Book Banning! & Is Everyone a Critic?


“What would Obama think?”  I wondered the other day.

I had just read that officials in the public schools in Duluth, Minnesota, have banned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the English curriculum.  (They have not yet decided what books will replace them.)  Although these two classics are among the most “challenged” and banned American books, I do not associate Minnesota with book-banning.

Twain’s satiric masterpiece, the humorous, poignant story of a friendship between a runaway boy and a runaway slave, is one of my favorite books. I do not consider it racist, despite Huck’s ignorant use of the “n” word.  I do think the dialect may be too difficult for today’s students.  And if they don’t understand, they will not read, nor will they listen to teachers’ explanations of the historical context and impact of Twain’s satire.


On the other hand, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960, is an easy read, appropriate for all ages, and clearly delineates the lawyer Atticus Finch’s fight against injustice in a town in Alabama during the Depression.  What can the objection be?

Did you know Obama cited To Kill a Mockingbird in his farewell speech on Jan. 10, 2017?  He held up Atticus as a role model.

He said,

If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Obama cites “To Kill a Mockingbird” in  his farewell speech

IS EVERYONE A CRITIC?  I very much enjoyed the “Secrets of the Book Critics” feature at Book Marks (Feb. 14).  It took the form of a short interview with Alexis Burling, a writer, book reviewer, and critic.  She said the two books she would love to have reviewed when they were  first published are War and Peace and The Golden Notebook.  I  love, love, love War and Peace and The Golden Notebook. She’s definitely a F.O.B  (Friend of my Blog) now, whether she wants to be or not.

On the other hand, she expressed the crankiness typical of critics in the post-print age. When asked about misconceptions of critics and criticism, she said,

How about the idea that everyone can be a book critic? That all it takes to write a worthwhile review is just a quick read of a book and then a dribbling out of your off-the-cuff opinion? Anyone who contributes to this column can tell you that reviewing a book is definitely not an easy, zippy process. There’s research involved—reading an author’s past work(s) to put the current book in context, maybe reading an interview or two to see where the author was coming from when he/she wrote the book, plus keeping on top of what else has been or is being published about the subject. Then there’s the taking notes while reading (well, I do that) and the working and reworking of sentences and paragraphs that hopefully come together into a cohesive and un-stuffy package that will do the book justice. Maybe it sounds a bit like I’m tooting the collective book-critic horn, but as with any profession, the job requires training, humility, and lots of practice.

I don’t quite agree with her here.  My first editor told me, “Any intelligent person can review a book,” and I stand by him.  It is true that some intelligent people write better reviews than others, but give them a copy of Strunk and White and they will grow (or pare down).  There are people who think they can do as well as you can, but you just smile and ask them if they’ve read Hermann Broch’s The Death of Vergil and that will shut them right up.

I read all kinds of reviews:  The New York Times,  Goodreads, blogs.  Each medium has much to offer, but from my point of view a traditional book review works best.

Mind you, I don’t write traditional book reviews here. Well, not very often. But yes, I see bloggers as being closest in intention to reviewers/critics, if not in execution.

I’d ask for your input, but I’m on a social media break. Call it Lent.

The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

Critics have a bad rap.  We picture them as cruel little men (somehow not women) who savage the books and movies we love.  “I never agree with the critics,” my mother used to say.  I seldom do myself, but I read reviews and discover good books by reading between the lines.  Personally, I have never known a critic.  I have known book reviewers, who are a milder bunch. But suddenly, last month, critics kept cropping up as minor characters in the twentieth-century novels I was reading.

In general, they were an unpleasant bunch.  I chortled over a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, set at a literary society meeting.   Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife and writer of a collection of essays, attends the meeting to “absent herself from parish duties.”  Her old college friend, Barbara Bird, a novelist, chats about the good reviews of her latest novel.  She is pleased by the turn-out for the meeting.

“Better gathering than usual,” said Miss Bird; “quite a few critics.”

“Such mild-looking men,” said Jane, seeing one of them taking his seat near the front.  “Perhaps they compensate themselves for their gentle appearance by dipping their pens in vitriol.”

Later, Jane has an accidental encounter with a critic while conversing with Miss Bird.   “Oh, yes,’ agreed Jane enthusiastically, stepping backwards into a critic and causing him to upset his coffee over himself.”

Pym getting back at the critics?  But did Pym ever receive a bad reviews?


Critics are useful to writers, as we see in Some Do Not…, the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s stunning tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Mrs. Wannop, a brilliant novelist and freelance writer, arrives unannounced at a brunch and immediately corners a critic.    “…Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”  Ford is very comical about her, but, believe me, she needs the press, because she and her suffragette daughter are almost starving.

I am a great fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and recently reread the second in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy,  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  Dorothy’s friend Matthew, an aristocratic playboy, is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel masterpiece, the critics are difficult people, sometimes not quite of the writer/narrator Nick’s class.  He went to Oxford with Mark Members, a savvy social-climbing poet and critic.  In the fifth novel in the series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we meet Maclintick, a bad-tempered music critic. He is not entirely unsympathetic, but comes to a bad end.  Nick describes him as follows:

…Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age.  Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing toward his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large rectangular kite about to float away into the sky on the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odors of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr. Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter where he sat.  Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing on him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

What is the source of these satiric portrayals of critics?  Why do we recognize them?  Perhaps I first read about a critic  in one of the novels of Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, or a satire by Evelyn Waugh?

I do remember a critic in Sebastian Faulk’s relatively recent novel, A Week In December, published in  2009.  I loved the large ensemble cast, and wrote in my book journal:

My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell….   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.

So do you know of any critics in novels? Who are your favorites? And why do they have such a bad reputation?

Critics We Like & Mrs. Caliban

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

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.

We all miss John Updike.

We all miss John Updike.

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.

truths_ragged_edge_cover_hrMy 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.

Book-How-to-win-an-election ciceroPeter 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.

Joan Acocella

Joan Acocella

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?