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Is The Kiss Really So Awful?

Literary criticism turns into a witch trial.

I blurbed The Kiss. The book scared me, not because it concerns incest or happens to be true but because of the malign figure of the father, who reminded me of the character played by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. I also appreciated the drugged cadence of the prose, with a chasm between every two sentences, and the frozen stare of the insistent present tense. I know Kathryn and Colin Harrison, having encountered them professionally and socially (we live in the same neighborhood, but literary New York is a small town, anyway), but I don’t know them well enough for it to carry gossip value. I judged The Kiss as a book.

Obviously I was well aware of the holy-shit factor, sufficiently high that it could swamp all discussion and become the sole focus of criticism. But I naively underestimated its effect, imagining a bunch of dumb reviews and one or two hand-wringing op-ed pieces. Instead came a flood of both, with a tone that rose from shrill to vindictive. People went out of their way to attack not just the book–some candidly admitted they hadn’t bothered to read it–but Harrison personally, and her husband, her agent, and her publishers for good measure.

Bad publicity is better than none, of course, but after a time you could no longer ignore an odor of smoke, and it wasn’t your usual book-chat roast. It began to seem like a witch trial. Harrison has been accused of being a liar, an opportunist, a traitor to all segments of her family, an unfit mother, to have written the book solely for the money or the attention–everything short of having fucked her father in order to write about it. The Kiss has been called “slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical” by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, and things to that effect by sundry others. The New Republic’s teaser triumphantly reads: “James Wolcott Smacks Kathryn Harrison in the Kisser.”

No tort is too trivial for the prosecutors. Take self-plagiarism, a well-documented failing among writers of all sizes. In Harrison’s case, it became the centerpiece of a multiple-count indictment handed down by Michael Shnayerson in the February Vanity Fair, the fallout of which was that The New Yorker killed a scheduled excerpt. The publisher, attempting damage control, rushed the book into stores two months before the publication date. Self-plagiarism is usually a consideration for critics, not feature writers; a textual weakness, not a matter of morals.

There’s no question that the book is a long way from perfect. But literary matters are not of much interest to the peanut gallery–self-plagiarism is an exception because it sounds like a crime. Comment has instead tended to focus on familial betrayal, dubious motives, and the moral sink that is the memoir today.

There are those who fret about the effect on her two young children. While this is reasonable, it is worth noting that Harrison has said she wanted to publish the book now, “before our children were any older and more aware of the media around them.” She has a point: The dogs bark, the caravan passes. The furor will be over long before the kids are able to understand it (the spotlight would only be harsher if they were older), and the subject itself would either come up or be repressed to everyone’s detriment.

Some people are worried that Harrison’s father is still alive; the book could hurt him. These tend to be the same people who describe the relationship as “consensual,” a word that could not occur to anyone who has read the book. Of course, there are men who seem to think that rape is a sex act rather than an act of violence. But the very notion of incest–the last taboo–unhinges readers, and they transfer blame onto Harrison, in effect accusing her of having engineered her own defilement. (Shnayerson calls the book’s sexual inexplicitness “either proper … or a tease.”) Besides blaming the victim, this attitude is also provincial and illiterate, if not disingenuous.

We’re sitting at the tail end of the century of William Burroughs and Georges Bataille and The Story of O, a century in which literature would seem to have shed its last gratuitous prohibitions. It is also a century in which father-daughter incest continues all around, and not just up in the hills. But you’d think, judging from the press, that recent authors of memoirs had called incest or alcoholism or any number of species of abuse into being by writing about them. When the reaction is not faux-naïf, it is censorious: Shut up and sublimate. Practitioners of self-exposure are many these days, of course, and none of them is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Literature might be better served if rage or remorse were diverted into parlor comedy. Who knows? Again, that isn’t the point for many of your bien-pensants, who fear mess and complication more than they care about the state of literature.

Aknow-nothing cynicism is pervasive now. Everybody wants the inside scoop, the shoddy truth that lies at the core of all decisions. Accordingly, it is widely believed that books are always planned and written with marketing in mind. Fortunately or not, though, calculation usually results in failure, and for most writers, the foolproof concept that briefly shone at conception looks like a mirage within three days at the keyboard. Also underfoot is the venerable “cousin Don” theory of literature–you know: “You’re a writer? You should meet my cousin Don. He’s got a story that will make you both rich!” The can’t-miss story is the Northwest Passage of letters, a myth. There are only 36 possible plot situations, as 18th century playwright Carlo Gozzi determined, and we already know them all.

And then there is the vexed question of memoir vs. novel. Critics are as frantic about saving their novel these days as they were about killing it 40 years ago. Their panic is reminiscent of the moral defenses of painting that were worked up when photography began to look like a threat. That debacle should have taught the world that media can coexist, and that artists can even migrate between them depending on the flavor they seek. (The analogy is imperfect, because there’s no fixed line of demarcation between fiction and nonfiction, only a broad gray field.) And anyway, who cares whether your kitchen-sink epic features short, fat Mom and Dad or tall, thin contract players? As André Breton wrote of fictionalization of actual events: “I do not regard such a thing as childish, I regard it as monstrous. I insist on knowing the names, on being interested only in books left ajar, like doors; I will not go looking for keys.” Fiction has its glories, but concealment is merely squalid.

Kathryn Harrison’s status as voodoo doll has nothing to do with the actual merits or failings of her book, but is entirely owing to how economically her case concentrates the fears, resentments, misconceptions, and idiocies prevailing right now. It also reflects the fact that most cultural journalists are under constant pressure, whether from above or from within, to whip up instant controversies tied to some product on the shelf. They’re over quickly and forgotten by all–except, perhaps, their often hapless targets. In the meantime, they don’t tend to elevate discourse.