Not sure what happens to you, but sudden brutal nausea is what happens to me when I get invaded, or ensnared, by little harmless thoughts. Seriously banal, petty stuff: the most obvious example is my instinctive revulsion when waiters say “You guys,” to my table. “Can I get you guys anything else?” or “Everything all right for you guys?”
No, it doesn’t make sense; yes, I realize it’s irrational. And things like “You folks” or, why not, “You currrrazzzzyyyyyy kids,” are fine. It’s the “You guys” that gets me. I can’t explain it, but I get annoyed, then I think about my own annoyance and I get more annoyed, until I’m fidgeting at the table thinking about the decline of the west.
I notice this more these days than ever before: a feeling of blurry-eyed, nauseated imbalance in my head when petty things happen and my thoughts latch onto them. They are very particular things, and it’s never so bad that I faint or need to go. So far, no murders, no mysterious fire at the local French restaurant one night. The thing is subtler than murder or arson. It’s simply my thoughts apparently not quite managing to resist the lure of all-out pet-peeving the hell out of a few innocent things I encounter in the world. No doubt it’s my thoughts fighting themselves, but I don’t have the courage to touch that problem for a while.
One of the strongest nausea-inducing pet peeves I have to deal with right now is actually less a “pet peeve” than an “erratically tamed Satan-dragon peeve” and it involves the evaluation of books by critics and would-be critics. Very few — really, I mean it, very, very few — people who read more than a book a month fall outside of those two categories: CRITICS on the one hand (usually people who are paid for their learnedness, and get their erudite judgements published by other people) and WOULD-BE CRITICS on the other (these are the beginning writers, the published novelists, the generally well-read vulture-headed peddlers of opinion who would like you to know that this novel is simply not the author’s best, and here are the reasons). Anyone who manages not to fit into those categories is either a seriously reclusive writer/reader who thinks nothing of talking about other people’s books because he/she’s too busy making the books their own, or something altogether other than human.
I admire these types; I am not one of them. It depends when you catch me, but I swing from being a critic on a good day (at least politely interested in feigning objectivity and an ability to step outside my own little world) to a would-be critic on a bad day (at least politely aware that the internet and my friends are very capable of not caring). I’ve written a bit about would-be critics before, and I’d like to focus on critics, a word I will keep typing out just like that, like I don’t care, just because such people are important.
Perhaps I flatter myself about this, but here goes: At least, when I die and have twenty seconds to convince whichever Archangel is on duty not to send me back down to hell again (It took me weeks to get out of there, man), I’ll be able to say, very truthfully, that I’ve become very good at stopping myself from being a full-on critic. I can stop my mouth from just blurting out opinions on the good books, and the bad books, and the “interesting but ultimately flawed books,” and the “promising debut” of this young author and the “intriguing, ambitious” new novel by Bret Easton Franzenwallace. Those are the sins of the critic, the professional critic with those blurbs at the back of a novel you may have picked up last weekend then dropped because of the mundane chattering of critics printed all over the covers. The most egregious, shameless, applauded critic of this sort seems to be Michiko Kakutani, who was repeatedly ridiculed by BR Myers (another critic, one of the renegade ones for whom everything is fucking wrong with the literary scene) in A Reader’s Manifesto and Matt Gross in a New York Magazine post. Gross was kindly cruel enough to list some of the Pulitzer-winning Kakutani’s favorite uses of the word “limn” — no, you’re not stupid if you don’t know the word, but I’m not going to explain it because nyurh-nyurh I’m so cleverabubble. Here’s where she talks about authors limning the inner lives of their characters:
- Gish Jen “limns the inner lives of her heroes and heroines with authority and aplomb.”
- Oscar Hijuelos’s A Simple Habana Melody “showcases his ability . . . to limn [his characters'] inner lives with insight.”
- H. W. Brands “never penetrates [Benjamin] Franklin’s placid demeanor to limn his inner life.”
- “None of [Nicholson] Baker’s considerable talents as a writer, his ability to reinvent the mundane rituals of daily life or limn the inner lives of his characters, are on display” in The Fermata.
- Ann Beattie’s early works showed her “ability to limn her characters’ inner lives with the same authority she brought to descriptions of their daily routines.”
How hilarious, how petty, my Gosh can you believe Matt Gross just did that, isn’t the literary world just on fire these days. Look at Jonathan Franzen (one of the few authors who turns me into a critic because he annoys me so much) bitching about Michiko Kakutani: “The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times.” That’s Michiko, who spends her nights sitting in the basement with a blowtorch and all the books she doesn’t like, and limns them out of existence.
But it’s not just about some critic burning other writers under the magnifying glass of his or her brilliance. Have you read Nicole Krauss being rapturously unhinged about some book I don’t think anyone I know has, like, read yet, because like, of the blurb Krauss has given it?
Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude. David Grossman may be the most gifted writer I’ve ever read; gifted not just because of his imagination, his energy, his originality, but because he has access to the unutterable, because he can look inside a person and discover the unique essence of her humanity. For twenty-six years he has been writing novels about what it means to defend this essence, this unique light, against a world designed to extinguish it. To the End of the Land is his most powerful, shattering, and unflinching story of this defense. To read it is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being.
And now for a postcoital cigarette, so Krauss can wonder if this is really all there is in the world.
Here’s Kathryn Schultz, listing her top 10 books of 2012. I’m glad she enjoyed these books; I’m glad when people enjoy books in general, which is why I have (very bravely and to great effect) come to the defense of “trash” like 50 Shades of Grey in the past. But look at how Schultz’s assessments are put together:
- “Reported like Watergate, written like Great Expectations, and handily the best international nonfiction in years.” — Variations might include: “Like Great Expectations on acid — easily the finest gooooohhmygodmmmph lol”
- “Slim, brilliant, devastating, and—improbably, but Hitchish-ly—uproarious.” — Adjective, adjective, adjective and — real adverb, but clever proper noun-based creative adverb — adjective. Here you go, here’s my blurb for this new book I enjoyed.
- “Davis deftly connects topography to colonialism, psyche to body, World War I trenches to the top of Mount Everest.” — The wonderful triad of comparisons.
- “This tragically posthumous book is part memoir, part Middle Eastern history, part emotional expense report filed by one of our greatest foreign correspondents.” The wonderful triad of part-things, and a bit of other-directed flattery.
Critics are professionally trained children who can read books just fine, but who have also found that books are great blocks to build forts with. You can get a red one and a green one, and put them together to make a parapet. And when you’re finished reading the new flawed, disappointing new novel by a writer who would be scared to meet you because you keep getting shit wrong — you can put it on top of the parapet to make a DRAGON.
No, I don’t have an answer to the problem of the critic because, whatever I’ve said above, I still like to read critics and book reviewers. Some of them have been very, very nice to me without resorting to cliché, and without jumping on a bandwagon. I think literary critics are a good thing, overall, because at least we can pretend for a while longer that there’s a strong distinction between our opinions and our pathologies. That distinction is made possible by postulating objective criteria for the judgement of art and stuff.
I do find it disconcerting that the literary world, as far as it allows itself or encourages itself to be buoyed up by the hysteria of the media, so consistently fails to talk about enjoying books. You know: “I fucking love this book. I love. I love it. I know I’m not supposed to like it. I know everyone around me laughs when I say I love it. But reading it was awesome, and the world is awesome, and honestly I’m a little happier than I was before I read it, and even though the happiness is fleeting, at least I can never again pretend not to have been giddy with excitement about having read a book.”
I’d be happy even if the world’s sole concession to my whims amounted to Kakutani writing her next review in a single sentence: “I would have liked to limn my overall appreciation of this good book, but really, I can’t stop crying because it’s just so damned fucking good.”
No Pulitzer here, but do I detect a human form somewhere in the distance? A wild Kakutani eating berries and howling with pleasure at the moon, which knows and agrees? Ha, no, but picture it. That’s Pulitzer material, too.