I have a confession: In many of my recent book review blog posts, I have been more complimentary than critical. This was an intentional choice, informed largely by the contemporary nature of the books I've been reading. I confess that until the last several months, I have tended to read contemporary literature rather ungenerously—that is, I read contemporary novels as if I’m workshopping them, which is to say that I am more alert to flaws than to strengths. At
Squaw Valley, I realized this habit is not unique to me:
two writers in two different afternoon panel discussions used the word
“ambivalent” to describe how they feel towards contemporary literature.
Such ambivalence is harmful in that it can make us miss the real achievements in front of us. On a larger scale, if such ambivalence continues, it could have the very negative effect of creating an expectation for perfection (you can read more about this here). In other words, if novelists begin making choices on the basis of avoiding flaws, their manuscripts will very quickly fall flat.
All of this has been in the back of my mind lately, but I’m bringing it to the fore now because I realized, in sitting down to write about Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, that indulging in too many compliments amounts to crying wolf. That is to say, I know I’ve been complimentary lately, but this time you really must believe me: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is, in fact, an outstanding book.