It’s a peculiar moment we’re in, culturally speaking, that we are so inclined to argue about reviews even at the expense of considering the books themselves. Case in point: Greil Marcus recently reviewed a collection of tributes to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in The New York Times, observing that the volume’s over-reliance on first-person narrative annoyed him:
This gets tiresome. Sven Birkerts, bidding fair to replace Rick Moody as Dale Peck’s “worst writer of his generation,” offers an unbearable template: “Can I possibly convey how those words” — the first lines of “Howl”—“moved in me, how that cadence undid in a minute’s time whatever prior cadences had been voice-tracking my life?” No, he can’t. He wanders on, into “the moment of Shakespearean ripeness.” “Ripeness” would do the job, but you get the feeling it’s important to Birkerts to remind us he knows Shakespeare—or maybe to equate his reading “Howl” with Edgar’s revelation in “King Lear.”
Aside from the fact that Birkerts was, in fact, a victim of one of Dale Peck’s drive-bys, this still strikes me as pretty tame stuff. (Poor Birkerts, though. He didn’t even know he was a victim—Peck’s piece originally had been cut by The New Republic—until James Atlas, doing his own piece on Peck’s aptly titled Hatchet Jobs, dutifully phoned for a comment.) Anyway, this past week Mark Slouka, director of creative writing at the University of Chicago, registered his complaint with the NYTBR, calling Marcus’s review “smirky” and “so unnecessary” and “self-aggrandizing” and “adolescent.” “When did this Tarantino-criticism (all affect, high body count) come into vogue?” he wants to know. “And how soon can we be rid of it and return to the business of reviewing each other’s work seriously and honestly?”
Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but what’s mutually exclusive about serious and smirky? serious & self-aggrandizing? serious & adolescent? Why must there always be decorum? Dale Peck, for instance, who lately unzipped his fly and pissed all over The Morning News’ already slightly silly Tournament of Books, can be a very good critic. That’s not me saying that, by the way. That’s Gary Sernovitz, who continues:
When [Peck] angrily scrawls, “Lies! Lies! All lies!” on the cover of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, it’s not right, it’s not justified, it probably hurts the book’s resale value, but it’s good: Dale Peck genuinely cares about fiction. He writes forcefully and directly, without any academic fussiness and often with surprise. (One novel’s tensionless structure is “like playing racquetball in a court with no walls.”) Peck is enlightening about black women writers’ rise into prominence, for example, or the trap of being a cult writer like Kurt Vonnegut. In his best essays, Peck celebrates books’ successes and laments (without joy) their failures on clear, common, deeply-felt criteria: their characters’ vitality and complexity, the credibility and balance of their drama, the closeness of their observation, their humor, their prose, their pace. Even when using his axe, Peck can reveal insights into the novel as a form. For instance, Peck writes that Julian Barnes “is a terribly smart man and a terribly, terribly skilled writer, if by smart you mean a mind that has ready access to its wide store of information and by skilled you mean a writer who can manipulate words so that they simultaneously sound familiar and original.” However, “intelligence and talent in the service of a discompassionate temperament . . . are precisely the opposite of what one seeks from a novelist, or a novel.” Finally, Peck convincingly laments that his essays, literary criticism in general, and in particular his notorious review on Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, are too often discussed in terms of personality and gossip. “I realized that people,” he writes, “were less interested in what I (or the writers I reviewed) had to say than the possibility of a brawl.”
Sernovitz then observes that it can be difficult, once you’ve figured out how good & interesting Peck is, to wrap your mind around how mistaken he is . . . Now think about that distinction: good vs. mistaken. Good means he writes well, makes interesting & thoughtful arguments, advances the discussion, advocates for the relevance of art. Mistaken means he disagrees with me. Which is more important?
The context of my thoughts—and if you think that I agree 100 percent with myself, you’d be wrong—are a review I am writing of a book that, so far anyway, I don’t much like. (Greil Marcus, it turns out, does like it, having blurbed it for the front cover.) So I don’t like it. Scott Esposito argues, quoting William H. Gass, that all we “need to ensure that a bad book is quickly forgotten is to simply not speak its name.” Well shit. Am I supposed to just call my editor and say sorry, the book sucks, I can’t review it? A bookstore owner, meanwhile, dismissed the value of any published review: “I’d guess that at least three-quarters of my customers couldn’t care ratshit about any review written by ‘professional’ reviewers . . .” So am I supposed to be worried that if I’m being paid for this review, that makes me a professional which makes me a shark, one of those slick pundits who are out to screw the public into buying a book they don’t actually want to read?
A commenter on Books, Inq., a site run by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s books editor Frank Wilson, confesses that “I also don’t particularly enjoy writing negative reviews, and I agree with Frank that they’re of less value than positive ones.” Well, I’m not telling people what to think, but what about those of us who do find value in writing and reading negative reviews?
For my own part, loving something means nothing if I don’t also not love something. For the reader, what does a positive review mean if there are no negative reviews? I’m reminded of a Dan Bern lyric:
I said maybe I love everyone
She said that’s the same as loving no one
I said okay, I guess, whatever
Esposito’s reply, and it’s a reasonable one, is okay, but “I don’t think there’s much need to write a bad review of an unremarkable book from an obscure author.” That’s true only if you see reviews simply as consumer research tools. After all, what’s the point of telling me not to buy a book I’ve never heard of? But I don’t see reviews that way. They’re partly that. But they’re also tools that teach us how to think about books, how to read books, how to judge books. And they’re also—or they can also be—art unto themselves. They’re art about art.
While it’s sometimes strange to review the review, that to me is why it’s worth it in the end.