Steve Mitchelmore on Jonathan Yardley as "photocopier":
Jonathan Yardley's photocopier was in action over the weekend. In his review of a John Grisham novel he almost writes: The prevailing assumption among the literati is still ... that popularity equals mediocrity.
How many times have we read opinions like this? It's like the same article is photocopied to save the 'author' from having to write, let alone think. As usual, no examples are given of members of the literati expressing the assumption.
Yardley - or rather the photocopier - goes on:
The assumption is entirely invalid, since it requires us to dismiss out of hand the immensely popular and notably distinguished work of Graham Greene, Charles Dickens, Eudora Welty, William Styron and Anne Tyler, to name five who come immediately to mind.
Although I think four of the above are pretty mediocre (I don't know anything about the fifth), I wouldn't argue for the assumption; after all my favourite author Thomas Bernhard is a bestseller in Europe. But I do wonder what Yardley is bothered about.
Indeed. Steve believes that Yardley, one of "those in a privileged position (that is, who are able to devote their working lives to reading to inform and guide the rest of us)" is being irresponsible in refusing to really explore the assumptions behind these comments, the most important of which is that if "popularity doesn't equal mediocrity and, its correlate, that popularity doesn't equal superiority, the question then becomes: how can we make the distinction?".
But I wouldn't say that Yardley is necessarily avoiding the issue by refusing to engage with the question Steve poses. In my opinion, Yardley simply doesn't know how to make this distinction. He knows what he likes, and everything else be damned. He doesn't like pretentious "literary" writing, he can't abide fiction that foregrounds formal experimentation, he almost always dismisses any writers who seem to take literature seriously as a form of art--basically, he doesn't seem to like literature very much at all. It's perfectly ok with me if Jonathan Yardley has philistine tastes in fiction, but one would swear that he has been given prominence in the Washington Post for all these years because he represents the similar philistine tastes of most of those who write for and edit American newspapers, and can be counted on to give those artsy-fartsy novelists (the "literati" more generally) a good smack in the face every once in a while.
Yardley's modus operandi is illustrated very well by his recent review of Bret Lott's Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life. (I haven't read this book, and my point is not that it's a good book while Yardley says it's bad. It's his method I'm interested in.) It proceeds almost entirely by staging a temper tantrum of name calling: "Still, the rise of the writing schools has added whole new universes of meaning and possibility to hackery, a word that demands redefining above and beyond (or below and beneath?) its present meaning as, according to Webster, "a bullock cart" used in India"; "Smug, self-referential and self-obsessed, literal-minded and careerist to a fare-thee-well, Lott indicts himself -- and by implication all those who dance with him in the assembly-line daisy chain -- on every page of this genuinely repellent book." It's full of unsupported assertions: "The Catcher in the Rye may have its uses for the adolescent reader -- indeed, it seems to have become an obligatory part of the American rite of passage -- but there's precious little in it for the mature adult." Even when he attempts some sort of specific analysis, he doesn't bother to analyze, as when he quotes a couple of passages from Lott's book and simply expects us to agree with him that they're badly written. As far as I can tell, Yardley objects to these passages because the sentences are sort of long.
This is the literary criticism of the middlebrow American journalist who's learned that some readers like attitude and a little colorful or intemperate language. I've never read a review by Yardley that I thought stood up as even a modest example of literary analysis. He feels perfectly free to spew out his prejudices and expects us to accept it as serious criticism. It isn't. In fact, it illustrates everything that is wrong with "mainstream" literary journalism/criticism. Such criticism makes no attempt to accurately describe the work under review but immediately proceeds to free-floating pronouncement. At best, as Steve says, it "photocopies" conventional wisdom. It doesn't "enliven" the literary debate, it only debases it. It's the sort of literary criticism that might itself be "popular," but in this case the literati are correct: It's also mediocre.