Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.

A book with bite

A girlfriend once said I have dog teeth. For real. She didn’t mean I literally have a mouthful of, say, Doberman teeth. She meant that my teeth reminded her of a dog’s. (My canines are on the long side.) Either way, it was a comment that falls under the heading “shitty.” I should have bit her. But I’m over it. In fact, I think it’s riotous, edging on genius.

Anyway, I just picked up the novel “The Story of My Teeth” by Mexican author Valeria Luiselli, whose current book “Lost Children Archive” is a literary smash, a timely drama about family and the immigration crisis on our southwestern border. I’ve read a chunk of it. It’s very good. Pick it up. 

“The Story of My Teeth” is also a hailed exemplar of storytelling, making a zillion top 10 lists in 2015 and shortlisted for juicy awards. Yes, it’s about teeth. About the teeth of folks like Plato, Virginia Woolf, Petrarch and Borges that are collected by eccentric auctioneer Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez, the story’s kooky narrator.

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And it’s a lot about his teeth and his desperate goal to get his calamitously crooked choppers fixed. In this funny, fanciful book observations about people’s teeth abound. 

There is for example: the man with “the slightly sinister smile of those who have paid many visits to the dentist”; Octavia Augustus’ “small, few and decayed” teeth; and the remark “Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”

Teeth, teeth, teeth. And this is in just the first two dozen pages. By page 26 our homely hero Highway has hit dental pay dirt. 

Like how? Like this:

At auction he buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth. “Yes indeed, the teeth of the Hollywood diva. They were perhaps slightly yellowed, I believe because divas tend to smoke,” he explains. 

Back home in Mexico, “Each of the teeth belonging to the Venus of the big screen was transplanted into my mouth by a world-class dental surgeon.”

How over the moon he is! Highway tips his hat to himself in mirrors and shop windows, awash in good fortune, elated, Monroe’s dental work now his. At long last, his rows of teeth, once tornado-whipped picket fences, are even and upright, straight and sturdy.

“My luck was without equal, my life was a poem, and I was certain that one day, someone was going to write the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.”

And this is where I’m at in Luiselli’s toothsome feat of imagination. It’s the end of Book I — there are seven books, littered with photos and floating quotes and graphics, plus an afterward by the translator — in a slim 195 pages. I don’t know if Highway keeps Monroe’s teeth throughout the story, but I’ve read enough to enjoy a cameo by John Lennon’s molar, which fetches $32,000 at auction, rather on the low side, I thought.

But where we last left off, Highway was musing about “the beautiful tale of my dental autobiography.” Which is where I began this post — my dental autobiography, the story of my teeth. (Recall: mutt mouth.) The book aside, let’s pursue that thread. Hang tight.

Dental histories aren’t pretty. They are violent, invasive, queasy, medieval. Anxiety and discomfort are operative words, shrieking like exposed nerves. Drills, needles, pliers. Teeth are the worst.

When I was 14, the dentist noticed my gums were receding. He wanted to prop some of them up. His solution: slice chunks of skin from the roof of my mouth and use the flesh to support the falling gums. This happened. I was knocked out, but I briefly came to mid-operation and saw the surgeon’s smock and gloves smeared in blood.

I was luckier when my wisdom teeth were pulled. The dentist put me out so deeply that I woke up in a wheelchair. My mouth was swollen and filled with blood, but I was giddy.

I had braces. I have too many fillings to count and three crowns (a grisly business requiring a jackhammer). I’ve rode merry clouds of nitrous oxide and been jabbed by needles the length and girth of bratwursts.

That is the partial story of my teeth. I have crooked teeth, stained teeth, chipped teeth. I’m making my mouth sound like a massacre. It’s not. Maybe I do have dog teeth. Maybe I have teeth like Marilyn Monroe’s. Maybe I can sell them at auction. After all, some of my molars are encrusted in gold. But time is of the essence, before I get too long in the tooth.

Ha.

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Going down darkly with Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson — novelist, poet, playwright — wrote mad sentences. The author of the swooning novella “Train Dreams,” harrowing Vietnam War epic “Tree of Smoke” and, most famously, the indelible stories in “Jesus’ Son,” left behind a pageant of ravishing prose, much of it festooning the darkly lyrical stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” released last year after his death in 2017 at age 67.

I was reminded of his genius when I saw that this last book is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, whose winner will be announced next month.

I ran across a couple of brief, bleakly reverberating quotes from “Sea Maiden” that I’d scribbled in my journal. If Johnson could be grim, his poetics were reliably heartrending.

I’m getting depressed … you forgot to say prepare to fall down through a trap door in the bottom of your soul.”

Yeah boy he dragged me down to his jamboree. Dragged me down through the toilet formerly known as my life. Down through this nest of talking spiders known as my head. Down through the bottom of my grave with my name spelled wrong on the stone.”

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‘When writing is fun, it’s not very good.’

I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good. If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light.”

— Russell Baker, journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, who died in January

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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway 

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I’m not eavesdropping, really …

Recently here I chatted up the new local cafe, the exquisitely hip, I’ve-been-to-India, dump-Trump joint with the jaunty name. I decided to pop into the other local cafe, that name-brand one that just reopened after long renovation. I’m there now — I write in cafes often, a living cliché — and I’m people-watching with a touch of eavesdropping. It’s not at all creepy.

I see a poised, pert, put-together brunette chirping quietly with her friend — hale, happy twentysomethings talking about job interviews and uproarious Facebook posts. She looks like she loves dinner parties and charades. She fancies a good daiquiri. Her favorite TV show is “This Is Us.” I’m just surmising, but I know I’m right.

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A hypothetical cafe scene. They look ecstatic.

Elsewhere overheard: “You know, Mary, I’m not comfortable making those calls.” 

Enter: a 60-ish gent in a baggy Bill Cosby sweater, with stubble that looks like powdered sugar sprinkled on his pink pate. “I begin my teaching tomorrow. Seventy students!” he tells his companion, a flute-thin young woman with lank auburn hair who, I’m certain, is a teacher’s assistant. 

The fellow is loud and a roaring bore. He gesticulates like a madman. She sips some coffee and it goes down the wrong pipe. The ensuing coughing fit is something to behold. Napkins fly. We sympathize.

“We’re getting off track here,” an elderly woman laughs. She’s talking to a slightly younger woman at a corner table about scheduling some sort of meeting at her home. “Should we do RSVPs?” the younger woman asks. 

I soon gather they’re organizing a book club. They are perusing a list of titles. The younger woman describes a book that’s “very well-written” that sounds like a kind of real estate thriller. The authors Andre Dubus III and Michael Frayn (“He’s British”) are mentioned. “The person who selects the book is the host of the meeting,” says the younger woman.

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I want to chime in and suggest the novel I just finished, “The Friend,” Sigrid Nunez’s brisk, deceptively simple yet profound meditation on the writer’s life and friendships between people and dogs and people and people. It won the 2018 National Book Award. It’s lovely.

I pick the book. I’ll be the host. I’ll serve baked Alaska.

Someone just said “hypothesize” in mixed company. 

I ask the barista what she’s reading these days — we often yack about books — and she flashes her copy of the novel “The Secret History,” Donna Tartt’s 1991 cult smash. I kind of wrinkle my nose while evincing interest, and tell her I tried and failed to read Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer-winning epic “The Goldfinch.” I read about half and put it down. The novel is divisive: You love it or loathe it.

She adores it. “What didn’t you like about it?” she asks. I thought it was cutesy, candied, implausible, whimsical and too redolent of Dickens. 

“It is Dickensian,” the barista says, and with that simple word my day is made.

Elephant adoption — it’s a real thing. Two ladies are talking about it. One explains that it costs $50 a year to adopt an African pachyderm and “each month they email you a picture and an update about your elephant.” She has an elephant. “I went to visit the orphanage in Nairobi,” she says. I suddenly want an elephant. 

“It’s my parents’ 43rd anniversary,” a 30-ish guy tells his friend. “That’s a long time to be sniffin’ someone else’s toots.” 

I missed most of the soliloquy, but a youngish man was rhapsodizing about coffee and espresso and the joys of sitting on his porch, and out of his mouth popped this phrase: “the waking beauty of life.”

Spectacular.

On reading and writing: quote of the day

Following my prior post about being a writer, I resort to the pith and punch of William Faulkner who said that anyone who wants to be a writer should be a reader first:

Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

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And if you want to be a great writer, you must absolutely smoke a pipe.

The queasy leap of calling oneself a writer

I hate saying I’m a writer. I hate the way people’s faces light up, as though I’ve told them my secret kink. Oooh, a writer. How one expects them to follow up with la-de-da and a twirl.”

Bethany Marcel at Literary Hub 

What’s so bad about that? I’d love to get a trill and twirl when I tell people I’m a writer. 

I half joke, because I get where Marcel is coming from. Saying you’re a writer is a slightly loaded statement, even a bit mortifying. As Marcel notes in her Literary Hub essay “How to Say ‘I’m a Writer’ and Mean It,” people always want more information: What do you write? What books have you written?

They get nosy. The perceived glamor attached to the writer’s life entrances. Sometimes people are lightly starry-eyed. Other times they’re simply curious. Other times: meh.

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But it’s not so simple. Saying you write is like saying you act, or tame lions. It’s exotic. It’s oft-misunderstood. Writers are outliers, and sometimes writers believe all the romantic rubbish that attends the title. These run from literary saplings (earnest neophytes who read too much Stephen King) to the bluff and blustery (Hemingway, Mailer).

Yet while many writers are unswerving blowhards (with beards to match), lots of them are painfully introverted and suffer a “shyness that is criminally vulgar,” to quote a famous ’80s British pop band. 

That’d be me. As Marcel says, “I’m bad at talking about my work. Like many writers, I’m shy. I care too much what people think.”

I for one wince when people say they’ve read my stuff, even if they’re complimentary, or when an editor scours my copy line by line, syllable by syllable. I’m a raw nerve. I feel naked and nauseated. Writing in many ways is a performance, and I have stage fright.

For a long stretch my speciality was arts and celebrity journalism, with a focus on film, not fiction, though I always dreamed of writing the latter. Marcel says that she’s “ashamed (she) was too shy to major in journalism in college. That (she) feared the prospect of conducting interviews so much (she) majored in literature instead.” 

I was the opposite. I majored in journalism. I was too nervous to take creative writing classes — all that reading your work aloud, all that classmate critiquing. I finally took a fiction course in my late-20s, a university night class. I lasted one meeting. 

What happened was exactly what I dreaded would happen, a variation on my worst nightmare. The class of about 20 students was instructed to write a short story in 15 minutes and then read it aloud. Horrified, I decided in that instant I would drop the course the next day, and I did, no refund.

Speaking before groups, even at the dinner table, has always been excruciating for me. I won’t even say grace. Large work meetings give me intestinal anguish. On numerous occasions I’ve been invited to speak to writing and journalism classes. I turned down all offers, with a blush, and utmost relief.

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A creative writing class — a Circle of Hell.

Yet I find interviewing people easy, almost extremely so, even invigorating, which is odd when I’m the first person to leave a house party because such events are just too people-y. 

Unaccountably, I enjoy asking others about their life and work. I possess a thirsty curiosity to learn about all manner of personalities, walks of life, mannerisms, pastimes, love lives, favorite foods, what have you, while a tape recorder takes it all down. I’m voracious for copy fodder. I just like to write about people, places, happenings, stuff.

For years I was a culture critic. I was known to be mean, mordantly honest. An asshole. Since college, when I was the campus newspaper opinion editor, I’ve evinced a boldness in print and shyness in person.

People wondered about the dichotomy, and I always said I hid behind the newspaper byline. I was largely invisible, save for my words and ideas. I could walk down the street without being accosted. (There were a few exceptions, none of them ugly. Once, comically, someone asked for my autograph.)

I often think I can call myself a writer, despite the pretentious ring to it. All I know is that when I say I’m a writer, I feel both a sense of pride and charlatanism. And always my stomach does a terrific backflip of crazy self-doubt.

“Before you can say you’re a writer and mean it,” Marcel says, “first you must believe you’re a writer.” I’m still working on it.