Recently, I was at a used bookstore here in Houston purchasing a paperback of Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street when the intrepid independent bookseller (all indie booksellers are intrepid, and this one, having fled Hurricane Katrina with his voluminous bibliostock in tow, is doubly so) declared emphatically that the novel ultimately didn’t work. It is the bookseller’s conundrum to only be able to discuss a work with someone who has not actually read it yet, since they’re in the process of buying it, so the conversation is inevitably going to be a bit one-sided. Nevertheless, as a writer, this declaration makes me bristle automatically, no matter how true it might prove to be.
This is a blog that aims to “review” creative writing, albeit not in a traditional sense. Generally, though I hate to hate things, I despise book reviews, which so often seem to need to find something wrong in order to showcase the reviewer’s own intelligence (cough*James Wood*cough). But as a teacher of creative writing, I cannot believe that it is not valuable to formulate written analytical opinions on creative subject matter; the key is to find a balance where the analytical angle fosters the creative rather than strangling it. As I tell my students, when we read creative work, whether published or unpublished, we are not looking for what is “wrong,” but at what it can teach us. Every semester I assign students a presentation on a published work with the goal of identifying (at least) two techniques that writer is using to achieve (or attempt to achieve) a certain emotional effect–it is that model I am attempting to replicate in my posts here. What did we feel? Why did we feel it? I am sharing the moderation of this blog with my students at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston, and their assigned presentation reviews will appear here sporadically, once school starts. This is a discussion forum, not a declaration pedestal from which to exact vengeful vendettas. Blogs are a (theoretically) friendly format, where you don’t have to feel your every word needs to be polished, where you can expel just enough energy to create a palatable presentation without working your words until their meaning disintegrates in front of you.
Reviews, appraisals of the written word, are in the business of assessing whether or not the words “work.” So how does a novel “work”? Well, to return to basic definitions, what constitutes a narrative? Something has to happen. But for a narrative to “work,” the something that happens has to be more specific: what happens cannot be arbitrary, as in: an asteroid strikes the planet and everyone dies. What happens has to be meaningful to a particular character(s), which is another way of saying what happens is that a character changes, or is at least offered the opportunity to (in which case the something happening is the character rejects this choice). At any rate, while I agree a classification can be made about whether a novel/narrative “works” or doesn’t, any reader who deigns to weigh in, no matter how offhanded or considered, has not put anywhere near as much work into this judgment as the writer has into creating the narrative. People who write published reviews usually also work in the genre they’re reviewing, and yet the derisive tone of many seem not to take these difficulties into account. Such reviews of the type that will not appear here, representing the aggressive and passive-aggressive models, respectively, appear here and here. While these writers do provide evidence for the derogatory claims they make, whether Cronin’s intro is “preposterously self-important” or Ishiguro’s approach to memory is a “folly” remain subjective to a degree these reviewers do not, to me at least, adequately acknowledge. So let’s criticize the critics and see how they like it. You, critics, have a tendency to state opinions as fact based on evidence that could be appropriated to support entirely opposing ones (as the simultaneously astute and munificent Zadie Smith does with backlash against EM Forster here). There’s a world of difference between “It works because [x, y, and z]” and “I think it works because [x, y, and z].” It’s important to remember that we’re all thinking here, and some of us think differently.
The subjectivity of reading audiences is far-flung and wide-ranging, as I experienced firsthand yesterday at my office’s monthly book club. The novel under discussion was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son—full disclosure, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. I did not disclose this to the book club, as I could tell as soon as I walked in that the pendulum of opinion was swinging hard the other way. A significant percentage of those there had not managed to finish. “Does it get any better?” someone irritably asked. Another reader offered that the story got better, though the things happening to the people in it definitely did not. To some present, these two interpretations of “better” were effectively the same; troubling or challenging subject matter was not preferred reading. Before the lunch hour was up the conversation had turned to “lighter” reading options (including, if I heard correctly, a series about a cat solving mysteries), like we were a room full of literary fad dieters. Point being, what one reader finds clear another finds confusing, while what’s clear for one reader might cross into heavy-handed for another. Flannery O’Connor believed that people, high school students specifically, struggle with fiction because it contains mystery, and we want answers, not questions. She believed English teachers might be singlehandedly responsible for the face of the bestseller list, since it is at a tender age that an aesthetic appreciation may be imparted—or destroyed. There is the distinction between “good” as entertaining versus painfully life-affirming. For me, for a book to be good, pain has to be part of it—dramatized pain, mind you, not the pain of reading a hundred pages in which nothing meaningful is happening. How writers make their happenings meaningful will be the recurring subject here.
I have not yet gotten around to reading my used copy of Great Jones Street, but I did recently finish DeLillo’s End Zone and must admit my reaction upon doing so was “What the hell was that?” I did not, upon turning the last page, feel a sense of closure, or enlightenment, or sympathy, which, for a writer like DeLillo, could be precisely the point. I did not feel the ethereal content of the conversations between football players remotely resembled realistic dialog—again, likely, part of the point. This I’m willing to concede. I’m still thinking about it.
The power of the written word is that I get to say what I want, but, much like constraints on personal rights and freedoms, I should remain aware of how what I say might infringe negatively on or nullify what others have said. Not to say that I don’t think we should say things that disagree with others. I think that what we say should be geared in a productive rather than detrimental way, because it’s easy to get defensive. Writing is hard. Let’s be generous to those who have been generous enough to share it with us. Even when we confront what we deem failures, what can we learn from the glorious attempt?