Violence of the Lambs; Or Why I Didn't Write About That

Originally, this posted was going to be about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s new collection of essays, Pulphead, which I finished reading last week. I was going to write about how the book itself is really fantastic, but there is one essay “Violence of the Lambs” that I really didn’t like, at all, almost to the point of anger, because Sullivan’s makes most of it up, then says so, doing one of these not-so-clever clever things that seems to be happening in creative non-fiction lately: poking holes in the idea of “truth” in a way that is lazy and not particularly interesting.

There was more. I was going to write about book reviewing, and my general sense of discomfort with book reviewing, which stems almost entirely from a lack of confidence to write reviews in a coherent and intelligible manner that would be useful or interesting to anyone. I was going to write about James Frey, and teaching undergraduates, and the difference between reading a single essay and a collection of essays, and probably some other subjects that would all tie together neatly for a pretty good Friday read for you, our blog reader.

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t finish it. Or, I could, I guess – did, in fact – but I wasn’t pleased with the result. It was a colossal mess of tangents and half-baked thoughts, and it seemed like a disservice to publish it the way it turned out.

It’s warm here – frighteningly warm for Missouri in February – and I have my windows open, again. All morning yesterday I read manuscripts. I haven’t done that in a while. Downstairs, on the third floor, TMR has a few couches and a coffee maker, and I put my feet up on a table, tucked a pen behind my ear, and read fiction submissions. Away from my desk, away from my computer, away from my phone (both office and mobile, which I wisely left upstairs). Felt fantastic. Felt really great to spend the morning just looking for stuff for the summer issue, reading other writers’ work, stories about Russian dancers or out of work truck drivers or the daughters of war veterans and such, and not really thinking about our audience, our budget, our expenses and income, advertising, none of the other stuff that is often pinballing through my mind in the course of the day.

I felt all right, reading like that.

Someone close to me recently remarked that I never say anything personal in my blog posts. Note, even, how carefully I phrased that previous sentence. Of course, that’s now what my site is for. But this person was right: I’m careful about this blog. It’s been one of the most successful things we’ve done since I started at The Missouri Review—our staff has written several thoughtful, smart, engaging essays on this site in the past two years, and our mantra has basically been to not be negative; remain about publishing, editing, writing; and be interesting. Writing about Sullivan’s work, I worried that I was getting increasingly negative and incoherent, upset about who knows what about his work, and that my post would be the kind of vitriol that our readers don’t want. Morever, the kind of vitriol I don’t like to write.

I bring this up because for almost a year and a half now, my personal life, especially this past month, has been a bit tumultuous (to put it mildly) and sitting in a chair reading this morning, I became aware of how much better I felt. Just in general. No grand epiphanies or realizations or anything like that; dark clouds will certainly move in later in the day (or tomorrow, soon, etc.). Writing about creative nonfiction and its ticks and whirls and wearing a cultural critic hat—it just didn’t feel right. No, it was more than that: it was a recognizable state of discord, both in head and heart, that I wanted nothing to do with. I just wanted to read.

When I was at River Styx, our rejection letters all started the same way: “Look. We’re all writers too, so we know how it feels.” That’s true, of course. But, what was making me a boiling cauldron of frustration yesterday afternoon was writing: not just the act of writing, but the criticism of writing and the Big Ideas behind criticism and interpretation and connectivity. What made me feel calm was reading,  just reading, nothing more. And, really, why did any of us start writing in the first place? Because we read. And liked it. A lot.

It would be silly, of course, to have a rejection letter say “Look. We’re all readers too” because that seems pretty obvious, ironic in a hipster way or something, and perhaps even a little snide. Nonetheless, it might be more true to what unifies as, editors and submitters alike, than calling ourselves writers.

If I was clever, if I had my writing cap on, I’d be able to come up with a really snazzy close here. But I don’t. Moreover, I don’t want to attempt to tack this together neatly. The messiness of this post is what’s most interesting to me, and how, by taking a little time to not think, to read without thinking beyond the story in my hands. And, for today, I think that’s all I really want to focus on. I’ll leave it at that.

Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye

"Blazingly Honest Subjective Truth"

Last week, author Cheryl Strayed started a thread on her Facebook page about the state of book reviews. Strayed felt that reviews of memoirs aren’t just saying whether or not the book is worth reading, but that no matter what, the critic takes the time to bash the entire genre. Even in positive reviews, Strayed found that the critic will state how the book is “so unlike most memoirs,” suggesting that good memoirs are not really like most memoirs, i.e., the genre of memoir stinks. The thread is over 100 comments long now, with heavy hitters like Ned Stuckey-French, Robin Romm, Matthew Batt, Debra Monroe, and Stephen Elliott (to name just a few) chiming in with their thoughts.

A few years ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote in Harper’s about an ongoing public argument between Jonathan Franzen (his famous “Why Bother?” essay) and Ben Marcus. Ozick concluded that the problem for these men—who were discussing, to greatly oversimplify, what fiction can and should do—is that there is a general lack of good criticism. Without good book critics to help readers determine what was worth reading in contemporary literature, writers like Franzen and Marcus (and all of us as readers) would continue to be frustrated by attempting and failing to decipher, through all the noise of the modern world, what was worthy of our reading time.

One of the only rules we have about blog content here at the Missouri Review is this: don’t be negative. That’s not to say to avoid criticism—not at all—but to not be a pugnacious jerk just for the sake of doing so. An example?  Try this review of four memoirs by critic Neil Genzlinger. In this omnibus review, he eviscerates three of the four memoirs. When in the first sentence of your review, you hope for people to shut up, as Genzlinger does, I mean, you aren’t exactly getting off to a generous start, right? This is exactly the kind of vitriolic reviewing that concerns Strayed.

As a reader, I learned nothing from Genzlinger’s review. There are too many mediocre books?  There are memoirs that are self-indulgent? Is anyone surprised by either of these things? Genzlinger’s article is a perfect example of what Charles Baxter has labeled “owl criticism”:

They don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment …The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. … By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.””

Americans don’t like critics or their criticism. We are openly hostile towards reviewers and critics. The word “critic” has such a negative connotation that you might as well call a book reviewer “terrorist” or “pedophile.”  As Americans, for a long time, we have taken a “I know what I know” attitude towards, well,  just about everything, and now that social media provides the opportunity for everyone to showcase his or her “knowledge,” we dismiss book critics (or cultural critics, social critics, etc.) as being elitist and protecting the status quo.

Let’s agree that the general state of book criticism is not in great shape, even if there are some very good book critics and thinkers out there. Why does memoir seem to set critics off? Strayed wrote that memoir is after the “blazingly honest subjective truth.” The complexity of those four words put together sounds perfect to me: it seems straightforward but in fact puts a tremendous responsibility on both the writer and the reader.

She is suggesting something that is, I think, an intriguing challenge that leads to some confusion. One commenter on Cheryl’s thread said that memoir “fails as accurate journalism”; another wondered aloud why there so many disclaimers in memoir. These seem to go hand in hand for me. Why so many disclaimers? Well, that one is easy: lawsuits. This is America, right?

The former comment, however, is what is really troubling, and suggests a concern with memoir that cannot easily be dismissed. Memoir and journalism are not the same. At all. To me that’s like comparing my filing cabinet to a bowl of grapes. It just doesn’t make any sense. But what the commenter is after, I think, is a criticism of memoir that is philosophical: what is true? What in your narrative is real? What actually happened here?

Now that is a great, big, huge, tremendous, gargantuan question and there are many people much smarter than me that struggle mightly, on a daily basis, with that very idea. What I sense is a desperate desire for truth and an inability to know how to find it. Tuesday, I watched five minutes of some CNN show called “In The Arena,” during which E.D. Hill interviewed Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I won’t bore you with the details, but both showed a remarkably lack of understanding (or interest in understanding, or even an interest in pretending they had an understanding) of presidential power and military intervention in Libya. They couldn’t care less as long as they got their talking points and soundbites in.

Well, that’s really frustrating, isn’t it? Especially when substance over style, celebrity over content, product over art, begins to permeate book culture, too. Right, Laura Miller?  As one commenter on Cheryl’s thread noted: “Good memoir is not self-aggrandizement or narcissism.” And, yet, many critics seem to view memoir as inherently narcissistic without even reading the book. In a world that is increasingly complex and polemic, any claim on a narrative as a “true story” is instantly met with hostile distrust.

I think this generally points to a culture that is illiterate. Yes: illiterate. A culture awash in conspiracy theories and political correctness and “deniability,” mixed with a failing education system, leads to confusion and anger. Why is this book “based on actual events” rather than “true”? Why aren’t those definitions clear? What am I to make of this? These type of complaints – and others you’ve certainly heard – rejects complexity for the sake of simplicity. That’s dangerous. That’s dangerous for writers and readers. And, yeah, for book critics, too.

One of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. With the sheer amount of information available to us, and the ability to access that information almost immediately, this is increasingly challenging to do. Book critics still have a valuable role to play in what we read in contemporary literature. Good critics have a responsibility to attempt something greater than Owl Criticism. And as readers, we have a responsibility to call them out for it.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.

This Overrated Post

This weekend on The Huffington Post, writer and critic Anis Shivani posted a piece called “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Writers.”  Some of the authors declared overrated are Amy Tan, Michael Cunningham, William T. Vollman, and Antonya Nelson.  Why have these authors been inappropriately “rated”?  According to Shivani, it’s because of the lack of good criticism, the proliferation of MFA programs, and prose that is politically irrelvant.  Shivani writes:

“If we don’t understand bad writing, we can’t understand good writing.  Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance.  Good writing is exactly the opposite.  Bad writing draws attention to the writer himself.  These writers have betrayed the legacy of modernism, not to mention postmodernism.”

Well, okay.

Shivani’s post has received quite a bit of attention: there are over 1100 comments on his article, and a quick trip around the literary blogosphere will have all sorts of response about what one commenter called a “drive by shooting of criticism.”  From reading other criticism by Shivani – he’s a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post and the literary journal Boulevard – he has always struck me as a smart, well-read critic.  Which is why his post is so disappointing.

The goal of good criticism is, in part, to show you something you haven’t seen before.  Agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the point at all.  Whether or not I agree with Shivani isn’t relevant if he can get me, or any other reader, to experience the reading of these books in a different and interesting way.  Here are just a couple of his passages that were interesting and worth more exploration:

On John Ashberry: “Mixes low and high levels of language, low and high culture, every available postmodern artifact and text, from media jargon to comic books, to recreate a reality ordered only by language itself.  When reality=language (as his carping cousins, the language poets, have it, just like him), politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can and will step in.”

On Antonya Nelson: “She can stuff in two or three similes in a single sentence she won’t do with only one.  Has engineered a peculiarly depthless style, evoking sitcom scripts, where narrative moves by accumulation of insults and incomprehension.”

On Junot Diaz: “Replaces plot in stories and novel with pumped-up “voice.”

Whether or not Shivani is correct, none of the ideas gets any additional thought or consideration (wouldn’t, say, an example or two of the writer’s work be really helpful here?); further, they are often surrounded by a foaming rage at how connected these people are to the world of publishing.  With it’s bullet-point sentence style and unexplored ideas, it’s difficult to read his post as anything other than the sour grapes of a writer with a bully pulpit and a microphone on the outside of the publishing world.  The ideas are always suggested – again, Shivani isn’t dumb – but there isn’t any exploration of them in a way that might be the type of thoughtful criticism that he claims doesn’t exist anymore.

The construction of the column itself is an excellent example of exactly what Shivani complains is wrong with modern literature.  Is there any easier column to write (or conversation to have) than overrated/underrated?  Sportswriters have been using those for years, and at least have statistics to back them up.  Overrated compared to what, exactly?  It’s the type of word that stops thought, like any cliche, and strips away meaning.  The title is inflammatory and the column is a rabid attack, which is what it is supposed to be.  Check out the way the post is designed: pictures of all the authors, with a box to the side so you the reader can vote on the author’s “true” rating, all in a slideshow that we must click-thru to generate revenue and load new ads (see those on the side of the author photos?) for The Huff.  Everything about Shivani’s post – the title, the writing style, its “criticism,” the construct of the text – is designed to kill thought and generate clicks.

Too often that’s what writers are doing now: saying things very loudly and with tremendous emotion, like a talking head on the news, with only one or two talking points to generate all the noise.  That’s not what we need from our books, our authors, or its critics.  What we need is Shivani to explore those ideas that are only touched upon in his post – and there are compelling thoughts that could be fascinating – rather than savage famous writers with the kind of personal attacks that are far too common nowadays.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.