves. The debate may continue, and continue. To me, this seems a rare pleasure. . . .

Another pleasure of Amazon book reviews is, they save you time. You can read the review headlines, skipping the reviews themselves. The lords and masters of Amazonia seem to anticipate and enable this move. For, unlike newspaper headlines, which can sometimes stray wide of making any point, Amazon scribes and their editors are straightforward: the review headline gives you an opinion more or less identical to that of the review itself.

I don’t think of book reviewing as an aggregation, and I certainly don’t imagine it as skipping from headline to headline. (If anything, the latter would represent a nadir that we may be heading toward.) In other words, I don’t think book reviewing is work by committee; I don’t, Rotten Tomatoes-style, tally up the positives and the negatives and establish a consensus that tells me what’s worth reading.

If anything, I look for that one review that gets so deep into my head that after I read it I’m not willing to listen to anything else until I’ve read the book under review. The reviews that don’t do this for me tend to wash right off.

And for me, what best gets my attention is when I see that a book is working in new and interesting ways. The most effusive praise in the world scarcely makes a pinprick impact on me. (The only exception to this would be the effusive praise of a reader who I know and trust to be someone whose recommendations I can have confidence in.) I want to see the book working, and if that excites my curiosity then chances are I’ll hunt down a copy of that book at some point. If not, then a review might as well have been a negative one.


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Scott, thanks for pointing her essay out as a unit – is she going to collect it and have it whole somewhere?
Also, regarding the comment about reviews as good criticism: I’ve felt a pressure in print media towards book reviews as long buying-guides instead of a critical forum for literary and greater book culture, hence the thumbs-up/down aspect of most reviews. It is a pressure that is very much adversarial to reviews as good criticism when page-space is taken into consideration.

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