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