The impulse behind good bad reviews

Drew Johnson wrote in the Paris Review of November 19, 2012:

“In February of this year, Adam Mars-Jones, an English writer not much known in this country, won the inaugural Hatchet Job of the Year award for his review of Michael Cunningham’s Nightfall: “And a two-person epiphany has to outrank the single kind. Two comely young people standing in the lake shallows, ‘looking out at the milky haze of the horizon’—that’s not an epiphany, that’s a postcard.”

Geoff Dyer, another English writer, much better known since 2008’s Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanisi brought most of his strange work back into print, was nominated for his attack on Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending:

Later, after Tony has broken up with his girlfriend, Adrian commits suicide. This would be my first objection. Obviously people commit suicide, for a variety of reasons, but in fiction they tend to do so primarily in the service of authorial convenience. And convenience invariably becomes a near-anagram of contrivance.

The impulse behind good bad reviews is not much understood, and whether understood or not, is usually disliked or dismissed. It’s considered ungenerous, as though generosity could never be misplaced. In their careers, Dyer and Mars-Jones have risked this dislike regularly, but it’s worth reading them at their other best, when they’re admiring works that they love, works that have continued in their minds, works they’ve continued to live alongside.

For that other best is rooted in a love that you can find in their best negative reviews. I’d argue that Mars-Jones wrote a better, even a beautiful, negative review last year, his brilliant dismissal of Orhan Pamuk’s Norton Lectures (published as The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist).

After unpacking the relentless clichés in this very bad little book and finding nothing underneath, Mars-Jones offers something else instead (another mark of a good bad review), which, in the final paragraphs of the review, is a better and more beautiful ars poetica than anything offered by Pamuk:

It’s common sense to assume that artists know what they’re doing, but art is not the domain of common sense. T. S. Eliot has been mocked for disclaiming any authority as an interpreter of his own work, but the opposite assumption is at least as suspect. One novelist who offers a useful version of the writing process in its abstract mechanics is Michel Tournier in his 1977 essay Le vent paraclet. His idea is that novels are cleverer than their writers. Don’t compliment me on my imaginative brilliance, he says, just give me credit for using a device that stores impulses over time. A battery. The novel. The writer spends months if not years generating a charge that the reader experiences in a matter of hours. It’s the same with the suicide who throws himself off the Eiffel tower after climbing to the top. He’s pulped by the same potential energy he built up step by step, because it’s discharged so rapidly.

Each of these two men also have short, newish books on a single film: Noriko Smiling, by Mars-Jones, a longish essay on Ozu’s Late Spring, and Zona, Geoff Dyer’s convoluted, slightly longer book about Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As criticism, both works are curious. They rely heavily on conversational plot summary, tangents; there is nothing formal to be seen. They take for granted that the most important thing in discussing art is not to be bored while discussing art. And so they defy the practice of criticism as we know it. And in fact, both books are less critical works than devotional texts. Not holier than thou, but humble in their intentions. I can approach God or Ozu or Tarkovsky without special dispensation and so can you. Some sort of admirably amateurish engagement is what they both ask.

They are also devotional because they come after a long critical tradition that assumed (or at least assumed that we assumed) the cultural utility of narrative, of film, and of criticism, and that the reality of characters and their problems could be dismissed practically before the discussion ever began. Both of these books—and those like them—take us down as close to the object as they can, in order to teach us again how to watch…

But although Mars-Jones and Geoff Dyer both behave as though they are agents of the Secret Service—throwing themselves bodily between their films and normal criticism—the swelling orchestral nonsense of contemporary autobiography is nowhere to be seen. Dyer doesn’t tell us to care about Stalkerbecause his parents didn’t buy the cuts of meat they wished they had or because he never had a threesome. This isn’t the kind of audience-hostage-taking autobiography that David Mamet once compared to bringing a gun to a knife fight. There is this movie, Stalker, you see, and it reminds him of things. That’s all.

Another way both authors signal that these viewing accounts are meant to be provisional is their willingness to say they don’t know. Adam Mars-Jones goes on about Noriko’s father, an old professor, and his habit of rubbing his wooden cigarette holder against the sides of his nose, then throws up his authorial hands and says, Who knows why? You tell me, he says. Dyer does the same, mentioning the many animals of some zoo, including the Przewalski’s horse, then adds, “whatever that is,” conspicuously mentioning not only what he does not know, but did not look up.

Why this gesture from both men?…Neither Dyer nor Mars-Jones came to the attention of the Hatchet Judges because they were easygoing, but even as they discuss the films they love, the make it clear not only that they do not know everything, they don’t revere everything. Dyer kicks L’Avventura to the curb, mostly to show us that he can be bored by a slow, apparently aimless film, so that we will trust him while he provides running commentary to Stalker, one of the greatest boring films of all time. He does the same to Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, as well as to late Henry James, admitting that the moment has passed. He’ll never try for the pleasures of those works.

Mars-Jones echoes this at the outset of Noriko Smiling, saying he hasn’t seen much Japanese cinema, going so far as to mention that, as he writes, a Criterion Silent Naruse is sitting unopened on his DVD player. These are not the Church fathers endorsing the hierarchies. Instead they are admitting that the hierarchies only serve to push us away, putting many removes and understandings between us and the ability to be engaged by a novel or a film. And in this way, they’re even at odds with that other up-to-the-minute genre: I took a year off to become the absolute best at cooking/reading Dante/Proust/Joyce/Carol Oates/memorizing/Paris, and so on.

But despite this different DIY approach, neither book is falsely egalitarian and they don’t dumb anything down. The books demand your reaction and intelligence, and not your education or understanding of this or that. It remains to be seen if these traditions—the novel and the narrative film—can be saved from the kind of curation that has befallen poetry or ballet, or that this year’s Oscar nominees celebrate. Their Hatchet-nominated reviews are not dead-end asides, but preludes to appreciation. Clearing the way, so that Noriko Smilingand Zona and Late Spring and Stalker can be ours fully and pointedly—and not just as part of an interminable and very bland general appreciation.”

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