Abysmal writing

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Katie Roiphe (in the NYT Book Review, 8 March, p. 16) reviews Elaine Showalter's synoptic A Jury of Her Peers: American Woman Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, and along the way notes that

Showalter's wide net draws in writers like Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose novel, "The Home Maker," written in 1924, includes the abysmally written passage: "What was her life? A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, gray days, one after another full of drudgery." Very few people, I imagine, would argue for the elegance of the prose, but the passage is undoubtedly interesting from a feminist point of view.

I am often baffled by a critic who merely quotes a passage while sniffily dismissing its writing style — without a word about the defects the critic sees in the passage. (I won't comment here on Roiphe's indirect swipe at feminism.)

This particular case is especially baffling to me, since the quoted passage is from the interior monologue of one of Canfield's characters (in "free indirect style", in which a character's thoughts are represented in the third person), so if there's some infelicity in style, it should be attributed to the character, rather than to the author.

I should probably be collecting cases where critics just baldly asssert that some bit of writing is shoddy, without any explanation of the basis for the judgment. (I'm not objecting to subjective judgments. I am objecting to subjective judgments passed off as Obvious Truth.) I have occasionally commented on critics who actually try to offer some explanation for their judgments — almost always negative — but do so in lame ways, as in this slam of Rachel Carson's early writing.

[A few remarks on Dorothy Canfield Fisher. She was one of the first women of her generation to earn a Ph.D. (in Romance languages, from Columbia); her best-known novel is Understood Betsy; and she's credited with introducing the Montessori method to the U.S.]

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