Commentary Magazine


Topic: William Giraldi

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

The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

Read Less