William Giraldi’s American Audacity

Given that I am reviewing a collection of essays entitled American Audacity, let me begin by being audacious: there are perhaps two or three English-language critics alive today who are the equal of William Giraldi – in judgment, depth of feeling and power of expression – and that is being generous. Cynthia Ozick, one of that illustrious grouping, and nearly four decades older than Giraldi, has all but affirmed my boldness, describing Giraldi as a modern Hazlitt and a “literature-besotted Midas of prose.” American Audacity provides ample proof of her claim, collecting his critical writings – written, allegedly, to sate “those greedy little mouths at home,” as a supplement to his Boston University teacher’s salary – on the subject of America itself, its literature (“American Stories”), its culture (“American Moments”) and its intellectuals (“American Critics”). The essays vary widely in theme, and little in quality: every paragraph is carefully constructed, the sentences shaped to the stresses of every syllable, sound and sense working in tandem to deliver hard-won praise or equally earned condemnation, and every judgment shored up by the confidence that only comes from a lifetime of literary appreciation.

That, in fact, is what is simultaneously most striking and most endearing about Giraldi: before he is a writer and before he is a critic, he is a reader, and a uniquely voracious and appreciative reader at that. “Tell me the books you read and I’ll tell you who you are,” he pronounces with characteristic confidence – “tell me you choose to read no books and I’ll tell you there is no you.” In “The Bibliophile,” an essay about book collecting, he speaks to this particular obsession first with reference to famous collectors and collections – Robertson Davies, Eugene Goodheart, Borges and Sontag –and then with the collective we of the book-besotted:

Those of us who dwell within mounts of books – a sierra of them in one room, an Everest of them in another; hulks in the kitchen, heaps in the hallway – can tell you that, in addition to the special bliss of having and holding them, it’s a hefty, crowded, inconvenient life that’s also an affront to the average bank account.

A good collection of books, Giraldi knows, is an insight into a person’s character, a rare glimpse of their innermost sensibilities and interests:

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children: they are manifestations of our selfhood, a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek.

I am careful to observe, on the sly, the reactions of every new guest admitted to my apartment, whether they evince any curiosity for the contents of my shelves, and a prejudice I will take to my grave tells me that only a profoundly uninteresting person can pass a personal library without interest. And then there are those readers content with digital ink, whose Kindles and Kobos and Nooks house entire libraries. The bibliophile can’t abide an ephemeral library, won’t content himself with a single font, a single sterile container, for both his poetry and his prose, his history and his science fiction. The physical book, Giraldi tells us, is a perfect form, unimprovable, “like the bicycle,” a work of art and thing of beauty unto itself, and its analog construction is more important to us now than ever before:

A physical book makes it possible to fend off the nausea roused by the electronic despotism we’ve let into our lives – it doesn’t permit blinking, swiping, scrolling, popping-up impediments to your concentration, doesn’t confront it with a responsive screen trying to sell you things you really don’t need. On a train with only a paperback of Paradise Lost, you are forced into either attempting to understand and enjoy it or else peering out the window. Your Kindle Fire is so named because it intends to incinerate your concentration, because Amazon understands that we Americans rather enjoy the hot oppression of endless options, the arson of our calm. At the first signs of Milton’s difficulty, you can nix the whole lofty excursion and romp around with apps, or purchase a pink-clad bestseller for which your cerebrum is barely required.

The proof of Giraldi’s devotion is given by his immense frame of reference, the writers and works he can summon to compare and contrast in his criticism. Cynthia Ozick, once more: “Nearly alone in his generation, [Giraldi] is willing to invoke Matthew Arnold, and in a single page can call forth Cesare Pavese, Conrad, Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Dickinson!” Ozick may as well have listed those final five names at random, for Giraldi’s broad basis for comparison extends still further. He has read D.H. Lawrence, of course, but also his correspondence, and when he reviews a two-volume biography of Melville, he can not only summon all of Melville’s writing (including the early novels now seldom printed, let alone read) but compare the modern biography to three or four others already in existence. Only the late Harold Bloom, of the contemporary critics I am familiar with, had a comparable power of recall, and Bloom long ago discovered and anointed Giraldi as a worthy successor.

Finally, let me conclude by sharing some of Giraldi’s now-infamous judgments and pronouncements. Before this collection came to print, he earned a reputation as a “bad” critic, someone unwilling to rubber-stamp every book entrusted to him to review with saccharine and meaningless praise. And, truth be told, I am almost inclined to sympathize with those authors luckless enough to draw his attention, for he is rather merciless in hunting down the cloying and the clichéd, and those two criteria alone disqualify most modern writers. In “On Literature and Love,” in which Giraldi contrasts the best literary critics (Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, F.R. Leavis) with the worst (Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man, for a start), he describes the latter group’s writing as “glutinous obfuscations, prose so clotted with plaque it practically begs for a blood thinner.” Here he is again, summarizing the fastest selling book in history, Fifty Shades of Grey, which capitalized on the apparently massive market of sexually dissatisfied and imaginatively impaired American women:

Christian Grey, priapic and untamable, a roué for whom commitment is kryptonite, soon breaks beneath the loving gaze of Anastasia Steele, who on one page flaunts her freight of insecurities and her self-esteem starvation, her readiness to be dragooned, and on the next page is pleased to be assertive, bossy, modern. The books are fantastical precisely because they promise that venery can lead to values, thrall to authority, the dissolute will become resolute, the profligate will have domestic peace – because they are blithely convinced that both ways is the only way to have it. The trilogy’s assembly-line unintelligence is really a fomentation of the worst that can be believed about both sexes. Romance novels – parochial by definition, ecumenical in ambition – teach a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness.

But if he is damning in his criticism, he is also effusive in his praise, and both instincts derive from a common source: a love and appreciation for what good literature can do for us. Here he is on James Baldwin: “There’s a startling confidence and conviction unleashed in Baldwin’s prose, an earned impudence balanced by tenderness, a union of erudition and emotion unpolluted by the sentimental.” Or Updike: “His exuberant buoyancy of language, a style that pursued every contour and lineation of living: no other major American novelist has been so delighted by the tensile strength of English, no one else so wedded to the notion of writing as deliverance.” On Susan Sontag: “Her self-regard was so unconquerable that she considered her dying a cosmic discourtesy.” Nor is Giraldi afraid to making sweeping pronouncements about the role of the critic or the true aims of literature, which he is always at pains to remind us is “not a democracy, but a tyranny of the talented.” On the purpose of criticism: “The critic’s chief loyalty is to the duet of beauty and wisdom, to the well made and usefully wise, and to the ligatures between style and meaning.” Or:

Pleasure is the test, not only for literature but for criticism, too: pleasure en route to wisdom. Criticism that does not attempt a creative reciprocity, that does not aspire to meet imaginative literature on equal footing in the manner of Walter Pater or Oscar Wilde, will fail both to register now and to be remembered later.

Because the modern study of literature in the academy denies both its pleasure and its wisdom, literary theorists and their tenured proselytizers – Harold Bloom’s “school of resentment” – are mercilessly dispatched with, but just one of Giraldi’s warnings is sufficient to steer careful readers clear of their baleful influence: “beware of anyone who refers to imaginative literature as a ‘text’ because before long she’ll be referring to you, dear reader, as an ‘organism.'”

At 46 years old, with two novels and a memoir already to his name, William Giraldi has already established himself as one of the most important writers of his generation. His fame and book sales have not caught up to that fact, and may never, but the fault will not be his. If he remains a well-kept secret, he will be a cherished one, as well.