in this week’s New Yorker. I don’t believe in criticism for the sake of showing off how clever you are. I also think if you are interested in the arts, you will be more satisfied at the end of your life if you worked to support artists rather than take them down. But I also don’t believe solid criticism shouldn’t exist and that negative opinions should never be stated.
Michel Houellebecq’s books have garnered enough attention that they won’t be destroyed by close, critical, rather devastating examination. James Wood isn’t intimidated by Houellebecq’s Frenchness. He exposes his writing as misogynist, pseudo-philosophical, and worse, not that well written:
“Is Michel Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions … But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize these ideas – the scenes characters, dialogue, and so on – are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. Characters, usually women, are killed off with flippant dispatch, backstories pencilled in with bald strokes, scenes cursorily sketched, conversation often ludicrously implausible or monotonously self-therapeutic.”
Ouch… I get the feeling people read Houellebecq because of the dramatic nihilism and the “pornographic fervor of his writing and for the theorizing he likes to do around his sex scenes”. It makes you feel cool. And it’s translated from French, he’s a compatriot of Barthes, Lacan, Foucault…
James Wood became my critic-hero when he took down Paul Auster in The New Yorker a few years ago. I had always thought Auster was overrated and formulaic, so much post-modern posturing. I got tired of seeing his books around – so many better novels people could be talking about! I suspected he was big in Europe because his translators were better writers than he was and because they take place in New York City. I kept scouring the web for like-minded readers, to no avail. Wood wrote a wonderfully lucid, analytical and devastating critique of Auster, the essay I had been hungry to read.
Other vastly overrated novelists (in my humble opinion): Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Ayn Rand (right? NOT GOOD WRITING, plotting, dialogue, etc.), Tao Lin, Brett Easton Ellis (though I’ve only read Less Than Zero, so perhaps that’s unfair).
Incidentally, there’s another brilliant take-down in this week’s issue. Peter Schjeldahl on Damien Hirst: “Hirst will go down in history as a peculiarly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That’s not Old Master status, but it’s immortality of a sort.”
He has two very incisive sentences (on Hirst’s spot paintings) that could apply to so much contemporary poetry I encounter: “His work comprehends all manner of things about previous art except, crucially, why it was created. It smacks less of museums than of art-school textbooks. What may pass for meaning in the spot paintings is the sum of their associations in the history of abstraction. The more you know of that, the cleverer the paintings might make you feel. Buying one, you can hang it on your wall like a framed diploma from Smartypants U.”