Tuesday, September 27, 2005

n+1's Third Edition, James Wood on Criticism

The new issue of n+1 finally hit New York independant bookstores last weekend. (I'd been hearing rumors of rumors about it for at least three weeks beforehand, and Gawker announced the review's coming-out party, as it were, a full week and a half before the issue became available. Okay, I'm done kvetching.) The fact is, I've been eagerly awaiting this issue, as I am vaguely acquainted with the editors, was at a reading associated with their initial launch, and have a great deal of respect for their goal to take culture seriously, dammit.

I'm reading through the issue rather more slowly than I'd like; maybe I'm savoring it. Below the fold: "The Intellectual Situation" and "James Wood on Criticism"

The first section one turns to, as a matter of course, is their New Yorkeresque "Intellectual Situation," which, like "The Talk of the Town," gives an overview of what their milieu is complaining about. Since their milieu is like my milieu (twenty-to-thirty-something grad students and the like), most of the entries resonate with me.

Yeah, those of us who went into grad school during the tech boom go-go years felt a certain self-righteous and yet protected abnegation: "If we ourselves weren't making much money, and were sometimes jealous of former classmates who were, there was comfort in feeling we could always sell out, if we wanted to."

Yeah, dating is an unrealistic model for marriage: "Dating, like the tyrant, seeks perfection (within a certain price range)."

And yeah, a lot of bohemian dreams are funded by inheritance--but just not enough to feel rich: "I liked my investment advisor [R. says], but there was a bit of a gulf there. We settled for a hippocratic compomise: let me own no companies that do positive harm to the environment or their workers."
(This is one place in "The Intellectual Situation" where the anonymity seems problematic. R. "speaks" in his--I'm assuming--own words, yet the whole section is quoted from his own words. R. should just have written his own damned piece, yet if he had done so, in this entirely anonymous section, it would have seemed as though the editors were all also inheritors. Yet R. seems to represent something general than just his particular story; the disavowing starts to seem protective, disingenuous. The editors deserve kudos for talking about money--and not just abstract capital out there but the real capital needed to support intellectual work--but I still wish this section hadn't been so baroquely disavowed.)

n+1 deserves real kudos for its treatment of James Wood's reply to the 1st issue's salvo. To begin with, any group of intellectually committed young people can come up with a point of view. To then come up with a magazine and a manifesto is already an impressive step--but then, to have one's manifesto be taken seriously enough by one's opponents to have them write eloquent defenses, that is indeed to shake the columns. So, I have to admire the fact that n+1 published James Wood's reply, under the category "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," and subtitled it only with "n+1 takes its lumps." That was a graceful act, and I am very glad that the editors published this wonderful essay.

Like Wood, I hope that the critic should be able and allowed to take the artist seriously, to be neither a cheering section nor a pooh-pooher but to enter into the logic of writers and to read their works with a sensitive dispassion--which will sometimes seem critical, sometimes seem laudatory. Shortly before reading Wood's article, I heard Leonard Lopate interview Zadie Smith, a famous target of Wood's critical regard; she claimed that the negative reviews helped her to think more carefully about what she was doing. The positive reviews, and here I'm remembering and extrapolating, seemed to dissolve under scrutiny.

So here's from Wood's own article:
Fixated on negativity--tellingly, they note only the negative pieces, never the laudatory ones--the Editors accuse the books page of the New Republic of "taking down" writers like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, and Don Delillo. I detest that verb. For one thing, no review ever does "take down" a writer: the writer has a way of popping up very punctually, three or four years later, with another offering. For another, a serious critique, of the kind I have written of Underworld or Paradise of White Teeth, takes nothing down; it takes something seriously, as Zadie Smith has herself often acknowledged, publicly and privately. In what way can my review of The Corrections, a book I praised at length for its humane and moving rewriting of Delillo yet criticized for its residual and contradictory enthrallement to a DeLilloian idea of the paranoid "social novel," be seen as a "takedown"? To argue, for two thousand words, with the argument of Jonathan Franzen's Harper's essay (to argue that it is intelligent, suggestive, and finally illogical, seeking refuge in a thin aestheticism--the consolation of the "sentence"--which I doubt Franzen himself even believes in); to then argue for a further three thousand words with The Corrections itself, is to take Franzen seriously. To call the Harper's essay "elegant, infamous" and nothing more, to call The Corrections "a marvelous novel, more than deserving of its laurels," and little more, as Chad Harbach did in the first issue of N+1, is merely to take Franzen for granted.
I cannot concur strongly enough. The professional critic's role is to take artistic production very seriously indeed, to attempt an understanding of its deep logic, and to hold it against contemporary understandings. The critic's job is not to be a book reviewer, really; you shouldn't ask the serious critics to tell you whether or not to read a book, even though so few of us read all the books whose reviews we've read. To get a review in a major publication is already an indication of some status; to get a mixed review is to be taken seriously.

I once complimented an acquaintance on receiving what was a decidedly mixed review in the NYT, even though a much more connected friend had said, "Oh, that was a politely worded rejection." Even criticism is a serious response; novels are published, without fanfare, all the damned time.

I wrote a sucky novel once, and it took me over a year to find someone who was honest enough to tell me what was wrong with it. Critics who take work seriously, who hold work against an unforgiving light and judge deserve better than they've received. Yes, I enjoy The Believer, but I believe that the better art can make truth-claims in this world--and that those constitute a serious enough matter that critics ought to make intellectual claims about them.


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