Monday, October 22, 2007

In Which I Rant About An Esteemed American Critic

Adam Gopnik is one of the best critics writing in America today. Along with Louis Menand and John Updike, he’s one of the critics in the New Yorker that I always read. He is intelligent, of course, (how do you become a critic for the New Yorker if you’re not? Only David Denby knows); but more importantly he’s enthusiastic; he isn’t cynical about what he reads and he manages to combine the erudition and training of an expert with the passion and perspective of an amateur.

That said, there is inevitably a passage in every one of his essays that irritates the living heck out of me. The passage in question this week comes at the end of a discussion on abridged versions of classic novels. (Apparently a British press is now publishing half-length versions of long 19th-century masterpieces like Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Anna Karenina.) Gopnik is surprised to find that most abridged novels seem to read as well as the originals.
“.... when you come to the end of the compact “Moby-Dick” you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

What drives me bonkers here is the last sentence. It’s intended to be clever, but in fact it’s false—and the reason it’s false is because Gopnik is trying so hard to be clever.

Why is it false? Because the abridged version of Moby Dick is not, in any way, phallic. I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not “reach” and “point” are accurate descriptions of a phallus; let’s say for now that Gopnik is right, and that they are (but they’re not). Even so, there exists no person in this Universe who, upon finishing a book sharing the traits with the abridged version of a classic—one that is “sound, sane” and well-plotted—thinks to themselves, “You know, that book had reach. It had point.” No one. Not even Adam Gopnik. How could he? Those words bear no relation to the reading experience he describes.

What’s more, Gopnik knows this. How can he not? Anyone smart enough to write the rest of this essay must have known, when he coined that formulation, he was saying something that was not true. He knew, and did it anyway. The pun at the end of the paragraph (“All Dick and no Moby”) was important enough that he could justify the falsity its creation demanded. He wanted to sound clever, and even though that required him to say something untrue, he didn’t care.

It’s one thing to distort experience because you are, at root, unable to capture it. That’s a lack of skill; and though it is a failing, it is not a moral one. But Gopnik has no problem getting experience right, if he wants to. He has the skill; he’s just chooses not to use it. (If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the essay). And that, ultimately, is why passages like these make me so angry—because his failure is not the failure of the mediocre writer. He could say something true, but chooses not to. He would rather sound smart than write the truth. And that IS a moral failing.


Saxo philologus said...

I have to agree with you irritation at that last sentence. I thought Gopnik's essay was excellent, as they usually are, but in every piece he includes a too-cute phrase (or two or three) like that one that undermines your faith in the rest of his argument.

John said...

You guys like Gopnik more than I do. I've found him increasingly insufferable since he returned from France.

Mr. Guapo said...

He has his bad days, but I still think he's one of their best. Certainly he's one of their more versatile. My complaints about the play on words notwithstanding, the article I describe here was excellent.

some.guez said...

Critics are writers like all the other. And the great last sentence is necessary not only on the merit of purposefulness, but also as required by a reader who wants to read a good prose no matter what the application of the piece might be. The punchline in the end is applicable to the novel on many levels and plainly it is a good piece of prose. So good that I take your irritation for envy.

(No offense, I envy him all the time).

Mr. Guapo said...


I admire Gopnik, generally, yes. But I don't envy him. Certainly I don't envy the writing in the sentence I quote. I don't think the sentence at the end qualifies as 'good prose' because it is ultimately a falsehood. Worse it's a falsehood uttered knowingly, to generate an effect. A deliberate lie spoken to beguile a reader is almost the definition, for me, of bad prose.

some.guez said...

You more or less repeated what you told in your main post. That was hardly necessary, I read it carefully. There is no need also, I am afraid, to get into the long argument about what constitutes lie and what belongs to the realm of the author's opinion. You are very clear on that. Unfortunately, a lie is something you disagree with. I haven't read all your blog, so I cannot say, whether I should've written "anything you disagree with". That'd be too bad.

The point of contention is, I understand, the penile metaphor. In my opinion, it is rather necessary here, because later Gopnik attempts to lay writers/directors on the analyst couch. (And do that brilliantly). As an early warning he introduces the very familiar item around which male insecurities gather. BTW, did you notice, that there is no female artist is said to undergo the "correction"? This fact is never mentioned, but it is important and consistent with the culprit trope.