Literary Shock and Awe

by Tom Piazza

A lot of people have been offering their ripostes, pro and con, to last Sunday’s William Giraldi NYTBR review of two books – a novel and a story collection – by Alix Ohlin. In addition to agitation in the tweetosphere, there has been bloggage, facebookage, and plenty of strong wind coursing through the other traditional conduits.

Giraldi is, on the evidence of his novel Busy Monsters and the reviews and essays of his that I have read, a smart guy who really does love literature. And he has real talent, even if he strains to advertise his writerly abilities at every possible turn of every phrase. Not necessarily his human sympathies, or his wit, or his grasp of social situations – his writerly abilities. That quality of strain is the dominant urgency on display in his Ohlin review, and it sinks the piece, and it’s too bad, because a more measured and thoughtful review might have been useful.

Giraldi’s essential complaint about Ohlin is that she is a lazy writer. I have no idea whether this is true. I have not yet read her, and I have never met her. Let us assume, for the sake of argument and the purposes of this essay, that Ohlin’s work is every bit as weak as Giraldi claims. Maybe she deserves a harsh comeuppance. He certainly parades plenty of banal phrases, clichés, and bad choices from her work. Of course, they are delivered out of whatever context Ohlin has devised for them; the immediate context in which we encounter the examples is the stalled storm system of Giraldi’s contempt not just for everything Ohlin does on the page, but for everything she represents to his mind – tired language, cliché, lack of rigor. We are with a Guardian of the Faith.

The rock of that faith is revealed in the final sentence of the review. “Every mind lives or dies by its ideas,” Giraldi writes; “every book lives or dies by its language.” Again – not by human insight, even if delivered clumsily, or by a view of a world we might not otherwise see, even if rendered crudely. Dreiser, Dostoevsky, and Steinbeck, please step out of the room. Books don’t live by embodying the author’s unique balance among the competing claims of language, ideas, emotional truth, factual observation… no, it must be one thing, a God we can follow.

Okiedokie! Language it is! Let’s look at the language in Giraldi’s review.

Giraldi’s first paragraph barrels onto the page like an armored car coming around a streetcorner; a voice immediately begins barking out proclamations through a loudspeaker. “There are two species of novelist,” the voice announces; “one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made.” We are thrown immediately into an Either/Or world; things – including an organism as complex as a novelist – are either this way, or they are that way.

Before the reader has time to ask whether this first pronouncement makes any sense, she or he is smothered by an amplification of the first pronouncement, a full forty-nine words in one sentence worthy of Polonius in full cry: “The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that ‘this world is but canvas to our imaginations,’ that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity.” And prolixity, too, apparently.

This doozy of a sentence lets down the ramp and looses a commando squad of support personnel who nearly trip over one another scrambling onto the page. The reviewer introduces his bodyguards, who will stand behind him with arms crossed for the remainder of the piece. Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Saul Bellow, and Ezra Pound are all invoked or quoted. Our reviewer writes that when you finish a book by one of the above-mentioned bodyguards “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.” That “rather” is an affectation, but then that whole sentence is kind of insufferable – “coruscated import?” Step back! Give the man room! (Giraldi is addicted to these kinds of labored constructions. At the review’s end, we are told that writing should “raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew.” “Enervated ruck,” huh? And how about a phrase such as “make the world anew,” coming from a cliché policeman?)

The review’s first paragraph lasts for one hundred and thirty-five words. Having secured the town square with this armed display, the reviewer goes house to house, chapter to chapter, cliché to cliché, without mercy, stringing up banalities and applying a prodigious critical bastinado to a prisoner who, by the end of the show trial, seems at worst to have committed the crime of just not being a very good writer.

And this is definitely a show trial. The purpose of a show trial is to make an example of someone, to humiliate the prisoner in order to scare potential future offenders into preemptive submission. The second paragraph and those that follow are a parade of sarcasm and outright insult, a military march of loaded descriptives and valuatives – “cliché-strangled,” “precious,” “lazy,” “abysmal,” “appalling,” “saccharine,” “dessicated,” “shopworn,” “forgettable,” and assorted other slaps and stabs – “schlock,” “yawningly,” “bland earnestness,” “intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep.”

Well, we all dislike bad writing, or we hope we do. Who among us is not guilty of it from time to time? If Ohlin’s work is as unrelentingly bad as the reviewer says it is, it will sink. To use it as the occasion for an armored show of your own authority, to hold up the work of Alix Ohlin as being representative of a literary pathology that can only be countered by this kind of mobilization of force, is a little unhinged. No wonder a blogger at the neocon Commentary has rushed to Giraldi’s defense. They love a good war over there, and they get aroused by the sound of a whip coming down.

Giraldi’s review isn’t bad because it is mean. It is bad because it is overkill – so unbalanced and venomous that we are forced to ask just what it is that is sending this smart and talented reviewer off the rails. Let’s say a writer uses a bad, clichéd phrase such as “her eyes sparkled” three times in as many pages. Terrible, right? Deserves to be called out, no question. But to this extent? Has Alix Ohlin been advanced as such a genius, are we in such danger from runaway Ohlinolatry, that we need this public burning? This self-congratulatory rush to the barricades? Is this review really serving the reading public, or what’s left of it, or is it instead a Dale Peckaresque exercise in self-promotion?

Maybe neither. Giraldi is clearly not stupid, and he is painfully earnest about showing his command of the language, even to the extent of torturing it from time to time. There is no way of knowing Giraldi’s private reasons for shaving Ohlin’s head and parading her through the streets. But anyone at such pains to assert his authority by setting up camp with that “there are two kinds of novelists” opening (where are the cliché police when you need them?), dragging in Ezra Pound (twice!), Cervantes, Thoreau and company, and then unleashing such a blitzkrieg of sweeping assertions, is aching to broadcast something more than just his literary standards.

If you can claim the culture of Virginia Woolf, or Edmund Wilson, or Ralph Ellison, you don’t need to make muscles in the mirror or surround yourself with that many Expert Witnesses. It takes a special kind of grandiosity to imagine that you are holding aloft the chalice of literature by using up a full page in the NYTBR to say no more than that a not particularly skilled writer is not particularly skilled.

Defending himself in a Boston Globe interview, Mr. Giraldi implies that anyone who doesn’t like his approach is “just another feckless component of capitulation” to the lowering of standards – a nice Spiro Agnewish phrase. At the risk of being yet another feckless component of capitulation, I say this review may gain him some attention and maybe some admirers, but it will turn many more people against him – he may tell himself he doesn’t care – and it will hamper the development of his talent. Not because it is harsh but fair, but because he shows himself to be so desperate to make a splash and to claim the mantle of authority that he loses control, and writes badly himself. There’s a line between tough love and sadism. Most of us probably take some degree of guilty pleasure in a well-delivered barb in a review. But I don’t think one has to defend laziness or sentimentality or low standards to say that some degree of generosity of spirit and a little humility are not bad things, even in the literary world.

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Tom Piazza is the author of ten books, including the novel City Of Refuge, which won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and the post-Katrina classic Why New Orleans Matters. His most recent book is Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of his essays and journalism. Other books include the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, and the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for Fiction. He lives in New Orleans and is a writer for the innovative HBO drama series Treme.

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3 Responses to

  1. NolaCherie says:

    I am standing, arms lifted high, applauding your words, dear Tom. Thank you!

  2. Pingback: Afternoon Bites: Fred Armisen, The David Byrne/St. Vincent Album, Portland Indie Bookstores, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

  3. Dear Mr. Piazza, I was with you in your dissection of Mr. Giraldi’s review until you got to the “neocon” Commentary remark: “They love a good war over there, and they get aroused by the sound of a whip coming down.” What is the difference, one might ask, between this kind of gratuitous stab in the side of a venerable publication, whose politics you obviously happen to disapprove of, and the venom you decry in Mr. Giraldi’s review?
    Brigitte Goldstein

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