IT CAME TO MY ATTENTION the other day that a highly-respected practitioner of the craft of criticism, as that discipline is understood in the academies, scrutinized the interstices of his mind and found there the key to Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman, and, by extension, the whole torrential course of American literature - all the marble and the mud, as Hawthorne might have said - that sprang from the wellhead of those writers. A highly significant discovery, obviously, since understanding them and their spiritual descendants may be presumed to aid our understanding of who and where we are today, intellectually speaking, and how we got here on this river of darkness and light, under bombardment.
The key was the great archeological discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, which enabled Egyptologists to decipher the ancient hieroglyphs, which then - we are supposed to believe - inspired Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman to create a hieroglyphics of their own, which the forementioned high priest of literature is now deciphering for us. Hmmm, yes, I thought, waiting for satori or at least a minor epiphany to strike, very interesting. I did not say, as is sometimes my tendency when confronted with something I don't understand at all, "Of course," or, if I'm feeling particularly flossy, "Ca va sans dire." (Either is uttered while edging toward the door.) Was Melville jealous, I wondered. Was Hawthorne piqued that the Egyptians possessed a secret he didn't; Whitman a victim of pyramid envy? What is the evidence for this sweeping statement that the great river of American literature flows from a basalt slab washed up by the Nile? The evidence will doubtless surface one of these months in an exegetical quarterly under the heading, "Towards a Hieroglyphics of American Literature." The book will appear two or three years later, at which time the hermeneuts of the stelae of Karnak. That's called literary criticism, an academic discipline, and professors get tenure from its practice.
This same professor once said, about a genuinely illuminating piece of work on an important contemporary novel, that no serious journal would publish it; "it's merely appreciation" - in the academy a dread, dismissive word. And that's what book reviewing is at its best, merely appreciation, which is what this piece is about.
Appreciation, of course, is not affirmation; it is still important to recognize that meretricious junk is meretricious junk, no matter how cleverly disguised or on what level.We should be able to appreciate that, but we must not affirm it. An acquaintance suggested recently that "affirming" books are denied good notices because of some defect of vision in reviewers, rather than any defect in the work itself. (He had just published what I believe he considered such a book. It was not praised. Therefore, reviewers are blind.) Although I have only a vague idea of what an "affirming" book might be (presumably one that makes us feel good, is sanguine and optimistic), I have a dark suspicion that I wouldn't like it, thus affirming my friend's conviction that reviewers come out of the factory with a defective part, perhaps a harpoon where the heart ought to be, or several shriveled cells in the head; if the factory were located on the River Rouge, we'd all be recalled. But making us feel comfortable in our situation is not a primary function of literature; sand in an oyster may produce a pearl but it irritates the oyster. So it is with books, which give us pleasure not because they make us comfortable, although some good ones may, but because they entertain us, they make us laugh, they make us cry; they inform, persuade, disturb, convince, seduce us; they make us think, speculate, see - and we recognize what we see as true, not as the truth but as a truth in writer's fabulous construction that corresponds to what we have observed in ourselves, or others, or in the world at large, or can conceive of observing. That is the pleasure of the text, an erotic pleasure, as the French critic Roland Barthes noted, "irreducible to physiological need." The writer's sisyphean task - the task of every human, in fact - is to take the discrete sensations the world provides in bewildering number and complexity and forge them, within the limits of his time and space, into a coherent reality that can be dealt with. Art is indeed metamorphosis.
Reviewers - or at least this reviewer - are only too happy to affirm the above, although affirmation by itself is no positive good. Mein Kampf might be considered a very "affirming" book, but it's not the reviewer's duty to praise it. More important is to consider what is being affirmed, whether the ideas, the words, the vision are trite, stupid, self-serving , banal or brilliant. The artist may celebrate; the reviewer must cogitate, scrutinize, analyze; tell us what the book is trying to do, how it's doing it, if it succeeds. If a book is meant only to entertain, then the review should answer the question, is it entertaining. It is absurb to compare Jaws with Moby Dick . If it's meant to inform, does it accurately inform us? If it's One Hundred Years of Solitude , clearly meant to be a "great" work, then it's fair to compare its pleasures with the pleasures of Tolstoy or Proust or Noabokov or whomever. But it is not fair to ask a reviewer to "affirm" a book simply because the book seems positive. We do ask that he affirm the value of reading in a society where reading matters less and less. (Walker Percy wrote in the December Esquire, "The truth is all reviewers and all your fellow novelists are your friends and lovers. All serious writers and readers constitute less than one per cent of the population. The other ninety-nine per cent don't give a damn. They watch Wonder Woman . We are a tiny shrinking minority and our worst assaults on each other are love taps compared with the massive indifference surrounding us." So much for self-pity.)
For any work in question, we can ask only that the reviewers appreciate it. A lot of writers would settle for - and some of the worst demand - appreciation, by which they mean love and praise. (They forget that it is possible to love the culprit while deploring the crime, and our best advice to them is to take the money and run, laughing, as they say, to the bank or the psychiatrist.) But appreciation as defined in Webster's Third is another category of recognition. To appreciate is "to judge or evaluate the worth, merit, quality, or significance of; comprehend with knowledge, judgement, and discrimination . . . Appreciat connotes recognition of worth or merit through wise judgment, analytical perception, and keen insight." This being the real world, we could argue endlessly and ultimately pointlessly as to whose judgments are wise, whose analyses perceptive, or insights keen; time (with luck) will tell. And of course, no one is invariably right on the mark. As I learned from a recent film, God when making the avcado, made the pits too big. Even Alfred Kazin makes an occasional mistake. When literary journalists err, it is more often toward generosity; they want to be seduced. Putatively serious reviewers have deemed unforgettable books they can no longer remember the title of, let alone the author or his plot.
Thus it is that in reviewing, judgments are less interesting - and more dubious - than the process (a series of finger exercises, rather like making love) by which they are arrived at; just as, in reading, it is the process that pleasures us, or fails to, and later the memory of it. To say a book is "unforgettable" or "a masterpiece" - both of which, I regret to confess, I have in greener days said and may in a future indiscretion repeat - is to say very little. But to suggest how a book is put together, why it works or fails to work, to demonstrate its accuracy or reveal its errors, and to bring some illuminating insight to the whole, is to say a great deal, especially in a thousand words. If, in addition, it tells us something about how the language works, how our minds work and how society works while keeping its focus on the book in question, call that man Elizabeth Hardwick.
The best criticism did just that, 20 years or so ago, before the demands for originality in the doctoral dissertation and the advance of computer technology pushed academic criticism into ever more startling forms with a pseudo-language and grammar of its own, imitative of and as opaque to the uninitiated as the language of the more speculative sciences. Today that criticism has virtually no relation to appreciation or the erotic pleasure of the text. It is an autotelic activity, as its practitioners might say, with a hieroglyphics of its own, part of an academic industry that produces doctoral degrees and tenure. Which is not to knock somebody else's business but only to say that it is not our business, which is, we hope, discrimination, illumination and appreciation.
Given this confusion in the state of the craft, what is the common (or uncommon) reader to think? I refer to the reader who asks, as I am frequently asked, "Should I buy this book?" It is a simple but legitimate question, and, in fact, the first question we ask about a book: Should I read it? Although a book review section such as this is, in part, a shopper's guide - as well as a news medium, a reference source, and a journal with some pretensions to literacy and seriousness - the reader must answer that question himself, according to his own interests, intelligence and time. Better the reader might ask, "Should I pay any attention to this review?" The reader then becomes, in effect, a reviewer of the review, a voyeur clandestinely observing and evaluating the pleasure of others, which with any luck at all will provide the context for his decision, leading him away from or to the book, "the pleasure of the text," as Roland Barthes wrote in his book of that title: "Classics. Culture (the more culture, the greater, more diverse, the pleasure will be). Intelligence. Irony.Delicacy. Euphoria. Mastery. Security: art of living. The pleasure of the text can be defined as praxis (without any danger of repression): the time and place of reading: house, countryside, near mealtime, the lamp, family where it should be, i.e., close but not too close (Proust in the lavatory that smelled of orrisroot), etc. Extraordinary ego-reinforcement (by fantasy), the unconscious muffled. This pleasure can be spoken : whence criticism." But let us take pleasure in the stone of Karnak for their own sake, not Whitman's.