A Literary Critic Criticizes Criticism and, Of Course, Amateur Reviews

How can readers reap the benefits of reading without a critic’s essay that criticizes critics and severely censures “amateur” reviewers? In a glumly fascinating essay in The Walrus by Steven Beattie, “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends,” Beattie scolds critics for dropping their standards and amateur reviewers for sub-standard reviews.

We have all read articles by critics about the heinous nature of unqualified bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, and Booktubers. But Beattie will surprise you: he thinks critics are almost as careless as the amateurs. While critics of yesteryear mastered basic writing techniques, such as backing up statements with examples from the text (Writing 101?), now they make unsupported statements with no pretense of documentation.

What to do in an age of bad criticism? Beattie is not completely negative: he finds an example of good writing. He praises the expertise of Canadian critic Donna Bailey Nurse and writes, “Nurse, as it happens, is also one of the handful of working book reviewers capable of discerning good from faulty literary technique—willing to speak about an author’s language as opposed to a novel’s moral or social message.”

I agree with Beattie’s concern about the new emphasis on “moral and social messages” – though I wonder how moral the bluestocking “J’accuse” bacchantes really are. Are censorship and cancel culture the answer to disagreement and perhaps envy? There was Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a well-meaning novel about Mexican migrants making a long, weary, dangerous trip to the American border. Latinx protesters raged that she was white and that they should have written the book. The peculiar thing: Cummins was on the side of Mexican migrants. But she received death threats and her book tour was cancelled.

Beattie cites another problem: not only is the thinking fuzzy but reviewers’ clichés horrify him. He writes “…the number of ‘compelling’ or ‘riveting’ books with ‘fully developed characters’ and stories that ‘will remain in a reader’s mind long after the last page has been turned’ are positively legion.”

Oops! Who hasn’t done that? I must stop saying “compelling” and “page-turner.”

And Beattie also provides a model of a bad review. He writes,

…[in a review] of Jo Owens’s debut novel, A Funny Kind of Paradise, about a septuagenarian woman who has suffered a stroke and now lives in a long-term care facility, mentions the author’s “direct and unvarnished prose,” “richly drawn and complex” characters, and “rosy but not saccharine” tone without providing any examples from the text, essentially demanding that we take these things on faith. The review ends by highlighting the novel’s message—“There is joy and meaning to be found in every stage of life”—but refrains from analyzing precisely how the author forwards this message on the level of language, style, and craft.

Are you feeling humble, fellow bloggers? Well, probably not. I even chortled a bit. Beattie does provide useful tips in the topsy-turvy age of what we can only call “tell don’t show.” (“Show don’t tell” is forgotten.) Perhaps it is time for the professionals to put not their money – there is no money – but their writing where their mouth is.

A Rediscovery of a Literary Virtuoso: Shirley Hazzard’s “Collected Stories”

The month of May has rushed by. Lots of rain here – two weeks, actually – and more of the same in the future. So what have I been reading? This month, Collected Stories by Shirley Hazzard proved irresistible. Whether you plan to spend the weekend on the lake (I wish!) or dilly-dallying at home, I am sure you will love at least some of these stories. Hazzard (1931-2016), an Australian writer who had dual citizenship in the U.S. and the UK, won many awards, including The National Book Award and The Miles Franklin Award.

Last fall Farrar Straus and Giroux published Collected Stories, which comprises her two story collections, Cliffs of Fall and People in Glass Houses, and ten uncollected stories, eight of them published in The New Yorker and other magazines. As if this were not enough to keep us busy, Penguin recently reissued her award-winning novel The Transit of Venus. It is reasonable to say that Hazzard is back in fashion. And both books have been widely reviewed (or re-reviewed) by the critics.

I think of Hazzard mainly as a novelist, and I still have my 1990 Penguin copy of her 1980 novel, The Transit of Venus. I was intrigued at the time by her intelligence, grace, and nuanced writing, though, honestly, I remember little about the novel now. But I kept it all these years; it is now on the nightstand pile. When her National Book Award-winning novel The Great Fire, set in the aftermath of World War II, was published in 2003, I found it painful and uneven, almost too full of events, as it turns from a ghastly investigation of the ruins of Hiroshima into into an unlikely romance. But much of Hazzard’s life was in this book – she knew the shattering aftermath, having worked in the late forties for British Intelligence in Hong Kong, and in the fifties as a secretary for the UN.

I read the Collected Stories at my leisure, only one or two a day. Surprisingly, I preferred the energetic early stories to the later stories. I loved “A Place in the Country,” the second story in her first collection, Cliffs of Hall, which begins with the upacking of boxes in a country house. Hazzard shares this country house territory with Updike and Cheever: it is the place where intelligent, well-educated women read poetry and give dinner parties, while their husbands work in the city. (Perhaps Hazzard and Updike knew the same people.). And the opening of “A Place in the Country” is bound to hook avid readers.

“Try to keep the poetry separate,” said May. “The rest can be arranged later.” She made her way around the boxes of books and china to the doorway, and called up the stairs, “Clem, when you’re finished up there, you could help Nettie with the books.”

Not surprisingly, it turns out Clem and Nettie are having an affair. May has no idea: she is busy arranging objects in their country house, where she and the children will live for six months, while Clem works in town, coming down for an occasional weekend. Nettie is so in love that at one point she wishes – like an adolescent- that she could darn Clem’s socks. She is too young to understand marriage, and glosses over May’s potential pain: Nettie thinks the marriage must be worse than most.. But the love between Nettie and Clem turns out to be unequal. At the end of the story, Clem will tell her he should never have said he did not love his wife.

In “Forgiving,” Kate gets out of a party by saying her husband Lucas is sick. Actually, they sit in the woods, discussing Kate’s infidelity, and Kate assures him that she will never cheat again. “‘You leave me alone too much,’ she says”. Aa indeed, he does. He was away two months on a business trip in Africa. He snaps, “Well, one doesn’t go to Africa for the day, you know.”

I am especially charmed by the witty linked stories from People in Glass Houses, set in the offices of the Organization, which is a thinly-veiled U.N. (Hazzard worked at the UN for seven years.) She gently mocks the bureaucracy, the Methods of Enforcement report and the Advisory Commission on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, the firing of a misunderstood anthropologist (Ashmole-Brown in “The Story of Miss Sadie Graine”), who then becomes a best-selling writer after he publishes the report he’d been working on at the Organization, and various other workplace events and scandals. The employees come from different countries and different backgrounds, but nobody quite understands how the Organization works, especially the idealistic character Mr. Flinders in “The Meeting,” who discovers he has taken insufficiently professional photos of people in a third-world country planting trees to stop erosion. A man with better slides has actually contributed to pollution with his mission, but no one has the background to tell the difference.

In “The Flowers of Sorrow,” the Director-General departs from the agenda of his speech to say, “In my country, we have a song that asks, ‘Will the flowers of joy ever equal the flowers of sorrow?” The audience is flustered. Some are annoyed that there has been no mention of the proposed change in retirement, or longevity increments. One of the English interpreters is freaked-out: “It would be better not to give us a prepared text at all than to make all these departures from it.” But two of the characters, Miss Kingslake and Mr. Willoughby, feel heartened by a feeling remark that isn’t on the agenda.

If you do not have time to read all the stories, do try People in Glass Houses. At first I didn’t “get” them and found them dry, but the employees of The Organization now hold a special place on my mental bookshelf of workplace fiction.

Doris Lessing Gets It Right: The Future of Earth (“Shikasta”)

Doris Lessing

First, I must insist that Nobel winner Doris Lessing gets it right in her “space fiction.” In her neglected 1979 novel, Shikasta – the official title is unnecessarily wordy, Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta – she unflinchingly relates the history and the future doom of Earth ( Shikasta), borrowing freely from myth and the Old Testament. The hero, Johor, a quasi-angelic agent from the galactic empire Canopus, shapes human history at the Edenic beginning of Earth, and works even harder to correct its course after agents of Shamat, a criminal (quasi-devil) planet, corrupt the humans. And so, more or less, angels and devils, inhabitants of planets with different systems of belief, compete for the good and bad in Earth/Shikasta.

You’ve got to settle in slowly at first, but soon you’ll be turning the pages. The mythic and Old Testament origin stories, the versions of the flood myth and the Tower of Babel, are clever but can be monotonous; the pace picks up when Lessing reaches the twentieth century and then unfolds the drama of a future that we are beginning to experience. Many of the characters, who shudder at the prospect of returning to Shikasta after death but must line up to be reborn, become activists in their new lives and struggle to help the starving, uneducated, sickly masses.

You will recognize the problems killing this planet : climate change, melting polar ice caps, poisoned water, polluted air, droughts, epidemics, World Wars, overpopulation, dictatorships, famine, genocide, the dominance of the military, poverty, riots, bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. In fact, this is almost our present, and this future was already irreversible in 1979 when Shikasta was published. Certainly we were well- informed about the environment, but the culture of fossil fuels was out of our control – particularly because we could never, as Lessing says, quite “take it in.”

Shikasta was the first of five books in the Canopus in Argos series. In general the critics disliked these novels, especially Ursula K. Le Guin, who, having traversed the same territory in some of her anthropological science fiction, perhaps felt competitive: she complained that Shikasta read like a debut science fiction novel. George Stade of the New York Times mocked Lessing’s SF but said she succeeds when her storytelling trumps her rants. And then he adds that he prefers the theosophic rants of D. H. Lawrence to Lessing’s. (Oh my God, I wonder if he ever suffered the rants in Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent. And I’m a fan of Lawrence!)

Well, no one likes a doomsayer, and Lessing is hardly an optimist. In the Iliad no one likes the Greek guy who tells the ugly truth. And I wonder if Lessing’s thorough documentation, written in the form of official reports, documents, letters, and journals, might have not only have bored some readers but upset them. It was too literary for science fiction readers, and too SF-y for literary readers.

Lessing reworks some of the material from her 1969 novel, The Four-Gated City, which is three-fourths bildungsroman and one-fourth science fiction. One of the characters, Lynda Coldridge, who has spent years in psychiatric hospitals but actually has a kind of supernatural ability to know things others did not, appears in Shikasta. A psychiatrist asks Lynda to writer about her illness: her papers tell us that “hearing voices” was more of a sixth sense killed and distorted by psychiatric care. And so Lynda and the psychiatrist fight heir own underground resistance movement as they look for others like Lynda.

The most important character in the novel is George (the agent Johor, the being from a superior planet who has helped Earth for millennia). He has been painfully reborn into a human body, so that he may help the luckless, starving, and ignorant by telling them thing that matter, cheering them up and helping them survive. But on one of his many walking tours (fuel is scarce and so is transportation), he writes a letter to his girlfriend Suzannah about his qualms.

…and when talk starts about the awfulness, then it is as if people are not hearing. Not that they are not listening. Not hearing. They can’t believe it. Well sometimes I look back and it is such a little time, and I can’t believe it. I think that dreadfulness happens somewhere else. I don’t know how to say that. I mean, when awful things happen, even to the extent we have all just seen, then our minds don’t take them in. Not really. there is a gap between people saying hello, have a glass of water, and then bombs falling or laser beams scorching the world to cinders. That is why no on seemed able to prevent the dreadfulness. They couldn’t take it in.

Today there are many Shikastans suffering: that has hit home during the pandemic. As Johor says, we thought “that dreadfulness happens somewhere else.” This is not Lessing’s best book , but it is a very interesting one. And that is the reason to read it.

The Unreliable Narrator: Our Father, Our Family

Vintage paper dolls

Take a family, clipped neatly in half after a divorce. They will remind you of a book of paper dolls. You punch the perforated dolls out of a paper booklet, then bend tabs to keep their dresses, trousers and shirts in place. The Mother paper doll goes to the grocery store and buys whimsical ingredients for a fairy-tale cake or pie, the Father doll disappears to the office, the factory, or perhaps the furniture store, and the children memorize poetry at school, with the exception of the younger sister, who cuts school and smokes marijuana.

Is this your nuclear family? “You’re still livin’ in a paper-doll world.” But my friends and I preferred the third dimension, i.e., the Barbie and Tammy dolls. Sometimes we raced Barbie and Skipper up the stairs, or took apart the cardboard furniture in Tammy’s cardboard house and hid the dolls inside the soda bar or the couch. Once my dad bawled me out in front of friends when we were mocking True Romance magazine. “I know why you’re really reading it.” He reduced me to tears. Actually, we’d bought True Romance to make a silly collage, and to this day I have no idea what he thought we were reading.

And then there were the times as an adult when I really tried to be nice to him, to befriend him. He had a long history of being kind for a few minutes and then deciding to lecture or criticize me. So all would be well – he’d tell stories about my grandfather, an anti-Viet Nam war liberal who spent much time at the Elks, or tell me that Little Women (he’d read his sister’s book) was “overrated.” Then at some point he would deliver a sexist tirade: “Women can’t play chess” was a favorite. Well, I didn’t play chess, so this didn’t deeply traumatize me!

Girls and their fathers! We always want their attention. But he never knew how to relate to me. A few years ago, he referred to the time he lived with Mother and us as “the bad old days.” That really stung. Did he know what he was saying and how much it hurt? I believe he regarded it as a joke.

We did have a few nice times: visiting Amish country, visiting a greenhouse that grew only poinsettias, and attending the Planned Parenthood sale the year P. G. Wodehouse was his favorite writer. But he was winded – he had to sit down a lot. And I felt sad. My young, strong father, getting old. And yet he wasn’t very old then.

I do think he enjoyed his life with his second spouse, because they traveled widely and belonged to many organizations and societies. He had a very active social life, which he enjoyed. He had dogs and cats. He lost his first family, though. Did he regret that? It certainly hurt all of us.

And now of course I wish I’d made the effort and visited him one last time. Perhaps old age had simply changed his personality, so that he voiced every thought he had, however inappropriate. Perhaps he left us with a worse impression than he deserved. I do have one very happy long-ago family memory: he was painting the living room, under my mother’s direction, and all the furniture had been moved into the middle of the room. I lolled on the couch reading The Wind in the Willows, happy to be in the midst of my harmonious family. Then we had an impromptu “picnic” indoors, with ham sandwiches from Woolworths – surprisingly good.

He is and was my father, whatever his faults. What I’ll always miss is the possibility of closeness, or at least friendship. We try, we struggle, and then we wonder, Did we try hard enough? But we also have to asks, Did he try?

atque in perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.

From Catullus 101

Unmask Thyself! & A Summer Reading Project

The CDC has issued an Unmask Thyself mandate. We the Vaccinated are encouraged to go wherever we want, indoors and outdoors, without masks. We are relieved to have “vaccine privileges,” and hope this summer will be less confrontational than last. But the truth is we’re a little confused: we don’t feel entirely comfortable without masks in stores. And we LOVE social distancing – the perfect excuse for rudeness. But perhaps more people will get vaccinated when they see there is a reason for it: freedom.

And should we decide to attend a superspreader oldies concert featuring The Turtles, the Association, the Cowsills, Mark Lindsay, Chuck Negron, and The Vogues, we need not worry about “unvaccinated spit” mingling with ours and contaminating us. That will be their problem!

SUMMER IS COMING UP FAST. What is your summer reading project? Of course you’re doing the 20 Books of Summer! I am doing the Two Books of Summer.

Last year it was Dumas’s The Vicomte of Bragelonne, one of the d’Artagnan Romances, which I moderately enjoyed before losing the book. Well, I found it again, and since one plot element does not necessarily lead to the next in this rambling historical novel, I shall happily start on the bookmarked page, 300something. The Oxford edition has a detailed historical character list and excellent notes. I rely on it for background.

I also intend to pick up Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil for the fifth or sixth time. Is it actually a classic? It certainly isn’t “pop.” Virgil is sick and dying, he arrives at Brundisium and is carried on a litter through the city, and he ogles a boy. That is the first hundred pages. For four or five summers, I tried again and quit again on page 100. This year I have decided to start on page 100. My husband is keeping The Death of Virgil on a special shelf, so I will not have the “opportunity” to lose the book. Perhaps one hundred pages a summer?

Tell me your summer plans. I’m begging you! The 20 Books of Summer – and what else?

Lynn Steger Strong’s “Want”: The Adjunct Economy

Have you ever worked as an adjunct? These part-time teaching jobs can be satisfying. But sometimes you find yourself teaching subjects that are not one-size-fit-all, like remedial English composition, quite often for a challenging population, a mix of refugees from war zones and middle-aged moms, many with a dicey knowledge of reading and writing – and some literally do not speak English. So if you have a master’s or Ph.D. in English, comparative literature, anthropology, linguistics or theater, prepare to improvise.

After reading a review in The Nation of two novels about adjuncts, I picked up a copy of Lynn Steger Strong’s stunning novel, Want. It deals with two kinds of want: poverty and the want of love. What happens to people who opt out of the system to work at untraditional jobs? This novel is about the economy.

The narrator, Elizabeth, is a quiet, likable 34-year-old teacher in New York, with a Ph.D. in English, two children. and a lovable husband who left his career to become a carpenter. Her rich parents give them no money – and she doesn’t want to take it, because they are such assholes. (They threaten occasionally to take away her children.)

Elizabeth holds the family together: she teaches one English class for graduate students as a university adjunct, and is also a full-time teacher at a charter school where the impoverished Black students are underserved. I’ve got to hand it to Elizabeth: she hates the high school job, but manages to make an impression on her students. The principal, however, finds Shakespeare irrelevant. Instead of inspiring students to discuss Hamlet, she is supposed to do “test prep.” And so she is transferred to teach seniors, who have already taken all their tests, because the principal says she isn’t trained in test prep. And so she loses the class she has spent almost a year with. She starts skipping out early.

Fortunately, her home life is congenial. She and her husband are very affectionate and have two happy, well-adjusted children. But Elizabeth is so tense she gets up at five in the morning and goes running for fifteen miles (or at least that is the number that stuck in my mind).

And their money is running out. What can they do? They file bankruptcy, but that is still not enough. Her husband is buried under student debt. Should they leave Brooklyn? Their building in Brooklyn is going condo and they can’t afford to buy. Privately, I kept thinking: they could live in relative splendor on much less elsewhere! But they feel that their only other option would be to live on a farm in Maine owned by her husband’s parents, where they would be snowbound three or four months a year.

This novel is mostly about the economy, but parts are also devoted to her quasi-sexual love for her best friend, Sasha, who lived near her when she grew up in Florida. These women were so close that one summer they lived together and went out every night to read their books at a bar, where beautiful Sasha meets various men and goes home with them. Elizabeth is jealous – she is so close to Sasha that she wants her to mock the men and go back to the apartment with her. But Sasha falls apart, has a mental breakdown after she falls in love with a man who doesn’t want her, and never seems to recover after a baby she wants dies in her womb. Elizabeth realizes that Sasha’s beauty doesn’t save her -that Sasha wants everyone to love her. And Elizabeth is too exhausted to continue the friendship. But she wistfully stalks her on Instagram, which Sasha never updates.

This is an intelligent literary page-turner, which I read in a couple of sittings. I won’t tell you the decisions Elizabeth makes, except to say they are unexpected. And one wonders, not for the first time, why doing a job well and drawing on your deep knowledge can make you so poor.

Two Depressing Novels: Dima Wannous’ “The Frightened Ones” & Doris Lessing’s “The Diary of a Good Neighbour”

I cannot identify my favorite critics: I barely seem to register their names. That astounds me, and yet it must be common for those who read many book reviews.

For instance, The New York Review of Books recently published a review of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a short, tragic Syrian novel which I would not otherwise have heard of – and yet I did not look at the name of the reviewer. In this delicate novel, two damaged people who have survived the Syrian revolution meet in a psychiatrist’s office. The sullen Naseem, a brooding writer who ought to have a DANGER warning on his lapel, wordlessly invites Suleima, a shy 40-year-old woman, out for drinks. Between drinks, they slice pills and pop them: these are prescription pills, not the recreational drugs of Bright Lights, Big City.

Identity becomes an urgent question for Suleima when she is unable to find Naseem’s books in a bookstore. He publishes under a pseudonym; his books are everywhere. He decides to leave Syria and gives her an unfinished manuscript of a novel – which is about her! If you’re depressed, like Suleima, you will soon descend into hell (and she’s already been there). In alternate chapters, we read Suleima’s narrative and Naseem’s book about her. The weight of history, her own, Naseem’s, and the country’s, is almost unbearable… And the two stories intertwine and get mixed up.

And so should I thank the critic, Lydia Wilson, a Research Associate at the Computer Laboratory and in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford? (I looked her up.) It is a tribute to her that I read The Frightened Ones, but I must stress that I was not the ideal reader.

Then, as if I were not depressed enough, I picked up Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour. This smart, realistic novel is one of two she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. It was an experiment: she wanted to see whether critics recognized her style without her name brand (they did not) and what reception they would give a “new” writer.

Lessing writes, “One of my aims has more than succeeded. It seems I am like Barbara Pym! The books are fastidious, well-written, well-crafted. Unsparing, unsentimental and deeply felt. Funny, too. On the other hand they are sentimental, and mawkish. Mere soap opera. Trendy.”

Lessing’s books are always remarkable, whether under her brand or not. So should I trust the critics? Apparently not!

Let me stress that I did not remember The Diary of a Good Neighbour was depressing until I embarked on it this week. It wasn’t depressing when I was younger! The Diary deals with the problems of old age, which became grim and apparent to me during my mother’s illnesses and at the end of her life. Lessing’s heroine, Janna, is a middle aged, glamorous assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her husband died, and she regrets she never really tried to talk to him. She keeps her relationships superficial. She did not take care of her mother or grandmother when they were dying: that task was her sister’s. Janna’s whole life is work.

By chance at the drugstore one night, she meets 90-year-old Maudie Fowler, a bent-over witch-like woman whose nose practically hooks down to her chin. Maudie wants aspirin, rather than the prescription pills that “deaden” her, and charming Janna expedites the transaction. Then Janna accompanies Maudie home to her rent-controlled basement flat – which is filthy, cold, and has treacherous old electric fixtures, a coal fire, and an outdoor lavatory.

Maudie refuses to go to a nursing home, or to welcome volunteers called “Good Neighbors.” Doing good has fallen into Janna’s hands. She brings groceries, calls an electrician, buys her new underwear, nad chats for hours to Maudie. Both women genuinely enjoy their conversation, but when Janna returns home, she spends hours washing the terrible smell off her body and clothes. Maudie’s flat reeks of urine, unwashed clothes, and worse. And yet Janna is now responsible for her.

Perhaps what interests me most this time round is Janna’s personal experiences. When her only friend, Joyce, the editor of the magazine, decides to follow her unfaithful husband to America, Janna understands that she has unwittingly been part of Joyce’s marriage for years: without Janna at the office, Joyce would never have had the flexible hours to work at home , save her marriage (though it is very bad), and raise her (horrible) two children. The loss of Joyce is more terrible for Janna than was her husband’s death. Poor Janna grieves.

I look forward to moving on to Jane Somers’s more cheerful second book, If the Old Could, in which Jane falls in love. Love is more sprightly somehow, though this is not a happy book, either.

But it’s Lessing. I mean Jane Somers! And so I must read it.

Do you ever come upon a book that is almost too depressing to read? This seldom happens to me, but when it does…

The Book Binge Conundrum: What Drives Us to Excess?

The twenty-first century is, well, different. So many books are available online – more than we could find at any physical bookstore. Now I have access to all of Thomas Hardy’s books, including The Dynasts: An Epic Drama of the War with Napoleon (a verse drama). Yes, the faded old hardcover copy sits on my shelf, very dingy and uninviting. My husband says, “You are never going to read that.” He is right, but I can’t weed it, either. I have read the rest of Thomas Hardy.

The question is: when did I decide I must read the complete works of favorite writers – even their worst? In general, it used to take a long time to find all their books. One read an author’s complete oeuvre over several months or years. Of course, I did binge on Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest series. And over a period of years, I have read all of Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, the Brontes, Cyril Hare, Ngaio Marsh, Ovid, Margaret Drabble, Marge Piercy, and Penelope Fitzgerald – and most, if not all, of multitudes of other beloved writers.

My fanciful theory: our brains clicked into binge mode at the beginning of the new millennium. The speed of Wifi gave us the capacity to trawl the internet faster and faster, and discover more books than ever. One friend at a small online provider wished publishers would take a year off from publishing so she could catch up! And then after we got Wifi, we found out about even MORE books. Too many, really.

Is this internet bounty the fount of bingeing? Today the word “binge” dominates popular culture. Books, films, and TV are lauded as “bingeable” or “binge-worthy.”

In 2016, NPR ran a three-part series, “Read, Watch, Binge!” In 2019 at Mashable, Chris Taylor wittily related his experience of binge-reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy in 24 hours (“Lord of the Binge”). This is a common kind of internet whimsy. Naturally, I read with fascination, because I wanted to know how he kept awake.

At The New York Times in 2005, Julie Salamon wrote an excellent article about rediscovering Upton Sinclair’s Lanny Budd novels. (Dragon’s Teeth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943). She had loved the series as a child, as had her mother, and in 2005 reread all 10 books over a period of several months. She inspired me to read them (not all ten, though). And Salamon’s rediscovery of the books was not a 24-hour binge; it was a labor of love, without a quick deadline.

At Goodreads, blogs, and other social media, avid readers plan the future. The groups list the books they plan to read months in advance. This isn’t my way, but in 2016, after Anita Brookner’s death, I decided to reread all her books. I perused four or five before realizing this is probably not the way we’re meant to read her. I admire her art and style, but best to space the books out. By all means, binge if you want to, though.

Are You an Influencer? The Kim Kardashians of Book Reviewers

I did not know who celebrity influencer Kim Kardashian was until I read the Style section of The New York Times this weekend. It seems that everything she wears or uses, from Barefoot Dreams blankets ($180) to Spanx shapewear, is sought by her excitable fans. I, too, wanted the soft-as-silk Barefoot Dreams blanket, until I realized it is just polyester!

And so I began to wonder: who are the Book Influencers? In addition to celebrity influencers Jenna Bush and Rhys Witherspoon, bibliophiles and amateur reviewers have a loud voice.

In my case, professional critics still have the most influence. Hence, I am reading a disturbing Syrian novel by Dima Wannous, The Frightened Ones, about two damaged people who meet at a psychiatrist’s office. This beautifully-written, spare novel about living in hell during the Syrian revolution is so depressing I mete out only a few pages a day. I do recommend it, but I will not review it.

The age of criticism is dead, or so they say, and certainly critics vie for assignments of fewer reviews squashed into a reduced number of pages. Perhaps blogs, Bookstagram, and Booktube have a greater influence on readers these days, though it may be a question of the kind of reader.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, I loved the raw enthusiasm of blogging: my personal blogosphere was one big tea party of courteous postings on Monica Dickens’ One Pair of Hands and E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady books. Bloggers filled a gap: they “reviewed” Viragos, Persephones, and other small-press reprints, books which were seldom noted in professional publications. And, not surprisingly, some of our own favorite out-of-print books eventually were rediscovered. I was ahead of the curve with Nancy Hale, whose books I discovered in 2011 after reading one of her stories in a New Yorker anthology. The Library of America recently published her selected stories, and I hope they will reissue her charming memoirs, A New England Girlhood and The Life in the Studio, and her best novel, Dear Beast. Thank God for Library of America!

Pictures mean more than words these days, I fear. It is a brutish, snarling, semi-literate Climate Change age: our brains are literally shrinking, according to Scientific American. Perhaps this explains the weird appeal of picture-oriented social media. Bookstagram/Instagram consists of photos of books, sometimes raw snapshots, others almost of professional quality, arranged against backdrops of lace, flowers, and teacups, or simply dropped on the floor. These pictures may be saying: I love this book! but the captions do not tell us much.

Booktube is even more mystifying. A bibliophile sits unselfconsciously in front of a camera for 30 minutes to an hour, methodically showing you his or her latest book haul, one book at a time, while reading aloud the jacket copy, or, if you’re lucky, saying why he/she wants to read them. These monotonous home movies are badly in need of editing. Nonetheless, I do not underestimate their influence: some Booktube channels have thousands of followers (perhaps hundreds of thousands!).

So here we all are, doing our bit, all for the sake of books.

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