November 10, 2011

Eight years later Jonathan Lethem still fuming over James Wood’s review of “The Fortress of Solitude”


Jonathan Lethem is not happy

How bad does a negative review sting, how much does it get beneath the skin? it’s been eight years since Jonathan Lethem‘s The Fortress of Solitude was reviewed in The New Republic by James Wood and, as he writes in his essay titled “My Disappointment Critic” at The Los Angeles Review of Books, ”Eight years later, I haven’t quit thinking about it.”

We’re taught to turn the other cheek, but the instinct for self-defense is hard to repress. Again and again novelists succumb to the ill-advised yet seemingly irresistible decision to strike back, in writing, against the reviewer who slighted them. The results are almost always unappealing, such as when Alice Hoffman encouraged her readers via Twitter to call a negative Boston Globe reviewer at home, or when Alain de Botton left a note on a reviewer’s blog stating “I will hate you till the day I die.” Wounded pride has never led to sober argument and self-pity rarely leads to sympathy.

To his credit, Lethem, in his attack on Wood, seems to know that he’s making a terrible mistake: “Why, I hear you moan in your sheets, why in the thick of this Ecstasy Party you’ve thrown for yourself, violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review?” But, even though he seems to know his dignity and decency won’t escape unscathed, he can’t help himself.

What follows is rather what you’d expect. Lethem argues that Wood had “an agenda,” “misunderstands,” writes in a “passive-aggressive” style, requires “high-literary influences,” and wrote the review “in bad faith.” He compares Wood to “a high priest, handing down sacred mysteries” or ”a border cop, checking IDs” and says he hopes he’s “embarrassed” by what he wrote. Given all this umbrage, you might be surprised to discover that Wood’s review is far from negative, and takes particular pleasure in the first three hundred pages of the book which deal with growing up on the streets of 1970s Brooklyn. Since Lethem does not quote a single sentence from the review he dislikes so much, here’s an extended sampling from Wood’s review of Fortress of Solitude:

The first part of this book, almost three hundred pages, represents a remarkable, often ravishing conjuration of the perpetual summer of childhood, quite different in tone and depth from any of Lethem’s earlier, lighter work….[His] ability to seize at once the knowingness and the inexperience of children lets Lethem roam with freedom over large communal areas of childhood, and in particular over the kind of kids’ daily street theater that most acutely combines those two qualities….Lethem’s use of “you” takes the ignorance and the innocence of childhood “truths” and makes them group-knowing, just as children ignorantly are; and their annunciation in turn only reveals how fundamentally unknowing the group really is. Every so often, Lethem throws out one of these supposed truths or facts. It seems a fact at school that “Chinese kids wouldn’t go to the bathroom all day, they lived that much in their own world”–a rather brilliant evocation of simultaneous ignorance and presumption. Or: “People in cars weren’t New Yorkers anyway, they’d suffered some basic misunderstanding.” ….Like a good many American novelists of his generation and gender, Lethem has a fondness for over-articulate explanation; call it Franzenism. Such writers seem never to have met an implication that they could leave be; the implicit is always to be prized from its shell and consumed publicly, with much italicizing and exhibitionism. In this sense, one might charge Lethem with having written a lively collection of dramatized essaylets and riffs on various codes of Brooklyn street life in the 1970s….Curiously, however, though this will become a besetting vice in the third and final part of the novel, and will threaten to unravel all of Lethem’s finely gathered threads, it does not threaten the first part of the book. If there is an air of being cleverer than little Dylan, there is never an air of being cleverer than Dylan at Dylan’s expense. If the prose turns analytical, then the subject of the analysis remains fresh and uncharted to most of us. Above all, we share the feeling, often infectious, that Lethem himself wants to work this mass of codes out, that he is exploring it anew. There is a genuine atmosphere of cognitive novelty; Lethem manages to combine childish innocence and adult knowingness (not just childish knowingness) in ways that ought to fail but invariably delight and intrigue….And Lethem delights and intrigues in the end because, while a perfectly adept theorizer, he is a much better painter. His street scenes, his pictures from childhood, have a true coloration; they are drawn, not just spoken. Thus Lethem manages to bring alive what was theoretically over-determined in DeLillo’s Underworld.

And there you have it. Wood finds Lethem’s descriptions quite wonderful, his analytical thinking about society less so, but overall admires the way the elements are fused in the depiction of urban childhood. However, for Lethem, this is not a valid thing to discuss. What galls him most is that Wood did not write, in his long review, about the supernatural aspects of the novel

[Wood] couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say)….A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism” — mimeticism is the word I prefer — into crisis by insisting on uncanny events.

It’s an odd argument. Lethem seems to feel that the inclusion of magic and the uncanny exempts the novel from the kind of criticism Wood does: studying how Lethem’s language is used to depict a setting, a character, dialogue, street games, bullies, racial dynamics, children’s thinking and jokes, etc. Because Lethem references comic books and takes his title from Superman, Lethem believes he should not be compared to Henry Roth (even favorably, as Wood does). It is as if Lethem wishes to exist outside literary history (a history whose evolution Wood is always interested in) and feels his pop cultural PoMo methods ought to liberate him from such old-fashioned considerations as the sentences themselves.

When the review came out, Lethem sent Wood a “a long, intemperate letter” to which Wood responded: “I’m sorry you felt that way…I liked the book so much more than any of your other work.” Lethem is appalled by the response. “His tone, it seemed to me, that of an aristocrat….as though my effort bore an odor of ingratitude.”

It seems to me that Lethem is being terribly ungrateful. Wood had just spent many days reading and considering Lethem’s work, and had, in language every bit as beautiful and careful as Lethem’s own, written an extensive, thoughtful, precise evaluation of the book. Perhaps he truly was sorry to find in his mail a wrathful letter from the author whose work he had studied with such interest and attention. Authors should be lucky to have one person who engages so closely with the fantasies they have spun out. In contrast, Lethem’s counterattacking essay, for all its angst, shows little understanding or interest in Wood’s actual writing, in what he’s doing when he sits down with a book and why that might have a value of its own.  In the end, Lethem’s essay gives us very little understanding of what, exactly, is so wrong with Wood’s review. Lethem never cites a single sentence from Wood’s review, admits to only “cursory” reading of Wood’s other reviews, and instead engages in a kind of vague character assassination. It’s humorous that Lethem’s ostensible attack on Wood’s criticism is itself such a striking example of lazy criticism. Lethem writes huffily that  ”I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood.” Well, he’s certainly remedied that here; “My Disappointment Critic” is completely and utterly about Lethem.

As for the second part of the postcard, it has to one of the great back-handed compliments of all time. That Lethem would willfully reprint it seems laughably masochistic.

I liked the book so much more than any of your other work.


Yeah, that one is going to hurt for a long time.