September 10, 2013

Geoff Dyer calls Norman Rush’s protagonist “insufferable”


Remember the Times Bookends column last week about how difficult it is for writers to write criticism about other writers? Zoe Heller and Adam Kirsch pointed out a few challenges each critic faces: a review takes time away from writing, it may work against an author’s empathy or collegial loyalty… not to mention that the writing world is small and the critic has a good chance of later running into the author she’s analyzed.

But when novelists review fiction, do they risk revealing more about themselves than the books they critique? In fiction, a field that is partial and yet so personal, isn’t there some fine line that reviewers must walk, balancing their own biases and their literary reputations with the desire to recommend (or condemn) the story at hand?

Heller writes:

The critic of nonfiction contests matters of fact, of interpretation, of ideological stance. The critic of fiction, by contrast, has only aesthetic criteria to work with. You may respectfully take issue with another writer’s analysis of the Weimar Republic without impugning his skill and dignity as a historian. But when you argue that a novelist’s characters are implausible or that his sentences are inelegant, there’s no disguising the rebuke to his artistry.

Two reviews by acclaimed novelists are getting some attention this week: Mary Gaitskill‘s “lacerating” review of Gone Girl and Geoff Dyer‘s review of Norman Rush’s latest. I hesitate to describe Dyer’s review here because he took shots at the author’s backlist while praising his new work (in between light-handed jokes about the author’s name).

It wasn’t Subtle Bodies, the Rush novel Dyer was reviewing for the Times, that caught readers’ attention. It was an aside about Rush’s previous novel, Mating. Dyer called the nameless protagonist “insufferable and interminable.” He loved Rush’s latest, in spite of the fact that “reading Mating felt at times like drinking sand.”

A handful writers jumped to Mating’s protagonist’s defense on Twitter, among them Elliott Holt, Gabriel Roth, Emily Gould and Adam Wilson. Did readers identify so closely with this protagonist that they took the comment personally?

Or was something about the critic revealed in his reading of the character? Is admitting a feeling in a review too personal to share with your readers? Writers like Mark Sarvas said Dyer wasn’t taking the review seriously, while Gaitskill was accused of taking her subject too seriously.

Gaitskill’s review of Gone Girl, which appeared in Bookforum fifteen months after the book’s publication, pronounced it “as irritating as imagined, populated by snarky-cute, pop-culturally twisted voices coming out of characters who seem constructed entirely of ‘referents’ and ‘signifiers.'” She inserted her own reading experience into the piece, as Dyer does: “I felt I was reading something truly sick and dark—and in case you didn’t know, I’m supposedly sick and dark.”

“As usual with such pieces, far more revealing of the author than insightful about the novel,” wrote Ellen Clair Lamb.

Aren’t we sometimes eager to read a review that reveals something of the reviewer as well as the novelist? Presumably novelists are hired for the gruesome task of reviews rather than critics because of their audience and their unique perspective on the craft. How much can a writer insert himself into a review before he risks loses something in the writing of it?


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.