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On criticism: a response to salon.com’s article on Alice Munro

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ALICE

Pictured: Alice Munro

I was alerted to an article published last Tuesday in salon.com by a Facebook friend: it transpires that Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books recently published a scathing critique of the work of the great short story writer and novelist, Alice Munro. In return, author Kyle Minor leapt to Munro’s defence by critiquing Lorentzen himself, arguing that a writer of Munro’s stature deserves no such “takedowns”. Both articles have provoked lively responses on social media. You can read Minor’s article here: http://www.salon.com/2013/06/10/in_defense_of_alice_munro/

I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and  therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
― Mark Twain

Such quid pro quos are not new. What I found fascinating were the comments left on my Facebook page. One devotee said Munro was “above criticism”. This really got me thinking. Is anyone “above criticism”? If literary works went uncriticised, most academics and reviewers would be out of a job. As a practising journalist for over 20 years, I passionately defend the right of free speech. But I believe three issues arise. (1) Has Lorentzen the right to criticise Munro? (2) Has Minor the right to criticise Lorentzen? (3) To what extent can a critique be viewed as reasonable if it strays into the personal?

Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.
― Christopher Hampton

What, then, is the role of the media critic? (I stress media as opposed to academic, because they fulfil different functions. The first represents popular culture, the second appeals to a more discrete coterie.) Surely it is to present a holistic overview of a work of art and to do so using a compelling rationale for those opinions, in language that is persuasive, independent, obviously non-defamatory and as objective as possible.  I italicise these words because, of course, all criticism is inherently subjective. However fair-minded a critic tries to be, he or she will ultimately surrender to personal bias. A critique is simply one opinion and as a reader, your affiliation to what a reviewer writes will depend on your own personal views about that critic and your own opinions about the work in question.

Post World War II, and arguably till about 10 years ago, the critic ruled supreme.  The great British critic Kenneth Tynan, for example, elevated theatre criticism into a true artform, combining incisive brilliance with literary excellence. Others preferred a more sensational approach and used skewering put-downs to build their reputations. The Daily Mail’s Milton Shulman was notorious for the cruelty of his reviews, once describing a JM Barrie play as “moving at the pace of cold porridge going uphill”. (And that was the positive part).

In Australia, our critics do not have the clout of those in the UK or the USA, who can damn a book or a show within days, resulting in lost sales or the cancellation of a season. But even there, the power of critics is diminishing. Firstly, when critiques in so many newspapers are written by authors who are friends with the writers they are reviewing,  it is hard to consider their reports anything more than an “I’ll scratch my back and you’ll scratch mine” exercise.

The second reason is the internet, whose democratising force has spawned thousands of critics, reviewers, bloggers, thought provokers and commentators, who have widened the forums of discussion. One of the greatest advantages is that it allows more opinions to be expressed but it also highlights the power of individual choice: no-one is forced to listen to, read or believe the traditional guardians of the Fourth Estate.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.
― W. Somerset Maugham

As consumers of internet material, we will take what we want from the reviewers we enjoy and disregard the rest. For example, I was very sad when critic Alison Croggan abandoned her excellent blog, Theatre Notes, an overview of Australia’s theatre scene, to concentrate on her own writing. I frequently found myself disagreeing with Alison’s views but there was no denying her erudition, her brilliant writing, and even when I took issue with her, I enjoyed her posts.

Having worked as a theatre critic for The Age newspaper for four years and as a playwright myself, I’ve experienced the critical landscape from both sides. And what bruised me most when I was the target of criticism was not that a reviewer may have disliked my play – that was their prerogative – but that they had not understood it or misread my goals and objectives. Yet however much I was tempted to reply, I’d still defend their right to voice their opinion. And what I found was that word of mouth was a more powerful persuader than a review: people would come, like the play, tell their friends, and before I knew it, my seasons had sold out.

I would argue that both Christian Lorentzen and Kyle Minor have every right to their personal  views on  Alice Munro. Should Minor have attacked Lorentzen? Certainly not for his beliefs. Besides, Munro is a formidable and established enough literary figure to weather the storm, nor is anyone denying her a right of reply. Those who love her will dismiss Lorentzen’s views as laughable. Where things get tricky is the very personal tone Lorentzen adopts in his article on Munro.  Here, I do believe, are grounds for recrimination.  As to whether this could yield grounds for legal dispute, that is another question entirely. However, when criticism strays into the partisan, it is no longer fulfilling its role as objective assessor and moves too close to agit prop for comfort.

Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.
―Joyce Carol Oats

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

11 thoughts on “On criticism: a response to salon.com’s article on Alice Munro

  1. That’s funny, Dina, I just read that LRB article on Alice Munro a few days ago. I hadn’t seen the Salon response, though, so thanks for linking to that, and for adding your own thoughts. I agree that criticism should never get too personal – it should really be about the work, and only refer to the author’s life when it’s strictly relevant to a point the critic is making about the work. To be honest I didn’t find the LRB article overly personal – I thought it was mostly about the flaws (in Lorentzen’s view) in Munro’s stories. I thought his points were well made, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with all of them. But I just flicked through it, really – I’ll go back again and read it more closely, with your article and the Salon one in mind.

    • Thanks Andrew – it was more the oblique references that seemed personal to me, references to Munro’s status as a writer for example. (In Australia, we’d say that cutting off the heads of tall poppies was one of the hazards of success.) As a writer yourself, have you ever come across criticism that appeared unjustifiable or are you one of those writers who tries to ignore reviews?

      • Ignore reviews? I wish I could! I really don’t believe those writers who say they don’t read reviews. In pre-internet days, perhaps they could have avoided the book pages of the newspapers for a few months, but now there are hundreds of people saying things about you all over the internet, and it’s all just a click away. I think it would take an unnaturally iron will to ignore all of that.

        Personally I haven’t had any reviews of my own work that I thought were unjustifiable. I’ve had the odd person on Amazon etc who hated one of my books, but they didn’t get personal or anything. Then again, my poppies are still quite low to the ground.

        (Am trying to comment using Twitter login, because for some reason it didn’t let me do it the way I did before)

      • Thanks Andrew – I’ve seen some very good reviews of your last book: I should probably read it now, so I can say some intelligent things about it when you comment on one of my posts again!

  2. I haven’t read either the LRB article, or the Salon’s response (oops!) so I’m off to remedy that straight away – but before I do, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post – and I’m really enjoying your blog, too!

    • Hi Michelle
      Thanks so much for your comments: I’m obviously trying to get the blog known by a wider audience, so I’m grateful for your positive response. At this early stage of Books Now!, I sometimes feel I’m writing for the ether, so it’s wonderful getting good feedback!
      Book to The Future’s also on my reading list!

  3. I am happy to have discovered your writing, and I hadn’t seen either of these reviews about Munro. It goes without saying that she is an icon of Canadian literature, and although not above criticism, I think the review lacked respect. I dare Laurentzen to present this review at a Can-Lit conference in Toronto!

    You raise some interesting questions here, but ultimately I think you are right: Anyone, like myself, who loves Munro will find Laurentzen’s review laughable. I actually did laugh out loud a few times. It’s as if he’s been holding it all in for years, and finally let it all out! I know people who don’t enjoy reading Munro — but are afraid to say so. That’s not right either. We need space to critique even the greatest of writers.

    Ultimately though, the review is just way too dismissive of Munro’s powerful prose. The point missed in the critique is that the personal is political. Without trying to, Munro helped raise consciousness in an entire generation of women — middle class, white, small-town/suburbanite, homemakers. And I am one of those women. What she did was and is important. And beautiful. End of rant. Canadian culture in tact.

    • Thanks so much – you’re absolutely right, the personal is political and your comment on how Munro reached out to so many women is a very important one. That surely is the measure of a writer’s worth: how many people have been touched by their work, affected by their words in some way that leads to action, or empathy, or awareness, laughter or tears? I greatly appreciated your rant!

  4. Ha, this Laurentzen person has really got my knickers in a knot! His Twitter feed is equally annoying – and very dismissive of Canadian lit in general. Like this review in the Globe and Mail states, it’s perfectly OK to hate Alice Munro, but that doesn’t make you right: “…he is not a brilliant novelist in his own right, and perhaps this is why he kind of misses the point. Munro is a master at pulling universal truths from even the grubbiest, most gothic farm kitchen sinks, and we are right to love her for it.” (http://m.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/why-its-perfectly-okay-to-hate-alice-munro/article12284482/?service=mobile)

    • This is intriguing, I had not read Laurentzen’s Twitter feeds, and I appreciate your bringing them to my attention. This raises more questions of course: the attitude of Great Britain towards “colonial” literature in general. Both Canada and Australia have experienced more than occasional condescension in this regard – I had hoped those days were over, but it appears not.

      • He is American, but living in the UK. But I do think there is a tone of condescension to his writing, and to this “Munro is boring” “small-town Canada is boring”…it’s not my style, but I suppose it gets attention.

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