For the past two years or so there’s been an interesting discussion going on about how to review books. On one side of the divide are Dale Peck’s Hatchet Jobs and the genre of the polished and witty negative book review that is supposed to be more entertaining than the book itself. There is also a mode of philistinism setting in that involves the rubbishing of challenging books, epitomized by B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto and Jonathan Franzen’s regrettable attack on the late William Gaddis in the New Yorker. The other main development is the philosophy of reading set out by Heidi Julavits in the inaugural issue of The Believer, which attacks the “snarkiness” of much contemporary reviewing, where fatuous savagery and faux-learned ridicule have replaced any serious consideration of authors and ideas. In this spirit, The Believer recently published a long “letter” from Rick Moody defending Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint from a swipe in the New York Times Book Review. The Moody/NYTBR agon brings to mind the old clash between Eggers and the Times dwelt upon at length in this Slate item.
These debates have come home to roost in the form of Charles Taylor’s new Salon.com review of Nick Hornby’s new book, The Polysyllabic Spree, the first title from Believer Books. The book collects Hornby’s hilarious Believer columns over the last year and is a gem. Hornby is one of the funniest writers around, and the idea of his column, “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” is brilliant insofar as it allows him to write about whatever books he has happened upon, old or new, classic or oddity, rather than reviewing current titles alone.
Taylor has written a weird review of the book for Salon that can be read in its entirety here. It is written in praise of the book but against the mentality of The Believer, which he describes nastily as a kind of literary Up With People. Charles Taylor, who I presume is neither the great Converse sneaker-king nor the Canadian philosopher nor the Liberian war criminal – unless he is a very busy man indeed – argues that “Where [The Believer] deserves credit for bucking a trend that is harming contemporary criticism isn’t in its attitude toward negative reviews but in the freedom it has given Hornby for his column.” His argument is strange because it makes it seem as though Hornby’s accomplishment has nothing to do with The Believer or was acheived in spite of its editorial direction.
He is also referring to the fact that The Believer doesn’t print soley negative book reviews, and asked Hornby not to explicitly name books he hated when he discusses them in his columns. Is this a problem? I happen to know from personal experience that The Believer isn’t in the business of puffery, or producing good reviews of bad books. In fact, the purpose of The Believer’s newish one-page reviews section is to draw attention to literary fiction that isn’t ordinarily picked up by larger book reviews. At any rate, all this wouldn’t be worth going into if it didn’t open up some bigger issues about reviewing. Personally, I don’t mind extremely negative reviews, because sometimes they get me intrigued and upset and stir things up. I had never read Rick Moody, for example, until Dale Peck described him as “the worst writer of his generation” – a clearly false statement since there must be someone Moody’s age writing copy for douche ads. But now I’m going to read Moody. There’s nothing more curiosity-inspiring than attempted censorship or apoplectic castigation, and when somebody at Slate trashes Wes Anderson’s new film The Life Aquatic I get myself to the theatre as fast as I can. There’s another matter, of course, which is that some of the best nonfiction ever written, such as Mark Twain’s “Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” takes the form of negative reviewing.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that negative reviews are a branch of humor writing, and that the best comedy comes at the expense of the powerful, pompous, and pretentious, or what Laurence Sterne called “false gravity” in Tristram Shandy. I would argue that novelists as a rule are not the enemy, and that crushing a first-time novelist or a person trying to express something is a little like pushing a baby stroller down the subway stairs.
On the other hand, a critic’s first duty is honesty, and if there is no way out of an assignment then it does nobody any service to soft-pedal something one has taken a strong dislike to. Snarkiness is the mediocre mind’s second-rate, knee-jerk response to the culture of puffery and hype; in fact they are two sides of the same problem (and feed off one another) rather than true adversaries. My utopian suggestion would be a restoration of the concept of real criticism – independent, honest, passionate, partial, and decently paid – rather than the devolution of book reviewing into a badly-paid arm of publishing PR or the smarmy posing of middling minds who percieve contemporary literature as an endless river of bilge that threatens the sanctity of their precious critical faculties.