A tempest brewed in the literary Twittersphere over the weekend.
What did this have to do with you real people? Pretty much nothing. Plumbers and surgeons and sales people went about their business, mowing their lawns and taking end-of-season boat trips and coaching Special Olympics softball teams. But we writers were huddled inside, Saturday through Sunday, fingers flying over our keyboards. The issue was this.
Was Giraldi harsh? Ooooh, yeah. I’ll let you read for yourself if you choose (the review has already been endlessly excerpted). He was snarky and gleefully rough but also engaging and funny. Every writer with a soul had a moment of pure all-out empathy for Alix Ohlin. We knew she was reading. We knew she was crying. We knew that every nasty word of that review hacked a bloody little piece from her brain.
But then the powers that be in the literary community got involved and started—this is where I got nervous—calling William Giraldi to account. They called him sexist; they called him jealous. (I saw evidence of neither. Again, you can read his review for yourself and judge.) They suggested—and here’s where I got really, really nervous—that he shouldn’t have been permitted to say what he did.
The writer/reviewer J. Robert Lennon published a piece on Salon about seven seconds after the controversy erupted, entitled “How to Write a Bad Review.” In it, Lennon admonished Giraldi, not to be “a dick.” Great advice, but ironic. Salon has monetized its online pub largely by encouraging mass troll memberships and hosting a virtual bloodbath on its pages. (Long ago, the lovely writer Ayelet Waldman wrote to tell me she was leaving Salon due to the culture of cruelty and she advised me to do the same.)
But back to the original Giraldi-Ohlin brouhaha, which went so far as to make the Wall Street Journal blog. And this is where I think it crosses over and becomes relevant to you. Because apparently, opinion among the writers of this world may sway what you can read in your daily newspaper. And if you’re like me, that makes you cringe.
I’m a nominally Jewish woman who once took my kids to Skokie and proudly told them the story of how Jewish lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union fought on behalf of the Nazi Party. Not for what they said, which was unspeakably vile and hateful, but for their right to say it. Thank God we live in a place where people can say any awful, irritating, wrongheaded or hurtful thing they want.
Finally, and it pains me to say this: I read some of Ohlin’s work last night. And it’s … not great. Did it deserve to be eviscerated? Probably not. But why the New York Times assigned a review in the first place—that’s what perplexes me. Ohlin is neither well-known nor accomplished enough to merit automatic coverage. Far better books are passed up by the NYT every day.
Yet, what has happened in the wake of Giraldi’s savage treatment is an equally imbalanced rally cry for Ohlin from literary luminaries such as Cheryl Strayed, who declared last night via Facebook: “Alix Ohlin writes beautifully. I’m a fan through and through.”
And so the pendulum swings. Giraldi shredded another writer, so he’s been cast out. Ohlin took his skewering and the literary club closed around her. Our whole system has become very meta: We writers do far more talking about reviews than actually practicing the ethics of literary criticism. So in the midst of this frenzy how do you, the reader, get actual, reliable information about a book?