The Reader as Writer: Giraldi and His Gratuitous Grumblings

giraldiI don’t teach creative writing classes or attend MFA workshops or writers’ conferences, so I have no first-hand experience of the lamentable species William Giraldi is so annoyed about in his recent essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books: wannabe writers with “no usable knowledge of literary tradition [who] are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books.” For all I know, his generalizations are entirely accurate, and speaking as someone who will almost certainly never write any novels but certainly does love reading them, it does seem wrong to assume (if anyone does assume this) that “writing doesn’t demand special skills” and right to urge (or even demand, if you’re in a position to) that aspiring authors read both widely and deeply.

I’m not quite so sure that I would second Giraldi’s specific prescription, however: “decades [of] training … in canonical literature” and “an unflagging religious immersion in the great books.” As Giraldi’s own examples show, there has always been disagreement about which books are “great” or what literature is or should be “canonical.” He is confident that Henry James underestimated Middlemarch (and I, obviously, concur entirely), and it’s obvious to him that the key to writing “the next great social novel” is to study “Stendhal, James, and Austen’s half-dozen” and that Keats represents “the perfection of craft.”  But these are evaluative claims to be debated, not absolutes to be declared. Moreover, the ideal of the “important writer” as one who “kneels at the altar of literature” has its conservative as well as its elevating aspect. That the many names he drops are so predictable seems to me a symptom of the limits of his own approach: he’s so much a product of his own canonical literary education (as, of course, we all are) that it doesn’t occur to him to mention Scott, Pope, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or to mention Elizabeth Gaskell or Winifred Holtby as great social novelists. Which is fine in a way, as of course he can’t mention everybody, but he also should not imply that we all know just what books really deserve our attention.  And this is all before we even get into the discussion about whether someone aspiring to write about contemporary society might not learn something from the novels of Jodi Picoult. Giraldi apparently reads Jeffrey Eugenides without regret (at any rate, he quotes from The Marriage Plot): who is he to turn his nose up at other people’s choices? (And if people want to write like Dan Brown, well, neither Giraldi nor I will buy their books, but not all bestsellers are “lobotomized,” and before we conflate “popular” and “worthless” let’s pause to think about Dickens for a moment.)

Still, I think that discussions about which books we value and why are important ones to have. I feel fortunate to have had some very stimulating conversations about this kind of thing here at Novel Readings, usually to my own edification. Giraldi’s tone strongly suggests he isn’t interested in having a conversation – his piece is a polemic. However, it does quite rightly, if only implicitly, challenge us to think about how far we agree with him, who we might rather, or also, cite, and what we think books are for anyway. That’s all good, then. The bone I really want to pick with him is about something else – something tangential, it seems to me, to his main purpose, and gratuitously insulting to a lot of people who actually share his evident passion for reading and writing about literature.

You see, among his litany of complaints about “troubled twenty-somethings who have been bamboozled by second-raters such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and have arrived to molest you with spontaneous prose which ought to remain incarcerated inside their diaries” (see, I told you it was a polemic!) he includes swipes at things I do have first-hand experience of and indeed invest a good deal of my own time and energy on: blogs and “‘literary’ websites” (his ‘scare quotes’). “The abracadabra of the internet,” he explains,

 has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.

Seriously, William: why did you have to go there? The whole ‘bloggers are ruining everything’ trope is so old, for one thing (see, just for instance, here, here, and here). If the best you have to bring to this particular game is “blog is just one letter away from bog,” it’s actually hard to know how to respond – some old line about “what’s in a name” comes to mind. But of course it’s easier to spew hasty generalizations than to explore the literary blogosphere with an open mind and rejoice that so many people care enough about books to write about them (or to write their own). Sure, some book blogs are middling or worse, but I have always found the same to be true of an awful lot of more formally published writing in forms ranging from peer-reviewed academic journals to the pages of mainstream newspapers. For range, originality, and enthusiasm, blogs can’t be beat: if you want to read about something more than “in-vogue books,” you’re much better off exploring some of the sites on my blogroll, for instance, than reading the New York Times Book Review, and if you enjoy hearing from different voices and getting surprised by what you read, well, you’re better off reading a lot of those “literary” websites than New York Review of Books. Further, as an editor at one of those literary websites (and I’ll abandon those condescending scare quotes now!), I feel pretty good about our “hold on actual literature,” and I feel very proud of what we accomplish every month with no resources but our own deep commitment to just what Giraldi claims to be defending — that is, the art of taking literature seriously.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not countering Giraldi’s sweeping dismissal with a blanket endorsement. The challenge of the internet, as I’ve often said, is filtering. But it’s not an impossible task, and I genuinely believe it is a worthwhile one. I just wish more professional critics would not just follow Daniel Mendelsohn’s lead and acknowledge the presence of “serious longform review-essays by deeply committed lit bloggers” but also curate blogrolls of their own. And since it seems that Giraldi exempts the Los Angeles Review of Books from his indictment of online inanity (else why publish in it?), wouldn’t it do more for the cause of literature to find and encourage and promote other sites (or at least individual pieces) that live up to his standards, instead of ranting about kids these days and their dang computers?

LARBI actually hesitated to write any kind of response to Giraldi. When I mentioned his essay on Twitter, a wise friend counselled me to “skip it, not worth the stress!” And in some ways he was right. Whenever someone goes off on an anti-blogging, anti-internet rant on the internet, you know you’re being trolled, and “don’t feed the trolls” is almost as important an online rule as “don’t read the comments” (though happily that last rule mostly doesn’t apply in my corner of the blogosphere, where the comments make the whole exercise worthwhile!). Giraldi has just enough qualifiers (“largely a harvest of inanity”), too, that he can shield himself from the fall-out (“hey, I didn’t mean you guys! some of my best friends are bloggers / run ‘literary’ websites!”).

But I guess I’m just a slow learner. I don’t see why things have to be this way: I don’t see why slagging off about bloggers has to be part of anybody’s defense of criticism or literature, or why people who should know better insist on conflating form (or platform) with content…except that it’s more work to draw finer distinctions. Giraldi has said this kind of thing before (worse, really):

If you’ve ever attempted to read a review on Amazon or on someone’s personal blog, you know it’s identical to seeking relationship advice on the wall of a public restroom.

The bottom line is that I don’t think he should be able to get away with it. Frankly, I don’t think his editors should let it go by either: though I’m sure they appreciate the link-bait, they might keep in mind that some of their other contributors write “personal blogs” — or, to take it less personally, they might at least insist on some specifics and some qualifying nuances. I happen to agree with Giraldi’s summary of a critic’s ideal credentials: “the assertion of an aesthetic and moral sensibility wedded to a deep erudition.” He just needs to stop belligerently proclaiming that these qualities aren’t to be found “on the Net.” He needn’t become one of the “online coddlers” he so despises, but there’s no special virtue in being sloppily vitriolic either.  He could at least take his own advice and read widely before writing.

16 Comments to The Reader as Writer: Giraldi and His Gratuitous Grumblings

  1. August 24, 2013 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    Hello Rohan:)
    I don’t usually bother with responding to commentary dismissive of Lit blogs either – as you say, it merely betrays that its author is out of touch with a significant part of literary discourse, telling us more about the author’s failure to engage than anything else. But in this case of course, the author is also defending his turf (i.e. as a writer for the Review) by trying to dismiss the competition. I detect panic in the intemperate remarks he makes.
    In Australia we Lit bloggers also get this treatment from print reviewers, but it’s usually in the form of ignoring us altogether.
    It makes no difference – Lit blogs have moved on from being a ‘neologism’ on Wikipedia. Only a Stone Age Troglodyte fails to recognise their contribution!

  2. Peter Jobson's Gravatar Peter Jobson
    August 25, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Giraldi has opened lots of lovely worms: some I agree with, some I dismiss.

    A good Lit Blog is worth any review in any internationally famous Lit Review publication. All it takes is a discerning reader, who also has some background in what is out there. Like anything there are good & horrible when it is free.

    However, I do deplore Writers Workshops – not as forums for inspiration or discussion, but as a template to becoming a writer. I actually feel one needs to read widely. No matter the genre, those authors that have made it into the “canon” inveritably have read a lot. All of the known greats have; all profess to being voracious readers. For one thing it shows you different styles & different approaches to tackling a narrative or dialogue or developing theme. I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s Secret History, but it has always felt to me as if Tartt was presenting her thesis after sitting at the hand of Ellis.

    It is so easy to forget outside the academic realm that Dickens was the International Bestselling Author of his time. However, either he, or a damn fine editor crafted & refined his storytelling & writing. I just don’t see this today. All too often I read a contemporary book, not for the narrative or characterisation, but on the appalling writing style – the over repetition, the synopsis every 150 pages etc. This might work for those readers who have short attention spans on commutes, but it does them no service & for the rest of us it is just plain annoying. What I would love to see are editors working with young authors to make their voice theirs, but also mentor to improve and develop.

    I do have hope for contemporary fiction to give us gems that are enduring. Let’s remember – who reads Haley or Sidney Shelton today?? Badly written books will have their hype, but they won’t endure.

  3. August 25, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Giraldi comes across to me as someone who enjoys his position of superiority too much to take the time to investigate whether his attitude is accurate. If he took the time to investigate litblogs, he might find that what he does is no better and that would be a tough pill to swallow. His way of talking about what people should be reading is further evidence of this. He just drops one predictable name after another, without actually arguing for any of them, other than to say this is what you need to read to be worthy of calling yourself a reader. Whatever. If you want more people to read Melville or whomever, scolding them into it or making them feel stupid for not having gotten around to it yet is not the way. (Surely he can see that not everyone has the time to read everything worth reading.) Better to be an ambassador, letting people see what pleasure and joy they can get from these authors–perhaps by, I don’t know, setting up a Melville for Book Groups website 😉

    As for the slam on bloggers, it so clearly comes from a place of misinformation, both about the quality of blogs and the motivations of bloggers, that I can’t bring myself to care what he thinks.

  4. August 25, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    I like your point about not being able to get away with it — or that he shouldn’t be able to get away with it. His overgeneralizations are indefensible. It’s shoddy thinking and people who consider themselves intellectuals certainly should be called on it.

  5. Jeffry A. House's Gravatar Jeffry A. House
    August 25, 2013 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    As Giraldi makes clear, his own ideal is the lonely intellectual struggle of Melville, at sea and in cramped quarters, with the classic books, which he reads and rereads, whose themes he reworks and makes his own. The very scars of this battle can be seen in the notes in Melville’s own hand on the pages of Milton!

    While I suspect that this image is a stand-in for Giraldi’s own titanic struggles in grad school, it is reactionary in a number of ways. It allows for no outside voice, no critical apparatus, no feminist or Third World readings. It raises The Writer to an exalted position, with privileged insights into the sacred nature of the world. Fully compatible with German Romanticism, it fails to recognize that the Dikter’s status was based in part upon privileged access to the means of reproduction and amplification of voice.

    It is this which Giraldi finds objectionable about the internet, and about blogs–so close in sound to dogs! The literary elite can be challenged as never before, and their pronouncements brought low. Mere students, mere working people, indeed, mere professors outside the Ivy League, will be taken seriously.

    So, instead of openness to an internetted world in which millions speak, Giraldi recommends the monk’s cell, and intense lonely study of Holy Writ.

  6. August 25, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    What great comments.

    I have a process question. If Giraldi had submitted this essay to Open Letters Monthly, what would the editing be like?

    At least two major premises are based on factual errors, first that the “mind-numbing majority” of people who “complete a manuscript” are “non-readers.” At best, no one knows that this is true; at worst, it is preposterous and Giraldi is defining the reading of books he doesn’t like as “non-reading.” Reading 200 romances a year and writing 10 – I will bet this author, to Giraldi, is a non-reader.

    Second, he attributes his kind of creativity to all writers, i.e. the anguish (not true of all great writers) and the claim that “a successful novelist must spend decades training herself in canonical literature.” Thus Evelina, Frankenstein, and My Brilliant Career are not “successful”; nor, to move away from the teenagers, was The Pickwick Papers (age 25), Wuthering Heights (age 29) – this game is fun, but I will stop. Later, Giraldi returns to the teenage novelist and demands that she write Middlemarch or nothing. Although it is likely true that most novelists who last are keen students of great literature (and they are all readers, since I deny the earlier premise), that “decades of training” business is by no means true for significant numbers of important writers and novels.

    Do you OLM editors challenge this sort of guff? “How do you know this?” “You don’t need it for your argument.” That sort of thing?

    I note that your Dick Francis essay, Giraldi’s neighbor at LARB, is written in a way that any factual or interpretive claim could be defended in a seminar room. You would have a substantive answer to any “How do you know?” kind of question. Giraldi would be shredded.

    He also grossly misinterprets T. S. Eliot, but I guess I will not count that as a factual error.

  7. August 26, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    It was quite the piece, wasn’t it? I wrote about it too but focused on the reader/writer bits and ignored that I was writing it from a bog. He was an interesting contrast to an article I read about Ray Bradbury as a writing teacher and how generous and encouraging he was to new writers and how he always told them they needed to read 19th century lit (Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, etc). But Giraldi probably doesn’t think much of Bradbury’s writing and no doubt he would find much wrong with Bradbury’s advice in spite of the reading suggestions. I imagine there won’t be articles saying what a great writing teacher Giraldi was a year after his death.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      August 26, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      Your post is more generous than mine, Stefanie (I did think he crossed over into ranting!) but it’s funny that we both actually agree with him in principle. Maybe that’s why we care about the other things he says: it’s not so much “with friends like this, who needs enemies” but “what might it mean to have a friend like this?”

  8. August 29, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Nothing more to add to this great essay and discussion, Just to say again how much I enjoy your writing and thinking.

    I laughed out loud at this line: “Seriously, William: why did you have to go there?” Excellent.

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