Decline and Fall

Like the best examples of the genre [of the ‘decline of literary criticism’ polemic], [Gideon] Haigh’s glints with aphorisms, but it is also typically brief when it comes to articulating what is at stake. His piece informed a debate on Australian literary reviewing late in 2010, hosted by the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. The participants were Haigh, Peter Craven, Kill Your Darlings editor Rebecca Starford, and Hilary McPhee. The conversation spilled into print and came to focus on the relative merits of traditional print and new online forums for criticism. Craven had spoken against literary blogs and Geordie Williamson, writing just before the Wheeler event, was also dismissive. Rebecca Starford and Daniel Wood pointed to new possibilities. The divide, however, did not correspond to each commentator’s sense of the health of reviewing. Craven and Wood were firmly in the ‘decline’ camp (Wood quipped that ‘Australian literary criticism has indeed declined in quality — but it has declined from a zenith of mediocrity into the depths of abject uselessness’); Stafford and Williamson looked, in different ways, to the positive.

Reviving my comments on the low standards of literary criticism in Australia, Ben Etherington weaves them into a fascinating consideration of the critical reception of Anna Funder’s All That I Am.

A Reorientation

Links to Jacob Silverman’s notes “against enthusiasm” have been popping up in my RSS and Twitter feeds for a few of weeks now, first when they appeared as brief remarks on Silverman’s blog and again when Silverman turned them into an article published last week on Slate. In most instances the links have been accompanied by either praise for Silverman’s argument or an absence of commentary which I take as tantamount to an acknowledgement that, at the very least, he’s on to something. In his notes, Silverman diagnoses the preeminent problem with today’s online culture of literary criticism and proposes a solution for it. I think his diagnosis is spot-on, so I’m glad to see a sustained interest in his notes — and particularly since so many of the venues that have linked to them are the very sorts of venues he faults.

“[I]f you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres,” writes Silverman,

you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan. It’s not only shallow, it’s untrue, and it’s having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page. … 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 all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.

One problem with this situation is that, for Silverman, “it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence — or, really, posture without opinion. For every ‘+1,’ ‘THIS,’ or ‘<3′ we offer next to someone’s fawning tweet, a feeling is expressed without saying much at all.” And because such “cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments” of online literary criticism, their very dominance gives rise to a second problem: “biting 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.” The result is a literary culture “dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement,” in which criticism has ceased to function as such. Because every member of this culture wants their own writing to be read, they seek to receive praise for their writing by praising the writings of others and, as a result, the culture overflows with writings of which none are ever not worth reading.


Glancing at the archives of this blog over the last few months, and looking through the computer documents and notebooks in which I also write, I see that I have brought nothing to completion: no new posts, reviews, or articles. There are two reasons for this recent silence, each of which, in its own way, dovetails with Silverman’s criticisms and proposed solution.

The first reason is that I have spent three months struggling with enormous practical impediments to writing. On August 1, I took up a new teaching position in Switzerland. I began preparing for the overseas move in May and tying up loose ends in Australia in June, and I finished all that and moved here towards the end of July. Co-ordinating the overseas move was a drawn-out, demanding process that left me with almost no time to sit down, uninterrupted, long enough to find words to set on a page and twist them into intelligible form.

How does the move to Switzerland dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it entails a retreat from the literary culture of Melbourne. “To the uninitiated, this might seem immaterial,” Silverman writes of his opposition to the culture of enthusiasm, “or [it might seem] like the kind of navel-gazing tabulation of credentials that can make the New York literary world insufferable.” What’s true of New York is probably true of any city with a thriving literary culture, Melbourne included. With few exceptions, Melbourne’s literary culture — on which the city prides itself, and which can seem so vibrant from afar — strikes me as insular, shallow, and self-congratulatory, the physical manifestation of the literary Twitterverse. It functions more on the logic of a professional support network for writers than on the logic of an impassioned engagement in literary evaluation. One book launch after another is attended by the same aspiring authors, each of whom proceeds to wax enthusiastic about the book in question before soliciting enthusiasm for his or her own book when the time comes for it to be launched. Week after week, month after month, enthusiasm coalesces around one mediocre title after another before it dissipates and moves on to the next title in the line of succession. Perhaps this is inevitable in any literary culture where, in terms of labour hours, the process of becoming a writer demands less time spent putting words on a page and more time spent marketing and publicising whatever you can manage to actually write in your spare hours, and networking to ensure that other writers will contribute to your later marketing and publicity efforts.

Whatever the cause of it, I realised not long after moving to Melbourne that this sort of culture wasn’t for me. That was at the beginning of 2009. By the end of 2011, I saw that any pursuit of literary professionalisation in Melbourne would require participation in this culture. Knowing then that I couldn’t bring myself to participate, I began looking outside Melbourne for ways to professionalise my love of literature while at the same time preserving it. What drew me to Switzerland is another story. What matters here is that my departure from Melbourne — one source of my recent silence — was partly a reaction to a literary culture whose atmosphere matches that of the online culture that drew a reaction from Silverman.


The second reason for my recent silence is that I have in some sense been driven to it by a renewed appreciation for literature. Part of this renewed appreciation arises from the collapse of the demand to approach literature through an exclusively academic lens, a demand I no longer face in my new position in Switzerland. Part of it, too, arises from having spent the first half of this year reading a number of works of literature which made such forceful impressions on me that my words no longer seem adequate to the task of conveying those impressions. None of these works are obscure — all of them have been written about in several major publications both online and in print — but my final reaction to each of them was inertia, an inertia based on an inescapable sense that to attempt to dilute their effects on me into some synoptic and analytic form would be to risk diminishing those very effects.

How does this appreciative silence dovetail with Silverman’s notes? It dovetails inasmuch as it casts me into a grey area in Silverman’s proposed remedy for the cloying enthusiasm of online literary criticism. In attempting to countervail that enthusiasm, Silverman contends that a better culture of criticism “would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. [Its participants] wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions.” What Silverman wants to see, then, is greater openness to frank evaluations of mediocre literature. Frank disapproval is one way of responding to mediocrity, of course, but my preferred response is dismissive silence — the very sort of silence that Silverman rejects. “[S]ome publications don’t publish negative reviews,” he complains,

[because they treat] even considered pans as hatchet jobs. Time‘s Lev Grossman has said that he won’t review books he doesn’t like. He recently published an essay titled “I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation,” which he drained of any details that might be used to identify the book or the writer. For quite some time,’s main books feature was called “Books We Like,” and negative reviews were discouraged…

Silence is obviously a problem for Time and NPR. As venues with a defining interest in current affairs, their literary coverage is necessarily chained to the current publishing market and is thus rendered inadequate by a failure or even a calculated refusal to issue a verdict on works that achieve transitory cultural prominence solely by way of marketing processes. For literary blogs, however, the absence of a necessary interest in current affairs means that silence is an affordable response to underwhelming books and, for me, a silent response is one that holds an increasing appeal. If a venue for literary criticism is unconstrained by fealty to the vicissitudes of the market, then it suffers no need to warn readers away from a particular title. If literary criticism does not suffer that need, then those who write it are therefore free to assume that the only titles worth writing about are those that are first worth reading, and those who read it are induced to assume that any title worth reading about is by definition worth reading in full.

Rather than following Silverman’s cues and engaging in the wholesale demolition of books that leave me unsatisfied, I want to disengage from a literary culture utterly beholden to marketing and instead work in a form of literary criticism that operates on the assumptions above. Silverman wants a literary culture in which “we all think more and enthuse less,” as if thoughtful and enthusiastic responses to literature were somehow mutually exclusive. I’d prefer a response in which the articulation of thought is predicated on the experience of enthusiasm, a response in which enthusiasm for a book does not need to be expressed in words because its mode of expression is the very act of using words to articulate one’s thoughts of a book.


Where I find myself now is a position in which, professionally, I can concentrate my critical efforts exclusively on this blog even though, personally, I am not sure that my efforts would do justice to the very works of literature to which I most want to devote them. I’m able now to spend much more time on these pages than I have done over the last year or so, but what will appear on them is likely to be less occasional and less responsive to discourses of the moment than what has appeared here so far. My hope is that, far from advancing a situation in which enthusiasm for literature is cloying and shallow, the medium of the blog can allow for a mode of literary criticism that emerges from enthusiasm, that treats close attention to textual details as a symptom of literary appreciation rather than a path towards it, and that thereby positions the intellectualism of critical analysis as the appreciative extension of the sensuality of reading.

What Need?

Over the last few months, at the blog of the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks has been posting a succession of lighthearded but provocative musings on the norms and nature of reading and writing. In February, he questioned the transformation of writing from a personal vocation into a profession. “[W]hen did being a writer become a career choice,” he asked, “with appropriate degree courses and pecking orders? Does this state of affairs make any difference to what gets written?” In early March, he wondered under what circumstances it becomes acceptable to abandon reading a book. “Is a good book by definition one that we did finish?” he asked. “Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?”

Now, in his most recent post, Parks sets out to “tackle one of the literary set’s favorite orthodoxies head on.” The orthodoxy in question is the notion that “the world ‘needs stories.'” To illustrate just how orthodox this notion has become among the members of ‘the literary set,’ Parks quotes Jonathan Franzen as one of its major proponents. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” After unpacking Franzen’s self-serving motivations for expressing such a view, Parks goes on to catalogue several variants of the same position and then to relate an anecdote which illustrates the institutionalisation of that position:

“This is an excellent novel,” I remember a fellow judge for a literary prize repeatedly telling the rest of the jury every time he encouraged us to vote for a book, “because it offers complex moral situations that help us get a sense of how to live and behave.” The argument here is that the world has become immensely complicated and the complex stories of our novels help us to see our way through it, to shape a trajectory for ourselves in the increasingly fragmented and ill-defined social world we move in.

Surprisingly, and disappointingly, Parks concedes that “[t]here’s something to be said for this idea.” Is that really the case? What sort of person would seriously take their moral and social cues from a novel? What sort of person would turn to a work of imaginative literature in order to adjust their behaviour in the real world? Of course, the idea that we should do so is only a slight variation on the idea that we should read literature for this purpose — but even the proponents of the latter idea, with Matthew Arnold and Harold Bloom being exemplars, are not so myopic as to contend that that purpose can be better served by novels than by any other type of literature. Parks, however, proceeds to defend the exceptionalism of the novel.

“[T]he political, sports, and crime pages of the newspapers are full of fascinating stories,” he writes, “many of them extremely challenging and complex. [But w]hat the novel offers… is a tale mediated by the individual writer who (alone, away from Facebook and Twitter) works hard to shape it and deliver it in a way that he or she feels is especially attractive, compelling, and right.” As well, he suggests that the best sort of “tale mediated by the individual writer” — and the sort best suited to the artform of the novel — is itself a tale of the intensification of individualism, a tale that allows its readers to “believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes. Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves. They reinforce a process we are engaged in every moment of the day, self creation.”

So, if the world does indeed ‘need stories,’ the need arises within a world of individualists who feel that the world itself threatens their individualism. And, if novels are at all able to address this need, they do so insofar as each novel is itself the product of an individual consciousness and is designed to tell a complex story which depicts the triumph of individualist sentiments.

That strikes me as a pretty bleak view of what novels should do and why we should read them. Perhaps in an effort to ramp up the provocative nature of his post, Parks issues the last-ditch contention that, after all, “we” don’t actually need “this intensification of self that novels provide.” “I love an engaging novel,” he adds, “I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it.” At this point, however, what is already expressed can’t be diluted. What Parks advances is a view of the novel that impoverishes the artform in two ways. First it impoverishes the artform by locating the value of the novel in its capacity for expressing and celebrating individualism, which entails severely restricting one’s view of the novel’s other capabilities. Then it impoverishes the artform by construing the reading of novels as an impulsive act carried out in the absence of a ‘need’ to read them and in denial of that absence, rather than construing it as an act carried out in awareness of that absence and therefore in deliberate defiance of it.

No, we don’t need to read novels. With the hierarchy of human needs dominated by the imperatives for material wellbeing and socialisation, the reading of novels is relegated to the outermost ranks. But the needlessness of reading novels is the essence of reading them. Maybe that’s just a more elaborate way of arguing the value of art for art’s sake, but I struggle to say any other way of arguing it. No doubt it’s possible to draw moral and social lessons from novels, no doubt those things are elements of many novels, but whatever such lessons a novel may provide do not amount to reasons to read it. To read a novel in search of moral and social cues is essentially to strip away its aesthetic particularities and boil it down to nothing more than the dramatisation of a dilemma. It is to discard the novel’s stylistic details and structural complexities and to elide so much of what makes it a novel that it might as well not be one at all. It is also to adopt a reactionary stance towards the marginalisation of the novel in a culture dominated by economic rationalism, to tacitly concede the minimal economic value of reading novels while casting about for some other sort of value that lies beyond the realm of economics and that is difficult to tarnish with accusations of self-service. But why is it not enough for novels to do what only novels can do? Why should there be something insufficient about reading novels for the particular type of experience that novels in general provide, and for the variations on that type of experience provided by each individual novel?

How It’s Done

Forty-five years later, what may seem most revolutionary about Barthes’s essay [‘The Death of the Author’] is what it takes for granted: that there are readers at all for literary fiction, let alone that there’s a “someone” interested in doing the hard work of holding all these traces together inside her head. In an era where everyone has a novel waiting to come out, authors are legion; it’s the reader who seems, well, dead. If anything threatens to kill the author today, it’s not that the reader might interpret her work in subversive ways — if only we were so lucky! — but that the reader might not care enough to try in the first place. What to do in this situation has been the subject of what we might as well call a debate between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, waged for about a decade on the pages of The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Harper’s. It’s also the backdrop against which we must understand the successes and occasional fumbles of Marcus’s disturbing and remarkable new novel, The Flame Alphabet.

For, at first blush, The Flame Alphabet seems as if it’s perfectly pleased with the death of the reader, as if it hopes for nothing more than to murder those very few remaining who bother to buy books at all, throttling them with a suffusion of pus-covered words and sentences. [It] is a pointedly disgusting book that will tickle your gag reflex with its bony, sore-covered finger. Reading Marcus’s fetid prose will clog your nostrils, enflame your throat, jam your every orifice with a thick and soupy, cold and gloppy, not to mention barbed and burning, meal of unpalatable, oddly shaped sentences.

That’s how Lee Konstantinou begins his fantastic review of The Flame Alphabet in the Los Angeles Review of Books. It was the choice of the word “meal,” and the ambiguous referent, that caught my attention. It was the deft analysis of the novel in the context of Marcus’ disagreements with Franzen that sucked me in. And it was the self-reflexivity of the opening section’s last paragraph that kept me hooked. “And yet,” Konstantinou writes there, “if I properly understand the aims of The Flame Alphabet, [the above] description should not count as an insult, but as deep praise,” essentially reading the review itself in the context of Marcus’ use of language without allowing it to overshadow the work under consideration. Book reviewing: this is how it’s done when it’s done at its best. And in less than 3,000 words at that.

Editor? Editor?

The last few weeks have offered some stellar coverage of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights — read Mary-Kay Wilmers, read Cathleen Schine, read Matthew Specktor, read the Didion interviews by Emma Brockes and Boris Kachka — but then, to spoil the party, there’s the coverage of the book in Australia, and particularly the review by Andrew Riemer in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. These two Fairfax publications aspire to be the national papers of record, each one a snapshot of the best local analysis of current events and discourse, and Riemer, usually a reliably good essayist, is the Herald‘s chief book reviewer. Yet what Riemer has written, and what Fairfax has published, is a report of Blue Nights which is labelled as a review but which is so poorly written — so evasive, repetitive, and unspecific — that it leads me to suspect that Riemer hasn’t actually read the book he purports to review.

Here’s the review in question. It runs to 900 words. The first 300 words comprise a summary of Didion’s previous book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which is a precursor to Blue Nights. The next 150 words comprise a summary of the circumstances in which Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, the difficult months following the death of her daughter Quintana, which now occupy the foreground of Blue Nights. At this halfway point of the review, however, Riemer still hasn’t mentioned Blue Nights itself: Quintana’s death is folded into his coverage of The Year of Magical Thinking. Only after 550 words does he mention that Blue Nights is “an account of the illness and death of Quintana” — that’s after he expresses moral misgivings about The Year of Magical Thinking and after he discusses its stage adaptation — and then, almost two-thirds of the way into his review, he devotes only one paragraph to a description and evaluation of the book he is reviewing. At 154 words, it makes up just seventeen per cent of the entire review:

Didion’s skill is as evident in her new book as it was six years ago when she was working on The Year of Magical Thinking. The form and style are identical. This account of Quintana’s death, coming as it did at a time when Dunne’s sudden death was still raw and immediate, is surrounded by Didion’s memories: her marriage; the years during which the couple worked on screenplays; Quin-tana’s childhood; the fate of relatives, friends and their children. A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking. There is, in addition, a new note sounded here: the panic of old age, the suspicion that both body and mind are decaying, the awareness that the familiar life — the people you had known and loved — has come to an end.

In my experience with book reviews and book reports, there are three key flaws that suggest that a writer hasn’t actually read the book they’re writing about.

First: an absence of quotes from the book itself. Despite his remarks on “Didion’s skill” and on “[t]he form and style” of Blue Nights, Riemer does not use even one of his 900 words to quote Didion so that she might speak for herself, relying instead on paraphrasing and summarisation.

Second: a disproportionate focus on authorial biography and historical context, combined with a tendency towards contextual repetition, at the expense of a focus on the book. One-third of Riemer’s review of Blue Nights is a summary of The Year of Magical Thinking. One-third of the review is a summary of the context in which that book was published and adapted. Of the remaining one-third, half consists of the paragraph quoted above and half consists of Riemer’s repeated misgivings about Didion’s work combined with his repeated acknowledgement of her stylistic gifts. “[S]peaking here personally,” he writes, “I think the choice [to write publicly about the death of her husband John in The Year of Magical Thinking] was questionable.” “As I have said,” he continues, “Didion’s skill, sensitivity and intelligence go some way towards redeeming this book. …  I cannot, however, banish my sense of uneasiness.” Didion is a brave and stylistically skillful writer but her choice of subject matter makes Riemer uneasy: he repeats this notion three times in his review. Whether the stirring of such uneasiness might be part of Didion’s aesthetic project in Blue Nights — whether she is carefully preying on some innate voyeurism in her readers in a way that calls attention to it — doesn’t seem to occur to Riemer, much less to add complexity to his existing moral misgivings.

Third: factual errors which suggest that the writer has relied on his or her memory of an event rather than consulting a record of it. Riemer, as quoted above, has this to say of the adoption of Quintana: “A few details glossed over in the earlier book are highlighted here, particularly the fact that Quintana was an adopted child — this is only hinted at in The Year of Magical Thinking.” Now here’s Didion “hint[ing] at” Quintana’s adoption, at the end of chapter ten of The Year of Magical Thinking, although I’d call it a lot more than just a hint:

In 1964 and 1965, when we were living in the gate house with the beach and the peacocks but could not afford even to tip the parking boys at restaurants, let alone eat in them, John and I used to park on the street on Canon and charge dinner at The Bistro. We took Quintana there on the day of her adoption, when she was not quite seven months old. They had given us Sidney Korshak’s corner banquette and placed her carrier on the table, a centrepiece. At the courthouse that morning she had been the only baby, even the only child; all the other adoptions that day had seemed to involve adults adopting one another for tax reasons.

Other flaws are added spice. Didion’s career as an esteemed essayist and political analyst falls by the wayside — you’d never know from Riemer’s review that she has written anything other than screenplays and The Year of Magical Thinking — and the last word goes not to Didion, nor even to anyone writing about Didion, but to Ludwig Wittgenstein, halfheartedly invoked. Riemer’s review of Blue Nights offers no sense of Blue Nights beyond the barest consideration of its subject and the fact that Riemer is unsettled by it. You won’t get a taste of Didion’s own words; you’ll only get an overlong survey of The Year of Magical Thinking and a factually erroneous one at that. The whole review smacks of the sense that this writer has written about a book that he has only read about, rather than a book that he has read directly and with care.

It’s possible that Riemer wrote something closer to 1,500 words before some senseless editor axed the better part of his review and ripped out a fistful of Didion quotes for good measure. For Riemer’s sake, I certainly hope that’s the case, not that the rest of us would be any better off. This sort of review does a disservice to everyone associated with it: Didion’s work isn’t given the respect of careful consideration, readers who may or may not turn to that work are not given any sense of it, Riemer looks a fool for attaching his name to something so underdeveloped, and the Sydney Morning Herald tarnishes its own prestige by pretending that this sort of writing deserves a place in a paper of record. Can’t Australia do better than this?