Thursday, July 02, 2009

From the Peanut Gallery

The last few days have shown a nasty dust up on a couple of fronts between writer and reviewer.

There have always been wars between artists and critics as a whole, indeed some critics have largely destroyed careers with a single bon mot. Recall legendary Broadway critic George S Kaufman’s devastating line to do with young actor Guido Nazzo, of whom Kaufman opined: “Guido Nazzo was nazzo guido.”

It took a name change to save the poor man.

During Kaufman’s time, the critic was in a much better position relative to the poor player as it were, but the democratizing effect of the web on the artist/critic relationship has given writers an avenue to return fire if they so choose, but it often doesn’t work very well.

A bit of history.

In 2003, novelist Heidi Julavits
urged a return to a standard of decency in the print review of fiction.

Julavits coined the term ‘snark’ to mean a style of review that was provocative to the point of crossing the line. She wonders if snark “was a critical attempt to compete, on an entertainment level, with the Anthony Lanes of the world, critics who write witheringly and hilariously about movies that will nonetheless go on to sell millions of tickets and win twelve Oscars. Lane and (David) Denby make us feel like cozy ex-pats in a country of higher standards; we are the giggling, minuscule minority. We also see those movies. Book reviewers who adopt this tone when reviewing literary fiction are about as humorous as cow tippers; as a result, they guarantee a book that might have sold 4,000 copies, will now sell 800. And nobody will read that book, not even the literary types, who are off watching Titanic with a knowing smirk.”

Julavits then argues for and attempts to define the other side of snark.

‘To be perfectly clear—I am not espousing a feel-good, criticism-free climate, where all ambitious literary books receive special treatment, just because they’re “literary” (I acknowledge the dubiousness of the term)—I’m simply asking that we read between the lines, and see what value systems these reviews are really espousing. I imagine snarkiness has always been around, if not thriving then dormant, but I’d argue that the critics with staying power never employ it.”

Reaction was swift, bearing in mind the American critic Robert Birnbaum’s assertion that “the reason literary squabbles are so bitter is because they are for such small stakes.”

Small and getting smaller as review space shrinks and the fact book blogs have some influence for good or bad on critical opinion.

The ground has shifted markedly since Julavits’ essay as now critics don’t always come with a New York Times byline or even from recognized quarters at all.

Perhaps it was this state of affairs that recently prompted the American novelist Alice Hoffman to issue a ‘politician's apology" after her response to a so-so review of her latest book in the Boston Globe.

Hoffman fired up her Twitter account and called the reviewer Roberta Silman a “moron”
and then moving on to lament that “now any idiot can be a critic” before twittering Silman’s home phone number and instructing her minions to “tell her what you think of snarky critics.”

Given that the story is everywhere in the newspapers and the literary blogosphere now, it’s fair to say that Hoffman did more damage to her new book than a single bad review.

The final word came from the always classy Ron Charles at the Washington Post.

After calling Hoffman’s actions “just plain immature,” he noted that ‘this radiant finale reminds us what a satisfying novelist Alice Hoffman can be, when she feels like it.”

It’s just my opinion, but I follow Ron Charles on Twitter religiously; I can’t think of a use for it otherwise.

Snark or not, I stand by it.

Alain de Botton may wish for a do over concerning his response to a NY Times review.
He posted a riposte on reviewer Caleb Crain’s blog which read:

““I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,” writes de Botton. “You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review.”

Perhaps the gold standard in response to a poor review comes from the American novelist Richard Ford. After a bad review of the Sportswriter, the book that largely cemented Ford’s reputation as a giant, he and his wife got a book by the reviewer, tied it to a tree and shot it full of holes.

The reviewer of Ford’s book was Alice Hoffman.



Clare said...

“I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make,”

Hilarious. My twelve-year-old could come up with better.

Anonymous said...

"Julavits coined the term ‘snark’ to mean a style of review that was provocative to the point of crossing the line. "

Uh, the term "snark" to refer to snide (and bitingly witty ) remarks or commentary has been around since the late 1800's, according to literary examples cited in the Oxford English Dictionary...

As it has a long history of usage related to biting wit, and sarcastic commentary, I don't see how Heidi Julavits has "coined" the term.

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