2012 Roger Shattuck Prize

Jun 12, 2012 by

I was honored to receive the 2012 Roger Shattuck Prize in literary criticism from the Center for Fiction. Below is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at the ceremony, on May 30.

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It’s been said—usually by writers taking a swipe at critics—that nobody dreams of growing up to be a book reviewer. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I did. There’s a part of me that still can’t believe that I make a living doing what I love to do most: reading and thinking about books. I know my children think it’s a little ridiculous that I get to stay home and read all day while other people have to go to work. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be engaged in work that I not only enjoy but also believe in—work that takes over my mind and my life just as the books I constantly accumulate take over my apartment, but work that nonetheless always feels like a privilege and an honor.

It might sound odd or grandiose to speak of book reviewing in these terms. One reason I’m grateful that an award like this one even exists is that we are living in a time in which criticism is suffering from a demotion in prestige. Newspapers across the country have closed their book review sections for lack of advertising. No one can mention Lionel Trilling anymore without reminding us in incredulous tones that his books were best-sellers—something few critics would dare to hope for today. Yet more books are being published than ever before, and people still seem to be eager to buy them, as long as they’re by Stieg Larsson.

But in all seriousness, it’s puzzling that the increase in books published has been met not with an increase in book reviewers, but rather with a decrease. I hate to blame the victims, but it does seem to me that we critics bear some responsibility. Because we haven’t gone down fighting. To a certain extent, I fear we’ve acquiesced in our own decline. Nearly a hundred years ago, Rebecca West, in a piece for The New Republic called “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” castigated her fellow reviewers for reducing their work to what she called “a chorus of weak cheers.” She complained about a general sense that it was silly to waste one’s fierceness on unserious matters: especially in a time of war, as when West was writing, art and literature can seem less important than politics. This perception persists in our own time of war: just look at the magazine editors who pay several dollars a word for feature stories, and a fraction of that for criticism—the most poorly paid beat in journalism.

Even if we agree with West that the life of the mind does matter, it can be tempting to fall prey to what she called the “vice of amiability”—to reserve our energy for supporting writers we admire rather than criticizing those we dislike. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard some famous writer or other declare that he or she only writes positive reviews, because negative reviews are so, well, negative. Some of us do this for reasons of self-preservation: we might run into our subjects at cocktail parties. But more often, I think it’s because of a misguided philosophy of criticism based on the idea that reviewing books is somehow secondary, even shameful—something no one grows up dreaming of doing. You see this assumption everywhere, even in the New York Times Book Review, where not long ago a legendary critic, reviewing a book of essays by another critic, cautioned his colleagues to “always understand that in this symbiosis”—meaning between writer and critic—“you are the parasite.”

It’s a pithy formulation. But it obscures the fact that some parasites are essential. We’re not fleas feeding off the blood of our hosts. Book critics and novelists are separate species who nonetheless need each other for their own mutual benefit. It’s obvious why the reviewer needs the novelist—not just any novelist, but a good novelist, even a great one, to challenge us to rise to his or her level. But the novelist also needs the reviewer: not just as a vehicle for advertisement, but as an enforcer of standards. If we speak only to praise—and my children can vouch that I’ve never been guilty of that—then praise itself becomes cheapened, and ultimately meaningless. Not all books are worth reading; some are dull, some are poorly written, and others can actually have a pernicious effect on our culture. It’s the task of the critic to champion books that deserve to be championed, and to take a stand against those that have the power to harm. And anyone who doesn’t believe that books have the power to harm is not taking them seriously enough.

Roger Shattuck once wrote that a work of art is like “a fallen comet, come down blazing and wonderful.” He strived to write about art in a way that would give insight not only into the work—which he called that “fallen, cold, heavy stone, awesome but dead”—but also into the human mind. The point, for him, wasn’t to boil everything down to categories and analysis, but to approach the work holistically, as a live thing. One of Shattuck’s great essays—more a short story than an essay—dramatizes a debate about how to talk about literature between a professor and a former student. The student argues passionately, and convincingly, against the academic model of criticism. Instead, he tells his professor—they’re talking about Marquez, but it could be any great writer—“Show us what he does and how. You’re good at that.”

Show us what he does and how. That’s the essence of criticism. He made it sound so simple, and maybe for him it was. He was good at that. I’m honored to be following in Roger Shattuck’s footsteps, and I’m so grateful to his family for supporting his legacy with this award.

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