I had read a bunch of the reviews of Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life as they came out. I gathered that there was some kerfuffle initially because the Times assigned the first review to Janet Maslin, one of their regular book reviewers (but not the head reviewer, who is Michiko Kakutani), and Hanya Yanagihara has written for the Times, so there was a suggestion of logrolling.
My ongoing impression was that it was a book I really didn’t want to read. I felt bad about not wanting to read it. It was reviewed in important places, and pretty much uniformly positively. It sounded like it was going to be a really important book about coming of age as a gay man in America, and like it had lots of serious stuff about overcoming child abuse, and becoming an artist, and so on. And then it was shortlisted for a bunch of awards.
And then, apparently, there was a new kerfuffle. The classicist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn gave the novel a scathing review in the New York Review of Books, quite the serious venue for discussion of literature. And Jennifer Weiner replied with an op-ed in the English paper, the Guardian, arguing that the problem here is that male critics have decided to use the opportunity presented them by a bunch of female critics’ liking A Little Life to pile onto Yanagihara herself and describe the novel as something no serious person could admire.
There are a lot of moving parts here. Weiner’s argument doesn’t seem a hundred percent convincing to me, but she makes some good points. She dredges up the kerfuffle of a few years ago about The Goldfinch, James Wood’s evisceration in particular. The fact is that Wood’s tastes are so narrow that he hates practically everything except an incredibly narrow range of books that do one single thing very well. He almost never reviews anything anymore except poetic, lyrical books by sensitive young men who are experiencing their subjective way into an artist’s lifestyle (like the unreadable Ben Lerner, whose first book goes something like, “Woke up. Rolled joint. Smoked. Made notes about the romantic Basque separatists who my book is going to be about. Smoked another joint. Slept with a woman I just met. Pretended I understand Spanish: here are the words I didn’t understand. Here are some more. Slept with a woman I’ve been sleeping with for a month, who doesn’t know I have a girlfriend. Evaded some thugs. Rolled a joint. Went to my girlfriend’s house, smoked, and lay in her bed thinking about the really good book I’m going to write if my grant doesn’t run out”), plus Elena Ferrante. He hates Franzen; hates Wallace; doesn’t really like Zadie Smith; and is grudging about De Lillo. He praised Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, true, and that novel got a lot of flak from one reviewer in particular, who (in particular) thought Kushner knew less about motorcycles than she was pretending to; and it’s notable that Wood seems to have pinpointed for praise precisely what other reviewers found not-quite-befitting a woman writer—and that he ignored a lot of the rest. He focused his entire review of Pynchon’s last big novel on what seemed like personal distaste. He would never have reviewed The Goldfinch if it wasn’t considered good in serious circles to which he doesn’t happen to belong. There was no question he was ever going to like it. There is, perhaps, some reason to believe that tastes that can be characterized as “men who do one particular coming-of-agey-as-a-literary-sensibility thing, plus Elena Ferrante,” can also be characterized as having something to do with gender.
Weiner links to a review in the Guardian by an English woman whom I’ve never heard of, who gives the book a grudging review. She ends by praising the book overall, after taking issue with a bunch of things that seem pretty unexceptionable to me. So: an English reviewer taking issue with an American novel for doing things maybe 89% of American novels of its kind tend to do. Count me surprised! I’m not convinced that gender is the issue here.
Weiner also links to Christian Lorentzen’s review in the London Review of Books, which I’d missed. A handful of LRB reviews each issue are available for free on their website, and I usually check them out and read one every couple of months, and I’ll read pretty much anything Christian Lorentzen writes, but by that time I’d probably decided I wasn’t ever going to read the book and didn’t care to read anything more about it. I just looked at the review again. It gives me new reasons to think I really wouldn’t like it.
But it does make me wonder why, for Lorentzen (and some others, see below), this adds up to a novel that is actively bad. Lots of novels that fit Lorentzen’s description, in one way or another, are novels I haven’t liked. And lots of them got very consistently good reviews. And—yes—lots of those novels were written by men. A Little Life, which does very much the same thing—does it slightly differently, of course, because all writers are different and have their own personalities and their own interests and their own writerly tics—was ultimately panned. Why? What’s the difference? There could be a difference, sure: a real, substantive one. But what is it?
A third review Weiner links to is Mendelsohn’s at the NYRB. Now, Mendelsohn is a terrific critic and essayist. I wish I could write one-quarter as well as he does. But over the past several years he’s spent more and more time reviewing movies and television and popular culture and novels, and I have to say I’ve gotten less out of these. It would be fair to say that his review of A Little Life is mixed. It would also be fair to say that it in some ways it’s fairly aggressive. And it manages to end by suggesting that the problem with Yanagihara is the same problem possessed by college kids today who are coddled and therefore keep asking for therapy and trigger warnings. However, Mendelsohn’s big point appears to be that Yahagihara’s gay male characters are “unbelievable” and that the reason is surely that this is because they are “really” young females like the author. That is not a serious point and it has no place in a serious review. Dave Eggers can write about male middle managers though he’s never been one, and Jonathan Franzen can write about female athletes who were raped and later had affairs with their husbands’ cooler artist buddies though he’s never been one, and Martin Amis can write about young female scientists who commit suicide though he’s never been one . . . but let a woman novelist write about a man in a way a reviewer doesn’t think is ideal, and she’s fair game for the bros and their defenders? Weiner is entirely within her rights to point that out.
Mendelsohn is not primarily a reviewer of novels. At the NYRB, he’s more frequently reviewed theater and film. The only reason he was assigned A Little Life, presumably, is that its protagonist is, like him, a gay man (just as some of its first reviewers, of what promised to be a very minor book, were probably given the job because they were women, like the author, the novel being presumed to be a “women’s novel”). One of the earliest book reviews he wrote for them was of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a novel about a hermaphrodite, and there as well, Mendelsohn complains that gender is depicted wrong. In some circles this is known as “complaining that the author didn’t write the book you would have written,” and it’s not an especially challenging criticism to make. More, though, Mendelsohn’s review reads like a complaint that Eugenides didn’t do the correct academic reading on gender before sitting down to write his book (which is, in the end, fiction and not a treatise). This may be a reasonable class of complaint for a professor advising his students that a particular book will not be an adequate source for use in coursework. As criticism of a novel, it seems beside the point.