Last weekend, William Giraldi’s New York Times review of two new books by Alix Ohlin blew up the literary twittersphere (which is to say that literally tens of people were talking about it). The discussion about Giraldi’s incredibly mean-spirited critique coincided with a debate about niceness vs. honesty in reviewing, started by an intriguing (though, in my opinion, somewhat alarmist) article at Slate. But Giraldi’s piece is irrelevant to the nice vs. honest debate and completely worthless to either side of the argument, since his review is not only dickish, but also dishonest.
An Honest Review
Basically aims to tell the reader three or four things:
1. What the book is about
2. What the author is trying to do
3. How well the author succeeds in doing what s/he is trying to do
4. What the book’s place in the larger conversation of literature is (part 4 is often omitted in shorter reviews)
Giraldi fails in all four regards.
A Brief Summary of How Giraldi Fails in All Four Regards
1. He makes some effort to describe what the Ohlin’s books are about, but he can barely get through a summary sentence without passing judgment on why what the book is about is stupid.
2. He makes no attempt to assess what the writer is trying to do. Instead of judging Ohlin’s work as a successful or unsuccessful example of somewhat plot-driven literary realism, Giraldi bashes Ohlin for failing as a prose stylist (though she’s not trying to be a prose stylist).
3. Giraldi argues that Ohlin fails, but since she’s not failing at what she’s trying to do, but rather at doing what Giraldi likes in fiction, that’s not a failure on her part.
4. Giraldi screws up #4 so inexplicably and completely that I’m just going to discuss it in more depth later since there’s really no way to summarize it.
A Brief Note
For the record, I have never met, talked to, or had any kind of interaction with Alix Ohlin or William Giraldi.
Part One of a Failure in Four Parts: What the Book is About
Giraldi begins his review by invoking the ghosts of Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Middlemarch, and Augie March. An odd choice, considering he’s reviewing the sophomore efforts of a relatively underground writer who’s been slowly building her reputation in small journals like The Southwest Review. Giraldi then dismisses all of Ohlin’s plots either because they’ve been done before or because they’re too dramatic. To illustrate the former, Giraldi sarcastically uses “of course” four times in one paragraph to summarize the obviousness of Ohlin using, for example, a therapist who is “of course wackier than her patients” or “an inadequate therapist who flees to the Arctic to mind-rescue Inuit, and who of course never wavers in his pursuit of masochistic servitude.” As for the drama, while Ohlin’s novel, Inside, might be a little too action-packed for some readers’ tastes, the stories in Signs and Wonders are deftly plotted. But Giraldi seems to think that death or sickness or trauma of any kind belong in soap operas, not literature, which leads him to compare Ohlin to Susan Lucci.
If you don’t like detective novels, you shouldn’t review a detective novel because you’ll just end up saying something stupid like “there’s too much murder.” If you don’t like plot, don’t review plot-heavy literary fiction.
Part Two and Three of a Failure in Four Parts: What the Author is Trying to Do and How Well the Author Succeeds in Doing What S/he Is Trying to Do
Ohlin is not a prose stylist—nor, in these two books at least, does she aspire to be—but she is a good storyteller. I pre-ordered Signs and Wonders on the strength of the Alix Ohlin stories I had read in literary journals over the past couple years, and reading the book, I found it a very enjoyable, and, at times, emotionally evocative page-turner. Giraldi—if his review is any indication—is not a prose stylist either; he’s a thesaurus addict who thinks that writing fancy words is the same as having style. In a single paragraph he uses “presage,” “moniker,” and “mentation.” He starts his review with “yawningly,” then bashes Ohlin for using “honkingly” (to describe a character blowing her nose).
The critic then indulges in an extended takedown of Ohlin’s language, which he thinks “betrays an appalling lack of register—language that limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor.” Some of Giraldi’s (extensive and obsessive) criticisms of Ohlin’s language in her novel Inside are fair. The phrase “Puppy-dog eyes” is tired, “brilliantly smart” is repetitive, and Giraldi builds a strong case for Ohlin’s overuse of the heart as synecdoche.
But Giraldi also maligns Ohlin’s use of “weird,” which is weird, because, well, there is nothing wrong with using the word “weird.” It is not, as Giraldi suggests, “the most worthless word in the English language.” (The most worthless word in the English language is obviously “timeshare.”) Giraldi complains that in Ohlin’s novel, “Teeth are described as ‘white,’ as if we needed telling.” I wish everyone would assume that my teeth didn’t need to be described by color, because, despite my frequent use of Colgate whitening products, my teeth remain an ugly cousin to white, more like the color of paper that’s been overexposed to humidity. My own off-white chompers aside, I wonder how Giraldi reconciles his anti-white teeth stance with this phrase from his own novel, Busy Monsters, which was released earlier this month: “her teeth were so white!”
Giraldi’s most puzzling criticism of Ohlin’s language is that she uses the phrase “a dive bar.” He believes that “dive bar” is an example of Ohlin’s “at-hand language,” a category in which I can only assume he includes slothful words like “shoe” or “eye.” Ohlin chooses the phrase “dive bar” to describe a dive bar because that’s what it’s fucking called. Maybe Giraldi would prefer stories in which we discard the tired “dive bar” for “lugubrious libation shack,” where we change “shoe” to “foot vestibule” and “eye” to “face periscope.”
Giraldi takes issue with “The absurdly obvious,” which he claims is what “passes for wisdom” in Ohlin’s writing. He picks out this phrase of Ohlin’s for particular ridicule: “Anyone driven to hang himself would have to be suffering deeply and terribly.” By all means, let’s do away with this absurd obviousness. But let’s not stop with Ohlin; better go back a few years and start with, say, Schopenhauer: “It will generally be found that as soon as the terrors of life reach a point where they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.” Giraldi is oblivious—in this review, at least—to a pretty well-known fact of life: sometimes the absurdly obvious can also be poignant and relevant. Sometimes stating something we all know, in the right way and/or at the right moment, can have a really strong effect. Like in Ohlin’s story “Fortune-Telling,” in which one character asks a stranger how he likes his job selling insurance, and the guy responds, “Life is long…and this is just one phase.” Well, duh. Life is long. And this is just one phase. But when I first read that story a few years ago, in the pages of Columbia, it didn’t feel obvious to me at all. Maybe that was in part because I was spending my mornings trying to avoid angry line cooks as I recovered from hangovers in a walk-in fridge. But the idea that life was long and there were different phases to it felt fresh, invigorating.
Part Four of a Failure in Four Parts: The book’s place in the larger conversation of literature
In spite of Giraldi’s misunderstanding of the basic 1, 2, 3s of books reviewing, the most troubling part about his review is the last paragraph, when he tries to tackle #4:
There’s been much recent parley, in these pages and elsewhere, about “women’s fiction” and the phallic shadow it has been condemned to live in. But there’s a better argument to be had. Ohlin’s fiction will be shelved with the pop lit and never with Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, not because of her leaden obsession with pregnancy, dating and divorce, or any inherent bias in the publishing industry, but because her language is intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep.
Let’s ignore for a second one fact that Giraldi is just plain wrong about—Ohlin will never be shelved as pop lit, unless she decides to change her writing style completely—and focus on the most concerning part of this conclusion: Why does he bring up the issue of “women’s fiction” (whatever that is) at all? Especially since he says in the next breath that the failure of Ohlin’s work has nothing to be with it being “women’s fiction”? Giraldi claims that Ohlin’s writing doesn’t fail because she’s interested in women’s topics (like pregnancy and dating—in other words, the beginning of life and that which creates it), but because her language is bad. Which leads him to imply that books by women, which tackle topics of boys and rings and all those silly things, are being neglected not because of industry bias, but because they’re bad. I know I’m inferring a little bit here, and Giraldi does not actually make this statement; but because his concluding paragraph is so baffling, I’m left to try to interpret what he means. Maybe Giraldi is just not used to reviewing fiction by women, and because of this, he thinks that any review of a female writer has to include a discussion of “women’s fiction.” I can sympathize. I was equally misguided on the topic of female writers when I was a freshman in high school.
I don’t think Giraldi’s critique is necessarily misogynistic, and even if I did, I would not say so in print, since that’s a heavy charge, one that should not be leveled without being very familiar with a writer’s entire body of work or the writer as a person, which, in regards to Giraldi, I am not. But it is a little unsettling that all the unreservedly positive quotes or comparisons in Giraldi’s review are from or about men (Ezra Pound, David Lodge, William Gass, John Updike, and John Erskine), and all the negative comparisons are to women (Danielle Steel and Susan Lucci).
In his concluding paragraph, Giraldi shows a little admiration for two female writers, when he points out that Ohlin will never be mentioned in the same breath as the great Mavis Gallant or Alice Munro. But by choosing to unfavorably compare Ohlin to Alice Munro, who shares little in common with Ohlin besides occupation and two X chromosomes, Giraldi insults both writers. The closest Giraldi comes to praise is to say that it is to Ohlin’s credit that her story collection was “breathed on by Updike’s Maples stories.” Which I guess is kind of a compliment, but the image is so creepy that it’s hard to take anything positive from it.
Why Giraldi’s Review Is Indefensible
After the review was published, J. Robert Lennon kicked off the debate at Salon, and a lot of support for Giraldi came from bloggers and commenters who hadn’t read Ohlin’s fiction and were going only on the grossly misleading quotes Giraldi pulled from her books. Giraldi’s defenders don’t seem to understand that the problem with his review isn’t that it’s negative, but that it takes a dishonest approach to criticism. As one blogger put it, “to hate negative criticism…is lame.” But the problem isn’t negative criticism. It’s that, after having read Giraldi’s review, Alix Ohlin could easily tell him the same thing that Thomas Wolfe told F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer from the writer I am. This may be true but I don’t see what I’m going to do about it.”
Honest Reviews Matter Because…
Honest, critical reviews—which are vital to literature—not only inform the reader, but, if they are especially on point, can also inform the author. Michael Chabon has said that it was a reviewer’s criticism of Wonder Boys that led him towards writing what many consider his magnum opus, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Obviously a reviewer who doesn’t respect an author enough to assess her book on its own terms will do nothing to help her.
But the most basic purpose of a book review is to cover the aforementioned four points for the benefit of the reader. Since Giraldi covered none of the four points, I’m not sure what the purpose of his review was, except to promote his new novel. (Incidentally, the parts I’ve read of his debut book are actually quite good, which just goes to show the danger of judging a writer from one piece of writing.) I can only imagine how much it sucks not to have your writing eviscerated—since that’s the risk you take whenever you publish—but to have your writing eviscerated in the most influential book review in the country for not being something it doesn’t want to be. Since most of the talk on this subject has included the disclaimer “I’ve never read Ohlin’s books,” I think it’s worth mentioning that Alix Ohlin is a very good fiction writer. From what little I’ve read, William Giraldi may also be a good fiction writer, but he might do well to stay away from this kind of book reviewing, lest people forget it.
Johannes Lichtman reviews indie books for The Oxford American. He teaches courses on experimental literature and artistic appropriation in the Graduate Liberal Studies Department at UNC Wilmington.