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 |