Against “Hysterical Criticism,” the Revenge of Board Games, and in Praise of Maigret
Penguin has published its last Maigret reissue. Adam Kirsch takes stock of Georges Simenon’s accomplishment in Airmail: “This series of new translations in stylish trade paperbacks has been publishing about a book a month since 2013, in roughly the same order as the novels’ original publication. The new Penguin editions have sold more than one million copies worldwide, proving that almost half a century after his final adventure, the detective’s allure hasn’t faded. Maigret was never supposed to have such a long life. When Simenon came up with the character, in 1930, he intended to use him for a specific tactical purpose. As ‘Georges Sim,’ Simenon had spent the previous decade churning out pulp fiction at an inhuman pace—in 1928 alone he published more than 40 books—and he earned a lot of money and a certain degree of fame doing it. But he dreamed of writing literary fiction, and Maigret was supposed to be a means to that end. The idea was to impress the public with the high quality of the Maigret books, produce a bunch of best-sellers quickly, and then move on to more respectable genres. The first Maigret title, The Late Monsieur Gallet, was launched in 1931 with a big burst of publicity. Simenon’s publisher hosted a costume ball at a Montparnasse nightclub, where guests disguised as gangsters and prostitutes mingled with real Paris policemen. By the end of the year, 11 Maigret books had appeared.”
An influential architect argues that Notre Dame’s roof should be rebuilt with wood: “Emmanuel Macron’s dream of adding a ‘contemporary’ touch to Notre Dame’s reconstructed roof and spire may be dashed entirely after one of France’s leading architects, Eric Wirth, vice president of the Guild of French Architects, declared that it would be a grave mistake to rebuild the roof in anything but same wood used in its original construction. Wirth forcefully argued that wood—rather than concrete, material, or other materials that have been suggested—was the most ecological and structurally sound material during at a hearing at the National Assembly this week.”
Why are board games thriving? “In Germany, the home of modern board-gaming, the industry has grown by over 40% in the past five years; the four-day SPIEL trade fair this year saw 1,500 new board and card game releases, with 209,000 attendees from around the world . . . Hobbyists speak of the tactile joy and sensual delight of moving physical game pieces, and of their appreciation for the detailed art on a game box or board.”
Piet Mondrian’s landscapes: “Reliable histories about postwar abstraction in New York always include the pivotal role played by Dutch émigré Piet Mondrian. He lived there for only the last four years of his life but had an outsized influence on the American scene. Kingmaker Peggy Guggenheim awaited Mondrian’s endorsement of Jackson Pollock before including the latter in a show of new American painting. Fellow Dutch immigrant Willem de Kooning is said to have advised young downtown artists to keep Mondrian in their back pocket like a compass . . . Young Mondrian found his voice as a landscape painter, venerating the natural world while altering its tone, mood and texture.”
Why Star Warskeeps flopping in China: “Despite an aggressive marketing push by Disney, movie after movie has flopped in the world’s second-largest market, where nostalgia for the series has no power over viewers.”
Essay of the Day:
In a review of Jia Tolentino’s collection of essays, Trick Mirror, Lauren Oyler takes aim what she calls “hysterical criticism”:
“Feminism is suddenly conventional wisdom in many spheres,’ Jia Tolentino writes in ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, an essay in her debut collection, Trick Mirror. Ignoring the inaccurate ‘suddenly’, the sentiment is correct. It suggests, contra hashtag, that not all women, in all scenarios, need to be extra vigilant for misogynist implications, connotations, deception and predation – that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Some of us have gained sufficient privilege to assess the possibility that, when we are accused of attention-seeking over-reaction, we might actually be over-reacting for attention.
“Yet the spotty acceptance of feminism has created a loophole for women in certain spheres, like media and publishing: claiming to have hurdled sexist obstacles where there were only other kinds of obstacle, we are able to take advantage of a feminist overcorrection. This is consistent with the trick-mirror-like quality of mainstream political and cultural discourse more broadly. The important question lying behind many possibly intractable issues is whether people are serious – whether their stated beliefs, are authentic, or merely devised to achieve a certain self-presentation or outcome. Campaign polls, social media, ‘progressive’ politicians, ‘populist’ politicians, journalists invoking ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’, quack doctors invoking science, your Facebook friends invoking quack doctors, skincare, astrology: clearly, not everything is what it seems, but it’s hard to tell what it actually is.
“Some modern critics exploit this uncertainty, grounding their analyses in the stability of conventional moral wisdom even as they bemoan its absence. They emphasise the primacy of emotions and the importance of ‘empathy’ in order to avoid the discomfort of thought and the stakes involved in taking a position. The result is the rise of a style that I’ve taken to calling hysterical criticism – both because it represents an evolution of what James Wood termed ‘hysterical realism’ in fiction and because the word connotes anachronistic misogyny. This girl – sorry, woman – is sexist, you may have thought as soon as you saw my usage. Well, I’m not. These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they’re saying is important. If you don’t believe that yourself, don’t worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice they are doing just fine. If you do notice, the joke’s still on you: no one cares about critics any more, which they’re very sad about too.
“The moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction – and of most movies, art, music, television, politics and internet culture – has been a boon for these writers, who tend to find simple things complicated and complicated things simple. Because understanding and explaining a work or event is in most cases very easy, they can extract quick authority from the exercise and use the rest of their word count to reflect on whatever they please, often on life’s truths and mysteries, employing questionably relevant references and personal anecdotes. At the sentence level, it’s not difficult to understand what hysterical critics are saying; rather, it’s so easy that their lack of precision doesn’t matter. It is harder, by design, to pin it down, which is the reason you’ll often find one throwing up his hands and using some hyperbolic descriptor that is demonstrably false: things are unspeakable, impossible and ineffable despite being spoken, possible and effed, often in the same essay.”
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