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THE LITERARY SPHERE: TAKING CRITICISM ONLINE

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LET'S REVIEW: BOOK REVIEWING AS LITERARY CRITICISM

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04/19/2010

Comments

Edward Champion

This is a somewhat fair criticism, Dan. I think it might help if I were to produce the original opening, which had to be cut for space:

"Only a clueless snob would lob his histrionic fists at twenty million tuning in for American Idol, eight million enjoying Lady Gaga's latest YouTube video, and more than a million readers feverishly purchasing Stephenie Meyer's Twilight from bookstores. Yet the larger question of whether mass cultural development is worthy of deeper investigation, perhaps containing the seeds for unexpected inspiration, is often ignored. Elitist spittle remains a distressingly stubborn force, designed more to douse crisp blue collars rather than enlighten the seemingly unwashed masses. This distressing epidemic has proven to be more troublesome within the comparatively smaller world of books, with the mystery genre regularly turning over a dry cleaning ticket after another bloodsoaked reception."

Granted, I think the editor was wise to cut all that. But the specific angle here -- one that isn't terribly new -- is that there is literary worth to be found within mass culture, that mystery novels aren't just "plot-oriented puzzles," and that those who deride these books or classify books into neat little genres without accepting an individual book on its own terms (such as Wilson and Barthes) overlook the melange of fun, style, and substance to be found within ostensible trash. I don't see this as an opposition, but rather an argument for fusion, one that asks the reader to reconsider a derided genre or to dispense with genre classification entirely.

Andy

Ah, the smaller question of lobbed histrionic fists. Ah, the epidemic of spittle, those receptions of blood.

Steven Augustine

"I think it might help if I were to produce the original opening, which had to be cut for space..."

Cut for space? Ed, if that mercifully-excised passage isn't proof of your small-but-vigorous participation in the death of American Letters, what is... the fact that the rest of that high-school-ish essay was actually printed? You do "genre" a serious disservice by affecting to rescue it as a "critic" without first learning to write. This is exasperating, man.

"Elitist spittle remains a distressingly stubborn force, designed more to douse crisp blue collars rather than enlighten the seemingly unwashed masses."

How is it that co-bloggers who have a problem with actual critics and/or writers (like dull old Franzen, say, or knobby old Wood, as dire as they often are) keep cutting you slack? I really don't see what's keeping you from growing, other than the complicity of your chums and the blindfold of your ego. Drop the blindfold and learn to write or at least get an honest friend to proof-read.

And, re: Lady Gaga and Twilight: what if, rather than "lob my fists" (ouch) at stuff that's aimed at not-particularly-sophisticated tweens and kidults, I shrug and leave the kids to their fun, while considering any adult who takes that stuff *seriously* a little dumb (or desperate to seem with-it)?

Shut off that TV and work on those sentences.

Dan Green

I think these criticisms are a mite over the top. I took issue with Ed's underlying assumption, but I'd otherwise rather judge the review based on what was actually printed rather than what wasn't. What was printed might participate in the distortion of critical standards, but it hardly signals the death of literature.

Andy

Apparently Ed would prefer not to limit himself to what was printed, Dan. He's an insane, full-on, writing monster, providing timely judgments ("there is literary worth to be found within mass culture") and solecisms galore, and no mere newspaper editor's sense of, er, literacy will stop him. I lob a mighty fist of triumph in the air and salute him, dousing myself with the People's spittle!

Dan Green

If there's going to be a mud fight, I'd prefer it be done elsewhere.

Steven Augustine

Dan, it's not a "mud fight"; these are valid criticisms, and, as I pointed out, even the version that was actually printed was very poor (I can get as detailed as you like) and this is no aberration in Ed's case. Anyone who's paying attention is going to notice that there's a double-standard at work here and I think this double-standard undermines the seriousness and/or integrity of the project. The friendship is trumping the mission-statement and this is a litblogworld-wide problem: those links can be like chains. It's a maturity problem... the medium itself is still too young (I'm hoping) to have sorted all that out.

Even Hitchens and Amis are (in this one respect) mature enough to have been blunt about the stuff they each felt the other had done a poor job of writing. And the material we're taking to task *here* is leagues below anything I can remember rolling my eyes at in paid-for print. If online criticism is to ever bank some serious overall credibility, this matter will *have* to be seen to. Otherwise: farce.

Dan Green

I don't really see how a double standard could be at work, since the post was, after all, a criticism of Ed's review. What I object to is the needlessly personal way in which these further criticisms are expressed--"I really don't see what's keeping you from growing." Ed's personal growth is his own business. I'm not interested in it.

Frances Madeson

Why not? What could be more important?

Andy

Ed's judgments and the way he expresses them are inextricably linked. I think it's absolutely pertinent to make fun of Ed's "critical writing" because he has no more business writing criticism than he does performing heart surgery. He has very little to say, he says it badly, he misreads his sources (I'm not familiar with the Wilson quote, but the cherry-picked Barthes severely distorts it), and, in this case, when he does have a valid -- albeit eighty-year-old ("there is literary worth to be found within mass culture") -- point, he focuses on an inappropriate object of contemplation in order to make it: it doesn't even sound like an especially good book.

The awesome misunderstanding of Barthes, enabling Ed for the purposes of his review both to quote a genu-ine intelleckchal and to distill the incredible complexity of his thought into a simplistic meme concerning his "feelings about genre" is really sufficient to make me want to kick Ed around the block.

In fact, the more I think about it, the angrier I get. Ed's rooting his point in some murky essentialist concept of "literary value" is only par for the course. One doesn't expect Ed to be able to express what it is he finds valuable in or essential to literature because nearly everything Ed writes radiates his ignorance of literature, beginning with his manically affected prose, which he clearly equates with being "literary." But even if he wrote calmly and understandably, one would be struck by the ad hominem nature of Ed's "work," his criticism of authors on the basis of their photos, their hair, how much money they've earned, how famous they are. Even in as controlled a context as a newspaper's book section, Ed must conjure up some figure of opposition, in this case the shadowy figures who consider mystery to be an inferior genre. Is there a reason to frame a review that way? Let me think. Hmmm. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that Ed needs to point out this mythical opposition to the mystery's legitimacy and to defend that legitimacy because he feels that otherwise a reader might feel that he's just a guy who likes mysteries, as opposed to a sagacious literary critic who has deeply considered mysteries, weighing them in the pans of his evaluative scale against The Classics? I think it's probably Ed who secretly suspects that the mystery is inferior.

Frances Madeson

Andy,
Ever thought about the possibility that Ed's just turning up the volume on the superficiality of newspaper literary "criticism" so people can see it more clearly? To my mind, there's very little difference between his cherry-picking and Morris Dickenstein's.

Steven Augustine

"I don't really see how a double standard could be at work, since the post was, after all, a criticism Ed's review."

You critiqued the plot of Ed's review, essentially, and turned a blind eye to its style... inverting your usual priorities. The double-standard is the fact that you're judging a virtual acquaintance with a much lower level of critical expectations.

"Ed's personal growth is his own business."

"Growing" as in growing into someone who can write a decent essay, Dan. I'm not concerned with Ed's spiritual journey or even the subjective matter of Ed's argument, here. I'm concerned with the fact that he expresses the argument with only borderline literacy.

Do you think there was a time, a few years back, when an "editor" would have caught the fact that Ed doesn't know what (eg) "busman's holiday" means? Ed's little part in the overall decline is that he's just, again, helped to ease the bar a millimeter lower: you don't think it adds up? Ed should learn to use the Dictionary ("lob" doesn't mean what he thinks it does, either) and approach that Thesaurus with caution.

Andy writes:

"In fact, the more I think about it, the angrier I get."

If Literature is anything more than an excuse for people to hang out online, I understand how he feels. It's the FARCE problem.

Andy

You mean deliberately, Frances? No. Otherwise the Ed Champion House Organ wouldn't be so chock-full of lobbed fists and spittle-doused collars.

Oh, I think there's a difference. Dickstein pretty clearly has actually read S/Z.

Dan Green

"I think it's absolutely pertinent to make fun of Ed's "critical writing""

You can do that all you want, but I don't have to indulge it here. Perhaps it would be more courageous of you to take it up directly with Ed at his site, or on your own blog, rather than doing it indirectly in this thread.

Andy

It might be more courageous of me, Dan, but unfortunately Ed is in the habit of banning the IP addresses of those who dare to disagree with him...

Steven Augustine

"Perhaps it would be more courageous of you to take it up directly with Ed at his site..."


Bearing in mind that if Ed can't respond with any fluency or accuracy, the resulting thread will be shut down. Those pixels cost money, after all, and we can't have debates going on in the comment thread that we can neither profit from nor control! Can we?

Anyway, Dan, why not address the gist of my complaint: I say Ed can barely write, and I find it curious that you can't detect this failing, given your track-record as an otherwise-perceptive critic. Is it your honest feeling that Ed writes as well, or better, than any of the critics and writers you've righteously (to my cheers and whistles) bashed on TRE?

If the quality *isn't* an issue, there's a whole nation of High School newspapers, out there, to trawl for critique-fodder, too.

Dan Green

"You critiqued the plot of Ed's review, essentially, and turned a blind eye to its style"

Ed's review per se was not my subject. I critiqued the "plot" because only it was relevant to my larger point. Ed's writing style is not my concern here. You and Andy are the ones who have introduced these other extraneous issues.

By the way: We're not going pursue them any farther in this thread.

Andy

Without mentioning any names, I don't know if it's possible to bifurcate the examination of a review into separate questions of style and content, neglecting one to address the other. Certain reviews are possibly based on "unarticulated standards" and "unexamined assumptions" for the purpose of "sustain[ing] the illusion that the boundaries of the 'literary' are well-known and that the principles of criticism are so well-settled they merely need to be applied consistently," but that implies a degree of artfulness and craft that is simply not present in the instant example. Sometimes a stupid review is merely a stupid review. Whatever a certain blogger/reviewer may be, I don't think he's shilling for a specific ideology. You are really reaching to submit this review as an example of a conscious and deliberate tendency in popular criticism.

Dan Green

One last time:

My post was about the refusal in mainstream book reviews to articulate the standards by which books are being judged. Ed's emphasis on "thematic truths and behavioral insights" certainly is typical of the way many book reviews base judgment on unarticulated and unexplored standards. Your opinion of Ed Chanpion as a book reviewer notwithstanding, his review, as well as Floyd Skloot's, are being used in my post to illustrate this larger failing in newspaper book reviews. If you want to debate this point, fine, but mockery of Ed Champion has nothing to do with it.

Andy

Ah, you've deleted my comment.

I've noticed, lately, that when I amend my tone and take pains to address the supposed "issue" that I've apparently neglected in previous comments that this is when the BlogMasters tend to grow impatient and pull the plug. There's always that take-my-ball-and-go-home trump. The longer you guys are online, and the more apparent it becomes that there are actually people out there willing to engage you about your ad hoc musings, the thinner your skin grows. Curious.

Dan Green

You keep repeating the same complaint over and over again. Even when I point out it's irrelevant to the post, you insist that it is relevant. You don't like Ed Champion. We get it.

Frances Madeson

Forgive me, but how can someone not like Ed Champion? Anyway, haven't had this much fun since touring the Monterey mushroom factory! (Hope Mr. Skloot isn't feeling neglected.)

steve mitchelmore

"Forgive me, but how can someone not like Ed Champion?"

Answer: Very easily.

I used to think he was harmless fun but things changed last year. Both Dan and Steven have read and, I think, admired Littell's The Kindly Ones. One only has to see and read Champions' video response and review to recognise a buffoon at work. And a buffoon with a megaphone can do harm. (Someone should tell him megaphones weren't meant for that end.)

Dan's wish for reviewers to examine premises is one I share. It's why print reviewing doesn't hold the allure it once did. It's absence in the majority of print locations perhaps explains Champions' contempt for Littell's novel and for Mendelsohn's magnificent review of it in the NYRB. The novel subjects itself to literature and to its own writing. That is, unlike the genre pap Champion reviews. We needn't take any more notice.

Frances Madeson

Steve,
I hadn't seen Ed's TKO vid until you publicized it on This Space, a blog I have long ago bookmarked, read regularly, and very much respect and enjoy. In fact, the rotating art thumbnails have gotten me through some really tough moments; I often find them revelatory and inspiring (though I do wish they were identified with titles and creators). I thought Ed's bit of fluff was silly and fun to watch (like when Harvey Korman and Tim Conway would crack themselves up on The Carol Burnett Show) and I'd bet you a fish n' chips that it would crack Littell up too if he were to see it. At least I hope so. I know if Ed had done it about my book, I would have nearly died laughing. In fact, the whole effort exemplifies one of Ed's finer qualities--the willingness to risk condemnation. All too rare if you ask me.

When Daniel Mendelsohn makes me laugh as hard as Ed Champion has done (on several occasions) I'll pay more attention to his perspective (humor being the highest form of intelligence, remember). At present, I generally find reading that Daniel on the laborious and head-trippy side. And although I found the first 400 or so pages of TKO very interesting (and the remainder something rather less than "riveting"), on the whole my impression of Littell is that he needs to get over himself--big time. And if nothing else, from flat on his back, Ed sent that message to Barthelona, loud and clear.

Noah

John Updike: "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt."

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