Over at The Valve, which I must endorse again, an Ideas piece, the essay by Sven Birkerts about the task of reviewing Vikram Chandra's hyped 900-page new novel, comes into play. While ribbing Birkerts for not having quite read the book, the Valve writer, Amardeep Singh, author of "Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction," has praise for Birkerts. He is annoyed, however, by a review in/on MSNBC/Newsweek by Malcolm Jones, in which the critic in essence admits he's "lazy" and would rather be watching TV if a novel isn't holding him.
This bit of the essay, quoted by Singh, resembles Jonathan Franzen's point, made several places, that fiction has to compete with a lot of artistic entertainments, so why make it hard-going? Boy, did that notion draw the ire of experimental novelist Ben Marcus, in Harper's. (The piece isn't available online but is discussed here.)
Nevertheless, Singh gives a little credence to Jones' point that reading such a brick of a novel because it's your job has the effect of skewing a reviewer's reaction one way or the other. You either resent it or you have invested so much time that you feel bound to praise it: "Canít just say, oh, it was OK." I'm not sure he's right about that. I once wrote 4,500 words about a 500-plus page novel I found important but, um, OK. (That might have been a mistake.) In any case, I give Jones even more credit for the humor value, and for acknowledging his lack of virtue as a critic.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.