Bad Books and Bad Commentariats

I’m far more deferential to general criticisms of professors than most academics are. At a certain point, however, it’s okay to just squawk about kneejerk anti-intellectualism.

So, for example, take this response by Carolyn Kellogg at her LA Times book blog to the American Book Review’s recent “Bad Books” article.

Kellogg has a point about the Bad Books essays, but it is a point that more than a few of the critics themselves acknowledge, that the question of what makes a book “bad” is an open one. Bad in terms of how the book has been read or used? Bad in relationship to an author’s other good work, bad in the sense of an author unable to live up to high expectations? Bad in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 sense of bad? Those all seem valid possible ways to approach the prompt, and some of the critics have some interesting things to say about how they define or view badness. Indeed, that’s sort of the point of asking scholarly literary critics to write about bad books, to stimulate intellectual reflections about what makes for bad literature. If you just want a list, you could pretty much assemble a group at random, and in fact, that’s often what makes 10-best 10-worst lists fun to put together and to read.

Whether the nominees put forward by the ABR’s writers seem genuinely bad depends on whether you accept the particular critic’s approach to badness. You can’t really disagree with Jonathan Eburne’s description of Nelson Hayes Dildo Cay as a MST3K-type bad novel, for example. You can only disagree by arguing that this kind of badness doesn’t deserve attention from literary critics, that it’s a clay pigeon.

I don’t agree with a lot of the critics in the ABR piece in the end, either in how they define badness or in what they nominate as being bad. Bonnie Wheeler’s description of Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror as really bad, and popular only because of a marketing strategy, seems completely wrong to me, for example. But collectively they’re perfectly right to suggest that it is as hard to come up with a clear definition of what makes something bad as it is to say what makes something good. That’s a good entry point to an interesting conversation.

What’s frustrating about Kellogg’s commentary is that she doesn’t really respond to ABR’s exercise in its own terms. What, for example, would be her definition of badness? Don’t any of the 40 responses correspond to her own definition? Some of the critics would doubtless feel as Kellogg does about naming a book like The Great Gatsby as bad.

However, what’s really tedious are the comments which follow from people who haven’t bothered to read the original piece and go straight to the usual “college professors are horrible writers and arrogant” tropes. The admittedly bad phrasing of Amy Elias’ argument as quoted by Kellogg seems to me to be an outlier in the ABR piece. Readers quickly select one or two sentences that sound like something they already believe and then comment to that effect. Mbgriffith, for example, advises the critics to try reading the books–but he didn’t read the ABR piece, or he would notice that some of the critics do concern themselves with books being “badly written” and others very much agree with his concerns about the politics of an author supplanting the truth of characters.

This is the kind of moment where I’m inclined to give some credit to the conventional criticism of blogs-as-echo-chambers, that the net effect of online conversations at this point in time is to draw people active in those conversations into tighter and tighter feedback loops that only confirm what they already know and feel. It’s hard to see how it might be otherwise at this late hour. I had thought, for example, of posting this entry as a comment at Kellogg’s blog, and even tried to do so (technical error of some kind kept it from appearing), but what’s the point? The conversational moment is passed and the people who took cheap shots aren’t likely to join in making a better discussion anyway.

You have to have a steady commitment to a particular site to hope to push or move the conversation in a particular way, and even if you can do that, that tends to result in steady culture at that site to which its regular participants conform or adapt because they find it congenial, meaning that all you’ve done is make for another confirmation-bias loop of some kind. When conversational cultures that are more provisional and unpredictable flourish, they also tend to be fragile and short-lived, at which point it’s legitimate to wonder if the work needed to create such a culture is worth it.

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3 Responses to Bad Books and Bad Commentariats

  1. G. Weaire says:

    The bit about Amy Elias’ sentence is more unfair than you let on. Elias goes on to make the point that the flaw that she is discussing – which has nothing to do with style – can be found in otherwise excellent novelists. So to sneer at Elias’ prose in a manner that implies that she is somehow claiming that she is a better writer than her targets…

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. I do think, however, that her contribution is overwritten in a manner that’s designed to make it more a statement of authority and less the opening move in a conversation–and not in a way that creates some other kind of intellectual clarity. In that sense, I think it’s ok to single it out as an example of “academic writing”. She defines the historical novel in a fairly dogmatic way and suggests a very strong standard for how to read the “tipping point” of badness in that genre. If I understand her correctly, however, what she’s saying is that historical novels which do not properly attempt to represent the past as another country, as different, slip into badness. That using the past as a mirror or mimesis of the present is by definition bad. This seems really rigid to me, as well as a kind of backdoor positivism that would bug me a bit even if were coming from a historian but seems especially out of place for a literary critic. I’m not sure which historical novels would qualify as good in this sense. Not many.

  3. G. Weaire says:

    I also don’t agree with Elias’ case that this is necessarily bad (or always avoidable – historical fiction sometimes has to give the modern reader something to hold onto, and sometimes this is precisely so that it can highlight the difference that Elias wants to see).

    I did however take the bit about good novelists as implying that such “bad” novels can be “good” in other respects.

    The style didn’t strike me as studied enough to make it designed to do anything. Just standard academese – which may reveal a great deal about academia as a whole, but shouldn’t be over-read as a basis for a claim about any particular individual.

    Of course, I’m basing *that* on the fact that I hardly noticed it myself…

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