I've never cared much for David Gates's criticism. His intelligence is obvious but his reviews tend to be hobbled by smugness or self-regard - how I have longed to reach out and pop the "I" key from his keyboard - and his attempts at humor have always felt strained to this reader.
However, I thought his review on Sunday of Elliot Perlman's novel The Street Sweeper, despite its cruelty, was exceedingly instructive, and would serve my Novel IV students as a handy precis of what to avoid in their fiction. Gates's lessons, highlighted in two particular paragraphs, should probably hang above the desk of any beginning novelist (a category of which I still consider myself a member).
Novel IV is an advanced class, so it's primarly workshopping. The weekly lessons of Novel I-III are dispensed with in favor of sustained, detailed examinations of weekly submissions. But I took time out at the beginning of class to walk through Gates's review. This was the first of the two essential paragraphs:
... no decent writer should have to repeat variants of the line “Tell everyone what happened here” 12 times in two pages of a scene at Auschwitz; it takes on the robotic affect of the People’s Microphone at an Occupy rally, and it loses force with each use. The Auschwitz scenes, based on the testimony of real-life survivors, will break the stoniest heart — how could they not? — but even here Perlman can’t let ill enough alone. Two women about to be hanged for resisting the Nazis are described as “wingless sparrows,” as if the genuine pathos needed to be amped up with a sentimental image. Near the beginning of the novel, Perlman can’t resist framing the nightmarish murder of Emmett Till, and of the four black girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, as a literal bad dream, experienced by his untenured Columbia historian. The well-read Perlman may have had in mind Stephen Dedalus’s line in “Ulysses” about history’s being a nightmare from which he was trying to awake, but will any reader find this dream plausible rather than just thematically convenient?
In this advanced workshop, I have taken to advising my students to be as thorough and detailed as they possibly can; to banish the word "nitpick" from their vocabulary; and to understand that if they fail to bring a rigorous, thoughtful sensibility to these critiques, there is surely someone waiting out there who will feel no similar reluctance. And it's sad day for the author if that person happens to be a Times reviewer. This first paragraph contains any number of amateur traps I warn my students about, particularly the last one - to beware of moments that exist solely to serve authorial convenience. But it's the second paragraph that is a gold mine of "Don'ts":
But the writing of fiction has its own forms of morality. Its code takes a hard line against such silly devices as the historian’s inner conversations with the girlfriend he abjured: “ ‘Adam, . . . you’re trying to turn your fear of the future, your panic about parenthood and professional failure into something noble that you’ve done for me. I never bought it.’ ‘Diana, it’s possible at the one time both to be afraid and to act nobly for another person.’ ” It evenhandedly forbids kitschy generic ingénues — “With dark eyes for falling into and jet-black hair, she could be both serious and funny, often at the same time” — and ciphers like “a charming, delightful woman in her 80s.” It demands that the writer clean up toxic spills of syntax: “A single guest at weddings, couples would admire her appearance almost excessively and, in so doing, embarrass her, never for a moment dreaming she might know loneliness every bit as well, every bit as sharp, as they ever had.” It calls for the renunciation of verbal pomp: “He was overwhelmed by a wave of self-loathing, panic and a sense of loss that, in staccato bursts, flushed the air from his lungs till the moisture in his sleep-starved eyes formed a vitreous glaze that mercifully blurred his reflection in the mirror.” As the Book of John puts it, Jesus wept. All these passages suggest a writer who, whether through inattention or inability, hasn’t engaged effectively with his characters or his language, who won’t or can’t take the work of fiction seriously.
I do warn my students against taking too dogmatic an approach to reading and writing, and I do caution that all rules can be broken. That said, this paragraph is a brilliant and efficient summary of things to avoid, things I see all the time: expository dialogue, particularly awful when it's unpacking emotional states; cliches both of language and character; lazy undescriptive descriptions (paraprhasing All The President's Men, I call these non-description descriptions); tangled, inept sentence work and unhinged prose. It's a bravura paragraph that I will keep close as I continue on the second novel.
I pointed out that Gates is very careful to provide specific examples of all his objections, though we also acknowledged that nearly any sentence can be taken out of context and made to look foolish. That said, it's hard to imagine any context in which the sentences noted above would work. (I do think the review's one failing - aside from the current of mean-spiritedness that seems to animate it - is there isn't a single, sustained quotation from the novel to really allow a reader to hear Perlman's voice.)
But that's a quibble and, as I told my students, even the nastiness is instructive and, in its way, salutary - every writer must take the maximum possible care with his or her prose, because when you play in the NFL, the hard knocks are out there. They are no fun to receive, as I can tell you, but no less instructive for the pain.