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Watch the karma, dude…

In the past I’ve gotten myself in trouble spouting off my unfiltered (often unreasoned) reactions to the daily paper. (What can I say? I get in moods.) But this review of Christian Wiman’s collected essays, Ambition and Survival, struck me as so unnecessarily cruel, so blistering, that, well, I had to blog about it. (With advance apologies to our three readers…) Encountering this review with my Sunday coffee in those tantalizing moments before I gave myself wholeheartedly to the Sunday crossword, I read someone who put me in the mind of Tobias Wolff’s Anders: “a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.”

First I should say that I’ve only read a few of the Wiman essays in this collection, back when they appeared in Threepenny Review, and I thought all of them excellent, surprising, smart, honest, and exemplary enough that I used them in various classes I’ve taught.  One of them, “Milton in Guatemala,” gets raked here (for reasons I find completely wrongheaded, as the “mock” humility he reads in it is news to me, but whatever). Another of his essays, for those who haven’t read Wiman’s prose, can be found here.  The part that really got me was the grand finale to the thrumping:

About the final piece in this book, “Love Bade Me Welcome,” the less said, the better. It’s the author’s own “mush of me, me, me,” an exceedingly personal essay about three subjects: Wiman gives up writing poetry and then starts writing it again; Wiman falls in love; Wiman receives a diagnosis of ‘an incurable cancer in my blood.’ The effect is to close off all further responses other than to have any reviewer of his book say:

I wish him the best life he can have.

Wow.  That’s almost unbelievable in its callousness, and I’m not sure how to read that last line. If it’s sincere, it departs tonally from everything that precedes it.  If it’s… well, what else could it be? Sarcastic?  I’m baffled.  If he really means that the piece leaves a reviewer incapable of reviewing it, then why did he review it? Maybe someone could enlighten me.  He uses Wiman’s own phrase “mush of me, me, me” (which, incidentally, referred to a certain kind of confessional poetry, NOT memoir or personal essay, which—I’m no expert, but—kind of relies on “me, me, me,” doesn’t it?), to frame a criticism of the essay.

The essay referred to appeared (perhaps in significantly different form) in American Scholar and can be found here.  Is it worthy of such scorn? Maybe he’s saying a personal essay that’s actually personal should not be written or published or read? If that’s what he means, Tucker’s gripe is much larger than (and dare I say misplaced on) Christian Wiman. I hope no one takes his word for it.


5 comments on “Watch the karma, dude…

  1. Lisa Kenney
    October 10, 2007

    I read the essay and the review and up until the section of the review you quoted, I could live with what the reviewer said — the linked essay is the only one I’ve read. I can’t imagine what would prompt such an inappropriate comment.

    I’ve noticed a trend toward meanness in reviews lately. It may be that I’m reading more reviews and so I’m only just noticing them, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just that news travels much more quickly on line and is so much more accessible. Galleycat last week posted about a book review Carolyn See did in the Washington Post about Porchista Khakpour’s novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. The review was written in the format of an open letter to the author, which seemed to make it a little inappropriately personal. Galleycat’s post was also about the response Ms. Khakpour then posted on her blog, which was a flaming condemnation of the review and Ms. See.

    Is this something new, or has it always been like this?

  2. andreadupree
    October 10, 2007

    I don’t think it’s new, but the personal part of it seems pervasive now. I think there’s something to the scarce resources in writing–ever more writers (how many tens of thousands of MFAs? Plus everyone else…) going after a piece of a quickly dwindling pie–that fuels an almost unconscious defensiveness, a “fight or flight” kind of insecurity that manifests in truly personal attacks. Maybe? I agree with you that the first part of the review is okay, though written with a sneer. I’ll send you “Milton in Guatemala,” and here’s a link to “The Limit,” which is (in my humble o) a great essay: I was disappointed because I’ve been watching Wiman since first encountering him at random in Threepenny, and then seeing that he had a collection out at first filled me with joy. But many people (probably myself included) give these random book reviewers a lot of power over what we pick up and don’t pick up. It seems a shame that people reading this review could possibly dismiss Wiman as the “pedantic but sensitive, fitfully insightful but morose, self-aggrandizing youngish fogey” Tucker finds him to be.

    Like you, Lisa, I read a ton, and it’s a truly special thing to encounter a writer who seems markedly different, destined to do something memorable with something as unlikely as black marks on paper. And then to have someone come along and treat that writer so harshly is dispiriting at best. You’re right, though: now that media’s no longer a unilateral enterprise, we might be talking about it more. I have no problem with criticism, even of people/writers I like, but I do have a problem with dismissiveness and cruelty, which seems to me to be the heart of Tucker’s review.

  3. Lisa Kenney
    October 10, 2007

    I was somehow overlooked “pedantic but sensitive, fitfully insightful but morose, self-aggrandizing youngish fogey”. There’s no reason for that.

    I read The Limit and I thought it was great.

  4. Joy Sawyer
    February 11, 2009

    Ohmygosh, Andrea, how could I have missed this beautiful piece you wrote (long ago!)on Christian Wiman’s stellar work? Thank you for telling me about this blog post, and THANK YOU a million times over for writing it. It’s superb. I, too, am utterly baffled by this NYT Review, and the sheer meanness of it. Why do we have so much harshness parading as “literary criticism” today? It’s one thing to not like style, tone, or content; quite another to use it as a guise for character assassination. Especially troubling to me is that the vitriol is directed at THIS particular book: tender, thought-provoking, utterly enchanting writing, bordering on the holy. I’m wondering if some of our hallowed literati are in need of a “SNARK exorcism”?? 🙂

  5. Pingback: Memo to the Lighthouse Fundraising Committee « The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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This entry was posted on October 10, 2007 by in Complaint, Good Books.

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