Something to believe in

Opinion by Sean Carman

I have no reason to know this, but I suspect Heidi Julavits turned out her essay in the inaugural issue of The Believer satisfied she had produced a fine and true thing in the world, only to watch in horror as it was widely misunderstood. I say this so late in the game because, like everyone, I’ve been tracking the literary fallout from her pronouncements and puzzling over the place of snarky book reviews in literary culture, except that I’ve been doing so, um, without having ever read her essay. I know, my bad.

But I can’t be alone in this, because reading Julavits’ essay was a revelation. I was more surprised by what she never claimed than by what she actually said. So I wanted to write about what I think she was trying to emphasize. I also wanted to write about Monica Ali and Stephen Elliott. Finally, I wanted to trash Dale Peck, but only a little, and only because he deserves it, and this seemed like a good opportunity.

Julavits’ essay has been received as a manifesto against snark, that “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt” adopted by critics striving “to appear funny and smart and a little bit bitchy without attempting to espouse any higher ideals — or even try to understand, on a very localized level, what a certain book is trying to do, even if it does it badly.”

The essay’s definition of snark has been received as its signature idea, but Juvalits’ discussion of snark actually arrives more than 7,000 words into her manifesto. As a guiding principle, it’s a bit late to the party. What precedes it is not an argument against snark, but one for reviews that believe in literature, that hope to serve the culture. Julavits, after all, was not suggesting the formation of snark patrols, but instead criticism that makes a contribution, that offers something beyond the reviewer’s clever jokes and put-downs.

Julavits’ essay is a call to try harder and do better, rather than a proposal to silence a disagreeable trend. Snark is not something to be hunted down and snuffed out, it is something, like adolescence, to move beyond.

This shouldn’t be a controversial proposition. Shouldn’t reviews always add to the literary culture? Criticism is a form of creative writing, too, and so critics should offer their audiences something original, something beyond, “yo, this writer really sucks.”

The problem is that one reader’s cheap review is another’s entertainment, or clever use of satire (Al Franken must be allowed to call Rush Limbaugh a big, fat, idiot because it so effectively parodies Limbaugh’s method), and so a lot depends on what, exactly, we are talking about.

By all rights, one guiding light in the quest should be Anthony Lane. Julavits portrayed Lane as an inspiration for snarky reviewers, but I’d argue he is the prototype of what Julavits wants to celebrate. His reviews are entertaining and so obviously powered by his love for movies (or books, when he reviews those). Even in his trademark reviews of grandiose Hollywood failures you can hear him cheering for Hollywood to someday get it right.

Julavits chose largely to define her quarry through its opposite, labeling it snark and putting forward examples, most notably James Wood and his quarrel with hysterical realism.

What she could not have anticipated, perhaps, is that someone would step forward to claim the mantle of Foremost Snarky Reviewer. But that is what the critic Dale Peck has done. Peck, having seen an opportunity in Julavits’ essay and the notice it garnered, now stands like a bully in his little corner of the literary schoolyard, hoping to pick a fight by making snark his own personal adjective. “Hey, Julavits! You talkin’ to me?”

In his introduction to Hatchet Jobs, his recently-published collection of reviews, Peck characterizes Julavits’ Believer essay as merely the high point of the cultural backlash against Peck’s review of Rick Moody’s Black Veil. Never mind that Julavits had a larger point, and only mentioned Peck twice, and then only in passing. It was enough for Peck, in his Hatchet Jobs introduction, to claim to be the rightful poster boy for the negative review.

Granted he is trying to sell his book, but the falsely dramatic title of his introduction (“Big Brother is Calling You Names”), and his insolent apology (“Hatchet Jobs marks my final foray into negative book reviewing. As soon as I finish this introduction I am throwing away my red pen” [Sniff.]), show that he missed the point. Perhaps, as I say, he did so on purpose — Jonathan Franzen unwittingly demonstrated the value of publicity fights as a marketing tool — but let’s remember that Julavits was not railing against negative reviews. She was railing against negative reviews that are not also critical in the best sense.

Since Peck wants to assume the snark mantle to hoist himself up a notch, it’s only fair to point out his limits as a critic, and that in his aggressive defense of “negative reviews” he is only throwing punches at the wind.

Maybe Peck has written a critical review in his life, but at his worst — which is often — he’s terrible. His review of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is a strident attack that makes no effort to understand what Wallace might have been up to. Its vicious conclusion is the literary equivalent of rape. The review misunderstands the role of criticism as much as Peck misunderstands Julavits’ essay: It is negative, but hardly critical.

Peck takes a harder fall in his review of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which tells the story of the downfall of 1950’s America in the face of 60’s counter-culture and its reaction to Vietnam. Roth makes the story poignant by telling it from the perspective of a champion of America and apple pie. His point of view forces us to see both sides, and to sympathize, at least partly, with the side we are predisposed to dismiss.

Peck makes the mistake of attributing to Roth, the writer, the political views of Zuckerman, his narrator, and Swede Levov, his protagonist. From there it’s only one step to personally attacking Roth for the misogynist, imperial views Levov, and to a lesser extent Zuckerman, hold.

It’s the most amateur of critical mistakes, but more than that it blows Peck’s cover. A Peck review must, above all else, be a negative review. If he can’t find something negative to say, he won’t have anything to say. He’s not so much a thorn in the side as a pain in the neck. So great is his need, he will misrepresent an accomplished work before acknowledging its strengths.

Peck’s limitations as a critic become more clear when one considers Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby.

Ali’s first novel is about Nazneen, a thoughtful and quiet young Indian woman suffocating in London under the constraints of an arranged marriage. Brick Lane creates a complete, believable and compelling fictional world. Nazneen is an attractive character and her story is triumphant. The middle is somewhat slow, but then it’s a story about a passive victim, told from that passive victim’s point of view. Inevitably the reader wants Nazneen to hurry up and do something about her hopeless situation already. But the ending is worth the wait, precisely because we’ve had to endure so much to get there. Ali took a narrative gamble, and whether you think she pulled it off will determine whether you recommend the book. I do.

Now, while there is a place for an Anthony Lane set-piece about a bloated effort, or a vicious review with a larger point to make, you can’t really pull off either about a book like Brick Lane. It just won’t work.

Which is why we will never see a Dale Peck review of Brick Lane. Because to write it, Peck would have to make fun of an honest, heartfelt account of a British Indian immigrant suffering an arranged marriage. He’d have to mock the emotional honestly and cultural relevance of Ali’s compelling story. Why waste your time approaching, and trying to make sense of, something honest and true, when you can make fun of post-modernists and Brooklyn hipsters?

Stephen Elliott’s Happy Baby is another example. It is a simple and true work of fiction, told with authority from the heart. We can be sure Dale Peck won’t touch it.

And yet it is books like Brick Lane and Happy Baby that give critics the chance to do their best work, that is, to help bring important (for lack of a better word) books to the attention of the audiences they seek.

And this, I think, is really all Julavits was trying to say. She merely wanted to celebrate and encourage this aspect and hopeful potential of criticism. The point is not that we ought to be silencing Dale Peck. Let Dale Peck have his tiny corner of asphalt; it’s an especially big schoolyard. We should just remember that, unless he broadens his critical skills, Dale Peck will always be shouting from that tiny corner, telling us in snotty language what he didn’t like and why. He won’t, in other words, ever deliver on criticism’s full promise: to give readers something to believe in.

(Please note that this post is the Guest Opinion of Sean Carman.)


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