Negative Capabilities Part 5: The Reading List

[In this series, Eric takes on the Bambi/Thumper rule in book reviews and argues for the role of negativity in new media. Find the other installment here.]


Here’s a list of posts and articles from the debate over book reviewing and “niceness” as it’s played out since last fall. Please share any other related resources you might come across in the comments, and if you feel like adding your own two cents on this topic, that would be appreciated, too.

Burying the Hatchet” by Lee Siegel, The New Yorker, September 26, 2013

This Guy Thinks We Shouldn’t Have Negative Book Reviews. Two Thumbs Down!” by Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, September 26, 2013

BuzzFeed names Isaac Fitzgerald its first books editor” by Andrew Beaujon, Poynter, November 7, 2013

Publicist Takes a Constructive Stand Against Negativity” by Tom Socca, Gawker, November 7, 2013

BuzzFeed Books Won’t Kill Literary Criticism — But Book Snobbery Might” by Michelle Dean, Flavorwire, November 8, 2013

Much Ado About Niceness” by Maria Bustillos, The New Yorker, November 12, 2013

Banning the Negative Book Review” by Bob Garfield, The New York Times, November 29, 2013

On Smarm” by Tom Socca, Tom Socca, Gawker, December 5, 2013

What’s Missing From the Smarm vs. Snark Debate: Honesty” by Michelle Dean, Flavorwire, December 6, 2013

Like, Sympathize, But Don’t Hate: How Social Media’s Enforced Positivity Is Making Us Dupes” by Tom Hawking, Flavorwire, December 10, 2013

Being Nice Isn’t Really So Awful” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, December 11, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell Thinks We Are All Laughing to Our Deaths” by Ryan Kearney, The New Republic, December 11, 2013

Bigger Than Bambi” by Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, December 14, 2013

Everyone Is Missing the Point About Negative Book Reviews” by Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post, December 18, 2013

Negative Capabilities Part 4: “Why waste breath talking smack about something?”

[In this series, Eric takes on the Bambi/Thumper rule in book reviews and argues for the role of negativity in new media. Find the rest of the installments here.]

“Why bother?” is both the weakest argument against book reviews and the most dangerous because it’s rhetorically posed to shut down discussion. “Why waste your breath?” implies that any reply is “wasted breath.” It’s also the most useful to refute because it creates a vacuum for advancing a positive argument in favor of book reviews and the role of negativity in public discourse, even at places like BuzzFeed.

Let’s start with the source, that Poynter interview with Isaac Fitzgerald:

“Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” Fitzgerald said people in the online books community “understand that about books, that it is something that people have worked incredibly hard on, and they respect that. The overwhelming online books community is a positive place.”

He will follow what he calls the “Bambi Rule” (though he acknowledges the quote in fact comes from Thumper): “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

There is one point worth granting here. Fitzgerald and others are right: we do not need blood sport reviewing. Everyone who reviews books, including myself and the Chamber Four gang, could hold ourselves to a higher standard of kindness and respect in our writing. But not all negative reviews are “talking smack,” and being kinder or more respectful doesn’t mean liking everything or else ignoring it.

So why should we “waste breath talking smack”?
Continue reading »

Negative Capabilities Part 3: “… the book review is dead.”

[In this series, Eric takes on the Bambi/Thumper rule in book reviews and argues for the role of negativity in new media. You can read the previous installments here.]

Another standard argument against negative book reviews is what you might call “the superiority argument.” Once again, Lee Siegel:

Quite simply, the book review is dead, and the long review essay centered on a specific book or books is staggering toward extinction. The future lies in a synthetic approach. Instead of books, art, theatre, and music being consigned to specialized niches, we might have a criticism that better reflects the eclecticism of our time, a criticism that takes in various arts all at once.

Or, as Madeleine Crum puts it:

Instead of finding a home for my review of The Interestings, I set out to write an essay about nostalgia in contemporary literature. I’m still working on that one; it’s proved much more difficult to write.

There are two related points here: (1) critics should strive to create something new instead of merely commenting on (or judging) the works of others; (2) this is more challenging and therefore aesthetically superior. There is some truth in both, but neither one actually argues against book reviewing or even against negativity.
Continue reading »

Negative Capabilities Part 2: “Who the hell am I?”

[In this series, Eric takes on the Bambi/Thumper rule in book reviews and argues for the role of negativity in new media. You can find the entire series here.]

One of the most common arguments against writing a negative book review is the “No Authority” argument. To quote Lee Siegel:

Unlike a positive review, a negative one implies authority, and authority has become something ambiguous in our age of quick, teeming Internet response, where all the old critical standards and parameters are in the process of vanishing and being reinvented.

Or that Huffington Post piece by Madeleine Crum. She was preparing to publish a negative review she had written of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, but then she pauses to ask herself “Who the hell am I?”

According to her byline, she’s an Associate Books editor at the Huffington Post, which strikes me as some claim to authority about books all on its own. To further undermine her point, she qualifies the questions. Who the hell is she “besides someone who reads a whole lot, and enjoys thinking critically about literature, that is.” In our “age of quick, teeming Internet response,” being someone who loves to read and think about books strikes me as a solid set of credentials for offering your honest opinion about books.

But I want to go back to Siegel: “Unlike a positive review, a negative one implies authority.” Why?
Continue reading »

Negative Capabilities

When Keats wrote of “Negative Capability” in a letter to his brothers, he wasn’t talking about anything we would today associate with negativity per se. He meant being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He offers this criticism of a contemporary by way of a negative example: “Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.”

By “Negative Capability,” Keats meant not presuming to know the world before you’ve experienced it and not ignoring  your experience because it doesn’t fit your world view. This is where my mind has gone a lot in the past months while thinking about negative book reviews.

It may seem rather “old media” of me to revive an argument that appears to have been dead since 2013, but since Lee Siegel’s “Burying the Hatchet” appeared in the New Yorker last September, I’ve tried to follow the online exchange over book reviewing pretty closely, and now I’d like to add my own posts to the whole kerfuffle. As most book nerds are likely aware, the whole thing exploded last November over this Poynter interview, when BuzzFeed’s newly appointed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t run negative reviews, because “Why waste breath talking smack about something?”

The ensuing reactions largely referred to this as an argument over “negative book reviews.” I want to reframe the argument by leaving out the offending adjective and make it an argument over “book reviewing,” without qualification, because if you approach a piece of writing about a book with the forgone conclusion that you are going to say something positive, then in no meaningful sense can what you’re doing be considered reviewing. Arguing over whether or not literary culture needs negative book reviews is the same as arguing over whether or not literary culture needs book reviews at all.

Continue reading »

Best Books of 2013, Part 1

[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]


Another year has come and gone, and with it, so has another New Year’s resolution. In our holiday podcast last winter, I resolved to read more new books this year. I started out on course, then I read some mediocre stuff, then I read some real babytown frolics, and eventually I returned to my own long-running list of books I wanted to read with little regard for their publication date.

So here’s my list, some newer, some older, but all books I enjoyed a great deal in 2013, and which I’m happy to recommend to you for a good 2014 to come.


Best New Book: The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy


Van Booy’s writing has won me over wholly with its sincerity. His stories are large and open-hearted, and his prose is direct, honest, and evocative.

The Illusion of Separateness weaves its story from the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers, charting a course through a series of tangential connections to a chance encounter in Nazi-occupied France. For all its emotional and thematic weight, the book moves deftly in time and perspective, reading more like a good adventure than a work of philosophy. But that’s really what it is, a work of philosophy arguing its central premise with an artistic proof that no one, anywhere, is really alone.


Best Old Book: Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow


A friend of mine who lives in the middle of nowhere has a tendency to mail me books out of the blue. I’d never even heard of Ravelstein before it arrived at my door, but Saul Bellow’s last novel quickly won me over once I started reading. It’s an extended character sketch of an eccentric University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and his ideas on the good life and death. I can’t think of anyone anywhere who can rant quite like Bellow can, and when he really gets on a tear no one is funnier, more cutting, or a more insightful culture critic.


Best Book I Never Would Have Guessed I’d Read This Year The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom


The title character in Ravelstein is based on Allan Bloom, a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy and Bellow’s longtime friend. The Closing of the American Mind is Bloom’s most well known book. I can’t actually say I loved it, in fact a lot of what I read there made me angry, but it gave me a lot to think about. Bloom’s perspective cuts across the political spectrum as we understand it in 2013. He’s an academically conservative atheist traditionalist who sees liberal democracy as the greatest threat to its own best promises. If nothing else, I found The Closing of the American Mind refreshing, without analogue in contemporary political discourse.


Best Book of Poetry: The One Day, by Donald Hall


A book-length poem in three parts, The One Day takes the measure of possible lives in a collage of voices. Obsessed with antiquity, destruction, loss, and renewal, it’s a modernist work that spurns modernity in preference for timeless acts of creation, whether artistic, agricultural or biological. The beginning of the third section, “To Build a House,” contains my new favorite passage about work:

… To seize the hour, I must cast myself
into work that I love, as the keeper hurls
horsemeat to the lion: –I am meat, lion, and keeper.

Best Book I Can’t Help Mentioning Just One More Time Here on Chamber Four: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo


Not much to say about this one that Nico and the National Book Foundation haven’t already covered, but after reading it this summer I can’t resist adding my own voice to the chorus singing its praises. Gorgeously written, exhaustively researched, and deeply experienced, Behind the Beautiful Forevers deserves every accolade it received and then some. If you haven’t read it yet, you might make it a New Year’s resolution. That’s one that you’ll definitely want to keep.


REVIEW: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

LDMDCPAuthor: David Rakoff

2013, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 6

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to love this book so much that after receiving the most useless form reply ever to my request for a review copy from Doubleday’s publicity division, I went to my local independent bookstore (support the Harvard Bookstore) and bought it new, fully intending to love every line and then praise it here on Chamber Four.

In case you couldn’t already guess, things just didn’t work out that way. Maybe I set my expectations too high, or David Rakoff did. I love his writing, all of his essays and every piece he ever did for This American Life. I wanted his posthumously published novel in verse to transcend his other work. I wanted a grand finale.

Instead, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is just a finale, one last work from a great writer, which leaves me above all with the impression of how much more he might have done with even just a little more time.
Continue reading »

REVIEW: The Illusion of Separateness

illusion-of-separatenessAuthor: Simon Van Booy

2013, Harper

Filed under: Literary, Historical

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

Van Booy is a distinct voice in fiction today. Unsparingly direct, his prose delivers the full emotional force of his characters’ losses and redemptions, unmediated by argot or irony. Be warned before you read The Illusion of Separateness or any of his other books: things are going to get heavy.

It’s likely no surprise that a book with a title as philosophically insistent as The Illusion of Separateness gets a little heavy. What may be surprising is what a fast read it is despite the book’s seriousness. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, moving deftly in time and perspective, Van Booy’s latest novel kept me turning pages like a good mystery.

It’s the story of a chance encounter during World War II and the chain of connections set in place by a moment of mercy. From the fields of occupied France to England, Long Island, and Los Angeles, the plot weaves its way through the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers in demonstration of the book’s epigraph, a quote from the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
Continue reading »

REVIEW: Travels in Elysium

Author: William Azuski

2013, Iridescent Publishing

Filed Under: Literary, Mystery

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 4
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 2

Billed in the jacket blurb as a “metaphysical thriller,” Travels in Elysium proves neither particularly enlightening nor thrilling. What it is is a slog, 539 pages of one-track characters having the same conversations on an over-described Greek island.

It actually starts out okay. The writing isn’t terrible, and the setup is pretty good as far as the “thriller” aspects of the novel go. Nicholas Pedrosa is heading for the island of Santorini where he will join an archeological expedition headed by the famous Marcus Huxley. When he arrives, he finds a team wracked with internal rivalry facing a local populace divided over the dig. Some of them like the money it brings their tiny island; others see it as sanctioned looting.

Then some mysterious things start happening. Someone searches Nicky’s luggage before it’s delivered to his lodgings. He learns that his predecessor, Benja, died in an on-site accident after Nicky had already been hired to replace him. Local laborers working the dig report sightings of the undead Benja, and refuse to continue work until an exorcism has been performed. To top it off, it turns out the goal of the dig may be unearthing the lost city of Atlantis.
Continue reading »

REVIEW: The Woman of Porto Pim

Author: Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

2013, Archipelago Books

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 8

The good people at Archipelago Books are out with a new Antonio Tabucchi title in English this spring, and while I can’t gush about it the way I did about The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, I think you might still find The Woman of Porto Pim worth your while.

The title short story is a classic, old-fashioned tale of love, betrayal, and murder set in a small whaling village. The voice of the narrator, an aged tavern singer, is full of longing and mystery. It’s one of the finest short stories I’ve read anywhere in a long time.

The book, on the other hand, is something more curious. It’s a tourist’s love letter to the Azores, a set of remote Atlantic islands considered an autonomous region of Portugal. Fueled by a hybrid of research, personal experience, and imagination, The Woman of Porto Pim offers a brief overview on the whaling regulations governing the islands, a first-person account of a whale hunt, and a few observations on human beings from the point of view of the hunted whales.
Continue reading »