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June 15, 2010

On "There, you see?" criticism

I do hope that the ridiculous parts of of Andre Alexis’ essay The Long Decline don’t undermine his valid points about Canadian literary criticism. I note in particular the statement about the critic who “…takes sentences or paragraphs that he considers examples of brilliant writing and then does the written equivalent of pointing and saying, “There, you see?”

Though just as often, the critic does the same thing with what he purports to be bad writing, supposing the evidence speaks for itself. The problem is, however, that the evidence rarely does. Mostly because there is no such thing as “brilliant writing”, or if there is, it’s only because it’s the writing one happens to like. (And if the evidence spoke for itself, really, what would be the need for critics?)

I want a critic to convince me, the way Steven Beattie did in his essay “Fuck Books“. Or perhaps what I mean is that I want a critic to make his case, because although I don’t agree with Beattie’s general assessment of Canadian Literature, the specific points within his essay are laid out and evidenced so clearly. He argues that Rebecca Rosenblum’s story “Fruit Factory” is “a far more effective – and affecting – portrait of blue-collar experience than anything in In the Skin of a Lion” and uses an excerpt. Instead of just pointing to that excerpt with a “There, you see?”, however, he goes on:

“Notice the way Rosenblum employs sparseness and repetition to capture the combined monotony and pressure of a labourer’s days… Rosenblum’s story is steeped in the rhythms of modern urban reality; the drumming beat of her sentences reflects her character’s lived experience. This is writing that sizzles and snaps, largely because it appears almost completely unadorned. In today’s CanLit, that in itself counts as an innovation.”

To be honest, “writing that sizzles and snaps” means precisely nothing, and it’s the kind of statement many critics use instead of “There, you see?” But with Beattie’s exceptionally close reading of the story and his concrete examples, I completely understand what he’s talking about. The work is almost revivified by his treatment of it.

Whereas, “There, you see?” criticism is dead on arrival, lazy, arrogant, a certain way to write one’s self into obsolesence, and I see this stuff all the time. So I do think Alexis makes a good point. Whether he makes his point well, however, is another matter…

8 thoughts on “On "There, you see?" criticism”

  1. Britt Gullick says:

    Maybe it would be more appropriate to leave my thoughts with Steven W. Beattie himself, but really now…

    I find it hilarious that the man who criticises Anne Michaels’ writing as being “overwrought and obsessed with its own showiness” employed the following in his essay: “how brutal in its Germanic bluntness when juxtaposed with the ornate, mythopoetic musings that prompted it. And yet, in their violence and brevity, those two short words capture the commingled frustration and exasperated wonderment that attends to reading passages such as the one above…”. And so on.

    Kind of makes me want to “set this essay aside, either casually or with more directed violence…”

    1. Kerry says:

      Though to Steven’s credit, I wonder if some of the essay comes across as it does because he’s doing exactly what my post would like critics to do and getting right to the meat of the work, rather than gesturing towards it. Because he’s actually dealing with something quite technical, and requires very specific (and abstruse) words to say exactly what he means?

  2. Charlotte says:

    Very well put!

    I don’t mind Alexis’ essay, myself – but then, I don’t feel any particular loyalty to any of the “named” critics. I think he’s by and large right. Canada has nothing compared to the NYRB or the TLS. And the difference seems to be that our major publications approach reviewing the way a movie critic reviews Hollywood blockbusters: a short discussion on the effectiveness of the text, a list of what (s)he liked or disliked, and a star rating.

    Meanwhile the excellent essays in the NYRB and the TLS are *essays* written by experts in their fields. They discuss the book in a greater literary or disciplinary context and don’t, generally, bother with a laundry list of the good and bad. The assumption, I think, is that *if* they are reviewing it, then it is generally good. If it isn’t, they’re reviewing it because it is nevertheless important or influential, and the essay/review is needed to warn readers of serious faults.

    As you say, pointing to passages you enjoyed in a book is basically meaningless. Most books worthy of a mainstream review are “well written”. That part is a given. I’d rather read knowledgeable intellectuals discuss a book’s issues or context – to get something from the review other than a thumbs up or thumbs down on the book.

    1. Kerry says:

      Interesting. You made me realize that so many reviews aren’t interesting because the books themselves are not particularly interesting either, regardless of how worthwhile they are as literature. Lacking a wider context, you know? I’ve been devouring the London Review of Books lately, and find that for many reviews, I learn as much as I would from the books themselves. Is the difference between an essay and a review mostly length, I wonder? And the book in question. (And the ability of the writer– oh, some reviews are definitely better written than the books in question. Particularly the bad ones…)

  3. Nathalie says:

    Fantastic post. You’ve given me an hour of good, hard thinking and pleasurable reading (Rebecca Rosenblum’s autobiography on the CNQ site, which I surfed to from Beattie, I guess). Your post, your links, then following those links to others….. There have been several books and posts of late about how the internet is making us stupid, or not. After reviewing Carr’s The Shallows, Laura Miller is now putting all links at the bottom of her articles so that she writes for the web as she would for print. Your post makes a great case for hyperlinks that add depth, substance. The fact that they were links to pieces that were written for and also appeared in print more or less does away with the stupid/smart effect of the internet. The internet opens doors. Some doors are better than others. Your doors are the best.

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Kerry, although Britt Gullick does make a valid point. A case of “critic, heal thyself,” perhaps?

  5. Ted Betts says:

    For more on “Whether he makes his point well”, consider a ‘majesterial rebuttal’ in the form of a fictional rejection letter of his opinion piece. Linked to from Paul Wells’ blog post ‘The smoking pile of rubble where André Alexis used to be’ who digs into the ‘why’ of Alexis’ ‘personal attacks and collegiate vitriol’ on certain individuals (the kind of personal attacks and collegiate vitriol that he decries in his third paragraph).

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