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”?
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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.
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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?
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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.

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Michael Hastings on The Colbert Report

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Rolling Stone Article on McChrystal – Michael Hastings
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That’s our buddy Michael Hastings on The Colbert Report (he comes in at 3:30), talking about his blockbuster article in Rolling Stone, which got its subject, General Stanley McChrystal, fired from his post last week.

In the interview, Hastings claims that the piece merely presented the opportunity for Obama to fire a general he disagreed with, but Obama himself cited “The conduct represented in the recently published article” as grounds for McChrystal’s termination.

More importantly, before Hastings became a superstar journo and slayer of kings, he wrote a few posts for this very website last summer. Why? We’ll never know. But you can find them here.

Links: Apple v. the World

Recently, Apple’s been feeling its oats, and Steve Jobs has been picking fights with absolutely everybody, even bloggers who just want a portable porn pad. Here’s a breakdown of the two biggest Apple fights out there.

Apple v. Amazon

First there was terror. When the iPad was announced, Jeff Bezos messed his cargo shorts when he heard Apple was supporting both ePub and the Agency model. He promptly caved and let publishers walk all over him—although he did it, of course, with a minimum of maturity, because that’s how he rolls. But Bezos (not to mention publishers) got proper snookered by the sneaky Jobs.

Despite all the furor over Apple’s embrace of the agency model (which might not even be legal in countries where they regulate their corporations), the iPad isn’t selling many iBooks. Penguin claims to be leading the pack (you know, if you don’t count free Gutenberg books, which are “selling” twice as much as Penguin). But let’s not forget that iBooks aren’t very popular, in the scheme of iPad apps—in fact, Feedbooks distributes more books.

If the iPad does start selling tons of iBooks, well, publishers are screwed then, too. Apple can evidently force prices down to $9.99 if it feels like, and in April 2011, they can simply rescind the agency model agreement. Ha!

All this has led to, shall we say, some tension in the publishing industry. Publishers are choosing up sides, and even unleashing their wrath on unsuspecting authors who want to publish ebooks. Then there are the obligatory rumors that Kindle’s grip on the market is slipping, but since there’s a Kindle app for the iPad (not to mention iPhone and soon Android) I don’t understand how Apple will ever win a book fight.

And by the way, Google’s launching its own ebookstore, which I’m guessing and hoping will use Adobe ePub formatting. Meaning neither Apple nor Amazon customers will be able to read Google ebooks. Because Apple hates Adobe, too! Why? Well, more on that after the jump…
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The Importance of Critical Reading; Or, Why Ann Nichols Should Be More Like Jon Gruden

Twilight sucks. We don't have to keep talking about it. But we can, if you want to.

It’s pretty easy to work up a good hate for intellectualism—especially the smarmy, condescending kind. Books (or “literature” if you want to get snooty about it) and the serious discussion of them sometimes get confused for just that sort of pretentiousness.

One instance of such confusion is an essay called “I Just Want to Read,” by Ann Nichols, in Open Salon. In short, Nichols bemoans the overuse of formal literary theory, and pines for the days when, like the title says, she could read just for pleasure.

She makes some good points, especially about the ease with which you can fake hifalutin-sounding insights about literature (just learn and use a few words like “postcolonial” and “metafictional” and you’ll get a B in most lit classes). But for the most part, Nichols’s anti-criticism rant irks me, for several reasons. Here they are.

Nichols starts with an anecdote that immediately sets off my internal BS alarms. It’s the old when-I-was-a-kid bit, this time about a wide-eyed girl with a stack of books and a dream:

I was reading critically in the sense that I liked or disliked books, and knew what did and didn’t make sense or appeal to me, but there was not, at that blissful time in my life, any imposition of an external standard of quality or any requirement that I investigate the author’s prerogatives or background.

First of all, critical reading is not the imposition of an external standard of quality.
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Judge a Book by Its Cover: Fever Dream, by Preston (Jerk) and Child

Douglas Preston is, first and foremost, a really bad writer. Normally, that’s the kind of thing I just ignore (there are plenty of them), but in Preston’s case, he’s also ungrateful enough to attack his readers and call them entitled Wal-Mart Americans, simply for wanting slightly cheaper ebooks. Then he pretended to apologize (but didn’t).

In other words, he’s a terrible writer who’s arrogance and contempt for his own fans makes him a perfect target for mockery and ridicule. (Side note: Preston’s writing partner, Lincoln Child, didn’t disparage his own readers, but when you lie down with dogs…)

Preston’s upcoming novel comes out tomorrow so let’s have a little fun with him. Knowing only the cover pictured above at right, and the horrible, cliched title, Fever Dream, five of our contributors guessed the premise of the novel. One of the following is the book’s real premise, the others are scurrilous lies.

1) On his deathbed, Sandford Crow dreams of his father’s lost collection of antique birdcages, each one representing a distinctive moment in 20th century history and in Sanford’s own emotional search for meaning. From his peasant’s education as a naturalist to the collapse of the world’s largest taxidermy empire, this stunning dreamlike narrative follows the rise and fall of the American dream itself.

2) Sammy, a tropical parrot, has fevered and vivid dreams that, one day, … start coming true! When Sammy’s beloved owner appears in his latest dream as the victim of a terror plot, Sammy must race to stop the plot from happening. A challenge with global consequences. Psychic bird. Terrorism. Pulse-pounding action and nonstop suspense. Preston and Child have done it again.

3) An FBI agent discovers that his wife—who he thought had died in the jaws of a ferocious red-maned lion in Zambia—was actually … murdered! He goes to Africa (taking an NYPD cop, cause what the hell) and it turns out she was murdered because of a painting of a bird.

4) Canaries suddenly start mysteriously dying all over town. Is it a mysterious bird plague? Could it mutate and start a crippling pandemic? The female researcher heading the CDC investigation is baffled. Little does she know, her husband has multiple personalities and one is a furry who dresses as Sylvester the cat and kills all the “tweeties” he can find. Too bad he only remembers the truth in his delirious yet lucid dreams…

5) After an explosion traps John and Thom Johnson in the bowels of a West Virginia coal mine, the two must take extraordinary measures to ensure their survival. The situation becomes more complicated when their sentinel, a prized island canary, dies, signaling the presence of toxic gases. As the brothers begin to drift from reality, it will take all their strength not to turn on each other.

6) Terrorists release a supervirus that causes violent hallucinations so severe that an entire village can be wiped out by the murderous fit of a single sufferer. As a retired detective defends his rural home town against suspected sufferers of the disease, he must find out who released the virus and why. The secret is in the birds …

Answer—and who wrote which fakery—coming in the comments.

Power-Mad Macmillan CEO Hates, Doesn’t Understand Libraries

On Wednesday, blogger Eric Hellman wrote this recap of an event at which Mamillan CEO John Sargent spoke (via). Sargent’s comments on libraries were quite distressing; he described borrowing library ebooks like this: “It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it. How is that a good model for us?”

Yikes. Sargent’s anti-library-ebook argument is essentially that borrowing physical books from a library is a major drag, so people don’t do it so often. Borrowing ebooks is super easy, and that will bring the publishing industry to its knees.

Hellman, who actually asked Sargent the library question at the event, says this: “he has gaps in his knowledge of libraries.” I would put it in slightly stronger terms: it sounds like Sargent hasn’t borrowed a library book in 20 years, if ever.

Sargent doesn’t know about online card catalogs, which allow you to order physical books and have them waiting for you at the branch of your choosing. He thinks ten people reading a book will destroy it. He thinks anybody can get a card to any library in the country (in fact, you have to be at least a state resident, as I found out last year when I talked to Rachel Martin, a librarian at the Seattle Public Library). Basically, Sargent doesn’t know much about checking out books.

More troublingly, he seems to see libraries as foolhardy businesses that aren’t charging (and aren’t tithing out publishers) enough. Personally, I see free access to public libraries as a fundamental human right in an industrialized nation. It’s a sizable difference of opinion.

And I’m noticing something else: the more Sargent talks, the more dictatorial and greedy he sounds.
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