PART I: NOT TOO CRAZY ABOUT GIRL CRAZY
Of the myriad reasons I should have loved Russell Smith’s Girl Crazy was that it was sexually explicit and had the reputation, when it was published four years ago, of being vaguely misogynistic, which at the very least should have aroused in me (besides arousal, generally) a defensiveness in favor of that endangered apex predator, the sex-obsessed white male protagonist, who, yeah, sure, has defined a disproportionate amount of 20th Century literature (to both its profit and detriment), but who, like the Polar Bear and Tiger Shark and Tasmanian Devil, is now struggling to subsist as its once vast natural habitat shrinks. So, I bought a copy of Girl Crazy, ready to love it—or, on matter of principle, ready to convince myself to love it.
But I struggled. On virtually every page I was frustrated by some choice of syntax and vocabulary, annoyed by the protagonist’s cowardliness in the face of dramatic opportunity, provoked to derisive laughter by some off-mark, too-obvious, too-easy cultural observation. I made it to the end, but was left tepid by the whole experience (tepidity: never a good sign for an artifact valued, supposedly, for its contentious properties). Yet the act of reading Girl Crazy wasn’t entirely unpleasant. As years pass and the finiteness of quantum time becomes more and more terrifyingly evident to me, I’ve become a chronic abandoner of books. I’m learning (with great difficulty) that I’m perhaps not the David Foster Wallace-type polymath reader I thought I was. How to explain, then, that I stuck with Girl Crazy all the way through to the last page? What was it about this exasperating, meandering, half-there book that appealed to me? (Besides the explicit first-person sex, I mean.)
Hoping to better understand my reaction, I turned, as one does, to the Internet. Searches turned up the usual stuff from the usual places—all of it indicative of what constitutes literary criticism in this age of truncated newspaper space: (too much) plot summary peppered with (too little) interpretive commentary; some very polite references to the chilly reception the novel elsewhere received; a lot of autobiographical reflection; and, of course, many verbose flourishes meant to extort a bit of wonder at the reviewer’s artfulness in reviewing.
Yes, the usual stuff. None of it providing any perspective on my own experience with the book. Until I came across Jeet Heer’s review of Girl Crazy in Canadian Notes and Queries.
“The Chivalric Pornographer" is an astounding, astute, virtuosic piece of criticism. It didn’t just help me understand why Girl Crazy managed to both hearten and dishearten me, but, in the manner that a good critical essay can, forced me to consider Smith’s work from an unfamiliar and edifying perspective. Unfortunately, all the things that make that particular review astounding and astute and virtuosic are the same things that, in their absence, will make my review of Heer’s critical writings murky and pedantic and self-indulgent. Which, I think, just goes to prove my point: there’s no better book critic working in Canada than Jeet Heer.
PART II: DEFENDING THE PORNOGRAPHER
Heer begins his review of Girl Crazy with what he calls an “unseemly autobiographical reflection”: during his time as a paralegal, he was tasked to keep track of a lawyer’s drug-addicted daughter, which involved (luckily/unluckily) spending a lot of time at the strip clubs where she made her living.
That reflection is, in truth, neither unseemly nor irrelevant. Like the protagonist of Girl Crazy, Heer found himself unable to distinguish the deeper nature of his desire to be a citizen of the city’s seedy underbelly: was it his sense of decency, or was it a desire to indulge in the indecent? The entire plot of the novel revolves around such an internal crisis, and this elegant little intrusion establishes a moral credibility that runs throughout the rest of the review.
Heer then introduces Russell Smith as the protagonist of the review with a thoughtful, fastidious summary of the author’s evolution as a novelist. This gives us a bit of insight into the expansiveness of Heer’s critical universe: his sense of the literary landscape in Canada, and his intimacy with the entire oeuvre of Smith’s work. Heer, you’ll find, is disturbingly well-read—he actually is that Wallace-like polymath reader I’ve been aspiring (or pretending) to be all these years. Not only has he read all of Smith’s novels, but he is able to map their relationships with one another, and, most impressively, describe the consensus sentiment towards them without mitigating his own. His review, in this sense, is a wonderful little history lesson, a profile of Smith, and an intimate portrait of Heer himself as reader.
After reading through all those other reviews, here, finally, was what I’d been looking for: context.
Context beyond just someone’s preciously-observed subjective reactions to the book as a bundle of words sequestered between the front and back cover. Where Girl Crazy fits into Smith’s canon – and into the weird phylum of arts culture we call CanLit – is just as vital to understanding its merit as where it fits in with my own personal tastes and biases and preconceptions. Forests and trees and branches and leaves and ecosystems and continents—it all matters, and Heer, in his criticism, possesses that God’s-eye view. The choices that Russell Smith makes in Girl Crazy are informed by the thousand small computations he has carried out throughout his career, whether as a result of evolutionary self-concern or in reaction to some particularly poignant piece of criticism. In the case of the latter, Heer cites a 1998 review by Philip Marchand that complained of Smith’s “narrative slackness.” Heer then goes on to describe how, in his subsequent novels, Smith consciously attempted to vindicate himself.
It was perhaps this “much greater concern for narrative propulsion” that was the source of my discombobulation while reading Girl Crazy. In seeking always to have that next thing happen, Smith paints in broad strokes, settling for those too-obvious observations, never waiting for the consequences of each moment to settle, never content to indulge us with the sort of elaboration that makes the limitless psychic space available in a novel unique among all forms of art. The craft of fiction-writing is all about striking a balance between specificity and ambiguity, and in Girl Crazy Smith seemed to have mixed it up; everything ambiguous was too insubstantial, everything specific too obvious. Which, in a novel about sex, is too bad, because sex is all about getting your ratios of specificity and ambiguity exactly right.
So, why weren’t any of the other reviews able to decode Smith’s mismanaged intentions with the same clarity?
The simple answer is: they didn’t even try.
Which I suppose raises all sorts of additional questions about the difference between literary analysis, literary theory, and literary criticism—and where, on the great Venn diagram of “Discussing Literature” those three things overlap. Questions, too, about the value of a book review: to the author; to the publisher; to the reader (or potential reader); to the writer of the review; to the publication in which the review appears. A Heer-esque panoramic view may not be essential to all these stakeholders, but it is essential for any critic who wants to make of his/her review more than just a cursory summary of the plot’s mechanics and character types. Most pornography lacks artistic depth because it focuses only the most obvious mechanics of the sexual act (the interconnections, the spurting crescendos). Girl Crazy, to me, felt a bit like that: a novel content to give you exactly what you’d expect, that aspired to do little more than exist within a genre. The reviews of it, too: they sought only to be quaint little time-capsule remembrances of a book recently read. They were small. Fleeting thoughts on a fleeting topic. They treated Smith’s novel as a trifle; listlessly consumed, quickly forgotten. Even my own somewhat apathetic reading of the book seemed to demand more.
And more is just what Jeet Heer provides. Not just in his review of Girl Crazy, but in all of his written criticism. And it’s this belief in the broader cultural importance of literature that makes him unique among all those part-time critics who scatter their part-time opinions in the ever-diminishing number of publications that still care about the world of the book.
PART III: NEVER BITTERSWEET OR HAUNTING OR EVOCATIVE
I suppose I should note that Jeet Heer was not, in my limited understanding of the CanLit universe, an unknown quantity. I’d read his stuff before—he was notable to me as one of the few writers who write intelligently and respectfully about the world of comics. I followed him on Twitter, too, and was consistently amazed (as anyone should be) by how easily he achieves that thing that even the most well-intentioned social media strivers fail to achieve: he’s prolific without being reactionary, authoritative without being patronizing (his opinions seem magically tempered by time, as if he travels to the future to consult with a wiser version of himself). So perhaps I was predisposed to take what Heer had to say about Girl Crazy to heart. But that doesn’t fully explain (and shouldn’t qualify) the deep feeling that his writing incited in me.
“Critics earn their bread by finding apt comparisons,” Heer says in his Globe and Mail review of Ben Katchor’s Hand-Drying in America, before going on to name-check Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov—almost as if he is locating Katchor by his relative position to familiar constellations. In the case of Heer, there are few comparisons to make, and it’s therefore difficult to pinpoint his relative location to other celestial bodies.
Unlike the poets and novelists who dabble occasionally in criticism, Heer is a critic first. He describes himself, in his Twitter profile, as a Canadian cultural journalist, historian, and Twitter essayist (in that order). I won’t list here the publications in which his writing has appeared, except to say, think of any major Canadian newspaper or magazine, and he’s been in them. Then think of your favorite American culture magazines and British newspapers, and he’s been in those, too. In his eulogy to John Updike, which appeared in The Guardian shortly after the author’s death, Heer says of the lauded writer’s prolific critical output, “Reading [Updike’s] essays I've often wanted to beg him to just stop, stop showing off, stop putting us all to shame.”
I feel a similar sensation when reading Heer’s work. Whereas Updike’s trick was to speak in the voice of God, all mellifluous revelation, the mundane alchemically rendered divine, Heer’s writing is decidedly less bombastic; his flora isn’t as florid, his tangents never as tangential (example: he is quick to apologize for his unseemly authorial intrusion at the beginning of his Girl Crazy review). Heer never smothers you with his intelligence. His proficiency is invisible. In reading Heer’s work, one never feels that creepy undercurrent of literary striving that runs through so many reviews: the mellifluous turns of phrase, the self-congratulatory tone with which unearthed themes are cockily dangled, the construction of a review as if it’s a minor little art piece in itself (you know what I’m talking about—you’re experiencing it right now).
Many reviewers use the aesthetic approach as an excuse to internalize their reading experience. But book reviews rooted wholly in aesthetics tend to be precious the same way that bad poetry is precious; they attempt to say something profound and incisive about the author her/himself rather than the book they’re ostensibly quantifying. Because there are no such pretensions in Heer’s criticism, he has room to be profoundly generous. In his review of Adam Sternbergh’s novel Shovel Ready, he references Isaac Asimov, Star Trek, Euclidean geometry, Philip K. Dick, and Blade Runner—and that’s just in the first paragraph. Compare this to the cloistered report offered by a reviewer who remarks mostly upon the internal feelings felt internally during their internal reading of a thing. Heer approaches the books he reviews – whether fiction or non-fiction or a graphic novel – as relevant pieces of cultural ephemera; objects worth spending time with.
And he does all of this without relying on the personal pronoun ("The Chivalrous Pornographer," in fact, is one of the few reviews in which he indulges in biographical reflection), which is more of an accomplishment than it might seem. The standard language employed in too many book reviews leavens them with the tonality and depth of a grade-school book report: references to “the reader,” self-identification as “the reviewer” (or, even worse, employing the Walter Winchell third-person and referring to oneself as “this critic”). In Heer’s reviews, there are no recurrences of words like bittersweet and evocative and moving and revelatory and haunting and all those other easy descriptors than can camouflage a reviewer’s lack of consequential things to say.
Another popular camouflage technique is to hide behind an overabundance of plot summary. Heer, however, uses synopses and excerpts not simply to add length to his reviews, but rather to make a closer examination of all those vital choices made by the author – words and cadence and metaphor – or else to explain some grander theme. He’s a bit of a watchmaker, in this sense; poking and prodding the miniscule gears and wheels. He does this brilliantly in his Globe and Mail review of Douglas Glover’s story collection Savage Love, excerpting a long paragraph and breaking it down into its individual words, phrases, and fragments. In the face of such proof, so coherently presented, how could one argue with his claim that Glover is a “master writer...who can sure-footedly walk us through the most difficult terrain”?
I’d never been interested in reading anything by Douglas Glover. Elle just seemed so painfully Canadian. But after reading Heer’s review, my frame of reference was shifted. And isn’t that precisely what good literary criticism is supposed to do: enable and expand a reader’s capacity to define their own literary tastes?
PART IV: CHURLISH RESENTMENTS PUT ASIDE
“I'm not even a real journalist,” Heer recently tweeted. “Just a clown with a twitter account.”
It’s heartening to know that this twitter clown will have a collection of essays published by Porcupine’s Quill later this year. Much of his writing about Canadian literature is featured within. In his introduction, he explains his approach: “For me, personally, essays are play. I don’t see essays as having the deadly finality of scholarly monographs, where hefty authority sometimes smothers the subject. Rather, the job of an essay is to survey a topic and return with a quick and entertaining report.”
(Even the way he explains the precision and liveliness of his writing is lively and precise.)
Oh, but why does any of this matter? Why begrudge all the articles and essays that lack the magic commixture of analysis and insight I need in order to explain books like Girl Crazy to myself? Perhaps I’d better take advice from Heer himself. In the conclusion to his Updike piece, he writes: “...we have to put aside our churlish resentment of Updike's talent, and simply give thanks for the life he devoted to literature.”
Books are (and always will be) different than music or film—they are a shared experience only when discussed; the conversation is the thing that keeps them alive. So, as literature seems more and more a shrinking cultural niche, I will put aside my churlish resentment and give thanks that someone like Jeet Heer has devoted some part of his life to talking about Canadian books and writers.