Interview with Chris Lehmann

Chris LehmannChris Lehmann, former Deputy Editor of The Washington Post‘s Book World, has recently relocated to Manhattan for an editorial position with the newly-relaunched New York magazine. In articles for The Atlantic, Harper’s, Slate, Salon, The American Prospect, Newsday, and many other publications, he’s revealed himself to be a thoughtful and discriminating critic in virtually all areas of culture, politics and the arts, but it will come as no surprise to regular readers of this site that I admire his writing about books most of all.

For the first in my series of interviews with critics on criticism, Lehmann agreed to answer a handful of questions about literature and his critical approach to it.

You were my favorite U.S. newspaper book critic, but now you’ve left all that behind and are working as a features editor for New York magazine. Are you reading books differently now?

Well, first of all, it appears I’ve left less of all that behind than either you or I initially thought. A couple of weeks ago, I was detailed to books duty (music, too, apparently) here at NY Mag. But you’re still right in that I’m mainly editing, not reviewing. And the short answer is that I’m still trying to figure out the optimal way to read books now. I’m still writing reviews here and there, and that’s a sort of security blanket I guess. But I confess I’m a little at sea when it comes to reading for pleasure still. When I filed my last review at the Post, I assembled a number of very serious books I felt I should be reading, but that didn’t pan out so well. (I did finally finish the first volume of Either/Or, which I’d been trying and failing to plow earnestly through for years, but it was predictably anticlimactic — no knock against Kierkegaard, who I love, but when you put off something for as long as I did that, the outcome is always going to seem undersized.) I then overcompensated a bit and tried to jumpstart myself with pop mysteries — John D. Macdonald, Ross Thomas, etc. But those were making me restless for some reason: I think I was too conscious that I was deferring the problem of cobbling my civilian reading tastes back together. I’m thinking I should just ease myself into some nice manageable bit of nonfiction, some potted history of the Civil War or something. In short, I’m wide open for suggestions.

I’m no good at spontaneous recommendations — or, really, anything spontaneous — but I’ll try to think of some suggestions before we finish up here. Do you find, post-Book World, that you’re reading fewer contemporary novels?

Oddly, no — apart from the global anxiety in re. how to read referenced above. I just finished a terrific contemporary novel — Sam Lipsyte’s Homeland. And I’m enjoying (so far) Stephen Amidon’s Human Capital. I’m also enjoying (albeit in the assigned critic’s way) Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming Gilead.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Homeland. I tore through Venus Drive, Lipsyte’s short story collection, in the late 90’s and I admired his ability to depict incredible humiliations in dark, funny prose without being inhumane. And I’m excited about the Robinson book. Can’t wait to see your review. I think the thing I admire most about your criticism is the unflagging honesty of it.

Last year Heidi Julavits famously argued against “snarky” book reviews in the inaugural issue of The Believer. My friend Emma Garman takes issue with Julavits’ arguments against snark, suggesting that scathing criticism is one of the best ways to highlight “the flaws and failings of serious novels.” Garman has said:

Julavits is vaguely preoccupied with “value systems” and “higher ideals” as if invoking a largely unspecified code inhibiting reviewers’ nasty comments will serve some hazy moral purpose. But the only purpose relevant in the debate is: how can better books be published and succeed in the marketplace?

Given that you called DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little a “teeth-grindingly feeble stab at satire and virtual random-search engine of potty humor,” and David Denby’s American Sucker the chronicle of an “investor crusade [that] collapses into an unsightly mixture of pompous petulance and stubborn entitlement,” I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you don’t agree with Julavits. What is the value, do you think, of candid, sometimes biting, criticism?

You assume correctly. I found the Julavits argument thoroughly unpersuasive — even though I had positively reviewed one of the books (Marc Nesbitt’s Gigantic) that had furnished the jumping-off point for her essay. I really can’t improve upon the critique of the Julavits plea that my wife wrote here, and I’m happy to just bracket the controversy over the phony snark epidemic and make a seat-of-the pants case for lively, candid criticism that presses strong arguments. The first virtue I’d say such criticism affords is to insist that there’s something important at stake in literary work, so that even bad works can permit us entry into discussions of how we think about reading, writing and other literary matters. As both a reviewer and editor I’ve always been impatient with the common complaint that thusandsuch a book isn’t worth reviewing because it’s too slight or else too meretricious or lame to expose to the common reader. I think there’s a seldom-examined condescension in such a position: Who are we too assume that readers will somehow be distressed, or feel their own time is wasted, by reading evaluations of works that are incredibly influential and also incredibly flawed? I always assume it’s the job of critics to extend the range of critical debate, not to shield readers of criticism (let alone the writers who are its subjects) from the harsher forms of literary judgment. I think of ardent readers as open-minded, skeptical, curious and disposed to argument, not as people who are easily upset or somehow existentially dismayed by encounters with lesser work.

And that opens on to what I think of as the other main virtue of astringent criticism: It’s about readers. Much of Julavits’s discussion of reviewing was pitched at writers, and demonized many reviewers in the most tired and ridiculous way — insisting essentially that they are frustrated artists themselves, keen to make a spectacle of themselves, to draw attention to their self-dramatizing pirouettes and snarky outbursts purely for their own sake. But that is to my mind precisely backwards; good reviews are about the act of reading, not about the personality of either the reviewer or the writer. Critics should be in the business of asking how a work under review works as a reading experience — how it presents a fictional world, an argument, a series of characterizations, etc. — to people drawn into its orbit. And while I certainly don’t endorse the sort of hypercondensed EW style thumbs up, thumbs down form of reviewing, I think reviewers often overlook that readers have a pretty direct time investment (and a money one) in the judgments that critics tender. After all, reviewers always get galleys and review copies for free, and are compensated (albeit just barely) for the time they spend reviewing — and can easily lose sight of this. So in my rounds as a regular reviewer, I tried to keep near the front of my mind the sort of readers I used to recommend books to when I worked in bookstores: people with day jobs who are fighting all sorts of demands on their time to carve out enough of a margin of leisure to read on their own. If I tell them a book is worth 30 or so bucks and a far bigger chunk of time — the commodity you can never accrue more of — I had better in good conscience believe I’m right.

Vernon God Little won the Booker Prize last year. Of its triumph, in your review, you said:

the only genuine, hearty joke at the center of “Vernon God Little” is the one on the brave literary adjudicants of the Booker Prize, who deliberated for a record-short single hour before awarding its laurels to Pierre. You see, even before America’s most recent imperial adventures, the Booker committee has long made a punctilious point of omitting writers from the sprawling Yank continent for its acclaim (even though Americans could hardly be less loyal subjects of the Crown than DBC Pierre, aka Peter Finlay, a self-described Mexican Australian). Now, in their righteous zeal to exhibit their scorn for fictional American characters and the ready way they symbolize the commercial-cum-cultural sins of our imperial land, the Booker judges have only managed to discredit the prestige attached to their sober, pure and British honor. As Vernon himself observes as the end of this novel mercifully approaches, “Not everybody gets the irony of things.” I’ll say.

I’m wondering about your take on literary prizes. Do you think they’re generally worthless, or was 2003 just a bad year for the Booker? Are prizes corrupt? Can they succeed as arbiters of merit? Are they really, as James Wood said this summer, “the new reviews“?

This year’s Booker judges denounced “quite a number” of the entries for the award, calling them “surprisingly bad” “rubbish and drivel.” Do you think it’s likely that the manuscripts submitted actually are getting worse?

I tend to think of literary prizes pretty much the way I think of the Oscars: by and for industry insiders, devoted mainly to burnishing commercial reputations, and only incidentally about the quality of the work. Giving the Booker to something like Vernon God Little amounts to a confession of bankruptcy — it’s a stunt award for political purposes only. As such, I guess I welcome it, as a way of pulling the curtain back on the less-than-sightly proceedings involved in handing out literary awards. It’s even worse in nonfiction — Michael Beslisles won a Bancroft award for Arming America, which made an argument appealing to many historians, but that turned out to rely on research that was in some respects apparently fabricated. And while Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon has many admirers, I am not among them, and was pretty flabbergasted that a work so deeply self-involved could win a National Book Award as a definitive cultural history of depression (of all things).

The good news is that there’s all sorts of good work being published that doesn’t come in for awards consideration. I was consistently, and pleasantly surprised in my reviewing rounds by how easy it was to find books I liked, and could in good conscience press on unsuspecting readers. They just tend, for whatever reason, to escape the attention of the professional lionizers. So I guess in that respect I part with James Woods’s judgment — as surrogate reviews, I think awards are much too blunt and unreliable instruments. And in the spirit of literary celebration, I would respectfully suggest that if Booker judges feel inundated with rubbish and drivel, they’re not reading far enough afield from the stuff that awards committees tend reflexively to view as award-worthy. And I guess this all a very long-winded answer saying that yes, of course, awards committees are corrupt, in the way that cronyism everywhere in all fields is corrupt.

In a fascinating article on the appeal of apocalyptic, evangelical Christian novels like the Left Behind series and Joel C. Rosenberg‘s The Last Days, you noted that these books “place[] the problem of evil most decisively outside the self, as an occasion for overt political and cultural confrontation.” In Rosenberg’s fictional world, you observed, people “are evil . . . because they possess the wrong sort of ardency, mistaking a self-evident path of destruction for a road to redemption.” You also pointed out that the scorn of mainstream journalists is a badge of honor for writers like Rosenberg and Left Behind‘s Tim LaHaye.

As you know, I’m intimately familiar with theology of the sort advanced in these novels. And I agree completely with your analysis of the books and critique of the criticism of them. If a convincing critical response — i.e., a response that will raise questions in the minds of these novels’ readers — is possible, can you imagine what form it might take?

Oh, I definitely think such a response is possible in re. popular apocalyptic fiction coming from the evangelical world. A lot of reviewers tend to take up stuff like the Left Behind series and Rick Warren’s wildly popular Purpose Driven Life with a certain reflexive horror. To generalize wildly, lots of culture arbiters of all stripes freak out over works that explicitly use the language of faith, and tend to treat them as alien exotic products of weird subcultures — an especially ridiculous supposition, since more than 90 percent of Americans report a belief in God, 80 percent say they attend services regularly, etc. Works like Left Behind or Rosenberg’s The Last Jihad are mass market books, pitched very much at total commercial conquest (to say nothing of follow-up movie deals). So it seems to me that reviewers should take these books seriously as what they profess to be — allegories on the spiritual fate of the country, reworkings of apocalyptic prophecy as pop fiction, and (what I saw as most important in Rosenberg’s case) claims about how evil operates in the world, and how it maps cleanly onto the lines of combat in Iraq and the Middle East. Even if reviewers find these ideas enormously distasteful — as I most definitely do — I think they’re not serving either their readerships or the literary market they’re supposed to be covering by ignoring such works or treating them somehow as freakish aberrations.

Edgar Allan Poe, the first professional U.S. literary critic, wrote in 1831:

It has been said that a good critique on a poem may be written by one who is no poet himself. This, according to your idea and mine of poetry, I feel to be false — the less poetical the critic, the less just the critique, and the converse.

What’s your reaction to this sort of reasoning: namely, that the best judge of a novel is a novelist, the best judge of a poem is a poet, and so on?

I sort of indicated above, in my reply to the Great Julavits Question, that I take a dim view of such reasoning. It wasn’t true in 1831, and it isn’t true now. Just think of the many accomplished critics you’d somehow have to contort into illegitimacy if this were true: Ruskin, Matthew Arnold (a poet, okay, but not principally one), Dwight MacDonald, H.L. Mencken, Morse Peckham, Alfred Kazin, William Empson-and that’s all very much just off the top of my head. Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling each tried their hand at fiction, but it was scarcely their main line of work, and I very much doubt that their novelistic experiments added any real substance to their subsequent criticism and certainly didn’t invalidate anything foregoing.

What are some standout books you’ve read recently?

I want to give a shout out to Sam Lipsyte’s scabrous and moving Homeland — especially since the novel (Lipsyte’s third work of fiction) was rejected by 24 American publishers and is coming out in January as a paperback after being published by Flamingo in England. Otherwise, lemme see . . . I was much taken with Lucy Ellmann’s Dot in the Universe, Bruce Wagner’s Still Holding, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, and — speaking of criticism and lit politics — Dubravka Ugresic’s Thank You For Not Reading. But I guess the book I’ve most ardently urged on people when I’m both on and off the reviewing clock would be Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish — though it’s typical of the reviewing game that I can barely remember the plot of it now. It’s set in 19th-Century Tasmania, has really nice art and beautiful writing.

Thanks, Chris. And if you haven’t read it, here’s a recommendation: Lucy Ellmann’s Man or Mango — a superior book to Dot in the Universe, in my opinion.


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