Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The excerpt opinion

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Norman Mailer

“It’s the rare writer who cannot have sentences lifted from his work,” Norman Mailer once wrote. What he meant is that if a reviewer is eager to find something to mock, dismiss, or pick apart, any interesting book will provide plenty of ammunition. On a simple level of craft, it’s hard for most authors to sustain a high pitch of technical proficiency in every line, and if you want to make a novelist seem boring or ordinary, you can just focus on the sentences that fall between the high points. In his famously savage takedown of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, Martin Amis quotes another reviewer who raved: “There is not a single ugly or dead sentence.” Amis then acidly observes:

Hannibal is a genre novel, and all genre novels contain dead sentences—unless you feel the throb of life in such periods as “Tommaso put the lid back on the cooler” or “Eric Pickford answered” or “Pazzi worked like a man possessed” or “Margot laughed in spite of herself” or “Bob Sneed broke the silence.”

Amis knows that this is a cheap shot, and he glories in it. But it isn’t so different from what critics do when they list the awful sentences from a current bestseller or nominate lines for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I laugh at this along with anyone else, but I also wince a little, because there are few authors alive who aren’t vulnerable to that sort of treatment. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out: “You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.”

This is even more true of authors who take considerable stylistic or thematic risks, which usually result in individual sentences that seem crazy or, worse, silly. The fear of seeming ridiculous is what prevents a lot of writers from taking chances, and it isn’t always unjustified. An ambitious novel opens itself up to savaging from all sides, precisely because it provides so much material that can be turned against the author when taken out of context. And it doesn’t need to be malicious, either: even objective or actively sympathetic critics can be seduced by the ease with which a writer can be excerpted to make a case. I’ve become increasingly daunted by the prospect of distilling the work of Robert A. Heinlein, for example, because his career was so long, varied, and often intentionally provocative that you can find sentences to support any argument about him that you want to make. (It doesn’t help that his politics evolved drastically over time, and they probably would have undergone several more transformations if he had lived for longer.) This isn’t to say that his opinions aren’t a fair target for criticism, but any reasonable understanding of who Heinlein was and what he believed—which I’m still trying to sort out for myself—can’t be conveyed by a handful of cherry-picked quotations. Literary biography is useful primarily to the extent that it can lay out a writer’s life in an orderly fashion, providing a frame that tells us something about the work that we wouldn’t know by encountering it out of order. But even that involves a process of selection, as does everything else about a biography. The biographer’s project isn’t essentially different from that of a working critic or reviewer: it just takes place on a larger scale.

John Updike

And it’s worth noting that prolific critics themselves are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment. When Renata Adler described Pauline Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” any devotee of Kael’s work had to disagree—but it was also impossible to deny that there was plenty of evidence for the prosecution. If you’re determined to hate Roger Ebert, you just have to search for the reviews in which his opinions, written on deadline, weren’t sufficiently in line with the conclusions reached by posterity, as when he unforgivably gave only three stars to The Godfather Part II. And there isn’t a single page in the work of David Thomson, who is probably the most interesting movie critic who ever lived, that couldn’t be mined for outrageous, idiotic, or infuriating statements. I still remember a review on The A.V. Club of How to Watch a Movie that quoted lines like this:

Tell me a story, we beg as children, while wanting so many other things. Story will put off sleep (or extinction) and the child’s organism hardly trusts the habit of waking yet.

And this:

You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.

The reviewer quoted these sentences as examples of the book’s deficiencies, and they were duly excoriated in the comments. But anyone who has really read Thomson knows that such statements are part of the package, and removing them would also deny most of what makes him so fun, perverse, and valuable.

So what’s a responsible reviewer to do? We could start, maybe, by quoting longer or complete sections, rather than sentences in isolation, and by providing more context when we offer up just a line or two. We can also respect an author’s feelings, explicit or otherwise, about what sections are actually important. In the passage I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is about John Updike, Mailer goes on to quote a few sentences from Rabbit, Run, and he adds:

The first quotation is taken from the first five sentences of the book, the second is on the next-to-last page, and the third is nothing less than the last three sentences of the novel. The beginning and end of a novel are usually worked over. They are the index to taste in the writer.

That’s a pretty good rule, and it ensures that the critic is discussing something reasonably close to what the writer intended to say. Best of all, we can approach the problem of excerpting with a kind of joy in the hunt: the search for the slice of a work that will stand as a synecdoche of the whole. In the book U & I, which is also about Updike, Nicholson Baker writes about the “standardized ID phrase” and “the aphoristic consensus” and “the jingle we will have to fight past at some point in the future” to see a writer clearly again, just as fans of Joyce have to do their best to forget about “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and “yes I said yes I will Yes.” For a living author, that repository of familiar quotations is constantly in flux, and reviewers might approach their work with a greater sense of responsibility if they realized that they were playing a part in creating it—one tiny excerpt at a time.

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