Where is Literary Criticism Headed?
In some people’s opinion Dwight Garner ’88 just might have the dream job in American journalism today. Garner gets to read books and write reviews for a living. He gets to choose the books he wants to critique from the 25 or so that arrive at his door every day. And he gets to publish those reviews twice a week in, of all places, the New York Times.
Garner returned to Middlebury on October 23 to present the annual Robert W. van de Velde Jr. ’75 Memorial Lecture on “The Future of Book Criticism” to an audience of about 100 students and college community members, and the 47-year-old book critic could hardly contain his joy at being back.
“You come to college I think to have your life changed, and mine really changed here at Middlebury,” he told everyone in Dana Auditorium. “It was a big deal for me to come here as a student.”
Garner was delighted that three of the faculty members who had the greatest impact on his view of literature are still teaching at Middlebury, and all three were in attendance for his talk: Stephen Donadio (the Fulton professor of humanities), Brett Millier (the Cook professor of American literature), and Jay Parini (the Axinn professor of English and creative writing).
Donadio, Garner said, “gave lectures that made me want to weep in my chair, such was the passion and intellect that he brought to talking about books.” Millier “has a great ear for good writing, and knows how to teach it to kids and how to put that sound in your ear.” And of Parini “who then as now is the hardest working man in show business,” Garner revealed that the professor’s tongue-in-cheek advice about writing biography – “Write the damn thing first and research it later,” i.e., get a draft down on paper – still resonates with him today.
After graduation Garner was a clerk in a book store, the driver of a sprout truck, and the arts editor for an alternative newspaper – all before landing a position in 1995 as the first book editor for Salon.com. In 1998 he joined the New York Times Book Review, and since 2008 he has been writing his literary criticism for the daily paper.
“The future of book criticism is like talking about where reading is going in this country. And there’s no doubt about where it’s going – it’s going online. We are all going to watch a movie in 15 years and see people reading newspapers and magazines on the train and laugh because it will be like seeing those huge cell phones in movies we watch now from the 1980s.
“Seventy percent of me loves the idea of this technology,” Garner said. “I am a fan. I agree with the novelist Tim Parks who wrote in the New York Review of Books website that platforms like the Kindle ‘offer a more austere, direct engagement with words.’ He reminded us that no tyrant can ever burn an e-book. [Brooks’s article] made me stop and think, and I got serious for a while about trying to read across different platforms.”
Garner said he is “bullish” about technology, especially about the iPhone because “it obliterates that great fear that we have of being trapped somewhere, like at the DMV or on a train, with nothing whatsoever to read.”
One downside of e-books for Garner “is that on New York City subways one of the great things used to always be seeing what people were reading. But now all you see are slates – people holding this blank thing – which is also a tremendous loss for publishers because, as you know, books are sold by word of mouth in this country. And the biggest word of mouth is seeing some groovy person with a groovy book, and that is almost entirely gone now.”
He also lamented how “the tactile sense” of books, magazines, and newspapers is lost with reading done using the latest technology. You can’t put an old love letter in a Kindle, Garner said, and you can’t use an old ticket stub as a bookmark in one either.
Being able to take notes in a book is very important to the book critic too. “I almost can’t read without a pen or pencil in hand, and I have no faith whatsoever that five, 10, or 15 years down the road that we’ll be able to access the notes we took in e-books today. It will be like trying to find an e-mail that you wrote on a computer that you had eight years ago,” he added. “And I am the kind of person who needs his notes.”
Without trying to seem like he was piling on the criticism of digital reading – “declinists bore me,” he said – Garner pointed out that he regrets what technology has done to independent book stores and to book-review sections in newspapers and magazines in America, and how it seems like “an entire editor class has vanished in this country.”
“Having an editor as a young writer of any kind, and especially as a critic learning to hone your arguments – I can’t stress how important that is. I feel lucky to have had so many great editors in my career.”
Nevertheless, Garner is sanguine about the future for cultural criticism in America. “Things look good for the new generation of critics” and he mentioned a few by name: Anthony Lane, James Wood, Manohla Dargis, Frank Rich, and Dana Stevens.
So if you’re looking for Dwight Garner’s book reviews in the Times, check the paper (or look online) every Wednesday and Friday. “This schedule seemed to be crushing and grueling the first year I did the job. I was terrified,” Garner confessed. “But I quickly came to realize that I can read most books in about eight hours, and it takes me five or six to write a review.”
And what happens to the rest of the books he receives? Garners dutifully spends 15 minutes with each one “trying to find a spark or a reason to care” because his greatest fear is that a important book might slip by unnoticed.