Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’ve just finished reading two new books on writing. One was brief, began well, and then wrecked. Worthless! Almost shameful, from a well-known writer. The other, a little longer, possesses some virtues but left me deeply peeved at its author. I’m not going to name them or their books, let alone damn them, because it’s just not worth it, to spend one’s energy that way. Rarely I do it, usually if the author’s dead and thus beyond caring. I so loathed a widely beloved novel a year or two ago that it was all I could do to refrain from yelping about what a horrible, nasty, awful thing it truly is. I harbor spiteful prejudice against its author, for sentimentally loving its sentimental narrator. Yet better writers and readers than I love the damn book.
Having recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel whose insights and narrative sweep and realized ambition astounded me, I’m glad I (mostly) held my tongue about that other novel. I was so eager to talk about Freedom that I urged it on friends, and even bought copies for three of them. Two liked it almost as much as I did. The third despised it, and Franzen. I felt my friend was unreasonable and projecting qualities to hate upon the writer and his book. That’s what I probably did with the novel I hated. (Except: I was right—it’s awful, the emperor has no clothes! Trust me.)
Freedom received one of the most glowing reviews ever published in The New York Times Book Review, by its editor, Sam Tanenhaus. And Franzen was canonized by Time, which put him on its cover with the headline “The Great American Novelist.” The hype got hackles up. Franzen has said he was surprised by how kind reviewers were to the book, since he expected they’d be laying for him after his 2001 mega-hit, The Corrections. Turns out, he should have been worried about Regular Joe Reviewers. There are many rave reviews of Freedom on Amazon, but so many angry one- and two-star screeds that its average rating was brought down to a modest three stars out of five. And many ugly things were said about Freedom in The New Yorker’s online book discussion group, surely an irony for Franzen, if he read them, because of his long association as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.
What my friend’s anger at Freedom showed me was that I can’t bank on
Amazon’s negative reviews—or even its positive ones—as reliable gauges of my reading experience. And more than that: it showed me how deeply personal and subjective our reading preferences are. Which I think is why the mainstream’s endangered reviewers are so valuable. Such folks are, or should be, I think, properly constrained by various existential pressures, which temper reviewers’ deeply personal reactions. It’s an art to write a mixed review; it’s easier, and more fun, to flay the hide off an author—some poor slob who spent years, nine in the case of Freedom, slaving to offer his gift to the world. Michiko Kakutani at the daily New York Times sometimes does this, I feel. She was cruelly harsh toward Franzen for his The Discomfort Zone, which I found a brave, funny book, but which seemed to trigger in her that odd outrage toward memoirists that afflicts many New York gatekeepers. I believe this is why Franzen called Kakutani, a Pulitzer winner, the stupidest person in the entire world. (Yet she adored Freedom, and to her credit, despite her prior review and Franzen’s comment, she raved.)
What is with this anger? What sets it off in so many of us? Some of it’s got to be wounded pride. Maybe some is genuinely offended taste—we’re proud of having taste, or a sense of art. But must we be so spiteful? Evidently some of us must, even though we’re talking about works of art here, not the criminal George W. Shrub administration or crass Hollywood revenge-fantasy movies.
I wonder what book you’ve loved despite the world’s negative opinion or hated unreasonably despite the herd’s vulgar affections? Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love seemed to set off many people on both sides of that gulch. I read it with growing annoyance, for it seemed dishonest to me, but had to marvel at her writing ability. Maybe that’s the thing about books: We also react to them like they’re people, and consider how few people become close friends, fewer still soulmates. How does one view and react to those who just aren’t one’s cup of tea? And how do you know when someone you actively dislike deserves it and when you’re just hating qualities in another that you possess yourself but can’t admit?