The critic’s temperament and the problem of indifference: Orwell, Teachout, and Scalzi

In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell points to an idea that almost any critic, or any person with a critical / systematic temperament, will eventually encounter:

[. . . ] the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.

He’s not the only one; in 2004 Terry Teachout wrote:

[. . . ] I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones–of which there were far more than too many.

Teachout uses the term “adequate.” Orwell says reviewers are “INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Together, they remind me of what I feel towards most books: neutrality or indifference, which is close to “no spontaneous feelings.” Most books, even the ones I don’t especially like, I don’t hate, either. Hatred implies enormous emotional investment of the sort that very few books are worth. Conventionally bad books are just dull.

Still, writing about really bad books can be kind of fun, at first, especially when the bad books are educational through demonstrating what not to do. But after a couple of delicious slams, anyone bright and self-aware has to ask: Why bother wasting time on overtly bad books, especially if one isn’t being paid?

That leaves the books one loves and the books that don’t inspire feelings. The books one loves are difficult to praise without overused superlatives. The toughest books, however, are Teachout’s “merely adequate ones,” because there’s really nothing much to say and less reason to say it.

Critics may still write about indifferent books for other reasons; John Scalzi describes some purposes criticism serves, and he includes consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemics among the critic’s main purpose.* Of those four, I try to shoot four numbers two and three, though I used to think number one exceedingly valuable. Now I’ve realized that number one is almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, the most notable being that literary merit and popularity have little if any relationship, which means that critics asking systematic questions about what makes good stuff good and bad stuff bad are mostly wasting their time. Polemics can be fun, but I’d rather focus on learning and understanding, rather than invective.

* Scalzi also says:

there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.

All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps.

I think that one challenge for most modern writers, and virtually all self-published writers, will be finding people like Russell Letson, who are capable of producing “a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view.” Most reviews default to meaningless hate or praise, both of which can be discounted; getting someone who can “give that critical opinion weight” is the major challenge, since most people are lightweights. Even the heavyweights don’t waste their energy on weak opponents who aren’t even worth engaging.

Links: Sex at Yale, bikes, writing, TV, margins, urban life, editing, and more

* Where are the Bicycles in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?

* Sex in the Meritocracy: Performance anxiety, not hedonism, motivates Yale’s sexual culture.

_MG_8659* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* A model of TV viewership:

For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm. The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.

I hadn’t conceptualized TV this way, but the description is accurate and may explain the confusion, verging on horror, that people express when they register the absence of a TV in our apartment. I hesitate to include the previous sentence because I don’t want to become this guy and do use an iMac to watch TV sometimes. Nonetheless it is striking that so many people have so little to talk about.

* Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns the camera on paparazzi; they don’t like it.

* “Margins:”

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.

* Cool news watch: the bulb discussed here: Switch LED bulb: The long-awaited light bulb is finally here. Is it worth $50? is now available.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* “Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by ‘reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted’, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles.” Editing is also an act of sympathy: an editor needs to be sympathetic to the writer’s work. I would be a terrible editor of genre romance novels, and some of my friends have not cared much for my own writing out of taste.

* For writers, along with the above: “The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors,” which is a problem I’ve been thinking about and don’t know how to solve. She confirms, however, that it’s probably impossible for self-published writers to hire effective content editors. Line editors and copyeditors, yes, but not content editors. I can see writers’ groups becoming more important in an era of self-publishing.

A fool’s errand, and I’ll play the fool: Jonathan Last and What to Expect When No One’s Expecting

Responding to specious articles in the Wall Street Journal is largely a fool’s errand because the hard news sections of the paper have been gutted and too frequently replaced with right-wing pablum or with the same headlines you can find on any news site. It still, however, has enough readers that I get sent a fair number of articles, and occasionally I’m willing to be the fool—in this instance, for “America’s Baby Bust: The nation’s falling fertility rate is the root cause of many of our problems. And it’s only getting worse,” which correctly notes that demography is not going to play nicely with public programs for old people. But this: “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate” is wrong today. Most of our problems are due to an innovation shortfall (see Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation, or see The Blueprint) or a finance / banking sector that has become so intertwined with the government that it has achieved quasi-governmental powers and immortality (see Lords of Finance for one account).

The problem is with verb tenses: Last says the root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate,” when that might be or will be the root cause.

Last also gets important stuff wrong, or leaves it out. For example, this: “parenting has probably never been a barrel of laughs. There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward” is true but doesn’t mention one of the major problems with modern parenting: it appears that, historically, up until the 1970s, most people raised kids around grandparents and other extended family members. Neighborhoods were fairly cohesive and stable, which meant other parents would watch out for one’s offspring. In biology, they call this alloparenting, and it appears to be the historical norm. Since the 1970s, and arguably earlier, we’ve spent more time bowling alone and moving around; you can’t just drop your kids off at your sister’s place in a pinch, or vice-versa, if your sister lives in L.A. and you live in Seattle.

Last gets close to acknowledging these issues:

The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn’t. A raft of research shows that if you take two people who are identical in every way except for childbearing status, the parent will be on average about six percentage points less likely to be “very happy” than the nonparent.

This decline is much smaller than it appears, as Bryan Caplan discusses in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and the “raft of research” is highly dependent on definitional and time-of-day issues. In addition, the alloparenting issue mentioned above also plays a role, because taking two people, sticking them with children in an isolated suburb where they know no one, and telling them to raise children is a pretty crappy way to raise kids, but that’s become the American default, and Last appears to approve of it (see below). If you can take breaks from your kids to recharge, parenting won’t be so difficult.

He also has a section about solutions, where he says:

The Dirt Gap. A big factor in family formation is the cost of land: It determines not just housing expenses but also the costs of transportation, entertainment, baby sitting, school and pretty much everything else. And while intensely urban areas—Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago—have the highest concentrations of jobs, they come with high land costs. Improving the highway system and boosting opportunities for telecommuting would go a long way in helping families to live in lower-cost areas.

But that’s inane. We don’t need to improve “the highway system” or boost “opportunities for telecommuting:” we need to remove urban height limits. Increasing supply is the only way to reliably reduce costs. See The Rent is Too Damn High and The Gated City for more on this subject. Last should take a look at maps of LA, New York, Seattle, etc.—there are no places to build highways. We could build subways, but Republicans hate subways for reasons that appear to be entirely about political power (see Jonathan Rodden’s work for more about urban voting patterns). Republicans love free markets, except when they don’t.

Last also discusses immigration, and, although I don’t like to rely on mood affiliation, I will say that the WSJ’s politicization is transparent: now that the Republicans have realized that they can’t be nativists, we can discuss the demographic advantages of immigration.

Finally, it’s also possible that global climate change will be the real problem in the 21st Century, or that something unanticipated will be.

%d bloggers like this: