Literary critics read more than authors intended

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Published by  Riverhead Books. $26.95

I have long appropriated for myself the position of a literary philistine. It suits me and does justice to my natural inability to comprehend deep, elegant and complex literary ideas and constructs.

It is from this position that I often wonder how great literary critics, of the kind that grace the pages of The New York Times and the New Yorker, second-guess and third-guess the minds of the authors whose books they are reviewing.

It is not my intention to single out any one critic but Michiko Kakutani comes to mind for her just published review of Mohsin Hamid’s ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’. In particular, her concluding paragraph that reads: “It is a measure of Mr. Hamid’s audacious talents that he manages to make his protagonist’s story work on so many levels. “You” is, at once, a modern-day Horatio Alger character, representing the desires and frustrations of millions in rising Asia; a bildungsroman hero, by turns knavish and recognizably human, who sallies forth from the provinces to find his destiny; and a nameless but intimately known soul, whose bittersweet romance with the pretty girl possesses a remarkable emotional power. With “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” Mr. Hamid reaffirms his place as one of his generation’s most inventive and gifted writers.”

This is indeed very high praise for any writer from any critic, let alone someone as exalted as Kakutani. My issue is with observations such as “a modern-day Horatio Alger character, representing the desires and frustrations of millions in rising Asia; a bildungsroman hero, by turns knavish and recognizably human…” It is doubtful whether while writing the book Hamid thought of making his protagonist, whom he refers to as only as You, “a modern-day Horatio Alger character” or “a bildungsroman hero, by turns knavish and recognizably human.” It is reasonable to say that Hamid did not wake up one morning and say to himself, ‘Now let me make You into a bildungsroman hero who is by turns knavish and recognizably human.”

I have been known to be frequently wrong about such matters but my sense is that Kakutani is probably reading much more into the book than what the author might have intended to say. Such reviews are written as if they are meant to showcase the critic’s own dazzlingly well-informed worldview rather than what the author may be saying.

Of course, reviews are necessarily about how a reader or a viewer has responded to a particular creative work and not about whether the creator of that work intended it to be received in a particular manner. That said, it is still my position that critics, especially those who enjoy a formidable reputation in their craft, do often read much more into a creative work than the creator may have thought of.

If there is any point to this post, it is that I have become immune to antacids after having consumed them for decades. There is no other way to explain that I am being so biliously bellicose on a Saturday morning.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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