There are critics we like, and critics we don’t like.
I am astonished that most of the critics I admire are men. I would never have believed such a gender division possible fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
First, the past.
John Updike was a life-changing critic whose essays in The New Yorker introduced me to many brilliant writers. He wrote fascinatingly about Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, one of my favorite books, a sad, witty, moving novel about a desolate housewife who falls in love with a monster. Surely all women understand this inclination to love exotic monsters, because monsters in literature are more human than the human monsters we fall in love with. (Not you, honey!)
Ingalls’s Larry is one of manifold literary monsters who attract women. Think of Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, in which the heroine falls in love with Erasmus, an escaped 300-pound ape. Think of Melissa in Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets; she falls in love with a dolphin. Think of Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Think of the many strange couplings–like Leda and the swan–in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (I should get offline and finish this essay.)
Ingalls’s heroine, Dorothy, is the neglected wife of a philanderer and the grieving mother of a dead child. One day when she is listening to the radio, she hears, or thinks she hears, a strange announcement.
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this programme to make the following announcement in this area. Early this morning, keepers at the Jefferson Institute for Oceanic Research were attacked by a creature captured six months ago by Professor William Dexter on his South American expedition. The creature, known to the popular press by its nickname “Aquarius the Monsterman,” appears from intensive scientific analysis to be a giant lizard-like animal capable of living both underwater and on land for extended periods….
When the monster, Larry, shows up in her kitchen, she is not afraid. She hides him. He is kinder than her husband.
And oddly, though few of us entertain lizard-like monsters in our kitchen, we empathize with Mrs. Caliban.
We are all Mrs. Caliban sometimes.
And would we have found this book without Updike?
But what about contemporary criticism? These days we read so many reviews online that criticism can metamorphose into a chimera if we’re not careful. We read The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Review of Books, TLS, The Guardian, and other publications, not to mention blogs, tweets, and GoodReads.
And then I give up on a book. “This is a piece of crap.” “Where did you find out about it?” “Either The New Yorker or a blog, I’m not sure.” “Get offline! It’s too unreliable.” “My blog is not unreliable. I found out about this at X blog.” “Is that the one with the dog pictures?” “WEll, they all have dog or cat pictures.” ” The New Yorker doesn’t have a dog or cat.” Oh, dear. I should never have shown him that dog video. And why didn’t I take better notes? If I had been taught by Jesuits, I would have believed the tenet, “Do it right the first time.” I would have written bibliographical information…
Do it right.
Marry a monster.
Criticism is chimerical.
It’s so confusing.
Good reviews, bad reviews, books that sound good, books that are good, books that turn out to be terrible.
But there are good critics, and sometimes we find them.
My favorite critic is Michael Dirda of The Washington Post Book World. Isn’t he everybody’s favorite? His style is relaxed and conversational, but he has a Ph.D. in comp lit, and is obviously one of the most over-qualified newspaper reviewers. He writes about poetry, science fiction, biographies, novels, reference books, you name it. He is prolific, and I’ve read his reviews in The New York Review of Books, TLS, and The Barnes and Noble Review; he used to have a blog at The American Scholar. I can’t tell you how many dazzling books I have read because of his reviews. He recently reviewed Philip F. Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, and I would have loved to read it had I not spent all my money at the Planned Parenthood book sale and banned book-buying for the next few months.
Peter Stothard, editor of TLS and a classicist, is a brilliant critic: after I read his stunning book, Spartacus Road: A Journey through Ancient Italy, I looked for his criticsm online (a little gentle cyber-stalking), and I must say he keeps a low profile. I found some of his reviews in The Wall Street Journal: He praised Donald Kagan’s Thucydides: The Reinvention of History and Philip Freeman’s translation of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s How to Win an Election, which particularly interests me because I’m fascinated by Cicero’s relationships with his family (Quintus is the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero’s brother). I’ll be looking for more by Stothard on the classics.
I very much like the reviews of novelist Adam Langer, who, astonishingly, was called “the worst reviewer in America” by The New York Daily News. I read one of Langer’s reviews in The Washington Post to ascertain whether he was as eloquent as I remembered, and he was. His review in The Washington Post of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, a novel of “wayward youth” in the “Reagan ’80s,” not only describes the book so vividly that I have added it to my TBR, but admits its flaws, which many reviewers seem too intimidated to do these days. He mentions that two other recent novels have similar themes , but are presented in a more solid historical and political context.
Then there’s Robert McCrum, an associate editor at The Observer. What I enjoy most at The Guardian/Observer website are McCrum’s mini-essays. Today he wrote about conspiracy theories on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Last week he wrote a fascinating essay about the speech as a genre, both in the political arena and in literature.
Where are the women, you might ask? I’d like to know, too.
I love Joan Acocella, the dance critic at The New Yorker who also writes fascinating articles about books. Her style is both engaging and sophisticated: she has a gift for making you want to read books you wouldn’t normally read, such as André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, and Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. She has also written brilliantly about Willa Cather and Zadie Smith. I only wish she wrote more often about books.
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is shrewd and sharp, a demanding, even-handed critic known by writers for hitting hard. I read her reviews more frequently than I do the other Times reviewers, because I trust her, even though our tastes are very different. For instance, I didn’t think the Oprah book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was particularly graceful or significant, and it made Kakutani’s Top 10. But I always want to know what Kakutani says, because she can be trusted.
My goal in middle age has been to be beyond gender, in the sense that I no longer want to consider gender issues. As I have indicated, I happily read male critics, and I don’t care if a review is written by a man or a woman. But I feel disgruntled when I realize that fewer women get criticism gigs than men: you can read the VIDA statistics here.
I’ve been a very good sport about this.
And so, if you’re out there, what is your plan for making writing gigs more equitable?
And, fellow bloggers and readers, who are your favorite critics?
Absolutely Michael Dirda! His style is so comforting. I think he is quite brilliant. I have had a crush on him for the longest time. I have read all of his books on books. I also enjoyed Jonathan Yardley’s look at rereading some favorites in “Second Reading”. I do catch McCrum occasionally. Have you read his biography of P.G. Wodehouse?
Belle, Dirda has excellent taste, and reads everything. Very unsnobbish!
I agree about Yardley: I loved Second Reading. He is another one who can write about everything.
No, I’ve read nothing by McCrum except his journalism.
Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel is pretty good.
Yes, Nicola! I had forgotten about this book.