An interesting, albeit brief, strand of discussion emerged a couple weeks ago during “The Art of the Critic,” a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. About the subject of negative book reviews, the panel was divided. Lev Grossman and Laura Miller both said—and I’m paraphrasing from memory here—that they essentially don’t do such reviews anymore. The other panel participants, critic and professor Elif Batuman, Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio, and LA Times books editor David Ulin, all said that negative reviews have a place.
The important distinction raised at the time was that the two dissenters, Grossman and Miller, both self-assign the books they review, meaning that they rarely review books that they haven’t scanned ahead of time. Grossman pointed out that he is the books desk at Time magazine—no one else writes or edits books coverage there—so he feels a sort of obligation to champion good literature and chooses his review subjects accordingly. Miller expressed similar sentiments: while not a lone wolf at Salon.com, she does self-assign and if a book doesn’t grab her within its first 100 pages, she usually drops it.
Ulin and Mobilio both, it was pointed out, edit large sections or, in the latter’s case, an entire publication. Their roles are then curatorial; a collection of uniformly laudatory reviews would appear thoughtless, without nuance or firm aesthetic standards, even if the pieces varied in their individual enthusiasms.
In the context of this short exchange, I’ve been thinking about negative reviews. What purpose should they serve? How can they be done artfully, without seeming like a malicious hatchet job (something Ulin, for one, said he doesn’t support)?
At the panel, Mobilio argued that you don’t get points for showing up, nor should an avant-garde poet or a small-press book receive greater sympathies than the next from Stephen King or Philip Roth—writers who, by way of massive sales or critical acclaim, are secure both financially and in the literary firmament. Rather, there’s an agreement in place between writers and critics: by putting a work forth into the marketplace (of ideas), you are acknowledging that it may be debated, cut apart, written about, or otherwise dissected in ways that are beyond the author’s control and may make him or her uncomfortable. And while a reviewer should approach a book with a hopeful, open mind, and with Updike’s widely accepted rules of reviewing at heart, a bad novel should also be treated with a kind of respect: Why does it fail? Where does it fall short? What parts of this book, or the author’s larger oeuvre, are redeeming?
The New Yorker recently published a clutch of Saul Bellow’s letters, mostly addressed to other writers, and in these missives, one can find some thoughts relevant to this discussion. Bellow could be quite hard on himself: several of the letters essentially are thank-yous to harsh but perspicacious critics. In one, written to Alfred Kazin in 1944 about Dangling Man, Bellow begs for Kazin’s thoughts, telling the eminent critic that part of the novel is “a hash, a mishmash for which I deserve to be mercilessly handled.” In a 1953 letter responding to Bernard Malamud’s criticisms of The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow writes that he “must plead guilty to several of your charges.”
There’s a kind of masochism here but also an acceptance of that aforementioned bargain, a knowledge that the writer is powerless once he puts his work out into the world. In that context, consider the following Bellow lines drawn from several of the New Yorker letters:
[A writer] has to be prepared to face inspection at his nakedest.
I suppose I shall have to take my pannings mercifully.
Self-defense is not what we ought to be thinking of.
I can’t allow myself to forget that I took a position in writing this book.
I must now pay the price. You let the errors come. Let them remain in the book like our sins remaining in our lives. I hope some of them may be remitted. I’ll do what I can; the rest is in God’s hands.
In one letter, Bellow offers words that could be a salve against a critic’s rebuke. In 1948, he wrote to David Bazelon, “I had a very arduous and painful apprenticeship and am still undergoing it.” Obviously this notion of being a “journeyman,” as Bellow called it, has a certain half-life—could he still resort to that idea at age 50 or after five or ten books?—but in the early going, it offered “a refuge from the peril of final accomplishment,” a sense that he was still developing his craft.
Bellow did sometimes stand up for his work and the lot of the novelist. In that Kazin letter, Bellow wrote that literary criticism is “a great advantage and a safer game” than fiction writing. I would add that the “safer game,” the high-ground occupied by the critic, means that he or she must try especially hard to be incisive and exact in a negative review. Faint praise, indifference, or an undifferentiated mass of negative epithets would be far worse. The former, in particular, would risk creating the kind of “chorus of weak cheers” that Rebecca West lamented in her 1914 essay, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism.”
In that piece, West protested the “mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger.” (She also rails against a certain class of English aristocrat who has lazed into the title of writer, mostly by writing shopworn platitudes, rehashed histories, and editing the letters of some famous forebear. Today’s equivalent may be those who by dint of nepotism or birthright are given slots as columnists or contributing editors at major publications.) So there is, then, a certain amount of naming names required—a willingness to cast light on the detritus in the cultural footpaths, even if it risks causing offense. Few contemporary critics are, I think, better at this task than Walter Kirn, whose methodical deconstruction of Ian McEwan’s Solar embodies West’s call for critics to “rebuke these hastinesses of great writers,” to take up “the duty of listening to our geniuses in a disrespectful manner.” In other words: don’t let the great ones stay too comfortable.
Unsurprisingly, Kirn’s review repulsed some readers, but I think that he presented a lucid, considered argument, pivoting on the notion that McEwan’s new novel is “impeccable yet numbing, achieving the sort of superbly wrought inertia of a Romanesque cathedral.” Contrast Kirn’s piece with Michiko Kakutani’s dismissal, yesterday, of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow. In her first sentence, Kakutani calls the novel “remarkably tedious,” lumping it in with Jane Smiley’s “tiresome 2007 novel” Ten Days in the Hills, which uses a similar plot device. And that’s about the extent of Kakutani’s review. The rest is habitual plot summary and summary judgments of other Amis novels (Dead Babies, The Rachel Papers, House of Meetings: good; Yellow Dog: “abysmal”), before concluding with a paragraph almost interchangeable with the review’s first. Kakutani may have followed the spirit of West’s century-old call to arms—certainly the NYT’s longtime house critic is not afraid to offer harsh opinions—but she hasn’t summoned an argument, nor has she shown anything like the useful metaphors, reasoned logic, or array of glittering phrasings found in Kirn’s piece (though I do like “heavy garlands of pontification”). Instead, she has done what she nearly always does within the first few paragraphs of her reviews: given us a clear thumbs up or thumbs down in the form of an adjectival construction—in this case, “remarkably tedious.”
Somewhere, in a snowbound graduate housing complex, a group of comp. lit. students has devised a drinking game based on how quickly Michiko Kakutani resorts to these verdicts, and after this one-sentence deliberation, they’re all very, very drunk.