Thursday, November 26, 2015

Enjoyable, by a woman, modern literary classic: "critical walkback" says you can only pick two

Happy Thanksgiving!

I don't read much modern fiction (too much ancient stuff to unearth) and haven't read Jennifer Weiner, so I don't have a dog in this hunt, so to speak. But I did read The Goldfinch, which was really good for getting me through a bunch of delayed and canceled flights a couple of years ago, and what Weiner says in the article sounds right.

In "If you enjoyed a good book and you're a woman, the critics think you're wrong," , Weiner describes a "critical walkback" that happens--surprise, surprise!--if a new book by a woman, at first critically acclaimed, becomes too popular:

Call it “Goldfinching”, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature. It’s the process by which a popular and previously well-regarded novel and, more importantly, its readers, are taken to the woodshed, usually by a critic who won’t hesitate to congratulate himself on his courage, as if dismissing popular things that women like requires some special kind of bravery – as if it doesn’t happen all day, every day.
Weiner says that the same critical smackdown happened with Gone, Girl, The Lovely Bones, and some other books I haven't read. It's not just James Wood at the New Yorker, either: Mary Gaitskill took on Gone, Girl. 

Now, women aren't obliged to like books just because they're written by women. They're not obliged to like any books, and if you read Dorothy Parker, who hated about 80% of what she reviewed, and Mary McCarthy, who slapped down just about all of it, you'll see that the critical smackdown isn't the province of men.

But I'm intrigued by the idea that these works are considered bad only after they become popular. Why is that? Why is someone like Jonathan Franzen allowed to be popular and critically acclaimed?--which was the subject of another Weiner-Franzen controversy a few years back.

With some critics, you get a feeling for their prejudices and can take their recommendations with the appropriate grain of salt. Emily Nussbaum apparently only likes gross-out or transgressive horror, for example, and ranks television shows accordingly.  The New Yorker puts (or used to put) David Denby on movies if they're to be favorably reviewed and Anthony Lane* (always entertaining) if they want them to be ripped up, unless they're foreign films, which are always favorably reviewed.  You get the picture.

Yet are critics doing this critical walkback because they genuinely have second thoughts or because to be dismissive, even retroactively, gives you more critical standing as a Judge of High Art?

*edited because Adam Gopnik doesn't write the film reviews, although he is always entertaining, too. 

No comments: