Atlantic Books Today Gets Prescriptive
By Jeff Bursey
In July 2010 The Walrus published “The Long Decline” by André Alexis, an article on the problems with current criticism. While it failed to distinguish sufficiently between book reviewing, literary criticism and literary theory, Alexis did criticize Ryan Bigge, Carmine Starnino and Philip Marchand for producing “neither criticism nor reviewing but autobiography.” The article reminded readers that journals have slants and readerships or, as Alexis put it, “there are any number of agorae,” and they are often at odds with each other. His clearly articulated desire for a “shareable aesthetic” and a “communal” approach in criticism strikes me as ill advised and restrictive. Our literature needs healthy and, at times, unruly debate as authors, publishers and readers balance the input of Goodreads, Amazon, and well-written blogs that are dedicated to keeping an eye on current writing against the dwindling national conversation about books.
The fall 2013 issue of Atlantic Books Today contained Newfoundland author Chad Pelley’s consideration of criticism in Canada in an article titled “Critiquing the critics.” His thoughts don’t push the conversation into new territory but, like Alexis, he too has a vision for critical concord. His deeply flawed case is worth a brief look to see what can be learned.
In his second paragraph, Pelley writes: “Fundamentally, a review should ascertain the author’s intention and assess how he or she succeeded and failed in that regard. Many critics know this, but many do not.” If the ability existed to divine anyone’s complete set of intentions, surely that would be first used among G8 leaders, in stock markets, or to find out if neighbours were going to have a pool party when we want peace and quiet. Authors are constantly surprised about their intentions, as we discover when a new interpretation of our work is offered.
The US writer William Gass said in 1978: “the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. Otherwise, the book is likely to be as thin as you are.” For Pelley to demand a reviewer nail down “the” intention is completely unrealistic.
A second problem with the sentence quoted above is the use of “should,” a word favoured by, among others, lawmakers and censors when they determine legislation to establish responsibilities and curtail behavior. Pelley likes to set down rules. He did it in an Afterword piece in The National Post in March 2013, and then denied it (in a debate we had at the website Big Other [see here for my response]). I wonder what makes him think he is in a position to prescribe what everyone else should do.
“Many critics know this, but many do not.” If it’s too Puritanical to mark the offenders with a red letter for easy identification, then at least we could be provided with the names of critics whose work Pelley appreciates. They would be lights flickering in the darkness and all that. But a dropped name might provoke personal disaster. Instead, he swipes at unnamed creatures. A lot of telling and very little showing doesn’t constitute an argument, but it does bear the hallmarks of a lecture.
Later in the article there is a comparison of writing and medical science. A doctor is “taught the procedure, yet a critic needs no such certification to dissect a book.” (In Pelley’s view, a learned procedure equals certification, but this mixes up categories.) When doctors mess up the consequences can be severe, much more severe than a botched review. The critics I respect (such as Paul Quinn and Steven Moore) have studied literature for a long time. But they, or “many,” in Pelley’s word, don’t carry out the task in the way he wants. If he’s suggesting that degrees or diplomas in criticism be granted, perhaps he could lay out a plan for such a process.
In the last paragraph Pelley writes: “If anything, this article is merely a plea or warning to our country’s newspapers and magazines…” When a fire alarm goes off that’s an urgent statement: Get out! Pleas are uttered to God, to loved ones, to traffic lights, and they have weight. Does Pelley not apprehend the meaning of these two words? Here there’s a backing away from the demand in the second paragraph – “Fundamentally, a review should” is still ringing in our ears. Rather, there’s the pretense that it’s being backed away from, for the tone of the next sentence, the concluding one, lands between merely and fundamentally: “We readers are talking more than you think we are about your articles.” What a dark hint of Star Chamber repercussions. It’s a sentence that is disingenuous and presumptuous: in the first place, Pelley is a voice contributing to the culture of letters in Canada as a writer, and in the second, we might wonder who he is to assume to speak for an undefined “we.”
I take it as a good sign if a review of mine is talked about, for it means the book is under discussion; I’m thankful for reviews of my work, whatever they may say and however people phrase themselves, as any attention is wanted; and as a citizen I favour free speech, and am grateful this nation allows a vast range of expression.
That a popular publication believes “Critiquing the critics” is an actual critique says something about its standards. That Pelley, like Alexis before him, asks criticism to meet an impossible standard makes no sense. Now, it’s possible he simply rattled it off one day. As he said on Big Other about his Afterword piece, “It’s an article I wrote, on an iPhone, in an airpot, [sic] in ten minutes, that you’ve taken more more [sic] seriously than I.” Damn the attentive writers and critics in Canada who treat their colleagues in such a fashion.