Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

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.

26 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

So we should burn n+1 to the ground, is my takeaway.

Moff (#28)

@deepomega: Yay!

Matt (#26)

Burn Notice is SO GREAT though.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I didn't take that away from this article; I brought that to this article.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

This is tremendous–so clarifying, it was like water after a long thirst.

""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."

Cat named Virtute (#234,156)

@alexanderchee Yes, precisely! The cultural conversation is not enriched by eviscerating mid-list novelists (unless we're talking about a broader trend or meme), but we do well to keep the old guard on their toes.

bluebears (#5,902)

Loved this article Michelle and I genuinely LOL'd at "Twitter, that devils medium"

Lenore (#9,149)

@bluebears agree on both counts!

hershmire (#233,671)

It gets really complicated when misogynist neo-Nazis celebrate Riefenstahl's success as a propagandist but loathe her for her gender.

Not to take a position defending Garibaldi's work Michelle, but while you point out that he used the term "women's fiction" as a lynchpin of your argument for labelling his work as misogynistic, but he actually wrote "women's fiction" in quotation marks in the original text, pointing out that he thought the term so silly that it deserved the forced unreality of ironic quotation. So reading it that way, when he writes the follow up phallic shadow, it's sort of tongue-in-cheek.

The whole sentence is such: "There’s been much recent parley, in these pages and elsewhere, about “women’s fiction” and the phallic shadow it has been condemned to live in. But there’s a better argument to be had. Ohlin’s fiction will be shelved with the pop lit and never with Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro"

Again, not to defend Garibaldi's tone. There's quite a lot to dislike about his writing. But to label his work as you do isn't exactly accurate. He divides his scorn into "pop lit" and "Mavis Gallant". Which is fair enough in my book, as I like Mavis Gallant very much.

Also, fun to think of how far both of us have come since High School, no? Why did you go to law school anyways. You should have gone into Humanities with me and then we'd both have been unemployable all these years.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston I think Michelle got it exactly right, though. She's not misunderstanding him. She's calling him on using the Mavis Gallant reference to disguise what he's up to with the rest of the essay, which is to create a tire necklace denying Ohlin entrance to the world of writers. "Don't think I am a misogynist because come on Alice Munro Mavis Gallant." Doesn't really work that way.

Nabonwe (#12,500)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Yeah, it's telling you didn't bother to finish that sentence, as it's in the second half where all the misogyny lies:

"…not because of her leaden obsession with pregnancy, dating and divorce, or any inherent bias in the publishing industry…" In other words, "Her writing sucks not because of her treatment of shallow, boring-to-me FEEEEMALE topics, and it certainly has nothing to do with sexism in the publishing industry which obviously doesn't exist anyway, as evidenced by the continued existence of this female writer whose work I dislike."

@alexanderchee Well, not exactly… When your argument is criticizing somebody's through based on their words, you have to use their words very accurately, because you don't really have anything else. In this case, you can't divide "women's fiction" from the ironic quotation marks of their source or else you're taking it out of context.

And though Giraldi's work isn't specifically woman friendly, he specifically mentions that he's writing on the quality/non-quality scale of things. The reference to Gallant and Munro is meant to call attention to the fact that female writers can occupy lofty spaces in the pantheon, but simply that Ohlin doesn't.

Giraldi's work is clumsy at best, but Michelle's work hangs specifically on these balances. Just look: 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.". And she goes on to say that the "silence" that came after Giraldi's work, from the whole rest of civilization, was from the fact that he had accidentally let slip that he hates dem womens: The uncomfortable silence that followed was telling. He’d gone and let the cat out of the bag they thought was empty.

And I don't understand how Giraldi can be castigated for referencing "Great Men", and then ALSO castigated for referencing Great Women. I mean, it kind of has to be one or the other. Either who he mentions isn't important, or it is.

I mean, Giraldi's work is in a lot of ways clumsy and dated. He's writing criticism from an earlier era of education. Parts of it are right (Ohlin is a desperately boring writer) and parts of it are very wrong.

But when you are a critic you have to be accurate. Everything else might be opinion, but you have got to grapple with the fact of what's on the page.

@Nabonwe Well the rest of that sentence is re-stating problems in subject matter that Giraldi noted earlier in the article. He never stated that Ohlin's subject matter wasn't interesting to him because it was a "boring-to-me FEEEEMALE topics", but because he found that her work relied over-much on hackneyed plot devices like pregnancies and suicides.

To be fair, Giraldi's mentioning of women's status in publishing in the first place is a little suspect. I think if he were truly thinking of work first, and gender second he'd ignore the topic a little more than he did. But at the same time, he never says there isn't bias in publishing. All he's stating is that this particular writer, in this point in time, with these books, won't earn herself a place in history because of the quality of her writing, not because of bias in publishing.

I'm not really offended that you'd bother to ascribe misogynistic intent to my criticism, that's precisely the first thing that would happen here, so no surprise.

But just so you know, I wrote my Master's thesis on Virginia Woolf, love George Eliot, love Audrey Lourde, love Adrienne Rich. My favourite poet is Hilda Doolittle, my favourite contemporary writer is Margaret Atwood. None of this will or should PROVE anything, but I can assure you I'm not against women in publishing, and I'm certainly not out to defend any sort of sexism in the industry.

I just think that criticism is a speculation built ON text, not around it. Accuracy is important.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Well, if we're talking accuracy, you suggest he means the "women's fiction" remark ironically and not condescendingly–and thus not meaning to be misogynistic. But ironic quote marks are also condescending quote marks, as in, "women's fiction, as if". For example, if I were to say 'Well, if we're talking "accuracy"' to you, it would mean I was condescending to you, yes? This is a convention widely understood. It's disingenuous of you to decide he didn't mean it that way in this contest. Why not just say women's fiction, no quote marks? But moreover, why bring it up? Why would he do that? And the answer is in the structure of this badly written review, where he falsely sets himself the pompous task of first deciding Ohlin fails his idea of a male canon and then saying she also fails the female one, as if to say "SO NOW SHE MUST REALLY GO"–and yes, that it is an inherently misogynistic formation to create, that artificial separation. As someone who wrote on Woolf, loves Eliot, Audre Lorde, etc., it's good that you admit woman can occupy the canon. But you seem to switch from that idea to suggesting there's two, one for men, one for women, without noticing the inherent complications–which Dean addresses here. She's not failing in her distinctions. She's made them better than Giraldi did, and she understands him completely.

alexanderchee (#3,995)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Also, if you do know her, write her a note and don't leave her a message about high school and going to law school in the comments here. That is insulting—talking down to her essay with mismanaged points and then smarming it up? Did you think she'd be all "oh hey Jeremy, thanks for explaining how I missed his point, yeah, law school"? Why not just have sent all this to her in a private message on Facebook? No, you had to do it here, where you could try to show her up and undermine her all at the same time. Try reading the Solnit essay sometime she refers to and think about what you're really up to here.

@alexanderchee I'm not exactly sure what kind of life you lead where an unimportant aside to someone I knew in a past life in the comments section of a blog post is a calculated effort to undermine anybody, but you should probably be aware that it's fairly laughable. Not to mention creepy. Not to mention bizarrely insulting. Maybe while you're plucking away at my hidden subtexts, you might want to investigate why you're so angry. You spend half your time levelling accusations at me, which sure. Why not? You're surrounded by friends on this site, so why the fuck not? Might as well toss everything out and see what you can malign me with. I respect the work Michelle does, and am happy she decided to write. The more people reading and writing the better off the world is. I spent my years as a freelance journalist and had some fun, so I know how tough the life is, and good for her.

I mean I'm not even disagreeing with Dean's argument. Of course there's bias in reviewing. I'm disagreeing with her PROOF of one part of that argument. And for this you're being ridiculous to me? Tedious. Tedious and silly.

And yeah, it's possible that the quotation marks are being used ironically, to wrap all female fiction into a unit and then sneer at it. Except that he specifically states in the text that he isn't doing it. And that that would be pretty contrary to the standard use of that punctuation. The standard use of irony would be to indicate that the expression itself was being stated ironically. Like if I were to say: I really "respect" your argument. Unless the NYTBR has a very poor editor, that's exactly the way in which I took it. So IF this article is poorly edited, and IF we read a hostile tone and meaning INTO the word being uttered, and IF we assume that that tone is directed at the level beneath the level that it SHOULD be directed at then we arrive at where you are in all your rage.

I mean, it's so speculative that we're just in the realm of nearly-pure fiction. A realm of reading hateful and hostile actions into innocuous things – which I guess you're familiar with.

And needless to say, this is all beyond the point because the original text doesn't even admit the existence of those quotation marks. And that's my only problem with this whole thing.

Anyways this is tedious and idiotic, and I'm certainly done with it.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston Could you do me a favor and say "tedious" again?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@deepomega No, do "tiresome" next!

Okay but really. You seem very upset that she didn't include the scare quotes on women's fiction, but then you quote her and, Lo, the words in question are framed by pairs of inverted commas.

"But," you sputter, probably after calling me tedious or god I hope tiresome, "those are simply quote quotes, not irony quotes or condescension quotes!"

Yes and all the different flavors of quote look the same. So I charitably decide that she is in fact reusing the construction from the review — women's fiction is hardly a novel enough coinage to attribute — and you can be less charitable and insist that only a triple quote mark will do. And you can't really say that either of us is wrong, because after all this silliness about author intent, both cases look exactly the same on the page.

Are you seeing the relevance to the discussion at hand?

Nomie @twitter (#226,424)

@DoctorDisaster I'm so glad we got this object lesson in men explaining things right here in the comments!

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston But ironic quote marks are also condescending quote marks, as in, "women's fiction, as if". For example, if I were to say 'Well, if we're talking "accuracy"' to you, it would mean I was condescending to you, yes? This is a convention widely understood. It's disingenuous of you to decide he didn't mean it that way in this contest. Why not just say women's fiction, no quote marks?

One possible way of interpreting that line is that Giraldi was using the ironic/condescending quote marks because he was trying to mock the concept of "women's fiction" as a separate genre, not mocking the concept that women can write quality fiction. If that's the case, he was being condescending to people who un-ironically use the term "women's fiction", not to women fiction-writers. You could make the argument that the term ghettoizes female authors or encourages us to think that women as a group are "naturally" drawn to read and write certain specific kinds of fiction.

E (#14,552)

There is some brilliant relationship parallel to be made here between what's going on in the comedy debate over the various merits of rape jokes, and the right therin of a comic to make said jokes and the rights and role of a critic. In both cases you have an industry that looks critically at subjects and comments on them. In both cases you have an industry that is traditionally dominated by straight male white people, reaching a tipping point where your consumer base is no longer strictly the province of the same demographics. And some really interesting and frustrating and hopeful things are comming out of that change.

For each you have a playing field that is not at all level but has tilted into an angle where for the first time, accusations that the field is slanted are audible at all. The critics are in a place where they themselves are vunerable to criticisms, where they could lose income as a direct result of a misplaced statement. They're nervous and it shows in these jittery dances, that end up being all the more telling in what they reveal. Tosh gets so nervous by being told a certain brand of humor isn't funny at all, he freaks out and says the intellectual equivalent of, "yeah well, I hope you DIE!". Giraldi gets so preready to deal with the accusation that he's unable to see the worth of a woman's work that he gives the game away and says "women's fiction" equals a "leaden obsession with pregnancy, dating and divorce", but that's not why he doesn't like it! No, it's just pop lit!

And it's funny because he was totally doing fine before that when he's talking about how she uses language. When he says, "Ohlin’s language betrays an appalling lack of register — language that limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor…In just 13 pages you will be asked to endure eyes “fluttering,” then “shining,” then “fluttering” again. Mitch’s girlfriend is “brilliantly smart” — imagine for a second the special brand of languor required to connect those two terms …" – That's fine! I'd never know that there was any special awareness from this critic as to his issues with "leaden" lady topics if he'd stuck to really viciously pursuing the mediocre writing, and we probably wouldn't even be talking about it today. He put the "phallic shadow" into this article his own damn self.

Pearl Olsen@twitter (#204,092)

wonderful article, I'm especially grateful for the recap of the recent critic fights, as I surely would have facepalmed myself into oblivion processing certain parts of it myself

charl3dave (#237,174)

Hello there, You have done an excellent job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this site.

CaptBackslap (#10,313)

I did not at all enjoy the suggestion that a reasonable person might find cause to slag The Art of Fielding.

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