Being a full time literary critic must be exhausting. So much writing about writing. But since I don't often write 5000-word manifestos on the purpose of criticism, I'm going to indulge myself and take this meta stuff one step further. Heather Cromarty wrote some "random thoughts prompted by (but not limited to)" my essay on Heroines. She reviewed Heroines herself in Lemon Hound earlier this year; I read the review at the time but did not comment on it in my essay, except perhaps obliquely, because Cromarty's review does seem a little judgmental on a personal level to me. Anyway, some thoughts. Here's Cromarty:
The first thing I want to address is in Gabbert’s piece is this:
[B]ecause some of the reviews have served essentially to trivialize and dismiss a book whose subject is in fact the historical, systematized trivialization and dismissal of work by women writers, it seems all the more urgent to question those responses. … I don’t wish to perform a meta–hatchet job on these reviews—just to show that their authors don’t reveal enough knowledge of or intimacy with the book and its purpose to give their judgement what Mendelsohn calls “heft,” and to put out a call for a more considered criticism, a criticism that teaches us how to read, to be better readers, not simply encouraging our worst habits and validating our laziness by telling us what not to bother with.
First, I don’t believe that topic confers merit. It is possible, in general, that a worthy project can be executed poorly. Second, I have real issues with saying that the two reviewers just didn’t do enough with the book, otherwise they would have been less (or differently) critical. Keeler mentions in her LARB piece that she read the book twice, which I doubt is all that common in book reviewing, given deadlines and all. Gabbert calls Jessica Winter’s review “snarky, dismissive” but the whole thesis of “I just read better than you” seems pretty snarky to me. Am I misreading that?1. I don't believe that topic confers merit either. It seems pretty clear to me that that's not what my introduction says.
2. If Keeler really read the book twice, I feel pretty comfortable saying that I'm a better reader than her, or at least that I was a better, more careful reader of this book. If that's "snarky," so be it. I did and still do find it absurd that Keeler quoted the list of items of clothing, removed from its context, in order to make Zambreno look superficial. I go to great length, in my essay, to show all the layers of meaning that Keeler removed from the passage in question, so I won't rehash that here. In principle I agree that "I'm a better reader than you" is an annoying tone to take in a piece of criticism, but anyone who is going to be writing and publishing reviews in big publications like the LARB (not "random thoughts" posted on your own blog, not college comp essays) should be a better reader than that. We can all be better readers; I'm often a lazy reader myself. But when reading a book with aims to review it, we have to be better than that. Otherwise you get crap criticism.
I mention in the comments at the LARB that people laud Zambreno for trying new forms, but that the reviews of Heroines are expected to follow some pre-defined structure of how reviews must work (in Gabbert’s essay, ironically, it’s a male penned definition too!). Keeler expressed her frustration with Heroines and that’s somehow not okay, but the book itself (like it or not) is a howl against just this sort of caging of the way women write or think. It just doesn’t make any sense.3. There is nothing innovative about the "structure" of Keeler's review. It's plain-flavor review-review. Read it yourself and argue with me if you think it's innovative. My issue with the review is not that it doesn't follow some pre-defined format, it's that it (willfully) misrepresents the book.
4. I quote Daniel Mendelsohn on the purpose of criticism (to teach readers how to think), not the format/structure. I'm all for formally innovative criticism if it gets the job done. And I'm all for reviewers expressing frustration if that frustration is the result of careful, informed reading, but Keeler doesn't convince me that she's a careful reader, so her frustration isn't very interesting. The frustration feels irrational. When I'm irrationally frustrated by books, I usually don't finish them and I definitely don't review them.
Gabbert says that we needn’t like Zambreno, we need only to take her seriously. Again, I may not have been totally clear on this in my review, but I can take Kate Zambreno the person who wrote Heroines seriously (and I do) while sometimes not being able to take Kate Zambreno the character in Heroines seriously. I approached the book knowing that these two people weren’t precisely the same thing.5. It really feels here like she is defending her own review, but again, I never referred to Cromarty's review in my essay. Anyway, "Kate Zambreno the character" is sort of "unlikeable," but I don't think people in books need to be likeable in order for the books to be good. In fact, I like unlikeable characters; characters aren't your friends.