I DON’T BLAME THEM
1. How To Say ‘Up Yours’: Alice Hoffman
Well, if I were Alice Hoffman, I’d go bonkers myself over the way modern critics not only give away too much plot in the novels they review (and the movies, plays, etc.) but seem determined to spoil the ending.
Hoffman is in the news because she Twittered out her anger in 27 different Tweets about a mixed-to-negative Boston Globe review by Roberta Silman of her new book, “The Story Sisters” (Shaye Areheart/Crown; 325 pages; $25).
Granted, Hoffman got a bit carried away by calling Silman a “moron” and insisting that “any idiot can be a critic” (hey!), and she got a bit vindictive by giving out Silman’s private email and phone number so that readers can “tell her what u think of snarky critics.”
Hoffman has apologized for responding “strongly” in the “heat of the moment” and says she’s “sorry if I offended anyone,” which is the usual code for “my publisher won’t let me say ‘up yours.’ ”
But I think we should listen to Hoffman’s more important and far-reaching statement — one that is true of way too many reviews these days — about being “dismayed” because the review “gave away the plot of the novel.”
Two Reviewers Give It Away
Which many reviews today often do. Silman refers to “the secret that is the linchpin of the book” and then appears to disclose it. She describes key plot points in Part Two, which is way too far in the book to follow the heart of the novel’s story. She tells us how the book ends by naming the “only” character who “is given a chance to grow,” by revealing the two estranged characters whom we’re hoping will bond but find “no resolution,” and divulging the hero-turned-drug addict who’s institutionalized but “does bear a child and reform,” yet “never really matures.”
No wonder Hoffman went off her feed. I bet she was already smarting from a similar debacle at the Washington Post, where critic Wendy Smith not only follows the development of a key character far too long and with too much detail, she then drops the bomb that the character is “responsible for a death that estranges her from the family, but a series of poignant scenes shows her tentative attempts to reconnect.” Smith spoils the end of the book by telling us about “this radiant finale” in which a wedding in Paris provides the sisters with “a tender opportunity to reconcile.”
Let me just say, too, that it doesn’t matter if any of these salient details are provided at the beginning of the book. It is the reviewer’s charge never to even seem to give the book away, to step in front of the material, to plant a seed in the reader’s mind (she does “reform”) that will one day spoil a fresh reading of the text. (More about this next week.)
The Fall of Lit Crit
I have a theory that the standards of literary criticism have fallen in direct proportion to the “democratization” of publishing and blogging on the Internet. Stands to reason, no? Those first customer reviews on Amazon years ago weren’t (and for the most part still aren’t) notable for their professionalism, heaven knows. But boy, did they have energy (still do) and how ebulliently they make themselves heard. Read four or five of ‘em and you glean enough about the book to know if it’s for you. At the same time, these charged-up contributors feel they are part of a reading family and would never spoil the fun of others by giving away key aspects of a book. So you can scroll through customer reviews on just about any website without having to keep one eye closed, which I find myself doing with so-called professional criticism of everything from books to movies to theater.
2. Blogging for Revenge: Alain de Botton
In this case I have to say as a reader, what in heck was the New York Times Book Review thinking of last Sunday when a wretched piece of bad writing showed up disguised as a book review of “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 327 pages; $26)?
You’d think a book with a straightforward title like that would be easy to describe, but no. I read the full-page review by Caleb Crain three times and I still didn’t know what it was about. Crain accuses de Botton of mockery, condescension, mean-spiritedness, superficial judgment and spite, but he never tells us the “initial goal” of the book, except to say the author “has already lost track of (it)” by Chapter 3.
Of course if I were advising de Botton, I would have tied him to a chair before allowing him to write a vitriolic message to Crain for all on the Internet to see. This part especially is regrettable: “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.”
But I would have spread out the red carpet for de Botton to say this: “I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon — so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer.”
Exactly. While embittered authors are hardly the first person the world attends when it comes to instruction about responsible book reviewing, hysterical former critics at least are louder, so tune in next week when we explore the dreaded but often amusing hilarities of lousy critical writing that junks up the litosphere so much these days.
And no, I haven’t read either of the book’s in question. I want to review the reviews, and ponder why literary criticism, even at its most blunt and hurried form, as in a newspaper or blog (as opposed to a lengthy New Yorker piece or later academic journal) can be useful, relevant and valued by your everyday reader.
More next week.
P.S. and DRIB (don’t read if busy):
An example of responsible critical writing would be Sukhdev Sandhu’s coherent and engrossing review in The Daily Telegraph from England.
There we discover that de Botton is not just a “British essayist” as NYTBR reviewer Crain dismissively puts it (for crying out loud! readers will remember him as author of the elegant and delectably humorous “How Proust Can Change Your Life” and “The Consolations of Philosophy”! It’s the responsibility of the reviewer to point this out).
Nor is the book simply an extended essay. De Botton “has set out,” as Sandhu puts it, “to write ‘a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life’s meaning.’ ” A hymn! One needn’t have read de Botton to adjust expectations and even thrill a little bit at the possibility of changing our lens on an often drab subject.
Sandhu — who, by the way, can be negatively critical about the book under review — also shows us that de Botton writes far more comprehensively and compassionately than Crane ever lets on, ranging in subject interest, for example, from accountants and rocket scientists to electricity installers, career counselors, entrepreneurs and many others from many different countries.
Sandhu not only “gets” de Botton as a critic is supposed to do – mostly his humor! the NYTBR critic repeatedly misses de Botton’s penchant for the wry, dry subtle aside! — he backs up most of his assertions with evidence, meaning quotes from the book that are more than thoughtful, in de Botton’s way: they are intriguing, chewy, and re-readable.
Sandhu writes, “Of an outstandingly successful but abrasive and self-regarding industrialist, de Botton observes: ‘a certain kind of intelligence may at heart be nothing more or less than a superior capacity for dissatisfaction.’ ”