Several days ago, my old friends at The New Criterion clued me in to a source of considerable water-cooler hilarity: an interview with the poet August Kleinzahler in the latest Paris Review, in which he makes this reply to a question about why he doesn't write more negative reviews:
Journals, or the few I write for, don't really like negative reviews. Also, there's a real argument that they're not worth writing. Sure, wannabe poets like William Logan and Adam Kirsch make their living that way, but they come off, even when more or less justified in their distaste or indignation, as sour fuddy-duddies, reactionary buffoons trotted out by the Times or whomever to provoke and exasperate. What interests me very mildly about such characters–The New Criterion seems to indulge this sort of thing–are their affinities with the neo-cons in politics. It's a strange sort of temperament and worldview that seems informed by what I imagine to be some thwarting or traumatic psycho-sexual event early on that has turned them into disappointed old men at twenty-five. I think many of them attended Dartmouth at some point and wear bowties, no?
What interests me–very mildly, of course–about this passage is how badly it gets the critical mentality wrong. Twenty-five long and disappointing years have familiarized me with the sort of argument or pseudo-argument Kleinzahler makes. I've spotted it most recently in reviews of this book, and in some unhinged replies to this essay by Roger Kimball, many of which were preoccupied by Roger's bowtie. (Kleinzahler is mistaken about the Dartmouth Bowtie Axis of Crabbiness, but I can forgive him that. I used to believe that all liberals wore hemp ponchos and played with devil sticks on lunch break.) If I had to compress Kleinzahler's reply, the first half, with apologies to Thumper, would read, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all," and the second, "These guys just need to get laid."
In other words, the critic is like Frankenstein's monster: He only wants to wound because he's never been loved. A genuine interest in standards doesn't enter into it, and why should it? As one commenter wrote below my Mailer post, "Prevailing critical standards, high or otherwise, have nothing to do with classics, future or past." We expect great works to appear by magic, much as we go on expecting a magical solution to our oil crisis. Or, lest I stray too far off track, our reading crisis:
Harry Potter, James Patterson and Oprah Winfrey's, book club aside, Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.
That is the message of a new report being released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Departments and the Census Bureau as well as other academic, foundation and business surveys. After its 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” which found that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, the endowment sought to collect more comprehensive data to build a picture of the role of all reading, including nonfiction.
In his preface to the new 99-page report Dana Gioia, chairman of the endowment, described the data as “simple, consistent and alarming.”
So Americans don't read, and the ones who do don't criticize. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the two problems are related. As it has become "fuddy-duddyish" to have a frank opinion–even a "more or less justified" one–the spirit of debate and competition that animates literature has waned. (How telling, by the way, that Mailer's defenders are shocked, shocked to see his pugilistic approach turned against him. They adore the pose, but only when it's struck by a safe, familiar cartoon character.) The thing about that spirit is that it's fun, not "sour" or "disappointed." It's what many of us signed up for. It may not have everything to do with the cultivation of genius or the production of great works, but it certainly helps, as criticism surely does for literature what shame once did for behavior–that is, keep it in line.
We hear an awful lot, mostly at the grade-school level, about "making reading fun." At the adult level, that's what criticism is for: It puts the honest conscience of a reader on the page, and you either identify with it or you don't. Nothing makes reading less fun than turning it into some kind of therapy session where everyone gets points just for trying. Mailer may have been so self-absorbed that he wrote his own obituary, but I'll give him this much: He wouldn't have whined about bad reviews. He would have come back swinging, and that, for better or worse, is a matter of record.