A midcareer retrospective of essay-length literary reviews.
Giraldi (The Hero’s Body, 2017, etc.) identifies the thrust of his critical work to date, of which this volume offers an extensive sample, as preoccupied with articulating the boldness and originality he finds peculiar to the American literary tradition, his own contributions included. Like many emerging writers with literary aspirations, the author seems compelled to join the fray over the Great American Novel and to scrutinize his writerly inheritance from the pedigreed lineage of the white, male, quasi-religious American canon. An unapologetic literary snob who lionizes critics as cultural arbiters, Giraldi enlists in a crusade against bad writing and celebrates the role of criticism as policing the borders of literary legitimacy. He sallies forth against the “commercial fiction” of bestsellers like Tom Clancy’s “lobotomized” “poli-sci porn” and the “eighth-grade gurglings” of Fifty Shades of Grey. The secret to such blockbuster success, Giraldi reckons, is to “never ask your reader to delve with you into the wombs of language, to rappel into the inky caves of connotation.” The author alternates reviews of giants like Melville and Poe with the handful of lesser-known 20th-century novelists—Barry Hannah, Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell—he most esteems. Though the dense verbiage of his book reviews often recalls an academic’s tone, and he is fiction editor for a campus literary journal (AGNI at Boston University), Giraldi writes for an educated generalist audience and claims to detest academia. He rails in particular against the “unreadable prose” of academics written for other academics, counting himself lucky to have escaped the drudgery of the “tweeds” whose writing on writing he declares “incapable of giving pleasure.” Still, he assumes the academic mantle of metareviewer, critiquing critics like Stanley Fish, Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, and Harold Bloom with grad-student gusto.
A host of detailed, thoughtful, often rancorous reviews haunted by a love/hate relationship with American letters and replete with choice tidbits from the author's commonplace book but offering few original or illuminating insights.