If someone is angry you may be doing something right: Alain de Botton edition

Early negative reviews of his work [How Proust Can Change Your Life], by Proust professors and philosophy dons, devastated him, admitted de Botton. “It was very surprising and upsetting. Then my wife, who is very wise, said to me, ‘It’s obvious, this is a fight.’ This is a turf war, and the battle is about what culture should mean to us.”*

If you’re a) doing significant work and b) making people angry, then you may c) be doing something right. I think the first component is particularly important because it’s easy to needlessly or cruelly piss people off—through rude remarks or punching someone, for example. We’re taught that making other people angry is a bad thing and in most contexts it probably is, but in some it isn’t and may actually be a sign of importance.

Anger is a powerful response and a common one to someone who feels threatened: suggest to a public school teacher that teachers shouldn’t be granted de facto lifetime employment after three years, or that teachers’ unions are serious impediments to education, and you’re not likely to get a reasoned discussion about policy. You’re likely to be treated as someone who violates taboo. To most of us discussions about education policy are benign, but to teachers they’re often sacred (the “benign-violation theory” of humor is similar, as discussed in The Humor Code).

I’ve gotten weirdly vituperative responses from English professors about this blog. Usually those responses are couched in language about being unprofessional or low quality or a waste of time that could be better spent advancing my career. In that worldview, having anyone read your work doesn’t matter. At first I took those responses at face value, but now I’m not so sure: they might have been unhappy that I think most English journals bogus and, worse, treat them as such. It’s dangerous to have people work outside the system they’re highly invested in. If you don’t have the apparatus of peer review and journals and so forth, what separates paid professors from blogger rabble? Some answers to that question may be terrifying.

Philosophers probably guard their jewel basket carefully because there is nothing inside.

To return to de Botton, I also think he calibrates his work towards accessibility. It is easy for a normal person to understand what he says and to judge its truth value. Many philosophers seem to take pride in doing the opposite. In addition, de Botton reaches for a relatively low-knowledge audience; I found his book about architecture charming, for example, but How to Think More About Sex was inane, mostly because of it lacked any familiarity with evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, that’s been where the action is. Writing about sex without reading evolutionary biology is pointless, and I know enough to know that. Alternately, even compelling writers produce some bad books, and this could be de Botton’s off book.


* From “The empire of Alain de Botton.”

Links: Movies, critics, Franco Moretti, love and sex, peak oil, and other affairs of the mind and soul

* Why do so many movies feel formulaic? Because they’re using a formula: “Save the Movie! The 2005 screenwriting book that’s taken over Hollywood—and made every movie feel the same.

* The case for professional critics.

* On Franco Moretti: “Adventures of a Man of Science,” which is about the effort to apply statistical methods to literature.

* “Role Reversal: How the US Became the USSR.”

* “Love, Actually: Adelle Waldman’s Brilliant Debut;” though I feel like I have read the book after reading the review.

* Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is both interesting and painful; it brings to mind Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010, much like the movie Rust and Bone. In the backstory to Lost Girls, there are many moments like this, when Megan, one of the eventual victims, “found out she was pregnant. The father was a DJ, thirty-two, with one child already in New Hampshire. Megan met him at a club in Portland—a bathroom hookup, nothing more. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’ she said softly” {Kolker “Girls”@53}.

If you’re going to get pregnant from a stranger, a random DJ seems like a bad choice, but it’s the sort of choice that millions of women appear to be making (which may explain why millions of men are responding by learning game, so they can be more like the DJ and less like the guys playing Xbox and watching porn at home.)

* “Has peak oil been vindicated or debunked?” A little of both, but mostly vindicated.

* “Difficult Women: How ‘Sex and the City’ lost its good name.” I especially like this:

So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.

* Wealth taxes: A future battleground.

* “Let’s shake up the social sciences;” the humanities could also use a strong shaking as long as we’re at it.

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 Amazon.com 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.

Max Jamison — Wilfrid Sheed

Really good and really bad books often announce themselves early: in the case of the former, you find that moment of shock and astonishment that propels you forward. In Max Jamison, that moments hits on page 7, when Flashman is described not as “a theater critic at all, but a maid-of-all-work gossip columnist and second-string reviewer who scooped up free tickets like a mechanical crane and prowled the lobbies for carrion.” Status and aesthetic contempt intermingle: Flashman doesn’t appreciate art because he’s “like a mechanical crane,” and yet at the same time he feeds on the dead—dead plays, dead reviewers, dead everything.

Max, on the other hand, sees himself as an antidote of sorts to that: he’s a theater critic with, if not heart, then at least acerbic taste, which is better than no taste at all. But he’s not terribly happy and is too aware of his own faults to let something like sentimental happiness buoy him; in another early scene, he thinks that “The actors he talked to were dull as ballplayers and degradingly anxious to please.” Or, more likely, the actors are worried about angering critics on whose fancy rides their career. But if that critic is sufficiently cantankerous, their actions simply won’t matter, and Max is holding the line against—what? Not the cavalry charge, certainly, but against something, even if he’s not sure what.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve utterly failed to convey how funny Max Jamison is, perhaps because explaining the joke also kills it. Max is funny to himself but to few others; his estranged wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t attend so much. I wish I could split an infinitive with you sometime, or have a really silly discussion.” If Max worries about split infinitives, he truly is a nasty pedant, since split infinitives are a problem in Latin, not in English. Pedants who half understand their problems and are trying to remedy them are sometimes the most amusing of all, since they’re in the joke enough to be aware of their situation but not so much that they can remedy it.

Saul Bellow frequently exploits this metaphysical, intellectual, and sometimes sexual state; so does Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It also might lend heft to a novel that could otherwise flutter—what’s most fascinating about Max is his sense of infinity within a confined space, which avoids the flutter problem. He’s a theater critic, unlikely to change professions, and stuck (if one can ever use the word “stuck” with this city) in New York by virtue of that profession. He’s confined, like so many of us, by those proverbial silk chains, given that he makes enough money, gets to sleep with admirers if he wants to, doesn’t have to worry about food, and only carps about status—which is difficult, since he’s at the top of his pyramid. But the pyramid is too short for him, and there’s probably none tall enough for him, and seeing him try to climb is hilarious without being mean.

(Note: I read Max Jamison thanks to D.G. Myers’ post on The Hack, which says that Sheed wrote “… perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.” It used to be that we thrashed when we no longer believed in God. Now we thrash when we no longer believe in ourselves. What will we thrash about next?)

Life: Critics and artists edition

Stolen from Terry Teachout:

“A man who tells me my play is very bad, is less my enemy than he who lets it die in silence. A man, whose business it is to be talked of, is much helped by being attacked.”

Samuel Johnson (quoted in James Boswell, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides)

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