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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.

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