Polite Discourse

In her New Yorker article about Witold Gombrowicz’s Diaries, Ruth Franklin brings up the Pole’s harsh treatment of the literary scene he was a part of:

In the early years, Gombrowicz fires off one screed after another at the literary establishment. He rails regularly against the niceties of emigre publications (such as the one he is writing in), which he says remind him “of a hospital where the patients are given only soups that are easily digested.” He worries that literature “is in danger of becoming a soft-boiled egg instead of being a hard-boiled one, which is its vocation.”

I wish the constraints of the publication Franklin was writing for had let her dedicate more space to Gombrowicz’s critique of the literary “establishment.” As it is, the way it’s treated in the article makes it sound as something that is consigned to the past, as well as merely one concern among many that Gombrowicz had. Of course, neither is true. Gombrowicz’s critique of the chumminess and bloodlessness of the literary scene of his time could as well be leveled at our own. And his concerns about literature “becoming a soft-boiled egg” should be regarded as perennial.

Unfortunately, it seems all too normal in our polite literary discourse that a writer working in a venue like The New Yorker would not be at liberty to point this out; or, if such a point was made, it would be dwarfed by the sensation it caused, as when Jonathan Franzen attempted to critique his friend David Foster Wallace. There seems to be no space in these publications for discourse that steps outside these boundaries, unless someone is quoting something that a writer like Gombrowicz wrote decades ago, probably lamenting the same things.

Jacob Silverman notes this energy on his personal website, although he speaks of it only in the context of Twitter and the blogosphere (I imagine he would extend it to other sectors, though):

There’s a version of Fischer’s critique that could be applied to the literary blogo- and twitter-spheres. The dominant sentiments are cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm (particularly on Twitter). Somehow criticism has become synonymous with offense; everything is personal—one’s affection for a book is interchangeable with one’s feelings about its author as a person. Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary twitter-sphere. There’s also a sense in which critics have to engage in this kind of behavior in order to appeal to average readers (whom they also hear from on Twitter); so as to connect with them, they must become them.

I like Silverman’s advice: “Let’s think more and enthuse less.” Or rather, let’s remember that we can still like someone personally if we think they’re an awful writer. And let’s keep in mind that we don’t betray our literary heroes when we critique their style or argue against the substance of their arguments.


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I would just point out that the uproar surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s “critique” of DFW had nothing to do with a literary or aesthetic argument. Rather, Franzen made some very personal comments about DFW as a person, as a friend, as a human being (and as a husband). They were, as I just wrote, “personal”–so you can argue that he can say whatever he wants, or feels, since they were friends. However, the uproar seemed to me to be equally valid–Franzen was criticizing DFW as “selfish” and a “coward” for having committed suicide, in short, and publicly airing some very obviously conflicted but strongly negative feelings about him. Again, it’s his right to say whatever he wants, but my take was that some people thought it a bit unseemly to air such dirty laundry in public forums (it wasn’t just the excerpt from Farther Away in The New Yorker, by the way–it was also a couple of interviews that he gave, and live talks).

So I don’t really see how that compares to what you’re claiming about the Gombrowicz article. They’re two completely distinct issues.

On the other hand, I do certainly agree with what you point out with regard to the Gombrowicz article.

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