Fat Books & Thin Women

Criticism and the Self
February 9, 2012, 3:10 pm
Filed under: meme, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

This post is a part of the Literary Blog Hop held by the great ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.

Every month The Blue Bookcase posts a new question for their Literary Blog Hop. This round, it’s a great one:

In the epilogue for Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:

“It’s always been my theory that criticism is really just veiled autobiography; whenever someone writes about a piece of art, they’re really just writing about themselves.”

Do you agree?

Sometimes when I’m reading a book review – and often, when I’m reading a book review on a blog – I get the sense the reviewer is writing as much about the book as about him or herself. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about this on book blogs, though the minor “is it reviewing or reacting?” war (prompted in part by The Reading Ape’s post on the use of “I” in reviews) died down long ago. The question of how objective book reviews are, or should be, or can be, is going to stick around for as long as people are looking, slightly askance, at book blogs and what they mean about the deires of the reading community and the trajectory of professional book reviewing.

I wouldn’t go so far as Klosterman in that there is autobiography in every review; but often, of course, it’s there, even if unstated. When I review books I try to maintain some sort of critical distance. I don’t want these purported book reviews to be more a catalog of my latest woes, or of what I “felt” while reading. Sometimes, though it’s impossible to maintain that critical distance, or to deny the influence of autobiography on how I read and review a book. Would I have been so suspicious of Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea if I hadn’t been a Peace Corps Volunteer with some firsthand experience of the spectacular failures of foreign aid? Would I have rolled my eyes through most of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, if I didn’t have years of living abroad to teach me that no place and no culture is there to help us “discover” ourselves? Would I have identified so much with Krakeur’s writing on Alexander Supertramp if I couldn’t see some of those same desires to escape in myself? Probably not, and I tried to recognize that fact in all three reviews.

That said, because of the clear influence my own life had on my reading of those books, when I reviewed them I felt obligated to give some background to my reading. Those reviews, in many ways, are more reaction and autobiography than a consideration of the works for their literary merits (or lack thereof).

I think that Ben of Dead End Follies has it right when he writes that we need to find a place in the middle when we’re reviewing – neither too close to the work nor too far away. To read a review with bits of autobiography can be an illuminating experience, when it’s done well and when that autobiography is used to better color the experience of reading the book. But when autobiography is simply tossed into the review, when it stands in place of looking critically at a book, the so-called criticism becomes anything but – it becomes simply another tired entry in the journal of “what I read and why I kind of liked it.” As Ben writes:

I read an alarming number of book reviews on a weekly basis that have a “the characters really got to me”, “I could feel her inner turmoil” and “I really liked it” in the body of their argumentation. Right there, you’re saying nothing about the book and everything about yourself.

Done well, a review with touches of the autobiographical can make the criticism as worthy of reading and critique as the work it is addressing. Done lazily, though, it can do the opposite and make the “review” an exhausting trawl through someone’s baggage or inability to express him/herself without a string of modifiers. I try to keep myself out of my reviews because I’m not confident in my ability to write a piece of criticism that artfully mixes my own life with the novel I’m writing about. That’s why you won’t see too many “I think”s and “I feel”s, around this site. Sometimes, though, I do wonder if book blogs don’t provide the best venue for this sort of reviewing. If we read book blogs in large part because we’re attracted to the personality of the reviewer, what does my effort to exclude myself from my reviews mean about the “success” of the reviews I write here? Or is it, as Klosterman suggests, impossible for me to excise myself from my reviewing so cleanly as I think I have?

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What I want out of book blogs – or at least, out of my book blog
May 19, 2011, 12:11 pm
Filed under: On Blogging, Ways of Reading, Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

The Reading Ape has been doing this fantastic post series on book blogging and styles of reviewing*, spurred by his observation that some book bloggers don’t review so much as they react to the books they’re reading. I did a post a while back about why book blogs matter, and mentioned that one of the things I like about book blogs is that the bloggers provide a more personal look at books than do professional reviewers. The Ape raises some good questions about the types of personal reflection and critical reviewing we do on our blogs, though, and if we’re thinking of book blogs as responses to the increasingly slim book pages of our newspapers there’s good reason to aim for a type of review that doesn’t focus so much on the “I” as on the “why.” That is, to write not, “I thought this book was awesome, go read it,” but to focus on what it is about the book that makes you like it so much.

When I started this blog in September, the other book blogs I came across were overwhelmingly focused on the social aspects of book blogging. I saw far more posts on what was showing up in the bloggers’ mailboxes, what they’d checked out at the library, who their ten most hated characters between the ages of 13 and 18 were, than posts actually reviewing books. It wasn’t until I started finding blogs like The Reading Ape, Sasha & the Silverfish, The New Dork Review of Books, that I figured out that there were bloggers out there doing what I was interested in doing, which was – well, reviewing books.

The Ape mentions this briefly in his most recent post, but I also noticed a divide between bloggers who were striving to write about books fully and in sometimes thought-provoking ways, and those who actively resisted this sort of writing. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at any blogs like this, but I also remember reading a lot of disgusted talk about “English majors” and the ways that “academic writing” ruin reading. Like the Ape, though, I see a splash of that sort of academic writing as adding value to the discussion we have on our book blogs. My blog is here to track what I’m reading, but it’s also here so I can develop my thoughts on my reading in a way I haven’t been able to since college, and to take part in discussions that often change how I view the novels I’m reading. My review of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, for example, was pretty negative; reading The Picky Girl’s more positive review hasn’t changed my views, but it has helped to develop them and get me thinking about ways the novel could have been better structured than it was. A more self-reflective, less review-y post wouldn’t give me as much to think about.

We all engage with our reading in different ways, of course. There are some bloggers who write fantastic posts that are as much reflection as review, and I’ve done a lot of posts that are as much about why I’m reading a certain book as what I think of that book. All these posts The Reading Ape is doing, though, have started me thinking more about why I started this blog and what I’m trying to get out of it. Part of my interest in book blogging, as I write on my “about me” page, is in the community; I don’t have people around me I can discuss books with, and having this blog has at times felt like a lifeline. It’s made me feel, in some way, a part of a literary culture again, and after two years of living on the linguistic level of a child (a child with bad grammar, no less) I feel like I’ve recovered a part of myself through writing about books. More than that, though, it’s an attempt to write and think about books critically again. I don’t like the feeling of putting a book down, deciding whether I liked or disliked it, and then tossing it in my book bag to return it to the Peace Corps library. I don’t like the feeling of not actively engaging with a book, or of thinking about it but not in much more depth than to decide, “I didn’t like this scene, I liked this character, I didn’t like the last fifty pages.”

Thinking about book blogging, what we’re trying to get out of it, what types of reviewing we usually find on blogs, has gotten me to reassess what I’m doing at this blog. When I started going through old posts I was sometimes disappointed in what I found: not a lot of critical thinking, but more meditations on how I’d been sick/running spelling bees/missed America, then thoughts on how what I was reading at the time tied into this. There’s some value in this, sure, but it’s a largely personal one in that those posts allow me to look back on the past few months and remember where I was. They’re not posts that I see as being of particular interest of other people, or as adding much value to the bookish conversations going on online. What I want to do, what I wanted to do when I started this blog, is to wake my brain back up from its “I don’t have to speak English” stupor, to review in a semi-professional manner (that is, in a manner that will help a lot of high school students as they’re trying to plagiarize their essays on Native Son), and to be part of this book blogger community through actual critical discussions of the books we’re reading rather than by posting a meme a day.

The Ape deserves a good slap on the back for all the posts he’s been doing lately. This may be a discussion for another day, but if book bloggers are to continue receiving review copies from publishers, if they’re going to be a bigger part of the literary conversation, it’s going to have to be on the terms the Ape proposes – to write more analytical reviews without the “I,” to find some place between the professional reviewer in the Times and the “I found this book on a park bench while I was walking my dog who recently ripped off his dewclaw, but it was so good I couldn’t put it down to change his bandages…”-style reflections.

* The Ape’s posts: “The ‘I”s Have It” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Redux” / “An Offshoot of the Buzz” / “The Tyranny of Pleasure” / “Whom Do You Review For?” / “The ‘I”s Have It, Once More With Feeling”

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Let Us Join in Protest of Nanowrimo….Or Not
November 6, 2010, 10:19 am
Filed under: Ways of Writing | Tags: , , , ,

Salon’s Laura Miller wrote this pretty scathing opinion of Nanowrimo, which though perhaps unfair to the aspiring novelists banging away at their computers all month, does raise a few interesting points about the basic tenants of Nanowrimo. And as easy as it is to protest Miller’s points by saying, “It’s Nanowrimo, it’s for fun, it shouldn’t be taken so seriously” (these things are all true), I think the whole topic raises some good questions about why and how we write, and what sort of dedication is necessary to make a writer successful if not in the publishing world, then in terms of dedication to craft.

Nanowrimo is based on the idea that, for one month at least, quantity is more valuable than quality. Better to spend a month churning out something resembling a novel (in length if in nothing else, judging by my own efforts) than to spend a month Not Writing. Nanowrimo doesn’t bill itself as a means of writing a publishable novel in one month (or even a novel that will ever be published), though doubtless there are people who view it this way. Possibly some of the people who sign up to write a novel this November are the same ones who approach “real writers,” the ones who sit down and work at it every day, to say, “I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I just don’t have the time” – as if time is the only thing standing between a person and a successful writing career, and as if they don’t have excesses of time that are, however, spent doing other things like watching The Wire or Gossip Girl or The Office[1] But the people who will “win” Nanowrimo by knocking out their 50,000 words this month are probably not those people, and we should give some credit to them for having the nerve to sit down and focus on their writing, however terrible the product may be come November 30th.

This is the fourth time I’ve signed up for Nanowrimo in the past ten years. I’ve completed two “novels” – and that is a term I use loosely. The first was of such low quality (with no semblance of a plot) that I’m not sure I even have a print-out – it’s simply not worth it. The second completed novel is of occasionally higher quality. There are a few sentences in there that I want to save, and the story itself is something I’ve wanted to return to ever since finishing the “novel,” though one fault of Nanowrimo is that though it can encourage a lazy writer (like myself) to write a novel, it can’t force that same writer to do the hard work of editing.

This year, I’m participating in Nanowrimo with no intention of completing a novel. I’ve learned, from the two novels I have finished, that if I make an honest effort to write 1,667 words a day, I will end the month with a work with such rare moments of quality that I will be forever unable to return to it in order to extract the promising bits. It is, I think, harder to face a work of formidable length and middling quality, needing to trim it and rewrite it and reform the plot and ultimately make it longer than its original length of 50,000 words (exactly 50,000 words if, like me, you give up the moment you pass the finish line), than it is to write at a slower pace, writing daily and without a finish line and with the freedom to take a day to reread and make notes on plotting and to tweak the work in progress. But wait, that’s not what I really mean – that dealing with the final product of Nanowrimo is “harder” than the task of sitting down daily and writing, unsupported, alone. Oh God, but that is kind of what I mean – but only partly.

Writing is hard work, and if Nanowrimo has a fault it’s that it focuses so exclusively on just one part of that hard work. To start writing is, no question, difficult; and especially, to start writing after a long break, like the years since I’ve written daily, seriously, with the goal of publication, is wrenching. If most people don’t become authors because they simply aren’t talented writers, there are also people with the ability to write skillful, moving works who aren’t because they lack the discipline to come home from work and work some more, rather than watching Law & Order reruns.

But Nanowrimo tries to make writing a novel “fun,” and to make it something community-oriented. People are encouraged to share their novels for support; there are forums where they can “give” their abandoned characters and plots to other participants. This isn’t writing done with the goal of publication; it’s writing done for fun, for the challenge of it. Maybe I say this because I can’t imagine any publishable novel being sourced from a plot device found on a web forum, and maybe that’s wrong or narrow-minded of me. But all the same, Nanowrimo and actual, year-round writing are different in so many details that maybe we should not try to compare them too much.

For most people, Nanowrimo probably will never be linked with publication. It is too goal-oriented, and as a person who sometimes has trouble continuing to work after reaching some arbitrary goal, I think it would be a mistake for anyone with goals of publication to take Nanowrimo too seriously. I’m writing this based on my own experience, which includes two novels sitting in manila envelopes somewhere in New Jersey, and a fledgling history of publishing short stories, that withered as soon as I hit my seemingly unreachable goal of being published in a certain magazine I read and admired.

Writing is goal-oriented, sure, but not in the way that Nanowrimo is.[2] Nanowrimo is fun, and caffeinated, and a month of the freedom to throw your writing up on a web forum and have it critiqued moments after writing it.[3] And if you can take away those web forums, and the desire to get instant feedback, Nanowrimo is maybe a good introduction to a Writer’s Life; as Chuck Wendig notes at Terrible Minds, 1,667 words a day is not All That Much. When I still wrote seriously I wrote a couple thousand words a day, and could easily spend three or four hours a day doing that. There are probably a few people who are doing or at least who signed up for Nanowrimo, who are of the “I’d write but…” school, and by golly! If this project can teach them that writing is not That Easy, I am behind it.

At end, while I guess I can understand, a little bit, why some people criticize Nanowrimo, I can’t get behind their criticisms even slightly. What’s wrong with thousands of people writing for a month, even if the bulk of what they produce is total shit? What’s wrong with people making writing something fun? What’s wrong with thousands of people expressing their pent-up creativity, if only for one month, and even if the “novel” they produce at the end of that month is not really a novel and unlikely to see the editing it needs and deserves? Why do we have to take writing so seriously all the time – why can’t people have fun with it for a month?[4]

[1] Guilty. Back to text

[2] I speak for the sort of writer that I am, namely one without a long and impressive publication history, or a book contract. I assume that James Patterson has deadlines. Back to text

[3] And surely I am not the only person who thinks this would be a poor habit for most writers. I need to keep my work private until I’m a few drafts in, lest by sending it someone for critique I forget that I am not even close to done editing. Back to text

[4] There is an argument in here that it’s insulting to the life’s work of Serious Writers when people come in and treat writing as a matter of simply sitting at their computers and completing four 500 word challenges in a day, kind of like when my dad walks through an art museum and says he too could have painted a small box and a circle on a canvas, but why bother with it? I am pretty sure that most people participating in Nanowrimo understand that they are not the next Nabokov (something I am still struggling to come to grips with), and that their pleasure in writing is not particularly insulting to those for whom writing is a torture they can’t live without. Back to text