Dispatches | March 31, 2011

Last week, author Cheryl Strayed started a thread on her Facebook page about the state of book reviews. Strayed felt that reviews of memoirs aren’t just saying whether or not the book is worth reading, but that no matter what, the critic takes the time to bash the entire genre. Even in positive reviews, Strayed found that the critic will state how the book is “so unlike most memoirs,” suggesting that good memoirs are not really like most memoirs, i.e., the genre of memoir stinks. The thread is over 100 comments long now, with heavy hitters like Ned Stuckey-French, Robin Romm, Matthew Batt, Debra Monroe, and Stephen Elliott (to name just a few) chiming in with their thoughts.

A few years ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote in Harper’s about an ongoing public argument between Jonathan Franzen (his famous “Why Bother?” essay) and Ben Marcus. Ozick concluded that the problem for these men—who were discussing, to greatly oversimplify, what fiction can and should do—is that there is a general lack of good criticism. Without good book critics to help readers determine what was worth reading in contemporary literature, writers like Franzen and Marcus (and all of us as readers) would continue to be frustrated by attempting and failing to decipher, through all the noise of the modern world, what was worthy of our reading time.

One of the only rules we have about blog content here at the Missouri Review is this: don’t be negative. That’s not to say to avoid criticism—not at all—but to not be a pugnacious jerk just for the sake of doing so. An example?  Try this review of four memoirs by critic Neil Genzlinger. In this omnibus review, he eviscerates three of the four memoirs. When in the first sentence of your review, you hope for people to shut up, as Genzlinger does, I mean, you aren’t exactly getting off to a generous start, right? This is exactly the kind of vitriolic reviewing that concerns Strayed.

As a reader, I learned nothing from Genzlinger’s review. There are too many mediocre books?  There are memoirs that are self-indulgent? Is anyone surprised by either of these things? Genzlinger’s article is a perfect example of what Charles Baxter has labeled “owl criticism”:

They don’t bother to provide the reader with an accurate description of the books’ formal or verbal properties. To say that something is “boring” is not a statement about a book, although the speaker may think that it is; it’s a statement about the reader’s poverty of equipment …The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it. … By these criteria, quite a few book reviews are worthless. They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.””

Americans don’t like critics or their criticism. We are openly hostile towards reviewers and critics. The word “critic” has such a negative connotation that you might as well call a book reviewer “terrorist” or “pedophile.”  As Americans, for a long time, we have taken a “I know what I know” attitude towards, well,  just about everything, and now that social media provides the opportunity for everyone to showcase his or her “knowledge,” we dismiss book critics (or cultural critics, social critics, etc.) as being elitist and protecting the status quo.

Let’s agree that the general state of book criticism is not in great shape, even if there are some very good book critics and thinkers out there. Why does memoir seem to set critics off? Strayed wrote that memoir is after the “blazingly honest subjective truth.” The complexity of those four words put together sounds perfect to me: it seems straightforward but in fact puts a tremendous responsibility on both the writer and the reader.

She is suggesting something that is, I think, an intriguing challenge that leads to some confusion. One commenter on Cheryl’s thread said that memoir “fails as accurate journalism”; another wondered aloud why there so many disclaimers in memoir. These seem to go hand in hand for me. Why so many disclaimers? Well, that one is easy: lawsuits. This is America, right?

The former comment, however, is what is really troubling, and suggests a concern with memoir that cannot easily be dismissed. Memoir and journalism are not the same. At all. To me that’s like comparing my filing cabinet to a bowl of grapes. It just doesn’t make any sense. But what the commenter is after, I think, is a criticism of memoir that is philosophical: what is true? What in your narrative is real? What actually happened here?

Now that is a great, big, huge, tremendous, gargantuan question and there are many people much smarter than me that struggle mightly, on a daily basis, with that very idea. What I sense is a desperate desire for truth and an inability to know how to find it. Tuesday, I watched five minutes of some CNN show called “In The Arena,” during which E.D. Hill interviewed Rep. Dennis Kucinich. I won’t bore you with the details, but both showed a remarkably lack of understanding (or interest in understanding, or even an interest in pretending they had an understanding) of presidential power and military intervention in Libya. They couldn’t care less as long as they got their talking points and soundbites in.

Well, that’s really frustrating, isn’t it? Especially when substance over style, celebrity over content, product over art, begins to permeate book culture, too. Right, Laura Miller?  As one commenter on Cheryl’s thread noted: “Good memoir is not self-aggrandizement or narcissism.” And, yet, many critics seem to view memoir as inherently narcissistic without even reading the book. In a world that is increasingly complex and polemic, any claim on a narrative as a “true story” is instantly met with hostile distrust.

I think this generally points to a culture that is illiterate. Yes: illiterate. A culture awash in conspiracy theories and political correctness and “deniability,” mixed with a failing education system, leads to confusion and anger. Why is this book “based on actual events” rather than “true”? Why aren’t those definitions clear? What am I to make of this? These type of complaints – and others you’ve certainly heard – rejects complexity for the sake of simplicity. That’s dangerous. That’s dangerous for writers and readers. And, yeah, for book critics, too.

One of my favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, said the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. With the sheer amount of information available to us, and the ability to access that information almost immediately, this is increasingly challenging to do. Book critics still have a valuable role to play in what we read in contemporary literature. Good critics have a responsibility to attempt something greater than Owl Criticism. And as readers, we have a responsibility to call them out for it.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.