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.