Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Critical Subterfuge

Isaac Asimov is alleged to have observed that writers "fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review." The usual advice to authors is to nurse their wounds in private--but if you must respond, do it calmly and stick to the facts.

But, still, there's something unsavory about David Orr's backhanded post about David Lehman's petulant letter responding to William Logan's vitriolic review. (For my take on Logan's review, see the previous post.)

A critic himself, Orr seems to be arguing that authors should grin and bear it when he and his colleagues insult them. How nice for him. But, more seriously, Orr and Logan both write for the New York Times--a small fact that would lead any reasonable reader to wonder if Orr might be serving as Logan's surrogate. Most non-poetry readers wouldn't know Orr from Paddle, and he doesn't mention his affiliation in his post (you have to click through a biography section on the blog to discover this tidbit).

If such a conflict of interest did not exist, Orr might instead have explained to his blog readers why the Times continues to employ a slash-and-burn critic who differs from Dale Peck only in age and sexual orientation and whose writings (both poetry and criticism) are appreciated, it would seem, only by other critics.

For sure, Logan is always good for some cheap laughs. As I noted in my previous comments, I enjoy Logan's reviews as much as anyone, but his role at the Times has always been that of an entertainer rather than one of an astute commentator of literature. F. R. Leavis, he's not.

Maybe David Orr is correct. Perhaps Logan's victims should remain silent. Perhaps Hemingway shouldn't have written of the largely forgotten Van Wyck Brooks, "As I have always regarded critics as the eunuchs of literature . . . But there is no use finishing that sentence."* In the end, Hemingway knew what John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich and Derek Walcott and others who have served as Logan's toothpicks know: a few decades from now, they'll have the last laugh, while Logan, if he's lucky, will share 8-point type with Brooks in a few footnotes to literary biographies.

Finally, I hope that critics won't simply use the new National Book Critics Circle blog as a fortress behind which to defend fellow friends and coworkers. (Along these lines, it's refreshing to see Laura Miller and Rebecca Skloot, unlike Orr, share their honest opinions of their colleagues' work.)

I should also add for the record: Although I've worked at two presses that have published works by David Lehman, I've never met with or talked to him.

* Lynn, Hemingway, p. 242.