The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, “the Greatest Living British Writer.” As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, “Now, there’s a question! It’s such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!” Indeed. If you’ve got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn’t decide – how does one pick in polls like this? – so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
Collaborating with another writer is something I’ve done only once. It was for a Washington Post Magazine cover article about the stock car racing legend Richard Petty, who was making his first run for political office in the fall of 1978. At the time I was working as a newspaper reporter in Greensboro, N.C., and after work I would drive the 22 miles to Petty’s home with one of the paper’s editorial writers, and we would spend the late afternoons talking with Petty as he drove his customized van along the back roads of Randolph County. Petty was always dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, cowboy boots and wraparound shades as he knocked on doors, flashed his famous thousand-watt smile and urged people to help elect him to the board of county commissioners. Naturally, Petty lapped the field.
When it came time to write the article, my collaborator gave me his notes and disappeared. This delighted me. I was free to sit alone in my room using his notes and my own to write a draft of the article as I thought it should be written. My collaborator then made suggestions, some of which I heeded, most of which I ignored. The article appeared under both of our bylines, with mine before his, an arrangement that struck me as more than a little unfair. We also split the $750 paycheck down the middle, which struck me as enormously unfair. Afterwards I felt like the character Nelson Head in the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Artificial Nigger,” a young yokel who survives a harrowing visit to the big city of Atlanta and vows never to return. To paraphrase Nelson, my feelings about collaborating with another writer were I’m glad I did it once, but I’ll never do it again.
My vow has remained intact for more than 30 years, but I recently learned about a group called NeuWrite that has forced me to reconsider my abiding disdain for the art of collaborative writing. The group began to take shape back in 2007 because a Columbia University neuroscience grad student named Carl Schoonover had arrived at a blunt realization. “Lots of interesting neuroscience research gets reported badly,” he says. “And most scientists can’t write for shit, myself included, because they don’t teach you how to write in science grad school. The trick was to find writers.”
So after discussing the idea with his colleagues, Schoonover persuaded Stuart Firestein, the chairman of Columbia’s biology deparment, to introduce him to Ben Marcus, who heads the university’s Master of Fine Arts program in non-fiction writing. Marcus offered the names of half a dozen of his students who might be interested in collaborating with neuroscience grad students, and Schoonover took each of them to The Hungarian Pastry Shop near campus to pitch his idea. In early 2008, the group came together for the first time at an informal salon in the home of Firestein and his wife Diana Reiss, a psychology professor at Hunter College.
“I think you need to develop trust for it work,” Schoonover says. “We scientists are accustomed to collaboration. It’s built into the scientific process. But the writers were very reticent, especially at first.”
As the members became more familiar and comfortable with each other, scientists started pairing up with writers and working together. Eventually the salon atmosphere of the meetings gave way to a classic MFA workshop format – members would bring in a piece of their own writing for the group to discuss; established science writers would be invited to speak; the group would read and discuss examples of high quality science writing.
Schoonover wound up pairing with Abigail Rabinowitz, 32, who has since gotten her MFA and gone to India on a Fulbright grant to study surrogate motherhood in Mumbai. Rabinowitz had wanted to be a scientist when she was growing up, and the announcement that NeuWrite was forming in early 2008 caught her eye. “I wanted to find my way back to science through writing,” she says, “and I thought this would be a great way to look at writing from a different perspective and possibly find new stories.”
Schoonover and Rabinowitz’s first collaboration was on an article for Science magazine about a show at the American Museum of Natural History called “Brain: The Inside Story”. “First, we heard the museum’s directors speak about how they’d planned the show,” Rabinowitz recalls. “Then Carl and I walked through the show together and shared impressions. If I wasn’t sure about something, he explained it to me. Our impressions were very similar, even though we were coming from different backgrounds. We both felt the show wasn’t organized visually as well as it could have been.”
Next came the hard part. “So we sat down together with a computer,” Rabinowitz continues. “We both had a lot of notes, and we outlined the piece together. I had a vision for the introduction when you walk into a kind of spaghetti forest that represents the brain. Carl also thought it was a good way into the piece. Then we moved through the show, and that became the article’s structure. I typed while we were both speaking – not trying to hone language, just trying to get basic ideas in order. Then I wrote the first draft until the halfway point and e-mailed the draft to Carl, who then edited what I’d written – not structure, but word choice and one factual error and some added information. Then he wrote the second half. He sent it back to me and I edited what he’d written. We both killed the other’s darlings.”
More and more refined drafts went back and forth a half dozen times. Changes were tracked on each draft, and the collaborators spoke frequently by phone. The finished product possesses two things you don’t always find in science writing: accurate, easily comprehensible information related in a style that’s brisk and clear.
The pair’s next collaboration was an article for the New York Times about the emerging field of optogenetics, which uses flashes of light to control electrical activity in specially engineered neurons. The technique is beginning to yield insight into such human disorders as Parkinson’s disease and anxiety.
Rabinowitz now feels that collaboration, though painful, is worth the trouble. “Ultimately I think it produced better writing than I could have done myself,” she says. “Carl knows what he’s talking about. If he liked something I wrote, I got the joy of recognition. But it can be frustrating too. I wouldn’t want to write this way with most people I know, because it’s hard and there has to be a good reason to do it. If you’re writing with somebody else, you need to communicate very well.”
For Greg Wayne, a grad student in theoretical neuroscience and a member of NeuWrite, this hasn’t been his first exposure to collaborative writing. Wayne and his brother, a novelist, had worked together on humor sketches, a form that’s “incredibly amenable” to collaboration, he says. “With humor, there’s a joke every line, and that can be edited immediately. Is this funny? Does that work? But if you have long, discursive writing, sitting at the same keyboard is much more difficult. I think novel writing would be just about impossible.”
Wayne collaborated with the writer Alex Pasternack on an article for Science magazine about a panel on artificial intelligence at the World Science Festival – replete with robot demonstrations, including Watson, the “Jeopardy!” champion. The experience left Wayne convinced that there are times when two minds can produce better science writing than one. “For the article we divided up responsibility based on what we know best,” Wayne says. “Alex, as a writer, was going to look at social issues, how the public views artificial intelligence, how people think about a Stanley Kubrick sci-fi movie. As a scientist I would focus on the nuts and bolts of how the robots work. In the end, neither one of us alone would have been capable of writing what we wrote together.”
Tim Requarth studied Spanish literature as an undergrad and wrote a book about his father’s dementia before entering Columbia’s neuroscience program. Requarth, who recently wrote a review here at The Millions of the neuroscientist David Eagleman’s best-seller, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, teamed up with Schoonover to help run NeuWrite. “I was a logical person to step in because I’ve had a foot in both words – science and writing,” says Requarth, who has collaborated on articles for Science and Scientific American with Meehan Crist, who has just finished writing a book called Everything After, about traumatic brain injury. “One thing we’ve all discovered is that it works better if one person writes the first draft. Meehan and I discuss the ideas and arrive at a sketch, details to include, how to start. Then I sit down and write. Then Meehan does a first-pass edit, and we pass it back and forth until we’re both happy with it. When someone reads your rough draft, it’s like letting them see you half-dressed. It’s about arriving at a level of intellectual comfort – or having faith in the process. In a successful collaboration, both people feel like they did less than half the work.”
Requarth is now working to start a second NeuWrite group that will branch beyond the neuroscience field and beyond the Columbia campus. He’s recruiting students from other science disciplines at NYU and CUNY, as well as journalists. Another group is beginning to form in Boston.
Schoonover is optimistic that the group’s tenets will spread. “We’re trying to make the argument to science editors that the best way to guarantee accuracy and avoid hype is by having a scientist involved in every step of the crafting of articles,” he says. “Once we show that this collaboration between writers and scientists works with NeuWrite, we’d love to see it become routine. We’re sowing the seeds for expansion.”
(Image: Christmas DNA from pagedooley’s photostream)
When I was in pharmacy school, the most coveted reference books were the ones which placed a wealth of information at your fingertips. The Drug Information Handbook offered what you’d need to know about any available drug, from pharmacological use to dosage to adverse reactions. The Merck Manual, too, listed just about every disease imaginable and provided enough of a description to let me, like a good hypochondriac, believe that I’d contracted every one of them. I’ve been out of pharmacy school for a while now, but there is a new medical resource that I’d add to the list, the fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Medicine.
This issue of Lapham’s Quarterly caters to a different kind of medical knowledge: the history of medicine. It features doctors who are also writers, patients who reflect on their medical treatments, and fictional depictions of botched procedures. One could call the issue a humanist’s guide to medicine, as much of what’s chronicled focuses on the human experience of illness, cures, and pharmaceuticals. William Carlos Williams tells how being a doctor gives him access to the intimate lives of patients, which in turn informs his writing. Former president of Doctors Without Borders, James Orbinski, writes about treating scores of maimed patients after an attack during the Rwandan genocide. Anatole Broyard wishes his doctor were a man of letters who nursed his spirit as well as his physical body. Also, there are instances of quackery, body snatching, and bloodletting. The miscellany includes old treatments that would now be considered outrageous, such as a Womb Spell to cure a moving womb—considered a cause of hysteria—and a curative spell that involves writing the word abracadabra on a piece of paper and wearing it on a string around one’s neck.
Lapham’s Quarterly derives its name from its founding editor, Lewis Lapham, who edited Harper’s magazine over a span of thirty years. It’s no surprise, then, that there are parallels between the way the two publications are organized. The issue opens with an essay written by Lapham, and the main body consists of excerpts that remind me of the Readings section in Harper’s, only more focused. The excerpts date as far back as 2650 BC and come from sources all over the globe. They are divided into subsections about symptoms and diagnoses, doctors and patients, and remedies and treatments. There are selections from Hippocrates, Galen, and Maimonides, interspersed with accounts, both fictional and non, from writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Ken Kesey, and Jean-Dominique Bauby. Lapham should be considered as much a curator as an editor, it seems, for one gets the sense that he and his team have scoured a library’s bookshelves to compile this volume.
Original essays are also featured. Meehan Crist, the reviews editor for the Believer, writes about holding a human brain in her hands, and reflects on the way that watching a dissection challenges one’s perception of the human body. An essay by John Crowley, which is available in its entirety on the website, explains his theory of death (and hence, of the nature of life), which is inspired by the historical figure Giordano Bruno (who plays a lead role in one of Crowley’s novels). What first seemed like an endpoint in itself has now become a starting point. As I close the pages, I have a new list of books to read, including Broyard’s Intoxicated by My Illness, a posthumously published memoir about his experience as a patient with metastisized prostate cancer, as well as Bulgakov’s autobiographically inspired short stories contained in Country Doctor’s Noteboook. If as Yeats wrote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” there’s enough tinder here to ignite a blaze.
At first I couldn’t tell if Janet Maslin’s review of James Frey’s novel Bright and Shiny Morning was a joke or not. I guess she liked the book, but her homage to Frey’s style is so terrible, the start-stop prose so laughably bad, that I assumed she was making fun of the poor guy:He wrote a big book. He wrote about a city. Los Angeles. He made up a lot of characters, high low rich poor lucky not, every kind, the book threw them together. It was random but smart. Every now and then he would pause the story, switch to the present tense and throw in an urban fact.David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times had a different reaction to the novel, calling it, “one of the worst I’ve ever read.” Ouch.At the Vroman’s blog, Patrick has an exclusive interview with the author himself. Frey discusses, among other things, his future as a memoirist, the city of Los Angeles, and, of course, his new novel:Ultimately, though, I tried to write a book that was unlike anything that has preceded it, that is devoid of any real influence, and that’s singular in its composition and voice, but also immediately recognizable as my work. I have tried to do this with each of my books. I want to tell stories in new, fresh ways. I want my writing to reflect the age in which we live, which is fast, contains vast amounts of information, and uses new ways to present the information. I always read while I write, but for pleasure, not inspiration or influence.I wonder if this is really possible. Frank Conroy reportedly once said, “Voice is the amalgamation of books read,” and I tend to agree. But I suppose Mr. Frey lives by Ezra Pound’s famous dictum: “Make it new.” It’ll be interesting to see how readers react to Frey’s latest endeavor. Will they agree with Maslin or Ulin, or somewhere in between?
It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”
Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.
But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.
Which brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.
Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.
All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.
So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?
Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.
“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”
And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”
This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.
The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.
The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker‘s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.
So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.
“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”
This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.
But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.
“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”
I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.
But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”
Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.
Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?
Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.
“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”
This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.
Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:
“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”
Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.
But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”
But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.
Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”
Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”
Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?
But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.
The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.
This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.
Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.
“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?
Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.
This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.
Take Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.
Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.
(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)
Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker‘s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.
It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.
HarperCollins is trying a new model with an imprint that cuts out author advances in favor of a larger proportion of royalties and eliminates remainders (also known as returns) entirely. The industry has been debating the pros and cons of the move since the Friday announcement. As has been only sparsely discussed in the media, HarperCollins isn’t the first to try this business model. Millions contributor Ben profiled MacMillan New Writing last year:No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it.And for a little more color on “remainders,” a much despised element of the book industry, check out a post of mine from several years ago explaining the curious life cycle of the remaindered book.
August 6th marked the 64th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today marks the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. As part of its op-ed page this weekend, the Los Angeles Times offered several firsthand accounts of the bombings by survivors, taken from a documentary made by the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Center. You can find the complete, translated transcripts of these testimonies at this link.Here is an excerpt from the testimony of Akihiro Takahashi who was 14 at the time of the Hiroshima bombing:That was the moment when the blast came. And then the tremendous noise came and we were left in the dark. I couldn’t see anything at the moment of explosion just like in this picture. We had been blown by the blast. Of course, I couldn’t realize this until the darkness disappeared. I was actually blown about 10 m. My friends were all marked down on the ground by the blast just like this. Everything collapsed for as far as I could see. I felt the city of Hiroshima had disappeared all of a sudden. Then I looked at myself and found my clothes had turned into rags due to the heat. I was probably burned at the back of the head, on my back, on both arms and both legs. My skin was peeling and hanging like this. Automatically I began to walk heading west because that was the direction of my home. After a while, I noticed somebody calling my name. I looked around and found a friend of mine who lived in my town and was studying at the same school. His name was Yamamoto. He was badly burnt just like myself. We walked toward the river. And on the way we saw many victims. I saw a man whose skin was completely peeled off the upper half of his body and a woman whose eye balls were sticking out. Her whole baby was bleeding. A mother and her baby were lying with a skin completely peeled off. We desperately made a way crawling. And finally we reached the river bank. At the same moment, a fire broke out. We made a narrow escape from the fire. If we had been slower by even one second, we would have been killed by the fire.