Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Criticism versus Narcissism

In July’s blog, “What Pisses me Off,” I talked about my disappointment with certain aspects of in-print book reviews. Much of it had to do with critics devoting time to trashing titles from writers while review space is shrinking. Since that posting I’ve received over a dozen comments—some on the blog, others by email—which addressed these same issues.

Christopher Brookhouse, whose first novel, Running Out, received the prestigious Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1971—and which Lawrence Sinclair (www.bestalltimebooks.blogspot.com), listed as one of his top 125 choices from the more than 1,000 books he’s read, placing Running Out at #124, sandwiched between Rabbit, Run by John Updike at 123, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace at 125. Anthony Burgess called it “A triumph of poetic economy and a powerful evocation of place.” We’ve published three of Chris’s novels since then, Dear Otto, A Selfish Woman, and, this spring, Silence. And here is what he had to say:

“I thought I’d take criticism of the critics a step further. Years ago I reviewed books regularly for the Greensboro Daily News, which had a good book page edited by Jonathan Yardley. Although I did pan a few books, I tried to find books to praise and simply to ignore those I didn't care for. The impulse, though, for many reviewers is to flatter the self at the expense of others.” In a later email he added that “certain critics I knew in those days were inclined to write a review so quotable that a publisher might put it on the back of a dustjacket so that they might see their own name in print.”

Then, there are these comments from three excellent on-line reviewers:

From Clark Isaacs (Clark’s Eye on Books (http://www.clarkisaacs.com/) “As I have said before, if you read a novel, non-fiction or whatever, and you cannot say anything nice, do not say anything at all. There are shortcomings in everything, but to say the work is totally abject is wrong. Critics do realize the blood, sweat, and often tears go into the work. It just does not make sense to slam someone's efforts when you have such a limited space and such a limited audience.”

From Wisteria Leigh (www.bookwormsdinner.blogspot.com/) “Why, in this age of reduced coverage, would critics bother to give scathing reviews when there were so many good books out there that never get covered at all. This practice pissed me off as well. Writing for my blog Bookworm's Dinner, I will not waste the time writing a review to slam a writer for a book I consider below par. It is just not worth the effort. I would much rather promote and feature those writers whose books rock my world.”

And from Chiron (http://www.rabbitreader.blogspot.com/) : “I agree with Wisteria. Why waste time reading lousy books, and even more time reviewing them. I occasionally get comments on my blog, that I only post positive reviews. Right! Too many (good) books; too little time!”

This leads me to attempt some analysis of this situation.

It seems to me that if a reviewer is assigned a book, there is only one thing he or she can possibly do: review it honestly, whether good, bad or indifferent. But for reviewers who are well established (like Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin, for example) and who likely can review any title they wish, what purpose is served by skewering a novel by a mid-list author? Further, how does the critic think about his or her role? Or do they think about it at all? And do the publications they write for believe in spreading the word about what’s best in our culture, or are they more interested in showing their readers how their critics minds work?

The more I think about this the more it seems to me that there is an inherent conflict between criticism and narcissism, and I would venture that too often critics who can pick and choose what they wish to review are caught up in the narcissism of showing you how artfully and dazzlingly they can take something apart. Anyone watching the news can appreciate that train wrecks and other disasters satisfy a morbid curiosity that all of us harbor and many relish hearing about. John Simon, the theater critic, had a wicked ability to trash actors, directors, and plays and parlayed his dazzlingly acerbic style into a grand reputation. But I would have hated to have him as a friend or to a dinner party, for fear of his verbal, showy nastiness when the party was over.

Contrarian thoughts:

FaceBook and LinkedIn: Someone told me that FaceBook was a worthwhile site for communicating with others. I tried it for awhile and recently dropped out. My epiphany came when a woman from Sri Lanka wrote to me saying she wanted to be my friend. I wrote back that, not only didn’t I know her, but she already had nearly 200 friends listed and hardly needed another one. While this may be a useful thing for adolescents and college students, or a way of staying in touch with a large group of people in one’s present or past when you don’t have the time to talk with them directly, I find no value in it at all. I’m not interested in what people have for dinner, or who they are dating, or any of the other items that occupy 95% of what you will find on this site. If I want to get in touch with a friend, or a friend with me, there’s nothing that beats a personal email or a telephone call. Same with LinkedIn; supposedly a network that establishes business connections. Like FaceBook, though, it seems like a game in which the “winner” has the most “links.” But these links are rarely in the service of anything I work at, and I no longer answer these requests either. Too little time to play with electronic crazes such as these. Nor do I understand Twitter mania for any purposes other than organizing street protests here and abroad. Writing Haiku is something I respect: disciplining one’s self to writing a poem in 17 syllables. But what is the big deal of sending messages limited to 40 characters (including spaces)?

Online coverage:

One of the joys in publishing is discovering the many excellent on-line reviewers who have taken up the baton that print reviewers have dropped. There is no bias here against first novelists (as there is in the daily New York Times reviews), no bias in terms of “brand-name” authors versus unknowns and no favoritism of non-fiction over fiction (as there is in the vast majority of other newspapers and magazines). There is also wonderful, articulate writing. The best we’ve met are simply searching for good books—including quality fiction—and, not being salaried; they do it out of love and passion. If you are a book review editor at a newspaper or review journal looking to supplement your free-lance staff, you’d do well to consider some of these people as well:

Wisteria Leigh (mentioned earlier in this blog), is also a frequent contributor to BlogCritics.com and on July 9th did the first advance review for Louise Young’s Seducing the Spirits (www.blogcritics.org/books/article/book-reviewseducing-the-spirits-by-louise/). And Louise Young herself posted an interesting blog on RedRoom “On Being Censored” (http://www.redroom.com/blog/louise-young/).

On July 28, Marc Schuster at Small Press Review, covered Amy Boaz’s Beat, in an analysis that no other critic (including the publishers) had ever come up with and which fit the novel like a perfectly sized-glove (www.smallpressreviews.wordpress.com/).

On August 7, Allison Campbell (hollybooknotes.blogspot.com), another wonderful on-line reviewer, posted her superb review (the first we've had) for Margaret Hawkins's A Year of Cats and Dogs.

On August 14, Amy Steele (www.steeleonentertainment.blogspot.com/2009/08/beat-book-review.html) posted a wonderful review of Amy Boaz's Beat. which also ran on the Herald de Paris website.

An excellent review by Teresa Aguilar on The Compulsive Reader for M.F. Bloxam’s The Night Battles: http://www.compulsivereader.com/html/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=2279

Book-Club-Queen.com has its own series, Life Between My Pages! It will feature a selected author each month who will share with you their personal story about how they got to where they are today. You won’t want to miss the August profile on Joan Schweighardt (We’ve published three of Joan’s novels over the years). Here’s the link:
http://www.book-club-queen.com/Book_Clubbers-book-clubbers-joan-schweighardt-feature08-09.html

Stephen March had a video interview for Strangers In The Land Of Egypt:
http://www.dailyadvance.com/photos-and-video/swampland-with-writer-stephen-march-720861.html

And, finally, a superlative review of Connie Dial’s mystery, Internal Affairs, in the Richmond Times Dispatch by Jay Strafford which was also posted in their on-line edition
(http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/entertainment/books_literature/article/BDIAL16_20090812-163004/285548/)

Take note that Seducing the Spirits, The Night Battles, A Year of Cats and Dogs, and Internal Affairs are all first novels, and that Beat is a second effort. So if any of you are potential first novelists, don’t be discouraged. Though you will never see a daily New York Times review, as their policy now stands, there are some very welcoming online possibilities out there for you.

A final note:

Since starting this blog in January, we’re 18 visits short of 1,000 hits, and it has grown incrementally, with last month’s posting, supplying nearly 700 visits. If you haven’t subscribed yet, I invite you to do so. If you have any problems subscribing, send me an email (shepard@thepermanentpress.com) or phone.

I welcome your comments and hope to hear from you in order to best continue this dialog. Next posting sometime in mid-September...

Marty

4 comments:

  1. I just realized I was following but not subscribed, so now I'm subscribed... and always enjoying your posts.

    I've recently started writing book reviews, and love getting to read so many books. I remember this joke when I was a kid about the curate's egg being good in parts. I never understood it - presumably I'd never met a bad egg. But I guess I feel like when I read, every book is at least good in parts. I'm not sure what kind of reviewer that makes me. My kids say I'm just a hopeless case and like everything.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post, as always.

    I was always taught "if you have nothing good to say, then don't say anything at all." Perhaps reviewers should take that advice. One doesn't have to lie, just remain silent. Or, as I do, find something good about the writing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Presumably there's some complicity on the part of the people who buy the newspapers featuring hatchet jobs. What do they want? An excuse not to trouble themselves reading new stuff? Ammunition for sneering and appearing well-informed? The pleasure of watching someone else's work dished? Possibly all of those things and more. I suspect, though, we will always have to dig a little to find the 'critics' who care enough to mind their language. Remember, Marty, we're pessimists. You don't want to start expecting too much from people!

    ReplyDelete
  4. We live in a particularly cynical time that makes enthusiasm suspicious and easily assailed. But kicking around defenseless authors is seen as cool. People using up precious publication space to write negative book reviews are, I suspect, still reliving those times when they dreamed of breaking into the top fraternity or sorority. It's all about them, not the book.

    ReplyDelete