Tuesday, August 12, 2008

`Humor, Imagination, and Manners'

Criticism like politics is demeaned by practitioners who turn it into a self-righteous and humorless substitute for religion. The drift toward anger and absolutism is particularly evident in the blogosphere, where differences of opinion are treated like treason and comments are challenges to a duel. At least one prominent litblogger appears to have two passions – unreadable books and murderous Muslims – and about both has strenuous, often vulgarly worded opinions. What ought to be a celebration of some of humanity’s supreme pleasure-giving activities – writing and reading – turns into another pretext for petulance.

A critic must write well, care about books and possess good taste and good sense. If his prose is slipshod or dull, if ideology means more to him than style, if he claims to admire bad or mediocre books, he loses the thoughtful reader’s respect. And while celebration makes for the best criticism, negative reviews in the right hands can be turned into the mirror-image of celebration, and usually offer more opportunities for laughs. An unlikely source has something to say on this matter. In 1931, under the rubric “The Constant Reader” in The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker reviewed Theodore Dreiser’s memoir, Dawn. The review is acidly funny and closes with a silly Parker couplet:

“Theodore Dreiser
Should ought to write nicer.”

But what Parker writes on the preceding page is worthy of consideration by any writer, in particular a book critic, and not only when his subject is a ducks-in-a-barrel target like Dreiser:

“I wouldn’t for the world go around making fetishes; yet I am unable to feel that a writer can be complete without humor. And I don’t mean by that, and you know it perfectly well, the creation or the appreciation of things comic. I mean that the possession of a sense of humor entails the sense of selection, the civilized fear of going too far. A little humor leavens the lump, surely, but it does more than that. It keeps you, from your respect for the humor of others, from making a dull jackass of yourself. Humor, imagination, and manners are pretty fairly interchangeably woven.”

I should confess I intended to write about James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which I started reading on Monday and am enjoying very much, but I was ambushed by a digression.


John Brumfield said...

Well Patrick, get crackin'. I too am reading "How Fiction Works" and am enjoying it very much. I look forward to reading your take on it.

Nige said...

Gosh yes - Parker's spot-on there, I think. Thanks!

Art Durkee said...

I absolutely agree that style ought to mean more than ideology. The problem is that even critics who are generally spot-on can fall into the trap of their beliefs taking over their taste. The worst problem is when some critic starts to believe that their personal biases are objective. Very few avoid that trap.

Levi Stahl said...

It's only in recent years that I've realized just how important it is to me that a writer have a sense of the comic: nearly all my favorites--Anthony Powell, Dickens, J. F. Powers, Calvino, V. S. Pritchett, Compton-Burnett, Penelope Fitzgerald, just to think of some--understand that the power of their narrative is only strengthened by their acknowledgment that so much of what we attempt in life is silly, or ends up in risible failure. The ability to convey that knowledge with a light touch, while still telling a story that holds value and meaning, is a gift to be cherished.