Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Comment: Beware of Snarks, Part 2: This Time, It's Personal

It's time to talk about the Snarks again, along with one or two new species that have emerged from the discussion about reviewers' responsibilities and failings. Because I've been absorbing so many insights from comments, emails, and articles, this post may sometimes resemble a Zagat guide. It's an experiment in essay-as-conversation, an attempt to bring all of your comments into contact with each other as part of a larger argument – see if you like it. (It also contains some salty language, as this is a subject about which people feel passionately, so turn on your internal censor beep if necessary.)

Despite the danger that "spending time talking about things you hate is like feeding trolls on-line," (mwb), and that I risk becoming the equivalent of a book-hating Snark myself by dwelling on such an angry-making subject, I feel there's still more to be said. After all "I'm not above giving some good snark" (Lady T). And I think there is room for a passionate but nuanced discussion on these topics that will shed some light.

It turns out that as we speak, Michiko Kakutani, the queen of Snarks, is entering her 25th year as a book reviewer. And Ben Yagoda has written an intelligent and insightful piece about her on Slate, which reflects the same dissatisfaction expressed by almost everyone who commented on my blog and Bookseller Chick's post on the same topic. Yagoda actually gives her some credit for being intelligent and clearly reading all of the books she reviews, but the crux of his criticism is this:

Her [Kakutani's] main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaint—the job is called critic, after all—but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling…. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.

He reminds me that yes, Michi does like books sometimes (often non-fiction). But a Snark's praise is as single-minded as their blame. It's all about whether the book gets a thumbs up or thumbs down, and if those are the only options, most of the books all of us enjoy are getting the kill vote. This is especially true if "reviewers have a preconceived idea of what great modern literature must be…. Anything that does not fit that mould or live up to those standards is not worth a recommendation or a reader's time" (jmc).

Like Yagoda, I've also often suspected that Michi writes what is otherwise a fair-handed, if prescriptive good/bad review, and then goes through and fills it up with loaded adjectives. Yagoda quotes no less a booklover than C.S. Lewis (grading a paper by future critic Kenneth Tynan) as advising "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" As Bookseller Chick points out, there's more to say about a book than whether you liked it or didn't like it, and the discussion itself might make the book worth reading even if one's judgment on it wasn't ultimately "thumbs up."

Interestingly, this prescriptive, either/or fixation seems to be the same problem of Snarkling Jessa Crispin, the Bookslut. I've talked to any number of folks who agree with the email I received that ventured "Crispin seems a little crazy, everything is so extreme for her. She either loves something or hates it miserably." Either all intelligent and literate people must read this book, or it is a waste of paper and my time! It's a pretty reductive, not to say impractical, way to read.

But Crispin has parlayed this simplistic passion into a mini-empire of blog, column in the Book Standard, speaking engagements, etc. Like Kakutani, she has narrowed her responsibilities as a reviewer down to that of entertaining at any cost, and nothing entertains like love and hate.

Snark Dale Peck, of course, has taken that entertainment thing to the next level The producers (if that's the right word) of the Tournament of Books have an amazingly hilarious commentary on his non-decision about SATURDAY vs. THE ACCIDENTAL, and the first thing they admit is that "it would be rude to take him to task in this forum when he’s only doing exactly what everyone expects him to do." Having written HATCHET JOBS and become famous as "brutally honest" or whatever, he faces what comic book nerds call "the problem of escalating evil" and has to find something even more acerbic to say in order to keep entertaining. Now, apparently, he's decided that contemporary literature needs to take on capitalism, imperialism, and every other evil –ism if it wishes to escape his ire.

Producer Kevin Guilefoile wisely doesn't try to talk Peck out of this position, he just does what good novels do and tells a story. Once, he says, he met Ken Kesey.

Kesey also said something I’ve never forgotten. He said that if you’re fortunate enough to make your living as a novelist you will almost certainly be approached one day by an individual—perhaps even a powerful or influential one—who will suggest you use your talent as a tool of some political, religious, or commercial agenda.

It is the obligation of a writer, Kesey said, to look that person in the eyes and say, Fuck you.

In other words, "Harold and the Purple Crayon didn't solve world hunger or anything" (Jason Evans). Because that's not what it was trying to do. Peck demands that literature share his worldview and fight his battles in order to be legitimate or worth reading. Once again, pretty reductive and impractical, and possibly even a little fascistic. Maybe Peck is being ultra-ironic, or just messing around. But his once entertainingly snarky reviews have gone over the edge to being anti-literature at this point, and seem dangerously close to trying to dissuade other people from reading as well.

The best comment of this whole conversation, summing up the problem and pinpointing the solution, came from an anonymous bookstore owner in New Jersey. This quintessential bookseller (whom I hope one day writes something of his own for us to read) identified the reason all of Kakutani, Peck, and Crispin's best efforts haven't managed to discourage people from the project of reading.

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.

The Trusted Fellow Reader (TFR) – my new favorite acronym (next to the ALP). The antidote to Snarks and snarkiness, the TFR is free from the obligation to entertain us with rapier wit or withering sophistication, and motivated, like us, by the desire to read books for enjoyment, enlightenment, escape, or any combination thereof.

One of the reasons we read, along with the solitary joy of good books, is for the community it creates, the conversations about books that are much more interesting than good/bad. While I will probably still continue to read reviews in the Times and other places, just to get a sense of the national conversation about books, I will tend, like the customers, to go to my TFRs for my own recommendations and conversations. And as a bookseller, becoming a TFR for my customers as well as my friends is my primary aspiration. It's something worth striving for.

What do you think?