Commentary Magazine


Topic: criticism

There’s an Elitist Under My Bed

The productive brawl over “blistering” criticism continues to produce. Yesterday William Giraldi defended his original review of two books by the Lafayette College creative writing professor Alix Ohlin, and earlier today Ron Hogan cracked Giraldi in the jaw for everything he said. Both combatants mention me in passing, but I’ve already had my say. I’m on Giraldi’s side, and in the minority.

One of Hogan’s accusations against Giraldi, though, rankles because it is a cliché and an error: “William Giraldi is an elitist.” A self-owning elitist too (whatever that means). Writing as if in correspondence with a young critic, Giraldi had observed: “You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set — they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.” By people, here, Giraldi is referring specifically to writers, especially contemporary writers trained in creative writing workshops, where — despite the original intentions of creative writing’s founders — criticism never ventures, for fear of being assaulted. There’s nothing particularly shocking in what Giraldi says. It is a variation on T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Except that most of the writers who tumble out of the creative writing workshops do not have especially fine minds.

But here is how Hogan responds:

Let’s look at this from another angle: I’m the guy who flat out says being a book critic is nothing special, and one of the key things I meant by that is that you don’t get to position yourself above other people just because you found somebody to subsidize you while you sit around and read books. You want to go back to this MFA bullshit and how not everyone who writes a book is a special snowflake? Fine: You’re not a special snowflake, either. Yes, it’s very nice that you’ve made the decision to have fun reading books, and to share what you’ve gotten out of that with the rest of us. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, and if you’re just going to cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are, and how fancy your book learning is — well, you’re not really here to tell us about books, you’re here to tell us about you. And did I mention that you’re not a particularly special snowflake?

Position yourself above other people, it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are: this is what Hogan means by calling Giraldi an elitist. The very act of criticism, on this view, is a declaration of superiority. Criticism could not possibly be a disinterested stream of ideas directed over an object worth considering; it is positioned and copped; it is a power play.

Color me nauseated. “Elitist” is one of those slurs, like reductionist and extremist, that always applies to the other guy, never to oneself.

And the irony is that Ron Hogan is just as much an elitist as William Giraldi. When I said as much this morning on Twitter, all hell broke loose. But it is the simple truth: anyone who lives by books and ideas is an elitist by definition, engaging in an elite activity (treating books seriously) on behalf of an elite (those who treat books seriously). The dictionary-bound will object that I am not using the word correctly: an elitist, they pipe, is someone who advocates domination by an elite. Thus the word belongs to the jargon of the left, which likes to see itself as for “the little feller” while its opponents and antagonists are “out of touch.” This is beginning to sound familiar.

The word élite entered into English from the French, where it originally meant “selection, choice.” In medieval Latin, where the French found the word, electa denoted “choice.” Literature, as I have said again and again, just is a choice: either the word refers to everything that has ever been written, in which case it is unmanageable, or it refers to a selection of some kind. Criticism is the activity of choosing the best for recommendation and reading. Yes, it is the positioning of some books above others. And it depends upon perceptive reading, whether the critic cops to the attitude or not.

That’s pretty much what Hogan does in Beatrice, his own book blog. He singles out books for attention and praise. You will search his blog in vain for any word of bestselling novelists (the populists of the literary world) like Stephen King, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, or even Stieg Larsson. Hogan’s very choice of what to write about is elitist — first because it is a choice, second because it is the choice of a select few, a better sort.

Something like this, by the way, was Jane Austen’s opinion of the man or woman who reads seriously. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is upset when he learns that Louisa Musgrove, whom everyone thought he was courting, had become engaged to Captain Benwick. Anne Elliot wants to know why he is upset (she hopes it is not because Louisa has been taken). Wentworth explains:

I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man. . . . [ch 20]

A “reading man” is “something more” than a person who is “amiable” and “not deficient in understanding.” Hogan describes his critical credo as this: Have fun reading books. But his criticism is not merely amiable; it is something more.

We are all of us — all of us who take books seriously — elitists. The elitist under our bed, who haunts our political nightmares, is us.

The productive brawl over “blistering” criticism continues to produce. Yesterday William Giraldi defended his original review of two books by the Lafayette College creative writing professor Alix Ohlin, and earlier today Ron Hogan cracked Giraldi in the jaw for everything he said. Both combatants mention me in passing, but I’ve already had my say. I’m on Giraldi’s side, and in the minority.

One of Hogan’s accusations against Giraldi, though, rankles because it is a cliché and an error: “William Giraldi is an elitist.” A self-owning elitist too (whatever that means). Writing as if in correspondence with a young critic, Giraldi had observed: “You’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set — they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.” By people, here, Giraldi is referring specifically to writers, especially contemporary writers trained in creative writing workshops, where — despite the original intentions of creative writing’s founders — criticism never ventures, for fear of being assaulted. There’s nothing particularly shocking in what Giraldi says. It is a variation on T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Except that most of the writers who tumble out of the creative writing workshops do not have especially fine minds.

But here is how Hogan responds:

Let’s look at this from another angle: I’m the guy who flat out says being a book critic is nothing special, and one of the key things I meant by that is that you don’t get to position yourself above other people just because you found somebody to subsidize you while you sit around and read books. You want to go back to this MFA bullshit and how not everyone who writes a book is a special snowflake? Fine: You’re not a special snowflake, either. Yes, it’s very nice that you’ve made the decision to have fun reading books, and to share what you’ve gotten out of that with the rest of us. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, and if you’re just going to cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are, and how fancy your book learning is — well, you’re not really here to tell us about books, you’re here to tell us about you. And did I mention that you’re not a particularly special snowflake?

Position yourself above other people, it doesn’t necessarily make you better than anybody else, cop an attitude about what a perceptive reader you are: this is what Hogan means by calling Giraldi an elitist. The very act of criticism, on this view, is a declaration of superiority. Criticism could not possibly be a disinterested stream of ideas directed over an object worth considering; it is positioned and copped; it is a power play.

Color me nauseated. “Elitist” is one of those slurs, like reductionist and extremist, that always applies to the other guy, never to oneself.

And the irony is that Ron Hogan is just as much an elitist as William Giraldi. When I said as much this morning on Twitter, all hell broke loose. But it is the simple truth: anyone who lives by books and ideas is an elitist by definition, engaging in an elite activity (treating books seriously) on behalf of an elite (those who treat books seriously). The dictionary-bound will object that I am not using the word correctly: an elitist, they pipe, is someone who advocates domination by an elite. Thus the word belongs to the jargon of the left, which likes to see itself as for “the little feller” while its opponents and antagonists are “out of touch.” This is beginning to sound familiar.

The word élite entered into English from the French, where it originally meant “selection, choice.” In medieval Latin, where the French found the word, electa denoted “choice.” Literature, as I have said again and again, just is a choice: either the word refers to everything that has ever been written, in which case it is unmanageable, or it refers to a selection of some kind. Criticism is the activity of choosing the best for recommendation and reading. Yes, it is the positioning of some books above others. And it depends upon perceptive reading, whether the critic cops to the attitude or not.

That’s pretty much what Hogan does in Beatrice, his own book blog. He singles out books for attention and praise. You will search his blog in vain for any word of bestselling novelists (the populists of the literary world) like Stephen King, James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, E. L. James, or even Stieg Larsson. Hogan’s very choice of what to write about is elitist — first because it is a choice, second because it is the choice of a select few, a better sort.

Something like this, by the way, was Jane Austen’s opinion of the man or woman who reads seriously. In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth is upset when he learns that Louisa Musgrove, whom everyone thought he was courting, had become engaged to Captain Benwick. Anne Elliot wants to know why he is upset (she hopes it is not because Louisa has been taken). Wentworth explains:

I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man. . . . [ch 20]

A “reading man” is “something more” than a person who is “amiable” and “not deficient in understanding.” Hogan describes his critical credo as this: Have fun reading books. But his criticism is not merely amiable; it is something more.

We are all of us — all of us who take books seriously — elitists. The elitist under our bed, who haunts our political nightmares, is us.

Read Less

Giraldi, Ohlin, and the Controversy over “Mean” Reviews

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.

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.

Read Less




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