American audacity In defense of literary daring

William Giraldi

Book - 2018

"Over the last decade William Giraldi has established himself as a charismatic and uncompromising literary essayist. American Audacity gathers Giraldi's fierce and witty considerations of American writers and themes, including a never-before-published appreciation of James Baldwin and an introductory call to arms for twenty-first-century American literature. With deep seeing and enormous learning, Giraldi considers giants from the past (Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Harper Lee), some of our great living critics and novelists (Harold Bloom, Cynthia Ozick, Allan Gurganus, Elizabeth Spencer), and those cultural-literary themes that have concerned him as a novelist (best-selling books, the problem of Catholic fiction, and his vira...l essay on bibliophilia). Demanding that literature be urgent and audacious, this book is itself an act of intellectual and stylistic daring. At a time when literature is threatened by ceaseless electronic distraction, Giraldi reaffirms the pleasure and wisdom of literary values" --

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New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation [2018]
Main Author
William Giraldi (author)
First edition
Item Description
Includes index.
A collection of essays, some previously published in The Republic and other publications.
Physical Description
xxxiii, 462 pages ; 22 cm
  • Creative destruction
  • Problem of the Catholic novelist
  • Bibliophile
  • Art of hate mail
  • Writer's immortality
  • American bestsellers
  • Single shade of grey
  • Memoir now
  • Terms of terror
  • Promise of happiness.
Review by New York Times Review

IF LITERATURE, as William Giraldi writes in "American Audacity," is "the one religion worth having," then Giraldi is our most tenacious revivalist preacher, his sermons galvanized by a righteous exhortative energy, a mastery of the sacred texts and - unique in contemporary literary criticism - an enthusiasm for moralizing in defense of high standards. "Do I really expect Americans to sit down with Adam Bede' or 'Clarissa' after all the professional and domestic hurly-burly of their day?" he asks in an essay bemoaning "Fifty Shades of Grey." "Pardon me, but yes, I do." The only insincerity there is the request for pardon: Giraldi is defiantly, lavishly unforgiving. "American Audacity" is the rare example of a collection that coheres into a manifesto. Its essays were published during the last seven years, many in The New Republic and The Daily Beast, on topics as various as the art of hate mail, Herman Melville's life and the Boston Marathon bombing (Giraldi, the author of two novels and a memoir, teaches at Boston University and is fiction editor of the literary journal AGNI). But every piece possesses the same moral urgency, which is to say that each advances the same critical argument. A clue to Giraldi's sensibility can be found in the chapter headings. Literature's actuarial tables dictate that a younger critic will tend to review, on balance, more elders than youngers. Giraldi is 44, still rosycheeked in critic years, but all of his subjects are older than he is, or dead. His critical criteria are timeless, which is the point; for a book to outlast its first breath, it must contend with all that has come before. This is an unequivocal truth, though it imposes a severity that would frighten most critics. Thus Giraldi measures "Eat, Pray, Love" against the standard of Saint Augustine's "Confessions," Denis Johnson against Flannery O'Connor and, more flatteringly, places the poet Christian Wiman in relation to John Donne. He champions writers of inventive prose, who possess "a cognizance of the self as an agent in history and society," who fulfill James Baldwin's definition of art: "to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion." Giraldi demands these vows of his subjects and of himself. He attacks - cannot tolerate - writers who value emotion over intellect, who lack moral purpose and who resort to jargon and cliché, examples of which he enumerates like so many demerits. (Giraldi himself, it might be noted, has a perverse attachment to the verbs "pen" and "marshal," the null adjective "compelling" and the atavistic practice of referring to women by their honorific, as in "Ms. Dickinson" or "Ms. O'Connor.") But he reserves his greatest scorn for the cheapening of the culture, what Saul Bellow called the "ongoing noise" and Philip Roth called "American-style philistinism run amok." The din has amplified, needless to say - it only ever amplifies - into what Giraldi calls the "Great Distraction." If a nation's reading habits reveal its character, as he believes they do, we are "an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage." Novels are judged by their artist's biographies instead of their prose; readers are inured to mediocrity. Concisely put: "It's a rotten time to be a writer." Still, "American Audacity" is, despite itself, a deeply optimistic book. As Giraldi acknowledges, bellyaching is eternal. (Ralph Waldo Emerson: " People do not deserve good writing, they are so pleased with bad.") So, too, is the remedy, which Giraldi vigorously pursues: to insist on intellect, honesty, memory. The soul of his collection is a series of appreciations of other critics (Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, Katie Roiphe), but nearly every page rejuvenates the intergenerational conversation: Oscar Wilde in communion with Elizabeth Hardwick, Matthew Arnold with Martin Amis, D. H. Lawrence with G. B. Shaw with H. L. Mencken with F. O. Matthiessen. Forget the rabble - literature's priestly class is immortal, and it has survived ages even darker than this one. 'American Audacity' is the rare example of a collection that coheres into a manifesto. NATHANIEL rich's third novel, "King Zeno," was published this year.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 31, 2019]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In a wide-ranging and provocative collection of essays-most previously published-novelist and memoirist Giraldi (The Hero's Body) examines an array of American writers, praising those who successfully marry style and substance. He draws astute portraits of notable critics, including Stanley Fish, Katie Roiphe, and James Wolcott, and novelists, including Herman Melville, Harper Lee, and Richard Ford, while also touching on such topics as "the art of hate mail" and "the problem of the Catholic novelist." An essay on the memoir concludes that the burden of writing about oneself is "to be more trustworthy, more discerning and dignified, artful and interior" and "unafraid of sounding the fathoms of the soul." Giraldi admires Cynthia Ozick because she wields, in her critical writing, an "apprehension of uncommon exactitude and style" that demonstrates how criticism can be an art form in its own right. In a previously unpublished essay, Giraldi praises James Baldwin not for his political stance but because Baldwin is so "smart and sane it's impossible to read him... and not sense yourself growing smarter and saner by the page." The same can be said of Giraldi's graceful case for the value of good writing. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Giraldi (The Hero's Body; Hold the Dark) believes that critics should be readers before they are writers but that criticism should be well crafted and not tied to a theory or ideology other than a love of literature. Giraldi holds himself to his own standards in this collection of essays about American authors he considers audacious-bold, complex, and ambitious. Whether reviewing a new novel by Barry Hannah, mulling over the lost art of hate mail, wading into the controversy surrounding Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, or examining the work of critics such as Harold Bloom and Katie Roiphe, Giraldi is a pleasure to read, presenting erudite prose that is free of jargon and exhibits an American audacity of its own. VERDICT Smart, insightful, and energetic, these essays will have you reaching for the bookshelf or heading to the library; they will make you want to read. This is the kind of criticism we need more of.-Stefanie Hollmichel, Univ. of St. Thomas Law Lib., Minneapolis © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A midcareer retrospective of essay-length literary reviews.Giraldi (The Hero's Body, 2017, etc.) identifies the thrust of his critical work to date, of which this volume offers an extensive sample, as preoccupied with articulating the boldness and originality he finds peculiar to the American literary tradition, his own contributions included. Like many emerging writers with literary aspirations, the author seems compelled to join the fray over the Great American Novel and to scrutinize his writerly inheritance from the pedigreed lineage of the white, male, quasi-religious American canon. An unapologetic literary snob who lionizes critics as cultural arbiters, Giraldi enlists in a crusade against bad writing and celebrates the role of criticism as policing the borders of literary legitimacy. He sallies forth against the "commercial fiction" of bestsellers like Tom Clancy's "lobotomized" "poli-sci porn" and the "eighth-grade gurglings" of Fifty Shades of Grey. The secret to such blockbuster success, Giraldi reckons, is to "never ask your reader to delve with you into the wombs of language, to rappel into the inky caves of connotation." The author alternates reviews of giants like Melville and Poe with the handful of lesser-known 20th-century novelistsBarry Hannah, Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powellhe most esteems. Though the dense verbiage of his book reviews often recalls an academic's tone, and he is fiction editor for a campus literary journal (AGNI at Boston University), Giraldi writes for an educated generalist audience and claims to detest academia. He rails in particular against the "unreadable prose" of academics written for other academics, counting himself lucky to have escaped the drudgery of the "tweeds" whose writing on writing he declares "incapable of giving pleasure." Still, he assumes the academic mantle of metareviewer, critiquing critics like Stanley Fish, Lionel Trilling, Northrop Frye, and Harold Bloom with grad-student gusto.A host of detailed, thoughtful, often rancorous reviews haunted by a love/hate relationship with American letters and replete with choice tidbits from the author's commonplace book but offering few original or illuminating insights. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.