[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
The Algonquin Round Table, AKA the “Vicious Circle” that lead to the creation of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
[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”? …
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Oscar Wilde, the self-satisfied author of “The Critic as Artist.”
[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. …
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[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.]
Who the hell are these guys?
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? …
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Keats just hanging out, thinking about that hack Coleridge.
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.
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We’re still sorry you only got six-ish Podcasts of Christmas, but now that 2014 is in full effect we’ll try and keep the episodes rolling as regularly as possible. This month, we revisit this whole aversion to negative book reviews thing (look for Eric’s follow up series running all week), the best audiobooks for your bucks, Korean monster movies, the uncensored 4th Lord of the Rings book “Boner Party: There and Back Again,” sensory books that you have to wear a vest to experience, and Caligula.
No Drunk Review this month; we’ll have one in March though so stay tuned for that. If you want to suggest a book for us to subject whoever is next to, be sure to let us know.
Books touched on: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy; Best American Short Stories 2013; The Stories of John Cheever; The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson; Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson; The Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau; Dominion, by CJ Sansom; Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat; The Secret History, by Donna Tartt; The Conductor, by Jean Ferry; Marvel Comics: The Untold Stories, by Sean Howe; Snowpiercer, by Jacque Lob; Miracle Man #1, by Mick Anglo. Recommendations: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote; Lost Girls, by Alan Moore; The Girl Who Was Plugged In, by James Tiptree Jr.; The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson.
Subscribe on iTunes here. If you’d rather the direct RSS feed, here you go. You can also stream the episodes below.
Have any topic or reading suggestions, or comments about the show? Please email them to email@example.com or shoot us a tweet.
We once again managed to screw up the recording of our lengthy Twelve Podcasts extravaganza, so it’s more like the Six and a Half Podcasts of Xmas this year. But there are still book shenanigans aplenty to share with you as we close out 2013. Along with some our typical chats about books (and maggoty cheese you eat while wearing a welding mask, Mexican taco libraries, and switching the C4 review scoring to a boner scale) we played a couple literary games, such as “James Franco or Juvenalia,” and do reviews of Sarah Palin’s Christmas book/rant and Saddam Hussein’s novel.
You can listen to most of them now on iTunes, or streaming below. Look forward to a few more cropping up later in the week too. Also, the folks at Rev.com (ting-ting-ting) were kind enough to actually come through on their promise to transcribe a podcast, so you can read their work below too, and shake your head at the horrible things we forced their poor transcriptionist to type. …
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We already compiled our picks for Best Books of 2013. But how about the worst? Here are our staff’s picks for the worst books from the year that was.
Travels in Elysium, by William Azuski.
Everything in this book is a mystery, something the author doesn’t ever want you to forget. The mysteries are piled so haphazardly atop one another that it’s nearly impossible to uncover the plot buried beneath.
Sometimes, Eric got the distinct feeling that this novel could have something going for it if only it could get out of its own way, stop insisting so much on its own metaphysical obsessions, and actually let a story find its way out of the exotic setting, the downtrodden cast, and maybe just a couple of the better mysteries.
(Read Eric’s full review.)
The Fifth Lash, by Anis Shivani.
Shivani’s weak writing seems to stem from his contrarian attitude toward the rest of the publishing establishment. In a piece called, “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” (in which he excoriates writers like Jonathan Safran-Foer for gimmickry even as he uses the Internet’s oldest gimmick, the numbered list of [overblown superlative]), Shivani sets forth this definition: “Bad writing is characterized by obfuscation, showboating, narcissism, lack of a moral core, and style over substance.”
But Shivani writes with stark joylessness, with an often tiresome moral core, and with a glut of “substance” that, indeed, entirely ignores style. The effect is something like reading an endless sermon while speed-eating dry Saltine crackers.
(Read Nico’s full review.)
The Secret Lives of Married Women, by Elissa Wald.
This book isn’t outrageously terrible, and it’s certainly nothing close to the worst book Sean ever read (that would be A Young Girl’s Crimes, by David Rehak–review), but it’s also not very good. He was expecting a quick, fun, pulpy read, and the blurb on the back from Junot Diaz gave him hope that the writing might even be a touch above average. Nope. Average describes just about everything about this book.
A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King.
This book often feels stuck; King didn’t quite wed his interest in superhero comics with the structural demands of a novel. But even under the best circumstances they’re an ill fit. The great superhero novel is still to come, if it ever does. In the meantime, King should (and probably will) write other novels. And he should give monthly comics or graphic novels a shot too – his superhero characters and stories would be better served by the medium that inspired them in the first place.
(Read Aaron’s full review.)
The results are in. We’ve rounded up all of this year’s picks for Best Books into a single page. Check it out here. If you’re still looking for some last minute gift ideas, it’s not a bad place to start.
We’ll be pretty quiet around here next week and a half, but there’s plenty of Page Count (check out this year’s More-than-four-less-than-twelve Podcasts of Xmas) and a few fun posts scheduled to hold you over until we return after our break.
[Find individual posts from our Best Books of 2013 series here, or find all our favorite books from 2013 on this single page.]
I didn’t read many books this year, so I’d been expecting to scrimp and scrape when it came to my year-end best books list. But when I combed back through my reviews, I found a whopping seven Great Reads (my yearly average is four). So here they are, in no particular order. Most were published in 2013 but a few (Spin, Constellation Games, and The Fault in Our Stars) were published in past years. Click the links for my full reviews.
Constellation Games, by Leonard Richardson
Constellation Games is the most fun I had reading this year. It’s equal parts philosophical sci-fi and adventure comedy, a story about a video game blogger who becomes a kind of ambassador to a new alien collective that shows up on Earth’s doorstep one day. It pilots an interesting situation with tremendous wit and entertaining prose. That’s about all I ask for from books.
You Are Now Less Dumb, by David McRaney
McRaney’s latest book follows the tried and true formula of his first one (also a Great Read): it’s an entertaining layman’s guide to cognitive biases (or, as he puts it, the ways we lie to ourselves). McRaney does a great job turning dry experiment write-ups into captivating accounts of the human brain’s quirks and fallacies. This is one of those books that will make you more interesting at parties. …
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