Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Vendela Vida and the hothouse flowers

Last Wednesday night I went to the Gladstone Hotel to catch the tail-end of Sheila Heti's interview with Vendela Vida, aka Mrs Dave Eggers. I arrived in time to catch Vida's quiet, pursed-lip denouncement of those mean, mean reviewers and critics who get mad at books, who treat badly written books like crimes against humanity.

I spent the rest of the interview in the bar next door.

To her credit, Heti pushed back a bit against the idea, saying that this kind of anger was admirable in a way, that it was just part of human nature, that it at least showed a passion for books. For her efforts, she received an icy response from Vida: "So you want more of it?", as if Heti had just tried to defend actual lynchings.

I've never been able to understand this notion that books require delicate handling, that authors should never be exposed to harsh criticism, lest they wither and die. If you read and listen carefully when this kind of argument is made, it becomes clear that the crime isn't in holding such harsh opinions, only that they get expressed publicly. Privately, they are quite willing to say how much they hated this or that book, or how this or that author is an arrogant fraud. I've often heard that bad books should simply be "ignored." Which is a perfectly WASPish idea. Literary criticism, then, would be reduced to the two options: the gush or the snub. (And what if bad books don't get "ignored?" What if they win awards? What if they are presented as the cream of the crop? Do we all just sit on our hands and wait for it all to blow over?)

They may even push the envelope a little in public, admitting that, yes, many books that are so-called "masterpieces" are actually trite and dull and hackneyed and all the rest of it. As long as no names are mentioned. That way, you get credit for being a maverick, without any of the risk.

So who are these opinions being kept from? Well, readers, for one. Or rather, bookbuyers, meaning this isn't a philosophical or aesthetic position at all, but an economic one. Some people are fairly explicit about this, saying that since films are a multi-trillion-dollar industry, a bunch of wags trouncing shitty films online and in newspapers doesn't really matter. Poor little literature, on the other hand, barely scrapes by, so we mustn't let the public be discouraged from spending their much-needed dollars even on terrible or overrated books. Giller winners float all boats, or something. And, as people say when parents complain about their kids reading trash or comic books, at least they're reading.

Others – such as, I assume Vida herself – would become even more icy and purse-lipped at the idea that they are arguing that sales take precedence over honesty.


ognir.rrats said...

Even the term "reviewer" is a concession to these cry babies.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but think that these books are like children and the author wants only the best for them. Authors may then get bent out of shape when their book(s)are treated in any negative way. Don't really feel there is anything wrong with that. Any creation can be seen as an extension of oneself and we know how fragile we humans can be.

nathan said...

Anonymous: but we don't sell our children. (Hopefully.) We don't send them around to be put under contract. We don't discuss their raising with an editor. We don't put them before sales conferences to determine where and how best to market them. We don't send them around to the media for publicity and review. We don't collect royalties on them. (Again, all hopefully.)

I know what you're saying, and I'm not suggesting authors have to be delighted when they get an ignorant or mean-spirited review (there are ignorant positive reviews, too, but nobody complains when they get one of those). The point is, they've put themselves out there, they need to suck it up and grow a thick skin - for their own mental health, if for no other reason. Otherwise, just write the book, makes some copies at Kinko's, and pass it around to friends. You can't always count on the kindness of strangers.

Anonymous said...

There are a whole group of well meaning parents out there who do "sell" their children who are then promoted and managed by those in the know. I am speaking of the beauty queen parent types or child model households and then there are the hockey parents.
I can understand the emotion and behaviour of a writer who has put out there and then gets less than the expected applause......maybe they were raised by over indulgent parents?

Steven W. Beattie said...

"[T]he intellect itself (and the ethical life as well) requires the making of distinctions -- sorting out, acknowledging that one thing is not another, facing down blur and fusion and the moral and aesthetic confusion of false equivalence, and, in the name of appetite for life, false worth."

-- Cynthia Ozick

Yup, that sounds about right to me.

nathan said...

Or over-indulgent creative writing professors? Interesting theory, either way.

There's definitely a lot of the "former child actor/model" feeling about many of the younger, semi-successful Canadian authors I've met.

Some handle it (the Jodie Fosters), some don't (the Corey Feldmans).

Zachariah Wells said...

I wonder if any of these nicesters has ever realized that their hate-on for "snark" is at least as snarky, albeit in a more passive-aggressive kind of way--as any negative review. I once had the pleasure of being in the same room as one of the big Canadian advocates of keep-it-nice-or-keep-it-to-yourself. She approached me and gave me her condolences on my inadequate masculine endowment. Wait a second---isn't that an ad hominem critique?

Steven W. Beattie said...

Zach: Good point. I do think it's possible to be negative (read: critical) without being snarky, and I for one have no time for ad hominem attacks. Too often, writers mistake critiques of a work for critiques of the person, which I suppose is inevitable to a certain degree when you're dealing with a creative endeavour that commonly equates the finished product with one's offspring (a comparison that's always made me a bit uneasy). By the same token, critics and reviewers these days do frequently cross the line from a reasoned, thoughtful deconstruction of a work into ad hominem snark.

Nathan: Oh, snap!

Zachariah Wells said...

I agree completely, Steven.

There's another complication, however, besides the books-qua-children issue: the fact that books aren't published in a social vacuum. Everyone who's been anywhere near the writing and publishing world knows that connections have a lot to do with what gets published by whom and what wins prizes. These networks aren't literary, per se, but I think it's a perfectly relevant topic for a critic to discuss, however necessarily ad hominem it is to do so. No less a critic than Randall Jarrell said that a critic of contemporary writing has to be something of a sociologist. I totally agree with him. A lot of the people who are most outspoken about the evil of negative reviews seem to be people who occupy prominent positions with the social networks of the lit world. Like Vendela Vida. Or like Jan Zwicky in this country. I don't think this is a coincidence.