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, March 19, 2007

Disagreeing with Daniel Mendelsohn, Part II

So I was cooking dinner, happily contemplating--I kid you not--beginning Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost when Hockeyman, who was doing some maintenance work on the blog, mentioned there were numerous comments we'd missed. He read a couple nice ones, one from a raving lunatic (all in caps, misspelled) and then he said:

"There's a comment on your Daniel Mendelsohn (see 1/1/07) post."

"From Matt Mendelsohn?" I asked, thinking of last week's discussion with Ed and Sarah.

"No, from Daniel Mendelsohn."

Much swearing ensued as we smote our foreheads and adjusted the blog to alert us when comments come in.

To all of you who commented and never heard back from me, my apologies. I believe in thanking people. Including Mr. Mendelsohn--I'm sorry to have missed your initial comment, which I am reprinting here to make my responses clearer. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

I have no desire to devolve into a flame war. I hope you don't, either.

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

Sorry, Andrea.

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.)

For clarity: I wrote in the blog that I didn't care to get in hot water by quoting without permission. My comments were strictly about the PW article.

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.

Yes, the hoi polloi can, and are, getting in on the act. Would the two of us ever have met in any other arena? Unlikely. Is everyone on the net deserving of readers? Well, that's up to the readers, who can vote with their proverbial feet. In terms of "insidious threat," inherent in this is the idea that people are incapable of formulating opinions without trained critics. Literature is important--essential--to a shrinking group. Those of us who care enough to read the critics, the books themselves, then form opinions and write about them are far fewer than the folks watching "Desperate Housewives." I would argue that the lack of education in this country is where the real trouble lies.

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!

What's a serious medium? The NYTBR? NYRB? Not the internet?

The genre argument is a genre unto itself. Best left to the nitpickers.

Some reasons why I think the novel is alive:

Chimamanda Adichie
Margaret Atwood
Margaret Drabble
Richard Ford
Kent Haruf
Claire Messud
Scarlett Thomas

All writers who published fiction in 2006. Ann Patchett and Lydia Davis both have new books coming out in '07. Oh, and William Gibson has a new one (genre alert!).....Can't forget Michel Faber, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, or Annie Dillard. Hilary Mantel and A.S. Byatt. Kiran Desai. Her mother, Anita. Jonathans Lethem and Franzen. Jeffrey Eugenides. Kate Atkinson. (Fiction or mystery? More importantly, is the book good?)

I could go on, but you get my point. There's plenty of space for the novel and non-fiction to peaceably co-exist.

Along with polite differences of opinion.


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