Literature as a Chain Letter Among Friends: On the Fantasy of Critical Distance


Over the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan lightly chided the editorial staff of the paper’s book review for a perceived imbalance in the way it chooses its reviewers. At issue is a question of intimacy or closeness. “How Close Is Too Close?” the article’s title asks (mirroring the oppressively Socratic form of the Review’s Bookends column). When a reviewer knows the book’s author, does this constitute a conflict of interest?

“What editors may see as compelling expertise, readers may see as bias,” writes Sullivan. “That’s something that assigning editors should pay even more attention to as they try to get the balance right.”

The fantasy inculcated by Sullivan is one of dispassionate critical distance. But the literary and academic communities — indeed, virtually any community regarded in the pages of the Review — are defined by closeness and proximity, by a web of professional relations that boil down to impassioned respect and disdain, not to mention favors. When you read a book review — any book review — you are, on some level, witnessing a rehearsal of that critic’s location within (or outside) of this web of relations. This performance is part of what defines what you might call the “literary difference” that bolsters a book review. And if you’d rather read something with pretensions to “blind” critical distance, reach for an academic journal instead.

You can see the error of this fantasy at work in Sullivan’s first example — her quest for dispassionate criticism leads to a misinterpretation. Writing of Jeffrey Eugenides’ recent review of the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Sullivan notes that “Eugenides didn’t exactly come to the subject cold.” Fair enough: Eugenides, it turns out, had lunch with Knausgaard one time. “Does this encounter make Mr. Eugenides an inappropriate choice as a reviewer?” Sullivan asks. “Or does it simply make him a more interesting one?”

Sullivan, I think, is missing the point. The accidental joke of the review, as many pieces noted afterward, was that, as a reviewer, as a fan of Knausgaard, Eugenides appeared to be curiously unaware of his lack of a relation to the author. Knausgaard approached the lunch with a shrug; Eugenides wrote as if he’d been retroactively placed at the heart of Knausgaard’s oeuvre.

Eugenides’ inability to accurately locate himself within the web of literary relations is revealing; not only does it tell us something about the author of Middlesex, it also illustrates a quality of Knausgaard’s novel: it can immerse the reader so fully that he feels like a part of the author’s life. (This in turn tells us something about some of Knausgaard’s more fanatic fans.) It’s fair to say that this revelatory psychodrama would not have been possible with a stricter “intimacy” policy.

Certainly fairness is one thing — mean spiritedness is gross and unenlightening, as are public displays of affection — but “evenhanded” and “dispassionate” critical ideals are not as old and historically justified as one might think. In fact, it’s possible to argue that literary humanism itself is founded on the idea of literature as “letters among friends.” Writing about the poet Jean Paul, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk delivers this passage on the history of literature as one long chain letter among friends:

Books, as the poet Jean Paul once remarked, are thick letters to friends. With this phrase, he aptly articulated the quintessential nature and function of humanism: It is telecommunication in the medium of print to underwrite friendship. That which has been known since the days of Cicero as humanism is in the narrowest and widest senses a consequence of literacy. Ever since philosophy began as a literary genre, it has recruited adherents by writing in an infectious way about love and friendship. Not only is it about love of wisdom: it is also an attempt to move others to this love. That written philosophy has managed from its beginning more than 2500 years ago until the present day to remain communicable is a result of its capacity to make friends through its texts. It has been reinscribed like a chain letter through the generations, and despite all the errors of reproduction…

The formalization and professionalization of the book review has, in recent years, led us to turn a cold shoulder to literature as “letter among friends.” As Elizabeth Gumport wrote in “Against Reviews” in 2011, this dispassionate pose can be traced back (at least) to the poet and critic Matthew Arnold, whose obsession with cold analysis makes the review into something like an autopsy. Noting the fruitlessness of this professionalized review, Gumport reminds us that when we write boring, dispassionate reviews, it’s only our friends who read them anyway:

Who reads reviews? Occasionally a lot of people. But usually just the book’s author, if she Googles herself, plus any pals, parents, exes, etc. who also search for her. Otherwise, our only readers are our friends, who feel obligated to at least skim our boring review because we liked theirs on Facebook. Why do we prioritize some imaginary “public” over people we actually know, and who read our work? Why don’t we want to write, and read, for our friends?

Gumport concludes:

If we wouldn’t describe a book to someone we wanted to sleep with, we shouldn’t write about it. It is time to stop writing — and reading — reviews.

The weird craze for dispassionate, distant reviewing also risks eliding a good thing: friendship is one of the strong themes of contemporary literature. As a generation of writers who are skeptical about inherited social structures and institutions — family, corporation, classroom, etc. — take center stage, friendship presents itself as one among few redeeming principles or arrangements. Or, at least, we’re beginning to wonder what impact friendship may have on our futures. Take Emily Gould’s novel Friendship, which — as Christian Lorentzen here points out, in a book review no less — faces this problem head-on:

Gould’s new book is a novel called Friendship, and this is a review of it by a friend (and sometime editor) of the author. (Those in the mood to watch a bridge burn will be disappointed it didn’t make me reach for my arson kit.) The novel’s governing question is: Can our friends save us?

To be clear, I’m not arguing that all book reviews should be written by good or best friends — obviously some should be written by foes or potential friends — but I am skeptical of the notion that dispassionate criticism by strangers should be the default format of literary book reviews. I would argue, after all, that it is friends who are best able to disagree with civility and insight, to overcome old grudges, to band together to challenge professional injustice, to respect each other’s equal intelligence. What’s needed more than critical distance is dissensus — a willingness to challenge the distribution of relations, objects, voices, bodies, and claims to govern, even within the literary community itself. And who challenges us more than friends, old and new and soon-to-be?