I attended a fascinating panel on book criticism and blogs earlier this week. The evening’s discussion hinged on whether or not there exists a clear distinction between “book critic” and “litblogger”, and among many interesting points one statement by host John Freeman has lingered with me. He mentioned that litbloggers can be overly critical to book critics, and indicated that book critics were taking this treatment unkindly. A similar point was recently made in Time magazine by Lev Grossman in which he talks about being criticized by a blogger and tells us:
I’m not actually sure of his exact words, because I have a hard time reading his blog entries. I don’t really look at them directly–I’m kind of hypersensitive to criticism, so I just side-glance at them, squinting, with my head at an angle to the monitor.
I find this a surprising attitude, since critics are after all critics themselves. I should think they’d be fair game. But since I do spend a fair amount of time reviewing the New York Times Book Review each week, and since I have at times joined shooting parties when the publication has deserved it, Freeman’s point did cause me to think about whether I have ever gone too far in criticizing the Book Review on LitKicks. Perhaps I have.
But I don’t think so. I just browsed some past weeks, and I discovered that I am generally more complimentary than not. I notice that I have also taken trouble from the beginning to explain what my standards for evaluation are, and to affirm that it is only because I have such a high opinion of the institution of the New York Times Book Review that I hold their writers to the highest standards. I treat their writers as writers, and I try to critique them fairly on that basis.
Am I ever personal? I don’t think so. I tend to gather favorites — I always smile when I spot a Walter Kirn or Liesl Schillinger byline, because their work is usually sharp and clear. I have developed a few un-favorites (Rachel Donadio for air-kissy style, Joel Brouwer for pretentious foppery, David Orr for lousy jokes, Ron Powers for needing to really calm down). But I have also at times criticized my favorites, and I have praised my un-favorites. When I start at the first word of an article, I always want to like it.
And here we go right now! I can happily report that David Orr rocks the house with his On Poetry column today. He begins by discussing the popular (and uselessly general) understanding of the meaning “poetry”:
So, for example, different audiences might describe a performance by Cecila Bartolia or Tiger Woods or Ferran Adria or Zakk Wylde as “pure poetry”.
He goes on to examine and praise a new book by British comedian-intellectual Stephen Fry, who once played Jeeves on public TV and has just written a new introduction to the zen of poetry, The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. I share Orr’s admiration for Stephen Fry, and I hope this book is a success. I also heartily agree with Orr when he states that “Robin Williams” is a diabolical name, and not just because of the dreadful Dead Poets Society (my kids used to watch Mrs. Doubtfire over and over, and I was starting to smell sulfur).
Despite the fact that Orr clearly likes Fry’s book, he doesn’t hold back from correcting Fry for miscounting the number of syllables in a Robert Frost line (Fry, a Brit, would not know that “flowers” has two syllables north of Boston and elsewhere in the USA). This means that I shouldn’t have to feel bad for mentioning that Orr delivers one clunker himself in his otherwise good piece, when comparing baseball to poetry:
But poetry has a problem that baseball doesn’t; it exists both as an art and as a metaphor for certain kinds of experience. It’s both poetry and Poetry.
Whew. If Orr doesn’t know that baseball is Baseball, he’s obviously never read Roger Angell in the New Yorker or George Vescey on the Mets or Jeff Bryant after a Braves winning streak.
Okay, on to the rest of this rag. I very much like Rob Nixon’s summary of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, which looks like a must-read for me. Nixon explains the historical backdrop of the novel, the vicious late-60’s war and famine in Biafra (a name that is barely remembered anywhere but as the ironic surname of Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the rabble-rousing Dead Kennedys). Nixon makes a strong case that the horrible losses of this war stand as a revealing parallel for our current struggles.
Troy Patterson of Slate weighs Chuck Klosterman IV, named after Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, and comes up with a mostly positive eval. Many literary critics have beat up on Chuck Klosterman in the past, and I think this may be because this Spin rock critic (surely a lower life form) gets his stuff published in books and they don’t. But you’ve got to like a guy who interviews Robert Plant and asks: “On Whole Lotta Love you say you’re going to give some girl every inch of your love. But you’re British. Why don’t you use the metric system?”.
Today’s very satisfying New York Times Book Review ends with Gary Shteyngart’s funny piece on a 19th Century Russian slacker novel nobody’s ever heard of, Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. Overall, big thumbs up for the NYTBR this week.