Sometimes, it’s good to be tied up with other things. It gives a person time to think.
A little while back, there was a dust-up between a few contributors to Slate, Salon, and the NY Times about the supposed hyper-niceness of book reviews. The critcs of the hyper-nice book review want to see blood in the water; they want to see writers spitting on other writers who write critical reviews, or writers shooting up the reviewer’s novel and mailing it to the reviewer, or, at the very least, to read or hear slighted authors offer up their best rejoinders to nasty critics as if the greatest parlor game in American letters is the Shakerspearian style artful insult. The supporters of the positive book review culture seem to want the literary world to put on a convivial face for the public and follow that old addage that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Into this melee always gets inserted a little caveat here and there that these tempests over reviews, ultimately, don’t matter to the average reader because the average reader doesn’t “follow” literary writers, or even read reviews except when they’re desperate for a recommendation. However, one camp, it seems, beleives that if we increase the number of these tempests, the average reader will come see what all the fuss is about and then hang around to sample the items being argued over. The other camp, it seems, believes that having such public displays of nastiness will only drive readers further away, as if readers were children fleeing the living room when mom and dad argue, and that nice reviews at least make an attempt to lure the average reader into taking a chance on a book.
To me, both arguments are weak, and do not go deep enough into the problem facing “literary” writing in America – a problem that isn’t going to be solved by rougher book reviews, or sweetness and light.
The problem, in my view, isn’t one of a too-nice literary landscape. And, although I used to believe in the power of arguments, I no longer so firmly believe that a good literary dust-up is just the tonic to revive interest in literary fiction. You see, the problem isn’t in how writers and our critics interact – it’s that the general, non-writerly audience believes they aren’t intelligent enough to both participate in the discussion of books nor to stand behind and support their own opinions about the works being discussed. A literary dust-up between writers is useless if the people witness to the dust-up can’t understand what is being argued about (like a couple of Montana cowboys overhearing two Brits aruging about cricket). And a too nice book review will only reinforce the problem we currently have when the reader finishes the praised book and feels disappointed that their experience didn’t live up to the experience the critic had.
For example: I have, at various stages in my writing life, shown my writing to an assortment of non-writer, non-literary friends and family and asked for their opinions, thoughts, and comments. I’ve made every effort to ask pointed, but open-ended questions that give them something specific to think about, but don’t lead them to a specific answer. I want their unvarnished responses afterall. However, in most cases, I get responses along the lines of “oh, I’m not smart enough to get it” or “That’s probably not what you wanted me to say.” It was as if these otherwise intelligent, confident people suddenly believed themselves to be stupid when confronted with a text that didn’t spoon feed them its intentions, or they were somehow afraid they wouldn’t provide the “correct” answer.
It happened just enough that I began to think back to my own experience with literature and how I went from hating so-called “literary writers” (i.e. the dead white guys, members of the western canon) to loving those writers and, finally, attempting to join their ranks. For me, it all started in high school.
First, let me say that my experience in high school English classes is not universal to every high school student in America. It’s not even universal to everyone I went to high school with. However, I think my experience is similar enough to a broad number of people’s experience to be useful in making my point.
Like most people, I never took Advanced Placement Eglish classes (or what my high school later called “College Bound” English). I was always in the regular English classes (or Vocational English, I think is what my school later called it). In my English classes there was a lot of emphasis placed on grammar and identifying parts of speech because that was always a weakness for most of the students, and not much emphasis was placed on reading and thinking about literature. We read Shakespeare, of course, but most of our literature assignments came out of the Prentice Hall Literature textbooks. I think in four years of high school English I was only ever assigned to read an entire novel once.
Now, I don’t want to be too critical of my high school English teachers, nor of teachers in general – teachers are vitally important and should be better paid and schools should be better funded (fund schools before armies and you will rarely need an army). Unfortunately, teachers are overwhelmed by crowded classes, by students with erratic skill levels and a distinct lack of focus. Because of that, in my English classes, our rare discussions of the stories we read out of our Prentice Hall anthologieswe were corralled toward one single right answer regarding “theme” or “meaning.” There were a number of times in class where I didn’t agree with the conclusion the class was being driven toward and my divergences were neither allowed to be discussed, nor encouraged when I chose to write about them. I was simply “wrong,” or at least counter-encouraged to conform my thinking to the teacher’s goal, which was derived from the “answers” in her teacher’s edition. For a lot of teachers, even the good ones, what goes on in a classroom is about reaching a kind of consensus of understanding so that the class can be moved along to the next spot in the lesson plan. Some students, I think, absorb the perception that they are “wrong” about a story and begin to believe they’re stupid. Some embrace a kind of ant-intellectual zeal. And still others disengage, harboring some secret suspicion that their thoughts and feelings about a story are just as valid as those opinions written in red ink in the teacher’s manual – but, of course, unless they end up majoring in English, never have that assumption of their failure challenged. They toddle off into the world with a kind of intellectual learned helplessness, and either never read literary fiction on their own again, or opt for easy to grasp genre fiction.
I disengaged. My thinking was that if the so-called “important” works of literature only had one interpretation, only one lesson to be taught, and those interpretations and lessons were already figured out for us, then there was no point in reading them for myself – I simply had to take other people’s word for it; furthermore, since I didn’t think or feel the designated interpretation or lesson that I was told was there, then it had to mean I either wasn’t smart enough to get it, or the lesson wasn’t that important or as meaningful as the “lit professors” wanted us to believe. Those lit professors were, after all, just trying to justify their existence – right?
That fall-back on rote, the pressure teachers and school boards are under to show “progress,” is, in my opinion, the problem with school: in an effort to make functional workers and citizens out of our children, to meet ridiculous test scores to get funding, what goes on in schools (both private and public) often wipes out people’s trust in their native intelligence. Not everyone is a Picasso, an Einstein, or a Shakespeare, but unless someone has a true mental or cognitive disability, they can read and engage with any kind of literature – as long as they trust and believe in their own ability learn and comprehend. Sometimes, school shames that ability out of people.
Any decent and honest writer will admit that once a story has been finished and passed on to be read by someone else, that story and its “meaning” are no longer under the writer’s control. The act of reading is, itself, a form of authorship. The reader brings all their knowledge and experience in the world to the story they are reading and, in the act of traversing the text, they assign their own meaning to the story – and sometimes, that same reader can read the story at different stages in his life and come away with an entirely different meaning than the one they teased out the first time. Or, to spin it another way, no two people read exactly the same story, and a single person never reads exactly the same story twice.
The knowledge that I was the author of my own reading experience was kept from me in high school. Literature was presented to me as a monolithic mass, as rigid and impenetrable to me as math, and which had a key to its comprehension that I didn’t have and couldn’t acquire. There were right and wrong answers and those answers simply didn’t fit with what happened in my head when I read those stories. And so, when I picked up books to read, I picked up books that weren’t presented as “important” and that didn’t have a phallanx of supporting documents behind them telling me what that story “meant.” I went for science fiction, horror, adventure, humor. I went for writers and books that I believed I was capable of understanding, rather than picking book I wanted to understand. I chose books where I knew no one would tell me that what I thought about a story was “wrong” or “off the mark,” or “a distraction.” Of course, I also read books simply for shock value (The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie turned some heads when I started carrying it around in high school – never mind it took me two tries before it finally clicked and made sense – but that, too, is an important thing to note).
Then, I got to college and my constructed world of hate toward “literary” fiction, toward the old dead white guys, fell apart. Oddly enough, it all began because I was more afraid of math than literature. When I enrolled at Kansas State, my first inclination was to major in journalism. Then I looked at the requirements for a B.A. in journalism: Economics and College Algebra were on the list. I was panicked for about an hour, then I stumbled across the English/Creative Writing major, which only required a single 100 level math course that could be fulfilled by “Math, its Forms and Impacts” or, as it was more colloquially known, “Math for Dummies.” Now, I’d been writing short stories since the sixth grade and the fact that I could major in it was like finding out I could do cocaine and not have any of the negative side effects. So, I decided to major in English/Creative Writing and wage war against the old dead white guys in the Literature courses I would have to take (that seemed just as useless but easier than taking math because I at least knew how to argue).
The old dead white guys won, however. They won the moment it was explained to me in my Introduction to Literary Studies course (Professor Carol Franco rocks) that there were no right or wrong answers in the study of literature. All that mattered was my ability to adequately and logically support my arguement about a piece of lterature. If I thought Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Fathers and Sons” was a pre-men’s movement critique of rigid masculine gender rolls, and I could provide strong enough arguments, along with support from other texts (like Sam Keen’s Fire In The Belly), then so be it: Hemingway was criticising gender roles. I wasn’t any more right or wrong than anyone else in the class. It was a complete, and total, spiritual revelation for me that literature was not a lecture, or a predetermined problem with a specific solution, but, in fact, a conversation. Even if the author was dead, there was still an ongoing conversation between that dead writer and me, and between me and other readers.
The best writers, I’ve decided, are the ones who start conversations we can’t ignore and can’t stop rejiggering.
In high school, I had hated Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and a host of other “classic” American writers because I felt that being able to think about them in a personally meaningful way for me was incorrect and that my inability to come up with an answer the teacher wanted was a sign of my ignorance and lack of intelligence. However, by the time I finished my BA, I had filled an entire shelf on my bookcase with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and was softening on the denser Faulkner. I had wandered into the Beats, especially Kerouac, and I’d found a love for poetry that had been dormant after being bored to death by one too many “concrete poems” about swimming, or trees.
So, from my point of veiw, the problem with American letters isn’t the tone of our book reviews. As both sides in the argument seem to acknowledge, the average reader doesn’t read a lot of book reviews, if any at all. Therefore it doesn’t really matter if we in the literary community put on a happy face or a frowny face. We’re doing it in a vaccuum, or, at its worst, we’re that obnoxious couple in a restaurant that’s either overdoing the public-displays-of-affection, or having a nonesense argument at a full-tilt, screaming volume.
As a writer, and as someone practiced in the codified discussion of literature among literati, a good or bad review of a novel isn’t going to sway me one way or another, so I guess it doesn’t even matter in an insular sense whether book reviews lean toward nice or nasty.
Positive or vicious, the problem with our book reviews – and our literary culture in general – is that it is a conversation among initiates who misunderstand the reason why the “average” reader isn’t reading certain books. I’ve read postive book reviews that get into the metafiction qualities of the book being reviewed. “Oh, this novel is about the way we approach novels in modern society,” went the last book review I read. Wow. Really? My romance novel loving aunt would read that “review” (read: micro-master’s thesis) and tell herself that she wasn’t smart enough to understand a novel about that kind of thing, much less enjoy its surface story – whatever it was (I honestly can’t remember). The average reader, beaten down by an education system that is good at teaching mechanical and technical matters but not always very good at teaching the subtler, personal notions that surround the interpretation of art, is never going to be persuaded to read a piece of “literary fiction” that is promoted or denigrated as being a commetary on the place of novels in society, or a novel about “the way we live now” as Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe are often billed. My romance novel reading aunt doesn’t need to be told “how she lives now” because she is living . . . now. She’ll probably never pick up James Joyce, or Jack Kerouac, or even Susan Sontag or Joyce Carol Oates, and that’s fine, but she shouldn’t avoid picking them up because she thinks she’s too dumb to get what those authors have put down.
Listen, literary ficiton is always going to lose out, in the short term, to fluffier fiction. The Dan Browns of the world will always outsell the Philip Roths of the the world in any given year. Literary novels, even those with excellent stories and fast-paced plots, will aways be more “difficult” than so-called “popular” plot-driven, stereotype filled novels. But because the “difficult” literary novels will always start the best conversations, they’ll hang around longer. Therefore, in my opinion, we don’t need to get meaner or nicer . . . we need to get more accessible and talk about books in a way that gives the average reader the confidence in their native intelligence to engage in the conversation.