There’s a momentarily disturbing flash of vertigo that accompanies reading a critical pronouncement from somebody you trust. It’s your own fault, which doesn’t make things any easier: after all, you had to give that trust in the first place. That’s a slow process; you start out warily, distrusting not only random chance (almost anybody can write a good 800 words at least once in their life) but serendipity (you distrust the longest the critics you agree with the most, or you should). There’s a certain glow on the page when an active, engaged mind has managed to capture itself in words, and that glow is the sum and essence of why reading is better than standing out in the rain. I follow that glow; I hunt for it in every venue I can tolerate, which is why I subscribe to as many magazines as I do (and the sheer number of non-subscribed magazines I buy on a regular basis is a dark secret known only between me and my chic, super-slim Barnes & Noble cashier).
Sometimes, too often – and by means of a black alchemy I’ve never been able to deconstruct – writers who are entirely without that glow climb high anyway, gain bully pulpits they in no way deserve and hold on to those pulpits while churning out an astonishing amount of crap. The huge proliferation of digital writing in the last ten years (during which, thanks to computers and the Internet, more words have been circulated for the reading of others than in all the rest of human history combined) has been a warning and a boon on this topic: the Republic of Letters is no longer policed by an outgunned and sometimes complacent constabulary of 25 movie critics, 20 book-critics, 5 theater critics, 2 art critics, and 2 trenchcoat-wearing, suicide-contemplating omnivores. We live in an age of opinion proliferation – nothing is produced, written, filmed, collaged, manufactured, upgraded, posted, spoken, acted, or televised anymore without also instantly being reviewed. Everybody’s a critic.
It greatly expands the amount of crap, yes, but it also greatly expands the number of potentially trustworthy opinionizers – and the process of giving that trust remains comfortingly identical: you listen to somebody over time, compare (as much as possible) their judgements with your own, and eventually reach a point where you say, “Oh, So-and-So! I definitely want to know what So-and-So thinks about X.”
That’s where the vertigo comes in – because once you trust a critic, you don’t want to disagree with that critic. Not fundamentally, not in on a crockery-throwing level. Friendly disagreement is the very seed-bed of intellectual growth, a fundamentally humanist process I wouldn’t do without in a million years, despite the fact that my uninterruptedly Irish heritage graces me with, erm, a Brendan Behan-level of certitude (Behan-levels of other things too, but that’s a post for another day). When John Cotter champions some artist or poet or writer, I might (just possibly) mock, but I also listen; when Sam Sacks spins his Whartonian web around some new novelist I myself would have dismissed, I might (just possibly) mock, but I also sit back and quietly re-evaluate. When Gordon Wood takes to task some recent work of history I liked, I swallow my initial indignation and read to see if he saw some flaw I missed. When B. R. Myers takes a moment to eviscerate some new piece of work, I take a moment to pray it isn’t something I liked, and I school myself to patience if it is.
It’s the moment you aren’t sure – or rather, the first moment you are – the gives rise to the vertigo. It’s like what I imagine a ‘trust fall’ would be, if I were ever flat-out insane enough to try one.
I experienced that moment of vertigo a few times in the new issue of the Atlantic, for instance. I thought Ann Patchett’s essay about her own bookstore would be unbearably precious, but it wasn’t. I thought Jeffrey Goldberg’s case in favor of more guns in civilian hands would be reactionary knee-jerking designed to goose readership, and although it’s getting just that readership, the piece itself is a marvel of careful narration, genuinely thought-provoking. I thought Walter Mosley’s short story “Reply to a Dead Man” would be glossy-magazine slumming of the kind Stephen King does with such hideous regularity, but it was quietly masterful, a perfect vindication of the Atlantic‘s decision to run fiction more regularly.
But those things, as momentarily disorienting as they were, couldn’t come close to the vertigo-moments produced in my own little patch of yard: book-reviewing. Perhaps nowhere else is the feeling so personal, the hope of agreement so sharp, and in this issue the two main attractions at the back are powerhouses: the Atlantic‘s own literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, and The New Republic‘s Isaac Chotiner.
With Schwarz, at least this time around, there wasn’t much danger: he’s reviewing, celebrating really, the at-last completion of The Essays of Virginia Woolf in six volumes from Hogarth, and since Virginia Woolf’s book-essays are the font from which every last one of us springs whether we know it and like it or not, I didn’t really have a moment of wondering whether or not Schwarz would pan her. Instead, I got to sit back and revel in his gorgeous praise of her work, the praise of a master of the form for she who is mistress over all: “Taken as a whole, Woolf’s essays are probably the most intense paean to reading – an activity pursued not for a purpose but for love – ever written in English.”
No, my real worry came when I got to Chotiner’s piece, for two reasons: first, he’s a more naturally pugnacious writer than Schwarz (which is a great quality when he’s punching somebody I hate, but otherwise …), and second, his subject this time around is Salman Rushdie’s latest book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. I’ve been watching with appalled fascination the growing tsunami of bad reviews this book has been gathering from all sides – fascination and confusion, since I liked the book and wouldn’t have considered it deserving of vituperation even if I hadn’t (another part of my confusion arose from my mounting conviction that most critics weren’t really getting what Rushdie was trying to do in the book, which is always frustrating).
Chotiner hates it, and true to form, he hates much more: his piece is called “How the Mullahs Won,” and his outrageous thesis is that the 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini flattened Rushdie’s talent:
Before the fatwa, Salman Rushdie wrote two great books, Midnight’s Children (1980) and Shame (1983). Since the fatwa, he has not written any.
And he summons in support of this claim the very observation I’d have summoned first to refute it:
Before the fatwa, Rushdie brilliantly exposed the corrupt dynasties and pathologies of two sundered societies (India and Pakistan). Since the fatwa, Rushdie has allowed flamboyant language and narrative trickery to overshadow biting political satire and acute characterization.
The essay that opens out from these points is rigorously intelligent and beautifully written – and entirely, almost molecularly, wrong, wrong, wrong. Nowhere is theJoseph Anton’s power or considerable under-fire charm given anything but accidental credit – instead, it’s death by a thousand small cuts, with the court’s summation being that although Rushdie’s courage during his wandering exile-years was exemplary, the exile itself completely mis-directed him from his creative purposes. As far as vertigo goes, this was Hitchcock-level.
That vertigo – the feeling of knowing you’re about to disagree with a critic whose judgement you respect – is fairly disorienting, sure, but the salvation is that it does no long-standing harm. I’ll follow my standard practice and re-read Joseph Anton in a year or so (once the dust settles, as it were), with a completely open mind but also, inevitably now, with Chotiner’s tirade in the back of my mind. If he’d uttered that tirade here in my book-filled, dog-haunted living room, over wine, I’d have howled in amazement, but I suspect we’d have embraced at night’s end just the same. Because very much unlike the real thing, there’s a distinct element of fun in this kind of vertigo.
And who knows? He might end up being right.