Thought Catalog
September 28, 2010

Charles Bock’s NYT Review Of Richard Yates Seems Angry, Factually Inaccurate

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What is the issue?

Charles Bock’s New York Times review of Richard Yates by Tao Lin is like many reviews of Richard Yates, in that it contains, in its first paragraph, the word ‘ironic’ – a word that has largely lost its meaning in the context of cultural writing, much like the word ‘hipster’ [which the New York Times conceded to using more than 250 times in the past year. Wonder if the word ‘hipster’ in Mr. Bock’s review makes 251.]

According to Mr. Bock’s definition, ‘ironic [distance]’ is what Tao Lin allegedly employs to provide himself with an ‘out’ in the event he fails at being ’emotionally devastating.’ Seems hard to imagine a writer sitting down to write a novel and saying to himself ‘this is going to be so fucking emotionally devastating.’ I would guess successful writers create some form of narrative or self-expression and then wait to see how it is received/interpreted by people. Seems like Mr. Bock feels like ‘leaving something to interpretation’ means ‘having a hesitant vision,’ or something.

The second paragraph of Mr. Bock’s review of Richard Yates contains the phrases ‘self-serving’ [seems derogatory here, despite the fact it is widely established that authentic creative work by its nature cannot be anything but] and ‘New Lit Boy’ [in context, this also seems subtly derogatory/ emasculating, although it is open to interpretation whether Mr. Bock is more offended by ‘New’ or ‘Boy.’]

In so doing he immediately seems to reveal a personal agenda. One could argue that the revelation of personal agenda in the second paragraph of a 13-paragraph review would be enough to discredit the pursuant paragraphs, but it is in the third paragraph that, as previously noted by the Village Voice, Mr. Bock truly ‘shows his hand.’

It might seem petty to vocally lambaste Bock’s assertion that ‘the celebrity monikers are presumably screen names’ [re: main characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning,] but even an amateur blogger or casual internet user should immediately be aware that this is not the case. The last time the phrase ‘screen name’ was relevant was on AOL [circa 1992-1998ish]. Anyone with a modern email account who uses the internet as a ‘platform of communication’ knows that there are no ‘screen names’ on Gchat.

This excludes perhaps the more egregious omission: The fact that a virtual legion of interviewers have asked Lin the immediately obvious and natural question ‘why did you name your main characters after celebrities?’ and he has stated on what seems like several occasions an explanation that should be imminently available via the most cursory of Google searches. If Lin’s young internet-ready readership is a little more ‘up ons’ than Mr. Bock, the fear that drives his review of ‘Richard Yates becomes pretty comprehensible/ relatable. Wonder if Mr. Bock knows how to conduct perfunctory research using Google [as is ‘the norm’ in modern journalism].

Seems like Mr. Bock does not frequently conduct casual ‘banter’ with friends via internet messaging or other online communications platforms. Regarding the novel’s opening, where Dakota talks about holding a hamster/the hamster’s ‘tiny paws,’ Mr. Bock says readers with ‘innocent hearts’ will experience ‘charm’ while ‘those less amused’ will find it ‘cloying and gimmicky.’ Since Mr. Bock later says that Richard Yates makes him want to ‘kill [himself]’ we can assume that he is ‘less amused.’

We can also assume he finds it ‘cloying and gimmicky’ because he’s unfamiliar with chatting online. Those who are seem to be aware that conventional ideas about tone are excused from text-based conversations. People who chat frequently with one another tend to establish their own ‘tone,’ thus it is not possible to ascribe the same context to things people say to one another online as one would to things people say to one another out loud/’IRL.’

Seems Mr. Bock thinks that what is fast becoming the dominant communication format for most people in generations subsequent to his is ‘gimmicky’. Seems that when he says ‘cloying and gimmicky’ about someone else’s Gchat conversation that is used to begin a novel in order to indicate that the characters chat frequently enough to have established their own ‘tone,’ Mr. Bock is revealing that he is confused/possibly resentful. Seems when he says ‘blasé cynicism’ he is projecting.

This makes his concession that Lin’s work is a ‘way of portraying the world in which he’s come of age’ – and praise for it as smart seem obligatory/insincere, like it is saying ‘I guess text-based communication is important somehow because a lot of young people seem to be doing this, but I don’t understand it/don’t like it.’

He suggests that Lin’s use of numerous Gchat conversations as a dominant ‘window’ into a narrative about two people results in Richard Yates feeling ‘minimal’ and ‘stripped down’ and asks ‘to what end’ the novel is referencing other authors called ‘minimalist.’ Seems hard to imagine someone coming up to an author and saying ‘to what end did you create a minimalist work’. Seems evident that minimalism is intended to allow the reader to imagine/interpret relevant details on their own, maybe Mr. Bock didn’t want to do this/felt threatened.

Here is where Bock and the majority of other mainstream/veteran reviewers of literature come to a halt regarding Richard Yates: Lin’s approach is unfamiliar to them, and they feel so alienated that they never pause to analyze the narrative that approach serves. They simply decide Lin is the poster boy for a method of human interaction that seems poised to ‘shake the foundations’ of what they believe a novel should be. Embracing that literature is always deeply rooted in the communication norms of its time seems like it would be frightening to people who have not kept up with those communication norms.

Seems like it would be easier for someone to say it is a ‘gimmick’ and dismiss it, or create an ‘ironic distance’ between themselves and the work. Seems like if they were a critic they would try to ‘nip that shit in the bud’ so that it doesn’t become a bigger thing that further excludes them.

Mr. Bock cites ‘what it is to be young and pushing against the world’ in what seems like backhanded praise. It is, to some extent, formulaic that the young should ‘push against the world,’ but it seems like in this particular situation that tendency is something Mr. Bock feels compelled to ‘quash’ with his condescension. It is evident Richard Yates has pushed against Mr. Bock’s world hard enough to make him afraid.

Ironically, the narrative of Richard Yates is precisely about common fears that lie inside all human beings, and the way unhealthy control behaviors arise in vulnerable people as a response. Seems like Mr. Bock might have been able to find it relatable.

Richard Yates portrays several avenues of maladaptive coping, like ‘a person feels unlovable so they demand another person tackle the impossible goal of making them feel loved’ or ‘a person is driven to harm themselves because they fail to please others’ or ‘a person feels like they are not included in normative society so they steal things’.

Or ‘two vulnerable people develop a painful vicious cycle of injuring each other because they rely on one another to make them feel good enough’ or ‘a person disassembles the work of another person because they are afraid it means they are irrelevant if the other person is successful.’

Sometimes when something is too honest and too reflective of the innermost self/different/frightening, an individual long set in his/her ways finds it easier to relegate it to a ‘small object,’ focus on its surface elements or dismiss it as a ‘gimmick,’ rather than face what they see of themselves therein.

Numerous critics seem to have missed the point of Richard Yates, categorizing it as ‘a book about the internet’ or something about ‘the iPhone generation’. Even [presumably] Lin’s own publisher miscategorizes the work on the back jacket, saying something wildly dissonant regarding ‘illicit sex,’ which is not the focus of the book at all [neither is the sex that Mr. Bock concludes is ‘desultory,’ simply because it is not described in detail.]

Most of the current generation’s constituency know that it is no longer especially socially horrifying for a precocious 16-year-old to have a relationship with a troubled 22 year-old, and so doesn’t find it worthy of note except that it informs the power dynamics of the two lead characters and illuminates their respective insecurities.

So concerned are book critics with Lin’s delivery [or, so deliberately are they preoccupying themselves therewith] that most people seem unable to perceive that Richard Yates is not about sex or even Gchat, but is a book about people rather like them: people who depend on power and influence over others, people who manipulate in order to achieve approval, people who become obsessed with ‘judging and shaping the way other people express themselves’ as a response to feeling irrelevant or powerless.

In Richard Yates, Haley Joel Osment’s expectations of Dakota Fanning represent a self-serving need for validation masquerading as personal concern or even, at times, support for her development/best interest. Seems like critics of Richard Yates should be able to relate. Dakota Fanning’s self-inflicted powerlessness in the face of the ideals to which she aspires is also something critics should also easily find relatable.

Rather than admit to her incapacities, her fears, that she is, to some extent, out of her depth in her relationship with Haley and his inappropriate needs, Dakota lies pathologically and develops bulimia. She puts on a façade of being good enough and hides the rest. As this type of ‘complex’ is crucial to the portrayal of relationship in Richard Yates, perhaps the most revolting thing about Bock’s review is that he essentially relegates Dakota’s bulimia and ‘cutting’ as minor clichés in the same breath he suggests that Richard Yates would be better if it contained ‘a father with a baseball bat’ or a ‘suicide on the train tracks’ [with apologies to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, he quips.]

Mr. Bock must be told: Bulimia is not a fucking minor cliché. It is the most self-effacing, excruciating, shame-inducing and emotionally-destructive form of ‘maladaptive coping’ that a person who does not feel ‘good enough’ can execute upon themselves. And while it has been wildly melodramatized in shit like ‘Lifetime television movies’ or young adult fiction, Lin’s undecorated and genuine portrayal of the real and painfully mundane circumstances that create such a condition is, without a doubt [take it from a critic, bro] the most authentic and poignant illustration thereof that has existed in literature to date, and should you find a better one, I challenge you to qualify your opinion.

There is pain for the everyday person in the fact that their battles and triumphs and injuries and victories do not even approximate the noble dramas of our common entertainment media. Mr. Bock might be hung up on Lin’s ‘stripped-down’ and modern language, but it’s that approach that permits those small and yet crucial human truths to speak for themselves.

Do the critics who hate Lin’s ‘minimalism’ truly believe that such an effortless, literal portrayal of those human truths requires arbitrary ‘dressing-up’ [via train tracks/baseball bat/epic confrontation] to attain validity? Or is it done so easily and so well that they cannot accept that dramatic narrative can really be so simple?

Fundamentally, the dismissal of Richard Yates by Mr. Bock and numerous other mainstream critics comes down to the fact that their alienation from the relevance of the delivery prevented them from forming what could have been a very personally-revelatory relationship with the narrative.

In that way, Mr. Bock’s review, with its visible resentment, inaccuracies and naked anxiety, might be the largest item of evidence extant speaking to the relevance and efficacy of Richard Yates. And therein, at last, lies the quintessentially most-correct definition of ‘ironic.’ TC mark

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