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NO REVIEWS AT ALL, REALLY

A response to a comment from Chad (to my post about not reading reviews):

How do critical responses to your articles come into play? I’m mostly just curious about whether or not you’ve read Mark McGurl’s response to “Get a Real Degree” in the LA Review of Books.

Dear Chad!  You’re right – it’s a very similar situation. On the one hand, it seems solipsistic to be sitting at a desk writing things and ignoring the responses… especially when what you’re writing is criticism… and especially when that criticism is couched as some kind of polemical gauntlet, e.g. by means of a title like “Get a Real Degree” (which I did not come up with myself).1

On the other hand… these dialogues invariably involve such a time-lag! Someone writes a book; you take the time to read it and articulate what you think the deal is; the writer takes the time to read your opinion and articulate what he thinks the deal is, and by then years have passed. (I wrote the LRB piece in 2009, six months before it was published.) It’s a real investment to get back into the state of mind you were in before. You lose time and tranquility.

Is it selfish of me to value my time and tranquility over the exigencies of public debate regarding American creative writing programs? I don’t know. (For real, I don’t know.) All I can say is that right now I’m getting started on a new project, totally unrelated to creative writing programs, and full of totally new challenges, and it needs all my energy.  There’s just one of me, and, if I don’t keep the momentum going, who is going to do it for me?  (Pushkin?  My intern?)  For the time being, that means no adrenalinizing detours down memory lane. Although there is no doubt in my mind that McGurl’s response is super-smart and thought-provoking (as was his book), and although I fully intend to read and think about it when my own work permits, now is not that time.

As always, a big thanks to everyone who doesn’t think that whatever I just said makes me some kind of jerk. (Am thinking of appending this disclaimer to everything I write.)

In the meantime, my temporary solution to the solipsism problem is not to write any more book reviews.  For various reasons, I actually haven’t reviewed anything since my own book came out – partly because I’ve been busy, and partly because my views about authorship and criticism have changed.  Writing 100% good reviews would probably be lots of fun, but, for better or for worse, God gave me a grouchy and overcritical nature, combined with a great deal of affection for my fellow humans, and I need to find a way to work with these things.

Some months ago I expressed a version of these concerns to the books editor of the New Republic, who had asked me to write about the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of  Doctor Zhivago. I basically declined on the grounds that I hadn’t cared very much for the book the first time I read it – and was charmed to nonetheless receive a review copy with the following Post-It note:

dzhiv

I do love you, Yuri, sort of!  But sometimes a writer just has to mind her own garden, if only for a little while.

  1. For the record, in my LRB piece, I was trying to respond to the picture of the MFA program—the particular authors it produced, during a particular time period—that McGurl presented in his book. I was not trying to come up with any final or essential characterization of MFA programs, which are not only extremely numerous, but are also I believe getting more (pedagogically, aesthetically, ideologically) diverse every year.

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22 Responses to “NO REVIEWS AT ALL, REALLY”

  1. Chad Says:

    Thanks for the prompt response! I think valuing your “time and tranquility over the exigencies of public debate regarding American creative writing programs” is exactly the kind of thing you do get to decide for yourself without sounding like “some kind of jerk.” If there’s anything I learned in Academia, it’s that your time is precious, and you have to guard it with your life.

    I was just curious because, in my mind, McGurl’s argument was a little too ad hominem for my taste; it seems like these kinds of public debates always take that turn at some point or another…

  2. Elif Says:

    Thanks for the vote of confidence! I do think ad hominem debates are especially bad for tranquility.

  3. B Says:

    Here’s a handy review of that translation (by a Russian-speaker) http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/06/doctor-zhivago-boris-pasternak-translation

  4. B Says:

    By the way your cyclng headers here ARE ACE

  5. Lucia Says:

    Elif,

    I think your stance is admirable and enlightened! Keep not reading reviews! My great-grandfather used to say (circa 1903), “Reading rots the mind”. In the internet age, this could not be more true. There is only so much space to think and write – and reading uses that space. And we – your loyal readers – would rather have you writing than reading! Especially reviews. Especially ad hominem reviews. Brava!

    Lucia

  6. James Says:

    I almost shudder to relate the following, as perhaps it may change your life, but what would happen if you ever came to believe that your life itself was a story you were working on? Therefore *any* compliment (or criticism) of any sort could be dangerous and a sufficiently powerful one could *prevent you from living*. (You would wake up one morning in your bed and be completely paralyzed by self-consciousness, or perhaps you would find yourself at the computer, or the car, or the door or elevator with permanent adrenaline, causing your hands to shake uncontrollably and thus uselessly — or perhaps would make you defiant in how you typed or drove, or slammed the door, or mashed the elevator buttons, until you realized that fact, leading back to self-consciousness.) This is especially relevant if you continue to write autobiographically. You might think, “How will this life event be funny enough to match my past work?” Regardless of your reviews, you know that a lot of people liked your past stuff because it was funny — maybe you heard them laughing at a reading.

    I hope this warning does more good than it does harm.

  7. Libbie+ Says:

    Love your disclaimer idea! Am thinking of reading it in an even tone at the end of every sermon I preach. –Part of your New Mexican fan club asserting that you are most definitely not a jerk!

  8. Elif Says:

    Dear B, Lucia, Libbie, and James – thank you so much for the encouragement, advice, compliments, and somewhat encouraging meta-complimentary advice! All are greatly appreciated!

  9. Libbie+ Says:

    From The Telegraph account of Cannes 2011–Sarkozy’s take on criticism:
    12.30 In a deeply un-politicianesque display of honesty, Nicolas Sarkozy – best known for being the handbag-sized accessory husband to Midnight in Paris star Carla Bruni – has admitted that he won’t watch Conquest, a new film about his rise to power, because he can’t handle criticism, the poor dear:

    I have certainly no desire to see Conquest. In general I never read what people say about me, because I am never pleased. If it is critical I find it unjust, and if it praises me, it never does so enough. So is there any point?

    The reporter responds, ‘He’s a delicate wee flower’.

    Just some critical humor for the day!

  10. Elif Says:

    Hahaha, yes, I like to think of myself as *at least* 85% as flowery and delicate as the handbag-sized Sarko, my role model in all things image-related!

  11. ian Says:

    Elif, For some reason I involve myself in these internet polemics but don’t look at the best seller lists so I didn’t know who you were until McGurl’s gave us his flattering report. I did get him back and I hope others follow suit..

    http://ianckeenan.blogspot.com/2011/05/program-strikes-back.html

    geçmiş olsun as it’s such a weak attack on his part.. but wow, I will look for your book and congrats on all your success! Ian

  12. Colin Says:

    Fully sympathize, yet this review: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n22/elif-batuman/on-complaining is *marvellous* and one of the best things I’ve read in the LRB.

    But also, where does McGurl think this hypothetical non-elitist literature is going to come from without people investing time and so forth in its production? And have you read this: http://www.amazon.com/Christie-Malrys-Double-Entry-B-S-Johnson/dp/0811209547 ?

  13. James Says:

    I’m disappointed that you haven’t read McGurl’s response. To be completely honest, it seems like a little bit of a cop out on your part. No one is claiming that this debate is a “public exigency,” but your dismissal of contemporary writing was quite sweeping. It is not surprising that it has sparked debate. To claim now that you don’t have time to read McGurl’s response just make it seem like you think you are above it all.

    The irony here is that these kinds of flippant, above-it-all gestures are precisely the subject of McGurl’s response to you.

  14. Elif Says:

    Dear Ian, thanks for your kind note – I’m very grateful to the world of internet polemics for bringing me a new reader!

    Dear Colin, thanks for the kind words about the prev LRB piece! I actually did read Christy Malry some years back—I remember enjoying it but being slightly distressed that it had nothing to do with anything I was saying about double-entry bookkeeping. I thought I had the grand theory of the role of double-entry bookkeeping in the novel!

  15. Elif Says:

    Dear James, thanks for the comment, but I strongly object to the claim that my “dismissal of contemporary writing was sweeping.” As you know, “contemporary writing” is not the same thing as “contemporary American fiction writing.” Furthermore, “contemporary American fiction writing” is not the same thing as “program writing.” Here is what I actually said in the LRB: I don’t care for program writing. That is, I don’t care for one historical trend in the way fiction has been talked about/ taught/ practiced in the US in the past ~50 years.

    I disagree even more strongly with your implication that a critic has a personal *or* a public responsibility to respond to debates sparked by her criticism. The critical discourse is a community of ideas, not people. I think the tendency to “personalize” such debates is highly unproductive.

    When a piece of criticism goes into the world, the ideas are out there for anyone to endorse, dispute, ignore, modify, propagate, etc. The writer doesn’t have any special status or responsibility vis-a-vis those ideas (provided they didn’t directly/ foreseeably cause anyone material harm). If a debate ensues, the writer may or may not have the wherewithal to participate. She certainly can’t be held responsible for whether or not she has such wherewithal, as this is outside her control. If there is anyone who wishes to represent those ideas in the debate, then they will. If not, then the debate dies, as it should.

  16. M Says:

    I hadn’t ever heard of you until I read McGurl’s lame but decently written essay in the LA Review of Books just now. It sucks in every way–and exemplifies everything I hate about academia. Super depressing to see all the dumb Tumblr “likes” cascading at the bottom, too. So yeah, nice to know somebody else is calling MFAdom the crap that it is. So, you don’t do email?

  17. Elif Says:

    dear m@nowhere, thanks for your support! i had to take down my reader-email due to pornographic spamming from angry istanbul soccer fans, but here is a secret: you can reach me from facebook.

  18. Geoff Says:

    No disclaimers, ever! I am going to buy your book NOW. I love reading your reviews, blog, everything. Yuri is probably an Istambul Soccer fan.

  19. Dennis Says:

    I read your book several weeks ago and found it thoroughly delightful. Thank you for enduring all the rewrites, revisions, and final polishing that must have been required to make it all that it could be. To see so many ideas allowed to meander naturally through the book, while holding them close to the book’s core theme, was quite a feat… and, sad to say, really quite refreshing to experience these days!

    Yet just when I thought the pleasure was over and I had only your lingering wit to savor, Real Life had a bit of humor to append. I sent the book on to my sister-in-law, a bibliophile of the very best order, for Mother’s Day, and she wrote in her thank you e-mail, “Looking forward to reading The Possessed. By coincidence I checked out a Russian novel a few days before your package arrived.” Isn’t that just TOO RICH?

    p.s. And stop being cheeky about your 5:3:1 Stars ration on Amazon; you know you truly could give a rat’s ass about it. [:)

  20. Ross Says:

    For us luddites that don’t have facebook, how can we reach you?

    I have some urgent pornographic soccer fan spam that you’d be remiss not to read. Much better than the normal variety.

  21. Dave Lull Says:

    The bleak state of American fiction · For Our Consideration · The A.V. Club

    By Sonia Saraiya
    Mar 4, 2014 • 12AM

    “Writers write. But what do they do for money?” That’s the tagline on the back cover of MFA Vs. NYC, a collection of essays on the current state of American fiction-writing edited by Chad Harbach (The Art Of Fielding) and published jointly by n+1 and Faber & Faber. The inspiration for the collection—and the first essay in the volume—is Harbach’s “MFA Vs. NYC,” which first ran in n+1 in 2010, where Harbach is also an editor.

    [. . .]

    (Elif Batuman stands out as the most courageous thinker in the volume, and it would be hard for anyone else to match her level of style and success.)

    [. . .]

    http://www.avclub.com/article/bleak-state-american-fiction-201745

  22. Dave Lull Says:

    Stop blaming Iowa! MFA vs. NYC is a phony debate – Salon.com

    [. . .]

    The anthology also includes “The Invisible Vocation,” by Elif Batuman, who presents a nuanced and inventive case against “program fiction,” in spite of its original blunt-force title in the London Review of Books (“Get a Real Degree”).

    Conceding [. . .]

    In this, her critique structurally resembles Bennett’s [. . .]

    The acknowledged raison of most MFAs is to give their students free time; indeed, Batuman says that [. . .]

    Batuman also condemns the program for [. . .]

    At any rate, Batuman doesn’t provide much [. . .]

    Lastly, arguing that [. . .]

    [. . .]

    http://www.salon.com/2014/03/06/stop_blaming_iowa_mfa_vs_nyc_is_a_phony_debate/

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