This late in the year, for good or ill, the year’s publishing success stories are fairly well known – both “success” in terms of sales and “success” in terms of critical worth (and the rare, happy instances where the two coincide). So a negative review of one of these success stories jumps off the page, and recently in the Penny Press I noticed a distinct whiff of the iconoclastic.
It started small: in The New Republic, Kate Bolnick reviews Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, her history of the infamous Salem Witch Trials and at one point veers slightly away from the peals of universal praise the book has prompted:
Indeed, Schiff is so convincing about the personal motivations driving these powerful men, I was surprised to see her take up the longstanding feminist assertion that by making themselves “heard” the bewitched girls exhibited an unprecedented agency – America’s first feminist uprising. From where I sit, it seems more likely that an internalized misogyny compelled the young women to send their elders to their deaths, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffrage movement, when, as Schiff argues, “a different scourged encouraged [women] to raise their voices.”
It’s a minor thing – one quick paragraph in a review that’s otherwise entirely full of praise – but it stuck out; as far as I know, those have been the only words of even slight dissatisfaction that any reviewer in any major venue has directed at Schiff’s book. Over in the latest New York Review of Books, for instance, John Demos gives the book its customary wall-to-wall praise.
Ah, but elsewhere in that same New York Review of Books I found even more idol-tipping going on. The idol in the first instance being more the author than the book: Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Economist, reviews Heretic, the new book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has for years been one of the darlings of the more self-congratulatory echelons of the Republic of Letters, a Muslim woman who renounced her faith and risked her life by speaking and writing against the barbarities of her former ideological world.
There are several problems with her approach. These include such troubling aspects as her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large.
But in purely literary terms, no chorus of praise has been more vocal and uniform than the critical reaction to Hanya Yanagihara’s massive novel A Little Life – which only served to heighten my interest when I realized that elsewhere in this NYRB, Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the best book-critics working today, wrote a piece on the book that was, to put it mildly, disenchanted. I started the piece eagerly – and was almost immediately frustrated, then irritated, then enraged.
We know, alas, that the victims of abuse often end up unhappily imprisoned in cycles of (self-) abuse. But to keep showing this unhappy dynamic at work is not the same thing as creating a meaningful narrative about it. Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel and more like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.
Likewise he has plenty of negative things to say about the book’s actual prose:
The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical … and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects … You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out – and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.
(The ellipses were two singled-out lines from the book, each demonstrating the mentioned flaw; Mendelsohn knows perfectly well that such a trick – pulling a handful of lines out of a massive text – will work on any large novel ever written … why, I could show you sentences from The Golden Bowl that would make each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine … but he pulls it anyway with utter serenity)
And what of the dozens of Mendelsohn’s fellow reviewers (not to mention the book’s thousands of readers) who obviously didn’t consider sentence-level lapses worth mentioning in the face of the sheer power of the narrative? That mention of “critics and prize juries” should have set you to worrying, but Mendelsohn doesn’t leave things to chance: he addresses two of those fellow reviewers directly, Jon Michaud in The New Yorker and Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic, attacking the praise they lavished on the book. His strong implication is that he could have gone right down the line of such reviewers if he’d had the space and time.
Long before I got to this point in the piece, I’d realized that this isn’t book criticism – it’s simple bitchiness, of a bitterly disingenuous type. There is no chance – absolutely zero chance – that Mendelsohn would have written a review anything like this before Yanagihara’s novel reaped all its praise; this isn’t an assessment of the book, it’s a tetchy little gripe about bandwagon-jumping. And as if that weren’t bad enough, our one lone voice of critical sanity in a vast wasteland takes things one step further: he starts speculating on why the novel has been such a hit – after some incredibly condescending throat-clearing, that is:
It may be that the literary columns of the better general interest magazines are the wrong place to be looking for explanations of why this maudlin work has struck a nerve among readers and critics both. Recently, a colleague of mine at Bard College … drew my attention to an article from Psychology Today about a phenomenon that has been bemusing us and other professors we know: what the article refers to as “declining student resilience.”
And what are the details, you may ask, of this article that’s been bemusing Mendelsohn and his fellow academics? They revolve around coddled undergraduates who’ve begun checking themselves in to student counseling services to deal with the trauma of spotting a mouse in the dorm room or having a mean roommate. And while such examples may have sparked some tittering in the faculty lounge, Mendelsohn is quick to expound on the deeper problems they represent:
As comical as those particular instances may be, they remind you that many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general. In a culture where victimhood has become a claim of status, how could Yanagihara’s book – with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence – not provide a kind of comfort?
A quick Google-check of the thirty-something book reviewers who praised A Little Life in the major literary journals and “better general interest magazines” puts their average age at roughly forty-five. They’re not coddled, clueless adolescents afraid of mice. But it doesn’t matter to Mendelsohn, lost as he is in a fog of patronization: if you liked A Little Life, you’re not just wrong – you’re psychologically spongy, an addled student taking craven comfort from all the wrong things while Daniel Mendelsohn and his fellow adults look on, bemused. Right underneath its priggish, swanning outrage it’s actually a whopping insult to virtually all his equals in the world of professional book-reviewing. Equals who weren’t just wrong to like A Little Life despite its flaws but who are childishly ignorant if they liked it.
When I finished the piece, I was right away curious what those book-reviewing equals might make of it. John Powers of NPR, Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal, Jenny Davidson for Bookforum, and the list goes on – does it bother them, that Mendelsohn is saying their careful, well-articulated estimations of A Little Life are not only wrong but merit them a sidebar article in Psychology Today? Probably they all take it with admirable equanimity. For myself? Well, I too review books for a living, and I too was blown away by A Little Life – and this particular idol-bashing royally ticked me off.