By Doug Phillips
Some years ago I came across a piece (part memoir, part polemic) in The Believer magazine, its title—“Let There Be Darkness: In Defense of Depressing Literature” (2004)—a siren call to anyone who, like Odysseus, has been battered by life, but for whom the home’s hearth offers no reprieve. For its author, William Giraldi, succor from life’s inevitable setbacks and tragedies is better found in the dark than in the company of a cheerful soul: in King Lear, for example, or Long Day’s Journey Into Night; in Salinger’s bananafish or the poetry of Paul Celan; in Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, or Beloved; in Aeschylus or Homer; in Heart of Darkness, A Death in the Family, or The Death of the Heart. Put your ear to Giraldi’s pages and you’ll hear fluttering up the wholesome advice of Gustave Flaubert: “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.”
Now, in a collection of essays called American Audacity (2018), Giraldi offers another defense, this time, as his subtitle has it, of literary daring. What distinguishes these audacious writers from the mere run of the mill, he argues, is their readiness to take up arms in the war against cliché. Which is to say, none of them would be caught dead writing run of the mill, or take up arms in the war against, or, most hackneyed of all, be caught dead. In the battle cry of the daring we hear the pith and pitch of Samuel Johnson’s incontrovertible judgment: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” For Giraldi, such effortless writing—the easy spittle, the readymade phrase, the dashed-off sentence devoid of rhythm and song—is certain to stoke his critical wrath, and he’ll call you out for it every time. But do what’s most difficult—dare!—and you’ll be his darling: “I’ve tried always to praise attempts to fashion the world anew,” he writes in his introduction, “to hail daring and a commitment to the dynamism and dimensions of language. In many of these pieces I come to an identical conclusion: that weak language is proof of weak ideas, that style is welded to substance, that the writer’s fate is birthed by the writer’s prose.” In that last clause is a mantra to embroider, frame, hang above one’s desk, and bow before each day: the writer’s fate is birthed by the writer’s prose.
Had Martin Amis not adopted the title The War Against Cliché for his 2001 collection of essays and reviews, it would have made a nice fit, I think, for Giraldi’s own assemblage of thirty-nine essays and reviews, the earliest dating from 2011, others as recent as 2017, and all of them previously published in such highbrow venues as The New Republic (where he is a contributing editor), The Nation, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Criterion. If there’s a through-line in American Audacity—a seamed theme from start to finish—it’s something Amis himself wrote in relation to the work of Saul Bellow, and which effectively encapsulates Giraldi’s approach to his own critical appreciations and eviscerations: “Style,” Amis declares, “is not something grappled on to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception.”
To “have an acute responsiveness to style and mind,” as Giraldi himself spins it in his introduction, is the governing principle by which he reads—and all that he reads, has ever read (mounds, it would seem), will inspire readers to absorb for themselves, a la Matthew Arnold, the best which has been thought and said. Readers will also be reminded, with every page of American Audacity, that a bookish life, a life of the mind—a mind redolent with fresh thought and language—is a life well-worth living. “I trust you’ll agree that the possession of books is not identical to the possession of shoes,” writes Giraldi in “The Bibliophile” (catnip for the book-obsessed—be warned!). “Someone with thousands of books,” he adds, “is someone you want to talk to; someone with thousands of shoes is someone you suspect of soul-death.”
Between soul-death or an acute responsiveness to beauty and wisdom, the choice would seem obvious to most anybody, though, to be sure, the latter isn’t something inborn or easily acquired but rather cultivated over time through a deep immersion in books, and physical books at that:
“. . . for some of us, a physical book will always be superior reading, because it allows us to be alone with ourselves, to sit in solidarity with ourselves, in silence, in solitude, in the necessary sensitivity that fosters development and imagination […] A physical book makes it possible to fend off the nausea roused by the electronic despotism we’ve let into our lives—it doesn’t permit blinking, swiping, scrolling, popping-up impediments to your concentration, doesn’t confront it with a responsive screen trying to sell you things you really don’t need.”
For those interested in improving their writing, Giraldi’s prescription is really quite simple, stated here in the negative: “there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader.” And, he warns, “if you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.”
At the close of “The Bibliophile,” Giraldi writes that “the collecting of physical books will remain forever essential to our selfhoods, to our savoring of pleasure and our attempted acquisition of knowledge, to our emotional links with our past and psychological apprehension of others.” However, as he makes clear again and again in this and his many other essays, not any old books will do. His standard, rather, seems to me born of the poet John Berryman, who, rankling low-achievers everywhere, once remarked that “Everything good in the end is highbrow. All of the artists who have ever survived were intellectuals.” Or, as Giraldi puts it, “Literature, I’m not sorry to say, isn’t a democracy. Literature is a tyranny—a tyranny of the talented.” And so it is that when Giraldi’s not praising the likes of Milton, Melville, or Baldwin, he’s excoriating the “moronic craze over Fifty Shades of Grey”—the sentences of which, he says, are “of such galactic ineptitude and stupidity it [is] hard to believe a primate could have written them.”
What’s decisive about Giraldi’s critical estimations is whether the sentence—any sentence—has the capacity to arrest our attention, upturn our thinking, and ruffle our perceptions of the life we’re in for. The writers he admires most, then, are those who, like the late Barry Hannah, are constitutionally incapable of ever writing blankly, or delivering up a dud. In his profile “Thrill Me,” Giraldi recounts a few days he spent in Hannah’s company, in 2003, when the two of them played hooky from a writers’ conference to go fishing instead. What so attracts Giraldi to Hannah’s fictional “fallen world” (a world that Giraldi’s first novel Busy Monsters is clearly indebted to) are “sentences laid down as if by a Dionysian celebrant invested equally in creation and destruction, a syntax activated in chaos and ecstasy.” When, Giraldi tells us, a student at the conference asked Hannah for his best writing advice, he offered, unhesitatingly, a two-word reply: “Thrill me.”
Hannah’s criteria for good writing is one Giraldi has long adopted for himself. More than that though, “A writer’s deeds are his sentences,” he says; and “how one writes is the most accurate indication of how one thinks.” By such standards the least thrilling and shoddiest sentence-makers tend to be, in Giraldi’s qualified opinion, those dreaded academics whose “earless, obscurantist prose” is enough to ruin anyone’s day. And for such ruin someone must hang, rather like Billy Budd being strung-up by Starry Vere to make an example for everyone else on deck. In American Audacity this execution is carried out at the book’s midway point, in a blistering review of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History, which Giraldi demolishes for its punishing academese—i.e. “prose so clotted with plaque it practically begs for a blood thinner.” His point, shored-up by smears of evidence drawn from Lynch’s linguistic DNA, is simply this: Gunk-up your sentences with abstractions, circumlocutions, redundancies, Latinate nominalizations, and all-around gobbledygook, and you offer unto your reader a mind so unrefined that no discernible idea seems ever to have violated it.
For Giraldi, the non-negotiable condition of all literary criticism is that wisdom be wedded to beauty—and this must also be the condition of anything that goes by the name of “literary art.” In his take-down titled “American Bestsellers,” which, he argues, have a knack for almost never aspiring to such a condition, Giraldi writes:
“In literary art, style is not severed from substance; style permits substance, allows theme or plot or character to be born, which is why the literary artist’s first concern is always language: without that nothing else can happen, nothing else can hold.”
Positive examples of such art everywhere abound in American Audacity. In “Against Dullness,” a profile of Joseph Epstein (literary artist par excellence and former editor of The American Scholar), Giraldi offers the following summation, which seems to me a fair enough litmus test for anyone deemed worthy of reading: “he writes sentences you want to remember. And that, in the last analysis, is the only measure of a writer.” And in his profile of James Baldwin—prose stylist extraordinaire—Giraldi writes: “When it comes to literature, he knows that beauty is more important than message, that message matters not at all if the thing is badly made […] For Baldwin, the prose is the point; the prose all.”
Read through the whole of Giraldi’s book and you’ll quickly begin to accumulate similar Post-It Note apothegms to line the walls of your writing room: “The writer who won’t be bothered with the integrity of his sentences won’t be bothered with anything else, either”; “Limitations of language are inseparable from limitations of conception and reasoning”; “every novel is true or false in its language before it’s true or false in anything else”; “If we have no reason to remember a writer’s language, then we have no reason to read her”; “the tenor of one’s prose reveals the timber of one’s position”; etc. For teachers of Freshman Comp, Giraldi’s book may be their best bet—and far better than any textbook—for the wisdom of its instruction and the beauty of its form.
Giraldi, then, is at his very best when discussing the aesthetics of the sentence, as well as the value of literature as a conduit to an enriched and meaningful life. In “Why To Read,” for example, a piece on Wendy Lesser, he writes: “literature is the most consummate access you can gain to the inner cosmos of another, to the psycho-emotional systems of people wholly different from you, and therein lies its indispensable worth.” However, he’s at his worst—and least convincing—when he berates ‘Theory,’ a field about which he doesn’t appear to have any real knowledge or understanding, though he relishes casting it as bogeyman or shadowy fifth column, ever ready to infiltrate and adulterate your experience of the purity of “Literature” with its nefarious “isms.” Indeed, if he was even remotely conversant with what so-called ‘Theory’ has put forth in the last half-century, he would be attuned to the contradictions popping up through his arguments, not least his dismissal of “feeling” as any kind of barometer for literary appreciation, when in fact feeling—his own—is pretty much all that he (or any of us) can offer in defense of what’s beautiful and wise (for the simple reason that neither beauty nor wisdom can stand as objective categories of truth). His axe-grinding against Theory, as well as his liberal use of the word “sublime” to describe that which he has no precise language for, is something Giraldi no doubt inherited from Harold Bloom, whom he admiringly profiles in “Living Labyrinth,” and whose aestheticism, and occasional tone of pronouncement, he frequently channels. But let it be said—and I think I speak for all—that one Bloom in this world is Bloom enough.
On the strength of his literary style and insights, as well as his own range of literary creations—fiction (Busy Monsters, Hold the Dark), memoir (The Hero’s Body), and the essay (American Audacity)—Giraldi has emerged as one of our most important writers today. His voice is vital in the promotion of reading good books, especially insofar as such reading contributes to the stretching of our minds, the widening of our imaginations, the enlarging of our capacity to think harder. His voice is also a welcomed dose of tough love with respect to who we are, might become, or fail to be: “Tell me the books you read and I’ll tell you who you are; tell me you choose to read no books and I’ll tell you there is no you.”
Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.