Okay, we’re going to try an informal experiment here. This piece was originally intended as a more or less straightforward review of Megan Nolan’s debut novel Acts of Desperation—the usual 1500-odd words on the book’s merits and demerits (mainly merits, in this case), its contexts, its nature. I would locate the book, I airily told my editor, in the context of the Female Millennial Novel: Sally Rooney, Louise O’Neill, Louise Nealon, Lauren Oyler, Ottessa Moshfegh, Naoise Dolan, Ling Ma, et. al. But things went awry. Delays occurred. Suddenly it was June. Acts of Desperation was three months old. It had already been assessed—summarised, dissected, praised—in almost every possible venue. A straightforward review, my editor agreed, now seemed sort of pointless.

Hence, our experiment: not merely to review the novel, but to review, in a sense, both the novel and its reviews—to widen the context of our reflections, if possible. What are reviews of novels for? What is the state of contemporary book reviewing? These are largish questions, which I hope to answer in suggestive, rather than definitive, ways. Let’s not wade out into unmanageably deep waters, here. This is not so much a review, then, as metareview: a review of reviews. A review of reviewing itself.

Credentials: I’ve been a working book reviewer for thirteen years, during which time I have assessed in print, at a rough count, 350 books. Like Orwell’s hack—Orwell did not approve of vocational book reviewing—I have been pouring my immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time, since 2008. I’ve also been on the other side of this particular transaction, having published two novels that were reasonably widely reviewed. I have reviewed and I have been reviewed. One you have control over. One you do not. Guess which I prefer?

Context: perennial worry about the decline of the book review. Its latest incarnation: a widely circulated article by the Canadian critic Steven Beattie called “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends” (The Walrus, 21st May 2021). “These days,” according to Beattie, “the status of the professional critic—that is, someone who can earn a living writing criticism for the general public—has largely been subordinated to enthusiastic amateurs giving thumbnail reactions.” In Canada, Beattie says, there is now “hardly any” mainstream books coverage. No longer is it possible to make a living through criticism. This is a disaster, because, Beattie insists, “serious works of literature require a response that is more nuanced, calculated, and considered than the rapid-fire rating system offered on user-generated sites such as Goodreads.”

An old complaint revisited, in part (it is possible, actually, to find nuanced responses on Goodreads, in amongst the rapid-fire ratings and the amusing misinterpretations of literary classics). For the apocalypse-minded, mainstream books coverage, like the novel itself, is always on the brink of death. But it is, I think, idle to assert that there is no longer a thriving literary-critical culture in the West. That culture exists; it has merely been, as the businesspeople say, “siloed”.

You are interested in books. You find your way to certain online venues; you subscribe to certain journals (let’s say, those occupying the LRB-to-NLR spectrum). You read excellent criticism—in fact, you have a hard time keeping up with all the excellent criticism. It is clear to you as you read, however, that what you are doing is pursuing a niche interest. It is also clear that this niche interest is largely insulated from other niche interests and from whatever may be said to constitute “mainstream culture”.

It is also clear to you that the critics whose work you are reading are not critics tout court. They do not earn their living exclusively from writing criticism. They have day jobs, side gigs, private incomes. They are often novelists themselves. In fact, book reviewing is pretty much the only sphere of cultural endeavour in which practitioners assess one another’s work in public. Directors do not review each other’s films. Billy Eilish does not rate albums for Pitchfork. The effect is often to alienate the general audience even further. Novelist-reviewers, people say, cannot be trusted, especially if they have a new book out. Allow me to say, in defence of novelist-reviewers, that we are generally scrupulous about not reviewing books by our friends. The blurb economy, of course, is another story.

Bearing all of this in mind: what we are looking at, just now, is a literary-critical culture practised as a vocation by a largely self-selecting but nonetheless hermetic elite. Or, as Zadie Smith remarked in a recent interview, “Bottom line? Most people don’t read.”

But this has always been the case. Complaints about the decline of book reviewing resemble other persistent narratives of cultural decay. Once there was a Golden Age, now everything is tarnished. This narrative is as true as you want it to be. At a guess, I’d say book reviewing right now is about as healthy—or unhealthy—as it ever was. Most reviews are bland: blandly written, offering bland appraisals. Some are memorably caustic. A small handful qualify as genuine criticism, reflecting on values. Lauren Oyler on Jia Tolentino, Leo Robson on Joyce Carol Oates, James Wood on almost anyone. I turn the books pages hurriedly, looking for evidence of decline, finding the usual hopeless mixture. On the other hand, I may have a partial view.

When you do something professionally for thirteen years, you sooner or later stop asking theoretical questions about it. Rushing to meet this week’s deadline, you seldom stop to ponder the nature and purpose of book reviewing. You file the piece, and crack open the next Advance Reading Copy (“BOUND PROOF—NOT FOR QUOTATION OR RESALE”). You are a conveyor belt of opinions. Good! Bad! Could be better! Could be worse! A certain deadening of the responsive faculties must inevitably occur. Most of the time, you have 800 words or less in which to say what, if anything, you think. For some books, 800 words is far too few. For most books, 800 words is far too many.

This is because most books are bad. We all know this, but we seldom say it. We could certainly stand to say it more. On the other hand, perhaps only the professional book reviewer, grimly digesting each season’s fresh crop, really knows how bad most books are. Renata Adler: “Normally, no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence working flat out, on a quotidian basis. No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth.”

Adler knew whereof she spoke. In 1968-1969 she spent a year as the daily movie critic for The New York Times. The book that collects her reviews (A Year in the Dark, 1969) provokes, as it was surely intended to, the reflection that in any given year, most movies (most books, most TV shows, most operas or ballets or plays) are trash. The flattening of the faculties, across a lengthy stint of quotidian reviewing, is partly a consequence of exposure to instance after instance of subpar art.

Most art sucks. This is why critics get grumpy, develop crotchets, become impossible to please. Certainly I went through a crotchety phase—one suspiciously cosynchronous, I now see, with the prolonged struggle to finish my second novel. On the other hand, a bad review is hardly ever written out of mere spite. In most cases, the motivation for a hatchet job is disappointed idealism. Real critics are people who love art, and who hate to see it traduced. Hence the critic’s sempiternal cry: You’re doing it wrong! What the critic wants is for you to do it better.

Yes—oh dear me, yes: most art sucks. On the other hand, most art gets pretty good reviews. You can choose your own preferred recent literary example—I am not about to invoke the online Furies by naming Last Year’s Most Overrated Novel According to Me. (Hint: it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.) Has nothing changed since 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick observed that “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns”?

Of course, it’s generally true that, no matter how bad the art, somebody somewhere will like it. I like the music of Styx, for example, even though I know that by any reasonable standard of taste, Styx suck. Sometimes this phenomenon occurs on a large scale: lots of people liked Game of Thrones, even though, by any reasonable standard etc.

However, the whole point of a professional reviewer is that he or she is supposed to speak on behalf of a reasonable standard of taste—not merely to express an ill-argued subjective preference, and not merely to go with the crowd (though as Norman Mailer noted years ago, “very few people in the literary world have any taste—they are much too tense with fashion”). When we turn to professional reviewers, we do so in the expectation that they will do more than simply vent their hatred or their joy.

This brings us to what is, by tacit consensus, one of the main functions of book reviewing. In the same way that news reporting is supposed to be the first draft of history, periodical book reviewing is supposed to be the first draft of “the canon,” that evolving constellation of acknowledged achievement that exists not just for purely ideological reasons but because we seem to need it as a cultural heuristic (this is who/what we are). In practical terms, what this means is that the professional book reviewer should ideally demonstrate: 1) an awareness of technical considerations: prose style, focalisation, structure, point of view etc; 2) some sense of the history of the art form in question: is this new novel in dialogue with previous novels? 3) some knowledge of the history of taste: people used to value certain books; now they value different ones, for different reasons, et cetera; 4) a high degree of emotional sophistication, a.k.a. sanity; 5) wide-ranging general knowledge.

It’s a lot to ask of someone bound by the 800-word limit. But deprived of this equipment, the periodical book reviewer is reduced to providing a consumer information report. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. Five stars. None. If you liked that, try this. We have algorithms that can do this for us, now. The book review operates in the cash nexus, like any other piece of commercial copy. But unlike most pieces of commercial copy, the book review offers an opportunity to talk about questions of value. Most book reviewers fail to take this opportunity. We honour the ones who do take it by calling them critics.

The critic is engaged in the analysis of values, using this week’s work of art as his or her pretext. If art, and particularly literature, is a kind of ongoing conversation, then criticism is the arena in which much of that conversation takes place; the critic, in offering his or her response to the work of art, is an answering voice, provoking, ideally, yet more questions, yet more answers, in the form of another work of art, another critical piece. Criticism needs art: this is obvious to say. Less obvious: art needs criticism. Writers learn from their reviews, especially from the bad ones. And readers glean access to elements of the artwork that they might otherwise have overlooked. Something like this, I think, is what we mean when we say that literary criticism is, or has the potential to be, an art unto itself.

A perishable art. But this is the point. The critic speaks to his or her contemporaries, not to posterity. Most reviewers are conscious that they are operating on a provisional basis. They are ready to be wrong about the book at hand. I gave Marilynne Robinson’s Lila a stinker of a review ten years ago. Then I read more Marilynne Robinson, and then I read more criticism of Marilynne Robinson’s work, and I learned that the critical tools I had brought to bear on her work (a snooty preference for the high style in prose; a putatively urbane condescension to novels that are unapologetically about religious belief) were risibly insufficient. But reviewers must be ready to look foolish. The reviewer for the London Athenaeum in 1851 called Moby-Dick “so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature.” Oh, dear.

Book reviewing—the front line of evaluative criticism—deals in superlatives. An instant classic! The worst novel ever written! Superlatives lose their cogency quickly; hence book reviews age quickly, especially if they consist of nothing but superlatives. Perishability is built into the form. Criticism is a form of journalism: day-writing. You have a deadline, a word limit. What you hope to produce is a stylish, accurate, informed report on a book that you have read. There is a remote hope that you will be able to articulate an idea—that is, give your readers a new thought. Of course this presupposes that you are capable of having a new thought in the first place. And you aren’t, always. A happy consonance of novel and reviewer will tend to produce ideas; an unhappy consonance, quite the reverse. The empty mind reaches for clichés. A tour de force. Unreadable. Lyrical.

Reading reviews of your own work—tracking the clichés—you try to bear all of this in mind. The reviews of my own work that I find most valuable are those that have shown me a fault in my work that I couldn’t have figured out on my own. But such reviews are rare—as rare, I like to think, as faults in my work. I try also to bear in mind the advice of Edmund Wilson, who, in “The Literary Worker’s Polonius,” a now largely forgotten essay published in The Atlantic in June 1935, explained that:

For an author, the reading of his reviews, whether favourable or unfavourable, is one of the most disappointing experiences in life. He has been labouring for months or for years to focus some comprehensive vision or to make out some compelling case, and then finds his book discussed by persons who not only have not understood it, but do not even in some instances appear to have read it.

Wilson advised the writer to understand his or her reviews as “a collection of opinions by persons of various degrees of intelligence who have happened to have some contact with his book”. What a sane thing to say. On the other hand, what you look for, in a review of your own work, is some engagement with technique, and some engagement with values. A rave is nice, but it teaches you nothing. A critique just might help you grow.

Keeping this experiment vaguely in mind, I avoided reading reviews of Acts of Desperation, so that, when I began the novel, all I knew was that it was about a toxic relationship. What would I make of it? How would it be reviewed? Would anyone articulate a useful idea? Reflect on values? Would the usual clichés appear? Compulsive. A page-turner. Taut. Relevant. Would it be called, as all novels by young women are now called, “whip-smart”? (Yep: Sarah Gilmartin in The Irish Times.) We complain about book-reviewing cliches. But reviewing books is an adjectival business. Try reviewing a book without adjectives, and see how far you get. The trick is to find less careworn adjectives—to expunge cliché, to the extent that this is possible. What’s a synonym for “compulsive”? Uncontrollable, says Google. This uncontrollable novel…

Actually, uncontrollable wouldn’t be the worst adjective to apply to Acts of Desperation. Frame it like this: Acts of Desperation is a tightly controlled novel about uncontrollable compulsions and desires. It’s harrowing, brutal, unblinking. Adjectives! But it is. Setting: bourgeois-bohemian Dublin, 2012. Our unnamed narrator, 25, meets Ciaran, an art critic. They fuck. They move in together. Chapters are short. Paragraphs are short. The narrator and Ciaran: two emotionally maimed people who try desperately (see title) to extract from one another the meaning that their own lives seem to them so signally to lack. The narrator is profoundly self-knowing; also profoundly self-hating. The point is intensity. The relationship is intense, so the book is intense. All those short chapters and short paragraphs mean that the crushing weight of the book’s intensity is evenly distributed. The principle is the same one that allows the mystic to lie down on a bed of nails. Interchapters, headed “Athens 2019,” offer perspective; these, too, are short, diaristic, intense.

This is yet another novel—why not say it?—by a millennial woman about having a horrible relationship with a complete bastard. Often I find the bastards in these books rather spectral—not fully realised. Possible PhD thesis: “Spectral Bastards: Representations of Men in the Millennial Novel.” Examples, from two excellent books: Julian, the banker in Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times; Trevor, the banker in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. (Not all bankers? Maybe all bankers.) This is a neat reversal, I assume, of how women feel, reading novels by men about the bad relationships they have had with women. In other words: fair enough, although I might gently suggest that two aesthetic wrongs don’t make an aesthetic right. In any event, I did not have this feeling, as I read Acts of Desperation. Ciaran is extremely well-rendered, extremely believable. A visit to his grotesque father is one of many small points that explicate his unconscious misogyny. I know bastards like Ciaran. He feels real, as many of his counterparts do not, quite.

So. The largest context for this book is the fundamental crisis of modernity: what Max Weber called “the disenchantment of the world,” the supposed loss of wholeness or security engendered by the displacement of religion by secular science and industry. The unnamed narrator of Acts of Desperation recognises that her addiction to obsessive love—her belief in the potential of obsessive love to abnegate the self in the name of something larger and more sacred—is essentially religious in nature. “There was no religion in my life after early childhood,” she tells us, “and a great faith in love was what I had cultivated instead.” Viewed from this angle, Acts of Desperation—note the echo of Acts of the Apostles—is a kind of parable about the void of meaning that faith leaves behind it when it goes. It’s a serious book. Humour does not really feature. But my sense of it is that Nolan is trying to tunnel her way beneath irony, beneath humour, beneath wit. The medieval penitent did not pause between self-imposed lashes of the scourge to make quips.

Nina Renata Aron, reviewing the novel for the Los Angeles Times, noted the religious language: “Our narrator is lost to a devotion that borders on the religious. Here, Nolan often slips into cliché, drawing analogies to redemption or purification through love. Ciaran’s body is a “site of prayer” and love a “force which would clean me.”” Calling attention to clichés is one of the most devastating weapons in the reviewer’s arsenal. But it often misfires. Nolan knows that her narrator’s religious language is clichéd. Her narrator knows it, too. She says: “Oh, don’t laugh at me for this, for being a woman who says this to you. I hear myself speak.” Chapter 4 ends with a quotation from Romans (7:15-25): “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I would like to, but instead do what I hate.” It is, as Marxists say, no accident that a quotation from St. Paul, that great self-scourger in prose (and that exemplary misogynist) appears in this novel about a contemporary penitent (and a contemporary misogynist).

Immediately following the quotation from Romans is this: “That night after meeting Ciaran I drank until I vomited and blood vessels beneath and above my eyes burst, and I traced them gently in the mirror, knowing they would be markers of a beginning.” The shift in registers tells us what this book is doing. The intensity is religious; the mode is contemporary-confessional, with an emphasis on the body. In other words, the mode of the book is that of the personal essay. And Philippa Snow, reviewing the novel for The New Republic, points out that some of its insights and sentences have appeared already, in Nolan’s nonfiction.

Nolan made her reputation with personal essays. What distinguishes her from the average personal essayist is not just her intensity of focus but the depth of her self-knowledge. Most confessions confess more than they mean to; most personal essays contain revelations that their authors did not intend. It is difficult to imagine Megan Nolan confessing anything accidentally. One of the best reviews of Acts of Desperation took the form of a longish piece by Lamorna Ash for Sidecar, the blog of the New Left Review. Ash describes Nolan’s “writerly procedure”: “an event […] prompts her to focus in on an aspect of her life she considers shameful.” This is, we reflect, also the method of Acts of Desperation. It anatomises shame—its erotic power, its capacity to change us, and to change us back, afterwards.

Ash’s review is one of the very few that express reservations about Nolan’s novel. Most of the shorter pieces, published in newspapers, were raves: “fierce,” “brave,” “fearless,” “real,” “poignant,” “extremely strong.” Adjectives! But the work of criticism, as opposed to the mere consumer notice, seeks the values beneath the adjectives, and lays them bare. Ash notes that Acts of Desperation can be read as occupying the same aesthetic continuum as Nolan’s personal essays; however, for Ash, Nolan hasn’t made the leap to novelistic expansiveness. Calling our attention to the “Athens 2019” chapters, Ash points out that “tonally, despite the intervening years there is no shift from the voice of the Dublin chapters, nor a convincing change in psychological distance from the relationship. This is a novelistic requirement, different in kind to that demanded by the essay.”

This is sharp, and tells us something about why the sort of intensity that animates personal essays may not necessarily work in a mixed form like the novel—tells us, in fact, that novels do not really work by intensity alone. For the novelist, modulation is all. And the problem with intensity, as an aesthetic principle, is that it doesn’t do modulation; it makes something last that perhaps shouldn’t. Life, after all, is nothing but modulation. Intensity, in life, doesn’t last. Is it a worthwhile experiment, to write novels in the mode of the personal essay? Isn’t that sometimes what we mean by autofiction? Often, in autofictional novels, the lack of modulation becomes wearying. Too much self and not enough other. Not enough world. It makes you—it makes me—nostalgic for the traditional social novel.

Also sharp is Philippa Snow in The New Republic. Her review of Acts begins thusly:

The film critic Nicole Brenez once described Philippe Grandrieux’s 2002 film La Vie Nouvelle, with its raw style and frightening plot and reddish-purple, bruise-like palette, as having the air of something made “inside the human body, not only physiologically, but also in the sense of showing everything that dwells within us.” The same might be said of Acts of Desperation, which is tonally and thematically bodily and alive—hot as viscera, inward-looking, dark and soft.

This struck me, because the textural word I had found myself applying to Acts of Desperation was not soft but hard. This is what led me to that bed-of-nails formulation, above. The difference in responses might make us wonder about the utility of these textural words, applied to something textual. They are metaphors, of course, referring to style, and therefore to ideas about human character: some people are “hard,” some are “soft.” What did I mean by “hard”? Perhaps I meant that in my view it took hardness to write such a novel—to stare unblinkingly at mess, squalor, degradation, need, and to write it all down in crisp epigrammatic prose. But Snow’s description of the novel as “soft” is, I think, equally applicable: it is a novel about softness—the softness of bodies, but also the softness of selves, their porousness, their violability by the world, by other people; the softness that love both requires and provides.

This might be as good as point as any to note that all of the reviews I have been quoting from so far were written by women—meaning that the piece you are reading right now is a sort of rara avis, the only review of Acts of Desperation written by a man. No, wait: a review did appear in the Boston journal ArtsFuse, by a chap named Drew Hart. He refers to the narrator of Acts of Desperation as “our lass.” I seem to have avoided doing anything quite this crass. Hooray for me? And wait again: Tadgh Hoey reviewed Acts for the Dublin Review of Books. His approach—an honourable one—is to proceed by careful description of what the novel is doing, step by step, while keeping critical commentary (on values, say) to a minimum. This kind of careful paraphrase is designed to render the book’s subjects and methods transparent to us, and works, here, extremely well, thought some ideas might have been more fruitfully developed. When Hoey writes, “While this is undoubtedly a book about a uniquely female kind of suffering, Nolan has sublimated it so that it is neither cheap nor generic,” we might legitimately ask for a bit more rumination on the idea of “a uniquely female kind of suffering,” especially as seen through the eyes of a male reviewer.

There has, I think, lately been a certain overcorrection at work, in the assigning of reviews. Literary editors have been giving novels by women almost exclusively to female reviewers. In an actuarial sense, at least, this is a near-necessity. As Anne Enright observed in her 2017 Fiction Laureate lecture, the vast majority of book reviews have historically been written by and about men, and even recent efforts to redress the balance have tended to see women writers writing about women writers, while the men keep reviewing each other—a practice that merely reinforces “the old authoritarian style which liked to keep men and women separate”.

This is true. Replacing one monoculture with two—men reviewing men; women reviewing women—may redress the actuarial balance. But it impoverishes our conversation about books, and forecloses one of literature’s utopian possibilities. Gender may be a social construct, but it has, of course, extremely real effects, and one of those effects is that men and women end up experiencing the world differently. If one of our hopes for literary fiction is that it might critique that difference and finally even, perhaps, transcend it, then the school-discoing of the books pages—boys on one side of the dancefloor, girls on the other, with occasional awkward clinches in the middle—will tend to undermine that hope.

There is no doubt that Acts of Desperation is a novel written self-consciously in response to recent feminist arguments about female agency and female victimhood. Hephzibah Anderson, writing in the Guardian, noted that “this is a book with plenty to say about victimhood and sexual violence, about the way women censor their own needs and ironise or eroticise their abasement.” This is true. Nolan’s narrator: “Female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking only for attention—and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.” Aesthetically, the effect is to introduce a new and agonising wrinkle into the narrator’s self-consciousness: in telling her story of suffering, is she merely contributing to a long-established and corrupt tradition of female attention-seeking? Is it permissible, in 2021, to call attention to this corrupt tradition? Can the narrator be ironic about it? Can she be both ironic about her suffering, and earnest about it, too? Can she legitimately ask for attention for her pain, knowing that to do so risks confirming a poisonous stereotype?

A majority of the better reviews of Acts of Desperation make a point of saying that Nolan has negotiated this labyrinth honestly and well. Philippa Snow, for instance, suggests that Nolan’s narrator is “cognizant enough of the absurdity of caring as much as she does about her body to lament it, and aware in equal measure of the gendered inevitability of her obsession.”

On the other hand, the book’s invariant tone, and the limitations of its chosen confessional mode, might lead us to wonder whether Acts of Desperation poses its specifically contemporary feminist dilemma only to answer it with that old Derridian standby, the aporia, a.k.a irresolvable ambiguity. As Lamorna Ash points out, the narrator of Acts does not really appear to have grown or changed much, at the end of the book. She has asked for attention. She has been earnest. Has the corrupt tradition of attention-seeking been altered, or escaped? Does the novel helplessly replicate an insoluble cultural paradox in which contemporary Western women have found themselves trapped?

My own answer to this question might go something like this: Acts of Desperation is a first novel by an author who turns 31 this year. In other words, Megan Nolan has just begun to do what she wants to do. I imagine that these questions will continue to preoccupy her, as she continues to think and to write; that she will find new answers, and new questions, as she goes. You don’t, in other words, have to solve every problem first time out. I hope she has read some of the more incisive reviews; good criticism (in this case, the pieces by Philippa Snow and Lamorna Ash) is capable of suggesting to artists where they might need to look next.

If I were to venture into prescriptive territory myself, I might note that the tendency toward intellectual stalemate or aporia might actually be built into the confessional mode that Nolan has deployed so powerfully in Acts of Desperation. The confessional mode exalts not dialogue but soliloquy. How to escape the soliloquy? You might start with the dialectic—the heart of drama. Look for the antithesis, and go from there.

Well. What are the results of our informal experiment? Taking a broad if shallow view, I would suggest that book reviewing still serves, as it always has, too many masters. Sitting down to compose your 800 words, or, if you’re lucky, your 5,000 words, you must reckon with various obligations, some of which might just be mutually exclusive. You want, if you are human, to show off. You also want, if you are human, to make people like you—not quite the same thing. Your editor wants a snappy piece: not too academic, if you’re writing for a newspaper; not too journalistic, if you’re writing for a more upmarket journal. Your readers want to know if they should shell out for the book in question. The publisher wants you to write a rave—to serve, essentially, as a pliable adjunct of the publicity department. The author wants a rave that also teaches her something about her work. Your deadline looms. Integrity is at stake—not just your own integrity, but the integrity of criticism as a cultural and artistic practice.

Fairly regularly—regularly enough, anyway—the miracle occurs. Good criticism gets written. The critic negotiates her way through the clash of contending forces, and teaches us something about art, about values. Often, of course, the contending forces succeed in warping or deforming the final piece. The result is something that satisfies no one, and is, in general quickly forgotten (mere journalism). The collected reviews of Acts of Desperation do, I think, bear out this broad if shallow view. A festival of heavily adjectival raves, which we can safely ignore; two or three pieces of genuine criticism, for which we should all be grateful.

So, on balance, it’s a wash. It always is. In the end, what we have is Acts of Desperation, a novel by a gifted writer; and, accompanying it, a handful of reviews that, read judiciously, might just help both its author and its readers to begin to do some thinking about what it is, what it means, and where we go from here.