In lieu of Internet access, a galaxy of facts at the tip of a mouse’s tail, I keep a folder of continually evolving articles and information. One, a fascinating piece by Burkhard Bilger titled “A Better Brew” documents the rise of “extreme beer,” focusing on Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. It describes in great detail the chemistry of crafting pilsners, lagers and ales; different strains of yeast; ingenious beers like pumpkin stouts and chocolate krieks. I mined the article extensively for a trilogy I wrote called Darkroom, containing an experimental brewery in a made-up town called Starkville, Michigan.
I have a “popular chronicle” by Susan Orlean about exotic, designer chickens now in vogue in backyards across the country. Like gold, chickens are a hedge against a bad economy. With a dozen or more colorful, strutting birds clucking around out back, laying pastel-colored, flavorful eggs, the livestock owner can look out the kitchen window and find comfort in the pen full of food. I have used this chicken information too, but don’t remember in what.
I have a Motor Trend preview on the Ferrari California, containing a lot of information on the California’s storied line of ancestors, such as the iconic F430, with its V-12 engine, leather and curves—I also used this preview in volume 1 of the Starkville story. I have saved a detail-rich article by Adam Gopnik called “Modern Magic and the Meaning of Life,” which had many great details on magic and names for card tricks. Much of the philosophy that guides magic tricks, I found, applies to writing as well, things like the “Too Perfect Theory” which “explains why people are more convinced by an imperfect illusion than by a perfectly realized one.”
I keep a page-long list of medications available for use in the M.D.O.C.: mood stabilizers and anti-psychotics; anti-depressants and anti-Parkinsonian drugs. Few meds available in the world are used here because of the tendency for abuse, but abuse happens anyway and it’s always good to have names like Risperdel, Geodon and Seroquel handy for use in stories.
Another piece I kept without really knowing why, I am going to use now: the article was written by Louis Menand in “The Critics” section of the September 5, 2011 edition of The New Yorker, about an influential and contrarian critic of the mid-1900’s named Dwight Macdonald. I think the main reason I kept it was for a quote from a review Macdonald wrote about C. Wright Mills’ White Collar: “boring to the point of unreadability.”
I think that’s about the best line of criticism I’ve ever read. It is not very nice, though, which brings me to the writer of my focus today, William Giraldi. He teaches at Boston University, is a senior editor at AGNI and frequently writes book reviews for places such as the New York Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal. He recently received some flak for a “mean” review he wrote about a novel and collection of stories by a Canadian woman, Alix Ohlin. I thought it only fair that if I was going to talk about the Ohlin review and the appropriateness of unkind criticism, that I should read—not the Ohlin’s books—but Giraldi’s debut novel, Busy Monsters.
Giraldi’s review from N.Y.T.B.R. was brilliantly paced, smart, with a flair for acute perception and a love of language. He was angered by Ohlin’s title of her novel, Inside, that “yawningly announces itself;” was insulted by a “sensibility [that] clings either to calamity or to affected stupefaction . . . that invariably collapses into sentimentality, and no sentimentalist has ever written a potent prose.” Giraldi writes that whenever Ohlin is in doubt she “impregnates or kills,” and is “schooled not in Austen but in Susan Lucci,” meaning, the drama she creates is more soap opera than believable conflict.
He is not exclusively brutal, complementing the phrase, “corked with hate.” He gives Ohlin credit where credit is due, it’s just, there doesn’t seem to be much due. So, the question is, “Should he have been nicer in his critique?” Books are very hard to write, shouldn’t he have toned the review down simply because she’s written a couple, and taken a kinder, gentler approach?
This question of kindness is faced by budding writers when they participate in their first workshop. For those of you who don’t know how this works, here is a summary: People who want to be writers bring in a story they have worked on for sometimes their entire life. They are emotionally attached to every word and character, and when it comes to the round-table comments someone—sometimes several someones—are less than kind in their criticism, and the aggrieved artist is never seen in class again. Or worse, the aggrieved artist keeps coming back, but with a festering resentment that rots more and more as the semester continues. I’m surprised no one has been murdered yet.
It can get pretty ugly. Emotions tend to run very high around writing—and not just in undergrads: I have personally sunk into month-long tunnels of existential blackness over negative feedback. I have seen more than one near-fisticuffs. I have heard sniffles in the hall.
Emotions regarding writing don’t apply only to feedback. A man once stood up and pointed a crooked finger my way across the table—I had apparently portrayed a one-legged man unflatteringly, to which he had taken offense—someone in his vast family tree was one-legged. I watched a cancer patient remove her wig in rage because of a dog I fictionally, graphically killed in a story. The poor lady’s bald head is a sight I will never forget.
We often spend more time with one book than a lifetime wandering in art museums. It is no surprise then that the written word stirs the soul. I’m pissed off after a thirty-minute Junot Diaz short story, let alone fifteen hours of a Paul Auster catastrophe. Or after reading something overrated and pretentious. So, I think the real question is not, Should vicious reviews be written, but, Why aren’t more reviews vicious? There are some horrible things published. Why aren’t more people severely angered after they have invested so much time in a book many others apparently had no integrity about?
There is a caveat, though—the viciousness of a reviewer should be indiscriminate. I think the outcry was so great following the Ohlin review because her fans felt she was bullied, that she didn’t have the power to affect a more compassionate read. Would Giraldi have written the same things about bad writing by, say, his fellow Bostonian, Junot Diaz? Would he say similar things about the “hip” writers of today: Foer and Ferris, Eggers and Englander, Franzen, Chabon, Nicole Krauss, and many many more? Not everything those people are writing is bad, but they are writing plenty of crap.
Here is an ideal that might at first seem odd: The creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. They make fun of everyone, seemingly to the point of career suicide. They do not care. Comedy is their only guide. South Park is genius, as I imagine their Tony-Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon is. They are fearless, and the same should be said for any reviewer. Good writing should be the reviewer’s only guide.
Now, about this book, Busy Monsters. It is a quest story written in mock-heroic style by a narrator called Charlie Homar (read Homer) in a syntax reminiscent of a Johnny Depp character in an adaptation of a Hunter S. Thompson book, such as, most recently, The Rum Diaries. It is written with a syntax I’m calling “Hipster Burlesque.” For example, almost all of the writing goes something like this: “Here’s a limbic liberal outburst, a knee-jerk obligation (when my knee works): the acres of green in my town had been bought by cloven-hoofed condo developers and strip malls; the piss-colored McDonald’s arches and the mom-and-pop-killing Wal-Mart smoldered on the horizon like Chernobyl . . . just try driving through town around four forty-five p.m. on a weekday. You better bring a book, and I don’t mean an audio one” (9-10).
The style feels precocious, for lack of a better term, as if to keep the listener at a distance. It is not a tone that lulls the reader with warmth. It isn’t a Craftmatic Adjustable, but a park bench with only a coat as a blanket, a couple of drunks wandering around rustling leaves, one of whom might have a knife in his shoe.
On the surface Monsters is a quest for lost love: Charlie’s fiancé Gillian took off with a Jacques Cousteau-like character on a quest to find the elusive giant squid. But there is something else going on—always a mark of a good book. The narrator is actually searching for the definition of modern manhood. And womanhood. So, to be fair, an ironic, hyperbolic tone is the only way to plumb such depths. You have to explore them in a voice not your own. The issues are brought up meta-offensively: Ivy-League Asian prostitutes who enjoy being hookers; a character whose ass is kicked by a butch lesbian and says things like, “every woman, if she’s a woman, wants children.” Giraldi knows these examples of gender identity could be offensive to some. So does that mean the issues should be avoided? No. It means the opposite, and on the long list of jobs fiction can take on, the exploration of prickly issues is pretty high up there.
Busy Monsters is a fearless and impressive book, and Giraldi’s “mean” review doesn’t bother me (the only bad press is no press), unless he applies a different standard and tone to writers who might affect his career. I don’t know whether he does or not. I don’t have Internet access—and even if I did, I wouldn’t spend an afternoon reading old reviews, which are historically boring to the point of unreadability. The one about Ohlin, at least, I’ll remember.