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.

Best Canadian Essays 2016

Edited by Christopher Doda and Joseph Kertes

A collection of essays is a tough sell. The very word “essay” sounds like a work assignment, and it covers so much ground it’s hard to find the right shelf for such a volume in the bookstore. The Best American Essays series, for example, is one of a stable of annual titles brought out alongside Best American Sports Writing, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and Best American Travel Writing. In Canada, one volume has to cover everything.

Beginning with definitions, most people would understand an essay to be a species of non-fiction. But the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not always that great. Any piece of writing, at least any that’s worth reading, involves the exercise of art and imagination. As editor Joseph Kertes puts it, “The art of non-fiction lies in the storytelling ability of its creator, just as it does in fiction. I want to feel compelled to read it, compelled to know.”

These are the magazine pieces that weren’t just skimmed or glanced at, but which, to quote the master essayist Francis Bacon, had to be chewed and digested. They require being “read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

The vast range of topics are approached from perspectives that run from the intensely personal (memoir, anecdote, family history) to the professional (journalism and reportage on news and current events). Leona Theis’s speculative alternative biography “Six Ways She Might Have Died Before She Reached Nineteen” is a remarkable example of the former, while Richard Poplak’s “Dr. Shock,” a profile of a serial sex offender who worked as a psychiatrist in South Africa and then Canada, is typical of the latter approach. They’re very different essays, but both are eye-opening, compelling reads

Blending the two approaches is Kenneth Sherman’s terrific essay “Living Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor.” A scholar and poet in his own right, Sherman examines Sontag’s famous work in the light of his recent bout with cancer (a subject he deals with in more depth in his excellent cancer memoir Wait Time). Sontag’s intellectual distance from the subject is counterpoised to Sherman’s immediacy, with the result being a profound piece that’s made all the stronger for its grounding in personal experience.

2016 was a year of good reads, so enjoy! The house of the essay has many mansions, and every door here opens onto one worth entering.

Review first published in the Toronto Star January 1, 2017.

American Heiress

By Jeffrey Toobin

The twentieth century had a lot of “crimes of the century.” Best-selling author and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already written a book on one of them, the O. J. Simpson case, and in American Heiress he takes on another: the kidnapping and subsequent criminal career of Patricia Hearst.

What makes a crime a crime of the century? Celebrity is one crucial ingredient. Patty Hearst wasn’t famous for anything she did, but she had a famous name, being an heiress to the Hearst family fortune (her grandfather was the tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Kane himself).

Then there is the matter of how sensational and media-friendly a case it was. Here again Hearst’s story checked all the boxes as the revolutionary Symbionese Liberation Army played the media for all it was worth before going down in a blaze of guerilla glory on live TV (a novelty at the time). To this day the image of “Tania” (Hearst’s nom de guerre) holding a machine gun in front of the SLA flag is one of the most iconic of the period. In many ways her controversial trial-of-the-century, starring F. Lee Bailey for the defence, was anti-climactic.

A final factor contributing to crime-of-the-century status is broader cultural significance. In the case of O. J. Simpson, for example, there was the issue of race in America. For the story of Patty Hearst it was the moment of backlash against the counterculture. By 1974, the year she was kidnapped, the Summer of Love was a bitter memory for many, even in San Francisco.

Hearst was, in Toobin’s analysis, “emblematic of the political evolution of the country during the 1970s,” going from being a symbol of wounded innocence to one of wayward youth, “just another privileged youngster who had turned her back on all that was wholesome about her country.”

The hero of the historical moment wasn’t Patty’s father, a genial, alcoholic patrician who came to be seen as a lax and irresponsible parent, but the law-and-order governor of California Ronald Reagan. You didn’t need to be a Weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing. After her rescue Hearst adjusted quickly to the changed political climate, casting herself as the victim in a captive narrative and marrying her police-officer bodyguard.

The question of how sincere Hearst was in her turnaround is the question that has dogged her ever since.

Was she just a naive idiot? If not for their involvement in a couple of murders (one of which was apparently accidental), the SLA might be remembered today as a comic gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and the story of Hearst’s kidnapping a 1970’s version of O. Henry’s classic story “The Ransom of Red Chief” (a parallel that at least one SLA member drew explicitly).

Was she a victim: raped and brutalized, coerced and brainwashed by the SLA? It’s clear she had numerous chances to escape, but was she too traumatized or fearful to take them? Had she developed Stockholm syndrome?

Or was she a willing participant in the SLA’s madcap plans for revolution but then changed her mind when the law caught up with her? Was throwing her fellow revolutionaries under the bus just the price she had to pay in order to re-embrace her former life of privilege?

Readers will have to make up their own minds. Toobin, who did not get to interview Hearst, has no particular agenda and lets the facts speak for themselves. What he does render judgment on is the distasteful aftermath of the affair, as Hearst, after being convicted for bank robbery, had her sentence commuted by President Carter before receiving a pardon from President Clinton. As Toobin observes, “Rarely have the benefits of wealth, power, and renown been as clear as they were in the aftermath of Patricia’s conviction.”

If there’s a moral to the story it is here. Wealth will out. “The story of Patricia Hearst,” Toobin concludes, “as extraordinary as it once was, had a familiar, even predictable ending.” After her brief flirtation with fame and notoriety Hearst returned to lead “the life for which she was destined.” In this she was, again, flowing with the historical tide. Waking from the nightmare of revolution and social upheaval, Americans just wanted to enjoy being rich.

Review first published in the Toronto Star August 7, 2016.

Take Us to Your Chief

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Drew Hayden Taylor admits that “First Nations and science fiction don’t usually go together.” In the popular imagination they tend to occupy different mythic poles, making Native science fiction a “literary oxymoron.”

Taylor, however, is a fan of hybrids and so took up the challenge of wedding the two. As with most mash-ups the tone is mostly comic, playing off of incongruities. The idea that dream catchers might be part of a mind-control conspiracy is just one example. Because let’s face it, there has to be some sinister explanation for their popularity, doesn’t there?

The dream-catcher story has serious undertones though, reflecting Native distrust of government agencies. The best science fiction always hooks into contemporary issues in this way, its vision of the future a commentary on the present. And so Taylor is able to weave familiar SF tropes together with traditional Native narratives throughout, as with the experience of “first contact.” This is a story Natives have heard before, so they’re immediately on their guard when the alien Zxsdcf arrive. Do these visitors want to make treaties with Earth, or just go for genocide?

There may also be a deeper philosophical message involved in Taylor’s hybrids. In several stories the idea of animism is introduced, the belief that everything is alive or has a soul. One young man’s suicide is even derailed by the various objects in his bedroom coming to life, led by an old toy robot named Mr. Gizmo.

Such a world view is very different from that of SF, which is more driven by technology than a spiritual kinship with nature. The story “Lost in Space” plays with this contrast, portraying a Native astronaut named Mitchell who feels out of touch with Native traditions in an environment where everything, even the gravity, is manufactured and artificial.
Like all of us, Mitchell is lost in modernity, drifting alone through space, unattached to anything real. And yet it’s his shipboard Artificial Intelligence that comes to Mitchell’s rescue by providing Aboriginal drum music and old videos of his discussions with his grandfather in order to overcome his sense of rootlessness and isolation.

Finding links to our past in the future will be an important task. And for good or ill, technology will have to be our guide.

Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2016.

Hitler: Ascent

HITLER: ASCENT, 1889 – 1939
By Volker Ullrich

Another biography of Hitler? And not just another, but another great big biography of Hitler?

Hitler: Ascent, which takes us from Hitler’s birth to his fiftieth birthday, runs nearly 1,000 pages and is only the first part of a two-volume set, a massiveness that recalls Ian Kershaw’s epic treatment of the same subject (Hubris and Nemesis).

But yes, another big biography is necessary, and for several reasons.

In the first place because the demand is there. Hitler has been one of the most studied figures in all of history, to the point where whole books have been written about the books that have been written about him, but interest remains higher than ever in the twenty-first century.

Second, while most of the story has been thoroughly researched and is well known, new information (not all of it reliable) keeps coming out in dribs and drabs, mostly in the form of diaries or letters located in archives. The complete diaries of Goebbels, for example, turned up after Kershaw had finished his work, and missing parts from the diaries of Himmler were only discovered earlier this year.

And finally another biography is necessary because Hitler is always with us, with every right-wing demagogue and tin-pot dictator who comes along inevitably made out by the media to be this reincarnation. There’s even something called Godwin’s law that says that the longer any online discussion goes on, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler. He’s inescapable.

Given Hitler’s continuing cultural presence it behooves us to have a fuller understanding of the man, one that explains the meaning behind the myth and places him in his appropriate context.

That context is complex, but Ullrich makes it accessible, judiciously balancing his analysis betwen the personal and the political. Difficult patches like the Nazi’s seizure of power, and how near-run a thing it was, are clearly described, while a sensible discussion is provided of what can be said about Hitler’s personality. In style and tone it is closer to the work of Joachim Fest than that of Kershaw, which shouldn’t come as too big a surprise given that both Fest and Ullrich come from a background in journalism whereas Kershaw is an academic. Ullrich, even in translation, is far easier to read than the precise but dull-as-dust Brit.

Ascent won’t be the last word, because there can never be a last word on Hitler. But this is an excellent bio — authoritative, up-to-date, and readable — that has given us a Hitler for our time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 25, 2016.