ON NOT BEING GOOD ENOUGH: Writings of a Working Critic by Roger Sale

ON NOT BEING GOOD ENOUGH: Writings of a Working Critic

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Roger Sale is certainly a good critic to have around week to week--he's resistant to flashiness, dedicated to some old virtues, and erudite as any--but this collection of a dozen years' worth of reviews and essays doesn't offer much of him at his best. His best only happens, in fact, when he's taking a single work--usually a novel--and zeroing in on how it works (or doesn't work); this he does here occasionally--with some resurrected forgotten novels, with Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, with Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief (a Sale cause c‚l≤bre, which is referred to ad nauseam), with Jane Jacobs' book on American cities. Elsewhere, however, Sale is caught in multiple reviews that find him being imperiously dismissive, in combination reviews that find him desperately forging links (Mailer and Lessing), and in pieces that presume to assess a whole career: he worries over whether Philip Roth is a ""major talent"" or ""an excellent minor genius""--and gives a gloomy career forecast that's since been proved thoroughly wrong; he's hyperbolically derisive in stomping on Vonnegut, that easiest of targets; and, though far better when summing up critics (he's best on Hugh Kenner, too kind to Leslie Fiedler, too hard on Lionel Trilling), he overreaches and overstates. And most overreaching of all is Sale's attempt--in two long pieces--to construct an elaborate, tortured theory that labels work by Bellow, Roth, and others as ""imperialistic fiction"" and connects this ""imperial"" trend to some highly dubious generalizations about the disappearance of direct contact between writer and audience: ""The most obvious result of a loss of a known or identifiable audience is a loss of restraint,"" which has led to ""a huge assertion of personal power, which leads to aggressive showmanship. . . ."" Sale is rarely so misguidedly ivory-towerish elsewhere in this collection, but even at his optimum he seems a working critic best encountered in his natural habitat--periodicals--or in a full-length study like Fairy Tales and After (1978).

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press