How very dare you?

Another day, another teacup, another literary storm, another thimbleful of magma. Most recently, in December 2015, Hanya Yanagihara’s editor taking on critics for a bad review of A Little Life. As a squall, this barely ruffled the water – critic Daniel Mendehlson suggested that the author had overdone the suffering of her protagonists, and that ‘the preposterous excess of humiliation and suffering … defies verisimilitude and alienates the sensible reader’. Her editor, Gerald Howard, leapt to her defence, and there was a brief exchange, including some entirely sensible and civilised comments below the Guardian’s story on the matter.

So far, so humdrum. There have been far more entertaining literary spats, as we will see, but this one was interesting for what it revealed about the formalistic nature of these events. Howard’s riposte was a classic of the genre, and made me realise that the  author/editor/critic/reader dance is a ritualised baroque gavotte rather than anything more passionate or interactive.

Howard works through the list:

  1. Playing the dis-ingenue. ‘I usually tell my authors that writing letters in response to unfavorable reviews is a mug’s game, and here I am playing the mug.’
  2. Fair criticism is a good thing, but this critic has gone beyond fairness and impugned the author’s intentions/soul.
  3. In any case, Nabokov said it was all right. I have read lots of Nabokov and you probably haven’t. (We may soon need a version of Godwin’s law to apply to the use of Nabokov in a literary argument.)
  4. Weird logic-chopping. The book can’t be designed to appeal to oversensitive young folk, as the critic suggests, because they probably couldn’t afford to buy it, and anyway lots of older people have written to me to say they like it.
  5. Last but most important: the backhanded compliment. ‘At bottom Mendelsohn seems to have decided that A Little Life just appeals to the wrong kind of reader. That’s an invidious distinction unworthy of a critic of his usually fine discernment.’

Clearly the actual book is irrelevant to this display, and when Howard pops up in the comments thread like a stage landlady – ‘It’s only me!’ – it is clear that this process is about him positioning himself publicly as a fierce and loyal editor. The poor critic, as usual, is left exasperated and spluttering.

Sometimes positioning can be constrictive. In 2009, Alain de Botton materialised on the blog of NYRB critic Caleb Crain: ‘You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as ‘nice’ in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It’s only fair for your readers to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make.’

First impressions were that de Botton had finally cracked after enduring years of snark and condescension, not to mention naked envy, from all sides. Even worse, immediately in the comments following, several readers voiced their dismay at Alain for not being as ‘nice’ as they thought he was, based on his public persona. Cue frantic head-of-pin dance: ‘I was so wrong, so unself-controlled. Now I am so sorry and ashamed of myself.’ This is why all the anodyne advice on every ‘how to be an author’ site comes down on the side of ‘don’t respond to critics’. Responding risks letting loose the awful truth, best expressed by George Orwell in Why I Write:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

If the overreacting author is unknown (and a bit insane), all the resulting publicity will be bad, as it will probably be if an author tracks down and stalks someone who gives them a going-over on Goodreads. In the latter case, though, the author may be seen as bravely standing up to ‘the Goodreads bullies’. The democracy of the internet. Authors hate that, in inverse proportion to their success and/or talent. There is even a site called Stop the Goodreads Bullies, but however strange it is in there, the dynamic at work is only a curdled, wormhole version of that at play in the NRB, the LRB, the TLS, SRB, ABR, or any other initialled and worthy review publication. Sometimes both ends of the wormhole connect, like a literary episode of The Time Tunnel. For instance, in a review of Marion Halligan in SRB, Lucy Sussex noted Halligan’s umbrage at being compared to Joanna Trollope, but notes that ‘comparing a writer with Trollope (Joanna) could function as a deadly insult – or on Goodreads it might lead to increased sales.’

This is an example, as with the appropriately modest middlebrow row last year, of an author being positioned against their will, but usually the positioning is all too conscious, as Catriona Menzies-Pike made clear in her piece on the new Australian avant garde ‘sensation’ Jack Cox, and his debut novel Dodge Rose. The positioning worked, too, as the reviewer in the SMH, eyes glazed, poured forth the zombie boilerplate:

Recently there has been much debate in literary circles about ‘the middlebrow cult of the popular’ and is a growing belief that publishers and prize committees are ignoring challenging and innovative work.

How refreshing then, that a book as wilfully difficult as Dodge Rose still found its way to publication. Perhaps it is telling that it was an American imprint that picked the novel from the slush pile. Hopefully the fact it is the Dalkey Archive Press – renowned for publishing experimental fiction – will give the book the gravitas it needs to reach a wider audience in Australia.

There’s little doubt many casual readers will resist Cox’s arcane diction and aversion to clear plotting. But for those who want a work that tests the limits of language, then Dodge Rose could be the perfect book.’

Surely that sort of thing is more depressing than the most obviously manipulative Oprah book club celebrity manufactory. What was it Nabokov said, again?

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Peter Kenneally

Peter Kenneally is a librarian, writer and reviewer, and poet. He has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, and Island, among others, as well as in the 2010 Best Australian Poems. In 2005 his suite of poems Memento Mori was selected for the anthology of the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and in 2007 his piece ‘a streetlamp goes out when I walk under it’ was commended in the New Media section of the same prize.

More by Peter Kenneally ›

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