Last Sunday in the New York Times Book Review, the novelist William Giraldi tore into two new books of fiction by Alix Ohlin, a creative writing professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Giraldi was disgusted with Ohlin’s prose, which “limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor.” He gives plenty of examples. One character is described as “brilliantly smart” (“imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms,” he remarks). Wisdom rises to the level of “Nice guys finish last.” Ohlin has a special weakness for language that she finds close at hand: “a fresh start,” “a dive bar,” “the tip of the iceberg,” and “the whole nine yards.” This is the kind of writing that results “when you need to fill a page but have nothing important to say,” Giraldi says.
The problem is not simply a lazy conception of prose. At bottom is a failure of vision. “When self-pity colludes with self-loathing and solipsism backfires into idealism,” Giraldi says, “the only outcome is insufferable schmaltz.” His conclusion is worth quoting at length. Much of the argument over fiction recently has been waged over women writers, who are obliged to struggle against the critical patriarchy for voice and recognition. An admirer of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, Giraldi is having none of it:
The more genuine argument to be had concerns the writer’s “moral obligation to be intelligent” — in John Erskine’s immortal coinage — and, by extension, the moral obligation to write well, to choose self-assertion over mere self-expression, to raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew. Every mind lives or dies by its ideas; every book lives or dies by its language.
Implicit in these words is not merely an understanding of fiction that Giraldi himself puts on stunning display in his first novel Busy Monsters (which I reviewed here and went on to praise here). What is even more scathing, Giraldi indicts a literary culture in which mere publication — the two published books required for a creative writing professor to earn academic tenure — has quashed any sense of responsibility toward the reading public, the principles of fiction, the high calling of art.
Full disclosure: Giraldi and I are friends, although he and I have never met. We became friends after I reviewed his novel, traded salutations by email, and then began scuffling good-naturedly over writing and writers. We discovered a remarkable similarity of thinking about many literary questions. His phrase the moral obligation to write well, for example, is one that I have also used (first here and then here), although it seems to have originated with Professor Jack L. Sammons of the Mercer University School of Law. If I remain loyal to Giraldi in what follows — that’s what friends do — the overriding reason is that he and I are share a loyalty to the institution of literature. That’s the basis of our friendship.
Giraldi’s review was greeted by a chorus of outrage. It was “mean-spirited,” “vicious and self-regarding,” a “jealous tantrum,” and most outrageous of all, a “particularly insufferable chunk of Strontium 90.” The novelist J. Robert Lennon rushed to Salon.com to say that he “felt terrible for Ohlin.” Johannes Lichtman dismissed the review as a “failure in four parts,” although he acknowledged that Giraldi was on to something nevertheless: “Ohlin is not a prose stylist — nor, in these two books at least, does she aspire to be.” (She is a “good storyteller,” Lichtman quickly added, trying to salvage a shiny trinket from the wreckage.)
Ohlin herself put on a brave public face. “All people in creative fields know there are risks involved in putting their work out into the world,” she tweeted sagaciously, going on to add: “If the occasional negative review is the price for this lucky writer’s life, then I will happily pay it.” Oh, the pluck! The poise! The good sense! All that happiness and prime can happy call!
Her reaction suggests that Ohlin agrees there was something personal in Giraldi’s attack, and it is her person, not her books (or, more to the point, her literary practice and habits of mind), which requires defense. At least she advanced no defense of her writing, falling back instead on sunny chatter about her literary career. But Giraldi was not attacking a person. He was attacking a style, a work-shy and negligent writing practice that does not take seriously the writer’s self-elected obligation to write as well as she possibly can. As he explained afterwards to the Boston Globe, his review was an “attack on laziness, on the ubiquity of indolence that is currently polluting our literary culture.”
The only critic who grasped what was at stake in the whole controversy was Ron Hogan, who challenged Giraldi on his own ground, attacking Giraldi’s own prose (“ ‘Emotional verity’? ‘Coruscated import’? ‘The lassitude of at-hand language’? Somebody’s clearly getting a lot out of his word-a-day calendars!”). In other words, Hogan answered the baroque style’s attack upon the plain style with an attack upon the baroque style. And like Giraldi too, Hogan managed the astonishing feat — astonishing only because so few in the Republic of Letters are able to reproduce it — of avoiding the ad hominem and sticking entirely to the question of literary principle.
I think that Hogan is wrong about Giraldi’s style (and that Giraldi is right about Ohlin’s), but this is a fight worth engaging in. It is, in fact, the full and final defense of “mean” reviews. Critics have a duty to review books harshly, I wrote nearly a year ago: “The circulation of ideas begins with books, and bad books circulate bad ideas. . . . When critics fail to bulldoze such nonsense under, it spreads like knotweed, choking American thought.”
American fiction is in decline, because so much of it is “literary fiction,” written not to defend a style — not to declare This and only this is how fiction should be done! — but to have a career, usually in a college or university somewhere, about which a creative writing professor can feel lucky. The indolence of Alix Ohlin’s prose represents a betrayal of the literary vocation, and William Giraldi attacked it in the name of defending the value and dignity of good writing. Those who would sneer at him for being “mean” prefer the convention of social pleasantness, a heartfelt relativism which holds that every judgment is a personal preference anyway.
Literature needs fewer nice people and more loyalists.