Here we pondered a bad review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing in the New York Times.
The latest kerfluffle is about an especially scathing review in the Times of Alix Ohlin’s latest books — a novel called Inside and a volume of short stories, Signs and Wonders. I’ve never heard of Ohlin, but her books have A-list publishers — Knopf and Viking — and bunches of good reviews and blurbs. The review is by William Giraldi, whom I’ve also never heard of. He’s published a novel called Busy Monsters. So what’s up? The review is online, and here’s the first paragraph:
There are two species of novelist: one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made. The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that “this world is but canvas to our imaginations,” that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity. You close “Don Quixote” and “Tristram Shandy,” “Middlemarch” and “Augie March,” and the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before, an “eternal and irrepressible freshness,” in Pound’s apt phrase. His definition of literature is among the best we have: “Language charged with meaning.” How charged was the last novel you read?
That paragraph was written by a guy who is trying way too hard. To all you would-be writers out there: Take my advice and never use a phrase like “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.” Your readers will be forever grateful.
Giraldi’s complaint about Ohlin’s work is that it “enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language.” And he gives plenty of examples. She describes teeth as white; people’s hearts sink and sing; she uses clichés like “Nice guys finish last.”
So anyway, thanks to Amazon, I was able to take a look inside Inside. And the
first chapter was, well, pretty good. She sets up an interesting situation and draws a couple of interesting characters. A young female psychotherapist goes out cross-country skiing and literally runs into a guy who has apparently just tried to hang himself. She takes him to the hospital; she takes him back to his apartment afterwards; she takes an interest. The dialog is snappy and occasionally unexpected, and the language was cliché-free; no one’s teeth are white in Chapter 1.
So then I looked at Giraldi’s novel. It too has good reviews and a mainstream publisher. But he tries too hard. He describes someone as “heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon, I’ll end all our lives.” Soilsome? WordPress’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize that word, and neither do I.
His novel is probably fine, too — it just inhabits a different universe from Ohlin’s. He will claim it’s a better universe; he’ll claim he has Thoreau and Pound on his side (neither of whom wrote any novels that I can recall).
So why would the New York Times assign Ohlin’s books to be reviewed by someone you can be reasonably confident is going to hate them? Dunno. Why bother? And, if you’re Giraldi, why write a review that makes you look like a dick? How is this going to help your career?
Here’s a balanced article in Salon about how to write a bad review. It ends with this advice:
In the end, the literary world is basically a small city. We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisc. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody’s work, you are shitting where you eat. It is important both to support each other and criticize each other, and to find ways to do both, respectfully and constructively. This means thinking things through before you open your piehole, whether it’s on Twitter or in the pages of the Times. Is that so hard?
Sounds right to me.