Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Comment: Beware of Snarks

Here's a totally brilliant idea: instead of choosing the best book of last year by an elite, overly political, always misunderstood panel -- let 'em go head to head! Yes, online magazine The Morning News and Powell's have invented The Tournament Of Books, now in its second year, and (apologies for being behind the times) almost over. It works like March Madness (or those speech competitions I did in high school): two books at a time are pitted against one other and judged by a single judge; the winner goes on to compete in the next round. This year it's come down to a final round face-off between Sam Lipsyte's HOMELAND and Ali Smith's THE ACCIDENTAL -- the winner is the undisputed champeen!

Of course, as in those other competitions, a lot of the outcome can depend on the luck of the draw -- who you face in the first round, and who's judging. But it's not really any less arbitrary than the panel/committee method, and it's a lot more transparent. The judges write up their experience with the two books and their criterion for judging, and you can log your agreement or disagreement. This year they even had a "Zombie Round" for books that got knocked out early but were big crowd (i.e. Morning News reader) favorites. And it's totally fun for book nerds to play the "Who would win in a fight?" game with authors.

But there are some folks who don't seem to be having much fun at all. The judges for this contest were chosen from the top ranks of book reviewers, including blogger Maud Newton, as well as Karl Iagnemma and many others whose names sound familiar from the book pages. Two of the biggest names in the judging pool are Jessa Crispin (aka Bookslut) and Dale Peck (author of HATCHET JOBS and penner of the famous first line "Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation"). Everyone knows Peck makes his living by writing stinging reviews -- his book's title indicates that he knows it too.

But here's a quote from Peck's judgement call on THE ACCIDENTAL vs. SATURDAY:

"Regardless, until writers realize the social compact is spiritual and species suicide, a pseudoethical pressure valve that allows Western society to pretend it’s examining its troubled conscience when all it’s doing is assuaging the guilt we feel for exploiting the rest of the world—and destroying it in the process—then the literary novel will remain little more than a series of embarrassing, irrelevant mea culpas. Speaking to the present context, this is my way of saying that I refuse to advance either of these books, even by the flip of a coin; as meaningless as the title “novel of the year” is, neither of these deserves it."

(The editors apparently had to flip a coin themselves to allow the tournament to continue; Peck refused to do so even on request.)

And here's something from Crispin's piece on THE HISTORY OF LOVE vs. EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE:

"It’s not so much which book I liked more as which book I hated less. Both are chock full of the preciousness and sentimentality that I hate in literature. As Foer has been annoying me since his first book, Everything is Illuminated, was released, I had higher hopes for History of Love, the book written by his wife, Nicole Krauss. Well, except for that title. And except for the fact that a twentysomething was writing about the Holocaust. And except for the love story. Really, it was just blind optimism. While not as sentimental as Foer’s book, it made up for it in sappiness. But that’s what you get for asking me to read a love story."

So here's my question:

Do you people even LIKE books???

Far be it from me to excrecate all negative reviews -- not all books are great, and some books have good parts and bad parts, and it's good for readers and reviewers to be honest about those. And I can't really comment about Peck's opinion of the state of Western civilization, or Crispin's experiences with love. But if you tend to think that every book you read is mind-shatteringly horrible, I feel it's time to ask yourself whether this whole reading thing is really for you.

Peck and Crispin seem to have joined Michiko Kakutani -- actually, they've quickly shot past her -- in the ranks of the Snarks. A Snark is one who complains, criticizes, whines, noodges, belittles, scoffs, etc., often for the sake of doing so or to hear oneself talk. To snark is to express such an opinion (though a lot depends on the delivery). "Snarky" is the adjectival form, often used in the sentence beginning "Stop being so..." It's how I describe myself when I'm in a toweringly bad mood and annoyed by everything. For some, it seems to be a philosophy of life.

For Crispin, Kakutani, and Peck, it seems that the books have become little more than vehicle for expressing one's own sophistication, erudition, and wit, preferably at the book's expense. They remind me of the Rock Snob defined in David Kamp and Steven Daly's ROCK SNOB'S DICTIONARY:

"n: a reference term for the sort of pop connoisseur for whom the actual enjoyment of music is but a side dish to the accumulation of arcane knowledge about it."

This tends to put both Rock Snobs and Book Snarks out of touch with the reason most of us turn to books and music: because we actually like them. And you have to wonder what that does for the relevance of their reviews to the reading public.

Obviously, this kind of thing makes me mad. (It actually nearly spoiled the TOB for me, though there were fortunately enough enjoyable reviews to make it worth while.) I just don't understand why reviewers with such a seeming antipathy for the medium they judge, such a knee-jerk negative reaction to almost any book that crosses their paths, have such overinflated reputations as reviewers. Maybe I'm just a big nerd with undiscriminating tastes.

Actually though, my next round of book reviews includes two books I was disappointed by, but I can see their merits even though they didn't do it for me. The Snarks seem to have lost the ability to think so equivocally. Since I'm seeing through my customers' eyes as well as my own, it's necessary for me to realize that what I don't like, someone else may. It's another way of achieving the kind of open-mindedness literature is supposed to impart. Apparently, it doesn't always work.

Anyway, I'd rather be a lowly bookseller than a famous Snark any day. They don't seem to be having as much fun as we are.

Opinions on Snarks and snarkiness?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm also a bookseller (own a small store in New Jersey). I'd guess that at least three-quarters of my customers couldn't care ratshit about any review written by "professional" reviewers...including the Snarks.

Customers seek out - and are swayed by - opinions of Trusted Fellow Readers. Sometimes that Trusted Fellow Reader is me, or one of the great folks that work with me. Sometimes that Trusted Fellow Reader is Oprah. Hell, sometimes it's just their drunken, promiscuous sister-in-law (the one that starts wearing her bikini to the liquor store in April).

The point is this - the Snarks' actual influence on the public's book-buying habits is insignificant. They are, truth be told, a bunch of two-bit entertainers, whoring out the conflict and drama needed to hold the audience's interest...and if they could do it even half as well as the authors they disparage, they'd be reviewees instead of reviewers.

mwb said...

Hear, hear.

I read through a lot of literary blogs and am routinely disappointed at how pointlessly snarky some of the folks are.

My own personal philosophy with books, music, movies, art, etc. Is that I spend my time talking about things I enjoy. I rarely bother to finish things I don't and feel no need wasting my time talking about them. If you don't like something it's really not worth the time and effort dwelling on it. Share the things you love, ignore the ones you don't. Spending time talking about things you hate is like feeding trolls on-line. Don't give them attention.

piksea said...

I've been doing minimal following of this and wondered if this was the best way to handle such a contest. No one seemed that pleased by either of the books they read and yet, it seemed, a hands-down winner was declared. I didn't get it at all. I thought maybe if I read all 16 books, It'll all make sense to me. At least I feel better knowing I'm not the only one who's noticed this.

Totally off-topic, I had no idea that Safran-Foer and Nicole Krauss were married. I tend to think of Extremely Loud... and History of Love as feeling related in the style of the narrative.

Noelle said...

Thank you for that refreshing view of reviews! It is always easier to be snarky than insightful, and the snarkiness feeds even more snarkiness. As a person in book sales, I naturally try and find some good in everything I may potentially sell. Just because a book receives popularity and mainstream acclaim does not mean it has nothing to give. It seems like the books picked for this tournament were chosen based on their pop status, therefore making them easy targets of snark. An interesting idea, the tournament, but it fizzled into a glamorous display of self-importance on behalf of the reviewers.

Book Nerd said...

I love you guys! Thanks for the insightful additions to the conversation. This, to me, is what being in the book world is all about -- conversations, not diatribes. I'll have to post an update to discuss the new issues you raise. In the meantime, check out the current post on booksellerchick.blogspot.com for an extension of the conversation!

Anonymous said...

TFRs are the way to go - I MIGHT check out a book based on a good review (do snarks ever give good reviews?!), but I will make a point of reading something recommended by a TFR.

Have you ever noticed that TFRs also have really good, unpretentious advice about things-other-than-books? Like wines? :-)

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