Thursday, August 16, 2012
This morning, I turn your attention to Dwight Garner's New York Times essay on criticism, and why the world needs more of it. You can find the whole here.
My own blog post is not in need much set up. The following two excerpted grafs (which do not run contiguously in the essay) put Garner's case squarely on the line. We need critics to tell it as it is, he says. And we need people to understand what criticism is.
The sad truth about the book world is that it doesn’t need more yes-saying novelists and certainly no more yes-saying critics. We are drowning in them. What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.Garner makes good points, though I'm not in utter accordance with them all. My own stance on the matter is this: I read, often, dozens of books each month. On this blog I only talk about the ones I love. I didn't love, say, THE HELP or WILD—which puts me in a distinct minority—and so I do not write of them here. I choose, instead, to write about that which inspires me, or heartens me. I choose not to add darkness to days, choose not to hurt if it is not required. When days go by without my blogging about others' books, that is because I've not lately fallen in love. Those would be those sweeps of time when you get, on this blog, fine domestic prattle, say, or precipitous news about my being named Most Pathetic.
Marx understood that criticism doesn’t mean delivering petty, ill-tempered Simon Cowell-like put-downs. It doesn’t necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It’s at base an act of love. Our critical faculties are what make us human.
But when I am asked—by the Chicago Tribune, by the Pennsylvania Gazette, by various other publications—to give my opinion about books I have not chosen, there is no walking away. I have an obligation, a responsibility, to tell it as I see it then, and often I'm not loving what I find. I was not, for example, a mega fan of AMERICAN DERVISH, and said as much in the Tribune. It may not in my nature to be cruel, but it is in my nature to be decisive about books. And so I aim, always, to criticize constructively, to speak of a book's perceived flaws as I would about the work of a beloved student.... to suggest, to query, to wonder out loud, to ask, Could more have been done?
We go about all of this in our fumbling ways. Later today I will be cross-posting the official review of a book I did genuinely love. (And I'm not alone in that.) When you read that review know that I meant it, true. That I was not cowering, not going small.