Critics Who Explain Things

There was, you know, a time when arguing about arguing actually felt vital. Really! To wit: In 1975, Susan Sontag wrote an essay on Leni Riefenstahl for The New York Review of Books. It was not her first comment on the director of the Triumph of the Will. She had, earlier, written of Riefenstahl’s work in more admiring terms in Against Interpretation: “The Nazi propaganda is there. But something else is there, too, which we reject at our loss.” But this time she’d been asked to review a book of Riefenstahl’s photography of the Nuba tribes in Sudan, and the bland indifference of the jacket copy provoked her.

It takes a certain originality to describe the Nazi era as “Germany’s blighted and momentous 1930s,” to summarize the events of 1933 as Hitler’s “having attained power,” and to assert that Riefenstahl, most of whose work was in its own decade correctly identified as Nazi propaganda, enjoyed “international fame as a film director,” ostensibly like her contemporaries Renoir, Lubitsch, and Flaherty. (Could the publishers have let LR write the jacket copy herself? One hesitates to entertain so unkind a thought, although “her first devotion was to creative dancing” is a phrase few native speakers of English would be capable of.)

Ouch. Sontag’s new attitude was an inverted reflection of the change in Riefenstahl’s fortunes. In the mid-70s the director was enjoying something of a revival. She was, as Sontag noted in her essay, about to be fêted at film festivals, and had been a marquee name on a poster for the New York Film Festival designed by, Sontag remarked darkly, a “well-known artist who is also a feminist.” Sontag felt that part of Riefenstahl’s rehabilitation owed to the simple fact of being a woman: “Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be first-rate.”

At that, one of the Review‘s regular readers bristled. Adrienne Rich was then terribly visible not just as a poet, but as a “feminist poet.” The year before, when she won the National Book Award for Diving Into the Wreck, she’d arrived at the ceremony with fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walkers, and, in a joint acceptance speech, the trio declared they were accepting the award on behalf of all women. “We believe,” their statement went on, “that we can enrich ourselves more in supporting and giving to each other than by competing against each other.”

Rich may have been the kind of feminist who refers to others as “sisters,” but she was silent on whether Riefenstahl might count as one. What offended her was the suggestion that the accolades being heaped on the director had anything to do with the movement she held dear. In a letter to the NYRBthe entire exchange is here—she pointed out that, in fact, there were women-organized picket lines outside some of the venues now celebrating Riefenstahl. And that “there is a running criticism by radical feminists of male-identified ‘successful’ women, whether they are artists, executives, psychiatrists, Marxists, politicians, or scholars.”

Rich also wanted to press the cut a little deeper. She wanted to know why Sontag was not considering, in an essay about fascist aesthetics, the relevance of gender. “One is not looking for a ‘line’ of propaganda or a ‘correct” position,'” Rich offered. “One is simply eager to see this woman’s mind working out of a deeper complexity, informed by emotional grounding; and this has not yet proven to be the case.”

Sontag was not buying. One of the many ironies of Sontag’s character was that she, herself, was quite susceptible to being hurt by critics, and that probably aggravated the resistance. Friends later told Carl Rollyson & Lisa Paddock, who wrote an unauthorized biography of Sontag, that her great respect for Rich had added to the sting. So when Sontag parried, it was to cover that she was moving in for a kill.

In her reply to the NYRB, Sontag effectively called Rich a dogmatist. She placed the poet among those who want “an unremitting rhetoric, with every argument arriving triumphantly at a militant conclusion.” The subject of her essay was fascist aesthetics; why should it address gender? (She had apparently forgotten she’d been the one to raise its relevance.) Her work, Sontag averred, rested on carefully drawn distinctions, ones that blunt minds (implied here was Rich’s) couldn’t grasp. And “it is surely not treasonable to think that there are other goals than the depolarization of the two sexes, other wounds than sexual wounds, other identities than sexual identity, other politics than sexual politics—and other ‘anti-human values’ than ‘misogynist’ ones.”

Today, I suspect, more readers would agree with Sontag than Rich. But any time two formidable minds wrestle with such difficult questions, offering up any kind of verdict seems slightly beside the point. They’re both wrong and right, and what’s more, they arrive on the field knowing they will likely leave without a clear victor. “Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded,” Sontag observed in the exchange’s most-quoted line. Emphasis is often placed on the second clause of the sentence; but then, there is the first half to think about, too.

What makes this exchange so refreshing to revisit is that schoolyard words like “nice” and “mean” are wholly irrelevant to it. And, too, it’s a fierce, intelligent debate between two women, a constituency that’s been disproportionately targeted in much of the recent “concern” about the State of Criticism.

The last few weeks have given rise to something of an eighty-car pileup of criticism on criticism, so let me try to recap as briefly as possible. A few weeks ago, at Slate, Jacob Silverman proposed that we all take our gloves off when it comes to criticism. We are all, he argued, getting too “nice.” The chief exhibit for the prosecution was the novelist Emma Straub, whose well-wishing twitter feed was a presumed example of the “mutual admiration society that is today’s literary culture, particularly online.” Also mentioned was that she’d once posted a picture of herself wearing a flower crown. Beyond that the essay was pretty short on specifics. Was there some instance of a twitter-buddy of Straub’s or any other author turning in a glowing review? None given. But this didn’t prevent Dwight Garner from calling the essay “smart” in the Times, and that Esquire columnist was way into it, too, alleging that anyone wounded by a bad review was “weak.”

Yet the congratulatory mentions came to an abrupt halt when, this weekend, The New York Times Book Review doled out the gift of someone who was willing to make the subtext text: that is, with William Giraldi’s review of two books by Alix Ohlin. I guess you could say he didn’t like it, which apparently meant he was free to describe terms so condescending and vague as to transform the whole into comedy. It was not, to my knowledge, my birthday, but he even used the term “phallic shadow.” He could not stop himself from citing, among others, Cervantes, Bellow, and Pound, erecting a tower of clutching, covetous references to Great Men (and one Great Eliot). And there it was, right out in the sun: the fact was that what he objected to was having to treat this “women’s fiction.” The uncomfortable silence that followed was telling. He’d gone and let the cat out of the bag they thought was empty.

It’s curious that when examples of “too much niceness” get bandied around, it’s almost always midlist female novelists who are chosen as examples—and not, say, a writer like Chad Harbach. The arrival of Harbach’s book, The Art of Fielding, was accompanied by one of the strangest pieces of “journalism” I’ve ever read, a bizarre triumphalist narrative written by Keith Gessen (Harbach’s best friend, former roommate, and coeditor at n+1, it helpfully informs us) that appeared not on Twitter, that devil’s medium, but in the pages of Vanity Fair (it’s not online, but is an ebook now). The overall ponderousness of the thing is exemplified by one of its last lines: “Time had written the book, but Chad had had to become its conduit.”

Why start with flower crowns when you could start with Harbach, one wonders? Or, okay, I’ll be honest, one doesn’t.

You’d think that the idea of an egalitarian literary scene would be adequately disproven by those dreadful VIDA pie charts, but if you long for more evidence here’s another data point: even when women get cited by certain male critics, they’re invoked with the blind misconstruction of someone who hasn’t read them.

For example, in the Slate piece, Silverman invokes Rebecca West approvingly, writing she “could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening.” Indeed, in 1914, West did write an essay titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” but few, it seems, have bothered to read past the header. Though she’s apparently the model par excellence of cruelty, West never called for the slaughter of the semi-invisible midlist novelist. She went after the big guns, the respected minds, precisely because she was not so much interested in people or careers or “literary circles” as she was in ideas.

“Criticism matters as it never did in the past,” West wrote, “because of the present pride of great writers.” Her argument was that the late-career laziness of George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells had to be fought because it threatened to overwhelm their wisdom, not because they needed to be cut out of the club. She also had Mrs. Humphry Ward in her sights, a figure fond of angel-in-the-house model of feminine ambition that was so antithetical to West. (Ward opposed female suffrage.) Yet in West’s time, Mrs. Humphry Ward had the respect of intellectual men. In short: West’s sights in that essay were set on the powerful. She was not dispatching vitriol to guard already well-defended ramparts. She wanted better discussions, point blank. She was not looking to gratuitously end careers before they’d even taken flight.

The fact is, “harshness” is a moving target. It means entirely different things to different people. And one line along which it often divides is gender. In retrospect, that a call for being “less nice” would begin with a male critic isn’t so surprising: There’s a certain male tint to the perspective that life happens on a level playing field, where reason is always triumphant and a hint of bias is a slag on a good man’s word, so why can’t we go mano-a-mano and all just have at it? Women, for better or worse, don’t have that luxury. They know that the unconscious bias is always there. Yes, it’s expressed along a spectrum: not everyone is as clueless as our poor “phallic shadow”-master in the weekend review. But even less direct disapproval can ping a radar, if you’ve been out and about in the professional world for long enough.

Nor is it always conscious, either. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in that oft-cited piece on Men Who Explain Things, the dynamic at play here is often one of “unsupported confidence.” What makes them Men Who Explain Things is their indifference to, if not outright ignorance of, the subject matter. It’s that way you come to know that their corrections are, instead, small acts of discipline—what Solnit calls the signals that “this is not [a woman’s] world.”

“I’m only voicing legitimate criticism” is a defense that any woman who’s bothered to accuse a man of “mansplaining” has heard, ad nauseam. Which is why my back gets up, a bit, when I hear “legitimate criticism” veneered on to a debate about criticism. (A side effect of the syndrome is that, presented with the concept, some men will feel it necessary to inform you, frequently at length, what it is that you don’t understand about mansplanation.) “And why do I need to be nice?” these men ask, when actually all you are asking is that they not approach you as some aspiring immigrant from another country, and one on the bad end of a trade deficit, at that. People say this is a fine line, but I don’t believe that; arrogance and intelligence are actually not that hard to distinguish from each other. One is a lot less easy to make fun of, that’s for sure.

But let’s not let that hilariousness mask that the initial resistance matters, as it’s what allows a person to imagine he is writing about “literature” or “greatness” or “culture” when what he’s really writing about is the work of other men. Sure, a lot of such critics will punctuate their work with a reference to Joan Didion here, one to Toni Morrison there, or whoever else is deemed admissible that week. But just like Sontag’s offhand reference to the unnamed “feminists” defending Riefenstahl, it comes across as more lazy than actual, serious engagement with the many, many great (and varied) books that have been written by women. Anyone offended by that suggestion need only recall Rich’s request: it’s not dogma we want, but deeper complexity.

But for those who still don’t get it, let me be the first to say, yes, don’t worry, you needn’t remind us: all your best Alice Munros are women.

Michelle Dean writes in a lot of places, now. Follow her on Twitter.