What New York Times Critic Dwight Garner Got Wrong in his Case for Critics who are Actually Critical

Dwight Garner’s riff – about the need for critics who are actually critical – is still stirring sandstorms in the blogosphere. I’ve felt ambivalent about weighing in all week, largely because Dwight Garner is a superb critic. A critic who, I think most of the time, hits a perfect note and delivers a review which captures the gestalt of a piece of work.

But Garner’s piece on the need for critical critics – instead of scores of tweeting admirers – sat uneasily with me. He argues:

What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.

Underneath this claim is surely the shadow side of a critic in a tough global climate where words are as cheap as chips. Certainly, the post American Idol world of online voting and i-democracy means that there is often little distinction made between say, the opinion of a seasoned journalist and the opinion of your grandmother’s neighbor’s cat. Recently John McFarlane, editor of The Walrus expressed it like this:

This egalitarian impulse is the cultural assertion of the neo-liberal belief—itself increasingly popular—that the market should determine nearly anything. But more alarming is the flip side: a growing disrespect for knowledge and expertise. In contemporary North America, one person’s opinion is as good as the next, no matter how uninformed.

And yet, Garner’s claim for ‘excellent‘, ‘authoritative‘ and ‘punishing’ critics conjured a dated, Anglo, and modernist ideal of literary criticism as a system of objective, aesthetic sensibility. The idea that we will get to the underlying truth of a work – if only we have an intellectual elite to show us the way. It seemed to repaint the world as one where soppy, narcissistic writers simply can’t handle the shortcomings of their work, and critics act as torch-bearers distilling talent away from the pretenders.

This fantasy of criticism is not true. In literary criticism, women and people of color have been routinely devalued. Now I can imagine certain readers jumping up to say I am grandstanding on  a fight which has been won because in Canada, women are publishing as many books as men. Well, last year Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) did a survey of Canada’s top literary journals. Across the 8 major players in 2011, only an average of 32% of reviews were written about books by women authors. This no doubt reflected the lack of women reviewers across these journals, ranging from 17% of reviewers in one publication to a high of 40%. As CWILA points out, this creates a critical conversation that is heavily gendered.

Sina Queyras, Editor-in-Chief of Lemon Hound, points to the gendered bias in criticism, saying:

“What is important work? What is a circle jerk? When do these things overlap? Discuss.”

Sue Sinclair, CWILA’s critic-in-residence, has different ideas about what is necessary for criticism that hints at the different kinds of critical conversations we would have if women and people of color were full participants rather than voices from the margins. She suggests that criticism is an offering – ‘not a decree’. She argues:

Some think that the writer is best served in just the way that the reader is: by the critic’s truthful response. I agree. But there are different ways of telling the truth: it can be done indifferently, it can be done as a slap in the face, or it can be done kindly and with a—perhaps implicit—acknowledgement of the effort that every writer brings to their work. My experience is that the first two approaches can hamper or harm the writer and that the last one can help the writer to rise to the difficult occasion of public criticism.

So Dwight Garner’s call for more authoritative and punishing critics obscures the masculinist and monocultural aspects of culturally privileged criticism – it speaks to a narrative of “tough love” whereby authoritative fathers/ teachers teach their sons/ students to be men.

What we actually need is more women and people of color to be part of the critical conversation. Because what is important about criticism is that is it a conversation – albeit a conversation across author’s works, canons, across space and time. When my children’s (9-12) novel Josefa and the Vu (Huia Publishers 2007) I was afraid to read reviews. I was afraid of my own vulnerability. When I did eventually read some – a few years later – I found they were small offerings – to take Sinclair’s lovely phrase. Offerings of celebration (and some guidance) mostly about how unusual it was to find a (multicultural) children’s book with a Fijian main character. They didn’t really extend anything like the critical questions I had asked myself in my head. The really difficult questions might only have been able to be asked by Pacific reviewers or other writers of color.

I actually think that Dwight Garner might agree with me. Certainly, he is one of the white men that does not simply review books and authors with a similar worldview to his own – his reviews include the works of women and people of color. His recent review of Jamie Quatro’s collection of stories,  reminded me why – as a reader – I look at reviews in the first place. Garner’s review closes with the lines:

Something about “I Want to Show You More” makes me want to remove copies of it from the “new fiction” table in bookstores and scatter them through the religion and running and illness and sex sections. There’s so much in these stories that’s shocking. Yet there’s so much solace.

I read reviews because I want to read books. I want critics to shed light on writing. Not acquisition headlights or overblown spotlights – just the partial, refracted light of an aquarium or darkroom. In the best critics, I find the same thing I search for in novels: a glimpse of something profound.

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Meaningful Journeys

Last weekend Jaimie and I went to a reading by Imogen Binnie, who is touring with her first novel Nevada. Imogen is exactly the type of writer you want to hear talk because she lets her actual life steal into the room, as if you are listening to a punk guitarist, or your extremely hip older sister. She was a mix of eccentric and captivating and self-depreciating. Imogen is on a bizarro road trip that is actually a book tour reading to trans and queer communities dotted like silver stars across North America, which is appropriate because Nevada is also a transgender road trip.

I’m only a quarter of the way through so where I am up to the main character Maria is still riding her bike around New York City, angsting about her girlfriend, and experiencing life through the disruptive film of dissociation. Binnie writes in very raw way. You feel crushingly close to Maria’s anxious and complex thoughts, and it feels unnerving. But luckily, also fresh and funny.

It’s courageous for a writer to take on the narrative of the great American road-trip. In American hands, cars equal freedom. It’s even more courageous when the writer is a transwoman because the great American road-trip has been so intensely masculinist. And yet, as the trans scholar Aren Aizura reminds us, trans lives are filled with travel. So I’m excited about how it will unfold…I think you should buy this book, read it faster then me, and then comment about it.

My partner Jaimie is trans. The launch made us especially miss our trans friends in Auckland. It would have been more fun if we had people to eat gelato with.