This review originally appeared in Open Letters Monthly.
John Domini’s The Sea-God’s Herb is first of all a collection of lively book reviews (supplemented with a few longer essays) covering almost forty years of Domini’s work as a literary critic in such venues as The New Republic, the Boston Globe, and Bookforum, as well as numerous literary magazines and online book reviews. It is consistently engaging, featuring both an appealing, non-technical prose style and a concern for the particulars of the work at hand. The analysis is careful but never heavy-handed, the style of expression clear and vivid. Certainly readers can disagree with Domini’s assessment of any of the writers or books he discusses, but surely few will conclude that he fails to support his judgments.
But such a book also prompts questions beyond the quality of writing or the level of discernment on display. Indeed, since The Sea-God’s Herb exhibits both style and intelligence in abundance, these questions are only more pertinent: When does a book review achieve the status of “literary criticism”? Can book reviews have long-term value transcending their origins in the immediacy of initial response? Can the best reviews help shape the critical reputation of important writers and their work, or help identify deserving writers and books destined to receive serious critical attention? In short, can reviews contribute to literary discussion something more lasting than a fleeing judgment based on “taste” or inherently subjective standards?
These are particularly pressing questions at a time when literary criticism other than the book review is effectively non-existent. The conception of “criticism” as the rigorous analysis of literary works was long ago ceded to academic critics as their rightful domain, but equally long ago academic criticism ceased to be primarily concerned with the analysis of literary works—or, more precisely, became preoccupied with analyzing everything but the work itself, preferring the historical, the political, and the cultural to the literary. (In the latest iteration of the “new” in academic criticism, so-called “digital humanities,” text-mining scholars using computer analysis to provide “data” about literary works have essentially made the individual text disappear via “distant reading,” an approach that provides us with quantitative knowledge of an entity called “literature” that makes reading it in any particular manifestation almost superfluous.) If criticism as the assessment of “literary” value is to remain a visible practice, book reviewing may be the only form it can now plausibly take.
Perhaps it is not necessary that literary criticism remain a visible presence. There are those who contend that criticism is an impediment to creating a vibrant “literary community,” especially when it results in too many negative reviews. It is hard to imagine that such a community would continue to be vibrant for very long, however, without the more disinterested perspective provided by honest criticism, which of course does not have to be relentlessly negative to be rigorous. Domini’s reviews demonstrate what would be lost if conscientious criticism disappeared.
A few of them are indeed negative, but they provide sound reasons for the unfavorable judgments reached. Just as importantly, the favorable reviews support their evaluations with the same kind of care. Ultimately The Sea-God’s Herb is an implicit defense of contemporary innovative fiction (of the sort usually labeled “postmodern”), so Domini’s fundamental critical stance is one of advocacy on behalf of the work he reviews, but the occasional less admiring assessments only strengthen the credibility of his judgments overall, reassuring us that his praise isn’t empty and that his objections aren’t mere carping. One would think this kind of scrupulous appraisal would only strengthen literary culture, not introduce unwelcome scrutiny.
If bringing careful attention to those qualities of a work of fiction that make it successful or not according to discernible standards is a primary feature of literary criticism, surely the reviews collected in The Sea-God’s Herb qualify as genuine criticism, while still finally providing the more general and cogent sort of assessment we expect in book reviews. And, as these reviews have been gathered to make a larger point about (mostly) American postmodern fiction, they also prove relevant beyond their retrospective interest as the registers of contemporaneous response to books now, in some cases, still widely known, in other cases in danger of being forgotten. Some revising and refocusing of the reviews in their original form has been necessary to make the argument more apparent and to integrate the reviews with each other more effectively. They have also been arranged for structural effect, but the reviews show enough consistency of purpose already that it seems likely most of them were written with this larger purpose—to highlight unconventional fiction and clear up common misconceptions about it—in mind to begin with.
Domini frames his argument by beginning with an essay from 2010, “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain,’” that makes a more general case that literary criticism “just hasn’t been doing its job” in grappling with adventurous fiction, either largely ignoring it or repeating the canard that it is too far removed from readers’ common experience. The latter complaint seems especially objectionable to Domini, who uses the bulk of the essay to look at the work of three writers who exemplify his contention that postmodern fiction does have “a relationship to the rough and tumble in which we live,” that it can be “socially relevant.” While The Sea-God’s Herb does not extend this thesis in an explicit, systematic way, the emphasis in most of Domini’s considerations of fiction manifesting “an unconventional approach” (not all of which could be called, strictly speaking, “postmodern”) is on showing that unconventional does not mean detached from social realities. Introducing and maintaining this focus allows Domini to avoid producing a book that would otherwise be, as he puts in his preface, “a mere miscellany.”
Domini organizes the contents chronologically, beginning with a group of reviews dedicated to what could be called the first generation of American postmodernists such as John Barth, Robert Coover, and Thomas Pynchon (“Early Tide”), then proceeding to their immediate successors such as Stephen Dixon and Gilbert Sorrentino (“Second Tide”) and their more recent inheritors of the postmodern spirit (“Fresh Tide,” “Coming Tide”). There is also a section devoted to non-American writers (“Distant Moons”) as well as a handful of essays on other genres and a concluding analysis of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Domini believes shares with postmodern fiction the motif of “transformation” and from which the book gets its title (the sea-god’s herb being the agent of such transformation). The organization allows the book to be both a form of theme and variation, illustrating the points made in the introductory essay, and a kind of anatomy of innovative fiction as practiced in the last 40 years.
The early postmodernists are probably still the writers most associated with the term “postmodern” and those most notorious for authoring the kind of “experimental” fiction that proved so difficult for convention-centered literary critics and reviewers to assimilate, leading to charges that their work was inaccessible or contrived or even frivolous (“playing games” is a common accusation against these writers’ approach). Domini’s review of John Barth’s Letters not only considers a quintessential postmodernist but also one of Barth’s novels most often dismissed as excessive in its metafictional antics. But Domini maintains that this outrageously metafictional novel (featuring letters written to “John Barth” by characters from his own previous fiction) is also very much engaged with “real-world” concerns, its ultimate seriousness of purpose indicated in the subtitle Domini gives the review, “The Moral Fiction of John Barth.” This is probably a riposte to John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, in which Barth is one of the prominent writers Gardner attacks for lacking sufficient moral seriousness. Domini’s analysis of Letters attempts to show that it is in fact suffused with serious social relevance and, pace Gardner, addresses fundamental moral questions, engaging with “the world of social conscience and physical pain.” Domini also believes this to be true of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, but his review of Vineland is considerably less receptive to this book than to Letters, and he compares it unfavorably to Pynchon’s previous work, finding it “ordinary in its conception and sentimental in its conclusions,” the latter judgment even in its disapproval, however, giving credit to Pynchon for more emotional resonance than some of his early critics often did.
The subsequent sections of the collection offer similarly alert analyses of both the strengths and weaknesses of the works under review. The negative reviews usually express disappointment at unfulfilled potential, not lack of sympathy with the author’s project. In one instance, Domini does seem to take issue with the writer’s methods but allows us subsequently to see how he came to change his mind. In a review of Stephen Dixon’s 1984 story collection Time to Go, Domini seems to associate Dixon with the “understatement” typical of minimalism, charging it with “a lack of imagination and a near absence of passion.” Ten years later, in a review of Dixon’s novel Interstate, Domini reverses himself, calling the novel “a work of rare imagination.” Like the previous book, Interstate is “an exercise in style” (but also one of “raw emotionality”), except now Domini sees that the style “may harmonize now and again with Raymond Carver’s minimalism. . .but. . .also groans more openly and rambles more furiously.” This characterization of Dixon’s style is quite aptly put, but by now most readers of Stephen Dixon would probably also maintain that Dixon’s style in Interstate is pretty consistent with the style of the earlier book. These two reviews show us, first of all, that something like minimalism, with its “repression of rhetoric and an emphasis on the trivial,” is the antithesis of the kind of writing Domini wants to celebrate, but also that judgment is fallible, subject to revision and reconsideration.
If in assembling his reviews for effect Domini is commendably willing to reveal his own potential misjudgment, he also courts the possibility that his evaluation of lesser-known and more recent writers will not hold up to time and the shifting fortunes of literary reputation. The reviews of Jay Cantor, Jaimy Gordon, and Lance Olsen help to identify a later cohort of postmodern-leaning writers who may be destined to remain in the shadow of their formidable predecessors, but perhaps they also make some readers aware how far that shadow extends. It surely extends as far as the most recent writers Domini discusses, such as Brian Evenson, Matt Bell, and Blake Butler, although Domini also points out resemblances with Robbe-Grillet and Beckett. In his assessment of the stories of Dawn Raffel, Domini seems to adjust his perception of minimalism—probably the most significant “ism” in postwar American fiction following on postmodernism—as a regressive practice, freely calling Raffel a minimalist but one whose style “depends on subtle verbal manipulations like that of poetry. . .more about the development of an image than increments in narrative movement.” In this way, Raffel’s stories succeed in “clearing new ground,” the attempt to do which is the animating impulse in all of the fiction Domini most admires.
“Clearing new ground,” of course, recalls the modernist imperative to “make it new,” and the invocations throughout the book of Joyce, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Kafka remind us that postmodernism in American fiction was the revival of modernism, its continuation, not its replacement or repudiation. This was the argument made explicitly by John Barth in attempting to situate his own work and that of his experimental colleagues, insisting they were all concerned with extending the adventurous aesthetics of modernism. Domini stresses the salience of the modern in the postmodern in his essay on Donald Barthelme, which maintains that despite the preoccupation in Barthelme’s fiction with contemporary mass culture, it is rooted in the influence of the modernists, arguing that “echoes from the past third of [the 20th] century inform the larger purposes of his work, and help define his place in contemporary fiction.” The inclusion of this essay in The Sea-God’s Herb can be taken both as additional commentary on an important American postmodernist and a reminder that the efforts of a writer like Barthelme are not an aberration in literary history but a renewal of similar efforts by previous writers discontented with conventional storytelling and decorous prose, a legacy of literary invention that presumably the younger writers Domini surveys have inherited.
The section of the book devoted to a group on non-American writers including W.G. Sebald and Italo Calvino serves to show that this legacy is not limited to English-language fiction, although the remaining sections, one loosely focused on the Italian/Italian-American artistic sensibility as reflected in various cultural forms (allowing Domini to apply his critical skills to works of popular culture) and the commentary on Dante, feel less integrated with the primary analysis of contemporary fiction. The former seems too much an interruption of Domino’s examination of literary questions, while the latter, despite Domini’s belief that the Divine Comedy bears important affinities with postmodern fiction, provides a weak, muffled conclusion to the book. Rather than reinforcing the main points about innovative fiction, or the critical approach Domini has taken, by turning his attention instead to a writer and text he reveres and obviously knows well, Domini leaves more the impression of his own personal enthusiasm for Dante, and of his breadth as a critic, than of a summary statement about properly appreciating unconventional fiction.
One might quibble with other limitations of The Sea-God’s Herb as well. Some of the reviews are so brief they don’t really manage either to say something substantial about the work at hand or contribute much to the book’s implicit argument. These reviews seem to have been included for the sake of a greater completeness in representing Domini’s career as a reviewer, less because they stand on their own as literary criticism. And while certainly Domini is often an eloquent writer and skilled phrasemaker, there are times when it seems to me he substitutes colorful figurations for more extended analysis and description. In a review of Robert Coover and John Hawkes, he concludes:
. . .Thus both these books make litter of the literal. Both put the match to time and space, and to ordinary morality as well, and then color the flame with pain and desire. America’s literary avant-garde. . .has rarely so goosed the mundane.
Making “litter of the literal” or “goosing” the mundane call more attention to the reviewer’s wordsmithing than the actual features of the books under review, and the metaphorical match is so bright it obscures the qualities it is supposed to be illuminating. Of course, book reviews are not exercises in academic criticism, but this book as a whole is rigorous enough in its dedication to explaining the real ambitions of unconventional writing that somewhat more rhetorical rigor in specific reviews would not really seem out of place.
Domini’s estimation of particular books or writers is not beyond challenge. I myself can’t agree with his assessment of Gilbert Sorrentino, about whom Domini includes two essays. Domini overrates Blue Pastoral, one of Sorrentino’s minor novels, while vastly underrating his magnum opus, Mulligan Stew, in my view one of the most important postmodern novels ever written. Domini does appropriately value Sorrentino’s final three short novels, Little Casino, Lunar Follies, and A Strange Commonplace, but in order to maintain his emphasis on the social and ethical qualities of postmodern fiction he underplays their radical formal strategies to stress their “reassertion of emotional content” compared to works such as Mulligan Stew. Gilbert Sorrentino is perhaps the experimental writer who poses the greatest challenge to Domini’s thesis that “emotional content” is as central to postmodern fiction as formal and stylistic audacity. Domini is right to say that Sorrentino’s depiction of human behavior is often grim and unforgiving, that he is in some ways “our poet of bitterness,” but what nevertheless makes his fiction a pleasure to read are the formal and stylistic escapades (Sorrentino’s work could probably with justice be called “game-playing”), usually employed to very broad comic effect. If rescuing Sorrentino for Domini’s larger argument requires dismissing his most representative work while accentuating the least typical elements of his work as a whole, one might be led to wonder whether Domini’s sympathy with experimental writing fully extends to perhaps the most resolutely experimental of postmodern writers.
Such a disagreement does not make John Domini a less reliable guide to the broader currents of unconventional writing over the past 40 or so years. Readers familiar with postmodern fiction will probably think about it differently after reading The Sea-God’s Herb, while readers less disposed toward it might reconsider their skepticism. More importantly, this book demonstrates that book reviews can have more than transitory value. Undeniably perceptive when they first appeared, these reviews continue to provide insight. The collection offers an informative introduction to an important strain of contemporary fiction, but also advances an interpretation of that fiction reflecting a coherent critical perspective. For those who think of the book review as a form of consumer advice or journalistic reportage, it should also make clear that, in the right hands, reviews can be serious literary criticism.