Book Reviews & The Illusion of Posterity

My friend John Scalzi posted a small meditation on art, commerce, and impermanence at his blog, Whatever, which resonated with some of the ideas I’ve been kicking around about book reviews and literary criticism for a while. Basically, Scalzi looks at the best selling novels for 1912 and observes how, most likely, “outside of a small group of academic specialists or enthusiasts, these books and their authors don’t have much currency.” Here’s the lesson he sees in that:

“Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages. The ages will decide who is doing that on their own; you don’t get a vote. I understand the temptation is to try to write something that will speak to the generations, but, look, in 1912 they hadn’t even yet invented pre-sliced bread…

If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.”

I’ve been bothered for a long time by the assertion that one of the reasons contemporary book review sections often cover an inordinate amount of male authors is that the critics who write for and manage those sections care less about cultural parity and more about finding, as New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus told NPR, “fiction that will really endure.” I’ve written before about my belief that such an approach is a potential dead-end for serious criticism, reducing it to what Pankaj Mishra called “a self-contained realm of elegant consumption.”

Or, as Northrop Frye put it in Anatomy of Criticism decades ago, a lot of what passes for literary criticism today “belongs only to the history of taste, and therefore follows the vacillations of fashionable prejudice.”

In early 2011, as she was conceding that roughly 86% of the New Republic book reviews over the previous year had been dedicated to male authors, Ruth Franklin considered this issue:

“I, too, like to think I choose the books that I review for their inherent interest, their literary quality. But the VIDA statistics made me wonder afresh about the ways we define ‘best’ and ‘most important’ in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply influenced by the cultural norms in any given age… It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility.”

(Yes, it is sobering.)

About a month before she wrote that, Franklin had done another blog post about her literary resolutions for 2011, expressing the desire to broaden her reading horizons by, among other things, stepping out of her literary fiction comfort zone, reading more literature in translation, and having more conversations about books with other people. At the end of the year, she felt she’d done reasonably well; in 2012, she’s planning to read more children’s literature (so she can talk about it with her children) and to read at least one best-seller, because “even if their prose isn’t up to literary standards, they have something important to tell us about the mood of the moment.”

I wouldn’t be too sure about that “literary standards” judgment, by the way. Obviously, you can pick and choose to find books at either end of the quality spectrum—again, keeping in mind that what constitutes “beautiful writing” is a matter of shifting tastes—but, as I pointed out in 2010, when you compare them using various standards of readability, Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen aren’t that far apart. They both write within what’s held to be a high school senior’s capacity to comprehend written English; at least, that’s true of Freedom and Fly Away Home.

But, anyway, points to Franklin for making the effort to shake up her routine and revitalize her literary criticism; although she hasn’t addressed the long-term effects of her contemplation of the gender bias problem last year—at least not that I’ve come across—I’m betting that would be an interesting conversation. It’d also be really interesting to talk to Megan O’Grady, the literary critic at Vogue, who I recently discovered is at the Nieman Foundation, developing a thesis on “the relationship between women novelists, literary criticism and the canon, focusing on postwar American literature and the persistence of gender myths in cultural discourse.” I mean, perfect timing or what?

In the meantime, to paraphrase Scalzi, I think literary critics should relieve themselves of the illusion that they’re writing for the ages. Any attempt to find “fiction that will really endure” is essentially guesswork, although in some cases, depending on who’s doing the guessing, it’s guesswork that has the potential to perpetuate itself into an accepted “truth,” at least for some period of time. What critics who propose to ferret out “enduring” fiction are really saying, though, is that they’ve found some books that meet their own contingent standard of excellence, and honestly there’s really nothing wrong in just being explicit about that instead of convincing yourself and your audience that you’re bearing a cultural standard into the future.

So, yeah, I find literary criticism—let’s go ahead and just say cultural criticism—that says “Hey, posterity, look what we found for you!” a lot less interesting than the criticism that says “Hey, there’s something going on here, might be worth a look.” And I’d say that excusing ourselves from the quest to find some arbitrary sort of literary or aesthetic or cultural apex opens up a lot of opportunities for critics to talk about things they might otherwise overlook—things that might actually turn out to be a lot more relevant to us… and, who knows, might even turn out to be a more accurate harbinger of the future than what was expected to have endured.

31 January 2012 | theory |

More Thoughts on Gender Bias & Book Reviews

When I wrote about the ways gender bias crept into my own book reviewing, the feedback encouraged me to dig deeper into the issue. As I’d noted, one attempt to undermine the argument that women writers deserve consistently better coverage than what they’re currently getting from many of America’s book reviewers is the tactic that an anonymous New Republic staffer (or maybe an intern) used against Jennifer Weiner, implying that Jennifer was looking for “affirmative action” that would artificially inflate the prestige of (presumably bad) women writers when the galleries of literary criticism ought properly to be devoted to “well-rounded meritocracy.”

Mrs. Beatrice (that’s what we call my wife here, to protect her privacy) emailed me a link to an article that ran in TechCrunch in late 2011 called “Racism and Meritocracy” that seemed particularly relevant to the discussion. It’s about the ways in which Silicon Valley, despite being ostensibly populated by non-racists, still manages to produce a largely homogenous culture of entrepreneurs. Diversity is “the canary in the coal mine for meritocracy,” Eric Ries writes. “When we see extremely skewed demographics, we have very good reason to suspect that something is wrong with our selection process, that it’s not actually as meritocratic as it could be.” Ries proceeds to draw out a larger principle which I believe might well apply to mainstream literary criticism outlets like those of The New York Times Book Review and NPR:

“What the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy for systems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.”

As Ries points out, symphony orchestras offer a classic illustration of this problem: For years, women had difficulty successfully auditioning for symphonies, because many judges implicitly assumed that men were better classical musicians than women and so that’s what they heard when they saw women play. Until several orchestras began auditioning musicians behind a screen, so the judges could only go by the music they were hearing—then, suddenly, on average, women performed classical music just as well as men.

Now, you probably couldn’t make a similar effort work in the world of literary criticism. Setting aside the impracticality of stripping all identifying markers from the novels and delivering them to critics to be judged on pure literary merit (whatever that is), such an approach is in fact completely antithetical to the ways publishers promote and sell fiction, whether it’s commercial or literary. Publishers want critics to have all sorts of preconceived ideas about the books they’re receiving, at least they do if those ideas are favorable ones. For that matter, some publishers rely on critics having preconceived ideas about them—if this house or that house has a reputation for publishing “excellent” work, it’s that much more likely their books will survive the early rounds of elimination when a critic has to decide which of the dozens/hundreds of newly arriving books he’s going to review this week.

(How do new fiction writers ever break through that wall? Good question: Sometimes, it’s about comparisons to the familiar authors; sometimes, it’s about crafting a public identity for the author that plays to—or against—our cultural assumptions about creative talent or emphasizes the amount of money the publisher spent because they’re so sure this author is as good as the other big authors they publish. There are other variations on these themes.)

Relying on our preconceived notions about authors and publishers is a form of pattern recognition. And, as Ries tells us, “if you look at the research on implicit bias, you will find that bias is a necessary consequence of using pattern recognition, it’s part of how the brain works. We literally think faster when we see something that matches the pattern, and have to slow down to process something that doesn’t match.” And, let’s face it, when you’re in a deadline-driven environment, with an overwhelming array of choices, you might sometimes make quick decisions in order to spur an internal feeling of achievement and progress—you might even, I’m thinking, make decisions more quickly than you think you are, with less contemplation than you believe you’ve done.

The latest book by a familiar face, from a familiar publisher? Why, it practically demands a review. And when somebody like Jennifer Weiner comes along to point out how that kind of thinking can skew a book section’s contents, the defense is that it’s a reflection of the author’s cultural significance and prestige. But that significance and prestige isn’t shaped just by the author’s earlier books, but by all the previous decisions book critics made about those books. In other words, critics aren’t only recognizing a pattern of “fiction that will really endure” or “books that matter,” they’re perpetuating that pattern.


30 January 2012 | theory |

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