Why Do We Even Do Criticism, Anyway?

In September of 2013, The New York Times Book Review launched a new column called Bookends. They’ve got a pool of eight columnists, and every week, they set up a different pair to answer “pressing and provocative questions about the world of books” like “Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be Likable?” or “What’s Behind the Notion that Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?” The answers in the first two months have struck me, with few exceptions, as fairly shallow—much like the questions themselves, concocted so as not to disrupt the digestion of the reader’s Sunday brunch.

The installment asking “How Do We Judge Books Written Under Pseudonyms?” particularly bugged me, in part because it’s a question with a fairly obvious answer: “The same way you judge any other book—on its merits.” Francine Prose basically ignores the question, offering a glib list of writers who published some work under pseudonyms, and some speculation as to why they might want to—eminently ignorable filler, from start to finish. It’s when Daniel Mendelsohn weighs in that things start to get a bit more interesting… but, I think, a lot more wrongheaded.

At first glance, Mendelsohn might seem to be tackling a more compelling variation of the question: “How ought we to consider novels written under pseudonyms?” Unfortunately, he also seems to regard the pseudonym—at least in the case of J.K. Rowling, who used the pen name “Robert Galbraith” to publish the novel The Cuckoo’s Calling—as a cheat. (He actually says “trick.”) Rowling took up the Galbraith name because she wanted the novel to be appraised without respect to her reputation; “but although the desire to be judged on one’s merits alone can strike us as noble,” Mendelsohn counters, he’s not sure “criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has already done is desirable in the first place—or, indeed, valid.”

That’s right: Mendelsohn just raised the possibility that if you aren’t familiar with an author and her work, you won’t have anything valid to say about an individual book.

Of course, one might more usefully frame the issue by asking, “To whom should criticism be desirable and valid?” By talking abstractedly about the role of the critic, the essay doesn’t seem to waste much time escalating its response from “to Daniel Mendelsohn” to “to any right-thinking reader,” and that’s where I have to get off the bus. Now, I agree with Mendelsohn that connecting an individual work to the author’s oeuvre gives critics an opportunity to tell a very interesting story about that work—but that isn’t the only interesting story a critic can tell about the work, and to suggest, even in passing, that it’s the only valid way to tell a story about that work feels rather ridiculous. (In fairness, even Mendelsohn backpedaled from that implication when we had a polite exchange on Twitter the day after his essay ran.)

Specifically, I would consider the notion The Cuckoo’s Calling cannot be sufficiently appreciated without knowing about the role of J.K. Rowling as its true author, or that no criticism of The Cuckoo’s Calling that fails to reference Rowling’s authorship can be considered “desirable,” absurd.


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14 November 2013 | uncategorized |

My (Unexpected) Ender’s Game Problem

Ender's Battle School teammates
Lionsgate Film

My relationship with Ender’s Game is, as it is for many science fiction fans, complicated. I first read the novel as a teenager in the mid-1980s, and I remember identifying with Ender Wiggin the way subsequent generations of adolescents identify with Harry Potter—classic misunderstood, unappreciated boys who turn out to be humanity’s saviors. Over the years, though, it’s become harder to recommend the novel, or even its better sequel, Speaker for the Dead, to readers because of what we’ve learned about Orson Scott Card in the last 25 years.

I don’t intend to rehash the whole “love the art if not the artist” debate here. I reread Ender’s Game about a year ago and, though it didn’t impress me as much as it had back then, I could certainly see why I’d had that reaction. As good as the novel may be, though, and I realize that’s up for argument, I’m just uncomfortable with contributing to the ongoing success of a public figure whose politics I find abhorrent—and that includes encouraging other people to buy and read his work.

So I didn’t have any plans to see the Ender’s Game movie. Then, thanks to Card’s publisher, I was given the opportunity to see an advance screening and curiosity got the best of me. And, it turned out, the film is morally troubling for entirely different reasons than many of us, including myself, might have been expecting.

Note: There will be spoilers.


31 October 2013 | uncategorized |

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