I interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn for Virginia Magazine. It was a treat to sit down with a critic whose work I’ve admired for a long time and talk about how he approaches his work. The headline comes from his take on Love Actually. I’ve always loathed that movie, but on his urging, I’m going to try to let my guard down next Christmas when it’s on TV.
Do you believe in “guilty pleasures” of cultural consumption?
I really do believe that the high-low distinction is more invidious than not. The aesthetic components of “guilt”-inducing pleasures are usually melodrama and sentimentality. I have a great aversion to the aversion to sentimentality. To me, what made Mad Men unbearable was its own incredible overweening need to be cool. And because it was so cool and so cynical about everything, I just didn’t care about it, whereas in the first five minutes of watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t know those people were going to be okay.
Why not love something like Love Actually? What’s so terrible about just caving into your crazy human heart every now and then? You don’t always have to be armored.
With more than 100 world-class writers in dozens events spanning a week, this year’s PEN World Voices Festival line-up is pretty daunting. I did manage to carve out time to make it out for a few things– and I blogged about an event earlier this week for Words Without Borders. The topic was “The Critic’s Global Voice,” and the panel featured Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Ursula Krechel, and Mikhail Shishkin (with Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio moderating):
Reports of the death of American literary culture have been, well, at least a little exaggerated. There’s no other way to explain the steady stream of lively essays bemoaning the health of book reviews, book critics, and literature itself. “Like hazing, reviewing is inflicted by the old and popular on the young and weak,” Elizabeth Gumport wrote, dismissing the genre in n+1. Literary culture is in the midst of a “long slide, reflecting not just a hard market but the manners of a bygone world,” as Michael Wolff recently put it in a churlish column predicting the demise of the New York Times Book Review. At any rate, “most contemporary literary fiction is terrible,” J. Robert Lennon griped in Salon.
But what of the rest of the world? Are we to believe that such assessments hold true for the public dialogue about books—and the role of “professional” readers—in other languages, other markets, other cultures? Bookforum editor Albert Mobilio put the question of the role of criticism to writers from Russia (Mikhail Shishkin), Haiti (Jean-Euphèle Milcé), and Germany (Ursula Krechel) in a Wednesday night PEN festival discussion of “The Critic’s Global Voice.”
There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career. Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.
To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:
Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:
Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over. “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.