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.

On Difficulty

Now that this year’s Booker Prize has gone to Anna Burns’ Milkman, we’re back into a discussion of the value of “difficulty” in literature, as distinct from “accessibility.” The novelist and critic Sam Byers has a typically astute take on the situation, on Twitter:

I think this year’s booker has demonstrated that in fact we do have the means to reward daring, challenging writers. The problem is that we no longer have a mainstream media that’s capable of responding to that intelligently.

I’m not saying anything new by pointing out that there’s something of a crisis in British literary critical culture, at least as represented by the major newspapers, but I think this year’s booker has helped me understand that the way the prize is *covered* is most of the problem

The press is increasingly reluctant to do anything that comes too close to old fashioned textual analysis. All their braying about the booker has in many ways just been a slightly desperate shout of “give us something we can turn into a story”. There has been very little idea of how to cover the books in question. Instead there has been an increasingly blundering effort to talk about “sales”, “readers”, brits, booksellers, “difficulty” etc.

So I wonder now if this year should be the year we come to understand a rather thorny problem. Not only are we over-reliant on book prizes to make books “successes”… [but] book prizes themselves are over-reliant on a media ecosystem no longer adequately equipped to consider in any meaningful detail what they do and decide. Meanwhile, an increasingly anti-intellectual, populist atmosphere has encouraged a way of thinking about literature that is generalist, insubstantial, frequently patronising, and based on limited textual reference.

This sort of “criticism” relies on profoundly woolly concepts: “readers” (always characterised as a homogenous mass), and a fairly useless “difficulty vs readability” metric that apparently no-one has noticed is entirely subjective.

I think that’s exactly right, and worth elaborating on. My suspicion is that there are two really basic, often unarticulated assumptions underpinning 99% of literary criticism and reviews in the press. Continue reading

The Songlines and the Songlines

It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise. Continue reading