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The Millions: Discussion Piece: "[You Deserve Nothing] offers a provocative comment on our own selective moral outrage."

Date: Nov 26 2013

All lazy book reviews are essentially the same: they reflect a reviewer’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to fully engage with the writer’s project on the book’s own terms. Lazier still is to not discuss the book but instead the author, to review not the project, to paraphrase John Updike, but the reputation.

Recently, I read Alexander Maksik’s 2011 debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, heralded by The New York Times for its “dazzling clarity and impressive philosophical rigor.” After the strong reviews and well-deserved attention, the online magazine Jezebel claimed that Maksik had allegedly based the story on his own experience as a teacher in Paris and his relationship with a student. Amazon and Goodreads readers retracted their stars and updated their reviews to show their disgust and moral outrage. I don’t mean to defend or attack Maksik’s alleged personal choices. But as a reader, a novelist, and a critic, I simply do not care what they were. These “violations of confidence,” as Jezebel noted them, should remain in Maksik’s private life, between himself and the young woman with whom he was involved. They unfortunately became literary gossip. They should never have become part of the literary conversation.

But of course they did.

This summer, Maksik released his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. This beautiful novel follows Jacqueline, a young refugee who, having fled Charles Taylor’s Liberia, finds herself homeless on the Greek island of Santorini. The novel weaves Jacqueline’s present life on the island with her past life in Liberia. Though the reviews were also strong, many reviewers, from Norman Rush for the NYTBR to John Freeman for the Boston Globe, felt compelled to mention not only the first book but also the real-life affair. Claudia La Rocco, an astute dance critic, reviewed Marker for the New York Times. Her anger about the book, or perhaps really about Maksik the writer, was clear from her opening.

La Rocco opens her review not by mentioning Maksik’s first book but of the scandal surrounding it, and when she finally gets to the book she is reviewing, her tone is incredulous: “Would a woman suffering from diarrhea, chronic dehydration, and malnutrition really be able to tramp around a sun-blitzed island, hiding in abandoned buildings, under trees and in a cave, with only a few fainting spells to show for it? Would she be so concerned with questions of beauty and choice?”

First, the premise of the book, of any book, is asking for a willful suspension of disbelief. That said, Jacqueline is not concerned with questions of “beauty and choice,” a reductive and unsupported claim, but of survival and staying under the radar. When she does allow her mind to drift toward the mundane it is a clear repression of the horrific memories that are threatening to rise to the surface and destroy her.

This, though, was my interpretation (I reviewed the book for the San Francisco Chronicle), and not everyone will share it. Fair enough. More disconcerting here is the way Maksik is first attacked for writing what he knows and then for writing what he does not, for attempting to “embody a character so divorced from his own experiences.” The review reads like a personal condemnation of Maksik, from his choice of subject to what the reviewer sees as his emotional avoidance; it amounts to a list of grievances. La Rocco also notes that Jacqueline “comes to resemble the protagonist of You Deserve Nothing, Will Silver, a damaged loner adrift in a haze of existential malaise.”

It’s clear that Maksik is interested in exploring isolation, loneliness, and the often devastating human desire for connection. Though I found the comparison between Will Silver and Jacqueline to be a bit of a stretch, it is indeed an interesting one, so I was surprised when La Rocco used this parallel as if exposing some little dirty secret, as if Maksik were somehow cheating the system.

Most writers would assert that certain philosophical obsessions consume their work, even if expressed in different ways. One of the pleasures of reading through an author’s oeuvre is to trace the way, say, Ian McEwan’s “malevolent intrusions,” as noted by Zadie Smith, play out again in and again in different settings and times and with different characters. This is not the same thing as writing the same novel over and over but a testament to the fact that some ideas might preoccupy a writer for a lifetime. This is the beauty of art: the intersection of our own particular way of being in the world with the way the world is.

Will Silver of You Deserve Nothing is a teacher at an international school in Paris. His tenure at the school was an escape from, or the delaying of, grief. The recent loss of his parents and his abandonment of his wife shape who he is: unable to love yet with a great nostalgia for it. Once Will understands that Marie, the student with whom he has been involved, has not been discreet, he anticipates the pain that will surely come. A beautiful, palpable tension emerges from what we know is inevitable. Marie has fantasies of domestic bliss: a baby, or coming up the stairs to the apartment when they are old, but Will doesn’t allow himself such delusions. His sadness shows he knows from the start that it will not end well.

And yet he chooses it anyway. This, to me, was heartbreaking and honest. The writer Rivka Galchen has said that character is “one’s very particular way of being wrong,” a brilliant insight into character and fiction as a whole. And You Deserve Nothing, though far more complex than just presenting ideas of “right” and “wrong,” does just that. Several acts of cruelty and inhumanity, whether acts of random violence or domestic abuse, deep-seated bigotry, or the aggression we inflict upon societies through war, go unpunished, and the book offers a provocative comment on our own selective moral outrage.

I admit I lose patience with the “I’m helpless to young female beauty” of the Rothian variety (though I did find beauty and truth in The Dying Animal, say, as well) or the sense of entitlement and power that strangely emerges from this hand-biting helplessness of male desire. I try not to dismiss books based on their premises or subject matter alone. But I didn’t find You Deserve Nothing to be overly familiar. And even if I did, as Adam Langer noted in the New York Times, it is “so rivetingly plotted and beautifully written that you forget its shopworn premise.”

The reviews of You Deserve Nothing, in fact, were excellent. Until we began to discuss what should never have been discussed in the context of criticism.

The role of the critic is not to argue over what is real but what has been created. If there are writers who don’t exorcise their demons and fears when they write, their failures and their shortcomings, I don’t know them. Most novelists will admit that bits of ourselves, some thinly veiled and some deeply so, are present in all our characters, both those who resemble us and those who don’t.

A novel is an act of the imagination. To read it as anything but is a failure of the contract we enter when we engage with a fictional world. In his essay “What Is Real Is Imagined,” Colm Toibin writes: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known… The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.”

As critics our duty is to uphold that. Literature is not a recording of an experience but the creation of one. Fiction creates its own truths, its own histories. To paraphrase Auden on poetry, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” When we read we are creating a map in our minds of the book, and as reviewers we are to act as cartographers of this imagined space. A review is really a mapping of one’s intimate conversation with a book. It does not mean our personal tastes and perceptions about the world will not enter this conversation — they certainly will, and they will affect our experience with that novel and the ideas it brings forth.

But when as reviewers we ignore the created experience and instead focus on the author and his or her “right” to create, or not create, we never even enter the conversation. Nothing is revealed. The map is blank and therefore useless.

Can we write about anything we want, as fiction writers? I say, absolutely. But we have to make those difficult artistic decisions ourselves, to consider our material and the best way to approach it. A good review should be grappling with the complexities set forth by the work in question and not treating the author’s choice of material as suspect. The reviewer should ask: how is this done, what has been attempted, has it been delivered with freshness or skill or compelling insight? A lazy review is cruel, and a cruel review is lazy; both stem from a lack of imagination and empathy. Like cruelty itself.

And what to make of the responsibility of the reviewer? Can we say anything we want? Let’s look at John Updike’s oft-quoted advice on reviewing:

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.

It seems rather obvious, no? To review the reputation is to ignore or simply discredit the spell entirely. It’s intellectually lazy and boring. We may have opinions about an author, certainly, but we should not have an agenda before even reading the book or writing the review. If we do, perhaps we should reconsider accepting the assignment. When we attack the author for his or her material, our approach is single-minded: not criticism but propaganda. We undermine the value of the enterprise that we as reviewers should be elevating: the conception of art and a discussion about not only what the art is doing but how it is constructed.

In her 1959 Harper’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Elizabeth Hardwick lamented that “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.” The tagline of Hardwick’s Harper’s piece reads: “The fates of authors and publishers — not to mention the reading public — depend on book reviews, but who reviews the reviewers?”

It’s an important question and a relevant conversation to continue, particularly now, with the proliferation of online reviewing. But those of us who are charged with talking about books professionally should work to maintain professional standards as to how we talk about them. Book reviewing need not be a laudatory, effusive enterprise, and I’m grateful that it’s not. In fact, often the most celebratory reviews expose the flip side of the same problem: the replacement of a critical engagement with literature with our emotions about and perceptions of the writer. Alexander Maksik’s case is not representative of all book reviewing but is representative of a certain ad hominem approach, neither rigorous nor intellectual. Investigations into whether we’d want to be friends with a book’s narrator or whether the author experienced some of the story’s events might be entertaining conversations to have over a round of beers. But such is chatter, not criticism.

Reviews like La Rocco’s do nothing more to deepen the literary conversation than do the scores of many amateur “reviews” on Amazon or Goodreads (to wit: many of these reviewers took back the five stars they awarded to You Deserve Nothing after Jezebel’s claim), and though an open democratic forum about literature is not without value it makes professional, sophisticated, rigorous book reviewing all the more crucial. When we begin a review, we should ask, what will this bring into the cultural conversation, and what we are doing for the world of art and ideas when we do?

-Natalie Bakopoulos