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Peer Review: The Opinions on “Strong Opinions”

By (March 1, 2008) No Comment

Diary of a Bad Year

By J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 2007

Regular readers of literary blogs and some of the more prominent American periodicals have long endured critics’ lamentations about the decline of book reviewing. In April, 2007 the National Book Critics Circle rang the death knell with its “Campaign to Save Book Reviews” in response to regional newspapers dumping or winnowing their book sections. The public no longer cares about books, we were told, or does not have the wit to judge reasoned, crafted analysis from narcissistic, ARC-bought blog blather. Perhaps most newspaper book pages don’t excel at showcasing much insightful analysis, but reviews are like consumer reports: customers use them to quickly assess a book’s content and potential appeal. They can’t all be The New York Review of Books, and as for the Internet, well, what about the seven or eight people in upstate Maine who don’t have Internet access?

For all those who tremble at what the loss of book review space could mean for Western civilization, fear not! After several weeks of investigating twenty-three reviews published on three continents of J.M. Coetzee’s newest novel Diary of a Bad Year, I bring to the NBCC the solution to all of its problems. Or, to be more specific, a constructive point of criticism: when one writes a review, somewhere amidst the detailed plot summary (which we all appreciate) and the earnest thumbs up or down (how could we live without it), one should remember to explain, even obliquely refer to, the reasoning behind one’s judgement. To harbor so lowly an ambition as to be nothing more than a longer bit of jacket copy is no way to impress the reading public.

The main culprit behind this trend is restrictive word count limits. It is difficult to make room for meaningful commentary, much less elaboration, when one is restricted to 800 words. In the case of reviews devoted to J.M. Coetzee, once one has given a concise summation of his previous books and space to his relocation to Australia and his Nobel Prize – don’t forget the plot summary – to include anything of substance requires superhuman effort. Mortal reviewers more ably show their analytical skills when allowed to hit 1,000 or more. What’s strange is that the NBCC passionately advocates an inadequate status quo – they look to “save” book reviews but not to improve them; they appear content with reviews that hand out 4-star appraisals but lack the analysis that led to those appraisals. Why? Readers don’t want it, they claim, not the average gent or lady. She wants consumer reports in her paper, a thumbs up or down: the book section as shopping catalogue. If you want something more, hie thee to Bookforum!  

What a revealing position. For reviewers who think of their readers as something more than consumers, but are stuck with eight hundred words, I suggest that they take a different, less traditional approach. We don’t need all that plot information, and if we do, shun the mini-biographies. Contextualizing a book within an author’s body of world would be ideal, but if it significantly lessens what space you can give to the actual text under review, ruthlessly cut it down. It isn’t for The Quarterly Conversation (which has generous word limits) or The New York Times (which reportedly thinks those mini-biographies are the ult! Sigh). And if the novel is one like Diary of a Bad Year, for which none of the aforementioned elements can be ignored, editors, perhaps you could not waste everyone’s time expecting all of that to be ably conveyed in a crisp eight hundred?

One editorial safeguard against complaints of this sort seems to be to commission reviewers with good reputations. Lydia Millet is a critically acclaimed novelist, well-regarded by online critics, and published by the reputable Soft Skull Press. One would be forgiven for thinking from her review in the Globe & Mail, nevertheless, that she should stick to fiction. To begin with a nitpick, Millet falsely describes the striking structural technique in Diary of a Bad Year. Coetzee first divides his narrative into two sections on each page, and then adds a third section later in the book; he does not, as Millet and other reviewers state, have three sections throughout. A worse, primarily stylish, error is her use of first person plural pronoun, which lets her affect an unearned omniscience:

Although C’s “Strong Opinions” are straightforward and readable, they compete poorly with the forward motion of the narrative beneath, which tends, like most narratives, to command our attention in a way contemplative musings seldom can. While we may enjoy agreeing or disagreeing with C’s opinions, they’re simply not story: Finally, they irritate us by breaking up our relationship to the addictive, linear arc of interpersonal plottings below.

And when this story, too, proves thin, our detachment becomes complete.

Unless Millet gained an elevated spot in the Scientology hierarchy surpassing even Tom Cruise’s, which gave her access to every Globe & Mail reader’s mind, this smacks of presumption. For all the groaning over Internet reviewing, here’s a case of blogger-like egotism appearing in (Canadian) print.

If only Millet was as attuned to the novel. None of her brief, unsupported commentary reveals any sort of engagement. The most she has to say about the essays is in that quote: that they are “not story” and the more story-like elements are “too thin,” adding up to a “pastiche.” Yet Millet never considers how the different sections could possibly connect or interact with each other; she sighs wistfully at how European and Latin American authors incorporate politics and philosophy into their fiction; and she facilely attributes Senor C’s opinions to Coetzee without a verbal pause or blink. The entire review is fatally hampered by space restraints (it comes up to 750 words), although it’s not clear that Millet would give us anything deeper about the book if she were given the opportunity.

Peter Craven could be one of Coetzee’s “dyed-in-the-wool groupies” to which Millet refers. Craven adopts a cheerleader’s blind, bubbly, meaningless enthusiasm in his review for Australia’s The Age in which he does his best to waste the larger space denied to others. The review’s first half is calm and typical enough: he mentions Coetzee’s move to Australia, how his books changed since then, and then he gives a plot description. Reading this review, I generously overlooked the fact that he neglected to mention that the book begins with two sections. But my generosity diminished as Craven buried the book with raptures:

Diary of a Bad Year is a remarkable book full of passion and wisdom and constantly illuminated by the author’s adherence to the truth that shines from the smallest situation or the touch of sensuality that trails from the margin of the most momentous thought.

It is a ravishingly beautiful book made up of the most ordinary things in the world (an old man’s timid sexual appreciation, a young girl’s capacity to flirt and cocktease, a chancer’s desire to hook onto lazy money) and makes them into a thing of music and magic that succeeds in disclosing a quite disarmingly grave and poignant apprehension of the mystery of life, but remains, at the same time, a comedy of human happenstance.

One gets the impression that Craven assumes his readers have heard gloomy denunciations of Coetzee’s latest and is determined to mow these all down with cheers, cheers, cheers. His agenda is made even clearer when his own doubts break through:

It’s the co-ordination of the different elements of this fiction that makes these fragments flow and complicate and interconnect so that this weird concoction of a novel that seems for all the world like a set of rejected drafts left to haphazardly infect each other is, in fact, more like the platonic idea of a work that is more than the sum of its parts.

His nearly desperate praise conveys a desire to approve that renders his considered – or, rather, glanced at – criticism more plausible and sincere. He places Senor C’s essays on a level with those of Camus and Marcus Aurelius yet never bothers to quote a line or two to fill us with similar awe. Near the end, Craven’s schoolboy flattery goes so over the edge the reader will find it hard not to blush:

And somehow – I don’t know how he does it – the story of the sexpot girl and her money-sleazing dropkick of a lover (each of them in their way very canny and very Australian) works like a compositional liberation to highlight the emotional reality, never stated, or not often, from which the remarkable meditation on life (there’s no other word) springs.
If a freshman had written this passage, a philosophy professor might grin at how well he managed to make it sound pretty but convey nothing. And did Craven find any flaws in the novel at all? Nonsense! How dare you, sir. Didn’t you know that “in his smallest jottings Coetzee is a master we scarcely deserve”?

Siddhartha Debb’s review for Bookforum announces its comparative superiority from the outset. Where Craven is vague and obfuscatory, Debb is clear and explicit. Craven’s mentions the book’s portrayal of “an Australia that’s looking a bit less like its genial, iconic self by the hour” (meaning what?); Debb clarifies the matter by describing “a country implicated in other falsehoods, from its disingenuous treatment of its aboriginal people and its devotion to neoliberal dogma right down to its eagerness to sign on to the ‘coalition of the willing’ led by Washington.”

But there is something to be found wanting in Debb’s piece as well. A review cannot be all things, but Debb’s focus on the novel’s historical and political issues eclipses all else, until one wonders whether Coetzee produced a novel or a political treatise. Debbs provides an instructive overview of some of Coetzee’s past novels to support the thesis that his “fiction had been molded in the workshop of South African politics.” When he asserts that they are “among the great novels of our time” one is more inclined to take him seriously, if only because he’s restricted himself to a single period and given cogent reasons to support his claim. But while he notes the possibility that Senor C’s essays might not wholly express Coetzee’s personal opinions, he never develops this argument. Deeper analysis is put aside for simple praise of Coetzee’s political positions.

The New York Observer comes to the rescue. Sort of. In a move the publisher assuredly appreciates, Adam Begley attempts to winnow down Coetzee’s potential readership with a quiz question: “Remember Roland Barthes’ distinction between ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts?” Begley knows very well that neither you nor anyone else has any memory of this (there’s a fair chance that not even Barthes would know what Begley is talking about), and he goes on to explain: a “writerly” text is one that requires an active, collaborative reader who is not a “consumer, but a producer of the text,” while “readerly” texts require no such interaction and are simply there to be read and digested. Begley’s dubious point is that if you hope to admire Diary of a Bad Year, you’d better be a fan of “writerly” books and even know a little bit about French literary theory.

His argument for the three-stranded story structure’s absorbing, demanding, “writerly” aspect, however, is convincing. He assesses and evaluates Coetzee’s tricks with an acknowledgement that some readers will find them “annoying” (this recognition differs from Millet’s homogeneous perspective). He is also less likely to take Senor C’s opinions as Coetzee’s gospel, going so far as to detect some humor in C’s declaration that his “brand of political thought is pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietistic anarchism.” Debb’s review is more impressively put together, but Begley’s makes one question whether Debb read the novel a little too straightforwardly.

  James Wood’s long essay in The New Yorker is another that throws into contrast this weakness in Debb’s review and in many others that I encountered. Wood consistently displays discernment and keen criticism, and he’s able to pull out subtle nuances that are important to his central points. While other reviewers depended solely on the different biographical details of Coetzee and Senor C to prove the difference between the two, Wood gives us shrewd analysis of the novel’s characters and prose:

Señor C is six years older than the Nobel Laureate, often writes elegantly and sometimes a bit demotically (“Most scientists can’t write for toffee,” he claims at one point), and expresses regret that people think of him not as a novelist but as “a pedant who dabbles in fiction.” Distinguished he may be, but he feels obscure, overlooked, worn out. Stockholm has not, apparently, called…. [Senor C’s essays] are a confounding mixture of the banal, the extreme, and the scintillating…. A passage like the following, from a chapter entitled “On terrorism,” sounds like a bull with a bullhorn, and is very different in tone from the more feline Coetzee, who would surely rather have his claws pulled than commit to print the phrase ‘It’s déj vu all over again'”.

This is the sort of criticism that earns a reader’s trust and regard and which should matter more to editors than merely finding someone who’s read a lot of Coetzee. Wood is also one of the few critics to address the purpose behind Coetzee’s choice of structure beyond its effect. Even so, there is a moment when Wood indulges himself to the point of incomprehensibility.

Inevitably, [Senor C’s] attacks on George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Guantánamo, though righteous, have a slightly overinhabited quality, as if too many other people had been squatting in their public rooms.

I think this is another way of saying the essays are repetitive. But the indulgence is easily forgiven after such sharp analysis elsewhere. Therefore when one suspects Wood is wrong about something, it sticks out. Like the majority of critics he dismisses the character of Anya, Senor C’s amanuensis and object of desire, as a caricature. Describing a conversation between Senor C and Anya about collective shame, Wood contends that Anya is simply a symbolic counterpoint to Senor C, a representation of “clean, modern individualism” – and one would be liable to take Wood at his word if not for Hilary Mantel’s even longer review in The New York Review of Books.

There is a rare beast in the world of book reviewing that some could cite as an example of high word count abuse. Mantel’s review is an extended, sometimes too detailed, formalised reader response. One experiences the novel as she does, and one’s experience is accentuated by her (thankfully) decisive analysis. It appear as one is about to abandon Mantel to traipse down seemingly empty byways. It is she who points out that Anya’s rape necessarily colors her ideas about collective shame and links the discovery to the idea that Anya’s “broader” life experiences undermine Senor C’s arguments.

Most of Coetzee’s reviewers rely on blanket statements, but Mantel’s evocative approach best allows her to reveal the most absorbing, engaging qualities of Diary of a Bad Year. It also displays her ability to break down scenes to great effect and more lucidly convey how the different story strands affect each other page by page.

Has a white space ever worked so hard? In the gap one falls between worlds. Above, the intellectual life; below, the affective life. Strength above, weakness below. Above, the grand generalization; below, the particular itch of a feeble body, not yet ready to give up the ghost of bodily desire. The writer discourses on the breakdown of authority and tells us the plot of The Seven Samurai, while the feeble tramp in the laundry room struggles to get a conversation going with the startling beauty, “black black hair, shapely bones. A certain golden glow to her skin….” “A derrière so near to perfect as to be angelic.” He feels a “metaphysical ache” that he thinks she notices, and that he guesses makes her impatient. He would like her to take notice of his strong opinions, not his physical frailty.

This near perfect mix of readerly and critical reaction may very well resemble her audience’s minds in operation (even if it does not exactly chime with their conclusions). The editor could have kicked some of those extraneous ruminations aside, but if anyone should be awarded a 5,000 word limit there are many, many worse and perhaps few better recipients than Hilary Mantel.

A.I. White hangs around bookstores in Waterloo, Ontario and blogs at The Books of My Numberless Dreams.