Yes, there's been a lot of debate about William Giraldi's vicious pan of Alix Ohlin's recent collection and novel in The New York Times. Michelle Hoover and Tom Piazza are two you can search to get up to speed. And then, just recently, Giraldi published a letter to a young critic to further explain his perspective on criticism as well as what makes great literature.
I'm friends with Giraldi -- I love the guy, to be honest. But this isn't our first disagreement. He sent me the link to his new piece and I wrote him a fiery email. By the end of it, I was on a expletive tear... [See below -- cleaned up.]
I mentioned his review but the point here is that I fundamentally disagree with Giraldi on his limited definition of what makes a great novel. Language, he says again and again while belittling storytelling and ignoring, to my mind, the incredible architecture of the novel, psychology, insight, imagination, world building (both internal and external)... In fact, I find his definition small and stunted. I'll also say that I'm a writer who's known for my language. I know, intimately, why the reliance on language can be a death sentence. I've also taught in MFA programs -- what he calls mills don't feel like mills to me (I look at a garden and some flowers just burst into flame -- fires in the flowerbeds... That's what it's like, from my perspective... ) -- and I know that the writer who listens to the likes of Giraldi is probably going to suffer in the massive construct of a novel. Suffer profoundly. I'm also a poet. As a poet and fiction writer, I can take a long narrative poem and see it for the story it is, and I when I want to obsess about language, I've got a territory marked out for that. The work of writing a novel makes incredible demands, and the best are doing far more than language -- in fact, they're likely reeling in language itself in the process.
This is a cleaned-up version of what I wrote Giraldi yesterday about the novel and, in particular, language. Ellipses indicate where I've gone foul of mouth. I've changed a few to tone it down a little. (Hey, kids show up at this blog sometimes so I did my best.)
This is what I wrote to Giraldi:
I head-beatingly disagree. The sentence is the bottleneck of the novel.
Once upon a time, just starting out, I thought only sentence to
sentence. I believed that what mattered period to period was what
sustained a novel. Words. Nope. Not even close. I then moved to voice --
the right voice could sustain a novel. Sometimes true. Then I went to
the right ear. Imagine just one ear and the novel will sustain itself,
if the telling is urgent enough.
And now, I see it in my head. It's
visual. It exists as reels in my brain. I wake with it. I sleep with it.
I churn with it. I walk through my day and there aren't words in my
head -- no. There are -scapes. There are my people moving, shouting,
The older I get, the less I care about the damn
sentences and s*&t-ass words. Even when I was young, I wrote about a
visit from Paula Fox -- I wrote ... if only I could stick my fingers in
someone's ears and let them see it. It was there -- though my head was
swelled with words, cluttered with them. Even then I wanted something
more precise -- my vision given to you.
And now, do you know what I
think every time I open a book of poems? (I sometimes go long stretches
without reading a book of poems and then get excited when I see a new
one's out [by a poet I admire] ...) I open it up and read a few lines and my heart
sags -- Oh, they're still using words. They haven't invented anything
better, clearer... It's why, in part, my new poems use words dropped
from the English language. Because words fail me. Maybe if I
rummage through the trash of words, I'll find something we forgot.
Dear LORD, there's so much more to a novel -- a good novel, a great
novel -- than sentences. Often our young writers give language b/c
they've got little else. Older writers offer insights, perspective --
the gifts of age.
Now when writing is really bad -- truly bad -- I only see bad
writing, It blinds me to everything else. I can't see the story at all.
[I'll add here that books with great language sometimes work the same way. I read the language and miss the story.] But when the language works and gets out of its own ... way -- and
the writer is mature enough to not be relying on the old tap-dances of
language -- and we get insights, we get -scapes, we get story,
psychology, archetypal ..., relationships ... then I'm in. I'm all in. I'm sick of the little beautifully written domesticity of
story. Give me bodies, give me crashes, disease ... give me what
I see in this world. (Today, the neighbor tells me of the two year old
hit by the school bus -- all the kids in it -- the kids on our own
street in it.)
I'm so full of story -- I've got so much in my skull -- that lit-up
movie reel always ticking along. And I'm so ... tired of the
tinkering of word to word. It's nice and all, but screw it -- I want a
writer who'll give me something. I know sentences. I know pretty. Show
me what I don't know. Show me what's in your skull. Language be damned. Screw language with its little spade and its collapsible shovel
-- except if you want to use them to dig a trench and let me see the
WWI soldiers die in it, the old pig-bladder ball at their feet.
You see what I'm saying, Billy? There's no more time to be precious and prissy. You expecting to live forever?
You were too harsh on Ohlin. I never got a sense of her intentions -- b/c you were beating her up so loudly.
I love you. You know that. And I hope this doesn't reveal that I'm
an enemy. I'm surely no foe. I've just got a different agenda. And I'm
in no mood to withstand the test of time. Bloom and his pet geniuses can
kiss my ever-loving .... I've got a lit skull to let loose and I'm 43