Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Disagreeing with Daniel Mendelsohn

Part of my holiday catch-up reading included Andrew Crawford's piece about Daniel Mendelsohn in the September/October 2006 issue of Poets and Writers.

Mendelsohn is author of 1999's The Elusive Embrace and 2005's The Lost. Both are memoir, the first of Mendelsohn's life as a gay man in New York City and part of a heterosexual relationship in Trenton, the second of his quest to learn the fate of relatives lost to the Holocaust.

I've read neither book--though I intend to. Mendelsohn is clearly a brilliant guy with a broad grasp of literature (he has a Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton), the sort of educated polymath rapidly disappearing from our abysmally educated society. Crawford tells us Mendelsohn writes in bed, the television tuned to CNN, or more often, Lifetime. He is as enthusiastic, we are told, about Greek tragedy as he is about popular cultural fare. He has collected any number of prestigious awards and is lionized by the elite--the article is dotted with testimonials from Chip McGrath and Robert Silvers.

I read along, thinking, this is the sort of person I'd like to model myself on. What Wendy Lesser, in The Amateur, calls "an eighteenth-century man of letters, though one that happens to be female and lives in twentieth century Berkeley." (5) It isn't too much of a stretch to place Mendelsohn in the analogy, with proper nods to maleness, New York City, and the twenty-first century.

So far, so good. Toward the article's conclusion we learn that Mendelsohn considers all his writing criticism. Very well. To this end, Mendelsohn is embarking on a series of lectures on the importance of criticism and its endangerment by the internet. I do not have direct quote permission and can see P&W breathing down my neck, should they find my insignficant little self, so I will summarize. Mendelsohn feels passionately that criticism is the business of trained folk. That discerning good from bad is the bailiwick of people like him.

At no time does the word "litblogger" appear anywhere in the piece; such an appelation would not go with Mendelsohn's professed fondness for Venetian glass and his antique-laden pied a terre. But there it is: the internet is ruining criticism.

The internet is like any other media outlet: a great deal of garbage, a bit of greatness. There are many writers on the net whose breadth and intelligence merit serious consideration. Laila Lalami is far from uneducated. The people writing Critical Mass are all working writers with daunting fact, one of them is Laura Miller, part of Mendelsohn's "Sunday Schlockers" movie club. I dare anyone to question Ed Champion's intelligence, range, or commitment to the written word.

Mendelsohn goes on to say the novel is dead, and that serious writers are now doing non-fiction, broadening the personal into the general.



Initially I read the piece, finished the magazine, and tossed it into the recyling bin. But the article stayed with me; I brought it up at dinner with Hockeyman last night.

You should write about it, he said. Otherwise Mendelsohn's assertions go unchallenged.

Okay. Here I am, sticking my neck out. I think Mendelsohn is wrong. Are there bad litbloggers? Of course. But there are poor print reviewers as well. Ours is a society fond of trash. Reality television. Chicken Soup Books. Britney Spears records. Howard Stern.

Good litbloggers direct serious readers to writers they might not otherwise find. The New York Review of Books is an august publication. It is also a limited one with an aging readership. The NYTBR is sinking beneath its own ponderous weight, which is pathetic considering the kind of readership and talent they command. Local newspaper coverage of writing has shrunken to the point that even dyed-in-the-wool print journalists like Jerome Weeks are out there blogging.

Finally, I think Mendelsohn is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He reminds me of man I know who considers himself a devout Jew--attends shul, keeps kosher, the works--yet lives with a non-Jewish woman. Kosher in the kitchen but not in the bedroom. Mendelsohn is writing his erudite critiques to a background of Lifetime Television for Women and then bemoaning the internet? Am I channeling Didion when I say there is a profound disconnect here?


Anonymous Daniel Mendelsohn said...

1) The author of the Poets & Writers article was Andrea, not Andrew, Crawford.

2) I nowhere said, nor would I say, that the internet *tout court* is "ruining criticism"; like you and all intelligent persons, I recognize--and have often said, in fact, in my various defenses of the internet as a tool for education--that the Internet is merely a medium (like print, or illuminated manuscripts, or oral poetry, or whatever), and that what appears on it is merely as good as the author. What I did say, and do believe, is that in order to be worth reading, literary critics, like other kinds of judges (I cited Olympic sports judges in the P&W article) have to have deep expertise in their field. (Part of this expertise is to avoid glib second-hand paraphrase and actually to have read what one is critiquing, I might point out.) My point about the internet is that the ease of access to all sorts of online opining, regardless of the value of the source, coupled with the instantaneity and the breadth of the coverage that internet postings have, poses a more insidious threat to a vast audience's appreciation of the dividing lines between expert and amateur opinions on important matters such as literature than was posed by print media, access to which, although broad, was more restricted. In other words, anyone with access to a computer can be "published" on any subject, whether he or she deserves to be read.

As for your (expertise-laden?) "bullshit" in response to my position about the novel as a genre that has reached its end--a position that was reduced to a one-phrase summary in the P&W article, and which, therefore, can't possibly be engaged in an intelligent fashion, as any serious critic would have recognized--any time you'd like to debate this point in a serious medium, and at length, I'm game!

January 09, 2007 5:41 AM  

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