Defending Alix Ohlin
by Don Swaim
I have never heard of William Giraldi, who is said to be a critic. I understand Giraldi published a novel. I have not read it, but if I had I'm sure I would have been kinder and more even-handed than the review he inflicted on author Alix Ohlin in the August 17, 2012, issue of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.
Giraldi's review of Ohlin's new novel Inside (Knopf) and her simultaneously published story collection Signs and Wonders (Vintage Contemporaries) was not only savage and mean-spirited but cruel. It was a literary mugging, which can be read HERE
If there was a way to lower the standard of professional criticism, Giraldi managed.
I have not yet read Ohlin's latest books, but I did read her earlier novel and a short story collection. They were fine. Ohlin (pronounced oh-LEEN) teaches creative writing at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Because of her proximity to Bucks County, and the fact that she studied creative writing at the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, prompted me to invite her to judge a ghost story contest sponsored by the Bucks County Writers Workshop in 2009. See: BCWW Ghost Stories
Photo of Alix Ohlin by Don Swaim
Her presentation at the BCWW awards dinner at the Plumsteadville Inn was captured on video and posted on YouTube:
And my audio interview with Ohlin can be heard HERE
Giraldi was not content to merely criticize Ohlin's writing, any critic is free to do that, but he lowered his criticism to the level of personal attack and invective -- even going so far as to condemn her choice of titles, which is just nuts.
Here is some of Giraldi's vituperation:
"Alix Ohlin's sophomore effort yawningly announces itself as "Inside," a forgettable moniker that suggests everything and means nothing."
I suspect that Giraldi, self-satisfied with his own articulated vilification, is cowardly basking in the protective shield of The New York Times. As for the Times, I'm shocked that it would allow such a spiteful review to appear, perhaps the most scathing since Michiko Kakutani reviewed Tim O'Brien's July, July in 2002.
"...Ohlin's novel lies stiffened in a morgue of mentation..."
"Ohlin's language betrays an appalling lack of register -- language that limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor."
"...her dialogue, by turns stenographic and saccharine, sounds transplanted from the desiccated pages of Danielle Steel."
"Ohlin's fiction will be shelved with the pop lit and never with Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, not because of her leaden obsessions with pregnancy, dating and divorce, or any inherent bias in the publishing industry, but because her language is intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep."
But Ohlin has her defenders, notably J. Robert Lennon, whose August 18th article in the online magazine Salon, is aptly titled "How to Write a Bad Review." It can be read in full HERE
Here is part of what Lennon says about Giraldi's "quite nasty" review:
"I read the review with some dismay -- I had to agree that it was almost horrifyingly aggressive, written in a sneering tone rarely seen in the NYTBR, and I felt terrible for Ohlin. (For the record, I do not know her and haven't yet read her work.)"
In his article, Lennon cites six ways to write a critical review without savaging the author and concludes:
"There is a good way to write a bad review of another writer, and I don't think Giraldi is doing it. Whatever the shortcomings of Ohlin's work might be, his review does its reader a disservice -- his glee at eviscerating Ohlin overshadows his analysis, and casts doubt on its veracity. It isn't trustworthy, which makes it no more valuable than the kind of swooning puff pieces most critics write."
"Giraldi, in his review of Ohlin's books, doesn't merely hate the work, he hates the very idea of Ohlin -- her aesthetic, her taste, her existence. Okay, fine -- if everything about the book you're writing offends you, if there's nothing good you can say, then don't say anything good. But don't crow about it. You're not impaling Hitler or protecting the Shire from Saruman [a Tolkien character]. You're reviewing a book."
"In the end, the literary world is basically a small city. We could maybe all comfortably occupy Madison, Wisconsin. And so a book review is not being read in a vacuum: when you angrily eviscerate somebody's work, you are shitting where you eat. It is important both to support each other and criticize each other, and to find ways to do both, respectfully and constructively."
I could not have said it better. Oh, and among Lennon's final thoughts:
"...when your own book is panned, crack open a beer, put your feet up, and say oh well. Because it doesn't mean anything. Everyone will forget the review. Your ideal readers aren't even born yet -- they'll find you in the public library in 25 years, and it won't matter what some prick said about you in the stone age."
Don Swaim, winner of the 2011 Pearl S. Buck Short Story Award, is the founder of the BCWW
his webpage can be accessed at Book Beat: The Podcast