Essays

Particular Ways of Being Wrong

By posted at 6:00 am on November 26, 2013 19

coverAll lazy book reviews are essentially the same: they reflect a reviewer’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to fully engage with the writer’s project on the book’s own terms. Lazier still is to not discuss the book but instead the author, to review not the project, to paraphrase John Updike, but the reputation.

Recently, I read Alexander Maksik’s 2011 debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, heralded by The New York Times for its “dazzling clarity and impressive philosophical rigor.” After the strong reviews and well-deserved attention, the online magazine Jezebel claimed that Maksik had allegedly based the story on his own experience as a teacher in Paris and his relationship with a student. Amazon and Goodreads readers retracted their stars and updated their reviews to show their disgust and moral outrage. I don’t mean to defend or attack Maksik’s alleged personal choices. But as a reader, a novelist, and a critic, I simply do not care what they were. These “violations of confidence,” as Jezebel noted them, should remain in Maksik’s private life, between himself and the young woman with whom he was involved. They unfortunately became literary gossip. They should never have become part of the literary conversation.

But of course they did.

coverThis summer, Maksik released his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. This beautiful novel follows Jacqueline, a young refugee who, having fled Charles Taylor’s Liberia, finds herself homeless on the Greek island of Santorini. The novel weaves Jacqueline’s present life on the island with her past life in Liberia. Though the reviews were also strong, many reviewers, from Norman Rush for the NYTBR to John Freeman for the Boston Globe, felt compelled to mention not only the first book but also the real-life affair. Claudia La Rocco, an astute dance critic, reviewed Marker for the New York Times. Her anger about the book, or perhaps really about Maksik the writer, was clear from her opening.

La Rocco opens her review not by mentioning Maksik’s first book but of the scandal surrounding it, and when she finally gets to the book she is reviewing, her tone is incredulous: “Would a woman suffering from diarrhea, chronic dehydration, and malnutrition really be able to tramp around a sun-blitzed island, hiding in abandoned buildings, under trees and in a cave, with only a few fainting spells to show for it? Would she be so concerned with questions of beauty and choice?”

First, the premise of the book, of any book, is asking for a willful suspension of disbelief. That said, Jacqueline is not concerned with questions of “beauty and choice,” a reductive and unsupported claim, but of survival and staying under the radar. When she does allow her mind to drift toward the mundane it is a clear repression of the horrific memories that are threatening to rise to the surface and destroy her.

This, though, was my interpretation (I reviewed the book for the San Francisco Chronicle), and not everyone will share it. Fair enough. More disconcerting here is the way Maksik is first attacked for writing what he knows and then for writing what he does not, for attempting to “embody a character so divorced from his own experiences.” The review reads like a personal condemnation of Maksik, from his choice of subject to what the reviewer sees as his emotional avoidance; it amounts to a list of grievances. La Rocco also notes that Jacqueline “comes to resemble the protagonist of You Deserve Nothing, Will Silver, a damaged loner adrift in a haze of existential malaise.”

It’s clear that Maksik is interested in exploring isolation, loneliness, and the often devastating human desire for connection. Though I found the comparison between Will Silver and Jacqueline to be a bit of a stretch, it is indeed an interesting one, so I was surprised when La Rocco used this parallel as if exposing some little dirty secret, as if Maksik were somehow cheating the system.

Most writers would assert that certain philosophical obsessions consume their work, even if expressed in different ways. One of the pleasures of reading through an author’s oeuvre is to trace the way, say, Ian McEwan’s “malevolent intrusions,” as noted by Zadie Smith, play out again in and again in different settings and times and with different characters. This is not the same thing as writing the same novel over and over but a testament to the fact that some ideas might preoccupy a writer for a lifetime. This is the beauty of art: the intersection of our own particular way of being in the world with the way the world is.

Will Silver of You Deserve Nothing is a teacher at an international school in Paris. His tenure at the school was an escape from, or the delaying of, grief. The recent loss of his parents and his abandonment of his wife shape who he is: unable to love yet with a great nostalgia for it. Once Will understands that Marie, the student with whom he has been involved, has not been discreet, he anticipates the pain that will surely come. A beautiful, palpable tension emerges from what we know is inevitable. Marie has fantasies of domestic bliss: a baby, or coming up the stairs to the apartment when they are old, but Will doesn’t allow himself such delusions. His sadness shows he knows from the start that it will not end well.

And yet he chooses it anyway. This, to me, was heartbreaking and honest. The writer Rivka Galchen has said that character is “one’s very particular way of being wrong,” a brilliant insight into character and fiction as a whole. And You Deserve Nothing, though far more complex than just presenting ideas of “right” and “wrong,” does just that. Several acts of cruelty and inhumanity, whether acts of random violence or domestic abuse, deep-seated bigotry, or the aggression we inflict upon societies through war, go unpunished, and the book offers a provocative comment on our own selective moral outrage.

coverI admit I lose patience with the “I’m helpless to young female beauty” of the Rothian variety (though I did find beauty and truth in The Dying Animal, say, as well) or the sense of entitlement and power that strangely emerges from this hand-biting helplessness of male desire. I try not to dismiss books based on their premises or subject matter alone. But I didn’t find You Deserve Nothing to be overly familiar. And even if I did, as Adam Langer noted in the New York Times, it is “so rivetingly plotted and beautifully written that you forget its shopworn premise.”

The reviews of You Deserve Nothing, in fact, were excellent. Until we began to discuss what should never have been discussed in the context of criticism.

The role of the critic is not to argue over what is real but what has been created. If there are writers who don’t exorcise their demons and fears when they write, their failures and their shortcomings, I don’t know them. Most novelists will admit that bits of ourselves, some thinly veiled and some deeply so, are present in all our characters, both those who resemble us and those who don’t.

A novel is an act of the imagination. To read it as anything but is a failure of the contract we enter when we engage with a fictional world. In his essay “What Is Real Is Imagined,” Colm Toibin writes: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known… The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.”

As critics our duty is to uphold that. Literature is not a recording of an experience but the creation of one. Fiction creates its own truths, its own histories. To paraphrase Auden on poetry, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” When we read we are creating a map in our minds of the book, and as reviewers we are to act as cartographers of this imagined space. A review is really a mapping of one’s intimate conversation with a book. It does not mean our personal tastes and perceptions about the world will not enter this conversation — they certainly will, and they will affect our experience with that novel and the ideas it brings forth.

But when as reviewers we ignore the created experience and instead focus on the author and his or her “right” to create, or not create, we never even enter the conversation. Nothing is revealed. The map is blank and therefore useless.

Can we write about anything we want, as fiction writers? I say, absolutely. But we have to make those difficult artistic decisions ourselves, to consider our material and the best way to approach it. A good review should be grappling with the complexities set forth by the work in question and not treating the author’s choice of material as suspect. The reviewer should ask: how is this done, what has been attempted, has it been delivered with freshness or skill or compelling insight? A lazy review is cruel, and a cruel review is lazy; both stem from a lack of imagination and empathy. Like cruelty itself.

And what to make of the responsibility of the reviewer? Can we say anything we want? Let’s look at John Updike’s oft-quoted advice on reviewing:

Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

It seems rather obvious, no? To review the reputation is to ignore or simply discredit the spell entirely.  It’s intellectually lazy and boring. We may have opinions about an author, certainly, but we should not have an agenda before even reading the book or writing the review. If we do, perhaps we should reconsider accepting the assignment. When we attack the author for his or her material, our approach is single-minded: not criticism but propaganda. We undermine the value of the enterprise that we as reviewers should be elevating: the conception of art and a discussion about not only what the art is doing but how it is constructed.

In her 1959 Harper’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Elizabeth Hardwick lamented that “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.” The tagline of Hardwick’s Harper’s piece reads: “The fates of authors and publishers — not to mention the reading public — depend on book reviews, but who reviews the reviewers?”

It’s an important question and a relevant conversation to continue, particularly now, with the proliferation of online reviewing. But those of us who are charged with talking about books professionally should work to maintain professional standards as to how we talk about them. Book reviewing need not be a laudatory, effusive enterprise, and I’m grateful that it’s not. In fact, often the most celebratory reviews expose the flip side of the same problem: the replacement of a critical engagement with literature with our emotions about and perceptions of the writer. Alexander Maksik’s case is not representative of all book reviewing but is representative of a certain ad hominem approach, neither rigorous nor intellectual. Investigations into whether we’d want to be friends with a book’s narrator or whether the author experienced some of the story’s events might be entertaining conversations to have over a round of beers. But such is chatter, not criticism.

Reviews like La Rocco’s do nothing more to deepen the literary conversation than do the scores of many amateur “reviews” on Amazon or Goodreads (to wit: many of these reviewers took back the five stars they awarded to You Deserve Nothing after Jezebel’s claim), and though an open democratic forum about literature is not without value it makes professional, sophisticated, rigorous book reviewing all the more crucial. When we begin a review, we should ask, what will this bring into the cultural conversation, and what we are doing for the world of art and ideas when we do?





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19 Responses to “Particular Ways of Being Wrong”

  1. Tomasz
    at 6:38 am on November 26, 2013

    Well written, poignantly argued and the best defense of the book itself against personal ideologies of “critics,” whose agendas are often either attempts to score points with audiences in social media, or to bolster their reputations by thg being on the “right” side of an issue. The switching of Goodreads example re: Maksik’s first novel after it was “reviewed” by a site as disreputable as Jezebel is perfect. How many more reviews condemning his book appeared after it?> The majority of them. The novel stands on its own apart from the author’s life. it either works as a book or it doesn’t.

  2. Colormeunimpressed
    at 10:50 am on November 26, 2013

    Mrs. Bakopoulos ought to disclose her connection to Mr. Maksik, otherwise this appears to clearly be one former Iowa writing person sticking up for another. Midlisters covering the backs of midlisters.

  3. whim
    at 12:18 pm on November 26, 2013

    Mrs. Bakopoulos’s alleged connection to Mr. Maksik only matters if the relationship distorted Mrs. Bakopoulos’s argument. As this distinction is precisely the thesis of the essay–judge the work, not the life– Colormeunimpressed’s venomous attack on ‘midlisters’ is particularly reptile brained.

    Damaged, obsessive, regretful, selfish, and outright loathsome people are allowed–even encouraged–to write books.

    Writers who know each other are allowed–even encouraged–to defend each other’s work, especially from strictly personal attacks.

    The essay was good. The point well made if also well worn. A discussion about the reasons behind the prevalence of such wrong-headed reviewing would make a good companion piece. I suspect it is roughly equal parts commercial and puritanical branding.

  4. Judy Krueger
    at 12:21 pm on November 26, 2013

    Yes! I agree. When we lose the cultural conversation aspect of literature we lose a large part of our culture. To “engage with the writer’s project on the book’s own terms” has become lost in the noise and chatter of marketing, social media, amateur reviewers, etc. My question for Ms Bakopoulos is, what is happening in our educational system? Are readers in high school and college no longer being taught critical thinking when it comes to reading literature? I am not convinced that the decline in quantity and quality of “professional” book reviews can be blamed on the more open conversation about literature we are finding on the Internet and in reading groups. The proliferation of lit blogs and sites like Goodreads demonstrates that reading fiction is alive and well, possibly more widespread than the doomsayers claim, but the ability to read with perception and depth has declined.

  5. Natalie
    at 12:43 pm on November 26, 2013

    In response to Colormeunimpressed:

    Many thanks for your comment. For the record, I’m not an Iowa grad, nor do I have any affiliation with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I did appear at a literary festival in Iowa last month, along with Maksik, whom I briefly met. This was long after I had published the review of his book in the SF Chronicle, and this essay was also already in progress. And like most reviewers, I don’t review books by people i know, whether friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, for ethical reasons.

  6. Stephanie
    at 1:28 pm on November 26, 2013

    I’m not familiar with Alexander Maksik or his work, but I agree with this thesis that reviews should focus on a “writer’s project on the book’s own terms.” I’ve read so many so-called reviews that summarize and judge the author’s life and then criticize the book through that lens, as if the book is only secondary.

    I would go so far as to argue that even when it comes to memoir, reviewing a book on its own terms trumps biography.

  7. Michael Fischer
    at 3:00 pm on November 26, 2013

    “But when as reviewers we ignore the created experience and instead focus on the author and his or her “right” to create, or not create, we never even enter the conversation. Nothing is revealed. The map is blank and therefore useless.”

    This annoys me to no end–the lazy and intellectually dishonest, “you don’t have the right to write about this because you are ______. The end.” In this hypothetical instance, the critic suggests that it’s impossible, through some genetic or inherent flaw, for a particular person to write about a certain topic or demographic. Often, the same critic will contradict him or herself five minutes later by saying “these” people get it wrong when writing about “this” topic or demographic, which suggests that it CAN be done, which is the point of their criticism whether they realize it or not (“it can be done–you just need to do it better” vs. “you don’t have the right.” I also like how this essay can be read alongside more specific critiques of the shallower displays of moral outrage that are insincere and nothing but pearl-clutching literary gossip. Twitter is notorious for festering a climate of shallow lit gossip masquerading as sincere moral outrage.

  8. Kristen R
    at 3:22 pm on November 26, 2013

    “I don’t mean to defend or attack Maksik’s alleged personal choices. But as a reader, a novelist, and a critic, I simply do not care what they were. These ‘violations of confidence,’ as Jezebel noted them, should remain in Maksik’s private life, between himself and the young woman with whom he was involved. They unfortunately became literary gossip. They should never have become part of the literary conversation.”

    I would just like to point out that your ability to “simply not care” about Maksik’s alleged crime and to review the work in a vacuum is not merely a default state but a positive freedom and a privilege. There are many people – Goodreaders and professional reviewers alike – who do not have that freedom; whose personal history renders the fact that this author [allegedly] sexually exploited a child to be too radioactive or painful to ignore, even in the service of literary impartiality.

    I take you to be saying that people of whom this is true should step aside and leave the reviewing of the book to people who are not burdened by such feelings. To a certain extent, this may be necessary and true.

    But the arguments in this essay ring uncomfortably close to those of professors who demand that students set aside, for example, their emotional reactions to racism and misogyny in a Great Book, bracketing these traces as ‘of their time,’ in order to respond intellectually to the text This, again, may be a laudable goal, but the ability to distance oneself emotionally from such subjects is not meted out equally to everyone, and if the ability to do so is a requirement for engaging in the conversation, the makeup of the community itself will be distinctively altered. It is not a surprise, I think, that these discussions so often circle around white male authors who have committed offenses against women or people of color; I wonder if the literary establishment weeds out, sub-consciously or not, writers whose personal failures our culture as a whole is less willing to excuse.

    I think everyone who agrees with this essay ought to at least honestly ask themselves whether there is nothing an author could do in the “real world” could do that would rob them of an ability to assess a work impartially, any crime so grotesque they would find themselves unable to set it aside.
    It seems to me we all make assumptions, when we read, about who we imagine the author to be; and this shapes our reaction to the text in a multitude of unspoken ways. I think it would be better if we could all speak more honestly and self-critically about the way these assumptions inform our reading, but demanding that we simply set them aside strikes me as both an impossible and undesirable goal.

  9. Jacques F.
    at 3:49 pm on November 26, 2013

    I agree with just about everything Natalie wrote, and I believe that the literary community should be engaged in passionate debate about literature.

    But really, we all need to grow up about book reviews. Every review is just one of many, every Dale Peck or William Giraldi a voice in an occasionally dissonant chorus. If I can’t filter out Goodreads reviews that don’t come from the same POV as I would, what good am I?

    Natalie is right in what she is saying, but in an era when so much information is so available, any time we make decisions based on scant or spurious material we probably get what we deserve. And that means being devoted to just one website like Jezebel, or for that matter The Millions, when it would be no trouble to take a wider view.

  10. Michael Fischer
    at 3:59 pm on November 26, 2013

    “I think everyone who agrees with this essay ought to at least honestly ask themselves whether there is nothing an author could do in the “real world” could do that would rob them of an ability to assess a work impartially, any crime so grotesque they would find themselves unable to set it aside.”–Kristen R

    _____________

    In that case, I wouldn’t publish a review of the book, with emphasis on that last part–“review of the book.” Instead, I might write a personal essay that works out those issues without claiming to assess the book.

    Also, no one is suggesting that it is possible to be 100% objective when reviewing the book; that’s a straw man you seem to insert to support your argument that the writer–and those of us who agree with her–are dismissing real world emotions or emotional reactions.

  11. LP
    at 7:46 pm on November 26, 2013

    This is an age-old argument that doesn’t rate. You can be a degenerate and still be a fine writer. Maksik has proven this to be true twice already. When I’m watching Polanski’s films I don’t think about all the underage girls he has seduced and used. People who live their lives in an amoral fashion should be let off the hook when it comes to their work. Same with sociopaths. Just because you rape and murder people doesn’t mean your work shouldn’t be taken seriously. Best to leave all the human suffering you have caused out of it. It has nothing to do with anything.

  12. Mark
    at 3:29 am on November 27, 2013

    I think Natalie’s essay is spot on. I thought Maksik’s first book was fantastic and beautiful and his personal behaviour odious (I know someone who was close to the incident) but think we do need to separate the two. In most cases I think that is possible, but while I was reading the essay, I did, however, think of two instances where the relationship between art object and art creator are a bit more tough to reconcile. One in literature, one in music. I am just curous to know what Natalie thinks about these two cases.

    One, Krystian Bala’s first novel Amok which, it turned out, was based directly on the experience Bala had in killing a man. In the novel (apparently well-received), Bala fictionally murdered a woman in the same manner and with some of the same detailed precision (facts apparently not made public and only known to the killer). He was convicted years after an anonymous person tipped off the police about the relationship between the book and murder. He is now serving a long prison sentence in Poland. Should this act in his private life (similarly to Maksik, providing the primary thrust of his novel) reflect at all in a critical discussion of the book?

    Two, the very recent case of Ian Watkins, lead singer of the band Lostprophets. He pled guilty in the last 24 hours of raping babies as young as eleven months old. The rest of the story has, if possible, even more gruesome details. Would – or should – a music critic be able to critique Watkins’ artistic output with zero reference to his subhuman personal behavior?

    I think Natalie’s argument as a whole is valuable and necessary – especially in light of the amateur reviews that are now ubiquitous online, but the two cases I point out trouble me a bit in regard to this discussion.

    Thanks to Natalie and anyone else who might comment on this.

  13. Claudia Putnam
    at 6:23 pm on November 27, 2013

    I loved You Deserve Nothing when I read it, but think I wound up retracting one star a bit later because I didn’t remember the book very well several months afterwards. For me, that usually knocks a book down to 3 stars. However, I agree with Bakopoulos’s argument in general.

  14. Natalie
    at 8:25 pm on November 27, 2013

    Thank you for your comments. I try to stay out of the comment section, unless to provide a simple correction, not because I don’t want to continue the conversation but often when the original author gets involved it begins to feel like defensive posturing. But I do want to respond to a few points.

    First, I certainly don’t mean to discount the entire approach of biographical criticism: when a book was written and against what cultural and historical backdrop can of course be important and worth discussing. What I’m arguing against has to do with when we use this not as context but simply personal attack (Can this Eastern European immigrant truly write about the Civil War? Can this gorgeous female 26-year-old novelist really have anything to say? What right does this writer have to tell this story? And so on).

    I am not advocating for a review that exists in a vacuum—in fact I think some of the best criticism often considers work in relation to other work, for instance—and I do note that it is impossible for our own experiences and politics to not affect our reading of a text. In addition, racist or sexist or bigoted ideologies, if present in the author, will probably come forth in the text as well. To paraphrase Saul Bellow, positions emerge from a work of art.

    There is much more to be said about how we interrogate a writer’s right to his or her material, whether writing what she knows or what he doesn’t: Read, for instance, V. V. Ganeshananthan’s “The Authentic Outsider,” (http://aaww.org/the-authentic-outsider/) where she notes the way, quoting Gracie Jin, “‘it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.”)

    I suppose I’m more concerned with the underlying question of what we can and cannot write about and the manner in which it enters the literary conversation, and if bringing up the author’s background is a sincere attempt at critical interrogation or a way of simply side-stepping any real engagement with the book. When the author’s bio is used to imbue the critique with an air of condescension or suspicion, it’s a cheap, lazy shot. As I note, Maksik was attacked for writing what he allegedly knew and then for what he did not.

    For the cases you bring up, Mark, I agree it’s complicated, as you mention egregious, heinous crimes, not simply inappropriate acts, and I’m certainly not advocating we ignore or excuse such real-life crimes for the sheer discussion of art. I suppose in these extreme cases we might consider if the “real-life” events are documented or conjecture? In the case of a real-life murder that mirrored one in the book, I grant it would be difficult not to at least mention such, though it seems like the case you mention actually tipped off the prosecution of the crime, that it was not known before.

    Knowing certain facts about the author’s life might color my reading of a book but I’d still consider the book’s project. Again, some caution: in fiction, often the character we “assume” to be most like the author is the one furthest from her. I stand by my assertion that fiction comes from a very different place. If we’re talking about a fictional crime that mirrors a real one, though, is it portrayed as an act of shameless bravado or a remorseful confession? With the character’s self-aggrandization or self-laceration? Was it a display of gratuitous violence or misogyny? An exploration of motivations or effects? Was it a defense, an explanation, a judgment? Are we considering the separation of the author, narrator, and character? Again, though, I’m not talking about extreme acts of violence, though it’s a valid to push the conversation to examine these extreme cases. The second example you cite, Mark, about the musician and his musical output versus his behavior, is perhaps a slightly different though related issue, as his personal life doesn’t seem to be at all reflected in the work. That said, I think many fiction writers would say that even if certain events appear very close to those they actually experienced, the fiction becomes its own thing, separate from the fact.

  15. Kerry
    at 9:10 pm on November 27, 2013

    I share Natalie’s preference for reviewers who critique the book rather than the author. But I also prefer to spend my limited book budget on good books by non-odious writers. In other words, I prefer not to subsidize the lifestyle of people who are cruel, abusive, or worse. I think many others have even stronger opinions on that and I think that is, at least, a defensible position. Therefore, the morally suspect actions of a writer are fair ground for comment.

    In answer to Mark, I am happy to have the information and would choose to spend my limited time and resources elsewhere. But I think those two instances go beyond gossip. As I said, others will disagree as to where the line is and whether there is a line at all.

  16. Eliza Stevens
    at 8:19 am on November 30, 2013

    Do writers care to read the critique? They no longer remember what they wrote or how ideas swarmed in their minds when the sparkle lighted. Why do they bother to read those reviews? No one resists favorable reviews, though. But usually it’s the scathing ones that sustain the writers most. So be sincere with books and be a serious critic.

  17. sharonapple
    at 11:29 am on January 1, 2014

    To add to Mark’s list of odious artists….

    The writer Jack Unterweger — a serial killer who wrote plays, novels, and articles, some of which directly deal with his crimes. He was a darling of the literary set in Austria for a period in the 80’s-90’s until it was discovered that he was killing women again. (He even wrote articles covering his crimes.) Entering Hades is a grim look on his life and his work.

    I don’t know if there’s any literary criticism about his writing, but it would be a fascinating read. From Entering Hades, it appears as though Unterweger tried to minimize his crimes through his writing, seducing people into thinking that the initial murder that landed him in jail was simply an accident… or the result of his bad childhood. Why did people applaud his work? Why didn’t people question it more?

    ***

    I’ve read both novels by Maksik and the article from Jezebel did explain on thing to me. If Maksik did base his first novel on his experiences, it explains why the dialogue is much better in it than in his second, which apparently was drawn from his imagination.

    It’s hard to create a scene where multiple characters are talking to each other, expressing different ideas, without opinions and points blurring together. He pulls it off in the first book. In the second book the dialogue follows a simple question and answer format. There’s no real engagement between characters.

    Maybe it’s because of Jacqueline’s situation as a refugee trying to hide her situation — she’s cut herself off emotionally from people, but didn’t Will Silver, the teacher in the first novel, have the same problem, but there was still some life in the people he met that seemed more than the equivalent of a television reporter.

    **

    On the issue of whether a writer can write on things that have nothing to do with their lives… of course they can. No one can stop them. You have a pen and some paper, you can do anything you like. Look at Henry Darger’s work.

    Whether you should be immune from criticism is another question. Because I’ve seen cases of writers stepping outside of themselves and not really getting into the mindset of someone of another race or gender. Most of the time what gets celebrated in these cross-overs are works that reinforce acceptable stereotypes. Books like Memoirs of a Geisha and Snow Falling on Cedar, have cultural errors that are easy to overlook if you have no knowledge of Japanese culture.

    For instance, with Memoirs of a Geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, the geiko — geisha is a slightly derogatory term — Golden initially contacted for his book found a number of inaccuracies — he got the structure of the houses wrong — with the biggest one being that Golden made being a geiko about sex.

    I suppose this isn’t a problem just as long as we don’t look at these books as being authoritative looks at the culture and characters they’re supposedly about and simply treat them as stories.

    But it’s easier for people outside of these cultures to over look these things. (One of the things that strikes me is that some of the word usage errors Golden made in A Memoir of a Geisha were corrected in the Japanese translation.)

    Turning my eye to A Marker to Measure Drift…

    There were a few things that bothered me about the novel. Liberians have extended families, whereas in A Marker to Measure Drift, Jacqueline doesn’t have a sense of anyone outside of her immediate family. The focus on the nuclear is more North American. Most of Jacqueline’s interactions are benign, and she hardly experiences any racism even though she’s an African refugee in Europe. This part struck me because I’d recently read a novel in progress where an African refugee from war wants to head back to Somalia because of the racism she experiences.

    I also think La Rocco has a point when she notes that Maksik depending on readers not knowing anything about the Liberian history. For instance, when does it happen? The Second Civil War started two years into Taylor’s reign. The first one ended just two years before. Why does Jacqueline have to go through the BBC to find out about Charles Taylor’s atrocities? On election day in Liberia people were chanting, “You killed me pa, you killed my pa, I will vote for you.”

    Stumbling blocks for me in enjoying the novel.

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  19. Articles Read & Loved no. 8 | KRISTEN DOT COM
    at 9:27 pm on June 12, 2014

    […] Particular Ways of Being Wrong by Natalie Bakopoulos examines the failure of literary critics in their reviews to engage with the book on its own terms and concentrate on an author’s personal life instead. The question of whether art should be considered on its own terms regardless of the personal faults of the artist has been on my mind, especially in light of Dylan Farrow’s renewed accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen. Does liking and enjoying Allen’s films mean you’d defend his alleged moral depravity? Does it mean you’re ignoring the fact that he may be a criminal? Bakopoulos argues that the role of the critic, to engage with the creative work, shouldn’t be impeded by the private life of an artist. Yet art does not exist in a vacuum, so does lauding and celebrating the novel or film of a sexual offender mean we’re letting art take precedence over morality? I think maybe the question I’m asking is: the artist’s private life shouldn’t be considered when judging their work, but are there certain cases when it should? […]

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