David Orr considers the “strangely bleary” quality of Jorie Graham’s poetry and gently suggests — or maybe I’m just reading this into his column — that Graham owes some of her success to the fact that she “is a uniter, not a divider,” in the current, uncertain atmosphere for poets. Orr says the poetry world is “subject to the same insecurities riddling the humanities in general, in particular the fear of being insufficiently ‘serious’ or ‘useful.'” I don’t know Graham’s poetry well enough to offer any opinion of it here. But I do believe that the sort of insecurity Orr identifies has affected critics’ approach to literature, causing them to don kid gloves, so that nearly all works of fiction or poetry are welcomed under the literary umbrella, to the detriment of the whole. Merit may well be a subjective question (and a relative one) but that doesn’t mean criticism shouldn’t be passionate and honest.
Charles McGrath’s recent “The Souped-Up, Knock-Out, Total Fiction Experience” also calls attention to the anxiety surrounding contemporary literary efforts. While McGrath overstates the hegemony of what he calls the contemporary maximalist novel, he succeeds in highlighting the multitude of tricks and devices used in novels like Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest. McGrath says maximalist novels are “so eager to grab our attention that they begin to imply a lack of faith in the novelistic enterprise itself.” (Thanks to Craig and Sommer for bringing this article to my attention last week.)