Against the Takedown

New on Splice this week, there’s a vexed review of Helen Phillips’ The Need by J.S. DeYoung. I’m proud to be able to publish it. It articulates a mixed-to-negative response to this novel, running against a lot of other responses (eg. The Guardian: “one of this year’s most necessary novels”), but it’s no single-minded takedown. I know that Jason wrestled with it a bit, I think his discomfort comes through, and I’m glad that it does. It’s a mark of respect to an author’s labours and intentions to seriously think through the issues they raise, and to seriously consider one’s own limitations, even if one finally finds something lacking in the work. I also think Jason gives the book a fair hearing, showing sympathy to its premises and appreciation for Phillips’ other work; and his misgivings are sober, on-point, and reasonable.

How to write a generous negative review? I’ve been thinking about this question intensely for the better part of two years now, which was when I first started writing the review of J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays that I published in April 2019. Last December, the question arose for me again when I published Alec Dewar’s unfavourable take on Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator.

It’s such a difficult thing. I don’t like to write negative negative reviews, because I think that at bottom I really only write reviews and essays for myself. Doesn’t matter if they end up being published elsewhere. I am my own audience, and I use the essay or review format to clarify my own thoughts on whatever I’m writing about. In fact, I often don’t have any thoughts on what I’m writing about until I start writing, or talking it out. All I have, to begin with, is an inchoate feeling that gradually assumes the form of expressible thoughts. Which means that if I have a negative negative reaction to a book — if I just flat-out dislike it — then I feel like I’ve made a loss on the investment of my time. So I wouldn’t write a negative negative review, because ultimately I just want to cut my losses and move on. I’m not against negative stuff per se, and I’ll happily dole it out in conversation, but if I’m going to put my energy into writing about something, then I’m pretty much in an exploratory frame of mind, not an advisory one; hence, no pressure to warn other readers away from a bad book.

But occasionally there are books that I don’t like, or I don’t admire, even though I value in some other way — for the contrast they provide to still other books, or for their unrealised potential, for the suggestions of what they could have been. That’s the territory on which I feel comfortable writing a negative review, because it still allows me to work my way into the book deeply and give respect to some part of it. A la Coetzee.

This year, some months ago, the question of the value of negative reviews arose anew when Bookforum published Andrea Long Chu’s incandescent takedown of Bret Easton Ellis’ White. We all had fun reading it, didn’t we? I did, at least, and I happily agreed with most all its conclusions. But I felt rotten afterwards, greasy, and both Jason and I wanted to make sure that his review of The Need didn’t have that effect on its readers, didn’t come from the same fierce and declamatory place as the Bookforum essay. Writing a negative review is always something of a tightrope walk, and Jason’s is one that maintains its balance — even when Jason holds up a mirror and wonders whether his misgivings aren’t more a result of his position. Obviously I’m hoping other readers agree with this! But even if not, I think this is a good example of how to make a less-than-positive review work well. Don’t be afraid to come to a negative judgment. Do be aware that the credibility of the judgment — to not be written off as anger or snark — rests on careful thought, and a clear identification of where the problems lie, and why they are problems on the book’s own terms. Which might require a slower, more in-depth reading than a book that gratifies with pleasures you can pinpoint easily.

The Ease of Criticism

It’s good to see Robert Minto getting back into blogging. Here he is on the ease of critical writing, the simplicity of noticing the features of a text:

The great thing about critical writing is that it should be very easy. All you need is patient, honest noticing, and imaginative thinking about what you’ve noticed. Yet people find a remarkable number of ways to fuck it up. For instance, if we just restrict ourselves to book reviews of narrative fiction, most of what we find is either (1) pure summary, or (2) summary plus thumbs up or down judgments about whether the book is good or not, or (3) reductions of plot to moral theses and judgments about whether the moral point of view is correct (and therefore worth reading) or incorrect (and therefore not worth reading and possibly deserving of suppression). None of these strike me as critical writing. The first two are consumer guidance and the last is applied ethics or, at its worst, an inquisitorial show trial. Maybe there’s a place for them all. Personally, I crave critical writing and much prefer it to any of these modes. …

There’s a ubiquitous genre of contemporary journalism which appears to use the basic unit of all criticism but actually perverts it. I mean the “take,” or, when it’s particularly reactive or contrary, the “hot take.” The hot take is a very simple form: it starts by recounting some notable event from the consensus reality of the daily news cycle. It moves from this event to make an assertion about how this event should be considered evidence in favor of a generality which usually expresses an ideological commitment. This appears to be a movement from description to reflection, right? But in fact neither noticing nor reflecting is involved. The take’s starting point is given by the news cycle — and this is why takes always come in herds — and its conclusion is predetermined by the take-haver’s political positioning. The only creativity involved in having a take is figuring out how to get from a predetermined starting point to a predetermined end point. I would even argue that takes are anti-critical because they promote a kind of unthinking automaticity in both their writers and readers, and ultimately they displace interest in the world into a mini-game, the daily prize fight among takes, where the primary terms of assessment are either “good take” or “bad take,” attention diverted from the object or idea to the technique exhibited in moving from one to the other.

These comments very much remind me of Marilynne Robinson, of course, in her remarks on nuance and the damnation of “the take,” which I think about regularly. Here’s Robinson in The Givenness of Things:

Critics and historians have followed this precedent, often eager to identify the sympathies of any figure who did not, himself or herself, make them absolutely clear, as if a leaning were an identity, and might not change from year to year, depending on whom one had spoken with lately, or what one had read, or how an argument settled into individual thought or experience. In answer to the question: Which side are you on? “I’m still deciding” or “I see merit in a number of positions” would not have been more pleasing to the enforcers of any orthodoxy than outright heresy would be. High-order thinking is not so readily forced into pre-existing categories.

Beyond the Praise

I’m a longtime admirer of the literary criticism of Daniel Green. I reviewed his essay collection Beyond the Blurb when it came out a few years ago, and I’m honoured now to have him writing on a regular basis for Splice. This week, he has chimed in with a review of Anna Burns’ Milkman, and he’s tackling the question of “difficulty” head-on.

The whole review is full of keen observations, not only about the novel but also about the way the novel has been discussed and praised. Of course, Green himself writes favourably about Milkman, but he also finds something untenable about the critical tendency to praise it for its representation of political turmoil in Northern Ireland while appreciating its stylistic features in an ancillary way, as if they’re intriguing by the by — or, worse, the tendency to simply give a tip of the hat to the style while “ploughing on,” or “working through it,” to reach the political marrow. Green reminds us that Burns’ choice of style is its own political manoeuvre, and argues that not giving pre-eminent consideration to this choice can entail missing out on something significant in Milkman rather than accessing something else in a more direct way.

In retrospect, this review works hand-in-hand with Green’s first review for Splice, focusing on David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On. What I appreciate about both of them is the way they challenge the reductive tendencies of a critical consensus. They’re not necessarily challenging the consensus per se, not breaking with the praise for either of these two books — but once a consensus begins to develop around a book (eg. Darker With the Lights On is “dreamlike” or Milkman is abstracted and digressive) there’s a pressure on critics to move the discourse forward, and this leads many people to adopt certain terms without thinking through their implications. I include myself in this.

In these two reviews, however, Green reminds us to stop, slow down, take pause, think twice. Are David Hayden’s stories really “dreamlike”? Is that the most apt way to describe them? Do we use that word just because they feel like dreams? Is it appropriate if they don’t necessarily follow a dream logic? And do we pre-emptively circumscribe our reading of the stories, their effects, their strategies if we take their being “dreamlike” as our starting point, the basis for our engagement? And then, Anna Burns — her novel is really and ultimately about Northern Ireland, isn’t it? But is it so specifically about Northern Ireland if the author employs strategies of abstraction that remove us from the setting? When we see the specificities of time and place in Milkman, how much do they issue from us, as readers, rather than from the text? How much of what we see of Northern Ireland is due to our habit of reading the specificities into the voids of Burns’ abstractions, supplying Milkman with what the author has removed from it?

In the hurly-burly of publication, prizes, reviews, counter-reviews, and so on, it’s all too easy to take for granted things that adhere to a text — coming to them from elsewhere in the discourse — and appraise a book without questioning them. But Green keeps an eye on them and reminds us to question them, to see through them to the originary text. And to see that a book might deserve praise for the ways it anticipates and challenges the very terms we’re likely to apply to it.

RofC in Retrospect

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the “Love Takes Risks” conference on small presses at UEA in Norwich, and the announcement of the shortlist for this year’s Republic of Consciousness Prize. I was there to represent Nicholas John Turner’s Hang Him When He Is Not There, which was published by Splice last year and landed a spot on the longlist back in January. Ultimately, Hang Him didn’t make it through to the next round, but that’s okay; I was honoured just to have Splice represented during its first year of operations, and I also had a great time listening to the plenary session that preceded the shortlist announcement. That session featured the powerhouse trio of David Hayden, Eley Williams, and Chris Power in conversation — and my fingers were flying across the touchscreen as I tried to document it all on Twitter in real time. If you’re interested in following the threads I unspooled, start here and read to the end, then follow up here with a look at a part of the thread that somehow branched off from the first.

Movement Like a Moth

Adam Scovell’s Mothlight is one of the most intense reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve reviewed the novel for Splice, with a focus on the fascinations of its form:

It has been said that moths are drawn to burning candles because they confuse flames with the light of the moon. Moths, after all, use moonlight to navigate a path through darkness, but light from elsewhere reliably drags them off-course. The result is a split in perceptions. From the moth’s perspective, the path remains direct although the destination is unreachable: the creature believes itself to be flying straight on towards its goal, even as it fails to close the remaining distance. From the perspective of an observer, however, the moth has been snared into a spiral with no way to break free; it flutters around the flame in a way that makes a misleading light the centre of an experience, surveying the object of its desire continually from a distance. In his début novel, Mothlight, Adam Scovell has written a book that shadows the movements of the captive moth. Scovell’s narrator takes aim at a very particular objective, albeit one that is hazily conceived, only to end up whirling around in circles, unable to seize his prize, fixating on an ideal in a frenzied pursuit that robs him of his sanity.

I also had the pleasure of speaking to Scovell about the process of writing Mothlight:

What about the prose style, and the way it contributes to the tone in conjunction with imagery and the narratorial perspective? There’s clearly a bit of W.G. Sebald in there, maybe some Teju Cole, but were there other models for Thomas’ voice? Where did it come from?

I think the majority of the voice techniques come from European fiction of the post-war period. Sebald was and always will be the biggest influence on my writing, but the main voice that dictated the OCD recursions in Mothlight was Thomas Bernhard. I don’t think I’d have the bottle to write fiction the way I do without having read him, and he’s probably the closest a writer has come to recreating my own “head voice”. In particular, the way Bernhard uses repetition to lock you into the tics and worries of his narrators is really quite astounding, and you can definitely see what Sebald took from his writing as well. Teju Cole was another influence, generally. I love how he is building on the use of the photographs within prose, as well as his mental and physical meanderings. I loved Open City, and reading one of his essays on Sebald from Known and Strange Things whilst in Strasbourg created one of the most uncanny reading moments of my life, though I won’t say why.

Genre Games

Alan Trotter’s Muscle takes an interesting approach to dismantling the notion of literary genres — specifically the hardboiled mystery genre — and although it gets off to an admirable start, in the end the genre always wins. That’s basically the case I make in my latest review for Splice:

By now you’ve probably got the sense that Muscle is a rollicking good time, and you’d be right — up to a point. It is the language, above all, that animates Trotter’s novel, and not only the language of Box’s narration but also the dialogue of other characters who repurpose the kitschy ease of pulp noir. A woman who looks like a potential femme fatale, for instance, is explicitly designated as a generic type, as “the love interest” of a private investigator. And the shamus, for his part, speaks like the ideal of the hardboiled hero, telling his “love interest” not to worry, calling her “kid”, and issuing Box and ______ with a warning that properly belongs in a speech balloon from a comic book: “You two so much as wag your tails too hard and there’s lead coming back through this door for you to fetch.” But then, as will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to read a copy of Black Mask from cover to cover, there’s only so much buoyancy that a story can take from even this entertaining language, and beyond that point there’s a real struggle for fresh air.

From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own. Continue reading