Mark Athitakis Newsletter #6

Critical standards, tough love, harp music.

Front Matter

I’m bouncing around in two new-ish books by critics that are largely about criticism. One is William Giraldi’s American Audacity, a fix-up of various essays he’s written in recent years; the other is Michelle Dean’s Sharp, a set of biographical sketches of 20th century American women critics. There’s a little common ground between the two---they might have a few thoughts to share about Cynthia Ozick, say, or Francine Prose. But mostly I picture the two sitting across from each other in a room, arms folded, silent.

That’s because however much they might agree on the value of good writing and good criticism, they define those things mean quite differently. Giraldi is an advocate for high literary standards, though whenever he writes standards I imagine him saying it in an officious, John Houseman sort of way. He’s not here for identity politics or relativism or lyricism or any such guff. “Writers must exert an archaic mindfulness,” he writes in his introduction. “They must resist a relinquishing of the past and a disprizing of standards.”

Dean, for her part, wants to celebrate the things that push art forward, that are perfectly happy to relinquish the past; she’s mindful of the fact that, for women writers, adhering to standards often meant working in a room that didn’t want them there, prohibiting them from saying things that they felt ought to be said. Dean’s comments on Pauline Kael, for instance, dwells less on the defining qualities of her criticism than those who challenged her right to express it, from grudge-bearing Andrew Sarris to fusty old William Shawn,. Dean spends a lot of time on the evolution of these critics because she believes a writer finding her voice is as interesting a process as what she has to say.

She’s more correct about that than I’d expected; many of the writers Dean covers began their careers writing in restrictive environments that they had to muscle their voices into. Dorothy Parker chafed against the glorified ad copy of fashion magazines, Renata Adler was hemmed in by the format of Times movie reviews, Janet Malcolm within the litr’y atmosphere of The New Republic, where her film writing was more casual and her opinions too dismissive for many readers’ comfort. Dean mentions that Malcolm was once was taken to task in the letters pages by a male self-declared “student of motion pictures.” “Mr. Kaufman is a ‘student of motion pictures’ and I am not,” Malcolm smirkingly replied. “How can we agree?”

Another mocking letter-writer complained that Malcolm’s “standards seem so high.” Maybe the problem with standards is that often only one class of critic is permitted to have them.

This is not the same thing as saying that, in advocating for standards, Giraldi is being sexist, though he was accused of as much when he gave a pair of books by Alix Ohlin both barrels in the New York Times Book Review a few years back. (For instance.) But Giraldi was mainly just holding firm on what he considered good writing. That piece isn’t included in American Audacity---presumably because Ohlin is Canadian and hence incompatable with the book’s theme. But its absence has the good fortune of keeping Giraldi from looking like a hatchet man.

All the same, I wish Giraldi were clearer about what those standards are; he’s a brilliant collector of quotes, but often leans heavily on them instead of articulating his own argument. And it might be useful for him to explore how the writers he admires set their own standards, as Dean does. Still, I want Sharp to spend more time sounding out the ideas that Sontag, Didion, etc, were wrestling with. Giraldi and Dean may not share a lot of common ground, but you’d make a fine critic out of one who shares their virtues.

Concierge Desk

I don’t write a lot of hatchet jobs---though occasionally the job demands it---and I don’t really get much of a thrill from reading them, either. At least not recent ones; perhaps the internet has made the negative review more of a performative act than it once was. So think of this list as more an example of four cases of tough love from a critics.

Elizabeth Hardwick, “The Decline of Book Reviewing” (Harper’s, October 1959) Every generation delivers us a critic rending his or her garments over how book-review culture that is too clubby, nice, etc. Nearly 60 years on, this remains the strongest one I’ve read. Hardwick takes issue not with praise as such but the hollowness with which it’s delivered, and its consequences. It becomes a “sort of hidden dissuader, gently, blandly, respectfully denying whatever vivacious interest there might be in books or in literary matters generally.”

Dwight Macdonald, “By Cozzens Possessed” (Commentary, January 1958)---Macdonald’s demolition of James Gould Cozzens’ By Love Possessed---and the chorus of critics praising his now-pretty-much-forgotten novel---arguably denied the book a Pulitzer, and remains untoppable in terms of erudition and ferocity. You can sense the giddiness Macdonald had writing it, which is at once off-putting and edifying. Macdonald sent a copy of his review to Cozzens, who wrote snapped back that Macdonald’s “imperceptiveness is, for an educated adult, quite remarkable.” But by then Cozzens had lost the fight.

William Giraldi, “Letter to a Young Critic” (Daily Beast, Sept. 5, 2012)---This essay is absent from American Audacity, which is curious because it serves as a formal statement of purpose. Long story short---look for evidence of thinking, not feeling. “[As a critic] you’ll be dealing with people for whom thinking is not a particularly strong skill set—they feel very much, they react very well, but they don’t have much talent for thought.”

Clive James, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered”---James’ bilious, hilarious poem is an act of criticism that targets not just the enemy’s “much-prized effort” (an award-winner, perhaps?) but the culture that elevates mediocrity, reviews included. “All those thoughtful reviews / Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy’s book – / For behold, here is that book / Among these ranks and banks of duds, / These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns / Of complete stiffs.”

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What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

John Wilson praises Donald Hall’s final essays; Sarah Smarsh, in an excerpt from her new book, Heartland, writes on how bodies bear the burden of healthcare policy; David Kordahl makes Errol Morris’ quarrel with Thomas Kuhn mostly clear to me as somebody who’s twice puzzled over The Structure of Scientific Revolutions; B.D. McClay pays tribute to literature’s secondary characters; Astra Taylor reminds us that when it comes to automation, there’s always somebody behind the curtain.

End Notes

I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure---can’t imagine why!---and on the way to pick up my medication the radio was playing a set of songs by harpist Mary Lattimore. Her work has been a balm for the past week. I’m fond of this track, though I also like At the Dam, inspired in part by Joan Didion’s essay of the same title.

Thanks for reading. I’m on vacation next week, so the newsletter is too. Send correspondence to mathitak@gmail.comBuy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.