A Night in the Pillory: “Should Critics Be Harsh?” Live at the New School

Above: Jacob Silverman, Wrestling with the Angel. [photo: Nick Curley]
Last night the New School’s Theresa Lang Community Center on West 13th Street held a panel discussion entitled “Should Critics Be Harsh?”  The seminar was moderated by author/professor Christopher Beha (What Happened to Sophie Wilder?), who was joined by Jacob Silverman and Troy Patterson of Slate alongside Salon book critic Laura Miller.  Advertised but not present were author Daniel Mendelsohn and Ruth Franklin of The New Republic.  Mutterings within the audience suggested that Mendelsohn had a gig for the New York Review of Books that he couldn’t get out of, and that Franklin’s pet chinchilla was on this evening receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In a 1998 interview with the Boston Phoenix, David Foster Wallace described the “maddening” vagueness of journalistic assignments from his editors at Harper’s, whose instructions he characterized as “turn 350 degrees a few times and tell us what you see.”  Were you to rotate with me in such circles around Theresa Lang, you may or may not have seen what I saw.  Subjective, right?  You may have been surprised by the near-universal attractiveness of the ladies present in the audience, to say nothing of their high volume.  The men may have been about what you’d expect: some handsome, most mediocre, with few true goblins in the mix.  Some nice monochromatic neckties interspersed with beady eyes, bifocals, scowls, MFAers, cuffed jeans, jeans in desperate need of cuffing, balding pates sheathing pulsating craniums, lost pensioners, and a creep in the second row who won’t stop spinning in his chair and scribbling notes. That creep is us.

So at the risk of leering, and only so as to paint an honest picture, let’s just say that many of the women in the audience are looking good. Some of them may totally be my/your/our type, if you/I/we are attracted to girls.  They could be from any smart, semi-depressed city in the world. Brownish eyes, olive complexion, angular hair: they would bask in Basque. One of them stands up to show off her scarf to a friend.

“It’s Oscar de la Renta, I got it in Connecticut, and it was only three dollars,” she says proudly.

Are we getting harsh yet? Fair? Unfair? Is it fun yet? Are we getting anywhere? Or to put it more harshly: where am I going with this?

The seated quartet of critics proved to be engaging, well prepared, and perhaps not surprisingly, remarkably well read. Beha began with a well-versed overview of harsh literary critiques. He cited Mary McCarthy’s infamous assertion that every word that Lillian Hellman ever wrote was a lie, including “and” and “the”. And the time Richard Ford so detested Colson Whitehead’s scathing 2002 review of A Multitude of Sins that years later he spit on Whitehead at a party. And Manny Farber’s assertion that to be a critic is very difficult, which sounded better when he said it. Most pointedly astute of all, Beha asked aloud what the value of “a hostile rhetorical” can be.

Silverman then ably laid out some of the history behind his rightfully renowned and equally lambasted essay “Against Enthusiasm”, which ran in Slate last summer and managed to piss off a lot of really nice people while happening to be absolutely correct in its assertions. Miller artfully played the toughest role of the bunch, acting as the pseudo-contrarian simply by being a seasoned vet making the extremely valid point that most readers look to critics not to find out what books are bad or mediocre, but to find out which ones are good and worth buying. And Patterson proved a goddamned tour-de-force of a human being, with superb connective tissue, tying together Rebecca West, Orwell, Mencken, and Pete Wells’ beatdown of Guy Fieri into verbiage ready for the 22nd century. He did all of that while wearing a truly spectacular suit, tie, and pocket square. If Ted Williams had a “textbook swing”, then Patterson has textbook swag.

But now, hours later, I am here stroking keys, beneath fluorescent lights in the emptied Manhattan office of a worldwide publishing behemoth, trying to relive what I just saw a few blocks east at a liberal arts college – pristine as it it is prestigious – and make it into music. Refreezing the ice cubes. It’s here that I start to wonder: what would be the harshest criticism of the very reportage that you are currently reading? What would cut me deep? “Dull” would be pretty bad, but it’s too vague and overused a word to sting, not to mention one that connotes anything but astringency. “Pretentious” would be another. Yet like “dull”, “pretentious” of late seems to more often describe its very usage and the people using it. In other words, I am rubber and you are glue, and nothing made of rubber can be a snob. “Hackneyed” sounds too much like acne: can’t we put the perils of puberty behind us? “Tedious” would be a jagged little pill to swallow, but consider all the important and positive things that are in their own way tedious.  Sit ups are tedious. Chewing kale is tedious.  As is obtaining a passport, but all three get you where you wanna go. “Misogynistic” wouldn’t be out of left field: I did spend an awfully long time describing those ladies in the crowd. “Self-absorbed” sounds entirely possible, for what kind of solipsistic observer makes a summary of a four-person panel into something so much about himself? Yet the self-awareness of this very sentence hopefully numbs that nag. Vanity can be a fun game, if you play fair.

So. What would hurt? Honestly? The harshest verdict for a piece such as the one you are reading and that I am writing right now is that it would fall on deaf ears.  That it would either find no audience or be met with apathy. It has found you, sure, but are you enough people? How many people are you, anyway? Such is a climate in which my heart rises and sinks at end of day upon seeing my cumulative page views and unique visitors. And rest assured, my babies: to me, you are all such unique visitors, your every visit totally unique. With unfiltered sincerity, I could not be more thankful to those who read my work, nor more uncertain of who they are. This is our curious state of affairs, which each of the panel’s critics – particularly the younger ones – acknowledged as one of the many odd side effects of social media and the all-inclusive astral sneeze that online criticism has become. And if not being heard or paid any mind is the worst fate a writer can suffer, toiling in not just obscurity but in true lethargy, then it would mean that receiving a harsh review is an improvement over no review at all. And while it may be very Almost Famous to state so plain: the critic who is not carelessly harsh but is still willing to go there as needed seems to me that most devoted of readers. The ilk who have fallen hopelessly in love, and will swim against the current to return to that familiar sensation out of reach.  Nostalgia? Sea change? All of the above.

And let’s not forget the etymology of the word harsh. Oh Christ, he’s going to the etymology?  “Webster’s defines harsh as…?” What is this, the Grammys? Let’s not forget it, and instead learn it for the very first time. Harsh is a beautiful word of fourteenth century Scandinavian-Onomonopiac origin, describing that which is rough, coarse, or sour. It stems from the Danish harsk, meaning rancid or rank. As in something is harsk in the state of Denmark. And so there are plenty of times in which to be harsh is to simply have a good sense of smell.

Still, as old Vonnegut says: you’ve got to be kind. When might a total hatchet job be an act of kindness? Maybe when the author has enough self-esteem to take the hit. Even in our harshest moments, and in our sometime relish of scorching pugnacity, it is worth remembering that hackneyed still sounds like acne, that scars make your body more interesting, and that smell is the sense most directly linked to memory. All of these seem like reasonable reasons to be tough but fair on the snouted dudes and pomegranate-scented women who fill Theresa Hare, milling about post-panel, shaking hands and grimacing, while you and I spin circles ‘round the room.

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