Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Here's what real criticism looks like

It's always nice to read a well-written book review. Two have caught my eye of late:

  • Malcolm Gladwell reviews Charles Tilly's Why? at The New Yorker.
Gladwell returns, this time training his lens on humanity's innate need for justification:
When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious. By Tilly’s logic, abortion proponents who want to engage their critics will have to become better storytellers—and that, according to the relational principles of such reason-giving, may require them to acknowledge an emotional connection between a mother and a fetus.

...Tilly argues that these conflicts are endemic to the legal system. Laws are established in opposition to stories. In a criminal trial, we take a complicated narrative of cause and effect and match it to a simple, impersonal code: first-degree murder, or second-degree murder, or manslaughter. The impersonality of codes is what makes the law fair. But it is also what can make the legal system so painful for victims, who find no room for their voices and their anger and their experiences. Codes punish, but they cannot heal.
Much of the time Flaubert's influence is too familiar to be visible. We so expect it that we hardly remark of good prose that it favors the telling and brilliant detail; that it privileges a high degree of visual noticing; that it maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary; that it judges good and bad neutrally; that it seeks out the truth, even at the cost of repelling us; and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible. You can find some of this in Defoe or Austen or Balzac, but not all of it until Flaubert. And after Flaubert, it sometimes seems, this is all you can find.
This really makes me want to read Madame Bovary now. It's been sitting on my shelf for months now, tempting me. That's the great thing about Wood's essays; they charge you up with the appetite for rediscovery. He published a marvelous collection of them in 2000 called The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief; there's a particularly sharp essay on Nikolai Gogol's work which is endemic of his approach on the whole: fond yet unsentimental, practical yet hopeful. He doesn't hold much sympathy, however, for modernists like Toni Morrison or Thomas Pynchon (and he makes a strong argument for it, too), but you can't have everything in life.

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