The Debate Just Got Stupid

We’ve been having a nice little conversation about the role of negative reviews in literary culture, thanks to Jacob Silverman’s piece in Slate. Alas, now Laura Miller has joined in.

After arguing that we now live in a world where even incredibly successful novelists like Jonathan Franzen are relatively obscure (since so few people care about serious fiction), Miller attempts to build a case for reviews as something that help educated readers decide what to read. Then she writes:

But a negative or middling review of a literary novel that the reader would otherwise have never heard of and is unlikely to ever hear of again? No one needs to read such a thing, and furthermore, no one really wants to. (At Salon, we’ve got the numbers to prove that.) The idea that more negative reviews of such books — what Silverman calls “skeptical, cranky criticisms that may be painful for writers to experience” — will somehow benefit readers in general and “make for a vibrant, useful literary culture” strikes me as misguided. If the point is to educate the author’s fellow writers, then for God’s sake, take it to the classroom, workshop or specialty publication.

Two points here: first, Miller can’t have it both ways. If we do live in a world where only writers and highly educated readers know who James Wood is (as Miller claims), then, yes, these kinds of negative reviews are most definitely a benefit to readers and are a fit mode of communication with the writers who are surely reading them.

And secondly, she entirely ignores the fact that would-be critics like herself have become wholly owned subsidiaries of commercial New York publishing. Some honest, intelligent critiques of the fashionable authors of the moment would go a long way toward diminishing that opinion and restoring lost credibility. Unfortunately, I doubt Miller realizes how much people like herself and venues like Salon have lost status among people who actually care about books.

And well, three points: the argument isn’t for educating one’s fellow writers or for dissing the boutique writers. The argument is for having some standards when it comes to praising books. Silverman’s article was, at heart, a request that people who didn’t know what the hell they were talking about—or who were too quick to follow the crowd toward the next great thing—spend a little more time thinking whether a book really deserved the praise they were about to lavish on it.

Then there’s this, which is simply completely wrong:

Unless such a review is a spiteful slapdown engineered to gratify the unexamined resentments of the worst sort of reader, how welcome (let alone “useful”) can it really be? The kind of criticism that Garner respects, that “means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter” is not especially illuminating to someone whose only knowledge of the work comes from the review itself. A close critical reading of a text can be revelatory indeed — but only when you’ve had a chance to read it, or other works by the same author, for yourself. “

So much of our literary tradition’s great criticism contradicts this statement that I must conclude that Miller is ignorant of the great critical works. Either that, or she read them and absorbed very little.

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For what it’s worth, here is the Canadian equivalent of this debate (it pre-dates more recent discussion, but received a parallel revival around the time of the Slate essay this summer). Jan Zwicky opened the doors for discussion some years ago: (Originally published in The Malahat Review No. 144, Fall 2003)

The debate was given new life this past July: with this response.

The headline alone made my day.

Here’s a new well-written takedown; I imagine you’ve seen it, but in case not:

I think a good example of a negative review is found in this week’s Ron Charles’ review at the Washington Post. Now, he probably isn’t someone Scott Esposito respects, as he usually just covers the latest mass market, semi-literary stuff – but he isn’t afraid to let a book he didn’t like have it. This week he rips up Jonathan Tropper’s newest, but at the same time offers something as an alternative that hasn’t been as Amazon hyped (Amahyped?). Thanks to Charles’ review last summer I picked up a book I thoroughly loved, but hadn’t heard about anywhere else – William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters.

I actually think Ron Charles is a great critic. He was one of the very few people to be honest about Freedom.

My apologies,I shouldn’t have made eird thatan assumption. I think it is freakishly weird that the review mentioned above of the Alix Ohlin books was by William Giraldi who I mentioned in my post. Total coincidence as I hadn’t read those comments when I made mine.
In June Ohlin got an over the top review in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail, which I found quite curious at the time, maybe she fucked the guy?:

    Seriously? The only reason two reviewers might have different opinions about an author is if one of those critics was fucked by said author? I’ma call bullshit on that right now.

      Yes, my comment was too men and sarcastic – especially since the individuals are probably not as well known outside of Canada. Alix Ohlin is the daughter of Peter Ohlin who taught at McGill and is a friend of T.F. Rigelhof who taught at Dawson (in Montreal)and who wrote the review in the Globe and Mail.

Laura Miller’s idea that a critical piece should be “welcome” or “useful” to be valid is pretty digusting. Why should the author’s opinion of the piece matter at all? I can’t understand why she puts that forth as a major argument against writing negative reviews.

It’s a slight stretch, but it reminds me of helicopter parents and their incessant efforts to ensure their children remain shielded from negativity or consequences. How is this possibly helpful in the longer term? Do authors somehow write better when their egos are padded by facile reviews?

Another important function of negative criticism is that, when done well, it provides an instructive model for how to read critically. Critics can help us to read better books, but they can also help us to read better, period. Sophisticated literacy involves questioning how the book that you’re reading succeeds or fails, and criticism provides a basis and provocation for such questioning. I can only assume that the folks who advocate against publishing negative criticism have a far less ambitious understanding of their discipline.

Sawn knows something about me I don’t know about myself. It’s probable that sometime in the past 30 some years somewhere on the island of Montreal at some public event or other I was introduced to Peter Ohlin but I honestly don’t remember where or when. We’ve never spoken on the phone or e-mailed. The review of Alex Ohlin’s book is the first time I’ve ever mentioned his name in print. The debate gets really stupid when people start inventing non-existent relationships.

[…] it ends up being widely circulated. And her response prompted a particularly abrasive response from Scott Esposito (though I might add that the terms of which the debate is framed was always-already stupid). Then […]

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