If you’ve never read Alix Ohlin, you should. She’s one of the good ones out there, and she’s no slouch when it comes to publishing. Two story collections and two novels in seven years – perhaps not an impressive haul for bionic typewriters like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, but plenty impressive to me. She may not have won a Pulitzer or a National Book Award yet, but Ohlin is someone I look up to, because she’s just a very solid writer.
So I was surprised when I read a review of her new novel (Inside) and collection (Signs and Wonders) on Friday in The New York Times Book Review (in print today). Surprised because the review was scathingly negative. I haven’t read Inside, but I have read (and reviewed) Signs and Wonders, and the first thing that came to mind was this: were all those editors who accepted the stories that first appeared in Signs and Wonders – a list that includes The American Scholar, Failbetter, Southwest Review, Five Chapters, Daedalus, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Columbia – wrong? Because they must be if this review is true. And the second thing that came to mind – was I wrong? Because I really liked Signs and Wonders.
Of course, I realize that book reviews are opinion pieces, and there is no objective truth. You take a stand, support your argument, and let the reader decide. The writer of the Times review, William Giraldi, took issue with the more melodramatic points of Ohlin’s stories – murder, pregnancy, marriage, death – parts that I enjoyed but he found detrimental. But to label her language as “intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep”? No, this is just wrong, and I’m afraid we’re no longer in the country of subjectivity. Let me explain by using the word in Signs and Wonders that seems to have most offended Giraldi, “honkingly”:
Then one night I came home at six, and Stephanie was lying on the couch sobbing, truly sobbing, her shoulders shaking with the force of it. I got her a tissue and she blew her nose into it, honkingly. She sat up, her knees pulled up to her chin like a child.
- With a honking sound.
- (slang) Greatly, hugely, overwhelmingly.
So let’s go through the triad of literary sins as alleged by Giraldi:
- Is it intellectually inert? No, because Ohlin has combined both definitions here – Stephanie is blowing her nose strongly and emitting the sound at the same time. This is efficient and smart.
- Is it emotionally untrue? No, because her brother just died. If your brother dies, I think you reserve the right to blow your nose however way you see fit.
- Is it lyrically asleep? How it is possible for anyone to sleep when there’s all this honking going on? But seriously. Here’s a sentence from the same story: “I loosed her hair from its ponytail, and it sprang to life, a million curls clouding her shoulders.” It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Does so much with so little.
I have a feeling this was a difficult review to write for Giraldi, because he must’ve had to try very hard to find faults with Ohlin’s words. J. Robert Lennon has written an insightful manifesto on his blog regarding this review (and negative reviewing in general), and he sums it up nicely:
But if the book is 5% awful and 95% fine, don’t spend 75% of your review quoting the worst passages. People do this when they’re angry. I understand: sometimes, when I am reading a book, I hate the things I hate far more than I like the things I like. But succumbing to the hate means that you are giving your reader an unbalanced view of the book. Indeed, your job is to characterize what the book is like–to give as full a picture as possible of the experience of reading it.
In the end, that’s the biggest failure of Giraldi’s review — that he does not convey what reading Signs and Wonders is actually like. Ohlin is a writer who delves into people in trouble, in situations of heightened emotions. Her language is an immediate, visceral conduit to these characters and their stories. Read her and see for yourself.