24 July 2007

Not So Miscellaneous

If there's a theme today, it's "one's perspective matters." So, I suppose, the following items aren't really miscellaneous.

  • The president of the National Book Critics' Circle is whingeing about the elimination of newspaper book critics. My sarcastic initial response before reading the article, but after seeing the article title, is that the poor quality of too many reviews — in particular, the refusal to call bovine excrement what it really is — has already poisoned the well. Too many times, though, that's as much the fault of the review page editors as it is of the reviewers. And then there's this arrogant, self-aggrandizing prose that makes my sarcastic initial response seem understated:

    Beware, I say, lest the whole edifice of modern democratic society collapse if a stake is driven through its heart. That's what killing books and arts reviewing means. We must constantly be indulging ourselves in the freeplay of critical intelligence. Is the new De Lillo book good? What about Pynchon's Against the Day? Mary Gaitskill's Veronica? Is the new Arcade Fire really good? And what about the new Electrelane album, No Shouts, No Calls? We modern humans need to be able to read critics wrestling with their own feelings about such works of art. We don't want them to be invoking authorities who have sent down the word that a particular work is worthy. And we don’t need authorities recognized as such by society telling us to tune out of works of art the way the self-styled "Dean of America" Stanley Fish does. You don't need to give a work of art the taste-test, he's written. All you need to know is whether it comes to you by a card-carrying writer; your reactions to the work are irrelevant.

    (typography corrected) If this is what passes for serious thought about book criticism by the president of the NBCC, no wonder newspaper book reviews are in trouble. Shooting Fish in a barrel is one thing; my dog can come up with more-cogent criticisms of his nonsense; but is this the best rhetorically that the president of an association of critics can do?

  • Critical respect goes both ways. What must Joanne Rowling to do earn any "respect"? In this particular instance, "audience awareness" matters in a way that Fish never could understand. One of the primary weaknesses of any "respect" analysis of works outside the High Ivory Tower school of lit'rature is that the lack of respect between that High Ivory Tower and the unwashed masses is pretty mutual (for some good, and some bad, reasons).
  • Consider, too, how we get books — respectable or otherwise — in front of prospective buyers. That does not mean the buyers for the chain stores, most of whom don't actually read what they "buy" (and are therefore like the newspaper owners criticized, with some justice, in the first item above); it means people who work at corporations but still read and people overwhelmed by the information overload coming out of Hollywood.
  • Last, and far from least for the moment, we have Lt Col Abraham doing his duty. In many ways, it's a shame that he fell back on "it's my duty as a lawyer," because objecting to contra-Constitutional measures is also his duty as a military officer. Of course, his chances of making O–6 are now less than zero, but I'm proud to welcome him to the club of those who've fallen on our swords. (We're usually the ones in the back of the O-club bar, with a clear path to the exit that doesn't require us to go past the pilots, submariners, and tank jockeys.)