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.

What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

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.

The Difficult Second Novel

For Splice this week, I’ve taken a long, in-depth look at The Large Door, Jonathan Gibbs’ follow-up to his frenetic début, Randall:

It’d be misleading to say that The Large Door is a lesser work than Randall. It’s more the case that it unfolds on a different scale, being self-consciously not a maximalist novel. By comparison, then, it is less ambitious and somewhat more cautious, more inhibited, in picking out targets for full-throated satire. But, taking as given its relative circumscription, it has the same swift narrative momentum and the same propulsive quality to its prose. There’s hardly a page that lacks some sparkling turn of phrase, some energising construction. When Jenny steps into the path of an oncoming cyclist, the cyclist yelps, swerves, then peddles off, “throwing back over her shoulder a no doubt withering and entirely justified kite’s tail of invective.” Just prior to this, when Jenny embraces an old colleague with whom she has regretfully lost touch, Gibbs writes that she breathes in deeply, “hoping to take into herself something of Frankie’s scent, some thread of spoor leading back to the past, but there was nothing, just the sterile residue of hotel soap and shampoo.” Elsewhere, the prose engages in light formal play: lines of text break off suddenly, without a full stop, as characters backspace the messages they’re writing on their phones, and one scene describes a presentation delivered at an academic conference by allowing the prose to devolve into hurried notes: “M wrong about JV … Men use their intelligence tactically, like women use make-up, hair, clothes. Intellect as clothing? … Fundamental beliefs = underwear? Hygiene. Support. For e.g. the woman with JV after coffee break.”

Voices or Ventriloquism?

With the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist making space for Alex Pheby’s Lucia, Will Eaves’ Murmur, and Anthony Joseph’s Kitch, it’s clear that there’s a trend for “bio-fiction” — fictionalised biographies of real historical figures — which raises a number of questions about the intersection between aesthetics and ethics. There’s a fascinating discussion of these issues on the latest RofC podcast and a welcome defence of more experimental strategies from the powers that be at Galley Beggar Press.