Sixty years ago, Oscar Cargill, a scholar of Henry James and Thomas Wolfe, wrote about the personality and role of the critic. Critics should be “brave” and “generous”; they should be “willing to labor to entertain.” They should, at all costs, avoid “reviewmanship,” the practice “of writing a prescribed number of words for a review without ever saying anything that could possibly offend the publisher-advertiser of the book reviewed.” It is a fine art, in that the critic says “nothing” but is adept at “sprinkling one or two bright phrases which may be dexterously lifted from that context for later quotation in further advertising.” Such writing creates weak but “dependable” criticism. Dependable reviewers get review copies; dependable reviewers get paid.
William Giraldi writes the opposite of paltry criticism. He’s a talented, ambitious critic who is unafraid to take hard stances and ruffle literary feathers — which means that sometimes his opinions feel like invectives. He’s also the only critic in America who in his mid 40s deserves a book as expansive as American Audacity — a collection of essays on literary culture, critics, and writers. Giraldi’s creative work is notable, especially his charged novel Hold the Dark, yet he also continues to establish himself as a critic with the rarest of traits: an actual worldview.
Giraldi prefaces the collection with a pointed introduction that serves as an ars poetica for his method and purpose as a critic. While at Boston University, he took a course on the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, taught by the English poet Geoffrey Hill. Hill told Giraldi that he would never become an academic; he was better suited to writing essays for the “common reader,” to quote Samuel Johnson. Giraldi was taken with Hill’s critical sense: He could eviscerate poorly written work, but his praise of worthwhile writing was “an unforgettable tutorial in the efficacy of literary love.”
Giraldi’s 2012 negative review of books by Alix Ohlin caused some to call him mean-spirited, although his criticisms were of her language, not her person. Still, Giraldi is a powerful writer, and although such punching is not uncommon, when it appears in the New York Times Book Review, it feels (to some) like a one-sided prizefight. Yet that review captures Hill’s sentiment: Criticize what feels flimsy, praise what feels wrought.
“The critic should be tethered to no theory, no ideology, no asphyxiating ism,” Giraldi claims in his introduction. “Like the poet and novelist, he should be of no party. . . . 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.” He cites James Baldwin in concluding that often the critic, like the artist, must cultivate “aloneness.” No man is an island, unless he wants to be an honest critic.
Although it is necessarily short, Giraldi’s introduction suggests a thesis echoed by Robert Alter, among others: “American literary sensibility evolved from an artful collision of several forces: the ambitions and dreads of the Puritans, the newness and menace of the land, the values of the European Renaissance, and, later, the unignorable notions of the European Enlightenment.” For Giraldi, Moby-Dick is the essential American novel, the only book “enormous enough, and religious enough, to contain our American enormity and prevailing religiosity.” Giraldi swings big, and it is fun to watch. He chooses Dickinson over Whitman as our poet laureate. He thinks that we’ve never had a golden age of literacy and literature, but he’s still optimistic that we can create work full of “mystery, ecstasy, theodicy, the sublime manifest in language.”
Which means that Giraldi, though critical, is not cynical. He’s a generous and wide reader, and American Audacity covers a healthy amount of literary terrain. One notable essay from the first section is on “the art of hate mail,” which Giraldi doesn’t write but certainly has received. It is a literary tradition — D. H. Lawrence reveled in sending such missives and in 1920 told Katherine Mansfield, “I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption.” But the tradition has been given new breath by the largely anonymous Internet. There, the “general confusion of rhetoric for logic” and “rationalization for reasoning” is not merely the haters’ limit but “a fairly damning limitation.” That said, “If someone isn’t riled by what you write, you aren’t writing truthfully enough. Hate mail is what happens when you do.”
For Giraldi, pursuing truth in criticism means finding pleasure in literature. He lambasts academics who use literature as “agitprop” and praises those critics who write out of a love for literature. Cynthia Ozick is a “sorceress of silken prose” who reads “with a surging reciprocity, the consummate force and flooding of her selfhood.” Stanley Fish “confronts your cozy assumptions, your placating pieties, and that confrontation is crucial to the development of ideas.” He thinks we read Wendy Lesser “to commune with a mind abler than our own.” Giraldi’s critical writing makes you want to read more, right now.
In the final section of the book, he considers distinctly American writers, such as the transcendent James Baldwin, who “insists that every essay or review be unabashedly personal, germane not only to the quaking times but to his own vista, his own history as artist and witness.” His essay on the poet Christian Wiman is graceful and exemplary. Also included here is Giraldi’s controversy-causing essay on Cormac McCarthy. When Giraldi’s Hold the Dark was published, many critics — including me — compared his prose and pulse to those in McCarthy’s novels. “Being praised for false emulation is nearly as bad as being pilloried for false errors,” Giraldi writes. By the end, his thesis makes a lot of sense: Rather than being influenced by McCarthy, Giraldi is influenced by those who influenced McCarthy as well: “the Homers and Faulkners and O’Connors.”
Flannery O’Connor makes several appearances in American Audacity. I would call Giraldi a Catholic critic, but don’t call him a Catholic novelist. He ends his introduction to the book by saying, “I seek to convert no one; my only wish is that fellow lovers of literature might find something here to argue with or admire.” The essay that most stirred me is “The Problem of the Catholic Novelist.” Giraldi feels torn when critics find whispers of Catholicism in his novels. He was raised Catholic and, elsewhere in the book, admits that “Catholics both practicing and lapsed never shake off the pageantry and mythos of [the Roman Catholic] worldview, its dramatic grasp of causation and salvation: it affects every molecule of our lives, and every inch of our art.”
Yet “to be tagged a Catholic novelist is to be tagged a failed novelist.” It is a sweeping claim, and not quite true. In our own time, Ron Hansen and Alice McDermott, novelists of the first order, are practicing Catholics, not to mention the talented legion of the lapsed: Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Louise Erdrich, and more. Giraldi, though, is talking about a particular type of failure, the worry that “inside a Catholic novel, water, bread, and blood are helpless not to have allegorical import.”
For a novelist who is no longer a believing Catholic, it is certainly unnerving to feel pigeonholed. Yet by the end of the essay, Giraldi returns to the singular power of O’Connor, “her alien abilities, her empyreal genius crouched in that local strut through dirt and blood, her faith always hidden even when she’s most vociferously expressing it.” Giraldi is a writer who has discarded dogma, but he saves his highest praises for O’Connor — who found dogma illuminating and liberating. It’s a paradox that complements the end of the essay, when he asserts his rejection of Catholic doctrine but concludes, “I am not sorry to have been a Catholic. . . . It gives a writer that dramatic itch for sin, for judgment and damnation, for the rottenness of the world and the holy in us all.” Those lines are not ones of contradiction, but complexity. They are worthy of a great critic.