Thursday, February 9th, 2012
15

I Would Never Tell You That You Are Wrong, Lev Grossman

To start: let's not get it twisted, I love fantasy author and Time book critic Lev Grossman. Love. (When "we" (I) write on the Internet, cool detachment and a superior attitude are practically policy, but let's not do that today. Okay?) Grossman is a smart man who consistently says smart things. Overwhelmed by the glut of flatly declarative "this sucks I hated it" reviews that populate Amazon and Goodreads, he argued yesterday for a clearer, better articulated standard of determining literary merit. This is definitely not a terrible idea. And Grossman is also diplomatic about how your love of terrible books is real and valid and you're entitled to it. So what is the problem? Well, this is part of it:

I only bring it up now because I actually think that before the Internet it used to be easier to operate as if all this weren’t the case. It was easier to pretend that literary judgments were stable and universal. Before the Internet opinions about books were a relatively scarce commodity in our culture, and they came from a relatively small group of sources. We didn’t have access to hot and cold running book reviews twenty-four seven, and therefore we weren’t exposed to millions and millions of passionately held, diametrically opposed opinions about books. The wild diversity of readerly responses was not all up in your grill all the time. You went to school, and somebody told you that The Great Gatsby was a masterpiece, and if you didn’t like it, well, something was wrong with you, not it.

First, I would argue that if you are a high school student who is reading The Great Gatsby (who else is reading The Great Gatsby?) there is, in an academic environment, plenty of side-eye given if you say "this is boring." There is no lack of negative reinforcement — in academia, in literary circles and on the Internet — when you hate on a classic piece of literature, especially if it's just because you lack the intellectual fortitude to spend the limited time you have on this earth reading something that bores you. How pedestrian.

But even though Grossman concedes that the pre-Amazon days were oppressive, there is still, even in his measured critique of our book-reviewing problems, the quiet implication that we don't (or shouldn't) merely say "I didn't like this book and here's why…" or "this book is an artistic triumph and here's why…" but that those reviews should function as a (sometimes preemptive) response to other contradictory reviews. It's unclear as to whether Grossman is saying "What is a good book even?" or whether he's just calling for specificity in Telling You About Your Wrongness. Would you value and a appreciate a one-star Amazon review of your favorite novel that went into depth about poor plotting, characterization and overreliance on cheap narrative gimmicks, like how all the characters we're following are connected in multiple ways totally unknown to them? (I don't need this last plot device to die in a fire, but maybe one of you could approach it as it slumbers and gently smother it? Unless that narrative trick strikes a chord with you. Then don't.) Maybe? But probably not? Art touches both hearts and minds, sometimes in ways that are ultimately unknowable. I am sometimes emotionally undone by an insightful sentence in a mediocre novel. That very personal, idiosyncratic experience might generate enough goodwill to make me want to defend that book as worthy. It happens.

It is impossible for criticism of a particular work to exist in a vacuum, to exist apart from your opinions and my opinions. A book is released and we — you, me, Lev Grossman, whoever reads it — enter into a dialogue. In my humble estimation, the most productive criticism, whether it comes from James Wood or SkarsgardLuvr53, is illuminating without being didactic. It's a talking-with, not a talking-to. Does the existence of this dialogue lead us back to a deep existential fear that MY idea of blue is different from YOUR idea of blue and oh god nothing is really real, is it? etc.? AND HOW! Grossman sort of touches on that here:

It’s liberating in some ways, but it’s also a difficult thing to admit. The idea of some kind of objectively constant, universal literary value is seductive. It feels real. It feels like a stone cold fact that In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, is better than A Shore Thing, by Snooki. And it may be; Snooki definitely has more one-star reviews on Amazon. But if literary value is real, no one seems to be able to locate it or define it very well. We’re increasingly adrift in a grey void of aesthetic relativism.

I think Grossman's fear (not to overstate it) of "aesthetic relativism" is more accurately an articulation of an overwhelming need for confirmation that our thoughts are reflective of a world that actually exists. The intersection of literature and philosophy: so tricky! A philosophy professor I respected and admired once told me that "most literature contains bad philosophy." (I did not retort "most philosophy contains bad philosophy," mostly because it took me years to come up with that zinger. Worth it!) I still don't know that I agree with him, but I'm not entirely sure that we can solve the problem of solipsism through literary criticism. I say that totally unsassily. I don't disapprove of Grossman's suggestion that we should talk more about WHY we like or dislike a certain book, but any specific standards we (literary critics? Amazon reviewers? all people who read?) develop definitely could easily be manipulated to justify Why I Love This Book and You Should, Too. So maybe rather than fear the grey void of aesthetic relativism, we should just jump into it? Steer into the skid! Embrace the chaos of democratic expression! The worst that can happen is that you feel a little unsteady, your ideas are challenged ("Is A Shore Thing really the 'bangin'est book fir real'? Is this tenth most-helpful Amazon review right? Could I have gotten it wrong?") and either you change your mind or you don't. But you get to keep talking and so does everyone else — and if there is any way to transcend the crippling fear that you are but a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, the first step might be the weird decision to accept that…you are a tiny, isolated transient bit of consciousness, who needs to hear the plaintive one-star cries of all those people who might be/definitely are/definitely aren't wrong.

15 Comments / Post A Comment

Mr. B (#10,093)

A Shore Thing, "by" " Snooki."

Mr. B (#10,093)

As long as book reviewers are smart and consistent, I guess? I used to enjoy John Updike's reviews in The New Yorker, because even when it was hard to tell whether he liked a book he would represent it well enough that I'd have a good idea whether I'd enjoy it. This held true even when he openly came out and hated on something (i.e. Norman Rush's "Mortals," which turned out to be one of my favorite novels of the last decade).

But really, do any serious readers pay attention to Amazon reviews?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Mr. B Besides the authors under review, you mean? No.

Regina Small (#2,468)

@dntsqzthchrmn AGREE.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@dntsqzthchrmn Oh my god I totally read Amazon reviews. So many of them are beautifully written and credible, and also, quite often they far easier to mow down than the pro variety, because they are brief and casual. When you get ten different people giving thumbs up or down all at once, each making his case cogently and well, that is really a more reliable indicator than one pompous bloviating Bloom or whomever going on and on.

Once in a while there is an exquisite one. This is my favorite one ever, I think.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@barnhouse Oh, well, everybody has a sentimental favorite. Exceptions, rules, etc.

Louis Fyne (#2,066)

I read the Great Gatsby like, every other year. Is that wrong?

Mr. B (#10,093)

@Louis Fyne NOT AT ALL. Though I still think the perfect age to read it is 22, right after grduating college.

@Mr. B I agree. I've read it 3 or 4 times, and I'd say my enjoyment peaked right around that age. The last time I read it, it had lost a bit of its luster.

vereroo (#215,153)

I actually enjoy looking up negative Amazon reviews of books I love. The ones that are articulate and well-argued completely fascinate me.

There's something refreshing about the fact that THIS dialogue is taking place. I agree with your notion that the value in a book can come from a single line. It can also come from never being able to read it at all. Or its inaccessibility. Or having gotten an autographed copy…..there are too many variables to list, and too many motivations.

Ultimately, the best news is probably that people are still reading, and that for the first time, everyone is aloud to voice their opinion. Creating that forum can only mean good things are to come, because the act of reading is in itself a visceral expression of individuality and solidarity (between a reader and a writer). So long as we're not wasting away on the Jersey Shore, each of us will figure it out on our own.

As people read books less and less, and the actual form of reading sort of drains into a husk, the perceived value of books remains the same. It seems to me no longer a cultural form of exchange so much as a signifier of a certain place, time, a certain mental capacity. You will not meet a person who isn't "a reader", one who "totally loves books". You will never meet a person who doesn't tie their intellectual value to a series of trophy works that they "read this year".

Literary studies has been divorced from the strict canon of works for a long time now, and one of the things that came from the movement away from the canon is the movement away from the appreciation of technique. It is simply impossible for people who live with language every day, who speak and communicate all the time, to believe that literature is something foreign to them. Which is totally understandable! I find it hard to believe that my experience of film is substantially different from someone with a PhD in film studies, simply because I live in images every hour of every day. But it is in terms of criticism.

When you add this perceived accessibility to the fact that books are still a symbol of cultural richness you end up with a mass of people who all need to have an opinion on literature constantly to display their intellect, without a rich appreciation of the artistic aspects of literature, and most importantly with the idea in their heads that to not have an opinion about literature is a defect.

People would never, ever say that a trained art curator's explanation of Rembrandt's chosen brush stroke patters (or whatever) was nonsense, but if you look three or four posts above this, you'll see a perfectly intelligent commenter taking a huge dump on Harold Bloom, who is a marvelously eloquent and brilliant critic. The world is full to the brim with people who secretly believe that they are writers: Lawyers, doctors, anyone and everyone who never committed the financial suicide of studying literature. There’s an apocryphal story about Margaret Atwood speaking to a neurosurgeon who mentioned that he had just retired and was considering writing a book, to which she replied, “What a coincidence! I was thinking of becoming a neurosurgeon when I retire”.

I think in my parents' time, it was accepted that you might not have to have a detailed opinion on literature, because you could accept that it was a subject that you really didn’t have to understand, didn’t have to put effort into (And by effort, I don't mean a strictly academic study, but any number of years in any setting spent diligently pursuing reading seriously). When you respected literature as a separate craft, you could recognize authors as craftsmen, and have opinions on their work that differed from your own opinion.

Anyways, I don’t know if this made any sense, but I just realized I spent fifteen minutes on this and so I’m stopping. I just don't believe that the answer is purely to "keep on talking about it". I think that's the opposite. We need to stop talking about it and build up a reservoir of valuable observation made out of genuine love of the art, or else learn to say "that's cool", and not need to talk about it.

Grim (#215,307)

For some reason, I love to read Amazon reviews after I finish a book, the same way I check out IMDB after I have seen a movie. If it was a good experience, I want to digest it somehow and see what other people took away from it. People generally have identified the same plot flaws or character strengths that I have. While they would be a good way to get a sense of whether I would enjoy a book I avoid them ahead of time since they are rife with spoilers, unlike a professional review. The professional critiques too often seem focused on dissecting literary trends or aesthetics, or the reviews attempt to be good pieces of writing on their own merit and reflect the reviewer rather than the book. They are valuable and certainly have their place, but not in my day-to-day decisions about what I should check out from the library. Of course, I am one of the masses and read for escapism rather than a literary experience.

mishellie (#215,423)

Does the existence of this dialogue lead us back to a deep existential fear that MY idea of blue is different from YOUR idea of blue and oh god nothing is really real, is it? — I do this all the time.

MikeVidafar (#221,792)

There's something refreshing about the fact that THIS dialogue is taking place. I agree with your notion that the value in a book can come from a single line. It can also come from never being able to read it at all. Or its inaccessibility. Or having gotten an autographed copy…..there are too many variables to list, and too many motivations.

Ultimately, the best news is probably that people are still reading, and that for the first time, everyone is aloud to voice their opinion. Creating that forum can only mean good things are to come, because the act of reading is in itself a visceral expression of individuality and solidarity (between a reader and a writer). So long as we're not wasting away on the Jersey Shore, each of us will figure it out on our own.

This post got me REALLY thinking about literary criticism and the art of critique. I expand on my thoughts here: http://bit.ly/ye026h

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