Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New York Times Book Review falls prey to Lit Crit Technobabble Madness. This man is partly responsible.

I’ve already taken an oblique swipe at gibberish that passes for literary criticism, churned out in universities around the world. You'll find it here:

However, that was only a swipe made in passing while I was discussing a book of poems that I favored.

Now it's time something got said about the whole genre of lit crit technobable, and I have to warn you that the subject is making me feel violent.

But first things first.

The purpose of literary criticism when it started was to help people understand literature better – why it affects us, its context in history, its relationship to current events.

Lately, the field has been seized by fiends whose sole purpose seems to be obfuscation. They appear hell-bent not on clarifying what literature is about, but on making their own literary criticism impenetrable. If they happen to celebrate impenetrable fiction while they’re at it, so much the better.

They speak, as I’ve said in a previous post, in tongues. They have their own secret language. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a secret handshake, too. They display a certain smug attitude – “Well, if you can’t understand what I’ve written, it just proves I’m smarter than you are.”

They are no longer opening the gates of literature to the world. In fact, they are slamming them shut, attempting to lock out anyone who doesn’t find profound meaning in the meaningless jargon of their field.

As long as this game was limited to a group of insignificant and mostly obscure academics, it was hard to care very much. You can read the Journal of the Modern Language Association and others of its ilk, or you can trash it. Not much harm done either way.

But now the New York Times has fallen prey to this idiocy. Yes! The effin' New York Times!

Last Sunday, I was sitting with a copy of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, when suddenly I discovered my eyes crossing. I was trying to navigate my way through this passage:

“Such a capacity to make language unleash entire states of existence reveals the extent to which Davis’ fiction is influenced by her work as a translator. Apart from Proust, her credits include French thinkers and writers like Maurice Blanchot, Michel Butor and Michel Foucalt. In reading Davis’s stories, therefore, we are likely to be reminded as much of the poststructuralist emphasis on language in the works of Blanchot as of the antinarrative impulse of French nouveau-Romanists like Butor.”

I should have set fire to the Times Book Review and tossed out the window the instant I came across Foucalt’s name. It was a warning, like an air raid siren before the bombs begin falling.

“Anti-narrative impulse?” “Nouveau Romanist?” “Postructuralist emphasis on language?” Gimme a break! No wonder the circulation of The New York Times is dropping like a shot.

This impenetrable review was written by Siddhartha Deb (that's his picture at the top of this post) who began his career as a journalist in Calcutta. He should have stayed there.

He was praising a book of stories that, judging what I can make out from Deb’s review, are also impenetrable: “Stories” by Lydia Davis.

To quote Dreary Deb again:

“Sometimes a title can be nearly as long as the story, as in,’Mother’s Reaction To My Travel Plans,” whose entire text reads: ‘Gainsville! It’s too bad your cousin is dead!’ We could almost text-message it, but then we wouldn’t get the effect of the surrounding white space, against which the words seem to suggest an almost gnomic quality. We might miss the exclamation marks, the italics…”

Or we might miss wanting to vomit over all Deb’s jargon-filled praise of practically nothing.

I’m not worried about Davis, the author of "Stories." Despite the acclaim she has received not only from Deb of the Doldrums, but also Salon Magazine, I guarantee you that if her work is taking her in the direction of "stories" like “Mother’s Reaction…” she is destined for the trash heap of literary history.

But Deb’s editor at the New York Times Book Review is another matter. He ought to be busted back to police beat and put on two years’ probation there. If it then turns out he also can’t tell nonsense prose from a rape case, fire the idiot! (I hope you haven’t missed my very clever exclamation mark and my post neo-modernist omission of italics. Whatever the hell that means.)

As for Siddhartha Deb, he is a more serious case. He came to this country on a literary fellowship and now he is poisoning impressionable young American minds, encouraging by example nonsense prose in the guise of expository writing not only in the New York Times but also in The Boston Globe, the Guardian, The Nation and the New Statesman. No wonder the President of the United States can't make a coherent argument for any of his policies! No wonder politicians doubletalk! They learn it in college

I am tempted to pray for a vigilante squad of Writing Police, who would seize people who scribble in jargon and bash them over their head with their own laptops until consequent brain damage obliterates phrases like “anti-narrative impulse” and “postructuralist emphasis on language” from their vocabularies.


Anonymous said...

I know what you mean...it feels like you're being railroaded by a know-it-all. I avoid reviews/critiques and the like and just come to my own opinions and conclusions. A healthy distance keeps the mind open...after all, you should experience the literature/film/art etc. firsthand, not processed through the lens of a critic.

The New York Crank said...


The press –from the solemn New York Times to the racy New York Post – this morning pretty much had to say the same cranky things about the Sopranos that I said. The Post even headlined the idea that Sopranos fans got whacked by the cheesy ending.

But there are other people out there who know my e-mail address but who don’t blog and therefore, according to the protocols set up by Blogspot.com, cannot automatically post here.

For their sake, I reproduce the following:

Nancilee W. in Florida wrote:

“While you were watching Tony I was watching "The Tony's" what's up with dat?”

Yeah, well Nancilee went on to tell me she had a sister who has a partner who was up for a Tony nomination. She then went on with a whole song-and-dance about unsung people behind the scenes.

But if she wants that stuff on a blog, she’d better start blogging.

My pal Bruce S in the glitzy hills around Los Angeles wrote:

“You clearly forgot that the name of the game is show BUSINESS.




“Tony: Carm… let’s go to dinner after this. I feel manicot…

“Carm: I love my new bracelet.


I dunno, Bruce. First of all, if Chase won't read your script when you mail it to him, what makes you think he'll read it here?

More to the point, there are lots of angry fans out there who might start picketing – maybe even torching – the movie theaters. Jimmy Breslin used to write about a guy named Marvin the Torch. I didn’t read anywhere that Marvin died. Or even retired. But I can bet you if Marvin watched the show last night, he's feeling as much ire as me.

Right now David Chase and his movie company are not exactly the toast of New York. Even the legit press wants to skewer him.

Bob B. in Brooklyn writes,

“Apparently everyone on the radio agrees with you but I do not. They cleared up all of the issues in the last two episodes. Phil is dead, Janice will get her money, Uncle Jr. is a loony tune and they will not find his money, Meadow gets married and apparently is pregnant and she has a job waiting for her after law school, AJ gets a job and goes back to being AJ, and Pauly Walnuts was not working for the Brooklyn gang. Even though Chase and Gandofini are tired of the show who knows how they feel three years from now. They can still do the movie for big bucks. Silvio is still alive and they can have him recover. As for the ending it did have scrambling because I thought I accidentally hit the remote control but the family was happy. There was no need to kill Tony at the point and kill anything that could happen in the future.”

I don’t know, Bob, but if I were you, I’d stay away from the movie theaters until I get to read Marvini The Torch’s obituary somewhere.

Cranky thanks to all of you.

--The New York Crank

Joe said...

I'm not feeling particularly post-structural today. In fact I don't know that it's possible for humans to be "post anything" at all.
If they want to take a point on something, why would they need to latch themselved onto a "school of thought" (one as flimsy as post-modernism) or any other for that matter.

They do it to ligitimate their stupidity and to keep you from noticing just how weak the concept is. I mean if a notion (by, say, some guy named "Bob") was really that strong, it would immediately draw raves of "Bobism". The only problem for Bob is that no-one cares about attention seeking behaviour, and that Bob should get an apartment-friendly Dachshund or something.