The header picture of this review is Elizabeth Hardwick talking with her (former) student Darryl Pinckney, also a novelist and critic. He writes the introduction to this collection from the perspective what it was like to be the student of Hardwick. This is exactly the kind of introduction this book needs. She’s a critic to be sure, and a wonderful writer, but she’s not the kind of critic that you find in contemporary literature journals. Her stuff is a little more timeless, written for a public intelligentsia, and in that way it might not have as much depth as academic writing, but it has more weight.
In an early essay, Hardwick gives us everything we need to know about her writing in the essay “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” which I quoted in the title of the post:
“In America, now, oblivion, literary failure, obscurity, neglect–all the great moments of artistic tragedy and misunderstanding–still occur, but the natural conditions for the occurrence are in a curious state of camouflage, like those decorating ideas in which wood is painted to look like paper and paper to look like wood. A genius may indeed go to his grave unread, but he will hardly have gone to it unpraised. Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns. A book is born into a puddle of treacle; the brine of hostile criticism is only a memory. Everyone is found to have ‘filled a need,’ and is to be ‘thanked’ for something and to be excused for ‘minor faults in an otherwise excellent work.’ ‘A thoroughly mature artist’ appears many times a week and often daily; many are the bringers of those ‘messages the Free World will ignore at its peril.'” (1959).
I will come back in a later review to the topic of commercialization of art and writing from a perspective from Britain of the 1890s when I finish reading New Grub Street by George Gissing. However, just looking at this quotation and placing it in a context of the late 1950s, it seems incredible to me how prescient and correct she is. I pay close attention to a lot of books coming out. I will leave aside genre fiction, pop culture, and YA because those do in fact fill a particular marketplace and audience that should be a little more guarded against serious criticism. And a final point on those kinds of works, so long as they are enjoyable and relatively harmless (so, for example, not deeply racist or anti-trans) they should escape much criticism beyond someone liking it or not.
But I am concerned about the state of public literary criticism in the production of adult fiction that also has aspirations on being literary. There’s some really bad writing that happens every year but gets pushed out publicly as very good because of the marketability of the subject matter, the take on a given topic, the biography or interest of the author, and the PR presence/branding the book goes through. And because of a close relationship with reviewers, blogs, publishers, there’s very little pushback against this kind of writing. This writing might be ok, but is otherwise forgettable, but perhaps it fulfills a niche in the marketplace (I reviewed no fewer than four books published in 2017 last year that focus as a subject “trans-racial adoption”. And that topic is important, but that doesn’t mean the novels addressing it were. I think of those four two will be completely off the landscape in a year or so. The other two, one because of quality and the other because of popularity will likely stick around.
So I don’t wish for less writing; in fact, I want more. But I also long for more honesty about that writing and more honesty about what fiction is and what it can do.
As for the rest of this book, each essay is interesting either for what it says, when it said it, or what it’s about. I plan o using this book more so in the next few weeks, so you will see more from it as I read some of the subjects of her essays alongside returning to the essays themselves. I like having reading assignments to guide my path a little bit and along with my goals from my Mavis Gallant review, I hope to write my reviews a little conscientiously too.