Little Children

Little Children
Tom Perrotta

It’s hard to judge little children. They aren’t as morally developed as adults, and are likely to behave in ways that are selfish and irresponsible. At least that’s the generous way of looking at Sarah and Todd, a couple of young married types, each with kids, but unemployed and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Can we forgive these grown-up yuppie kids, or “grups,” their infidelities? Isn’t it the adult world that has in some way let them down?

I really enjoy Perrotta’s eye for contemporary detail and his ironic adaptation of Madame Bovary to the Boston ‘burbs. The one reservation I have is that while all of Perrotta’s characters are presented in a wry but humane manner – as flawed, humorous, and sympathetic – he doesn’t take their lives seriously. Are there, finally, any consequences to their actions? It can’t be a coincidence that the novel begins and ends on the playground, and we spend more time there (and the pool, and the playing field) than we do at any workplace. This isn’t life in a bubble but a bubble chamber. I don’t think a novel, or the novel, should be such a safe space.

Washington Rules

Washington Rules
Andrew J. Bacevich

The title of this broadside has a double meaning, referring to America’s status as imperial superpower as well as the set of doctrines and principles by which it seeks to govern the world. It was published as part of the American Empire Project alongside books like Noam Chomsky’s What We Say Goes, and Chomsky’s title also works as a pretty good summary of what Bacevich means by the rules, which boil down to the application of force to achieve immediate, and often self-defeating or inconsistent, ends.

The basic point is that American foreign policy is grounded in the projection of military force globally and that as an empire America now exists in a permanent state of war. The tricky question is to what extent the American people have knowingly signed on to this program, been kept in the dark, and/or been willfully blind. Bacevich’s analysis suggests willful blindness, making the public not only complicit but culpable. Given the existence of books like this, it’s hard not to agree.

No News Is Bad News

By Ian Gill

The story is a by-now familiar one. Print is locked in a death spiral, starved for revenue because of the switch to a “culture of free” online. Newspapers are either cutting back or shutting down entirely. Postmedia and Torstar, to take just two of Canada’s biggest players, engage in public spats arguing over which of them will be going out of business first.

If you don’t know what’s been happening to the news business then you haven’t been following the news. In this new book former journalist Ian Gill isn’t sounding a fresh alarm. We’ve had warnings for decades, going back to the Davey Report and Kent Commission on the concentration of media ownership. Of course more recently things have been getting worse, faster, with disruptions fueled by the digital revolution and the move to alternative advertising avenues, not to mention the fallout from the economic downturn that struck in 2007-2008, but this is still a story that has been covered extensively elsewhere. Just last year an excellent book by Brian Gorman, Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption, provided an in-depth look at the situation, with insightful analysis and thoughts about the shape of things to come.

No News Is Bad News doesn’t go into the same detail as Crash to Paywall (which it oddly doesn’t reference), but is instead a breezier, more condensed broadside. While the problem both books address is the same, what’s different is their attribution of blame and their roadmaps for the future.

For Gill most of the blame lies with the news media itself, in particular the old, “legacy” news dinosaurs that have failed to adapt to the new media environment while at the same time cutting off access to revenue for up-and-coming alternative news sources.

To some extent, particularly with regard to the large chains, this criticism is deserved. The idea that newspapers can cut their way to profitability, for example, has clearly been a disaster, and thus far there have been few bold new ideas from the “wounded giants of yore” for monetizing the digital audience.

That said, the current crisis is largely the product of forces over which the news media has little to no control. At its best, you could argue that journalism in Canada today is better than it’s ever been. The problem is that the Internet economy is geared toward producing a handful of big winners at the cost of the destruction of everyone else, and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This same dynamic has led to the hollowing out of the middle class generally and the laying waste of entire cultural ecosystems, as described by Scott Timberg in Culture Crash.
Better journalism isn’t going to fix the problem of a vanishing audience, and the question that remains is how quality reporting, which is very much in the public interest, is going to be financed. A lot of Gill’s book is taken up with his interviews with people who have enjoyed some success in alternative (usually non-profit) media start-ups, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear, long-term, scalable business model aside from snagging grants from charitable foundations or subsidies from the government.

Like many a surveyor of the Canadian cultural landscape over the years, what Gill really wants to do is disrupt the status quo. At one time the Internet seemed to be a beacon of hope in this regard, but as we’ve seen it has only led to further consolidation and generally made matters worse. Gill is absolutely right that we need healthy, dynamic news media. The question is whether we want them bad enough.

Reviews first published in Quill & Quire, November 2016.

The Winter Family

By Clifford Jackman

The de-mythologizing of the Wild West in popular culture began with the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s. These movies eschewed the idealized and heroic Hollywood vision of the West and instead emphasized violence, moral ambiguity, and dirty realism.

The Italian influence continues to this day on both screen and page. In literature it reached a zenith with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the operatic saga of a bunch of brutal outlaws blazing a path of murder and destruction across the nineteenth-century American frontier.

Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family is very much a work in this same vein (Jackman names McCarthy as an important influence), and closely follows Blood Meridian with its story of a gang of psychopaths led by an almost mystical figure named Augustus Winter. Winter, like McCarthy’s Judge, is a Nietzschean superman who represents a brutal natural philosophy beyond good or evil, justice or law. As one early witness to Winter’s nihilistic “force of will” puts it: “What could you do with will like that? Where would it take you? What could stop you? How would it all end?”

Where it takes Winter and his adopted “family” is through an episodic plot that has them first joining together during Sherman’s march through Georgia, resurfacing to play a role in the murderous Chicago ward politics of the 1870s, fighting both natives and settlers in Phoenix and Oklahoma, and finally arriving, at least in some spiritual afterlife, in a California landscape dotted with oil derricks.

Such a broad canvas means that in addition to being a rousing novel full of exciting action sequences, Jackman’s book is also offering an interpretation of American history. His characters can even get rather talky when it comes to presenting their thoughts on the matter. At bottom, however, is the fairly simple notion that the Winter family are the manifest destiny of American culture and Darwinian capitalism in microcosm. They don’t represent the last breath of freedom before the closing of the frontier so much as the germ from which the larger chaos that is “civilization” will follow.

Jackman can’t match McCarthy’s overwrought rhetorical style, but he has nevertheless written a book that stands in that company, which is high praise indeed. It’s a philosophical Spaghetti Western that doesn’t stint on the tomato sauce, served up with flair.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2015.

Excellent Sheep and Fail U.

By William Deresiewicz

By Charles J. Sykes

The future of the university has been a hot topic for the last five years or so, warm with much talk of a higher-education “bubble.” There are certainly grounds for concern on this front. Here’s Charles Sykes with some American stats worth considering:

Since 2004, student debt has more than quintupled; 66 percent of students now borrow to pay for their education – up from just 45 percent as recently as 1993. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of student borrowers grew by 92 percent and the average student loan grew 74 percent. The average student now graduates with around $30,000 in student loans, while the portion of students with $100,000 or more has doubled. Millions of students carry debt burdens without getting any degree at all. Student loan debt now exceeds both the nation’s total credit card and auto loan debt. The delinquency rate on student loans is higher than the delinquency rate on credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages.

Comparing student loan debt to mortgage debt before the housing bubble burst in 2008, Sykes cites a report that says the balance of student loans has grown twice as fast. This is troubling.

But the economic worries are only part of it. From questions of whether the present system of higher education will survive a crash, or even a gentle deflation, concerned critics have also begun to question the role and value such an education has in contemporary life – to wonder what a university is for, and whether it is, not just in a financial sense, worth it.

The defence of a university, and in particular the value of a liberal arts education, has a long and rich history. So much so that William Deresiewicz knows that a lot of it now sounds clichéd. If you want to make the argument that a university education aids in giving purpose and meaning to one’s life, be aware that this is going to seem trite to most ears. “I am painfully aware that much of what I’ve been saying,” Deresiewicz says, “has long been reduced to cliché – and worse than cliché, advertising fodder. ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Do your own thing,’ ‘You only live once’; such sentiments are next to meaningless now.”

Meaningless or not, these are the lines that have to be trotted out because there isn’t much else to point to. Even without the threat of the financial bubble bursting, the arts in particular have been experiencing a tremendous crisis of confidence lately (see, for example, my joint review of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature and John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts?).

In these two books blame for the current crisis is spread around. Some of the problems universities face are of their own making. They spend too much money – far too much money – on bloated administration and buildings. There has been a “flight from teaching” into the more lucrative field of research, leaving the university’s most important function to a growing class of underpaid sessionals. In repackaging an education as a consumer good they have made the university experience over into a meaningless exercise in accreditation. If consumers (students) want easy marks and a “safe space,” then that’s what they’re going to get.

But it’s not all the fault of our universities. The economy and, even more broadly, the culture have moved on. If the real purpose of a university education, as has been argued for many years now, is to provide a badge of one’s social-economic class, then we might expect something like the present crisis to be occurring as that class has come under increasing pressure. Try making a sales pitch like this to a member of today’s shrinking middle class:

You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.

What makes what Deresiewicz is saying here a little hard to take is that he is preaching to a class, America’s elite, who, as he capably demonstrates, have nothing to fear from falling anyway. The faux-meritocracy aren’t going anywhere, as they have already “made it” from birth. Then there is the implicit assumption that becoming “fully human” is only something that can be achieved from an elite education. Elsewhere in his book Deresiewicz tempers this somewhat, saying that, if the purpose of education is to turn adolescents into adults, “You needn’t go to school for that, but if you’re going to be there anyway, then that’s the most important thing to get accomplished.” Still, I think experience tells most of us that higher education isn’t as necessary, useful, or even relevant to any of this becoming as it is made out to be.

It seems clear, at least to me, that some kind of contraction in the university economy is inevitable. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is going to come about voluntarily, with the system adopting a new philosophy that Charles Sykes summarizes as “smaller, fewer, less” (and, increasingly, “online”). But even if the bubble deflates without popping, a soft landing will still lead to much being lost. There’s a dark age ahead. The lamps of learning are going out all over academe. I don’t expect to see them lit again in my lifetime.

Review first published online May 22, 2017.

A Desolate Splendor

By John Jantunen

It may have become too easy now to invoke the name of Cormac McCarthy when discussing a certain strain of contemporary fiction, but when the shoe fits such comparisons are unavoidable.

John Jantunen’s second novel is firmly set in McCarthy country. The time and place are indeterminate, but the social, physical, and linguistic landscape are very much borrowed from the master.

A great war, or some such collapse, has destroyed civilization and thrust humanity several hundred, or even thousand, years back into a preindustrial, indeed barely agricultural, wasteland. It is a reflex American frontier, with the course of empire running in reverse over a burnt-over district of mythic savagery.

The figures in this landscape have degenerated in a similar way. They are not intellectual or spiritual beings, their morality scarcely advanced beyond Bronze Age concepts of loyalty to one’s family or one’s hounds. There is no God in heaven but only “the desolate splendor of the world beyond ours,” meaning the stars. Meanwhile, back on Earth, life has been reduced to the rudiments of survival: gathering food, rutting, and fighting off wild animals (including murderous tribes of other, even further devolved humans).

The language has the poetic twang of McCarthy’s folksy-archaic-Biblical style. It sounds like this: “Above the camp, the moon peered through a haze drift of smoke and the stars were but motes coruscate against the void, indifferent and laggard in their contemplation of the mortal world below.” A man stands beneath these stars in “sullen recompose,” listening to a woman “break into baleful lamentations.” The direct speech – unencumbered, as in McCarthy, with quotation marks – is rendered in a rustic dialect that’s a generation removed from book learnin’. One of the characters complains that “I’ma tryin ta read” when in fact he is only describing pictures in books.

This is the world of A Desolate Splendor, and if it sounds like a McCarthy novel, right down to the archetypal characters – centrally, “the man” and “the boy” – that’s still some achievement.

In addition, however, Jantunen is a talented storyteller in his own right, with a real gift for describing the richness and magical qualities of the natural world. There is something remarkably romantic and pagan in his evocation of the post-Apocalyptic wilderness. Though the characters seem at times to be little advanced from the mud or trees they emerge from, that natural environment is itself a thrilling, animistic place, where even the rocks seem to have a monstrous life of their own and “frogsong trill[s] in a nebulous thunder.”

The story is an odd piece of work, consisting of several different narrative blocks that bump into each other in bloody ways. The main characters are the boy and his father, who are homesteaders. The other groups include a gang of desperadoes, a pair of neo-native warriors, and a gathering of female breed stock. Also in the mix are feral packs of humanity who decorate their bodies with bones and paint. Instead of resolution the novel moves toward an affirmation of continuity, albeit at the lowest level of the continuance of the species. Civilization doesn’t seem likely to experience a rebound.

As familiar as some of this terrain has become, A Desolate Splendor surveys it with bleak confidence: a forceful, visionary novel written in passionate and sensual language.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2016.


By David Denby

What is snark? It’s a fitting question to ask considering how it began life as a nonsense word before going on to enjoy a brief moment in the media sun as a critical rallying cry.

David Denby, a professional film critic, seems like a good source to turn to for a definition, especially in a short book concerned with formulating a precise description of the phenomenon. Does he succeed? I’ll try not to be too snarky in my comments.

To begin with, the identification of snark is a value judgment, and like all such judgments much of it lies in the eye of the beholder. We know snark, or like to think we know it, when we see it. We may also be aware of degrees of snarkiness (Denby ranges them from high to low), and the very different personal responses we may have to it. Indeed, our own response may be conflicted. Denby “hates” snark but also finds it “irresistible.” Is it possible to make sense out of such ambivalence?

Given its inherent subjectivity, even the best efforts at nailing some kind of working definition down may come to nought. So in addition to trying to figure out what it is I’d like to go on to ask why we are hunting it down and what’s at stake. But, for the moment, we’ll put those questions to one side.

To begin with first principles: snark is a form of evaluative criticism, which is to say it passes judgment. Seeing as we’re calling it snark, our thumbs will usually be pointing down. In terms of its critical voice, snark may make use of irony, irreverence, or spoof, but, as Denby breaks it down, it is something different than all of these. Perhaps the quality it is most often identified with is sarcasm. It is criticism with bite. But as Clive James wrote, in defense of snark, “all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree.” It’s just a question of how much pepper you like.

To this essentially negative or adverse character Denby would add two other qualities. In the first place, snark is personal. It isn’t just an attack on something but someone: the person (or people) responsible for whatever it is the critic is finding fault with. Extended to the political realm – and this is a direction Denby really wants to take snark, though I’m not sure it’s a wise move – it means going after a politician’s personal qualities, and in particular their race and gender.

The reason I don’t think expanding snark to discussions of politics is a wise move is because I believe a politician’s personal qualities are among the things voters should know about. I’m not talking about jibes at Barack Obama for being black or Hillary Clinton for being a woman – these examples of bigotry and crude insult are only straw men Denby sets up. But surely mocking a politician for personal failings that go to matters of judgment or temperament, in whatever context those qualities express themselves, is fair game.

Political snark, however, does highlight something about snark that is a real problem. One functional definition of snark might simply be the expression of an opinion, often but not always made in a sarcastic tone, that you disagree with. Or, if this isn’t the difference between snark and not-snark, it’s at least the difference between snark to be avoided and snark you like. Criticizing Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton isn’t just snark, it’s hate speech. Criticizing George W. Bush or Donald Trump is an exercise of critical wit or irony. Thus, for Denby: Maureen Dowd bad, Stephen Colbert good. And Keith Olbermann (another liberal commentator) can be excused because “he may use snark as a weapon, but snark is not his general mode.” Which makes no sense at all to me except as partisan positioning.

This business of taking sides is the way that I’ve typically found the label of snark being used in discussions of book and film reviewing. Now I’ll admit labeling snarky reviewing can be difficult. Denby quotes from one of the earliest anti-snark manifestoes, by Heidi Julavits, as finding “it hard to separate justified cruelty in criticism from mere showing off,” and immediately adds “I agree: One can’t make general rules about it; one can only go on a case-by-case basis.” This makes any attempt at definition (which is a “general rule”) kind of pointless, and it also opens the door for that eye-of-the-beholder quality I began by mentioning. Thus the helpfulness of my rule of thumb for identifying snark as the expression of an opinion you disagree with. If you find yourself in sympathy with the negative judgment being passed on a new novel or film then you’ll likely find the review insightful, courageous, important, well-written, clearly argued, cogent, etc. If you disagree with it then you’ll think it’s just a snark attack. It really is that easy.

The other quality Denby uses to characterize snark is that it is criticism without “a coherent view of life” or any vision of what is of value. Snark is nihilistic, tearing down everything indiscriminately, without appeal to any common standards. Here again we are led into danger. What if one’s values are nihilistic? Or what if the vision of what is of value that is being expressed is different than our own? Aren’t we likely to see criticism from any uncongenial perspective as snark?

From my own experience, snarky critics tend to be among the most passionate and even idealistic critics going. So when Denby writes that if you “scratch a writer of snark . . . you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity” who recognizes “no standard but celebrity” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Most of the snark I recognize as such is radically opposed to media conformity, and has no greater enemy than celebrity.

All of this is just to point out that definition is pretty much impossible. But, to return to the question I flagged earlier, why are we so intent on calling it out? What’s at stake? Why does Denby care?

That’s another hard question to answer. As noted, Denby doesn’t mind some snark. There is snark he finds enjoyable. But there is something at stake in the hunting of the snark. We have to be concerned at any line being drawn around critical expression and, yes, freedom of speech. Denby is careful to say that he doesn’t want to forbid snark, but at the same time he would clearly like to see the worst examples of it eliminated. This is dangerous territory for anyone, but especially a professional critic, to enter into. Nevertheless, Denby is far from alone in taking his stand among those who have grown tired of an excess of voices and divergent views, particularly on the Internet. And as the trend toward media cocooning continues, insulating ourselves online in a web of self where opinions disagreeing with our own can be safely filtered, this is very much swimming with the tide.

Finally, why does Denby care? I don’t know, but some of his own snarkiness offers some hints. Denby is an older, establishment critic, having been a film reviewer for the New Yorker for over twenty years. Who are the people who really bother him (aside from Maureen Dowd)? Bloggers who are only adept at “schoolyard taunts.” Punks who are dismissed as “today’s snarky pipsqueaks.” “The snarkers,” Denby tells us, “sound like kids – and not like wild, beautiful, and crazy kids, either, but like hoods and brats.”

One gets that Denby wants to defend standards of “intellectual complexity or wit” (domain of the Scriblerian snarkers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift), but those standards, as we’ve seen, remain relative, subjective, and uncertain. Meanwhile, what really upsets him are those critical kids on his lawn, the ones (as his subtitle has it) “ruining our conversation.”

But there is no single conversation, just as there is no single set of critical standards. There are many conversations, taking place in many different rooms. Some of these we may want to join, while others we try to avoid. But any form of criticism, in my opinion, can be good for the soul. And snark, paradoxically, might even teach us to be less judgemental and more tolerant of the views of others, in whatever form they are expressed. The form an idea takes, after all, is an idea or mode of thought itself. And the worst thing we can do is to try to make the world a place that always agrees with us.

Review first published online May 1, 2017.